Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
Well, you know how it is: nostalgia decks the mind and the heart at Christmastime.
We are as likely to be enchanted again with certain gifts of yore as with all that shines new before us.
One of the “gifts” that always keeps its sparkle is the memory of a certain time, place (or actual present) now on permanent display in the heart where no rust sets in, no battery dies, and no modern-day whiz-bang ever supplants.
Indeed, such a treasure often increases in value as recollection, with time and depth of understanding, embellishes the long-ago gift with new meaning.
The memories I share here again, one of my brother Doug’s from years past that he “gifted me” with just last year, the other a recent one of my own, are two I offer you again in “Christmas present”.
Re-gifted, then, from my Christmas heart to yours.
ON MRS. BROWN
Mrs. Brown was, I’d guess, in her seventies or eighties back then, during the five years my family lived across the street and down the block from her in the south end of Escanaba, Michigan.
She was also the richest lady in town, or so we heard.
I remember once getting up the gumption to peek into her garage windows where I saw gleaming wood flooring beneath her great, big, shiny Cadillac. Just then her grounds-keeper came around the corner of the house and I high-tailed it out of there.
Why she stayed in the same brick mansion, or so it seemed to us kids, that took up the entire corner of the block facing Lake Michigan, the expansive grounds impeccably kept, I don’t know. She probably grew up there in the former “best neighborhood in town.”
Though we lived in the same neighborhood in one of the turn-of-the-century homes once standing elegantly in their Victorian-era respectability, those homes were now more shabby than chic, dwellings of a less prosperous citizenry. And they were now bursting at the seams accommodating the fast-growing population of Baby Boomers, most of whom were just then entering, or in, elementary school. My mother and father, alone, contributed several more to that demographic during those years.
Mrs. Brown also went to our church. If you were lucky enough to sit near her (or not, if you were allergic to her very expensive perfume that seemed to me to have come from some distant, beautiful shore) it was an experience.
Her diamond, ruby, and emerald rings and brooches flashed and twinkled as she “blessed herself” at the appropriate time during Mass, stood or knelt down according to protocol. Her hats sported exotic feathers, her mink stoles, never a spot of “mange” as some of the old ladies’ wraps seemed to have, shimmered in the soft church lighting (although as a kid, I was both unnerved and fascinated by the little, leathery heads, tails, and claws hanging fore and aft).
In short, the woman had about everything small town America dreamed about, though she lived alone.
But it wasn’t what money could buy that attracted my little brother Doug and his buddy Jimmy to her grounds. It was a very healthy patch of rhubarb growing out back in her little garden that piqued their interest and their taste buds…great, big, juicy, stalks of the stuff that, sprinkled with a little stolen sugar from Mom’s kitchen, were about the best snacks they could think of when the harvest was ripe—and the old lady or her grounds- and house-keepers were not looking.
Or the boys hoped they weren’t looking…
ON RHUBARB PIE
And they did hope, because stealing some of that juicy treat seemed wholly in the realm of their conquests, that summer. The fence surrounding Mrs. Brown’s garden was short enough for a pair of five year-old miscreants to easily climb over to get at the sweet stuff and scramble back over before anyone could catch them as they ran off to sit down and enjoy the taste of their loot—and their victory—on their favorite curb.
Or so they hoped…
But hoping is not always having.
And thus the stage was set for their final garden heist.
The last time the daring duo pilfered from the rhubarb patch, says my brother, what they feared the most, happened.
Just as they grasped the garden booty, their taste buds tingling at attention, the old lady, herself, came to the back door.
The boys froze, stalks in hands.
What was she going to do to them?
Worse, yet, what were THE MOMS going to do to them, later?!
But, lo, to their complete surprise and little kid befuddlement, Mrs. Brown brought to them not a switch with which to whack their behinds on their way out of the back yard, but a great big steaming fresh-from-the-oven rhubarb pie.
“Would you boys like a slice of pie?” asked Mrs. Brown, smiling sweetly, paper plates and plastic forks tucked under her arm.
Both boys nodded, slooooowly, unable to speak.
She cut them each a big slice and let them out of the yard, this time through the gate.
Back on their rhubarb-munching curb, the boys ate the delicious pie in silence, working their five-year-old brains to a lather to figure this whole thing out while at the same time enjoying the Best. Rhubarb. Pie. Ever.
They thought it over then talked it over, to the last bite, to no avail, although Doug can’t recall verbatim what was said.
However, one thing was sure: they never again stole rhubarb from Mrs. Brown’s backyard garden.
Their life of crime was over.
And to their knowledge, and gratitude, Mrs. Brown never told the moms…
When Doug told me this story yesterday, I knew it had something to do with my Christmas blog, the topic as of yet unknown. Because when he finished the tale of long-ago kid crime and “unusual punishment,” sin and “just desserts,” well, I knew this was the anecdote around which a focal point would gel, something about grace where there should be a sound switching, about mercy where there should be sacrifice, about Jesus–whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas–taking the punishment for our sin on the cross and offering us grace…
So this bubbled up:
Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? … Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (Romans 2:4 NLT).
Yes, I said, to no one in particular, it’s coming clearer…
Mrs. Brown was on to some Solomonesque wisdom, there, in the way she dealt with those two pint-sized garden-robbers, both my brother and I agreed, as we smiled and shook our heads, eyes misty with that brief trek down memory lane.
Maybe the old gal was really just smart, taking the kids by surprise like that, showing them in that unexpected way that she KNEW who had depleted her prized rhubarb patch.
