It’s been well over a decade since I spent Christmas in my childhood hometown of Baldwin, a small suburban village on Long Island’s south shore. I always enjoyed going back each year, first when I was single and later with my wife and then our boys.
Tradition can be comforting, a reassurance that even the unpredictability of life has its limits. You can still count on a few things like you can rely on the changing seasons. So we sing the same songs with the same people, sit in the same pew, even eat off the same china and swap stories for the umpteenth time. Familiar can feel good.
But it’s an illusion, of course. Even the longest streak eventually ends. A promotion takes you away or death takes a loved one. Nothing lasts forever.
On a trip east two weeks ago, I road an express train that hurtled right through Baldwin, past familiar landmarks of my yesterdays, including the Coach Diner and Wick’s Florist, a 92-year-old institution where I used to buy carnations for my mom. Both my parents are gone and our old home at 2349 Central Ave. is no longer ours. A nice family lives there now, and they even let me tour it a few years back.
But as the Long Island Railroad rattled by on this cold, wet night, I looked beyond the Burger King restaurant on Grand Avenue and up the busy road to a newly built church on the street’s east side.
Only in my mind, I didn’t see a church at all – but rather a large lot lit by long strings of crisscrossing white bulbs and stocked with hundreds of cut evergreen Christmas trees. A metal barrel filled with wood once rested over in the corner, and the grizzled proprietor stood by it, quietly warming his hands over the open flames.
Owned by the Amendola Fence Co., we used to buy our tree there during my high school days. But they eventually sold the property to the Second Baptist Church, whose building now occupies the area.
Looking out the train’s window and up the road in the new church’s direction, I was reminded of a 30-year-old memory involving the site that has stuck with me ever since.
It starts, though, on my Newsday paper route. Christmas was an exciting time for a kid delivering newspapers because some customers often gave extra generous tips.
I could still name almost all the people on my route, most of whom are now in heaven.
There was frail Mrs. McCabe, a woman whose husband, Johnny, won the Kentucky Derby in 1914 riding Old Rosebud. Mrs. Fox was in the opposite direction, homebound and living alone in a brick English Tudor. She was so weak she used to ask me to take her trash out to the curb. Mrs. McGrath was a sweet, grandmotherly type who always seemed to have freshly baked cookies coming out of the oven.
Setting out for the evening deliveries, I think I felt pretty generous that year, as if I was on a mission of mercy, sacrificing my hard-earned money.
All three of these women were widows and one year I was struck by how their houses were among the only ones on our street without any decorations. My mom speculated it was because they didn’t have anyone to lug boxes or stand on a ladder to put up lights.
I had been looking forward to spending my Christmas tip windfall on something for myself, but after talking with my parents, I landed on the idea that I would purchase some small evergreen trees, buy some lights from Genovese Drug store on the corner, and deliver them to our neighbors’ homes. My father took me down to his basement workshop and built wooden stands for the trees.
Setting out for the evening deliveries, I think I felt pretty generous that year, as if I was on a mission of mercy, sacrificing my hard-earned money. But after being warmly greeted with happy tears in each home, sitting down and visiting and hearing the old stories, I was overwhelmed by how much these great women had wound up blessing me.
I think of that night every Christmas season. The memory is especially poignant now, as my wife and I navigate three boisterous boys, often craving some peace and solitude. I remember the ladies urged me to enjoy my family and the hustle and bustle that accompanies the holiday. Their homes were eerily quiet then, absent the laughter and activity of years gone by. But here they were still ministering even in the twilight of their lives – and their wise words still echo down through the corridor of time.
It was the late Dale Rogers, the wife of Roy, the singing cowboy, who once said, “Christmas is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas.”
The coming holiday is many things to many people. We give, though, because God first gave to us. His incarnation as a little baby is the gift of all gifts, manifested and celebrated in the familiar lyrics we sing each year, “Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”