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Archive for December, 2010

I felt it was only appropriate to take a moment on the last day of 2010 and share a yellow brick road sentiment. Since the most important question Dorothy was ever asked was “And what did you learn, Dorothy?” I thought I would respond by saying what it was I learned in 2010.

Hmmmm. Do I still have some time to learn something?

Of course I learned a lot in 2010, but rather than bore some of you and disappoint the rest of you, let me sum it all up the way Forest Gump might have:

“Life in 2010 was like a box of Christmas lights.”

And what does that mean? Think about Christmas lights. No matter what you do with them when you take them and store them away, they always come out in a ‘ridonculous’ knotted-mess. And that’s what I think most of our lives are like…at least some of the time.

It takes time and patience to unravel the mystery of the knots. But when we do, and we hang the lights up…we can step back and look at them and say…wow.  That was some year.

And yes, sometimes when one bulb in our lives go out it seems like all the other bulbs go out, too. But remember, if we do a little searching we can find the bulb that went out and replace it with a new one.

That’s the one wish I wish you in 2011. Untangle the knot, replace the burnt out bulbs and get ready to say…wow.

And here are some resolutions I’d like to share.  In 2011…

– be more like the Scarecrow and take every opportunity to learn and grow. Don’t be afraid to challenge old ideas and embrace new ones.

– be more like the Tin Man and be open to love and to be loved. Your heart can never be too full, but the hinges on it can rust if we aren’t ready to let love in.

– be more like the Lion and take as many courageous steps as humanly possible. Stand up for what you believe in. Stand up for what it right. And never sell out. It sometimes takes more courage to do the right thing than the expedient thing.

– and lastly, be more like Dorothy and find your way home on the yellow brick road in 2011.

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The place I call home.

 

To quote Dorothy

There’s no place like home.*

Warm wishes from the YBR.

 

 

*Or as Sarah Palin might say:

“There’s no place like Nome.”

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Vincent Begley, Sr., aka Popper. His last Christmas wearing one of his trademark hats.
Today his sense of humor would be considered politically incorrect. But he was who he was. We buried him with a book of one-liners.

 

I knew my father didn’t have much time the summer of 1997. He was very frail. But more so when he came to spend Christmas 1997 with us. Knowing that it could very well be his last Christmas I asked him to share his Christmas memories with us. And I’m glad I asked him to do that because he died three weeks after Christmas. This was the story I wrote for him. It was 1998.

POPPER’S CHRISTMAS STORY
Saving the best for last

Christmas Eve 1997 – “Tell us a story, pop…popper,” Connor pleaded.

“Tell us a story we’ve never heard be..be…before.”

“I thought after all these years you’d be tiring of hearing all my stories,” Popper said, pushing away his dinner plate. He wiped his mouth and then cleared his throat. “But since you asked, here it goes:”

It was 1921. I was ten years old and I was in Sister Margaret Catherine’s fifth grade class at St. Edward’s Elementary School on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn. I never spoke up in class or volunteered to read out loud because I had a stammer. Every time I opened my mouth to talk the words would trickle out like water from a leaky faucet. Even when I was at home with my family or playing in the street with my friends, I only talked when necessary. The few times a teacher did call on me and order me to talk or read from a book, my tongue would get all tied up in a sheep-shank knot and I’d stammer and stutter up a storm.’

Sister Catherine knew about my problem before I entered her class. That’s why she never called on me. I thought my speech problem was behind me, but along the first week of November of 1921, Sister Catherine had me stay after school. I thought I was going to be punished for not ever reading aloud, but she assured me that wasn’t why she asked me to stay after school. Instead, she told me she had a job for me, and that pleased me no end because I came from a big family and we had no money to speak of, or at least not the kind of money to buy extra things like candy and presents.

If I had an after-school job to buy things, well, that would be a dream come true. Little did I know that the job Sister Catherine had in mind was not a job that I’d make any money at. I was supposed to do this job out of the goodness of my hearts. Sister Catherine told me that I was going to spend three afternoons a week over at Miss Donavan’s, a lady who lived down the block from the school.

I wasn’t too excited about working for free, especially for Miss Donavan because she was the oldest lady in the world. But admittedly, when you’re ten, everyone over 25 looked old to you. The truth was Miss Donavan was probably no more than 60 or 65. She looked much older because she was sickly. She had never married and she lived it the same house she had been born in. I heard she taught school when she was younger, but after awhile she had to quit because of her health.

Of course I had no idea what I was supposed to do for Miss Donavan, but I was soon to learn that. I was told I was going to keep the bed-ridden Miss Donavan company.

I didn’t want to do it, but when your fifth grade teacher happens to be the biggest nun who God ever made, you don’t argue.

The next thing you know I’m spending three afternoons a week sitting in a chair next to Miss Donavan’s bed. We don’t talk much the first week because Miss Donavan’s real sick. The second week she’s feeling a little better, so we start talking, even though I don’t want to because of my stammer. Funny thing was, Miss Donavan didn’t seem to mind waiting for me to finish a sentence. I liked that, so I start telling her all about me and my family.

By the end of the third week Miss Donavan asks me if I would read a book to her. I couldn’t believe it. I had a hard enough time as it was just talking and here she wants me to read to her.

I resisted. She insisted. I lost. She won. So I started reading to her from a book of O. Henry short stories. She especially liked The Gift of the Magi, and so did I. I liked it because it was such a good story. She liked it for reasons I was too young to understand. Or at least that’s what she told me.

“You’re much too young to understand what this story means to me. Maybe when you’re older and you’ve been in love you’ll figure out why this story is so special to me.

