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Mankato Magazine

Healy: Not So Simple Gifts

  • 6 min to read

Twice a month my mother would retreat to her room after speaking a few words of warning to my big sisters and me.

“I have to pay some bills,” she would say. Or, “I have to balance my checkbook.”

My sisters had sense enough to stay away on bill-paying or checkbook-balancing nights, but my room was nearest to my mother’s, which made it more difficult for me. I was only ten, eleven, twelve years old, and I could hear her in there, shuffling papers and scratching away with her ballpoint pen. Sometimes I would wander in from the hallway, sit on the edge of her bed, and watch her make out checks and seal them into envelopes.

“How much money do you have?” I would ask. Or, “Why do you keep sighing?”

***

In December each year Rosemary and Bob Gerner stopped by to wish a merry Christmas to my mother and whatever remainder of her kids still lived at home. Rosemary was my mother’s cousin. She smiled easily and spoke in a warm, familiar voice. Bob was a cheerful person, too, and a good talker.

They said hello to each of us kids. They remembered our names, and they remembered things about us. We stuck around to listen as they sat in the living room with our mother, drinking coffee and catching up. We liked them, and we couldn’t help noticing how they put our mother at ease, how their presence improved her mood.

We would’ve liked them even if they hadn’t brought us Christmas gifts. We would’ve liked them even if those gifts hadn’t been among our favorites each year. We got no tube socks from the Gerners, no Life Savers books. We couldn’t help wondering what they might bring for us. Did that make us greedy? We didn’t think so.

The Gerners didn’t make a fuss about it. We thought maybe they were rich.

***

In my lifetime my mother had been a hostess at a steakhouse, a nurse’s aide, a bank teller, and a secretary. Before all that she’d been a full-time mom with a flock kids and an increasingly unreliable husband, but those days were hard to remember. By the early 1980s she worked for Sperry, a computer company that occupied a huge campus north of Minneapolis.

I called her at the office one day, and she answered by saying, “Diagnostic software and technical support.” I had no idea what any of that meant, and I assumed she had gotten something wrong. Was “software” even a word? I didn’t think so.

In those days she wore her hair neat and short, her glasses large and round, and her blazers navy blue or beige. After work she put on slacks and tennis shoes and went outside to pull weeds from the rock garden. Twice a month she’d be back at the desk, signing checks and subtracting numbers.

“How much do you make?” I asked once.

“That’s not a polite question,” she replied. 

***

Rosemary Gerner, was born Rosemary Driscoll, and she grew up with five brothers on St. Paul’s East Side. They were part of the Irish-Catholic wing of my mother’s family—the wing that never had a lot of money but still had a lot of good times. My mother grew up across town, a few blocks south of Summit Avenue, among people who had more money and less fun.

Getting there hadn’t been easy. Her father took a job with the railroad when he was a teenager and worked his way up from the loading docks to management and, eventually, into the executive ranks. (That sort of thing was once possible, apparently.) When he moved his family to Princeton Avenue, life promised to be comfortable, serene, secure. It didn’t work out that way.

Rosemary was seven years older than my mother, and the two hadn’t known each other well. When she and Bob became engaged, Rosemary asked my mother and her younger sister to be in the bridal party. The request came out of the blue.

“She wanted family in her wedding,” my mother told me years later. “She only had brothers.” 

***

Beginning when our kids were toddlers, we read them stories infused with messages about poverty and wealth, gratitude and ingratitude, gratefulness and greed. Hard times came built into our favorite tales.

Our kids witnessed this: Charlie Bucket’s family endures desperate poverty, half-starved and cold to the bone, until he finds a golden ticket. Dorothy Gale lives in a one-room house with her aunt and uncle, and when she steps outside all she can see is gray—the dull sky, the parched earth, the dead grass, even the boards of the house itself, all gray. Only a cyclone can take her away. Laura Ingalls and her family make their own clothing, live in shacks and dugouts, and uproot themselves whenever Pa gets a notion. At Christmastime, Laura can hardly believe her good fortune when she gets a penny, a tin cup of her own, and a stick of candy.

