Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from a woman in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write.
By Caryn Bell
The memory of being 10 years old is foggy to most people, myself included. I can’t remember the brand of tennis shoes I wore or which team won the 1990 World Series. I also can’t recall the height of our Christmas tree or a single present I opened, but if I live to be 100 years old, I know I’ll never forget the marvelous gift I received that year. It was the gift of knowing what Christmas really means.
My twin sister and I were lying in the floor watching It’s a Wonderful Life, a family Christmas tradition we still hold dear. We were dressed in matching nightgowns adorned with jumping polar bears. Splayed across the front of the gown were the words, “What Goes Up?” followed by the ever-predictable phrase, “Must Come Down” on the back. I didn’t know it at the time, but the phrasing on those thread-bare matching nightgowns was almost prophetic.
Before my mom turned off the TV with the ever-dreaded, “We need to talk” warning, George Bailey was running through a snowy Bedford Falls yelling, “Merry Christmas.”
As an adult, the beautiful irony of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, swelling like a theme song across the backdrop of a defining moment of my childhood is not lost on me. It was a very Merry Christmas, indeed, but it did not start out that way.
My mother’s “talk” turned out to be an atomic bomb shattering every stitch of Christmas hope we had left in the strands of our wispy blonde hair.
Very delicately, she explained our father had quit his job, and they didn’t know what to do about Christmas. We were confused. This new job was the promise of a better life, one that translated into shiny presents. For once, Dad wore a sport coat to work and didn’t have mechanic’s grease under his fingernails.
She told us— in a way a 10-year-old could understand— that when Dad was hired, he didn’t know the insurance company was targeting poor communities and selling them life insurance policies at exorbitant prices that weren’t worth the faded ink on the carbon paper. I suppose this ethical dilemma was particularly troubling for my father because this wasn’t a random neighborhood he was canvassing. This was our neighborhood. These were our friends, or at least they could have been.
For months, Dad grappled with purchasing Christmas gifts without compromising his conscience. Finally, he walked into his boss’s office to plead his case for justice. When his lament fell on deaf ears, he did the only thing he could do. He grabbed his briefcase in one hand, his sports coat in the other, said Merry Christmas, and walked out on a good-paying job. I was proud of my dad that day, but there was still the kid side of me who was too old to believe in the wonder of Santa but not yet old enough to believe in the altruistic notion that the best gifts are not found in a box. I still wanted a box— a big one.
Two weeks later a gift arrived in a small box, a tiny red envelope to be exact. It changed my life forever.
My mom was sorting through the mail when a Christmas card appeared without a return address. My sister and I were standing nearby when eight crisp $100 bills fell to the table like Bedford Falls’ glorious first snow. In the card was an anonymous note, “Clarence, because you have been a man of integrity and did not compromise, you have been rewarded.”
The tears streaming down my mother’s face watered the Christmas truth I now live and know— the best presents really aren’t found under a tree. They are found in the integrity of our fathers, the tears of our mothers, and the outpouring of generosity from friends who come to our rescue when we need them the most.
It’s been three decades since that Christmas. I still can’t recall a single present I received or how my parents spent the money. My guess is an outstanding electricity bill that fed energy to the glowing, multi-colored bulbs of my childhood.
When I look back, the glow is still there, as I realize what my dad gave up really did come back down a thousand times over.
In the closing scene of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence, who coincidentally bears the same name as my father, leaves George Bailey a poignant, parting message. “Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings.”
Through his own self-discovery, George Bailey helped Clarence earn his wings. My father helped me earn mine. As it turns out, both angels were right. There truly is nothing that makes a life more wonderful than knowing who you are and having friends who love you.
Caryn Bell is a district literacy coach for secondary schools in Santa Rosa County, Florida. In addition to a passion for teaching, she enjoys freelance writing and encouraging teachers with her daily blog Dear Teacher, where her goal is to write 180 blog posts (one for each school day) this year.