Monday, December 24, 2012

Love for Christmas: A Gift Idea for the Rich at Heart

 The following story was published in my college newspaper when I was a senior. It was submitted (without my knowledge) by my journalism professor to a contest sponsored by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. Surprise of surprises, it won first prize in the feature division. Two prizes really: a handsome letter opener (long gone, lost in a move probably) and $50 (even longer gone). The sentiments seem timeless to me, so decades later I’m posting it in an edited version. Happy holidays, everyone! Keep the spirit.

I remember the Christmas I grew up. I was eight years old, but I think I realized even then that I was a wiser child on Christmas night than I had been on Christmas eve.
My father, an apron manufacturer, had discovered that people weren’t buying many aprons and that his business was failing. That year, my parents pawned my mother’s engagement ring to pay the bills, and later they quarreled bitterly over my father’s refusal to take his wife’s wedding band to satisfy another persistent collector.

I heard that argument from my bed, a battle conducted in fierce whispers to ensure my innocence, although they thought I was asleep. I saw their shadows as I listened, sensing, in a child’s way, more than I knew. Finally, when I heard the first bubble of a sob break from my mother’s throat, I realized I had invaded sacred adult territory and buried my head under my pillow in retreat. My father won that skirmish and my mother kept her wedding band, the symbol of a bond that really needed no symbols. They clung to each other that year of extremes and together they protected their daughter from the knowledge that we had become very poor.
Right before the dancing lessons stopped
Poverty was a new and shocking experience for our family. We lived in a building with a doorman, had a car in Brooklyn where not everyone owned one, employed a cleaning lady once a week. And there was money for dancing lessons for me. By the time I turned eight , though, luxuries had been eliminated and even the basics were slashed to appease the appetite of a factory on its way down.

Until then, holidays had been sacred. Lots of presents, chocolate coins at Hanukkah, stockings filled with candy at Christmas. In those good years, I had a favorite gift, one I had received on my fifth Christmas, a baby doll that looked so much like an infant in its white lace-trimmed gown that it had made me gasp at first sight. As an older toy, it disappeared into a back closet, an arm missing, its gown ripped and soiled. Soon it was forgotten.
I expected gifts that bad year, I suppose, as children expect the inevitable happinesses. I didn’t know that my parents had spent hours wondering how they were going to produce anything resembling a present on Christmas morning. I was also unaware of the powers of a mother and father determined not to disappoint their child, and the ingenuity bred of poverty.

I can’t remember that particular Christmas dawn as any different from the previous years. It was probably cold and half-dark outside, but I do remember the candy-stuffed stocking hanging from the mantel of the electric fireplace and, on the hearth, one box wrapped in colored paper. The little girl who stood gazing at that package I recall now with a strange clarity. She was dressed in a pink flannel nightgown with pale green rosettes and her hair hung past her shoulders in curls that bounced when she tossed her head as she often did when she didn’t get her way. She was an only child, slightly selfish and a bit wild, but that day she was subdued, unusually quiet for Christmas morning. It was almost as if the sight of the lone present had inspired a precocious caution and she took a long time unwrapping it. Her parents, my parents, stood watching . And when I had dug through the paper and opened the box, I hope they weren’t, but I suspect they were a little afraid.
I lifted out the grimacing infant doll I had received new three Christmases before. Her arm was sewn back in place, her face was freshly washed, new eyes and a mouth had been painted on, and she wore a chintz nightgown made from a remnant of an apron nobody would buy. So much work and invention had gone into that present and, as young as I was, I realized what I had received. If its cost in dollars and cents had been minimal, it showed a huge expense of love, and I have never forgotten it.

Later, when I was older and given to adolescent reflection, I believed that gift to be a symbol of renewal. But now that I am still older and reverting to a simpler way of thinking, I appreciate it as a gesture of the deepest love and the most profound expression of giving. And that after all, is the true spirit of Christmas.

And now for a less exalted gift: winner of the random drawing announced in my last post is Jennifer Miller. Email me at, Jennifer, and I’ll send off an inscribed copy of my novel, My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet). I look forward to more comments from you and from all.
Toby Devens


  1. What a lovely story, Toby. It's a great reminder that, yes, it celebrates a birthday and so much more as well. It's an opportunity to give, to express love and gratitude. Your story covers all of that in so few words. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. A lovely story, Toby. We forget that not much has changed for many people, and not just the ones in the path of a hurricane. This is a gentle reminder.

  3. I loved this--very touching. Funny, but I desperately wanted one of those squinchy-faced dolls, but somehow my mother thought they were repulsive. She warned me not to covet one because she wouldn't buy it, but I still did, and was crushed when no doll appeared on Christmas Day. I was glum and petulant the whole holiday, just to "punish" her for letting me down. I don't know what message to take away from this event except maybe to (within reason) give a gift that pleases the recipient even if it doesn't please you. I don't know if she later regretted the incident, but I kept it in mind when I was raising my son!

  4. A sweet, sad and uplifting story. I'm wondering about your parents. What did your dad do to make a living after aprons? Did you have to move to a cheaper apartment.

    1. Eventually, he was able to turn the business around sufficiently to sell it. He'd always been a good math student and he took a job as an accountant in a shoe manufacturing firm. He loved it--no overhead, no union problens-- and wondered why he hadn't done it years before. And no, we never had to move fron the apartment. My parents eventually did relocate to the L.A. area where we had family.

  5. Beautiful story! Thank you for the book it arrived today. I'm looking forward to reading it.

    1. Ah, it arrived, Great. I hope you enjoy it, Jennifer.

  6. Commenting from my iPad. Great blog.