Tevlin: Gritty Christmas memories of a child in Whittier

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • December 24, 2013 - 6:43 PM

(Note: I have a tradition of reading Dylan Thomas’ classic “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” every season. With apologies to the great poet: “A Child’s Christmas in Whittier/A true Christmas memory, more or less.”)


It was snowing. It was always snowing on Christmas Eve on Clinton Avenue, hard by the homeless shelter where the men in tattered sweaters teetered through the dirt-clotted, water-sodden slush, and where the memories melded like store-mix hot toddies, so that I could never remember whether my favorite uncle drank for six days and six nights when I was seven, or seven days and seven nights when I was six.

So I reach back and pull out the memory as muddled as the mind of Mrs. Felix’s old dog, Poncho, and there is the soon-to-be-indicted boss from the bartenders’ union, pulling up in his Lincoln Continental. The union man wore a long wool coat and his wife wore an ankle-length mink, and he carried a ham in a can and a box of apples shipped all the way from Washington state and what a merry Christmas we had.

By the next year the union man had moved, some say to California, some say to Mexico, and we never saw him again, but we remembered him every time the $100 bill arrived in an envelope with no return address and we marveled at the wonder of the season.

Next come the Christmas Eves of pizza burgers, always the pizza burgers, the smell of hamburger and burned cheese wafting through the four-plex that would later shelter the crack-addled and gang-affiliated, and the smell mingled with the good, clean smell in the hallway of boiled cabbage from Clara and Aggie, the senior sisters downstairs. Always the cabbage.

The presents were the best, like the entire Fort Apache play set that would be opened and assembled in short order so that the slaughter could begin in the mind of a young boy sitting on the living room floor on this blessed eve. And the entire collection of James Bond toys, the attaché case with the assassin’s rifle, the transistor radio that turned into a pistol and the Aston Martin with the bulletproof windscreen. They made me feel like the luckiest and richest kid on earth.

And now come the memories of the presents from the church people after dad got sick and lost his job. They were odd toys, labeled “Boy, 7” and “Girl, 12” — presents such as the red knitted slippers with green tassels and the Kewpie doll purchased in a knickknack store and the strange feeling of getting presents from people we didn’t know and never would. Then dad would get blue and we’d spend a night or two at St. Mary’s Hospital, where it was very quiet and the nurses would feel sorry for me and let me swim in the therapy pool with snow falling outside. There was always snow on Christmas.

Another memory. In strides Uncle Bud, wearing a fedora and a flask in his sport coat pocket, and he’d slip me a 20-dollar bill in private and whisper, “Only spend this on girls.” He did this every year.

Then he’d tell us tales from his days as a minor league baseball catcher who “could pick a dime off the inside corner of second base but couldn’t hit my weight,” and tell us that Halsey Hall once compared him to Johnny Bench. Oh, and the knob on his forehead was not a cyst, as my dad claimed, but a bullet from the war that went through his skull and lodged right there, forever.

Of course, my dad also claimed to be Superman in his spare time, and though he worked in the defense industry, he told strangers he made “powder puffs,” so I don’t know which to believe. Uncle Bud didn’t work, but was a professional Irishman from what I could tell, and I loved him, especially at Christmas.

In all those Christmas memories — after the pizza burgers and the presents and the stories from Uncle Bud — we would look out the window and see the snowplows pushing the snow from the motel into piles as high as the Rockies in the vacant lot next door. They were doing it just for us, we were certain, creating a wonderland where we could chase each other with our Bond toys, and dig forts.

We would sit in the forts in the lot across from the homeless shelter and know we were lucky and happy, compared with most, and we’d look up into the dark night sky, searching for the magic. • 612-673-1702 Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

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