S much as Miss Donavan liked The Gift of the Magi, she probably would have liked it a whole lot more if I hadn’t stammered through it. But she never stopped or corrected me. She never even complained when I stuttered through Edgar Alan Poe and Washington Irving. Nor did she ever stop me when I began reading Dickens’  A Christmas Carol to her.

Despite the fact that I wasn’t getting paid to be with Miss Donavan, I liked spending time with her. So instead of just going to her house three times a week I started going to see her every afternoon after school…and on Saturdays, too.

When I wasn’t reading to Miss Donavan we spent time talking and since it was getting ear Christmas we talked about that, too.

She asked me what I was going to get for Christmas and I told her I was going to get what I got last year. Nothing. I told her my family didn’t have money to spend on presents. Miss Donavan told me that was so sad, and I knew she meant it. I also knew she meant it when she told me I could be anything I wanted to be because I had great potential.

I had no idea what potential meant, but I assumed it was a good thing.

Needless to say I asked Miss Donavan if she liked Christmas even though I thought she was too old to like Christmas.

“Why do you think Christmas is so special?” I asked her.

She smiled and said, “I think it’s special because it’s that one time of year when we can be good for goodness sake and never expect anything in return. Though that idea shouldn’t be limited to Christmas. It should be that way all year long.”

I thought she was finished telling me why Christmas was so special, but then she added, “I still love Christmas, but it’s not the same today as it used to be. I miss my family most around this time of year. I especially miss the times we would sit around the dining room table and my father would tell us a wonderful Christmas story. And then before going to bed he would recite Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas.”

We didn’t get to talk much about Christmas after that because Miss Donavan took a turn for the worse. She drifted in and out of consciousness. I’d sit by her bed and read to her even if she didn’t hear my stammering and stuttering.

After finishing A Christmas Carol, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to have a real Christmas with presents. I remembering saying to Miss Donavan, “I’d like to get Christmas presents, but I’d much rather have the money to buy gifts for my family. My mother could use a new coat since the one she has is covered with patches. And my father, well, I’d love to buy his a new pipe…and some cherry-flavored tobacco. And my brothers, boy would they love to get skates and a sled. My sisters would like some dolls and a carriage.”

I  shared y Christmas list with Miss Donavan on the 20th of December. The next day when I went to her house I saw a man coming down the stairs. He was carrying a little black bag. He was Doc Candib.

“She’s gone,” is all he said to me.

I ran down the stairs and out the front door right to the church. Between my prayers for Miss Donavan I remember getting very mad at God for taking away such a fine lady. I didn’t have the courage to go to her wake, but I did go to her funeral Mass. I served as an altar boy. I remember standing in front of her coffin holding a candle…and holding back tears. I was still mad at God.

When Monsignor Healy finished Mass I went over to him and whispered in his ear. He said my request was rather unusual, but he gave me permission to step up to the pulpit.

Before a crowd of over 400 people, many of whom knew me as the little boy with the stutter, I took out a piece of crumpled paper and began to read aloud from it.

Once I stammered my way through the first two sentences, I put the paper down and spoke from my heart. I told them how I thought Miss Donavan was the best woman in the whole world…second to my mother. I never felt so good talking and as I continued to talk all the love I had for Miss Donavan poured out.

When I finished talking I looked over at Sister Catherine. She was smiling and she was crying because without knowing it I had talked in front of a lot of people and after the first minute talking I didn’t stutter a single time.

Miss Donavan was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery on Dec. 23rd. On Christmas Eve I went to the cemetery to visit her grave. I had no book with me to read from, but I recited The Night Before Christmas…without stuttering. I wished Miss Donavan a Merry Christmas…and then went home.

Christmas morning came and I went down to our small parlor and what to my wondering eyes did appear? There were gifts under the tree. I couldn’t believe my eyes! My mother got a coat and my father got a hand-carved pipe with a pouch of cherry-flavored tobacco. My brother’s got skates and a sled. My sisters each got a doll and a carriage.

There was a present under the tree for me. I tore off the paper wondering what it might be since I had never said what it was I wanted.

Inside the box were all the books I had read to Miss Donavan. There was also something else in the box. It was a pocket watch, just like the one in O. Henry’s story. The watched was engraved. The inscription read: Always imagine the possibilities. Always dream your dreams.”

And how did all those presents wind up under our tree? My mother told me that Miss Donavan had regained consciousness long enough to tell Dr. Candib her last wishes. She had heard every word I had said to her and she wanted my Christmas dreams to come true.

Every Christmas Eve after that…until I moved away from Brooklyn…I’d go and visit Miss Donavan’s grave and recite Clement Moore’s wonderful story.

—And with that, Popper concluded his story. And it was to be his last Christmas story because Popper died less than a month later.

Were any of Popper’s Christmas stories true? Connor found that out when he went through his grandfather’s dresser draw and came upon the pocket watch Popper had talked about. There was also a note with it in Miss Donavan’s handwriting.

“This watch is the reason why The Gift of the Magi is so special to me. Once upon a long time ago I was engaged to the most wonderful man in the world. I bought him a pocket watch with money I had saved working two jobs. I had it engraved for him because he was a dreamer.

“I never got to give him the watch because he came down with a fever and died right before Christmas.”

Christmas 1998 – There was an uncomfortable pause after Christmas dinner because it was supposed to be Popper’s turn to tell one of his stories. After a few moments of awkward silence, Connor pushed his plate away, wiped the crumbs from his mouth and then cleared his throat.

He recited A Night Before Christmas, and he did so flawlessly. And while that might not sound like much of an accomplishment, but it was for ten-year old Connor because he normally stuttered when he talked. But not that Christmas. And never again.

