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

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"We Got Your Back"~ Time Travelers Hit New York City

I’ll take Manhattan, well, any time, but last week when I visited, it flaunted its fabulous holiday best. Fifth Avenue bustled with shoppers, department store windows were dressed to dazzle, street vendors did a brisk business in scarves and knit caps. It hadn’t been a happy autumn in New York, but the power was back on, the streets were clean and dry, and everyone–cab drivers chatting, doormen smiling–was in the holiday spirit.

 Order black-and-whites at Zabar's
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New Yorkers used to have a reputation for being slow to warm up and fast to get in your face. An unfair rep, which the world didn’t amend until 9/11 and then Sandy proved it absolutely wrong. New Yorkers are as caring as anyone on the planet. Which brings me to a case in point.
We'd named ourselves The Time Travelers, a group of ten friends, male and female, from the old neighborhood in Brooklyn, classmates scattered by time and circumstance then rediscovered at high school reunions or on Facebook. Last May, we'd gathered in the leafy shadows of Prospect Park to kick off two days of memories, laughter and noshing (akin to snacking but with more gusto and usually mustard). At some time during that weekend, we learned that one of us was waging war with a nasty, aggressive cancer. We told her, as we’d told each other in the school yard years before, “We got your back, kiddo.”
Over the following months, we heard about her extensive surgery and grueling rounds of chemo which she handled with amazing grace. Radiation was next. We’d kept in touch by phone and email but now, dammit, we weren’t going to let her go through more of this without us there to hold her hand, hug her gently, help her deal.

Last week, with her radiation about to begin, Time Travelers arrived from four different states by train bus and plane. One of us carried a special gift: a photo taken of our group at the May reunion surrounded by a paper mat that had made its way around the country by post, picking up autographs at each stop. And hours before our friend was scheduled to head up to radiation oncology, a contingent of us sat with her and her husband in the cafeteria at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to witness her unwrap the gift. Her beautiful smile bloomed as she read our notes of hope and friendship. Our eyes filled. We nibbled New York’s famous black-and-white cookies as we cheered her on. And when we kissed goodbye and promised to stay in touch, we meant it. If New Yorkers say, “We got your back, kiddo,” you can lay money on it—they got your back.
On my way to Penn Station for the trip home, I was greeted by a young man who wouldn’t let me walk past his stand of knit hats and chenille gloves. “Hey, for that smile, lady, I take two dollars off.” How could I pass up such a bargain? I bought a pair of gloves, a little gift for myself for the holidays. But the friends that gathered for a Time Traveler in trouble, and even more, what she gave back to us—an example of bravery under fire, determination and, on most days, serene optimism—now that’s a gift the size of a New Yorker’s heart.

Toby Devens
Contest Alert!  Share your story of a gift that changed your life or touched your heart and you could win an inscribed copy of my novel, My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet).