A Most Precious Thing

It will all be over by the time you read this. Two days after Christmas and the hurry scurry will be little more than settled dust.

I prefer shopping close to Christmas day. I can barely tolerate the season beginning on Thanksgiving and cringe at it prior to Halloween. I do not like the commercialization of Christmas, never have.

I recall one Saturday, three days before Christmas. I was seven or eight and that morning I walked the three quarters of a mile to my grandmother’s house. We lived in a farm town inhabited by two thousand flatlanders on the Illinois prairie. Planning my first solo Christmas shopping excursion, I wanted to consult with her regarding where to shop. I showed her my list. “I didn’t forget you Grandma, I left your name off ‘cause I don’t want you to know what I’m getting you,” I told her. She smiled, “It’s good to be surprised.”

With her advice noted I headed off down Main Street to the small town’s business district. My first stop was Hermanacks Dry Goods.

The waxed hardwood floors creaked as I walked in. A long oak counter was on the right. Shelves and drawers lined the walls, stilled ceiling fan paddles suspended above. In the back on the left was the shoe department.

You sat, placed your shoeless heel in the cupped end of a metal device and Mr. Hermanack measured your foot. He slid on each shoe with the help of a shoehorn and tied the laces. “Stand up and put your weight on it,” he would say pressing down on your toe to be sure it wasn’t touching the end of the shoe. A sliding ladder, wheels at the bottom, connected to a ceiling rod running the length of the store. It allowed access to shoes, lofty drawers and shelves. I always wanted to climb it.

In the middle of the store stood tables neatly arranged with dry goods. I chose a delicate white handkerchief, lilacs embroidered around its edges, for my grandmother and one with violets for my mother, a pair of work socks for my father.

The spool of string above Mr. Hermanack’s head whirled when he pulled the dangling loose end. I watched in wonder as his skillful fingers wound and tied each package and snapped off the string.

Outside it was snowing. There was no wind and the huge flakes floated, aimless feathers to the ground. The air that morning was filled with silent white magic. I stuck out my tongue, allowing a single frosted plume, then another to settle and dissolve. This indelible moment remains etched upon my memory as Christmas.

There was Christmas dinner at my grandmother’s. Her house was old and brick with high ceilings and always a lofty, magnificently decorated tree. One year the dog knocked it over and she wept over the broken glass ornaments.

The house was alive with luscious aromas, the kitchen a bustling flurry of activity. My aunt and my grandmother would usually, during the course of the day, argue and would have to be pulled apart until tempers calmed and then they would hug and kiss and all would be fine, because no matter whether they quarreled or not, they loved each other deeply.

With all the leaves securely in place, the table set and candles lit, mounded platters and bowls and gravy urns were brought forth steaming. We were not a profoundly religious family, but at Christmas words of grace were always spoken before the food was passed. We were a humble working class family, but the wealth of love and abundance filling that room made us happy and content.

My closest uncle was a “Rebel Without a Cause,” James Dean sort of young man. He came to believe that family dinners were kid stuff, made excuses that he had to work and disappeared for the entire day.

Years later, when many who sat around that table had departed, my uncle and I found ourselves one late summer afternoon driving through Illinois farm country. He had acquired an early 50’s Mercury convertible. I urged him to put down the top. He balked; concerned we might not be able to get the top back up. I persisted and eventually we stopped and put it down.

It was a beautiful day and we drove and drove and talked non-stop. We had not seen each other in some time and there was much to say. Years later shortly before his death he recalled that day as one of the best of his life, and I agreed. It was one of those simple but exceptional moments that make life so precious for living.

The bonds of family consumed our conversation. He confessed there was but one thing in his life he truly regretted; avoiding Christmas dinners. He grew silent, staring out at the road ahead. Lastly he turned and said, “I’d give anything to be able to go to just one of Ma’s Christmas dinners again, but it’s too late now, they’re gone. What a fool I was,” he turned his moist eyes to me. “Family is a most precious thing, it’s all that matters in life really.”

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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