A CHRISTMAS STORY.
Nesly, a boy of 12, was busy counting the change from his piggy bank, while sitting on the bottom of the bunk bed of the bedroom he shared with his younger sister. School closed for the holiday and there were only three days left before Christmas. He had given up long ago on waiting for Santa to come his way and took matters in his own hands. The year before, his stepfather, Joseph, came home drunk on Christmas Eve and woke up the following day in a foul mood, ready to beat the hell out of him, especially if he dared to bring up the subject of gift. The year before that was no better as his mom, Joyce, was sick and became wheelchair-bound soon thereafter, necessitating help for ambulation otherwise. His mom as a result lost her job as a domestic and the family had to depend on one salary or whatever was left over from drinking and smoking expenses of an ever more irascible man resenting his predicament as the sole breadwinner. His mom normally had little cash leftover after expenses and due to such hardship couldn’t even buy him toys, a reality that made her heart bleed.
Nesly seemed to have always towed bad luck as an uninvited companion. His biological father had raped his mom and was never a part of his life. She married her present-day husband one year after Nesly’s birth and bore him a girl one year after the wedding; to her surprise, he felt disappointed because he wanted a boy. His mom could no longer have a child and that further complicated matters. Joesph in earnest turned more to the bottle and was prone to fits when drunk. Nesly and his little sister Jeanine could only count on each other and their mother for cuddling or affection and learned quickly to stay out of Joseph’s way to be safe from harm’s way. Nesly was barely eleven when he took on a job of newspaper delivery. At first his pedestrian territory covered just two blocks and after a few months he had saved enough money to buy a bike at a garage sale and he expanded his route to include six blocks. The job entailed very early morning rising , no matter the coldness of the day and no sick day allowed. Prescient, he had set out to save money way back after getting the bike so he can buy presents for his little sister, his mom and wasn’t sure if he could or should include his stepfather, as uncomfortable as the man’s presence was.
As he sat on his bed, Nesly was mulling over a lot of ideas. The choice of gifts, the amount of money saved were utmost. For one thing, his pay included a flat daily rate of a pittance but also tips given to him at random during regular season but usually a given around the holidays. His piggy bank included all the spare change he collected, pennies, dimes, quarters. He was even panicking and wasn’t even sure if he could pull it off. Transfixed in his bed, he had arranged his money into neat piles of hundred apiece, not even noticing Jeanine who had awakened, willing to but brooding that he was not up to small talk as usual. That had become their daily routine. Lately her likes have included an attraction for books, a shared interest that brought them closer together. Sensing she could be feeling ignored, he asked her to help him arrange the coins.
So they sat next to each other and carefully assembled them for a total of 10 of pennies, 2 of dimes and 1 of quarters. He retrieved $10 in pennies, $40 in dimes, $25 quarters for $75! He added this to the $25 in singles stashed away, for a fortune of $100. Elated, he quickly donated $20 to Jeanine for her own presents buying. That by itself melted any lingering perceived slight and made her day.
Frugal by necessity, entrepreneur at heart, Nesly had the innate flair for a good bargain. With Jeanine’s help, he kept a lemonade stand during hot summer days, or sometime sold cold bottled water at double the price from the local supermarket to oncoming drivers. He knew of library used book sales and kept a pulse on local garage sales and thrift shops. Lately he kept peeking at advertised sales in the local paper. He had a knack of turning obstacles to his advantage. On snowy days, he would help his apartment building’s super in clearing the snow on the sidewalk for a fee. That income would replace his lost wage for the newspaper delivery because his mom would not allow him to do so on such bad days.
He bought his mom an inexpensive prepaid cell phone and a nice red sweater at the thrift shop. The saleslady advised him to have it dry cleaned next door and she volunteered to gift-wrap it. He managed to make an inexpensive present look adorable, and pricey. Satisfied and proud, he knew his mom would look elegant in this outfit. He agonized over his stepfather. He finally decided to get him a shirt but was afraid to even look at his closet to check his size, lest he be reprimanded; instead of searching, he asked his mom who gladly told him. He also bought Jeanine a used but looking-new dictionary.
The icy relationship with his stepfather was a bitter pill that he kept swallowing daily. He carried his mom’s maiden name even though he lived all his life with his stepfather and for all practical purposes knew him as his real father. This slight gnawed at him constantly. His mooring in life revolved around his mom’s devotion to him, like a soothing balm if not a salve for this emotional wound. At the same time, he relished Jeanine’s attachment to him, like a nourishing sap, another layer of unbidden protection, if not a cornerstone but the bookend of his mooring. Jeanine’s and his mom’s love for him blunted the hurt, but would never erase, eliminate, replace, supplant the yearning for fatherly love.
Satisfying his loved ones for Christmas was his main goal. His own Christmas wish was the discovery of the warm sensation of a heartfelt hug from his stepfather instead of the sly, snide remarks, a gentle touch instead of a push and shove and the cessation of the shouting. This was not a material gift but a wish worth millions. Yet a simple one carrying such a remote possibility of fulfillment that he relegated it to the rarefied world of dreamland, his own world bereft of an oasis, with parched land aplenty. Buying the shirt was a milestone, filled with trepidation, apprehensive as he was about his stepfather’s reaction to the gesture. On Christmas Eve, Nesly and Jeanine put up a small artificial Christmas tree and with the help of his mom, he arranged the gifts all around the tree and they played Christmas carols and sang along. Jeanine had taken care of their mom’s grooming, fancy hair braiding, exquisite manicure, pedicure, and makeup to make her look and feel good. Nesly’s stepfather as usual was not home, out with the fellows drinking and whatever else he took pleasure in and making a fool of himself even.
On Christmas Day, Nesly and Jeanine brewed hot chocolate and served their parents. Nesly was eager for everyone to open their gifts, not expecting any for himself. Jeanine surprised him and gave him a book and she gifted her mom with a shawl and her dad with a leather belt, all bought at the thrift shop. Nesly’s mom loved her sweater and wore it immediately. Jeanine and Nesly hugged each other for their respective gifts. His stepfather, all groggy from the previous night’s bingeing, rubbing his eyes, with his customary unpleasant mien, sauntered in the living room with an alcohol-reeking breath. He veered from dour to surprised, from embarrassed to forlorn, from careworn to carefree, from mean-spirited to plainly happy. This was all so at the sight of close ones celebrating, with effusive expressions of love, cavorting, making noise, parading their presents, not to mention his own presents from Nesly, and Jeanine. Finally grasping his snub of his family, in no time, he sustained an implosion that morphed into an epiphany.
Nesly’s gift to his unloving stepfather came with a card that said, “To Dad with love, Merry Christmas, from your son Nesly.” He quickly realized he kept looking for love at all the wrong places. He kept ignoring ever-present young and not so young, caring, suffering hearts offering pure, unrequited, unconditional love. All given with spontaneous, effortless, energetic, yet simple but profound, deep expression. That reached his dormant, egotistic, cold, selfish, petulant, sexist soul at its core. This naturally caused a fissuring and buffeting, upending, cleansing, resetting of his old soul. It helped create a new soul from a new mold, a generous and magnanimous mindset, malleable and easy-going disposition toward the new world of glinting, gleaming, gleeful, jovial light known universally as simple love.
Nesly’s wish was not in vain. He received the spontaneous bear hug he had been dreaming of for so long. The epiphany for the stepfather translated into more time spent at home, more attention paid to his family’s financial and emotional needs, far less time with the bottle, but most of all legal adoption of Nesly as a son.
Reynald Altéma, MD