Christmas at Marshall's Corner during the Great Depression was always a high point of any given year for us, despite the bleakness of our economic circumstances. In retrospect, I think my mother willed it so.
But the Christmas of 1934 still lies as crisp and fresh as virgin snow in my memory. I remember it most for the poignant lesson it taught a young boy about the magic of caring and sharing, particularly at Christmas time.
At 11, I was old enough to recall bleak Christmases that had gone before. But 1934 had pummeled my parents badly from the start. My father, a furniture delivery driver, had lost his full-time job early in the year to the national economic malaise. For the rest of the year, he struggled to snare part-time driving jobs with various local furniture and trucking companies.
Most months he was barely able to meet mortgage payments and basic household expenses. This, despite food economies that had us using water-diluted evaporated milk with our morning oatmeal and substituting oleomargarine for butter, and ground horsemeat for beef hamburger. So as Christmas approached that year, I could sense my parents' concern that resources for the holiday would be far more limited than ever before. Yet, neither of them, at the outset, betrayed their worries to my siblings or me. They just went about the usual preparations with effective mock confidence.
Both of my parents loved Christmas and all the joy and tradition that attended it. Especially my mother. My father often told her as the holiday approached that "you're more of a kid than your own children." He was right.
The Thanksgiving turkey had hardly cooled on the platter before the Christmas spirit nudged my mother each year. In the days that followed, she would start to sing Christmas songs and carols. The familiar words of hope and joy seemed to buoy and energize her as she worked about our house, a century-old colonial that clung to a knoll overlooking a mill pond. At our bedtime, she would read Christmas stories to me, my two younger brothers and sister. Sometimes she would recall for us memorable Christmases from her own childhood. Like the Christmas that her father, a police inspector and avid hunter, had given her a stuffed and mounted wildcat, the product of a Vermont hunting trip.
By mid-December, the holiday spirit usually had totally claimed my mother. At this point, she would begin her surreptitious excursions downtown by trolley car to scour five and dime store toy counters for Christmas treasures. They would range from metal cars and trucks to dolls and books and brightly packaged games. It was rare that any item would cost more than half a dollar. Once home, she would spirit her purchases to a little-used, second-floor chimney closet and publicly declare it off limits to us until after Christmas. If questioned, she always attributed these clandestine activities to her role as Santa's helper.
Like all children, my siblings and I had special desires at Christmas. Our parents did their best to accommodate us, within reason. In 1934, my fervent Yuletide hope was to acquire a wind-up, spring-powered New York Central passenger train set. Given our circumstances that year, my dream gift-value about a dollar-and those of my brothers and sister were just that-dreams.
Still, my mother embraced the coming holiday with unflagging enthusiasm. She cruised the department stores for bargains and in spare moments strung popcorn and cranberries to trim the small spruce she and my father had bought and set up between the parlor front windows. No colored lights adorned our tree for one good reason. Our old house had not been wired for electricity at that point. But the pungent aroma of fresh spruce that permeated our house fired our yule spirits like no colored lights could ever do.
Christmas Eve, 1934, at Marshall's Corner was wrapped in serenity and the glow and crispness of a frosty night. The frozen Mill Pond behind our house loomed like a giant, luminous jewel in an oval setting of barren trees. In the backyard garden, dried skeletons of tomato, squash and cucumber vines rustled in the winter wind and scratched the frozen ground. In the henhouse just beyond, where I had gone with feed and water at early evening, our Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds huddled on their roosts, clucking softly and shifting perches nervously, in efforts to offset the biting chill.
After my siblings had been trundled off to bed, my mother invited me to sit with her in the parlor while she awaited the return of my father. He was making last-minute holiday deliveries for a furniture company that had hired him for the Christmas season.
The woodstove fire bathed the room in an aromatic warmth, and lamplight cast an orange-yellow glow that triggered tiny explosions of light around the ornamented Christmas tree. In this setting, we sat for a long time in silence. Finally, my mother stirred and turned a somber face to me.
"I hope you kids won't be too disappointed, if Santa doesn't leave everything you're looking for this year," she said. I assured her that we would understand. We fell silent again.
The sudden clang of our front door bell startled us. My mother moved quickly to the door and opened it. On our front porch, barely brushed by the parlor lamplight, stood two young men. They wore soft hats and heavy top coats and each carried two shopping bags brimming with assorted gifts.
"Merry Christmas. We understand that Santa Claus could use a little help here," said one of the men. Dumbfounded, my mother followed her first instinct, denying any need and suggesting that her would-be benefactors had approached the wrong house.
But both men insisted that the address was correct and promptly placed their bags in the doorway. Each young man then shook my mother's hand gently, wished her a Merry Christmas again, and retreated into the darkness beyond our porch. In no time, it seemed, they were swallowed by the night, before my mother could properly thank them. She stood in stunned silence, staring into the shadows for some time. Then, one by one, she pulled the bags into the parlor, careful to screen their contents from my view, and closed the door.
When she returned to her chair, I noticed that her eyes were glistening with tears. But I sensed that they were tears, not of sadness or despair, but of joy and gratitude. Recovering her composure, my mother shook her head slowly, wondering aloud who our young visitors were and what had brought them to our door.
Later, upstairs in my bed, beneath a steep-slanting ceiling, I lay awake in the chilly darkness mulling over the events of the evening. I, too, thought about our visitors and wondered if they would ever truly comprehend the goodness of their act and its impact on our family. My younger brother and roommate, George Dewey, had long since fallen asleep. I soon lost the tussle with my leaden eyelids and joined him, effortlessly, in blessed oblivion.
My mother sat alone in the parlor below, sorting and tagging gifts, including those she removed from the four mystery bags, she recalled in later years. Then she arranged them lovingly, one by one, under the tree--each unwrapped-as was her custom. Nothing should separate a child from his or her gifts on Christmas morning, she felt. When midnight came and my father still had not returned, she retired as well.
Downstairs, an hour later, the clink of the wrought iron kitchen door latch broke the winter silence as my father entered, chilled and weary. The last flames of the parlor woodstove fire sputtered defiantly as he prodded the red coals with an iron poker and fed them several sticks of oak. Then he paused to check the Christmas tree.
What he saw clearly startled him, he acknowledged later. Beams from a nearby streetlight, slanting through the parlor windows, danced among the fragile, shiny glass and tinsel trimmings of the tree. They caught the glint as well of an unexpected treasure of multi-colored toys and games and books arrayed in deep and random patterns beneath the tree.
But they seemed to play with special delight on an oval of glistening track that bore a sturdy toy replica of a shiny, black New York Central locomotive and tender and a string of bright red passenger cars. A green tag tied to the engine cab read: "To James from Santa."
The train stood frozen in a split-second of time, poised as if about to hurtle westward toward Chicago and beyond, along a route of clickety-clacking, endless bright tomorrows.
It was waiting there for me on Christmas morning, to overwhelm me and to take me aboard.
James V. Wyman is retired executive editor of the Providence Journal. This story is one chapter from his book, "Bittersweet Beginnings: A Sketchbook of a Great Depression Boyhood,"published by Plaidswede Publishing Co. of Concord, N.H.