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My mother-in-law, Ursula Brown Luzon, was a character straight out of some wild sit com. She was bigger than life. She was outlandish. She thought she was an amazing singer despite the fact that she sounded like Bing Crosby. And although she was born in the Bronx, her heart was always in Vermont. Her tiny cabin on Lake Champlain, once owned by her uncle, was her Taj Mahal. On the wall of the cabin was what she always believed to be an original Rembrandt sketch.

I dedicated my Christmas story to Ursula the year she died. It’s about her, Vermont and her Rembrandt.

THE BIG PICTURE

Some families who own priceless artworks very often have them hanging on walls in well appointed rooms in  stately homes.  Others donate them to city art museums for the public’s enjoyment.  Other people are known to  keep priceless artworks locked away in climate-controlled vaults.  Not so the Jorgen family.  For nearly half a century their “Rembrandt,” an ornately framed painting of the Holy Family, hung above the fireplace in Andre Jorgen’s Vermont cabin on Lake Champlain. (The cabin, by the way, was neither stately nor climate-controlled.)

How Andre Jorgen acquired the priceless family heirloom was a mystery.  One family member was certain that Andre had won the painting in a high-stake poker game.  Another relative disagreed  with the gambling story and preferred another postulation… Andre smuggled the “Rembrandt” out of Europe when he returned home from World War II.  The third most popular theory behind the mystery was probably the most preposterous.  A few people in the family were convinced Andre had stolen the painting.

Andre refused to divulge the truth behind the “Rembrandt.”  He thought there wasn’t enough mystery in life and he wanted to do his part to keep the mystery alive.  And for those anxious few who were more concerned with the monetary value than the artistic value, Andre was fond of saying,  “Once you learn to see the “big picture,” you’ll discover the key to this great mystery and its value will become obvious.”

Unfortunately no one actually knew what Andre meant by “seeing the big picture.”  And when asked what he meant, Andre was his was most evasive.  “If I have to tell you what I mean by seeing the “big picture,” then you don’t really see the “big picture.”  Once you do see it, though, everything else in life will come into focus.”

Those who did look at Andre’s “Rembrandt” only saw a beautiful painting of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus.  They didn’t come close to seeing the “big picture.”

The closest Andre ever came to divulging anything about his cryptic message was around Christmastime.  “The Christmas miracle is a wonder to behold all year long,” he’d remind all who would lend an ear to his story about the meaning of Christmas.  “If you can understand that, you’ll be close to seeing the ‘big picture.’ ”

Since Andre never married there was always a question as to what would become of the “Rembrandt.”  Fortunately the family didn’t have to wait for Andre’s death to learn what was to become of the painting because Andre gave it to his niece, Sylvia, as a wedding present.  (Sylvia was the only relative who saw the “big picture.”)

When Sylvia moved away from her beloved Vermont to set up house in the Bronx with Tom Brown, her electrician husband, the “Rembrandt” was hung on the living room wall of their small apartment.  A half a decade later it took a place of honor in Sylvia and Tom’s Long Island home where their six children were raised to appreciate the mystery of the “Rembrandt” and the true year-round meaning of Christmas.

After Tom died, Sylvia moved in with, Claire, her youngest daughter who lived near Philadelphia.  The “Rembrandt” was hung on the wall opposite Sylvia’s bed so it was the last thing she’d see at night and the first thing to greet her when she woke in the morning.

Her devotion to the Holy family was not a passing seasonal fancy.  It was something she talked about to her grandchildren whenever she had a chance.  And of course at Christmastime she made it a point to explain the wonder of the birth of the Prince of Peace.  And while most people would never think to decorate a painting, Sylvia took great pains to add a holiday touch to the already jeweled bedecked frame by stringing lights around it and adding garland and tinsel.

Sylvia would then gather her family around the “Rembrandt” and read the Gospel account of the birth of Jesus, and she would read it with the intensity of a confirmed believer and an inspired storyteller.

When she would finish the narrative she would ask her children to look at the “Rembrandt.”  In a soft, but strong voice she would remind her children that they should never lose sight of the “big picture.”

“Don’t go through life wishing for what you don’t have, discover what you do have and relish in your own unique God-given gifts.”

“Whenever I look at the ‘Rembrandt’,” Sylvia’s son, Robert, would say, “I get distracted by that hideous frame.  I don’t know why you just don’t get rid of it.”

Sylvia would laugh because Robert was right…in a way.  There was no denying that the frame was ugly.  It brought new meaning to the word ‘gaudy’.  But that didn’t deter Sylvia from trying to drive home her Christmas message.

“That frame is part of the big picture.  One day you’ll come to appreciate it,” Sylvia would say whenever the subject of the frame came up in conversation.

The fact that Sylvia was able to continue the tradition of the “Rembrandt” story with her grandchildren meant the world to Sylvia.  Her only regret was that her growing family hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know her beloved Vermont.

“If I had one gift, other than my love, to  give you all,” she said, “it would be a piece of Vermont, because Vermont is God’s country. I’d love to buy my family a cabin right on Lake Champlain.”

When Sylvia took ill in the fall and didn’t recover, her family honored her last request by burying her in the same Vermont cemetery where her father and Uncle Andre had been buried.

Not having any worldly possessions to speak of Sylvia’s will only mentioned one item.  The “Rembrandt.”  Worried that there might be some  bickering over the “Rembrandt,” Sylvia’s will stipulated that the “Rembrandt” be sold and the proceeds be distributed equally to the six Brown children.

Although Sylvia’s children were reluctant to part with the painting, Robert brought it to an art dealer to have it appraised.

The art dealer took one look at it and said, “You really don’t believe this is an authentic Rembrandt, do you?”

“A fake?” Robert said.

“A good fake,” the art dealer added, “worth only a few dollars.  But the frame!  That’s another story.”

“Tell me,” Robert replied, “I’m all ears.”

