An All Wrong, All Right Christmas
There are times when every parent gets it all wrong, only to find out later, they got it all right. For Mary Alice Sullivan, there were many such times. None of her five boys came with instruction manuals, so there was a lot of trial and error along the way. Sometimes, it all felt like errors; raising them alone made her learning curve even steeper.
Just as her boys loved her in their own special ways, she loved each of them in her own special way, too. When they were growing up, she never closed her eyes to rest without giving thanks for the little lives with which God entrusted her. It is something she still does and always will, just as she still thanks the Lord for helping her along the way.
A parent’s job is never done, even when the children are grown and gone leaving behind only memories of them growing up, the sounds of their feet running through the house, happy faces gathered around the supper table, and laughter in every room.
Her boys were born running, Mary Alice will tell you when she remembers each of them. They are still running, but they never forget to stop by and visit and not just for the cakes and cookies shes always baking.
Franklin her oldest, put a new roof on the old home place last year. Mary Alice still lives there and expects she always will. Thomas, keeps her grass cut and yard raked. James takes her shopping and to the doctor. He works third shift, so that’s easy for him. Her middle son Stephen, recently installed a new heating system for her, just before the weather changed. The floor furnace, which kept the old mill house warm when they were growing up, finally gave up the ghost.
Her youngest, Edward, helped his brother Stephen, while their mother cooked vegetable soup and baked a pan of cornbread for the three of them.
Edward is the son for whom Mary Alice left the back door of her house unlocked and the screen door unlatched so many years, praying he would come home. In a way, even though, he was the youngest and hardly knew his father, he never got over him leaving. When he was old enough, he left too, and for a long time.
In the end, though, he came home. She knew that he would. Mary Alice knew his heart. He showed it to her when he was seven years old, the year he lost three winter coats.
By the time a coat was handed down to him, through his four brothers there wasn’t much left of it. So most winters, Edward got a new coat, or the newest one Mary Alice could find at the Goodwill. That was where she bought most of the clothes her boys wore growing up, there or the Salvation Army.
Even with her working extra shifts at the mill, there wasn’t much money left for clothes, not new ones.
It was on her third trip to the Goodwill store, that Mary Alice kept the promise she made to Edward after he lost his second winter coat. It was just the two of them, so his brother’s didn’t see his eyes fill up with tears when she returned the Christmas present she worked extra shifts to buy him.
It is the only thing she remembers him asking for as child — a pearl handled pocket knife, like the one his father carried.
He had just turned seven years old, and promised his mother he would be careful each time he insisted they stop by the sporting goods store to look at the little knife in the months leading up to Christmas.
His eyes got big that morning when she showed it to him, explaining she had no choice but to take it back and trade it for money. He had to have a winter coat. His eyes got big and filled with tears, but he never cried. Chin trembling with sadness, he only nodded and waited in the car.
Christmas without a present from a parent, is a hard thing, even for a poor kid. This is something Mary Alice knew all too well, which made her eyes fill up with tears too.
Somehow, she managed to not to cry that Saturday morning which wasn’t the case when she took her seat in the back of the packed school auditorium, a week later for the Christmas play. Her boss let her off at the last minute.
Franklin and Stephen were shepherds, Thomas was an angel, James was in the choir, and Edward was a wise man.
With gold spray paint still on her hands, from the brick she and Edward painted the night before, sitting on the back steps and talking about Jesus, she looked for her boys.
Next year Franklin would be in Junior High. This was the last year her boys would be in the same Christmas play. She was glad it worked out that could be there, which she told the lady beside he, as they made small talk.
With clothes as worn as her own and shoes as thin and a face as tired, the woman beside of her was easy to talk to. Her kids were new to the school. Her boss let her off too, just for an hour, even though her children weren’t in the play.
She was there to thank the boy who gave her children his coats, claiming he was rich and had closets full of coats. The woman said she was sure that wasn’t the case, the boy being rich and having a closet full of coats. It was the first winter in a long time that her children all had coats she explained, pointing out each of them in the audience, which was now growing quiet.
Mary Alice recognized the coats, heart swelling with confusion and pain, as she watched Edward pass by wearing his towel turban and carrying the golden spray painted brick, which she still has, and she and Edward still laugh about when they remember.
There was no laughter that morning for Mary Alice, only tears, as her eyes met Edward’s, whose eyes filled with surprise. She wasn’t supposed to be there. She told them two weeks before, and then again that morning, she couldn’t get off work.
She wanted to reach out and grab her little Edward, and hug him forever, and tell him she loved him, as silent tears filled her eyes and the choir sang, “What Child Is This.”
Now, she understood why he picked out coats much too big for himself, even though she tried to talk him out of it. Now, the pink coat with the furry hood he insisted on made sense. That was the one, the woman’s little girl wore.
There were many times, while raising her boys, that Mary Alice Sullivan got it all wrong; but that time is the one she remembers above all the others and for good reason.
That Christmas Eve, when Edward slipped into her room and told her not to be sad about him not getting a present, she knew she got it all right. Even though she was not able to give him the gift he asked for that Christmas, she knew he got the most important gift of all, the gift of giving. That was what he told her, as the two of them listened to the happiness of his brothers, up early, opening their presents.
This is a work of fiction dedicated to all of our parents, who give us their best and do an incredible and wonderful job even without instruction manuals.
Edward Reed 2019