Author note: This story is reprinted from foreignservicemessages.com (December 2017)
Excerpt from The Gift of the Magi, a short story by O. Henry:
ONE DOLLAR AND EIGHTY-SEVEN CENTS. That was all. She [Della] had put it aside, one cent and then another and then another, in her careful buying of meat and other food. Della counted it three times. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas…
Sometimes, if I listen hard I can hear the coins drop…
The glass jar formerly held Best Foods mayonnaise. Mom kept the jar above the refrigerator, in the cupboard of the old house on Park Street. The jar would play an important role during Christmas that I will soon reveal.
First, let me describe Park Street where I grew up in Torrance, California…
About twenty miles south of L.A. in a small agricultural corner, in the late 1950s Park Street was a mixture of old houses and vacant fields. The empty lots, depending on the time of year, served as makeshift baseball fields, harbored secret forts made of straw, and when flooded became a pirate’s refuge for our rafts.
Our house faced the Torrance Airport runway. From the front porch, I would gaze at double-winged aircraft soaring off toward the Pacific Ocean and other points unknown that would fuel my imagination for years to come. Sometimes the pilots would dip their wings and I would exclaim to my dog Sergeant, “Hot Dog!”
The Park Street House
Mom called it, “That darn house.” She described Park Street as a place of low expectation and income status, and once compared it to, “Days-old pancakes, the flavor only improved by gobs of sentimental syrup.” According to her, Part Street attracted peculiar and somewhat displaced families from places named Missouri (our family), Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Japan, Hawaii, China, and Nowhere. Fathers had been scarred in some way by memories of World War II, while the mothers stood by their husbands, yearning for their kids to have a better life than they had.
Our neighbors (like us) took comfort in things other than the ordinary, often giddied by Laurel & Hardy films and the antics of Amos & Andy on the AM radio. They lived in simple stucco houses with white crushed rock roofs or, like our family, shared old wooden houses with termites and rodents on large properties. The long, elevated front porches welcomed salesmen, stray dogs, and an occasional midnight intruder.
The denizens of Park Street waited all year long for the opportunity of a ghostly encounter on an October Halloween night only to forget to thaw the Thanksgiving turkey three weeks later. But then came Christmas…
AH, CHRISTMAS… the holiday that we revered more than the church and gave license to laugh and make fun of the world through our odd caricatures produced in the silvery mirrored reflection of a Christmas tree ornament.
This would be my ninth Christmas. My sister was five years old. Mom worked nights at an airplane factory called North American Aviation where she feared “layoffs.” Dad had lost his job at the Ford factory. One of my older brothers was in the U.S. Navy in Japan and the other at college in Arizona. On TV they had announced that Elvis Presley went into the U.S. Army. Mom said he and his hound dog deserved the military.
My mom was like Della of The Gift of the Magi, a movie that we had watched. But mom, unlike Della, thought ahead, especially since dad wasn’t working. She didn’t wait for the day before Christmas to shop for my sister and me. She had taken us Christmas shopping last June as soon as summer vacation had begun.
I remember the day well. The pavement was so hot that I had to wear go-aheads. The toy store hidden at the end of Park Street, on the other side of Rexall Drug, which was across from the Food Giant market, awaited our arrival. I knew because the door had a bell that rang when we entered. Huge lollipops the size of mom’s holiday pies leaned into the aisle, causing mom to dip her head. A Lionel train locomotive tooted at me. My sister giggled at Gumby.
Mom had put our toy store gifts on layaway. I had heard her tell dad that it meant she paid every week on the gifts until they became ours a few days before Christmas. When I also heard mom tell dad that my sister and I would forget about the gifts six months later, I smiled to myself. She called it a “silver lining,” which I didn’t understand.
The Coin Jar
No one was supposed to know about the big glass jar above the refrigerator, but I did. Mom used the year of saved coins in the glass jar to buy the Christmas tree, fill up our stockings with goodies, and for the Christmas meal. She gave us fifty cents each to buy presents at Rexall Drugs. I had convinced my sister to put our money together and buy mom and dad a three-tier candy dish on sale for seventy-nine cents. We had enough left over to buy each other three candy bars for a dime. I gave the remaining penny back to mom (knowing she would drop it back into the jar above the refrigerator for next year).
At sunrise, on Christmas morning my sister and I stood over the floor heater and rubbed our hands together with anticipation. Mom usually complained that the heater kept the rodents below warmer than us and that the old house was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer while dad would crack a smile. This morning, decked out in her Christmas robe, the joy on mom’s face caused our smiles to warm the big open living room.
The tree smelled of Christmas after nearly a month. Three of four light strands lit up. Mom and dad handed out the presents. My sister’s eyes grew the size of silver and blue Christmas tree balls as she opened her toy store present.
“Patty Play-Pal, Patty Play-Pal,” she cried out with glee.
The big doll was as tall as my sister.
My present was heavy. Although I remembered, it didn’t take away the thrill as I tore away the wrapping paper.
“Gee whiz,” I said, savoring my first glance of the erector set like I was the kid on the cover of the manual.
After my sister and I had opened all our gifts I handed mom their present. Although dad had helped me wrap it, he lacked the skill that mom possessed.
“What a beautiful candy dish,” she said, holding it up high to let the colored Christmas lights reflect in the glass. “I’m going to fill it with my homemade fudge and divinity.”
She and dad each gave us both a hug while the record player sang out, “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer…”
The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry (second excerpt):
The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children [Della and Jim] in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
Now that I look back on those days growing up on Park Street I realize that mom rarely bought anything for herself. Despite the lean times we always had happy birthdays, clothes for the beginning of a school year, and, of course, presents under the Christmas tree.
Each year at Christmas I drop a penny in my mayonnaise jar to bring back those times past… when Mom (with dad’s quiet support) became a true Magi.
The author encourages visitors to take a few more minutes during the Christmas holidays to read O. Henry’s short story, The Gift of the Magi.