645 Remembering a December Day: A reflection by Brother Toby
Day 645 Tuesday, December 21, 2021
It was a morning when nothing really happened, yet it provided a sense of community that I have seldom felt since.
Remembering a December day
- By Brother Toby
It seems no day goes by when someone is not writing that Christmas 2021 will be like no other Christmas. That is simply not correct.
Christmas 1918 was 13 years before I was born, but my parents lived through it. 650,000 other Americans did not. The country was more rural then, so there was not as much traveling around to spread the Influenza Epidemic but World War I had just ended. Soldiers were returning home from faraway places. People were in a mood for celebrating in large gatherings, but unfortunately by Christmastime, there was hardly a family that did not have empty chairs at the table.
Hardest on people in those days was the lack of coming together in church on Christmas. The sense of loss was overwhelming. I was deeply impressed when I read the letter of a Midwestern farmer. The family down the road from him were all sick with the influenza. Just before Christmas the farmer wrote, “for three weeks busy doing the neighbor’s chores and burying the dead.”
When I was in middle school I remember a Christmas when we couldn't go anywhere — not to church, not to movies, not to a community carol singing — because of the Polio Epidemic. And later there came the AIDS Pandemic when our friend the journalist and activist Randy Shilts, sent out a Christmas card which said only, “Imagine a Cure.” Randy died shortly thereafter.
A week from now I will experience my 90th Christmas. Many have been hard times, and I think that has given me a greater appreciation for this time of year. I've never looked on Christmas as an excuse for a party-time or tried to imitate an actor sitting with his perfect family all decked out in matching pajamas opening their shiny packages. What I find more spiritually healing is to open memories coming from hard times.
I will share something I wrote 15 years ago with the hope that it may encourage you to reflect on ordinary times which have become increasingly significant as we grow older. My story begins when I was almost 11 years old. The world around me was not different that Christmastime because of a pandemic, but because of a war.
The rain had stopped early in the morning. Still in bed, I could hear the crackling of wood in the cookstove in the kitchen. Looking out the window, I saw a world that was neither bright nor dark. The year was 1941 and I was almost eleven. It was a few days after Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and I understood this would be unlike any other Christmas.
Springfield was a small lumber town in Western Oregon. My father was a grader at a local mill where most of the workers had come up from the deep South. This Saturday morning my job was to go to the grocery store and pick up the turkey, a gift from the mill owner. We never owned a car, and errands were often my task since Dad had made me a wagon. I started after breakfast - going on a walk in a town from which I already was longing to escape. Yet that walk is a very real part of me now, 80 years later.
I can see the earth, covered with brown leaves, a few still sparkling with frost. Some people have turned on their Christmas tree lights. Likely this is for the older teenaged boys who are leaving for the war. Families want as much of Christmas as possible. My cousin Darwin is leaving for the Navy next week. As I pass his house, I notice my aunt has come out on the porch to cry. Putting down her blue handkerchief, she waves.
From habit, I detour past my school. Pulling my wagon, I boldly enter the empty playground, where I usually feel more cautious. The school is a big wooden three-story building that has served many generations. It has been a good place for me. When I came to Oregon I was an alien. We were Southerners in a Western culture. To make matters worse, we were Catholics in a Protestant environment. Today no one is at the school. I look through the window into my classroom.
So many things happened there, but what I remember vividly now, many years later, are the little pins with flags wrapped around them. Every morning we moved them around a world map as the war progressed. It was no game. They represented the places where fathers and older brothers were stationed and fighting.
Another few blocks and I am downtown. As always my first stop is the used bookstore where I discovered most of what I knew about the world. I can’t go in with the wagon so I just wave at the owner. I notice he has put a silver bell on the glass door.
On the corner of Fifth and Main is the most popular of the three bars on Main Street, The Lumberjack. There is a large neon sign outside, of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his big blue ox. Being early, there are only a few patrons in the bar. One man, who works with my father, nods at me as he pushes through the doors. Across the street, on the other corner, is Gerlach’s Drug Store. Mr. Gerlach, in his starched pharmacist’s smock, stands sternly in the doorway. He does not approve of his rowdy neighbors at The Lumberjack. A high-school girl, who runs the drugstore fountain on Saturdays, waves at me. She lives near us and is famous for her cherry cokes.
One more block brings me past the bakery where I sometimes work cleaning up in the evening, while the baker spends a long dinner hour at The Lumberjack. A woman I work with is wrapping bread in the window and smiles as I walk by. She is always teasing me about girlfriends but means nothing by it. Now I am at Mr. Ohlson’s grocery store. The clerks know me there. I use my wagon to bring extra lettuce from our garden to sell there in the summer. The butcher selects a nice bird, wraps it, and places it in my wagon while I look around at all the people shopping. I see several kids from my class carrying their mother’s baskets. I turn toward home on a route that takes me past the town’s largest church.
The United Methodist Church is the place where the glory of the Lord truly shines forth in our town. In appearance it is certainly a mighty fortress. There is a great square brick tower in front with faded stained-glass windows on either side. On this day there is more activity than usual.
The local plywood mill has given sheets of plywood to a committee who cut out and painted nativity figures. They have followed patterns from Popular Mechanics Magazine and are setting up the figures on the church lawn. A shepherd-boy figure near the sidewalk is taller than me. I can hear the organist practicing inside as members of the adult choir begin to file in for a rehearsal. The people who attend this church are the religious core of our town.
Being from a Catholic family, and meeting for Mass in a room above the bakery when a priest is in town, I am not officially part of this community. But today there are lots of glad tidings directed at me - and the turkey.
That’s it. Oh, I got home with the turkey. It was a morning when nothing really happened, yet it provided a sense of community that I have seldom felt since. I did not know that everyone’s world would change because of the war. It was not just the horrible casualties and the gold star flags in the windows. After the tears and glory of the war, we were to become a very prosperous nation, which was nice, but we lost some connection with each other in the process as we moved on with the business of getting ahead. That 1941 walk in Springfield, Oregon, becomes more present to me with each passing year.
All right, that’s my story. Now it is your turn . . .