Posted by: johnhourihan | November 24, 2012

the beginnings of Christmas

OK, Thanksgiving is over.  As Thanksgivings go, it was a great one, but it is over and now we begin stories of Christmas. I’m starting with a story of my childhood next door neighbors – The DeBoers. It wasn’t until I became much older that I figured out they weren’t actually part of my immediate family.

The Unexpected Gift

To get a gift, we usually know we are getting it, and that it’s a gift. But not always.
The feelings of Christmas come and go too fast.
As an adult, I have a jaded song running though my head. It goes, “Oh, it’s over the rerouted aquifer, and through the industrial complex to grandmother’s condo we go. The horse knows the way, but we’re taking the car so we don’t have to step in the snow … with our Australian ostrich leather boots.”
Even Christmas has changed.
You know, “For-lease Navidad” and all that.
I was on my way out about a week before Christmas one year, to do some shopping… “jingle money, jingle money, jingle all the way…. silver dollars, silver dollars, it’s Christmas time in the city…” and I knew it was going to cost a ton of cash.
But I took a detour, at least in my mind, by what used to be DeBoer’s farm near where I lived through most of grammar school, and the real Christmas came back to me.
The DeBoers were an elderly couple who lived out my back door, between the cedar-shingled barns over the back hill, across the part of the barbed-wire fence that a tree had fallen on in the big storm a few years before I was born, and there, just down a snowy slope, beyond the skeletons of the raspberry patch, was the farm.
It wasn’t the light in the kitchen window that marked where they lived. It was the smell – Mrs. DeBoer’s egg shell-applesauce cookies mixed with the smell of the chicken coops. It was a warm, heavy, safe smell that I have never found again.
One winter, about a week before Christmas, I was to bring them a cake. My mother had made it and it was on the kitchen table. Placed strategically on top of it was a small piece of paper torn from some schoolwork. It said “For the DeBoers,” next to the one “For the Costigans,” and the one “For the Chalmers.”
It was cold outside the back door, even for December, and the snow crunched under my rubber boots as I made my way into the darkness.
I had to hold the cake sideways in its brown paper bag wrapping.
Butch, our black cat, followed me between the barns. I knew this path so well I could walk it even when it was hidden like this with the snow. At the top of the hill I smelled the coops.
The DeBoers were Dutch and a generation removed from my parents. They were old I guess.
I delivered the cake to the back door to the kitchen and rapped on the screen door. It seemed Mr. DeBoer usually had changed it to a storm door by now, but I liked it because it made a better sound.
I was ushered inside as Mrs. DeBoer fixed her grey bun of hair and smoothed her ruffled apron.
“Sit it over there,” she said nodding at the perfectly clean table while she collected a plate of cookies from the counter next to the kerosene stove.
“Here,” she said, “You eat some of these.” She pronounced it “Dese.”
And she put the cookies in front of me.
Raspberry, they were, and I felt immediately guilty.
She smiled. “You are surprised I have some left?”
I was, but I didn’t say.
“Where’s Mr. DeBoer?” I asked.
“He’s sleeping.”
She sat across the table and smiled at me. Then, when I thought I’d choke on the cookies from the guilt, she said something.
“He knows you steal the raspberries,” she said with a raise of her eyebrows.
Mrs. DeBoer’s talking was like singing, like Dutch people do.
“He does?” I managed.
“Of course he does. There aren’t enough rabbits to eat all those berries.”
“I guess I have to go,” I said stealing a glance at the door to the den where he was sleeping.
She walked me to the door, while I thought about the beautiful big cultivated black juicy raspberries of summer in Mr. DeBoer’s garden, and afternoons of hiding among the rows to fill my hands and mouth.
As she held the screen door open for me and I stepped into the night she said, “He grows them for you kids to steal.”
As I crunched home up the dark slope I thought that was the best Christmas present anyone had ever given me, and it usually came in summer.
That was the last year I had them, though. I guess Mr. DeBoer was older than I thought.
The feelings of Christmas come and go too fast.


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