“Well,” the art dealer began, “for starters, the frame is at least 300 years old.  And those stones?  You probably thought they were junk.”

Robert nodded.

“You were wrong.  Those are real gems.  Rubies, mostly.  And some fine looking emeralds.  But I’m only an art dealer.  You should take the frame and have a jeweler look at it.”

That’s exactly what Robert did.  And to his surprise, the jeweler told him the stones were worth upward to $25,000.

When Robert told his brothers and sisters all about the “big picture,” they all agreed that they would have the gems removed and sold.  But the frame, sans the gems, would continue to frame the fake “Rembrandt.”   It was further decided that the money from the gems would be used as a down payment on a cabin in Vermont.  A cabin on Lake Champlain.  The “Rembrandt” would be hung in a suitable location for all the Browns to enjoy.

That first Christmas, before Sylvia’s family bought the Vermont Cabin, Claire decorated the “Rembrandt” in Sylvia-fashion.  She gathered her children and her nieces and nephews around the painting and read the Gospel story about the birth of Jesus.

“Don’t ever lose sight of the big picture,” she told them, “and always remember that the meaning of Christmas is the meaning of giving.”


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My mother never told me much about her childhood. But there was one story she told me over and over again. It was the Christmas she got a little pocketbook with give nickels inside. I thought about that story in 1989 when my father was ‘courting’ a woman who had been an old family friend. I took the liberty of weaving the elements of my mother’s true Christmas memory with what was going in my father’s life.  Here’s the story.

FIVE SHINY NICKELS
1989

Although Bill Keane enjoyed some of the perks of retirement, he had taken about as many strolls around the old neighborhood as humanly possible. With the weather beginning to turn bitter cold, Bill was faced with the prospects of fewer walks and more pacing around his small apartment.

Such a sense of confinement was a depressing enough thought for Bill under ordinary circumstances, but considering it was nearing Christmas, the pangs of loneliness took their toll on Bill’s spirit.

Never known for his poker face, Bill’s cronies at the Senior Center could read Bill’s face like a well-read book.

“It must almost e Christmas,” Charlie said between poker hands. “Bill is sporting his Basset Hound face and holding the queen of spades.

Bill looked down at the queen of spades in his hand and said, “I’m not holding the queen of spades…and don’t start thinking I’m in a funk, because I’m not.”

“You might be able to fool yourself,”  Sam said. “But you can’t fool your old friends.”

“Friends?” Bill bellowed. “If you were my friends you’d let me shoot the moon just once in a blue moon!?

“Listen, Bill,” Big Al said softly, “if you want stupid friends, I’m sure you could find them somewhere in the center, but if you want smart friends …and smart friends don’t just let someone shoot the moon…you’ll just play the cards you were dealt and be thankful we’re not enablers.”

“You have no idea what an enabler is,” Bill fired back, “you’re just trying to impress us with a word you picked up playing Scrabble with the woman from senior services. My problem isn’t about cards. It’s…it’s…”

Bill couldn’t get the words out, so Charlie helped him. “It’s just that you’re missing Carol, right?”

Bill nodded.

“Well, you’ve got to get your mind on something else.”

“I think what you should do is get a part-time job,” Sam suggested.

“Bill looked over at Sam with a puzzled expression on his face. “Who’d ever hire an old geezer like me?”

“They’re looking for a Santa Claus at the Macy’s in the mall,” Al said.

“You’d make a great Santa!” Charlie added.

“I’ll think about it,” Bill said trying to end the conversation.

“If you think about it too long, Christmas will be here and gone…and you’ll still be in a funk holding the queen of spades,” Sam chimed.

When Bill passed May’s on his way home from the Center he got to thinking how much fun he used to have playing Santa every year at the railroad’s annual Christmas party. Of course he didn’t have the girth in the earlier years, but carol took care of that by adding the padding necessary to have him as roly-poly as ever.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bill pulled into the Mall parking lot and made his way to the employment office at Macy’s. In short order, Bill was hired and asked to report to work the following day.

At the end of his first day as Santa, Bill felt there was something wrong. Not with him, but with the kids who had lined up to see him.  They were all good kids from good families. They were polite and well-behaved, but none of them had a poker face. Or at least none of them could hide their real feelings. They were basically empty. They had no needs. They had no wants despite the fact that they rattled off a list of the most popular toys of the day.

What Bill had thought was going to be a pleasure diversion had all the earmarks of a prison sentence. He didn’t believe he had it in him to spread Christmas joy. He even thought about turning in his red Santa suit. But before he took that step, a silver-haired woman approached him.

“Hi, Santa,” she said with a sparkle in her voice.

“I’m sorry, but Santa’s finished for the day. He’s got to bed-down his reindeer.

“Santa, I’m a little bit too old to be sitting in Santa’s lap. I just came by to introduce myself and tell you that starting tomorrow I’ll be your Mrs. Claus. Well, actually, I’ll be the one snapping pictures of the little darlings who come to see you.”

Bill didn’t have the heart to say he was thinking of quitting.

“My name is Lucille Garrity, but my friends call me Ceil.”

“And I’m Bill Keane. My friends call me Bill.”

Ceil gave a small chuckle. And as she continued to talk, there was something in her voice that reminded him of his Carol. There was her smile, too. Her voice and smile were enough to convince Bill not to turn in his suit.

“See you in the morning, Santa,” Ceil said.

“Get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.”

With Ceil’s voice ringing in his ear, Bill fell asleep thinking about one of Carol’s favorite Christmases.

Carol, orphaned at a young age, was raised by her aunt and uncle. They were good people but they barely had enough money to support the six children they had, let alone another one. Meals were always meager and clothing usually hand-me-downs. And of course there was little chance of having gifts at Christmas, but the lack of money never stopped Carol from dreaming about a wonderful Christmas.

