When I was growing up, times were tough for my parents. My father was a heavy equipment operator; he drove bulldozers and backhoes and excavators at building sites big and small. Here in New Jersey, that is often seasonal work. And in the 60's, when I was a kid, even union jobs were hard to come by. There were times when he was without a paycheck for a month or more. He used to supplement his income by shoeing horses -- something he learned as a young man. Horses were his first love, so I suspect that he enjoyed this more than the noisy, smelly machines he drove each day.
I come by my love of animals from my father. My mother was a "city slicker," as he would say, and never to my knowledge set foot in the barn. I can remember helping my dad to clean out the stalls one Saturday morning when we discovered a nest of tiny newborn mice. They were pink, and hairless, and about the size of my pinky finger. I held one in the palm of my hand. I was thrilled by our discovery, and wanted to bring it into the house to show my mom. She was on the phone at the time, but stopped long enough to peer into my grubby hand, shriek loud enough to shake the rafters, and jump up onto the chair, as if the tiny thing would leap from my hand and start to chase her around the house.
Not exactly the response I had expected, but one which my dad thoroughly enjoyed.
I can remember a certain Christmas where all I wanted was a pair of leather riding chaps. They were quite an expensive item, and one that a young child would quickly outgrow. Frankly, my parents just could not afford them. My mother tried to explain gently that Santa wanted to be sure there were several items under the tree; that chaps were too expensive, and that he would probably bring me some other nice stuff, like warm clothes, and books, and a game or toy. She tried her best to shield me from worry. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I know now how difficult that conversation must have been for her. We didn't have a lot when I was growing up, but I never felt deprived in any way, and I certainly never considered our family poor.
I don't remember what was under the tree that Christmas. Certainly there were a few books, as these have always been my favorite Christmas gift. There was probably a new scarf and mittens, and perhaps some Barbie doll clothes. My dad would have given my mother some little decorative thing for the house -- like a few china teacups with pink roses on them (I still have one of these), or maybe a small piece of costume jewelry. She always gave him a new blue workshirt and pants, which he would carefully put away. When he died many years later, we found several sets, brand new and still in their boxes.
Later in the day, after we had gone to Christmas mass and my mother was in the kitchen preparing the feast for my aunts and uncles and cousins, a knock sounded at the door. She hurried to answer it, drying her hands on her apron. It was our neighbor, Mr. Silverstein. My dad used to shoe his kid's ponies, and help out in their barn. He had brought a gift for me, with his family's thanks. I remember feeling a little shy, and curious. What could it possibly be?
I opened the box and there, nestled in the tissue paper, was a beautiful pair of brown leather riding chaps. He could not possibly have known what I had asked for, and since his family did not celebrate Christmas, I'm not sure what really prompted him to give us a "thank you" gift at this time of year.
I shyly murmured my thanks and my dad shook his hand, but my mother just stood there with tears in her eyes. I have so many memories of Christmases in our Little Red House; of my childhood and of my children's, too. Every Christmas eve, when my husband and I place the gifts under the tree, I say a quick prayer of thanks, realizing how fortunate we are, and remembering that Christmas years ago, when the grace of God brought me that unexpected gift.