Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't

My family was not what you would call "charitable". I don't recall anyone in the family ever donating their time or energy to a worthy cause. My parents gave regularly at church, and always came up with a few extra dollars for special collections. But that's the only act of charity I can ever remember my family doing.

However, there was one year when we were on the receiving end of a charitable organization...

It was the Christmas of 1958. I was two years old at the time (yes, I realize I'm dating myself but I'm going to trust you to keep this a secret ;-) and if you'd asked me what I wanted for Christmas I would have smiled and said, " a horsey!" My parents got such a kick out of that. There I was barely two years old and I could already tell everybody that I wanted a horsey for Christmas.

My mom and dad decided to get me a bouncy horse for Christmas. But not just any bouncy horse would do. Even at the age of two I already had an opinion and a preference when it came to bouncy horses. You see, most of the bouncy horses only had two legs… their two front legs were molded together as were the two back legs. If you looked at them from either side they looked like a horse but if you looked at them from the front or back they didn't look like any horse I'd ever seen. I wanted a horse with four legs!

My mom and dad did some footwork and found a bouncy horse with four legs way across town from our house. They bought it for me and stored it up in the attic with the rest of the Christmas presents they'd bought. They were so pleased. Jasia would get her horse for Christmas!

On December 23rd, just as the family was finishing up dinner, a distinct smell of smoke was noticed. It didn't take long before the fire was discovered. My brother had been burning a candle (which he wasn't supposed to do) upstairs in his bedroom. When he was called down to dinner he blew out the candle and put it on the shelf in his closet. He meant to contain the smoke so it wouldn't be noticed. While we were eating dinner the candle reignited and started the house on fire.

Back in those days there was a fire alarm call box on the utility pole at the corner of our block. People didn't call for help using their home telephones. Instead they ran to the fire alarm call box and pulled the switch. My brother was sent to do this while the rest of us made our way out of the house. We didn't live far from the fire station so the fire truck arrived in a matter of minutes. Even so by the time the firefighters were able to put the fire out the entire top floor of the house had burned and the ceiling over the living room had caved in. The entire main floor was covered in soot and had extensive water damage. The house was inhabitable, all the Christmas presents had burned up. It was the night before Christmas Eve and we were out in the cold with nothing but the clothes on our backs.

I don't know how the arrangements were made but we ended up moving in with my dad's sister Genevieve and her husband Johnny. They had a pretty big house and no children so there was room for us there. I can't begin to imagine trying to deal with that kind of tragedy at Christmas. Back in those days you couldn't find banks, auto teller machines, or stores open 24 hours. There was no time or money to go out and buy Christmas presents again. My dad insisted that they had to buy one present though. They had to buy Jasia a bouncy horse, and it had to have four legs!

Of all the things they must have had on their minds that Christmas Eve, the bouncy horse was the most important. Unbelievable! My dad went off in search of another one. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Genevieve volunteered their help and went out shopping too. Meanwhile, some of my parents' neighbors went door to door and took up a collection for us. They collected almost $200. That was a lot of money back in those days. Unbeknownst to the family, the Dearborn fire department notified the local chapter of the Goodfellows whose motto is "No child without a Christmas".

By the time the sun rose on Christmas morning there was a bouncy horse with four legs next to Aunt Genevieve's Christmas tree. It was surrounded by a load of presents for me and my brothers, dropped off by the Goodfellows. Christmas was saved even if our house wasn't.

We lived with my aunt and uncle for two months while the house was rebuilt. I'm told that when we walked through the house to inspect the damage I pointed everywhere saying, "dirty! dirty!" I was so very young when this happened. What I know of the fire I was told by my mother and brothers. I only have one very vague recollection of standing on the front porch of our neighbor's house who lived across the street and three houses north of my parents' house. It was from there that I watched the firetruck with its lights flashing as the firemen put out the fire at our house.

Just a few weeks ago I spent a couple hours at the Dearborn public library looking for newspaper accounts of that house fire. There were three local newspapers in Dearborn back in 1958 and wouldn't you know it not a single one of them covered that story. I suspect that was because the local papers were only published once a week (on the same day) and that happen to fall on December 24 back in 1958. The papers had probably already gone to press by the evening of the 23rd and by the time the next week's addition had come out on New Year's Eve it would've been old news.

Every year at Christmastime the Goodfellows in our area stand at intersections collecting money from people as their cars stop for the signal light. I'm always reminded of the Christmas that almost didn't happen for our family and I always reach in my purse to make a contribution to their organization. And then I go home and write out a check for even more money.

It's inevitable that each year in our area there are will be house fires reported at Christmas time. I like to think that I helped save some child's Christmas the way Christmas was saved for me and my brothers. And I hope that each child has a parent who cares enough to see to it that they get their bouncy horse too.

I know this is a bad picture but it's the only one I have of me on my bouncy horse on Christmas morning at my aunt and uncle's house. The baby doll and carriage were gifts from the Goodfellows.

Here's another picture taken on Christmas Day at my aunt and uncle's house. I'm sitting on my dad's lap while my Uncle Johnny sits nearby. My dad looks so calm. Hard to believe his house burned down 48 hours earlier. I wonder where he got the clothes he was wearing. At 6'3" tall, there weren't many fellas he could borrow clothing from (not Uncle Johnny!).

[The Advent calendar number graphic used in this post was created by NicNic at the NBK blog.]