One particular Christmas Eve Carol went to bed with visions of sugar plums and all that, only to wake to a chilly house with a particularly sad tree in the parlor.

Carol’s aunt handed her a small gift wrapped in newspaper. Carol didn’t care that the paper wasn’t colorful or that it lacked a bow, it was a gift that turned out to be a small cloth purse.

Even though carol knew it was one of her aunt’s old purses, she was still happy and hopeful. Hoping that there might be something in the purse. And to her surprise there was. Inside the purse were five shiny nickels.

From her shouts of glee you would have thought she had inherited Rockefeller’s millions. In truth, those five shiny nickels amounted to more money than Carol had ever had at one time.

Carol carried the purse to church. As her thoughts turned to the wonderful things she was going to buy with her five shiny nickels, the glimmer of the votive candles caught her eye. She had always wanted to light a candle for her late mother and father but had never had the money to do it.

But now she did. So before Mass began, Carol went over and lit one candle for her mother and another for her father. She proudly reached into her purse and took out two of her shiny nickels and deposited them in the candle box.

When the collection basket was passed around, Carol remembered how good the church had been to her when her mother died, so she took a third shiny nickel out of her purse and dropped it in the basket.

On her way out of church Carol saw the poor box hanging on the door. And although she was as poor as anyone in the parish, Carol’s parents had raised her to be generous, even if it meant making a sacrifice.

Although she was down to her last two shiny nickels, Carol deposited one of them in the poor box.

With only one shiny nickel left in her purse, Carol’s dream of a shopping spree was ebbing. A nickel though, back in 1924, still had amazing buying power. One nickel was enough to buy some gum drops, sour balls and a peppermint stick. Carol relished the idea of a belly ache from eating too much candy.

That’s what she was thinking when she went to pay a Christmas visit to her best girl friend. It’s the same thought that quickly disappeared when she saw that not only did her girlfriend’s family have no gifts, they had no tree and no fire in the fire place.

“Merry Christmas,” Carol said as she handed her friend the little cloth purse she held in her tiny hands. “Santa left this at our house and he asked me to come over and give it to you.”

Carol’s friend’s face lit up the whole room with a glow that was brighter than the sun. Never before had Carol’s friend ever been given a gift.

Whenever Carol told people about that long-ago Christmas, she used to say she could have used those five shiny nickels on herself, but if she had, she would have been left with nothing. But because she had done something extra special with each of the nickels she had five memories that lasted her a lifetime.

Remembering that story only reminded Bill how much he missed Carol. It also made him remember why he had loved her so much.

Ceil wasn’t Carol, but she did have some similar qualities. Her smile, her laugh and the way she responded to the children who came to see Santa.

Bill and Ceil quickly became friends playing Santa and Mrs. Claus. They took their breaks together, ate lunch with each other in the lunchroom, and at the end of the day, Bill walked Ceil to her car.

Bill woke up each morning with a purpose. He not only had someplace to go, he had someone to see. One afternoon Charlie stopped by to see Santa. He was amazed at the transformation. Bill had gone from old coot to jolly old St. Nicholas. One look over at Santa’s helper and Charlie had it all figured it out.

“If I didn’t know better Bill Keane,” Charlie said, “I’d say you were smitten. It’s written all over your poker face.”

Bill didn’t deny it because he was smitten. He also knew that come Christmas Eve, after he turned in his Santa suit, he’d stop having a purpose. His days would once again become humdrum.

Bill knew that everything didn’t have to end. He might no longer be Santa, but it didn’t have to mean his friendship with Ceil would also come to an end. But to ask Ceil “out on a date” was something he wasn’t yet ready for. Or at least he thought that way until his cut-throat friends at the Center encouraged him to ask Ceil to be his guest at the Center’s Christmas party.

“You’ve had so much practice,” Charlie said, “that I think the two of you would make the perfect Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”

Bill got to thinking. If he and Ceil were to be the Clauses at the party they really wouldn’t be going on a date. They’d be working.

Bill might have been thinking they were working, but is face had ‘date’ written all over it. From the minute he picked Ceil up at her place until the time they were sitting along by the fireplace.

“I know we never talked about exchanging gifts,” Bill said as he handed Ceil a small package, “but I wanted to give you a little something.”

Carol opened the gift to reveal a small cloth purse. Inside were five shiny nickels.

Ceil’s face lit up like the Fourth of July. “You can’t imagine what memories this purse brings back. My saddest Christmas ever was turned joyous when my best girl friend came over and gave me a purse with a nickel in it.”

It took a bit of unraveling, but Bill eventually learned that Ceil was Carol’s best friend. They lost track of one another when Ceil and her family moved away when the girls were still young.

The magic of those five shiny nickels had come full circle.

NOTE: At 78, my father did remarry the “Ceil” in his life. He and Felicia were married for close to ten years before my father died.

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Before 1987 I never had a reason to dedicate my Christmas story. But in May of that year my mother died. When it came time for me to write my Christmas story I was not only thinking about my mother, but I was thinking about my father’s first Christmas without her. Here’s the story dedicated to Margaret Catherine Begley (Aug 12, 1915 – May 16, 1987). This year on May 16, the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death, my grandson Andrew Vincent Begley (Jeremy and Sarah’s son) was born.

THAT CERTAIN SIGN
1987

 

Jean was going through the names on her invitation list when she stopped at Carol and Bill Kean.The Keans had lived in the house across the street from Jean and Norm Arthur ever since the neighborhood began in 1952. The two couples had moved into the neighborhood within a few days of each other, and ever since that first Christmas, Carol and Bill had always been invited and gone to the Arthur’s annual neighborhood Christmas Eve party.

