For many of us, one Christmas stands out from all the others, the one when the meaning of the day shone clearest. My own "truest" Christmas began on a rainy spring day in the bleakest year of my life.
Recently divorced, I was in my 20s, had no job and was on my way downtown to go the rounds of the employment offices. I had no umbrella, for my old one had fallen apart, and I could not afford another one.
I sat down in the streetcar--and there against the seat was a beautiful silk umbrella with a silver handle inlaid with gold and necks of bright enamel. I had never seen anything so lovely.
I examined the handle and saw a name engraved among the golden scrolls. The usual procedure would have been to turn in the umbrella to the conductor, but on impulse I decided to take it with me and find the owner myself.
I got off the streetcar in a downpour and thankfully opened the umbrella to protect myself. Then I searched a telephone book for the name on the umbrella and found it. I called and a lady answered.
Yes, she said in surprise, that was her umbrella, which her parents, now dead, had given her for a birthday present. But, she added, it had been stolen from her locker at school (she was a teacher) more than a year before.
She was so excited that I forgot I was looking for a job and went directly to her small house. She took the umbrella, and her eyes filled with tears.
The teacher wanted to give me a reward, but--though twenty dollars was all I had in the world--her happiness at retrieving this special possession was such that to have accepted money would have spoiled something. We talked for a while, and I must have given her my address. I don't remember.
The next six months were wretched. I was able to obtain only temporary employment here and there, for a small salary. But I put aside twenty-five or fifty cents when I could afford it for my lithe girl's Christmas presents.
My last job ended the day before Christmas, my thirty-dollar rent was soon due, and 1 had fifteen dollars to my name--which Peggy and I would need for food.
She was home from convent boarding school and was excitedly looking forward to her gifs next day, which I had already Purchased. I had bough her a small tree, and we were going to decorate it that night.
The air was full of the sound of Christmas merriment as I walked from the streetcar to my small apartment. Bells rang and children shouted in the bitter dusk of the evening, and windows were lighted and everyone was running and laughing. But there should be no Christmas for me, I knew, no gifts, no remembrance whatsoever.
As l struggled through the snowdrifts, l had just about reached the lowest Point in my life. Unless a miracle happened, I would be homeless in January, foodless, jobless. I had prayed steadily for weeks, and there had been no answer but this coldness and darkness, this harsh air, this abandonment.
God and men had completely forgotten me. I felt so helpless and so lonely. What was to become of us?
I looked in my mail box. There were only bills in it, a sheaf of them, and two white envelopes which I was sure contained more bills. I went up three dusty flights of stairs and I cried, shivering in my thin coat.
But I made myself smile so I could greet my little daughter with a Pretense of happiness. She opened the door for me and threw herself in my arms, screaming joyously and demanding that we decorate the tree immediately.
Peggy had proudly set our kitchen table for our evening meal and put pans out and three cans of food which would be our dinner. For some reason, when I looked at those pans and cans, I felt brokenhearted. We would have only hamburgers for our Christmas dinner tomorrow.
I stood in the cold little kitchen, misery overwhelmed me. For the first time in my life, I doubted the existence and his mercy, and the coldness in my heart was colder than ice.
The doorbell rang and Peggy ran fleetly to answer it, calling that it must be Santa Claus. Then I heard a man talking heartily to her and went to the door. He was a delivery man, and his arms were full of parcels. "This is a mistake," I said, but he read the name on the parcels and there were for me.
When he had gone I could only stare at the boxes. Peggy and I sat on the floor and opened them. A huge doll, three times the size of the one I had bought for her. Gloves. Candy. A beautiful leather purse. Incredible! I looked for the name of the sender. It was the teacher, the address was simply "California", where she had moved.
Our dinner the nigh was the most delicious I had ever eaten. I forgot I had no money for the rent and only fifteen dollars in my purse and no job. My child and I ate and laughed together in happiness.
Then we decorated the little tree and marveled at it. I put Peggy to bed and set up her gifts around the tree and a sweet peace flooded me like a benediction. I had some hope again. I could even examine the sheaf of bills without cringing.