ALTHOUGH THE WEATHER that Christmas eve of 1929 in Portland, Ore., was typically drippy and dreary, inside our home the atmosphere was brimming with excitement and anticipation. It wasn't until many years had flown by that I could realize how difficult it must have been for my parents to maintain the gay facades that hid from us the ache and worry in their hearts.
Christmas had always been a gay and extravagant time in our home. Anticipation would start building as soon as Thanksgiving was over. Mother would begin preparation of holiday cakes, cookies and candies with the eager help of young hands. Letters were written to Santa, despite solemn warnings that Santa was very poor this year, and were mailed in the fire for "smoke delivery" to the North Pole. Christmas stories and poems were read and recited and carols sung almost constantly.Lists were made, marvelous works of art were created by young geniuses, and whispered secrets filled the air.
Christmas mornings would always find Dad's dark, curly-haired head bent over the trucks and trains with the small blond boys, his bright blue eyes snapping with youthful excitement.
Mother's hazel eyes would mist with happiness as she listened to the squeals of pleasure over the beautiful clothing she had made for daughters and dolls. To see their children happy and healthy was the greatest joy of our young parents.
But this year was different. Dad was a longshoreman and had suffered severe injuries in July, when he fell down a 30-foot hatch on a ship. He spent several weeks in the hospital, returning home for a lengthy convalescence just before Mother entered the hospital to give birth to their fifth child, an adorable baby girl.
Complications were involved with this delivery, and it was several weeks before she came home.
During this time, Dad received some workman's compensation, but once he was declared fit for duty and able to return to work, the checks ceased. He was ready, willing and eager to return to work, but unemployment, with all its haunting ugliness, had begun stalking the city since the stock market crash, and his diligent searches proved fruitless.
The available money had been carefully stretched, and every corner that could be cut had been. Our electricity was cut off. We still had a snug house in which to live, but most of our waking hours were spent in the kitchen, where the polished black kitchen range could keep us cozy. It also heated our water in the reservoir at one end of the stove, and was the means of cooking our simple meals.
I was the eldest of the five children and feeling extremely grown up at almost 9 years old. I had discovered who Santa was the previous year, and felt quite important as I
helped the younger children and my parents make simple gifts with things we had on hand. This Christmas seemed to be extra special to me because I shared the Santa secret with the grown-ups. I certainly did not comprehend our nearly desperate circumstances, though.
Our supper of homemade soup and Mother's crusty homemade bread had been eaten and cleared away. We were gathered around our friendly kitchen range singing Christmas carols, led by Dad's wonderful tenor and Mother's sweet alto. Soon we would hang up our stockings in gay anticipation, and we were happy, because we were celebrating the birth of little Lord Jesus, and that was the most wonderful event in the world.
Suddenly the door bell rang. As children do, we crowded closely as Mother opened the door, then called for Dad.
There stood two men and a woman, modest but resplendent in Salva-tion Army blue and gold. Their arms were laden with packages. They explained that Santa had asked them to help him by bringing our gifts to us. Back and forth to the car they went, until they had filled our hallway with boxes of food and toys.
The tears were coursing freely down the cheeks of our parents as they stammered expressions of gratitude, and asked why we had been so visited. But they never knew who sent those dear people to our door, sacrificing their own holiday hours to help those in need.
The years have flown by; I remember some of the toys allotted to me, but my mother remembers best the bounteous supply of food. Were the toys new, or were they used and refurbished? We did not know, nor would we have cared. We were just thankful.
The years have flown by, but it would be unthinkable to ever pass the tinkling of bells by the faithful guardians of the Salvation Army kettles without leaving a token of remembrance of those beautiful people who truly keep the spirit of Christmas.
About the author
"I began writing poems, stories, essays and a bit of nonsense from the time my mother taught me to write," Mary D. James said when informed that she was one of six winners in this year's Deseret News "Christmas I Remember Best" writing contest.
Mrs. James, 67, is a widow who has lived in several Western states, including Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah. She just recently completed her qualification work to receive her high school diploma, which she has sought most of her life after being forced to drop out of school during the Great Depression.
The writer of today's essay is currently attending a creative writing class taught by Timothy Lineback in the Jordan School District. Mrs. James plans to continue her endeavors in the creative writing field.