A Child’s Christmas Memory

By Kim Hubbard

For a child of single digits, (I was eight years old at this time.), the idea of Santa Claus, as the single gift-giver for all those wonderful presents beautifully wrapped under our family tree, had already been thoroughly wiped out by my elder brother Mike.  He had dutifully explained to my other brother Mitch and me that 1: We didn’t have a fireplace and therefore, no chimney, so how was Santa going to get in and drop off the presents?  Apparently ringing the doorbell and walking in wasn’t allowed.  2: He also convinced us that the roof of our apartment house could not possibly hold Santa, his eight no-so-tiny reindeer and a loaded sley.  “It would crash through and kill us all!”  (He could be very dramatic.) 3: He also told us that the year before, when he was four, he woke up to hearing mom and dad drinking “special” coffee and saw them wrapping our presents.  Ah HAA!  Caught in the act.  So, I was already well aware of the gifts I got and who bought them, so my parents never even tried to hide where they came from.  Also, as a side note, the whole idea of some jolly old guy keeping track of whether I had been good or bad really creeped me out.  Even at eight years old, if someone other than my parents had been keeping track of my behavior, I would have been locked up at Gitmo!

Man with shovel. Vector Illustration on white background.

My dad and I had a very, shall I say, unique relationship.  I knew, very early in my childhood that he was “technically” not my father, biologically speaking.  But in every other way that counts, he was.  He raised me as his own and never showed less love or affection towards me than he did my brothers.  In truth, I could never have asked for better.  We never spoke of it, even up to the day he died.  It wasn’t relevant to how we felt about each other.  On this Christmas, I had worked hard at shoveling snow on sidewalks and driveways up and down Highland Road so that I could buy presents for my brothers and mom and dad.  Honestly, I don’t remember what I got for them that year, but for my dad, I had saved and scrapped to buy him something special.  But what?

This was the smoking generation and my parents and virtually everyone we knew smoked cigarettes.  Daily life was always walking through a cloud in smoke-filled rooms.  My dad, however, decided he wanted to try switching from those nasty “cancer sticks” to the greater sophistication of a pipe.  The smell was certainly better and, … it looked really cool.

My brothers and I used to enjoy watching the old Saturday morning movie matinee broadcast out of Syracuse and some of the most popular were the classic Sherlock Holmes films of the late 30s to late 40s.  Homes was brilliantly played by Basil Rathbone.  We always thought dad showed a marked resemblance to Rathbone.  In one particular film I noticed Holmes smoking his classic pipe.  That was it!   I now had my idea for dad’s Christmas present!  I was going to buy him a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe!  I didn’t know what it was called, (Meerschaum), just that it had a unique S-shape to it.

The first shopping mall area in Cortland that I recall was the one along Groton Avenue where Value Home Center currently sits.  In that very spot was a drug store called, Fays Drugs.  Sitting up on a shelf was a cardboard display with eight different styles of tobacco pipes.  The one placed at top center was just the pipe I was looking for.  It was black, with a large bowl and an S-shape, curling down from the lip.  Perfect.  The price I saw, (Incorrectly), was $6.00.  I hurried home, on foot, and pulled out my hidden jar of money to count my stash and see how many more sidewalks and driveways I needed to clear to make the necessary funds.  As I recall, I had already purchased all the other gifts I wanted to give to mom and my brothers, so I only had dad’s present to buy.  If the pipe was $6.00, (A fortune back then, especially to a kid.), I was just under $2.00 short.  It was a few weeks until Christmas, so I knew I had some time and some shoveling to do, provided it snowed between now and then.  It is the only time I can recall actually praying for snow.  (As I have gotten older, the mere sight of snow now makes me cry.). At any rate, my prayers were answered, and I was able to put together more than enough cash to reach my goal.  I took off for the store on a Saturday morning, never telling anyone where I was going or what I was doing.  It was bitter cold and about a three-mile walk from my house to Fays Drugs, but I made it.  As I waited in line for a salesclerk to help me, I looked around for the cardboard pipe display.  It was GONE!  Panic began to set in when a clerk noticed my obvious signs of dismay and asked, “Are you lost, little boy?”  I said, “NO!  I don’t see the pipe display anymore and I wanted to buy a pipe for my dad for Christmas!”  The clerk looked around the store and asked, “But, … where is your mother?  Are you here alone?”  The clerk’s concern, while appreciated, … sort of, faded immediately when I said, “YES!  I walked here by myself to buy my dad a Christmas present.  And it’s GONE!”  All conversation and activity in the store stopped.  Who was this little boy?  How did he get here?  Do his parents know where he is and what he did?  Should someone call the police?  Needless to say, there was a lot of confusion going on and my eight-year-old brain was not handling it well.  Finally, the clerk asked what the present was.  Once I explained the particulars he laughed and said, “Oh, I know where that is.  It was taken down for other displays.  I’ll go get it.”  He left and, in a few minutes, came back with the pipe display.  He asked which one I wanted and, thankfully, the perfect pipe was still there.  I think I started to giggle with delight.  All was well with the world again.

