Yolanda Adele shares a special memory of an uncle who eased the pain of a difficult time in her family’s life. Wanting to show him her love, she concocts a scheme shaped by wishful thinking. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
The Christmas of 1959 could have been the worst holiday of my life when my dad left us, yet again. But, like Cinderella, I had an exceptional godparent. Our family called him Uncle Brown.
He was married to my grandmother's younger sister, Aunt Adelina. She always addressed him formally, calling him Mr. Brown. The exception was when she penned a letter or signed a photo of herself to give him. Then she used tender words of endearment. He, on the other hand always called her Honey, Sweetheart, or Darling.
Uncle Brown and my aunt never had children, but when my mother went to work after another of my parents’ separations, they unofficially adopted my younger half-sister. My uncle’s home was a beautiful, spacious, Spanish-style house with a manicured lawn in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, at the bottom of a hill. It was a few miles from the rented house I shared with my mother; who was my aunt’s caregiver when my aunt fell seriously ill.
Uncle Brown was a rugged looking man about six feet tall. He had snowy white hair, large callused hands, a twinkle in his eyes, and a jolly smile. He liked to say in his Popeye the Sailor Man voice, “My name is Joe Brown. If you ask me again, I will knock you down.” He was as corny as he was good natured. I’d often wished he were my dad.
When Aunt Adelina died, Uncle Brown invited my mother and me to move in with him in time for Christmas. Although I knew that my father was absent, I was caught up in my uncle's joyful spirit.
Uncle Brown let my mother pick out a Christmas tree, which was a hideous silver aluminum tree that came with a rotating color wheel. The wheel plugged into an outlet, lighting and reflecting, as it turned, the colors of the cellophane paper onto the tree. That was the contemporary look of 1959.
Uncle Brown soon piled gifts for us around the base of the tree. I was 14 years old and broke. I hand-made a calendar for his office, and I wanted to give him so much more.
One day while my sister and I were playing jacks in his office, I got the idea that maybe he had so much stuff that he would not miss some of it. I quickly searched his closet. I found gift wrap along with silver rulers, a new pencil sharpener, and an unopened box from Sears. I did not know what was in it, but I was sure he‘d like it since he had picked it out and paid for it.
In my mind it was not really stealing because I intended to give it all back. Feeling happy and conscience-free, I took great care in wrapping the packages that were sure to surprise Uncle Brown at Christmas.
At the back of his closet I was shocked to find a Santa's suit. I did not let my sister see it, as I was sure who Santa was now! It certainly would ruin Christmas for her. She was just 9 years old
The very next day Uncle Brown started asking us if we had seen the articles he was missing from his room. I felt myself become flushed. I held myself still. I could hear the blood pumping-factory in my body. I had only one hope, to convince him on Christmas Day that I had bought all the items to replace what he had lost.
My only problem was that I could not count on my sister to keep my plan secret without sufficient bribery. I let her borrow, play, and destroy anything of mine until Christmas Day.
Long after everyone had gone to bed, I got out all of the boxes I had hidden. I made my way down the hall, careful not to step on the floor boards that I knew squeaked.
There, by the glow of the Christmas tree lights, I sat and arranged Uncle's presents around the tree. I had what I wanted most for Christmas, extra gifts for a very deserving Santa whom I loved.
I was startled when I heard the floor board squeak, but before I could hide I was face to face with Santa. He had a familiar twinkle in his eyes and a jolly smile. He knelt on one knee, put his finger to his lips and softly told me to whisper. He then asked. "Have you been a good girl?”
"I only know I try, Santa," I answered holding back tears.
“Wonderful! That’s what everyone should try to do every day!” Hearing his words opened the floodgate of tears I had been choking back. With his calloused hand he wiped my tears away.
“Are you crying because you are excited about seeing Santa?” he asked. I nodded Yes. Then he kissed me on the forehead.
“You better get back to bed. You don’t want to make me late to the North Pole, do you?"
“Oh, no, Santa!” With that I ran to my room. When I got in bed it felt warmer and cozier than ever before.
On Christmas morning Uncle Brown had proved my plan worked. He was very surprised to have all his lost items replaced. And he said he especially liked the calendar I decorated with my school picture and tons of glitter.
My mother was not as happy as we were. She probably missed dad; but not even that could spoil my very special Christmas surprise for the Santa in our lives.