Maybe she was a bit lonely or simply very understanding about little boys and the smell of ripe, fresh, juicy rhubarb.
Maybe she knew a family as big and bustling as was ours could use a little help in the parenting department for our often overwhelmed set of real parents. So maybe she decided our mom didn’t really have to know about one more of the kind of mischief those two little guys were wont to get into and that usually won the prize for upsetting mothers. Like the time, for example, a year prior, when at age four, the two climbed atop the fire escape on the fancy hotel across the alley all the way to the topmost floor as Mom tried to quell panic when she found out, yelling at the boys to come CAREFULLY DOWN ALL THOSE STAIRS, onlookers watching, mouths agape…
Or maybe Mrs. Brown just loved to bake and share her incredible rhubarb pie…
But I think it was more.
At least it’s more for me, Mrs. Brown, may you continue to rest in peace.
In the way that gifts of unexpected mercy touch and transform hearts, that anecdote from long ago prompts me today to remember to render mercy, not sacrifice, though sacrifice is deserved. It prompts me to offer grace, not grief, though grief is deserved.
And it prompts me to consider, again and anew, the same grace made available by Jesus’ death on the cross, offered me and all who so will, by the Original Gift-giver through the riches of His love.
A gift still awaiting those who’ve yet to unwrap it.
Thank you, Mrs. Brown, for reminding me.
Thank you, Doug, for the memory.
And a very merry Christmas to all.
Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
My teen-aged niece and I were standing in line at the checkout in J.C. Penny’s yesterday when we noticed the young soldier striding toward a nearby exit. He looked like any raw-boned, young GI, clad in desert camo, ACU cap, dog tags no doubt tucked beneath his khaki T-shirt. One of many such soldiers one encounters these days in stores, restaurants, and airports Anywhere USA as the wars overseas drag on.
But what made this particular soldier stand out, dodging and weaving through the throng of holiday shoppers, was the home-made sign he grasped askew in his left hand that read, “I Love You Mom” while he checked messages on an iPhone in his other hand.
My niece and I looked at each other, eyes misting.
“Ohhhhhhhh…” we said, in that half-moan way emotions emerge…
“Sweeeeeet,” she said.
“And I will bet there’s a good story behind THAT little sign,” I said.
As we waited our turn at the checkout, I could only imagine…
Maybe he was headed for a reunion after an overseas tour of duty—or leaving for one—and meeting his mother at the airport or somewhere else?
I was working out other imaginary logistics when our turn came up. My niece made her purchase and we headed for the exit, the soldier’s “story” still tugging at my heart, and, lo and behold, he was standing just outside the door. I couldn’t resist.
I drew near him—he was still busy with his phone—and, after thanking him for his service, said, “Say, your sign caught our eye. Does your mom live around here?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, she does. It’s just a Christmas tradition for her. Every year I get a picture taken with Santa and I hold up a sign like this.”
(“Ohhhhhhhhhh,” My niece and I repeated, in unison.)
He looked slightly sheepish but was still smiling.
“And she cries, right?” I asked…trying to keep it light.
“Yeah,” he said. “But, I’m like, Mom, I do this every year! What’s the big deal!”
“Well she’s a girl,” I said…”Of COURSE she cries!”
I couldn’t quite say, “She’s a mother, son, and you’re a young soldier in a world very hard on young soldiers just now. And on their mothers.” So I didn’t.
He chuckled again; we wished him (and his mother) a Merry Christmas and went on our way. He went back to his phone…
~ ~ ~
Every term in my writing classes I encounter one or more young soldiers, recent veterans, many fresh from the dust and danger of Middle Eastern deserts and now taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to learn a trade and move on in life. Some sit in the same classrooms with other young men on student visas who perhaps were on the other side “over there.” I pray for them all and help them write their stories and essays.
Like other writing instructors with vets in the class, I occasionally read depictions of front line life. Memorable essays for me include a stunning description of one of those sand storms that you can see from outer space that occurred while one student was stationed in Kuwait. With his permission I’ve linked it, below.*
Another story detailed a young soldier’s experience sitting in the middle of two buddies in their Humvee during an IED attack on a road in Iraq. His buddies didn’t make it; he, barely. He told me it helps to be able to write about it. He was still on medication for post traumatic stress.
Another student just this last term had a particularly hard time processing psychological trauma he sustained through his multiple deployments to the war zones and other duty stations and with the “Dear John” letter he received in the middle of it all.
He struggled with putting it together in essay form. I suggested he might choose another topic. He told me that he really needed to finally write it all out. I extended his due date. He wrote his Hemingwayesque-styled story with clear nouns, strong verbs, and few adjectives, although he wouldn’t know it was that style.
What he did know was that he needed, for some reason, just then, to put his story down on paper. He crafted a powerful, “coming of age in a time of war” piece, detailing experiences from which he will likely continue to recover for some time. The topic for his collection of anecdotes was “resiliency”.
~ ~ ~
As my niece and I got on with our shopping trip yesterday I thought of those soldiers and I prayed for the “Christmas soldier,” as I now call the young man we encountered at the mall.
I prayed that he would someday be able to come back and get on with his life, too.
I prayed he will NOT be one of those who will have to process trauma, although there are many people including writing teachers who might be able to help, if such is the case.
But mostly I prayed that he will be able to keep the tradition alive for many, many Christmases to come. You know, the tradition of giving his mom a picture of him with Santa.
You know, the one where he holds up the sign.
Photo credits: Andrew J. Beveridge
Header credit: unknown. You? 🙂 Let me know so I can credit you, too!