As I waited in line, I pulled out my money, ready to pay the $6.00.  The idea of tax had not occurred to me at that point in my life.  That cruel reality would come years later.  But, I had just under $7.00 anyway so I would have had the money anyway except for one thing.  The price of that specific pipe was $8.95, not $6.00. With tax, I was about $3.00 short.  Tears began to flood my eyes.  I didn’t know what to do.  People were staring at me, some laughing, some offering a sad smile for the pathetic little boy, with the checkout clerk uncertain how to handle this situation.

I left the pipe on the counter and started to leave when an elderly woman behind me made some sort of facial signal to the clerk indicating that she would cover the shortage.  I say “elderly” because to an eight-year-old child everyone over the age of twenty was elderly.  She was probably somewhere in the ballpark of fifty, at best.  Regardless, I knew what had transpired between the two women and refused to accept her money.  I wanted to pay for dad’s present myself.  As I turned to leave, horribly ashamed and embarrassed, the woman reached out and took both of my shoulders and turned me around.  She leaned down until we were face-to-face and said, “Please let me do this.”  Again, I refused.  Everyone was staring at me, and I just felt naked and exposed in a way I was too young to understand.  I tried to pull away, but the woman held firm and said, “PLEASE!  I need to do this.  I know you won’t understand but, … (She was fighting back tears.), … this is something I need this Christmas.  Please, let me do this.”  What did she mean?  What “need” was so great?  I will never know.  In her eyes I think I saw loss.  At least, that is what I have come up with over the years.

In all my years as an actor, I have remembered that moment and have used it to recall levels of emotion I needed to flesh out a given character I was playing.  The pain and anxiety in her voice and in her eyes, as well as the collective reaction of the other people in the store is something I will never forget.  In many ways, it shaped me emotionally.  I pulled out the money I had and piled it on the counter, grabbed my dad’s pipe and ran out the door.  To my left was another store long lost to memory where I stopped to collect myself.  As I stuffed the pipe in my right coat pocket, I found exactly three one-dollar bills.  They were from my neighbor, Mrs. Frandell, who had accepted my pile of change earlier in the week and converted it to bills and forgot all about the extra cash.  I had enough money after all.  In front of the store next to Fays was the ubiquitous Santa Claus man jingling a bell behind a red bucket.  I stuffed the three dollars in the bucket and ran home.

That Christmas I was so proud of my gifts to all my family, but I held back dad’s present until the end.  At the time, I didn’t understand the look on dad’s face, or mom’s reaction.  He smiled and hugged me and thanked me profusely.  What I didn’t know was that dad had decided to give up smoking entirely.  He just didn’t have the heart to tell me.  When my dad suddenly passed away, my brothers and I were sorting through his things.  The pipe I had given him forty-five years earlier was sitting in the top drawer of his desk.  It had never been used, … but he still kept it.

This Christmas story is true.  Every word of it.  I have related it many times over the years because it taught me so much about love, people, loneliness, giving and what Christmas really means.  At least to me.  I am not, nor have I ever been a religious man.  But I must admit, the memory of that woman’s plea and the look on her face, the mysterious three dollars and the special pipe I bought dad on that Christmas will always haunt me.  But in a very special way.

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