“It’s not your fault. He transitions from an affable and generous old codger until the onset of Thanksgiving, after which he slips into full Scrooge mode at Christmas.”
I had just delivered a hot coffee and a Danish pastry to Henry, which was usually enough to put a smile on his weathered face, and asked what his plans for Christmas were. His response was an angry tirade on the “overexaggerated importance of the holiday,” and he nearly bit my head off with a “F*** Christmas” as he stormed out of the caretaker’s comfy kitchen and took his breakfast out into the chilly locker room.
“Down deep he is a very good man, as you know from personal experience, but he is alone and lonely, especially around the holidays, so he goes into that funk and is miserable for two straight months.”
I thought back to the love, warmth, and joy in our home, a poor household with my mother scratching out an existence with her three children during a time when social services were virtually non-existent. I began to understand what it must be like to live alone in a cold-water flat, wrapped in his tattered green wool army blanket and sitting dangerously close to a smoky kerosene heater.
I heard him tell a member that his only source of news and entertainment, his big wooden Admiral radio, had blown a fuse and he couldn’t find anyone to repair it. It was then that I began to imagine the cold and lonely existence he was living, without any family we were aware of. Our club, where he spent most of his waking hours with his friends, was his first home, and at this time of the season his fellow members were discussing family obligations and gatherings.
Although my family was much less comfortable than the majority of the members, I honestly felt sorry for him and his dire situation, so I asked Mom if she could make up a small package of her pastries, the type of treats she usually baked for the club members who took up a collection for the ingredients with an extra dollar for her efforts. I was residing in an environment of proud men, so I was careful not to deliver mom’s gift at the club. Instead, I waited until after supper and sunset, so no one would see me carrying a package to him. I walked to his second-floor apartment and knocked on the door. By virtue of his response, I was aware that I had awakened him.
“Come on in, the door is unlocked.” The odor of kerosene and stale tobacco assailed my nostrils before I came fully inside and noticed the secondary acrid scent of Octagon disinfectant soap. Henry must have just finished his laundry in the sink. A line attached to the kitchen faucet ran to his chair then back to the other faucet handle. It held the underwear, T-shirts, and two pairs of well-worn Navy uniform pants he wore daily. He was encircled by the soiled, bulging structure of a broken easy chair with the green wool blanket wrapped around him up to his neck and the portable kerosene heater controls well within reach. There was an empty soup can and bowl along with an overfilled ash tray on the lamp table to his right atop a copy of the local newspaper opened to the obituary section. I could understand why he was so lonely and distraught in his lonely existence.
As he peeled back the waxed paper covering the raisin squares, he apologized for his outburst earlier in the day. He looked up at me with contrition written all over his face and asked if I would do him a favor and run to the diner for a hot coffee and a coffee milk and share the pastry with him.
I had to get back home to finish my chores and homework, but there was no way I could refuse his request. After our coffee break, he thanked me again and asked that I keep my visit secret. We parted closer than we had ever been during all the years I had known him. Although I was running late, the good vibes from my visit gave me a better understanding of what he and many other of the single or widowed veterans were up against. I became much more appreciative for the love and care my mother provided for our family and the difficulties she encountered along the way.
My Christmas season actually began during Thanksgiving week. Everyone was beginning to feel the holiday spirit and the few prosperous members I worked for would make a pre-holiday trip to the club before they left for warmer climes during the winter. The plumber’s daughter, who I crewed for in the Newport sailboat races, stopped by the day before Thanksgiving and left two envelopes, one for me and the other for the caretaker. Lorraine was a beautiful woman of about 30 whose kindness and uplifting spirit complemented her good looks. When I arrived after school to make the coffee run, the caretaker teased me.
“Hey, you missed your girlfriend. She came by and left you a love letter.”
I folded the card in my pocket, but he insisted I open it. It was an elegant Christmas card with sailboats on the cover and a warm verse inside. She wrote that next season we would be finishing closer to first than last place and had inserted a crisp $5 bill. She signed the card, “Thank you for all your help and support. Love Lorraine.”
The caretaker was merciless in his teasing. He also got a card with a $10 bill, but no love. He put his arm around me and conveyed that she had told him she always felt safe with me running the power boat as I towed her sailboat to and from the Newport and area yacht clubs.
That fiver was a great head start on my Christmas stash. I was old enough to know that money was tough to come by and many family men were out of work. After several lean Christmas holidays I lowered my expectation to avoid the disappointment that might follow. I believe that was the only time in my life when I was working very hard but expecting less.
Despite my cautious nature, I began to speculate this would be the year to make up for all those lean Christmas holidays of the past, but only time would tell. Early on, while my friends and classmates were making extravagant Christmas lists for Santa, I understood the limits of my family’s economic status, which placed food, shelter, and clothing as our highest priorities. I kept my expectations low and avoided crushing disappointments.
None of the members anticipated or expected anything special for the holidays beyond having enough tobacco, an occasional taste of their favorite beverage, and a warm place to sleep. Mom was very appreciative of their accepting me, their tough love, and passing along their knowledge and skills, so she helped out whenever she could. The vets loved her cooking in the form of pastries, which she often baked for the wealthy people of the Highlands where my aunt worked as a maid. On occasion, my aunt would return with quite a bit of pastry in the form of raisin squares and prune rolls. A few times each season, the caretaker would take up a collection for ingredients for mom to make pastry for the crew.