This year it wasn’t going to be the same. Carol had passed away in the spring of that year, leaving a void, not only in Bill’s life, but in the lives of all the neighbors as well. Carol had always been the neighborhood’s battery…’ever ready’ to lend a hand and a heart to anyone in need of a comforting word.

Carol was the first of the many remaining original neighbors to have died. And that in itself was painful because it only reminded all the neighbors that life was only a prologue to eternity, and that each and every one of them was not immortal.

Heavy with thoughts of Carol, Jean hesitated only a few seconds before addressing an invitation to Bill Kean.

Sure it wasn’t going to be the same without Carol at the party, but that didn’t mean Bill shouldn’t be invited. He was still a good neighbor. He still had a life to lead. And he was still entitled to his share of happiness.

Bill wasn’t so sure about his entitlement when he received his invitation to the Arthurs’ Christmas Eve party. He hadn’t even thought about the party, even though he and Carol had always looked forward to it, and always were the last ones to leave. (Carol always insisted on helping Jean clean up after the party.)

This year was different. Bill hadn’t gone to any “couples” affairs since Carol had passed away. He didn’t think a Christmas Eve party would be the best occasion for his return to the ‘singles’ life, so Bill called Jean to tell her he wasn’t going to make it to her party.

“I won’t hear of it,” Jean told him. “My party won’t be the same if you don’t come.”

“It won’t be the same without Carol.” Bill choked up at the mention of Carol’s name. It was still difficult for him to talk about Carol in the past tense.

“Bill,” Jean said softly, “I’m not going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

“But…”

“I don’t want to hear any ‘ifs, ands or buts’ about it. You’ll be there if Norm and I have to drag you over there. And that’s final.”

Jean’s insistence was commendable, but Bill had no intention of going to the party. He’d find some way to get out of it even if he had to leave town that day.

Bill hung up the phone telling Jean he would think about it.

“Now what do I do, Carol? I’ve been invited to the Arthurs’ Christmas Eve Party. I can’t go without you. Tell me what I should do.”

Bill’s request for an answer was met with silence, the same silence that had filled his house since Carol’s death.

How could he go to a party and have a good time? How could he even think about celebrating Christmas without Carol?

“Why’d you have to go and die on me, Carol? I was supposed to go first. Not you. You were supposed to live forever.”

Bill’s words echoed in the empty house. He tossed the invitation in the trash can and went upstairs to make his bed.

Bill couldn’t help but think about Carol as he tucked the sheets in and fluffed up the pillow the way he had watched Carol do it thousands of times.

“If only,” Bill said aloud, “I could have a sign. Something to tell me you’re alright. Something to tell me you might be gone, but you’re still with me.”

Bill laughed at his request. A sign? What did he expect? Tulips to start blooming in December? A shooting star? A visit from a stranger?

No, there weren’t going to be any signs. And no, he wasn’t going to go to the party. Or, so he thought, until he talked to his daughter, Lauren, on the phone that afternoon.

“I think  you’d be crazy not to go to the party, Dad. Just because Mom is dead is no reason for you to stop living. She wouldn’t have wanted it that way, and you know it.”

“Would your mother have gone to the party if I had been the one who had died?” Bill asked Lauren.

Lauren didn’t hesitate to answer. “She would have been the first one to arrive at the party with a big plate of her special Christmas cookies.”

Bill hadn’t even thought about Carol’s Christmas cookies. She would bake up a big batch of them every year for Jean’s party. It had become a tradition.

“Ahhh,” Bill said to Lauren, “how can I go to the party? They’ll be expecting your mother’ cookies.”

“Who ever said it was against the law for you to bake them?” Lauren asked.

“Me? I’ve never baked anything in my life.”

“It’s never too late to start.”

Bill laughed at the idea. It wasn’t that he hadn’t prepared meals for himself since Carol’s death, but boiling a frank or grilling a hamburger was not really cooking.

Besides, Bill had always considered the kitchen a foreign country where he needed a passport and a special visa to visit as a ‘chef’. So, the very thought of baking a batch of cookies was enough to make him laugh.

In fact, Bill laughed all the way into the kitchen where he looked for Carol’s cookie recipe in the recipe box. And he was still laughing as he went up and down the aisles at ShopRite loading his cart with the necessary ingredients…eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla extract, and even the decorator candies for the top of the cookies.

When Bill laid out all the ingredients on the kitchen counter, he sat down and started to decipher the mysterious code on the index card for Carol’s Special Christmas Cookies.

Once he figured out the big ‘T’ was tablespoon and the small ‘t’ was teaspoon, Bill set out to make his first batch of cookies.

Two hours later he took his first tray of cookies out of the oven and stared at them in disbelief. They not only didn’t look like Carol’s cookies, they didn’t look like anybody’s cookies. They looked more like and less appetizing than miniature manhole covers.

Bill reviewed the recipe and learned that he had skipped sifting the flour and failed to add the baking powder.

So, it was back to Pathmark and then back to the kitchen where Bill started from scratch, making sure he didn’t make another mistake.

When the timer went off and Bill pulled out the cookie sheet, his eyes sparkled with excitement.

“I did it! I baked some cookies that even look like cookies.”

By the time Bill had taken the last batch of cookies out of the oven, he was exhausted, but happy with himself…and his culinary accomplishment.

It didn’t matter that the kitchen looked like a major disaster area, with flour covering everything and egg shells scattered all over the floor.

Of course it would have been much easier for Bill if he had thrown away all the evidence…including all the bowls and measuring spoons…but he decided to do the job right, even though it did take him nearly three hours to get the kitchen back the way it looked before he began playing ‘Betty Crocker’.

The next night, with a huge tray of cookies in hand, Bill stood at the Arthurs’ front door. Before ringing the bell he looked up at the stars.

