The snow had sugared the earth. The wind was wild. Walking against it required leaning into it. The snow spun about in tiny tornados. The street and holiday lights swayed. Tree branches groaned in profound pain. My Mom had bundled me up; which included mittens, boots, and a thick old scarf about my mouth. My lips froze against the scarf within minutes of leaving home.
I was to deliver a present to Margaret. Margaret lived alone, and my Mom told me it was important she receive this beautifully wrapped package from Zahn’s. Margaret, she explained, was a widow now, and this would be her first Christmas without Ernie, her partner of 47 years.
I was shocked. Mom never ever shopped at Zahn’s or Eitel’s. She told me these stores were out of our league, and that Penny’s and Robert Hall were plenty good enough. I guess I agreed, although this only served to sow the seed of desire to someday do my shopping at Zahn’s. I had no idea what was in the package, just that it was wrapped in shiny foil, with a bow the size of a basketball. I clutched the package to my chest, and trudged down Yout Street to Margaret’s. The moon played hide and seek behind fast moving bulbous clouds of black and blue. The light of this night was like a flickering candle, or a lamp just about to burn out.
By the time I arrived at Margaret’s, I was frozen, and furious with my Mom for insisting on delivery tonight. Margaret ushered me in with a giggle and abundant warmth, extolling the virtue of my having braved the wicked winter outside. She told me she had hot chocolate on the stove, and had made a fresh batch of pecan dream cookies. She brought me a steaming mug, and a plate full of my favorite cookies in the whole world. She then went to what I assumed was her bedroom, and brought out a huge scrap book. Clippings hung out from all sides. The Milwaukee Braves 1957 was emblazoned upon its cover. She asked if I would like to see it. I assured her I would like nothing more.
The scrapbook was full to the brim. All my favorite players were there. Eddie Matthews. Johnny Logan. Henry Aaron. Wes Covington. Joe Adcock. The guy named Red. Billy Bruton. Del Crandall. And, of course, loads of stuff about Lou Burdette, the pitcher who beat the Yankees three times, and led our Braves to the World Series title. There were articles and autographs and ticket stubs and baseball cards and pennants. It was a veritable gold mine for a boy my age. I went slowly. Took my time. Savored every page and sip and cookie. It was pure bliss.
Margaret brought me my coat and winter fighting clothing. She thanked me for coming. I asked her what she got. I wasn’t sure if I was being rude, but I wanted to know what was in the package with the mammoth red bow.
“Should I open it now?” she asked with enthusiasm, foreshadowing the fact that she was about to do just that.
“Yep!” I said. I had just stopped believing in Santa Claus, and was still a bit crestfallen. However, this new gift giving thing was kind of catchy.
She shook the box. It made no sound. She then slowly, painfully, opened up her gift. She removed a shiny wooden frame, which held a photo of my Mom and Dad and Margaret and Ernie. This familiar quartet held barbeque chicken legs to their mouths ; mouths smothered in sauce ; laughing uproariously. Margaret began to weep. She told me it was a magnificent gift, which puzzled me, due to her tears. She clutched it to her chest, and then placed it on an end table which appeared to be some type of shrine to Ernie.
“I will treasure that Billy,” she said proudly. “Good memories are what will get me through. I guess that is the end of my barbeque chicken picnics at your house. I think we had one every weekend of July and August for twenty years. We always laughed and laughed. Your father was a great chef, and could he crack me up. And your Mom, well, she is too kind for words.”
“But you have to come,” I spoke up in sincerity. “This summer. We'll still have picnics, and I want you to come. You tell the best jokes, and Ernie told great stories. You have to take over for him.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Well, then I guess I will have to plan on it.”
Margaret smiled and hugged me, and gave me a wet whiskery kiss on the cheek. I didn’t hate it though. It somehow felt right. I put on my mittens, hat and boots, and headed for the door.
“You forgot something,” Margaret said with a teary laugh. She then handed me a huge shopping bag --stapled shut. “This is for you. From Ernie…and I.” I thanked her, and told her I hoped she would come and see me in this year’s pageant at church. I was a goat, I told her. She burst out laughing, caught herself, and told me it was a most important part.
The walk home was scary. The wind stronger and meaner. The snow like shards of glass. Everything howled. I made it home in record time. I had run as far and fast as I could in those stupid snow pants and boots. I raced inside and went straight to my room. I yelled to my mother that the mission had been accomplished, and that Margaret thanked her. I chose not to tell her I had talked Margaret into opening her gift. Mom shouted a thank-you back. Anyway, I was too excited to see what was in the bag. I yanked open the top of the bag, ripping off about 12 staples in the process.
It was the scrap book. All of it. I held it out in front of me, and could not believe my good fortune. I could not wait to call every boy on my block and grade, and tell them about all of the Braves loot it contained. I was in the midst of wondering why I had received this gift, when my parents opened the door to my room.
“Do you like it?” Mom asked knowingly.
“Did you know I was getting it?” I asked with a pinch of shock.
“Ernie worked on it all November. He was so proud of it. He knew you loved the Braves, and he had no son of his own, so….” My father’s voice trailed off and his eyes watered. He walked away. He told me he needed to sneeze.
“Ernie and Margaret couldn’t have kids Billy, and I think they took a real shine to you.” My Mom spoke with noticeable pride.
“Why?” I asked. “What did I do?”
“I just think they thought you were a good boy. A real good boy.”
Being a good boy. I learned that here in Racine. On Yout Street. At backyard barbeques. Just around the block. At Roosevelt Elementary School. At Holy Communion. I do believe, however, I learned most of it from a Mom who was wise enough to know when to shop at Zahn’s.
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.