Spread A Little Joy Whenever You’re Able

When I think back to Christmas, the memories are almost all good – especially the scent of the tree, covered with ornaments and tinsel erected in the living room bay window of our childhood home.

The annual, seemingly endless discussion of who was or was not old enough to attend the Midnight Mass at our Catholic church; The recurrent admonitions, directed at my brother Jim and me, not to rise too early – and certainly not between midnight and dawn, to claw into the wrapped boxes under the tree thereby awakening the rest of the family.

Our presents were never outrageous — no ponies or Corvette convertibles — but they were always gratifying, even when pajamas, robes, slippers and books prevailed.

We knew that, almost invariably, a new sweater or shirt would turn up to provide us with proof that our parents loved us and wanted us to look good, just as our friends’ parents wanted for them.

One year, I think, we received a couple of shiny new sleds, to be shared (or not shared!) by the four of us kids. It wasn’t long – a couple of weeks or so – until a snowstorm showed up and provided perfect conditions for riding.

We were a middle-class family, with parents who were scrimping and saving for our educations. We knew better than to ask for ponies, even if four of our friends on the street owned horses -big, dark beasts they rode during lessons their parents paid for at Mrs. Bosley’s stables.

Sometimes we tagged along and were rewarded with brief turns in the saddle, perching on one nag or another as it clomped slowly through tall grass thick with insects toward the dusty outdoor ring where we would hang on for a desultory circuit or two before the horse clomped back to the barn. Someone would help us down to solid ground. But my brothers, sister and I did not envy our horse-riding friends. Our wants were more pedestrian.

One fall Saturday when I was eight or nine years old, our father took my two brothers and me to a sporting goods store on East Baltimore Street in the heart of downtown Baltimore. The store occupied deep space in a short building that stood a few blocks from the harbor, a  couple of blocks from the U.S. Customs House, where my father worked. The area was perhaps a block from “The Block” – a national landmark for the soldiers, sailors and other men at loose ends who patronized its bars, strip clubs and burlesque theater.

I had heard of The Block but developed no appreciation for it until age 16 or so, when an equally callow friend and I ventured into the “Gayety Burlesque” one Friday night and watched a show. We thought we were brave explorers in the tradition of Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco Da Gama, whose birthday, by thrilling coincidence, is marked on Christmas Eve.

It took a few years for us to realize that that many, perhaps most, 16-year-old males in Baltimore had explored The Block. Some many times, no doubt, while my courage abandoned me after that one visit.

The owner of the National Sporting Goods store was George Bratt, a heavyset fellow who starred as a baseball player in college and whom my father regarded with a measure of awe. Mr. Bratt wore his fraying hair combed straight back. This gave him a streamlined appearance, like the hood ornament of a Pontiac sedan, though his girth prevented him from conveying any illusion of speed.

My dad and my brother John had just begun to discuss lacrosse sticks when I spied the wall behind the sales counter. It was adorned with small display shelves, and with Christmas on the way those shelves bore the most tantalizing footballs imaginable.

My eyes locked on one and without thinking I asked my father if I could have it for Christmas. The price of $10 gave me pause, but my dad’s response, calm and noncommittal, gave me hope.

With the lacrosse stick in John’s hands, we headed for the car. Once home, I mentioned the football, and its price, to my mother.

“It costs too much,” she said.

Crushed, I put the football out of mind and expected another Christmas heavy on pajamas, robes and other necessities. My mother’s word was law. Sometimes, it seemed as if “No” was her most favorite word of all. My father almost never contradicted her.

I’ve told this story a thousand times but I guess one more rendition won’t hurt. On Christmas morning we unearthed our presents and thanked our folks for the annual haul. Then someone handed me a box, tightly wrapped and just big enough for an I-don’t-know-what.

A hush came over the room. The gift paper slid easily from the box.

Inside of it I saw that football. Unbridled boyhood Christmas Joy ensued. I started tossing it around with my brothers that afternoon, and continued to play with it for more than 30 years.

As I said, I’ve told this story a million times, once as a listener commentary on National Public Radio. It held special import for me the year my son was born when I began to see it in a new light. It’s no longer just a story about kindness. It has become a story about automatic thinking, and buying without questioning into long held family beliefs.

My father didn’t have to break the bank to buy that football. But my mother believed he did.

She grew up with a “poverty mentality,” – a  never silent inner voice that says “can’t” rather than a more hopeful and optimistic, “maybe we can.” I understand the “why” of her response, but also recognize the danger of hanging on to a way of thinking simply because, “that’s the way its always been.”

This column is not a plea for parents to be easier on their kids. Instead, it’s a suggestion that we adults strangle that inner voice every time it automatically says, “no” when it could say “yes,” every time fear drowns out the bold clean stream of truth that wishes the imparting of joy whenever reasonably possible.

May your 2012 be filled with PLENTY of  it.

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