I wish I could give a Christmas gift to many a worthy organization — but during the holiday season, the soft spot in my heart belongs to the Salvation Army, for family reasons.
When the Great Depression hit Chicago, my mother, 6-year-old Milly Goers, was so poor that at one time, she and her family had nothing to eat except oatmeal at breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinnertime, oatmeal was served with a dab of cinnamon and sugar to make it special. Obviously, there would be no Christmas gifts for the family’s five children.
Then there came a knock at the door. It was the Salvation Army, walking down the street, knocking at the door of every house, and offering each child in each house one toy and one fresh orange. Milly chose paper dolls, and her next older brother, Arthur, chose a toy harmonica.
Those two children behaved horribly. Arthur tore the heads off her paper dolls. She poured salt into his harmonica to corrode the reeds.
Their motives were just the opposite of those of the characters in O. Henry’s classical Christmas short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” In that story, the woman cuts off her long hair to sell to a wig maker so she could buy a fob for her husband’s pocket watch. He sells his pocket watch to buy her combs for her beautiful hair. That story has always disturbed me, because her hair will grow back and she will be able to use the combs, but he can’t retrieve his watch.
I always figured that Mom could paste her paper dolls back together (Scotch tape wasn’t invented yet), but I pitied my uncle who probably couldn’t restore his harmonica.
Nevertheless, they grew up to be close friends. Arthur became an accomplished 12-string guitarist who taught his son to play semi-professionally. Milly constantly supplied her children with a ream of cheap typing paper to play with so they never had to rely upon pre-printed coloring books or paper dolls to amuse themselves. And at Christmas time, she always assured that there was a fresh orange tucked into the toe of each of their Christmas stockings.
Now when I hear the bells of the Salvation Army ringing and see the red donation bucket, I think of children thrilled to get any gift at Christmas, and I dig into my purse.
Susan Sampson writes about the peculiarities of being a newcomer in North Central Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org