A Christmas Gift of Rubber Bands

Mom stood by the open car door, shielding her new bouffant hairdo from the rain with a thin plastic hood, the kind that folded up into a tiny bag, and which you kept in your purse for emergencies. Her breath came out like fog in the cold.  “Keep the door locked and don’t open it for anyone. Understand? And don’t touch the gear shift. You could knock it out of gear and the car would roll.” That was her standard warning after I became old enough to prefer staying in the car to walking around the grocery store. I rolled my eyes to remind her that I’d heard it a million times.

The evening was wild and bitter. I was glad when the door slammed, shutting out the cold, muffling the wind, allowing the patter of rain on metal and glass to fill my ears. Red tail lights and yellow fog lights made wet pebbles of color on the windows.  As it was the height of rush hour, I knew my mom would be in the store for quite a while. She would be waiting in a long line with all the other people who, like her, were wearing suits rumpled by a long, weary work day. I had time to play.

Oh, such delicious drama! I was riding out the storm in the radio room of a ship, wondering how long I could swim should she go down. “Keep that May Day going on the radio!” “Aye, Aye, Captain! May Day, May Day!” I called into the imaginary mic in my hand. I pretended my school uniform was sailor’s garb and the notebook papers with scribbled homework were maps and navigational charts. At age 10, I had become an avid reader of adventure stories. I couldn’t wait to grow up and have “Real Life” adventures like the ones in my books. I did not know that at that moment real “Real Life” was about to intrude into my make-believe world.

It was then that I saw him, a teenage boy, sitting under the overhang of the store, which only partly sheltered him from the rain, along with a row of fresh-cut Christmas trees and bundles of firewood. I froze for a few seconds, staring. Then I climbed over the seat from back to front and wiped my coat sleeve across the windshield to get a better view.

I didn’t know what was wrong with him. I only knew he could not control his movements. He sat in a wheelchair by the door of the supermarket with a stack of newspapers on a TV tray next to him. On his lap, braced by one trembling hand, was a cigar box without a lid.  His head bobbed and jerked, his tongue popped in and out of his mouth and an occasional smile, turned grimace, turned smile again, erupted on his face as he tried to get the passing shoppers to buy his newspapers. Apparently he could not speak. I watched, transfixed, as people came in and out of the store without stopping. Some broke stride for a second, long enough for a fleeting look of disgust or pity or guilt to flash across their faces. Where was my mother? There she was, heading for the same door, walking towards him. She would stop and buy a paper from him. I knew she would.

Suddenly, the boy’s arm flailed uncontrollably and hit the cigar box on his lap, sending the box and all of its contents flying all over the pavement. Several coins rolled like wheels and disappeared under parked cars. The paper bills floated then sank in the puddles of rain. A look of agony crossed his face. I wiped the steam off of the windshield again and peered through the raindrops. Many people walked on by but my mother stopped. I saw her pick up the empty box. Then, in spite of being elegantly dressed and in high heels, she went down on her hands and knees in the greasy puddles (tearing her stockings) and gathered up every coin and bill she could find. She even reached under the cars.  After she found all of the money she put it back in the box and put the box back in the boy’s lap. She did not buy a paper. Without speaking to him, she walked into the store.

I was proud of her for helping but also disappointed. I was sure she would say some comforting words, pat him on the shoulder, buy ten papers and give him all her grocery money besides. That’s what I wanted her to do, anyway. But she didn’t. I didn’t feel like playing anymore.

Shortly, much too shortly for the grocery list she had, my mother reappeared at the boy’s side with a tiny paper sack. She pulled out a plastic package, tore it open with her teeth, reached in and grabbed a handful of rubber bands. She took the box from his lap and balanced it on the arm of his wheelchair, using several rubber bands to secure it to the armrest. Then she balled up her hand into a fist and hit the box a few times. It shifted a bit so she dug out several more rubber bands and made the box more secure. Another round of box-hitting proved that nothing would move it.

Then she patted him on the shoulder, spoke to him kindly, bought a paper from him and chatted with him a bit. He could not speak but the look in his eyes was indescribable. She might have been a vision of an angel for the glow on his face. After a while she went back into the store and did her shopping. When she came out of the store and got into the car with brown paper bags of bread, milk and dinner, she was silent. I was eager to know all about it. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked. “He has cerebral palsy” she answered and then changed the subject to let me know that she didn’t want to talk about it. For some reason, she seemed angry. I had enough experience with her anger to know that I was not to speak about it anymore.

Winter passed and the February Narcissus were in bloom. Mom and I were once again in the car, in front of the same door of the same supermarket. There were baskets of potato sets and onion starts for sale in the place where the boy had been. As Mom started to open the car door, I ventured to say that I remembered the boy in the wheelchair and often wondered how he was doing. She was silent for a bit, lost in thought. Finally she turned to answer me. She too had been unable to dismiss him from her mind. It seems that a week after the incident she dropped by the grocery store and asked to see the store manager to see if there was anything she could do for the boy. “No, no, he’s fine” the manager told her. He knew the family. It seems the boy was born into one of those golden families who believed that having a handicapped child was as much of a joy and privilege as having a healthy one. “Believe me,” he said, “He is well cared for. He wasn’t selling papers out of need.” On the contrary, to express his gratitude for the love his parents and siblings had given him, the boy wanted to buy Christmas presents for them with money he earned himself. He decided he could sell newspapers. His parents arranged it with the local paper and the grocery store manager. That Christmas, for the first time in his life, the boy had the dignity and joy of buying presents for his family with his own money, which he earned by sitting in the bitter cold on a rainy day and exposing himself to the unpleasant reactions of strangers.