The point of these stories is, of course, that the characters eventually find some sort of joy—or at least a measure of contentment. There’s a secondary message: People have to get through hard times to appreciate good times. I suppose we hoped our kids could learn that without having to live it.

***

One year the Gerners brought especially nice gifts for my sister Linda and me. We were the youngest in the family, and by that time we were the only ones who hadn’t yet entered our obnoxious high-school years. I got a remote-control car, and Linda got a portable radio.

The remote-control car was bright red, and once we found some batteries for it, the thing really zoomed. I enjoyed it immensely over the course of its working lifespan, which was about average for a radio-control car, meaning three or four days.

The portable radio was about the size of a cigar box and made of royal blue plastic, with an AM/FM dial and a handle on the top. The radio meant Linda could have music—her choice of music—anywhere she wanted. That seemed like a big deal at the time.

The blue radio lasted for years, and even after I’d forgotten how it once impressed me, it seemed like an important memento. It reminded me of Christmastime, the Gerners, and the feeling of getting a perfect gift. Whenever I noticed the radio on a shelf in my sister’s room, I thought about them. The thought would pass through me quickly, and I wouldn’t pause to consider it. But there they were, a flash of Rosemary and Bob in my memory and a pulse of gratitude.  

***

When the holidays came around, my wife and I rewound and replayed VHS copies of our favorites—“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We plopped our kids down so they could be entertained and infused with the Christmas spirit and we could laugh at the same old things.

What did the kids find in these stories? Forlorn protagonists (outcasts, misfits, down-on-their-luck types) and hard-hearted antagonists (the Grinch himself, the Abominable Snowman, that terrible Lucy).

Their makers intended, of course, to reveal the true Christmas spirit. In the end, they are stories about togetherness, kindness, and peace. But there was that secondary message again: You will have to endure hard times to appreciate good times.

Our kids may have missed it. Near the end of the Grinch our son would urge us to stand up with him, join hands, and sway like the Whos down in Whoville. Our daughter did a good imitation of Snoopy’s booing at poor old Charlie. It was fun, only fun.

***

Rosemary and Bob Gerner died last February. Both of them. My mother called to tell me the news. They’d been married for 63 years, and their deaths came only days apart, which allowed for a joint funeral and burial.

I found their shared obituary online, and it mentioned things I’d forgotten and things I’d never known. Bob had served in World War II and the Korean War. Then, it said, he “worked his entire life in sales.” They’d lost an infant daughter to cystic fibrosis. They enjoyed taking long drives, eating out, and entertaining.

Their obituary began this way: “They loved their family and friends deeply and will be missed by many.”

***

These days when I call my mother to say hello and catch up, we sometimes get to talking about the lean years. That’s how we describe them now—lean—and we remember them with something like fondness. We laugh about the Thanksgiving when the oven wouldn’t heat up, the time I chased a mouse around the living room, and all the dead batteries in the terrible automobiles that darkened our driveway.

Not long ago we were talking about plans for Christmas this year, and I mentioned the Gerners. I mentioned their December visits, the remote-control car, and the royal blue radio.

“Really?” my mother said. “They gave you kids presents?”

“Don’t you remember?” I asked.

“They gave me wonderful gifts. Rosemary picked out beautiful things,” she said. “They bought me a lovely plaid skirt, and they bought me a lovely red leather jacket.”

A red leather jacket? I didn’t know what to say about that. I asked her to tell me the wedding story again—the story of when Rosemary asked her to be a bridesmaid. I don’t know why I wanted to hear it. I suppose I like the fact that it was a small act that led to good things, valuable things.

“We just became friends. We were best friends,” my mother said over the phone. “I miss her a lot.”


This column was selected from the December 2015 issue of Mankato Magazine. 

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