The following story by my father had become a Christmas tradition at the Rhino Times. We printed it during the Christmas season for years, and for years Dad tweaked it, changing a word or two or cleaning up a messy sentence, as writers do. Dad died in March 2004, so there’s been no tweaking for quite a while, but we think the story stands the test of time as it is.
– John Hammer
It all began with a strange man walking up and down the sidewalk in front of our house on Christmas Eve in 1931.
We were right in the midst of the Great Depression, but unlike many families mine had been lucky. The New York bank where my father worked was sound and had only closed for the federally mandated bank holidays. My dad still went to work every day, and while much of the nation suffered, we were ready to have a bountiful Christmas. In the refrigerator, the first one we had ever owned, sat a big turkey ready for the oven. Our old icebox was still out on the porch in case this newfangled refrigerator didn’t really work. The area under the Christmas tree was already piled high with presents for me, my older sister and two younger brothers and we knew there were more to come.
My older sister, Mary Lou, who was 10, was the first to notice the man who walked back and forth in front of our house. Or she was the first to decide that it was our house he was stalking, not one of the other three on the block, and that he was going to break in and steal our Christmas presents.
Mary Lou eventually convinced my mother that this man was up to no good, and my mother decided that the best thing to do was to take all of us with her when she went to the train station to pick up my dad.
Dad was a fairly typical New Jersey commuter. He left every morning on the 6:39 a.m. train and, before the Depression, used to return on the 7:42 p.m. Since the Depression he was the cashier at the bank and got to come home on the 6:27 p.m. train. I don’t know how he felt about leaving work “early,” but all we kids knew was we got to see more of him.
My dad loved bridge, and was part of a rolling group of six or seven that played each morning and occasionally on the evening train. They played from the time they got on the Jersey Central to the ferry in Jersey City. Sometimes some of them caught an earlier or later train, hence the six participants. The Great Depression took a lot of jobs, especially on Wall Street, and the bridge group was another victim of the ’29 crash.
On this Christmas Eve, with “the strange man” out in front of the house, Mom loaded Mary Lou (10), me (8), Bob (6) and Paul (4) into the car to pick Dad up at the train station. We left the house locked.
Dad’s train was on time as usual, and we quickly picked him out among the derby clad commuters. To our delight he had a bag of presents. We all started talking at once telling Dad of the stranger stalking our home. Mom quieted us and Dad heard the story from her. “Well, if he were going to rob us, he has done so by now. Let’s go home,” said Dad.
Mom drove us straight home and as we pulled into the garage Dad jumped out and walked quickly to the stranger still walking slowly up and down in front of our home. All of us, including Mom, were already peering out of the curtained windows as Dad walked with the stranger up to our front door. Mom opened the door to let them in. Dad said, “This is my good friend John Smith, who used to be my bridge partner.”
He introduced us all to Mr. Smith.
Mom and Dad went into the front parlor to talk with Mr. Smith. We kids had already eaten supper, but we gathered in the kitchen, talking and wondering about Mr. Smith and why he was walking in front of our house. It seemed like an eternity to us before Mom came in and said, “Your Dad has something to say to you.” Dad came in and said, “Your Mother and I are going to drive my friend home. But before we go, we’re going to split our Christmas dinner and gifts down the middle with the Smiths. Turkey and all. Mr. Smith and his wife have three children approximately the ages of you three older children. He has no job and no immediate prospects. I’d like for you, Mary Lou, Dick and Bob to consider sharing your gifts with the Smith children.”
Mary Lou and I looked dubiously at each other. The turkey dinner was one thing, but our Christmas presents – that was an entirely different prospect.
But before we could say a word, my 4-year-old brother Paul piped up.
He said, “It’s not fair if they get to give half their gifts, I want to give half of mine.”
While Mom fed Dad and Mr. Smith in the kitchen, we kids went to the pile of presents under the tree and loaded half of our wrapped gifts into laundry bags.
Mr. Smith came in and thanked us with tears on his cheeks. We felt plenty thanked. Dad somehow managed to cut the raw turkey in half and we all helped carry things to the car.
Mary Lou was our babysitter when Mom and Dad drove Mr. Smith to his house. We stayed up late and when Mom and Dad got home we wanted to know all about the Smith children. Mom said they were sweet, a little younger than us but about the same sizes. She said Mrs. Smith was a lovely and gracious lady and that they all really appreciated our generosity.
Still, giving up half our presents hadn’t been easy and I said, “Mom, we don’t even know what gifts we gave away to the Smiths.
Mom said, “The gifts you never got will be the ones you’ll never forget.”
Mom was right.