A Shared Christmas Meal

Red-brick "Cottage"
Not A Cottage, Not A Home

In a long ago time and a faraway place, as we try in vain to measure what seems real, I knew a sad boy named Jimmy. I knew him when he was maybe twelve years old. And I, at twice his age back then, thought I was a wise adult.

Jimmy felt sad because he had no home to visit on Christmas Day. He lived inside a small blue room; along a shadowed, narrow hallway; inside a red-brick building that the county authorities called a cottage. But Jimmy and I knew that his room was a cell within an institution, a place designed to house and care for children whose parents had disappeared.

Each December staff members of this institution tried as best they might to contact children’s families and make arrangements for holiday visits. Most times these efforts met with success. Someone, anyone really, would lend an embrace in the spirit of the season. A relative, or a friend of a relative, or even a relative stranger with the sense to understand that an open door was a gift that a lonely child needed.

But no one opened a door for Jimmy that year. Jimmy’s voice sounded too loud when he interrupted a conversation.  Jimmy’s stare burned resentment into the flesh of those who looked at him. Jimmy’s nostrils flared with contempt when someone said hello to him. Jimmy’s muscles tightened with tension if another person dared to touch him.

Jimmy wasn’t cute or pretty in the eyes of most who met him. He frowned when addressed by another child. He slammed his feet when he walked, as if to punish the ground that refused to support the weight he carried. He threw tantrums and slammed his fists against the walls that held him back.

Jimmy fast became an outsider, even to other outsiders.

Instead of an ordinary school, Jimmy attended a Psychiatric Institute for academic classes and therapy sessions. Each morning, Monday through Friday, as the fifteen other children who lived near him, but not close to him inside his “cottage,” walked to street-corner bus stops to wait for their rides, Jimmy remained behind. He peeked around the edge of a curtain and looked at the wakening sky, until everyone else had left. He wanted no one to see him board the foreshortened yellow bus that picked him up and drove him to the center of a hollow city.

I tried too hard to befriend Jimmy, although I thought I was doing otherwise. I believed that I could somehow fill an empty space so wide and deep, a space that I now understand as the nagging ache a child feels when he wants to smile or cry.

“Good morning, Jimmy.”

“Leave me alone.”

“I tried. They wouldn’t let you go home to my apartment. I’m not married. I’m an employee here.”

“They ain’t reasons.”

“I know.”

“You don’t”

“I can’t.”

On the morning of December the twenty-fifth of that distant year, Jimmy’s anger grew more desperate. He watched his cottage neighbors leave the place they all were forced to call home. Name them orphans if you’re willing to admit that no politically correct attempt to alter reality can change the nature behind a name. Jimmy watched them as they marched down the narrow corridor, then gathered together inside the cavern called a living room to meet kind faces and hear soft voices whispering Merry Christmas wishes.

“Come here, child. Come with me today. And who’s that hiding there in the corner?”

“He’s Jimmy. Jimmy don’t like Christmas.”

“That can’t be true. Merry Christmas, Jimmy.”

“Go away, lady.”

And when the last kind face had disappeared into the holiday breeze that blew beyond those red-brick walls, when the last soft voice became smaller than a forlorn echo, Jimmy and I prepared to share a meal.

The kitchen space was all stainless steel. Large cabinets held gallon cans of spaghetti sauce that tasted like ketchup, fruit that swam in syrup, and vegetables that surrendered their colors for sake of preservation. The refrigerator, large enough to serve as a butcher’s locker, contained eggs by the gross, lard by the pound, bacon by the slab, and milk by the jug.

So I’d earlier that week shopped for kinder food at the local grocery store. Jimmy refused my invitation to join me. I wasn’t his father or his older brother, that much I understood.

We baked a Cornish hen; dressed it up to look like a turkey for two; stuffed it with rice and berries. Mashed potatoes, whipped together with heavy cream, topped with a lake of yellow butter. Homemade bread and jam. Root beer soda poured over crushed ice. No vegetables to ruin a child’s appetite.

The dining room. Four great tables, bolted to the tile floor. Four squeaking metal chairs arranged around each table. Shelving along one wall, piles of folded clothing sitting there, each item labeled with an orphan’s name. High ceiling. The glare of fluorescent lighting. Dusty plastic draperies pulled closed against the windows.

I spread a cotton cloth atop a fold-out wooden table that I’d brought from my apartment in the city. A centerpiece candle, shaped like a snowman. Sprigs of pine. Holly leaves. Silent Night drifting from the speakers of a radio.

We sat. Jimmy stared. I guess I prayed in my own way.

A tear ran down Jimmy’s cheek, a tear he couldn’t wipe away.

“Don’t want nothing.”

“Please, please, Jimmy, eat with me.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

“I know. I understand.”

“You don’t.”

“I can’t.”

I followed Jimmy as he walked back to his cell. He wouldn’t let me pull the blankets close. He turned his face toward the wall.

I sat awhile beside his bed, and then I left him there till morning.

And so is this the end of a sad Christmas story? It seemed so way back then.

But no, it’s not, because such stories never end. Today, this Christmas, I can wonder what became of Jimmy, and believe that he wonders in turn about what became of me. I can hope that Jimmy found an open door.

Jimmy, young boy, you did want something; the tear that ran down your cheek that evening told me what you wanted, told me what then I could not give to you.

Although we human beings try in vain to measure time and place, time and place cannot be measured. The Christmas meal we shared that night, and all it meant, still lives within the two of us.