Henry was one of the inner circle of vets who donated to that gathering, which was all I anticipated it to be. One of the caretaker’s friends was a former supply Sargent in the Army and the men bragged that he could get a delivery of apple pie and ice cream to the front lines. One of that man’s friends was the skipper of a New Bedford dragger that primarily fished for groundfish in the form of cod, pollock, and the occasional haddock. Around the holidays, many boats remained tied up due to family considerations or stormy weather, putting fresh seafood at a premium.
A few weeks before this holiday fish feast, the men had been talking about buying a Christmas tree for the club. The vote was inconclusive, but the caretaker reported that Henry, with a sorrowful expression, admitted to not having a Christmas tree during the past ten years. The caretaker concocted a plan.
“Are there any more of those short pine trees in the grove above where you and your buddy camp on the opposite shore?”
I told him there were a few as we were the only ones willing to fight the briars to get to them. He asked me if I could cut one down so we could surprise Henry with a tree and put a little happiness in his life. Most of the boats had been hauled and turned upside down on the banking, but the caretaker’s skiff was our emergency vessel.
On a calm but cold Saturday morning, the caretaker gave me a sharp bow saw and instructed me to select the most uniform tree in the bunch and drag it down to the shoreline. He would be watching me with the glasses from the club porch then row over to pick me up. He had a box of Christmas ornaments that were a gift from the family of a deceased member and our plan was to set the tree up in the upstairs meeting room where Henry rarely ventured. We dragged that little pine up the ramp and up the stairs, leaving a trail of needles and the wonderful scent of fresh cut pine. My mentor produced a rustic stand he had fashioned out of 2X4 lumber, and I held the tree while he nailed the supports to the base and sides of our Christmas surprise. We had to wash our hands with kerosene then strong Lava soap to remove the thick and sticky pine pitch that dripped freely from the base and the lower limbs we removed. That tree was actually pretty full, so we decided to put it closer to the windows and away from the wood stove.
He pushed the cardboard box toward me and gave me instructions to begin decorating. That was definitely not my forte. I was almost finished when I heard voices coming up the stairs.
“Damn fool kid decided we should have a Christmas tree, so he went out and cut one down. Good grief he’s got all the same color ornaments together and the tinsel is all on one side.”
Henry chuckled. How did he happen to come by at such an opportune time? Was it luck or divine intervention? Neither the club nor Henry had a phone, so I’ll leave that decision up to you.
The caretaker didn’t tell him the tree was for him, it was just my youthful whim to spread holiday cheer with the men I admired and spent so much time with.
“Move those green and blue balls and spread them around the red ones. Henry, get your pocketknife then go through that box and see if you can find some twine and the silver star for the top.”
Henry responded that he had very little experience with decorating, which was laughed off by the old man. We all had a good laugh when Henry almost knocked the tree over trying to jam the star onto the too thick top. Henry began laughing at me and we soon began laughing with each other. By the time we had all the decorations on, Henry had tears in his eyes from all the laughing—or was it something more?
Henry reached into his pocket and pulled out the leather change purse most men of the day carried when a lost dime or quarter was a financial tragedy. He peeled two of the rolled-up dollar bills in that purse and handed them to me.
“Well, seeing you men did all the leg work, it’s only fair that I buy the coffee and donuts.” Two dollars was more than was needed for our order, but the caretaker winked at me and nodded affirmatively.
I could smell woodsmoke on my way back to the club, and when I climbed the stairs with our food, I found Henry and the caretaker had pulled up two of the soft chairs and were sitting around the tree. The caretaker suggested we go down to his kitchen to take our food, but Henry insisted his fire would soon warm up the room and we could enjoy our snack upstairs. Henry went home with a smile on his face and refused to take the extra dollar back.
For the next few weeks, Henry was busy carving a rowboat and a pair of oars, which were given a place of prominence on “his” tree. One of the members who worked at the Naval base came by with a box full of radio tubes and over that weekend replaced two tubes in Henry’s radio. Although Henry would not admit it the caretaker bet me that besides the news and the radio programs of the day, he was listening to Christmas music. I did not dispute his assertion.
There is something special about a Christmas tree that has nothing to do with size, width, or decorations. We never bought a tree until the last minute; on one occasion, after Dad died, we got one on Christmas Eve that would have been discarded. The friendly owner of the outdoor fruit market actually gave it to us, and it was an expensive beauty that had been admired by many who couldn’t afford the steep price. He wrapped heavy cord around the base, and I dragged it all the way home and into our first-floor apartment. The aroma of balsam and pine needles filled our home with the freshness of the forest. I set the tree up in front of the streetside window, and Mom found the red-and-green metal stand that had been in our family for ages. Once the tree was in place, I watched with delight while my sister and brother excitedly sorted through the decorations. Other than lifting my little brother to attach the angel star, Mom and I were not active participants, we were joyful onlookers.
The Christmas seasons, within the range of my recollections, are filled with fond memories. Not just Christmas Eve or the day itself, but the period of anticipation and preparation from Thanksgiving to Christmas. I am happy to report that Henry, the former grinch, went on to participate in, and then promote, a few holiday gatherings of his own. A little kindness was all it took for him to become a believer and a disciple of Christmas.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, stop for a moment and give thanks for what you have. Then, think about sharing some of that with someone less fortunate. The caretaker had a saying: “Too soon old, too late smart.” He may have hit on something there.
You can wish Charley Soares a Merry Christmas at firstname.lastname@example.org