Christmas Stories: The Last House in the Old Neighborhood

Photo: Nathan Walker

Sometimes you need something to make you stop and remember what Christmas is really all about. A few years ago, I did. You see, Christmas is a crazy busy time at a florist, and at a law practice. I was wrapped up in both back then: my wife, Larysa, had three flower shoppes, and I had a bunch of deals to close by year’s end. So I worked on documents all day, and delivered flowers and gift baskets at night… and all weekend long. There wasn’t a lot of time left to think about the meaning of Christmas.

Early one Saturday morning, we got an order for a Thomas Kinkade Tabletop Christmas Tree for delivery to a house in my old neighborhood. It was a special product offered through Teleflora: a pre-lit tree with old fashioned ornaments in a special base. It was very delicate and very, very pretty.

It was also very expensive, so we actually didn’t carry many—there was too little demand for something at that price. I was happy to see one move. Because it was so early in the day, and the destination so close to the shoppe, I decided to take it on over before I loaded up the van and started my deliveries.

“Come right back,” Larysa instructed. I was sure I would. I was wrong.

The Thomas Kinkade Village Christmas Illuminated Tabletop Tree

A detailed shot of Thomas Kinkade’s work of Christmas art.

I headed straight to Balsam Village, where I thought the customer would live based on the the address. When I was a kid, Balsam Village was Balsam Farms, a working dairy farm. Cows actually grazed there in a valley between three big hills, and there was a stream that spilled into a marsh that was exactly where Pitkin Avenue is now. [Ironically, on Earth Day, 1971, dozens and dozens of dump trucks of soil showed up, followed by tractors, and the valley was filled in. The land was leveled, and the stream and bog disappeared. Then the brick low-rises went in.] But this house turned out to be the last house from the old neighborhood before Balsam Village began. It used to sit on top of the west hill and look out on the pasture.

I remembered this house from my childhood very well, because we played Army there. Part of the hill had collapsed, and, to us kids, the dirt cliff that remained looked like the cliffs of Normandy. The homeowners put up a white rail fence, with three really wide boards and a narrow gap between them, right at the cliff’s edge.

After we stormed the cliff, we either poked our toy rifles through the gaps in that fence, or climbed it, in either event noisily firing upon the imaginary enemy troops in those poor people’s yard. Yet, in all the times we invaded, despite all the noise we made, no one ever came out to yell at us. None of the kids ever saw the homeowners at all.

Except maybe me. Once. After scaling the cliff, I slipped climbing the fence, and fell backwards, with my leg caught in the gap between the top rails of the fence. I was pretty much just hanging there, upside down. I couldn’t reach the ground to push myself up or let myself down, and when I tried to crunch myself up, I failed. I called to the other kids for help, but no one came.

Then I saw a shock of red hair and a big adult hand above the top rail of the fence. The hand reached over and I grabbed it. It pulled me up, and I was then quickly hugged, lifted over the fence, and put on my feet. I barely looked at the man who helped me. Neither he nor I said a word. And then I just ran away toward my friends. I was so scared. We kept playing Army there for rest of my childhood, but I never saw that man again. I wish I had said “thank you.”

I retreated from my reverie and rang the customer’s bell. An old woman in a house dress answered the door. Her hair was long and white, and she had pinned it atop her head in a knot. Her eyes were Tiffany blue, stark against the pallor of her well wrinkled skin. She seemed frail. I announced myself.

“Good morning ma’am. Delivery from Little Shoppe of Flowers.”

“Oh, my! And I just called,” she remarked. “Come in, please.” She sounded just like the aged Rose from the movie Titanic.

“Sure,” I said, stepping into her front porch. I scanned her white wicker furniture and said “Where can I put this for you?”

“Can you bring it inside for me, please?”