I was quiet as I pondered that for a minute. All kinds of thoughts and feelings were racing around inside of me. After a while I said “That was a really good thing you did.”

She shrugged. “I would want someone to do it for me. Wouldn’t you?”

“Yes.” Then treading carefully I said “You seemed really angry at the time. Why?”

“I was angry.” She said. “I saw all those people walk by and I saw the looks on their faces.” And then she pointedly changed the subject to one of her favorite topics: keep-the-door-locked-and-don’t-touch-the-gear-shift. She never spoke of the boy again.

All these decades later I can’t remember what presents I received for Christmas that year, but I vividly remember the gift that boy gave to his family, the gift my mother gave to the boy, and the gift that both of them gave to me, a “Real Life” example of the only life worth aspiring to: not a life of adventure but a life of love.

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The Fog of War

At the age of 11 my brother was already an expert on military strategy and tactics. He always outplayed the older relatives at chess and Battleship and he could explain all of the major battles of the Civil War, in detail. These were the days when all children were given IQ tests in school; my brother scored in the genius category. His teacher told my mother in hushed and reverent tones that he needed specialized education and suggested that he be allowed to advance upward through the grade levels at his own pace. My parents discussed it but decided that he would be socially handicapped and isolated by that. They wanted him to have a normal childhood with friends his own age. While it was true that he was brilliant, he was also emotionally fragile; they guessed (quite rightly) that he would have been traumatized by being thrown in with older boys.  So, utterly bored and unchallenged at school, my brother poured his intellect into all sorts of challenges that he devised for himself. One of them was the Living Room Wars.

At that time, my father was a struggling draftsman studying for his architectural license. With a wife and 3 kids there wasn’t much money for luxuries such as furniture. The vast expanse of the living room, which spanned the width of the entire house, was empty except for carpet and venetian blinds. It was the perfect location to lay out every major battle of the Civil War and World War II.

My brother spent every dime of his allowance on big bags of plastic army men, a popular toy in the 1950’s. He had collected, sorted, categorized and color-coded literally hundreds and hundreds of plastic soldiers, artillery pieces, tanks, tents, ships and planes. With history books and maps spread out, he would set up these pieces from wall to wall across the living room floor. Beginning with the starting position of all of the units in major battles, he painstakingly moved each piece, one by one, according to the historical accounts of the real troop movements. When he finished playing out the battle as it occurred in history, he started over. Wondering what would have happened if General So-and-So had known this or that bit of intelligence, he played out alternative scenarios to see if the battle would have ended differently. He would become engrossed in this project for days on end. Our parents gave me strict orders to stay out of the living room and leave my brother alone. Of course I didn’t listen.

One day, bored and curious, I wandered into the living room and asked, in typical four-year-old-fashion, “Can I play with you?” My brother sighed, thought about it a moment, then said yes. He grabbed one of his bags of soldiers, dug through it and pulled out a plastic German Shepherd dog and a couple of soldiers. ‘Here” he said “you can be the K-9 Corps.” I was thrilled. Even my pre-school brain had enough sense to understand that I was bothering him. I had fully expected him to say “No! Go away!” Instead, he kindly ordered Patton and Rommel to cease hostilities and brought the Battle of the Bulge to a halt. So for a little while we played out a made-up battle where the heroic K-9 Corps bravely held off the German army until finally, the courageous hero-dog, at the front of the action, took a bullet for the team and died. He was accorded full military honors and was buried on the battlefield. At that, I was content to have played my small part in saving the world, so I ran off to play with my dolls. More important, I was vastly satisfied that my brother had taken time to play with me. I felt loved.

Years later, all grown up and growing old, having been in real battles himself, he reminisced about our childhood with me and our siblings. Our father had just died and, as is common at such times, we were reviewing our own lives and thinking about our mortality. My brother said to me “I have a confession to make. You won’t remember this but I have felt terrible about it all these years. I have to get it off my chest.” Then he recounted his memory of that afternoon when he stopped his war to play with me, only his version was different. He told me he staged the death of the dog in order to get rid of me so that he could go back to his game. “It must have hurt your feelings terribly. I should have played with you as long as you wanted to play” he said. “I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am that I did that. It’s been bothering me all these years.”

I laughed. “I remember it vividly! I’m amazed that you remember it!” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I was the one who was wrong. Mom and Dad told me to leave you alone but I went in there anyway. I knew I was bothering you but you stopped and played with me anyway. And you played with me just long enough. After all, I was only four; I had a short attention span. You don’t owe me an apology; I was thrilled. It’s one of my all-time favorite memories.”

I saw his face visibly relax and his shoulders slump. He had put the burden down. He fell into a thoughtful silence. After a while he mused “It’s funny how we all experience the same event differently, make incorrect assumptions about what others are thinking, about what’s really happening.’

“Yeah” I said “Kind of like the fog of war, huh?”

He nodded. “If only people would talk to each other.’ He said.

We looked at each other sorrowfully.

If only we had.

If only we would.