“I hope I’m not making a mistake, Carol.”

Bill said that aloud, scanning the sky for a shooting star.

There was none to be seen.

The cheerful sounds coming from the Arthurs’ was in stark contrast to Bill’s frame of mind. He was tempted to turn back and seek the refuge of his quiet home, but for some reason he found is finger on the doorbell, and before he knew it, he was being ushered into the house.

Jean had a surprised look on her face as she looked down at the ray off cookies in Bill’s hands.

“I made them myself,” Bill said, his face beaming with the pride of a six-year old.

“In that case,” Jean told him, “Put them on the kitchen table…if you can find room.”

Bill thought nothing of Jean’s remark until he entered the kitchen and saw the table.

From one end to the other, the table was filled with trays and plates of Carol’s special homemade Christmas cookies.

Jean stood behind Bill.

“It wouldn’t be Christmas without Carol’s cookies. That’s why everyone at the party baked a batch of them. But, I bet they won’t taste as good as your cookies.

Bill couldn’t help but smile, because if ever there was a sign from Carol, it happened that night in the form of a batches of delicious sugar cookies baked with love.

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I remember where this story came from. The characters were actually in a full-length play I had written called “Wishful Thinking.” I really like the characters, and since they weren’t doing much sitting lifeless in a script, I took them and wrote them into a Christmas story. The year was 1986.

She Was Only a Christmas Angel…
But You Could Have Fooled Me.

Abe Hoffman and his expectant wife, Sarah, were among the first tenants to move into the new apartment building a little less than two years after the end of World War II. It was originally a nice looking building in a good neighborhood, but by 1970 it was a run-down building in a bad neighborhood. And by 1986, Abe Hoffman was the only original tenant still living there, if you call living the life of a hermit living.

Abe had not stepped out of the building since the fall of 1971. His only contact with the ‘real’ world was made through The New York Times, which was delivered to his door every morning like clockwork.

His grocery order, which never varied, was delivered on Thursday, and his laundry was picked up and returned on Friday.

Other than that, Abe had no other social life or relationships with anyone else in the building, unless you could call his ongoing battle with twelve year-old Carlos, a relationship.

Carlos lived in the only other occupied apartment on Abe’s floor. He had moved in with his ailing grandmother after he had been abandoned by his mother. Carlos and Abe had never liked each other. Carlos thought Abe was an old ‘poop’. Abe thought Carlos was a young punk because Carlos enjoyed tormenting Abe by skating up and down the hall at all hours of the day…and night.

No sooner would Carlos take his first pass down the hall, when Abe would be out yelling at him. The more Abe yelled the harder and faster Carlos would skate. And to make matters worse, Carlos would stick his tongue out at Abe as he skated by him.

That was how life was on the fifth floor before Malachy Lowenstein appeared on the scene. She had a smile that was infectious and a laugh that was contagious. She looked less like a person than she did one of the balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Why she ever moved in, when most people couldn’t wait to move out, was anybody’s guess. How she managed to move in was a total mystery because there wasn’t a single resident who could recall seeing or hearing Malachy move into the apartment.

The first time Abe had any idea there was someone occupying the apartment across the hall was that fateful morning, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when he went to his door to retrieve his New York Times.

For some reason, it wasn’t there. And one look at Abe’s face and you would have thought the world had come to a cataclysmic end.

Red faced, and about to implode, Abe noticed the figure of a woman standing in the door way across the hall…reading The New York Times.

“Looking for something,” she said with total innocence. “Like a newspaper?”

“I’m only looking for something,” he replied, trying to restrain himself, “if that happens to be my paper.

“I found it in the hall,” was all she said, and all she had to say, because as soon as she said it, Abe turned eighteen different shades of red.

“I thought maybe,” Mal said, choosing her words very carefully so as not to set the Abe bombshell off in the hall, “we could read it together over a nice pot of fresh coffee and some of my famous homemade raisin bread. It will give us a chance to get to know one another.”

“I don’t know you what’s with you, lady,” Abe told her, the steam escaping from his flared nostrils, “but I don’t want to get to know you because I don’t like you.”

“What’s not to like?” Mal asked in all sincerity. “I’m a real angel. You’ll love me once you get to know the real me.

Before Abe could reply, Mal took him by the arm and pulled him into her apartment.

“Sit,” she said, forcing him down in a chair, “I’ll only be a minute.”

Abe was too stunned to get up. He just looked around the cheerfully decorated apartment and began to wonder who this lady was…and how she came to live across the hall from him.

As he regained his composure, Mal called to him from the kitchen.

“How do you like your coffee, Mr. Hoffman?”

“Alone,” he said, under his breath.

“I heard that, Mr. Hoffman. I like a man with a sense of humor.”

“Sense of humor,” Abe thought to himself.

“That’s right, Mr. Hoffman. I think you have a good sense of humor.”

When she said that, Abe got really scared. Not only could she hear him whisper, she could read his mind.

Abe was about to sneak out of Mal’s apartment when he stopped be- cause he thought he heard Mal humming a hauntingly familiar song, a song his wife, Sarah, used to hum when she worked in the kitchen.

Hearing that song after all those years brought back memories Abe had thought he had long forgotten. Suddenly, for the first time in over ten years, Abe began to think about all the good times he had had with Sarah and their son, David.

Abe didn’t know it, but tears began to roll down his cheek as Mal returned with a try. She saw Abe crying.

“Is there something wrong, Mr. Hoffman?”

“It’s your humming,” he said.

“If my humming makes you cry, I won’t hum.”

Abe looked up at Mal as she stood there pouring him his coffee. For a brief moment the woman standing over him wasn’t Mal, but his wife Sarah.