As we walked through the French doors to the main house, I felt as if I had stepped back in time. The blonde parquet floors were perfect. The original wood work was all intact, a deep, rich brown and well detailed. The living room walls were painted pearl white and the dining room walls were covered in vintage 1940’s wallpaper with a pattern of fruit clusters, flowers and flatware! The furniture was bulky and ornate. There was a stained glass window in the wall behind the landing of the stairs with amber diamonds and a rosette. The stairs were carpet-less dark oak. So this is what the houses in my home town were meant to look like, I thought. I had only seen them updated and altered. Nothing this grand. I was itchin’ to see the kitchen, but she directed me to a server against the dining room windows instead.

“Young man, could I impose on you to set that up for me on the center of that table” she said.

I was supposed to be in a rush. But I said “oh, sure” instantly and started to unbox the tree. The ornaments were attached, and all I needed to do was shape it.

“Oh, it’s even prettier than it looked in the newspaper,” she said with her two hands clasped against her cheek.

I removed a large leaf shaped candy dish from the center of the server and placed it on her table, where a tablecloth of lace squares sat beneath a sheet of clear plastic. Then I put the base for the tree—a ceramic cottage with a snow covered roof—in its place. As I did, I glanced at a black and white wedding picture in a china frame that was also on that server. The bride was beautiful; the groom, in uniform, had the grin of a sweepstakes winner.

“That’s my Frank and I,” she sighed. Her eyes then seemed to focus very far away.

“I’m gonna move this a bit so I can reach the plug,” I interrupted, deliberately. And not because I was in a rush, or just rude. She came back to me then.

“Would you like a cup of tea? She asked. “I just put up a pot…it’s whistling.”

“No, ma’am,” I replied. Somehow, she was already gone. I slid out her server and reached behind it for the outlet. As I did, I saw that her shades had a fringe of wound strings at their bottom, and an embroidered ring on the end of a string to lower them. Hadn’t seen those in maybe 40 years. Then I plugged in the base and inserted the tree. All the lights worked, thank God. I put the server back in its place, and she returned holding a cut glass tray. She put it down immediately.

“Oh, my,” she said as she framed her face with her hands. “Isn’t that just lovely! It’s so nice to have a tree like that again.” She was beaming brighter than the tree. “Oh, please, sit with me and let’s look at it a bit,” she suggested.

I was still in a rush, and I still decided instantly to stay. I drank tea from a china cup, no milk, one teaspoon of sugar-real sugar, taken from a china bowl with a lid that’s handle was a bird. It was Lipton Tea, with the flow through bag. I hadn’t seen that in years either. I’ve seen a lot of Celestial Seasons and Tazo and Good Earth, but not that. I realized why it was once so popular: it’s damned delicious. And I felt so, so warm inside. But maybe that had nothing to do with the tea.

We spoke only of the tree. And why not—it really belonged in that room. Then she caught me looking at her wedding picture again.

“Frank was in Sicily in World War II,” she explained. “Which worked out good for him, since his family was Sicilian. Everyone thought he was Irish, like me, because of his red hair. But he wasn’t.”

Frank had red hair! And a big hand, I’ll bet. I told the woman my story. She remembered us kids playing, but didn’t know a thing about my rescue. And she said that was just like Frank.

I really had to leave by then. I got up and wished her a Merry Christmas, and she insisted she had to give me something for my trouble. I really didn’t want a thing. In fact, I thought, if anything, Frank and I are even now. She reached into the side pocket of her purse, behind the neatly gathered gloves that protruded from it, and retrieved a perfectly flat, perfectly folded, in four, brand new… one dollar bill. She must have taken time to prepare that tip, I thought. It seemed to me it meant a lot to her to give it to me. And she was beaming again. So I accepted it and put it in my wallet, where it remains to this very day. It helps me remember what Christmas… and life… are really all about.

Back at the shoppe, I told Larysa why I had taken so long. She teared up, and then tore the old woman’s credit card slip to shreds.

Merry Christmas everyone. Remember… little things and fleeting moments can make all the difference in someone’s life. Maybe yours.