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Bob Lewis, in this entry for "Christmas I Remember Best," recalls a trip to Italy as a boy and how a cemetery visit has given him new insight every Christmas since 1944.

This is the second of nine winners in the Deseret News annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best."

Years ago our family spent an idyllic summer in beautiful Florence, Italy, the heart of Renaissance art and architecture and literature — our vacation of a lifetime.

One day we decided to drive to nearby Siena to see the Piazza del Campo and its Cathedral. As we drove through the outskirts of Florence, off in the distance lay a beautiful green tract of land spread out magically like a garden in the parched Tuscan countryside. It turned out to be the American cemetery where some 5,000 U.S. and Canadian soldiers and airmen were buried, killed during the battles in and around Florence in the summer of 1944.

The original wooden crosses and stars of David had been replaced with stunning white marble markers, running in seemingly endless rows, curving and capturing the contours of carefully manicured lawns. Each marker bore the soldier’s name and a date of death, with the hometown from which he came.

As I walked between the rows of the dead, thinking of the lives of these young souls, I came upon the cross that bore the name, as I recall, of Myron Parker from Idaho, whose day of death was Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 1944.

Christmas Day!

As I stood there, that long past Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 1944, came flooding into my mind. I was 7 years old, almost 8. I awoke early on that freezing winter morning in Cache Valley and clambered quickly downstairs with my siblings to see what Santa had brought, all of us laughing and giggling with excitement.

As always, the Christmas tree was beautifully decorated with the same lights and family ornaments that had covered the tree every year as long as memory. There, together with the nuts and oranges and candy in our stockings lay a special present that magically appeared every year. For months I had dreamed of a new baseball glove, and there it was — on that Christmas morning in 1944!

Now, some 40 years later, I stood by a white marble cross in that far-away land, tears filling my eyes as I became aware of a far greater present, a precious gift that was given to me on that Christmas Day in 1944 — a gift without my knowing, without my asking, without my thanks.

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And so at Christmas every year I think of Myron Parker, unknown to me except for that brief moment when I stood by his grave in Italy, when Christmas Day 1944 linked us together in a strange yet enduring bond.

It also became a symbol, a reminder of another’s gift, the gift of him whose birth gave Christmas its name. He, too, died for others, legions who do not know him, never think of him, never thank him.

As he died to make men holy, unknown souls like Myron Parker died to make men free.

Bob Lewis lives in Cottonwood Heights.