As fast as the image was there, it was gone again, and he saw this character standing over him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My name is Malachy Lowenstein, but you can call me, Mal. I’m an angel.”

“Sure. You’re an angel, and I’m Johnny Carson.”

“I don’t doubt it, Mr. Hoffman.”

Abe shook his head on total disbelief as Mal began to slice him a big piece of raisin bread.

“I know you’ll just love my raisin bread, Mr. Hoffman. It comes from a very old family recipe.”

“I don’t like raisins.”

“Do you like grapes, then?”

“They give me gas, but I like grapes once in a while.”

“Well,” she went on to explain. “A raisin is just a grape with wrinkles. Sort of like you.”

“I’m not a raisin!” Abe snapped back, not knowing why.

“You’re a recluse,” Mall continued.

“I’m not a recluse. I’m a…I’m a hermit.”

“There’s a difference?” Mal asked.

“Yes.”

“Like the difference between a grape and a raisin?”

Abe shrugged his shoulders.

“So tell me, Mr. Hoffman. Why are you a hermit?”

“If you read the Times, instead of stealing it, you’d know why I was a hermit. The world stinks out loud.”

“I see,” Mal said, smiling over at Mr. Hoffman. “And you think you’ll make the world stink less by staying locked up in your apartment?”

“I don’t expect anything from the world, and the world shouldn’t expect anything from me.”

“It’s not that I don’t sympathize with your world view, Mr. Hoffman. I know it wasn’t easy for you when you lost your only son in Viet Nam. And things only got worse when your wife died. But those aren’t good enough reasons to look yourself up. You still have a lot of love to give, and there are people waiting for that love.”

“Name one person waiting for my love,” Abe challenged her.

“Carlos.”

Abe almost spit out the raisin bread he said he didn’t like when he heard the mention of that name.

“You are a crazy person. That little punk can’t stand the sight of me. And the feeling is mutual.”

“That’s only because you don’t give each other a chance. I know you’ve had your problems, but if you’ve noticed, Carlos hasn’t been skating in the hall lately.”

Abe stopped for a moment. “Come to think of it,” he said, “I thought something was missing.”

“I had a nice long talk with Carlos. He confessed to me that he only skated to annoy you. He’d really rather be your friend because he needs a friend, especially now.”

“Why now?” Abe asked, wondering why he even cared to inquire.

“His grandmother is going to go into the hospital for an operation. Since Carlos has no relatives to stay with, he’ll probably go into a home, or if he’s lucky, he might get sent to a foster home. Unless…”

Abe looked up at Mal as she cut him another piece of raisin bread.

“Unless?” Abe asked.

“Unless someone else was willing to take him in.”

She gave Abe an all knowing and all telling gaze that penetrated to the very core of Abe’s soul. He had once been sent to an orphanage and he knew what it meant to have no one in the world, so he fully understood what Mal meant by ‘unless’.

Still, he tried to play dumb.

“You’re not thinking….?”

She smiled. “That’s exactly what I’m thinking, Mr. Hoffman!” Mal exclaimed before Abe could finish his sentence. “I’ll go get Carlos and tell him the good news.”

Abe sat there dumbfounded as Mal raced out of the room and returned a few minutes later with Carlos in tow.

After some very tense moments, Abe and Carlos agreed to bury the ‘skate key’ and be friends. By the end of the day, Carlos and Abe were actually becoming friends, and by the end of that week, they even genuinely liked each other.

In fact, a small miracle happened that week. Abe ended his period of hermitage and ventured outside of the apartment with Carlos and Mal when they went to Rockefeller Center to see the great Christmas tree.

After that first outing, there was no keeping Abe behind closed doors. He, Carlos, and Mal went all over town together. From the South Street Seaport to Lincoln Center, from the East River to the United Nations, the happy trio celebrated New York as the city prepared for Christmas, and as Abe prepared to be a father again, because all the paper work had been approved, and Carlos moved in with Abe.

For the first time in fifteen years, Abe had something to look forward to in the morning when he woke up. It was nearing Christmas, and it didn’t matter that Abe was Jewish. He was filled with a spirit that was meant for people of all faiths.

With what little money he did have, Abe went out shopping for Carlos. But there was one gift he didn’t have to go out and buy. He already had it. It was stashed away in some boxes in his hall closet.

Abe planned on giving Carlos the train set his Daniel used to play with when he was a boy about Carlos’ age.

Abe really couldn’t have been much happier, and Carlos couldn’t have been happier, either.

When Christmas Eve rolled around, the triumphant trio spent the day singing, eating, and having a wonderful time.

After saying good-night to Carlos, Abe and Mal spent the rest of the evening wrapping Carlos’ presents. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning by the time they finished.

Abe promised Mal he would come and get her as soon as Carlos woke up. And at the appointed hour…about 6 a.m., Abe rushed over to Mal’s only to find the door wide open. Puzzled by that, Abe looked in, amazed to see there wasn’t a stitch of furniture in the apartment. Mal had left under as mysterious circumstances as she had arrived. Abe couldn’t help but wonder if he had imagined it all.

As he was about to turn and leave, he noticed a small package on the living room floor. When he picked it up, it was warm to the touch. There was a note attached to it.

“Dear Abe,” it said, “I’m sorry to leave you so abruptly, but my work is finished here. Welcome back to live, you old poop, and Merry Christmas!”

Abe smiled as he read the note, and his smile grew broader as he opened the parcel to find a big loaf of Mal’s famous homemade raisin bread.

“I just love raisin bread,” he said out loud, hoping Mal would hear him…wherever she was.

As he turned to leave, Abe thought he heard Mal humming in the kitchen. But this time, instead of crying tears of sorrow, he began to cry tears of joy because he was no longer alone. He had rejoined the human race. And for that he was glad.

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