On the day after Christmas, I sat by the fire drinking steamy tea with my grandmother. The rest of the family had gone to exchange some gifts. But my grandmother had wanted to stay home to rest, and I decided to stay in case she needed anything.
Without the chaos of 15 uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters, the house was quiet. I sipped my tea and sighed with contentment.
"Christmas is always special," I said. "Seeing all the relatives, opening so many gifts. It's wonderful."
"Yes," my grandmother said, "You are very lucky."
"What was your favorite Christmas, Grandma?"
"When I was twelve years old," she replied without hesitation, "when we were very poor."
"Poor? No one ever told me that!" "Pour me another cup of tea, dear, and I'll tell you a story."
In 1925, there was a 12-year-old girl named Irene. She lived in Kansas City, in the poor end of town with her mother and younger brothers Jimmy and Ricky. To support the family, Irene's mother worked in a laundry 12 hours a day six days a week. Still, there were times when the children picked dandelion greens for dinner or crawled through the landlady's window to steal a cup of flour so they could have something to eat.
Christmas was not a joyous occasion for Irene's family. It was so cold that most of the money her mother earned went to coal to heat the apartment. There was never money for gifts and the children didn't expect any, but they always dreamed of the lovely things they might have had.
Every day after school that December, the three children could be found with their noses against the cold window of the 5 & 10, gazing longingly at the shiny toys within.
Jimmy and Ricky has their eyes on toy gun.
"It shoots out real sparks," seven-year-old Ricky told his brother. "What a wonderful toy!"
Jimmy, a nine-year-old expert on such matters, agreed, telling Ricky that a boy at school had one and had said it was lots of fun.
Irene, too, longed for something: a small, black-and-white china cat, with its delicate tail curled neatly around little china paws. She would have liked a real cat, but decided the china one was more practical because it didn't have to be fed.
The toys were not expensive. The cat was 30 cents, and the spark gun only 35 cents, but the children knew there was no money for the toys.
On Christmas eve, it began to snow, the light fluffiness covering everything. Jimmy and Ricky had gone to the park to play, so Irene walked alone to the 5 & 10 to look once more at the china cat.
As she shuffled through the snow, she glanced down and saw a shiny object nearly buried in a small drift. When she knelt to get a closer look, her eyes lit up: It was a quarter! Quickly she put the money in her mittened hand and ran the last two blocks to the 5 & 10.
Gleefully, she looked through the window at the china cat. Then she remembered: the cat cost 30 cents and she had only 25. Her smile disppeared; what would she buy? There was nothing else she wanted so much.
As she stood there, shivering with cold and disappointment, a ragged old man walked toward her. She recognized him as the beggar who often stood on the street corner hoping someone would give him some change. He came to the window and stood beside her. She managed a smile and said, "Merry Christmas, sir."
He did not reply, but reached into his pocket and removed a dime. Gently, he placed it in Irene's hand, and then he turned and walked into grayness of the snowy dusk.
Irene could not believe it, and she barely remembered to thank the old man. She ran after him, and when he stopped she whispered "Thank you" before she kissed his unshaven face.
Then she hurried back to the store with her 35 cents. 35 cents!
Just as she arrived the shopkeeper was closing the store.
"Please, sir couldn't you let me buy something before you go?"
The shopkeeper smiled. He had often seen Irene and her brothers peering into his window. "What would you like, dear?"
Irene looked at the china cat. It was such a beautiful thing.
Then she said, "The toy spark gun in the window."
"But what about you, Grandma?" I interrupted. "You didn't get your cat!"
"I know, dear," she said. "But we were all very happy that Christmas. Now, why don't you get me another cup of Tea?"
When I came back, there was my grandmother asleep in her chair, dreaming, I've always like to think, of that very happy Christmas of 1925.