Each year at Christmas, I am reminded of this sentiment. It was born from the cold nearly penetrating my heart at a young and tender age, but overcoming.
You see, as a child, I had a very warm and comfortable upbringing. In our neighborhood, in Chicago, we had a quiet street; filled with children to play; parents who were attentive; with lots of barbeques where all the neighbors gathered for hot dogs & hamburgers as soon as the weather was warm. Winters were always cozy with friends gathering on Christmas. Our home was modestly decorated with a single and simple Christmas Tree, but it was always warm and comfortable. That is until I was age 6.
In the spring of 1968, my Father was injured in the line of duty. As a result, we lost our home on that quiet street with all the children and neighbors and barbeques; and move into my maternal Grandparent’s modest loft in a four-story house built in 1900. My Grandparent’s lived in the country, 70 miles away, where a very practical and stoic people dwelled. That meant accommodations were equally, stoic. The loft was built by my Grandfather for primarily studying, but was updated in in 1945 as a bed room and again in 1967 with a more modern bath tub.
Modest, is a bit of a stretch. As is the concept of updating.
The loft was four rooms: A bathroom come storage area, a kitchenette which could fit two people, the living room – cum – Bedroom for my parents, and our bedroom and playroom. The update was to include an oil-fueled furnace built sometime in 1920, which required both manual fueling and manual ignition (that is sticking one’s arm into the furnace to light). It was warm in the afternoon and all night, but needed to cool all morning and through lunchtime. Gone were the barbeques, as this was impractical; gone were children play in the street, there was work to be accomplished with some time for children only after the work was done. Gone was the cozy and warm.
And then came the winter.
It was a bitter, cold, winter. Complete with blizzard which made playing outside impractical. My Father, too, became bitter and cold. Falling into alcoholic stupor, divorcing my mother (with a quite word from my Grandfather, never to appear again) and finally his death. All winter long, the cold was beyond description. The cold found its way into your brain, your heart and deep into your soul. I cannot recall a single day that winter when I felt a modicum of warmth. Christmas was equally cold. No tree, no decorations, and not a single stocking. We ventured downstairs on Christmas day. Although the temperature was warm inside my Grandparent’s quarters, the reception was anything but warm. I received two hand-me-down fire trucks as gifts from my older cousins (built sometime in the 1950’s, complete with sharp edges). I didn’t care, I played with those trucks for three years almost every day. It was a bright, merry spot in an otherwise cold day. Which, shortly thereafter, was retreated back to our cold loft. Fortunately, spring finally arrived. Warmth and renewal of a life came to all things, including our fortunes.
The winter of 1969 was not as bitter. And, surprisingly, brighter. My mother found ways to keep our loft much warmer. That included putting a cast-iron pot on the furnace to create steam which would keep us warm well into the morning. I remember the first time she tried this, I felt cozy! It was a memory the warm my heart, the feeling of warmth for Christmas after a long and bitter winter. Equally in my memory was the brief sting of cold. My Grandfather on Christmas eve had an unusual request, to help him bring a bucket of water from our loft, down the three flights of stairs to place outside our door to water the Reindeer. I felt the cold pierce through my fingers as I lugged that bucket down the stairs. When I finished and returned to the loft, I found two things that immediately warmed my heart. The first was a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, filed with my Grandparent’s old ornaments and a topper that dated back to the 1940’s. It was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. The second was flashing on the wall. I likeness of Santa Claus, lighted by a bulb which flashed off and one, creating a warm glow in the room. I would treasure that decoration for many years, until I had to retire it in 2010. It would not be the only surprise that Christmas.
That night, my Mother showed me something extraordinary, on my bed was an electric blanket. It was set at a modest temperature, but I did not care, for the first time I would go to bed warm and wake up warm! You could have knocked me over with a feather I was so happy. The next morning, as the snow had fallen, my mother lead me to the window to show me a wondrous site. In the snow outside that window, were reindeer tracks! Just how my Grandfather did this I will never know. Which of course meant, if there were reindeer tracks, Santa must have visited. And he did. Under that beautiful tree was a stocking for me and my sister, and a huge wrapped gift for me. I had to wait until friends arrived. Friends! At Christmas. Just like in the old neighborhood! Children laughing and running around, adults laughing and chatting. And when I opened the gift, it was a “Light Bright”. Beyond my wildest hopes! I played with that “Light Bright” that day, and almost every day for many, many years. That had to have been the warmest Christmas ever, but I would be mistaken.
The year 1970 would literally change my world. My Mother remarried and her new husband decided on buying a new home in the suburbs. So, that summer, we moved in a brand-new house on a quiet street. There were children to play with all day in the streets. Although there were no barbeques, there were outings planed by our neighbors to the beach, or the zoo or the watching eachother’s kids while the parents went out. No more hard work, now just time to play and be a child again. But the most curious part of that winter, central heating. From a gas furnace, which heated my own bed room and the whole house. I remember on that Christmas eve, sitting by the grate and feeling the warm suffuse me. I remember that evening, going out to eat – us, going out to eat on Christmas eve! We had pizza by a warm chalet styled fireplace. My Mother and Step-father recreated that beautiful Christmas Tree. There were lots of toys and our stockings overflowed. But that was a secondary memory in my young mind.
The main thing I remember, above everything else, I was WARM.
Many things have happened since 1970, some good, some not. But the one thing I remember, not matter what, was to make Christmas WARM: Figuratively, and literally.
May your Christmas be equally as warm.