Now, more than 50 years later, I wonder what it must have been like for him. Leaving the mill on a dark snowy Christmas Eve, hoping he’d get to the hardware store in time to get us our Big Gift. I capitalize those two words because, to my father, it WAS a big gift, the only one he could afford on his mill-worker wages, the one thing he could do that would somehow convey to us how hard he worked for what little he was able to give us.
We’d been glued to the living room window since right after supper, watching the Christmas Eve storm, so much a part of the magic for two little girls. Daddy never ate with us, as he usually came through the door long after we’d eaten. Besides, a late supper was a rare moment that he and Mumma could enjoy together.
Huge snowflakes hit the glass and stuck briefly before melting into winter’s tears. My sister, who was around 5 at the time, scanned the sky for Santa’s sleigh, and thought she saw it at one point, even down to Rudolph’s blinking red nose.
“It’s right there!” she screamed. “See?” And she pointed toward the top of the big pine tree across the street, but I saw nothing. “Yup,” I said, “he’s there all right.” Her face lit up more brightly than the bulbs on the Christmas tree standing in a corner near the sofa.
In the distance, I saw him. He was carrying a big box, and walking in the street along which a plow had just passed. The sidewalks were swathed in snow, and he had to climb through a plowed-in drift to get into the driveway. Neither of my parents drove, so there was no car to block his path as he made his way to the back porch.
I heard him stomping the snow off his boots, and then the sound of the door opening. A few hurried whispers, and my mother was in the living room ushering us upstairs.
“But why can’t we wait?” my sister groaned.
“Well, Santa’s almost here, so do you think he’ll leave anything if you’re sitting right here?” my mother chirped.
We marched up the stairs, down the short dimly-lit hallway, to the room we shared above the kitchen during the winter months when my parents closed up the big bedroom under the front eave of the duplex and moved into my sister’s tiny room at the top of the stairs.
Soft sounds drifted up to us, so we crept as quietly as possible to the floor grate, trying hard to hold our breaths so we wouldn’t send dust sailing down on top of the stove. Suddenly, we heard bells, and a deep voice saying, “Now, are those girls both in bed?” To which my mother replied, “Oh yes, I put them to bed a little while ago.”
And then the bells again, which sounded an awful lot like the bells on my sister’s jump rope. But for just an instance, they sounded, well, could it be? Could it really be?
Then, silence, followed by my father’s normal voice calling us downstairs. A quick glance at the tree revealed that not much more had been added, but there, in the dim corner behind it, was the box I’d seen him carry up the snowy street. It never took long to open our few gifts, and then, there he was, dragging the box out into the middle of the living room floor.
“I guess it was too big for Santa Claus to wrap,” he said and pulled back the top flaps and pulled out what appeared to be an enormous clown’s head. Grinning from ear to ear, my father placed it on the floor and proceeded to open a smaller paper bag.
“It’s a game,” he announced proudly, raising himself up to his full stature of just a little under five-feet-two. I hadn’t seen him smile that way in a long time, and it almost seemed like, instead of our father, there was a little boy standing in the middle of that room with us.
“See, this is how it works,” he continued, squatting several feet from the clown’s face. “You just toss the ball and try to get it into the mouth. And if you do, this number up here rolls around to show you your score.”
His first attempt hit the edge of the clown’s face and rolled across the floor. My sister went scrambling instinctively after it. He tried several more times while we both itched to try it, and finally, the ball went right into that clown’s mouth.
Nothing happened. The number wheel that was supposed to be keeping score didn’t move an inch. I looked at my sister then at my mother, and finally, at my father.
“Let’s see here,” he said, failing dismally to hide his disappointment. He poked the ball into the clown’s mouth a few times, and still, nothing happened. He tapped the number wheel a few times, and tried it again. Still nothing. He sighed and stepped back away from it.
“Well,” he said after a painfully long time. “You can still have fun with it. When you get the ball in, just keep your score on a piece of paper. It’s the same thing.”
But he knew it wasn’t the same thing at all, and his face registered a new emotion, one I’d only come to recognize many years later in my life: failure. My father didn’t have to say a word to express that, even in this, he’d failed. He’d spent his entire life in one of the lowliest jobs in the mill, this man to whom new socks at Christmas meant the world. And now, he couldn’t even buy his kids a toy that worked.
Sometime during the late sixties, my father’s snowy treks home from work stopped forever, and it wouldn’t be long before disappointment had been relegated to the past with all his other memories. He mellowed during his last years, and spoke very little of the past, preferring to dwell on what little of the present he had left.
And that clown? Well, I’ve never really been sure just what became of it. It’s likely that he simply got rid of it one day while we weren’t looking. But I do know this, that my father never again put so much effort into Christmas shopping.
On that Christmas Eve in 1958, for a few fleeting moments, I saw the boy my father had been long before I’d come into his life, caught in the magic of the season, pinning all his hopes on a big cardboard clown, that, in the end, proved to be the best gift he ever gave us.