Christmas memories: The unexpected gift

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Margaret Plevak | December 24, 2013

Sometimes all it takes is hearing "Silent Night" on the car radio or smelling balsam needles in a warm living room to trigger the memories of Christmas past. What brings memories back for you? We asked area residents for their favorite Christmas memories. All week, we'll run a story each day here on the website.

Contributor Jim Black of Walworth wanted to make his son's first Christmas with him in Wisconsin special, but found his plans splintering apart:

"After living in a country at war for nearly a decade, I returned home to Wisconsin because, realistically, I had nowhere else to go.  Emotionally, I felt like a recently released prisoner of war. I apologize for the comparison, but at the time, that's how I felt. Somewhere along the line I had lost my compassion or, at least buried it like a memento that seemed pointless to hang on to. 

"I focused on my mission which was to get my young son out of an impoverished, war-ravaged country and bring him here where he would have not only the best chance to survive physically--he had asthma, parasites and a heart murmur--but an opportunity to flourish with a good education. His mother and extended family agreed. He was 6 years old when I went back to get him.

"I had a rough year. While getting a toy down off the roof for my son, I fell and shattered my arm. After three days, I left the hospital with more pins in my bones then a bowling alley. I was out of work for over two months. Suddenly, I was a single father on food stamps with car payments, rent, no health insurance and a whopping hospital bill. I drove to other towns to do my grocery shopping because I was embarrassed to use my stamps locally.

"I eventually went back to work and now had babysitters to pay. If not for the joy my son brought me, I would have been overwhelmed by the dire straits in which I perceived myself. As Christmas approached I anguished over the lack of gifts he would have to open. This would be his first Christmas away from his native country and extended family. Like any parent, I wanted this holiday, especially, to be magical.  Although I didn't share his cheerful optimism, I was trying to think like Bob Cratchit would have: What little inexpensive treats and toys could I afford? How could I make so very little seem like a lot?

"We lived in a small l two-room attic apartment. My son and I shared a bedroom. He slept on an air mattress and I had the luxury of a twin mattress--which was more than I was accustomed to, but not necessarily better. I was just happy to be with my little boy. I hung some lights around our window and bought a miniature tree to put on an end table. It was real, but real small. There was no space for anything larger.

"In my years abroad, I was more of a yuletide spectator. But that year, that season, that approaching holiday filled me with the nagging sadness of someone who had nothing to offer their child. I know that material things aren't important, but nonetheless, I wanted some for my child.

"To make things worse, I had to work on Christmas Eve--in my eyes, the most important part of Christmas. A friend offered to have him over for dinner that night and a co-worker volunteered to pick him up and babysit till I got home, which was much appreciated yet, not what I wanted or envisioned.

"That night when I got home, I labored up the steep outdoor stairway to our apartment feeling slightly sorry for myself. I opened the door, entered the small kitchenette and set my keys on the counter. I stepped into the living room and was stunned--and bewildered- to find brightly wrapped gifts piled almost to the angled ceiling.

"My friend explained that a local restaurant had paid for them after fellow service workers brought my plight to the owner's attention. I managed to wait until she left before I completely broke down.

"I will never forget the look on my son's face when he saw that mountain of treasure or forget his squeals as he dismantled it. In addition to all the toys, there were clothes, blankets, winter wear, toiletries and other things I had put off buying.

It was the compassion of others--strangers and friends--that helped me rekindle my own. The world didn't change that day, or become less harsh. But I began to.

"I remember that Christmas every year.  I pull it up like a memento. That year there were many presents for my son. But all of it was a gift for me."

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