By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published November 28, 2019
“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
St. Teresa of Kolkata
The first time I saw the movie, “A Christmas Story,” I was deeply moved because I could have been Ralphie, the main character. Same age … same locale … same everything. It brought back a flood of memories—the department store scenes, the working class neighborhoods, the vintage automobiles, the school yard and the infamous flagpole, the scenes in the snow and importantly the sharing of a desire by every 10-year-old boy to have a Red Ryder BB gun.
The movie was partially filmed in Cleveland, Ohio, and I grew up in Dayton. We lived in a similar, blue collar neighborhood. There was a shortage of fathers since many of them were off fighting the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Those fathers who remained were hardworking men, many of whom worked in local factories to support the war effort.
Our mothers were the original “stay at home” moms who wore their aprons all day long and only took them off to go to church. We felt comforted to have our Mom greet us when we arrived home after school. Our Dad was injured in the war and returned home a broken man, unable to hold down a full-time job. He drifted away and eventually died in a train accident. Our Mom was the breadwinner as the third-grade teacher in our school and supplemented her income by selling World Book Encyclopedias during the summer months.
Back then we didn’t have enclosed malls or strip centers. Each neighborhood tended to have all the shops we needed. There was a small grocery store, a pharmacy where Doc Houser acted as the neighborhood doctor diagnosing and dispensing advice and remedies. The drug store had a soda fountain where I was a “soda jerk” and part-time stock boy.
Our neighborhood had a meat market, a bakery, a barber shop where the haircuts were 25 cents, a beauty parlor, a Western Auto store and a “Five and Dime.” On the corner was a neighborhood tavern. We had everything we needed including our church, Our Lady of the Rosary, a melting pot of many nationalities.
It was the five and dime where my sisters and I did our Christmas shopping. We thought it was a magnificent emporium. They had just about everything, including many items for a nickel or dime, much like the dollar stores today.
A Christmas to remember
I remember one year in particular. I had saved the handsome sum of $3 to do my gift buying for my Mom and three sisters. I strolled around all three floors of the store looking for just the right gifts. When I was finished buying for my sisters, I pulled the remaining change out of my pocket and I had only 35 cents left. This was a huge problem because I still had to buy something special for my Mom.
I went back to the housewares area and did another search through the kitchen stuff. Then I saw it—a beautiful hand-painted ceramic salt and pepper set. It was decorated with colorful fruits and vegetables. I turned the salt shaker over to see the price. It was 35 cents, for one shaker, not both.
I ran downstairs, salt shaker in hand, and asked Mr. Kirk, the proprietor if he would sell the set for 35 cents but he said no. I was crushed. Then Mr. Kirk said he would sell me the salt shaker and would set aside the pepper shaker until after Christmas to give me a chance to earn enough money. I left the store wondering how my Mom would react to half a present.
Our family celebrated the Christmas gift exchange on Christmas Eve before we went off to midnight Mass. I had wrapped my presents and was breathlessly awaiting the signal to start opening. We tore into the wrapping paper and were done in seconds.
Then it was time for Mom to open her presents. I held onto my present for last because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. When she got to my present, she opened it carefully, took it out, and held it up for all to see. I was very nervous, almost in tears. I told her the story and let her know that she would have to wait for a few months to get the pepper shaker.
She hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear, “Billy, it is a beautiful present and I will cherish it always.” Wow, was I relieved.
As we gathered around the Nativity set to put baby Jesus in the manger, our Mom wrapped her arms around us and said, “I love you. Merry Christmas!”
The sentiment of St. Teresa of Kolkata rings true, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” We didn’t have a lot of money for presents but we sure had plenty of love.
Christmases have come and gone but I will always remember the “Salt Shaker Christmas.”
Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send your thoughts to Bill, email firstname.lastname@example.org.