Merry Christmas, Jimmy. Merry Christmas to the both of us.

22 thoughts on “A Shared Christmas Meal

  1. Beautifully told, Tony – and on so many levels.
    I work with some young people that respond to the world like this – because the world has been unable to respond to them and their unique needs. i see young people who are ‘trouble’ – when they are actually troubled, with no way to put that pain into words.
    I admire that you did not ‘tie up loose ends’ and make the ending ‘Happy Ever After’, Tony. You left the question hanging in the air, wondering…and leaving the reader to wonder if things worked out OK? But also reminding us that sometimes the most difficult people have the greatest need for love – they just don’t wear the need nicely spelled out, in perfect grammar, on their sleeve. And that sometimes, though we can’t ‘fix it’ for those that hurt like this, we can just be there, as a warm human presence.
    Such a pleasure to read your writing again. 🙂

    1. Roz, Yes, I agree that none of us can fix another person’s damage; our business, I guess, is healing our own wounds — at least enough to allow ourselves the pleasure of another person’s company, the company of a kind person such as you. And thank you for reading. I am happy that I’m in touch with you again. Anthony

    1. Yes, Ann, “emotional jail” is an apt way to describe how we sometimes respond to our own nagging needs. I believe that those of us who escape those kinds of jail cells discover that we hold the keys in our own hands. Thanks for reading.

  2. Since I know that there is always much in the depths of Anthony’s writing that I miss, my comment here concerns only its surface story…

    I have known some ‘Jimmys’ and have seen their growth into maturity. Most of them became happy, well-adjusted citizens in adulthood. They did this through their own efforts, not by accepting charitable gifts from those who sought to ‘help’ them, but by their own hard work and determination. I am thinking of one such boy, especially; he was a childhood terror, but is now a successful and happy family man, popular and respected in his community.

    Thank you for sharing your work, Anthony.

  3. Gene, In most ways I agree with you about what you said here. In one way, though, accepting a charitable gift is much the same as accepting the hand that a friend extends. I for a long while believed that accepting charity meant asking that someone else carry my load, and maybe for some this is true; but the charity of others is oftentimes a tug and a spur to help oneself. Thanks, as always, friend, for reading me.

  4. My paternal grandmother died in Camarillo State Hospital when I was 18, but since childhood, I had visited her in institutions and I was pulled back into the necessary bleakness of group housing for the mentally ill. Jimmy’s cottage was perhaps less bleak, but I was really drawn into the story of Jimmy–and you? Is this based in a true memory? I wonder if you could find him if you tried.
    And, as always, I am so delighted to be reconnected with you. What a fine, fine writer you are.

  5. First of all, dear Fran, thank you for reading this story of mine. Unfortunate, I know, but through the eyes of a child who feels lost and abandoned, an institution of whatever flavor must look and feel bleak. And yes, although I changed his name here, out of respect for privacy, this is a true story. I’ve oftentimes throughout the years considered trying to find these children, now adults, that I once knew, but somehow the prospect of finding them frightens me.

  6. I spent my adolescent years in a home similar to this. It has taken me a life time
    to recover, but I am here today and well. I have written many pages – as part of my therapy and I hope to edit them so I can write with some time.
    It was kind of you to reach out to the child Anthony. A child living under those conditions may develop ‘filters’ in order to survive as I did. But I think Jimmy knew kindness when you offered it. Abandonment scars the soul.

  7. Janice, Lately, what amazes me is the fact that one person’s story intersects with that of another person. I’ve for most of my life believed that stories are the best way to learn. That’s not at all an original thought, I know — if in fact originality exists at all. From the Bible, the Qur’an, and all the way to Dr. Seuss, we human beings communicate with each other by way of telling stories.

  8. I agree with you. I think we do it a lot. I used fantasy/stories to communicate with people who were brain damaged in my former work in Australia. I guess it was a form of narrative technique….anyway it worked. Every one has stories, and it’s interesting to try to tap into these stories as a way to know them. This is what I did in any case.

    1. Judythe Guarnera

      Janice,
      I am looking forward to our meeting next week. Reading your comments here have alerted me to the rich story you have to tell.

      Judy

  9. willy

    Aw, Anthony, how true that story. How hard is it to reach out to others : you to Jimmy, Jimmy to you and the world. It is irrelevant whether this is was a real experience or “real” fiction – it is the message that counts. Strong writing, my friend! You have a way to touch people.

  10. Judythe Guarnera

    Anthony,
    Your story was beautifully written. (I have wondered what your voice sounded like and now I have an idea.) As I read through the comments others made and your responses, I learned more about you. In one of the volunteer programs I ran, Foster Grandparents worked with kids who had exceptional needs. Something I stressed over and over was that most of the time they would never know how they impacted a child’s life. Whenever a child’s future was revealed with a “happy’ ending, we shared that story and I asked each of the volunteers to accept that it was their story. I love the idea that the love they showed, the messages they shared would one day guide those children in making a better choice than they would have before they experienced that love. Too often it was probably not enough.

    Happy New Year, Judy.

  11. Judythe, I am so glad that you stopped here to read and to talk with us. I agree that none of us knows the impact we may or may not have on another person’s life. I used to wonder about how I affected other people’s lives, but these days I prefer to consider and appreciate the friends who affect me. Like you, Judythe; my life is better today than it was a few short months ago, because I met you.

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