Monday, December 29, 2008

A Special Breakfast

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Cheer

Until last year, the greatest sorrow of my life was that my wife Alice and I couldn’t have any children. To make up for this in a small way, we always invited all the children on our street to our house each Christmas morning for breakfast.

We would decorate the house with snowflakes and angels in the windows, a nativity scene and a Christmas tree in the living room, and other ornaments that we hoped would appeal to the children. When our young guests arrived—there were usually ten or fifteen of them—we said grace and served them such delicacies as orange juice garnished with a candy cane. And after the meal we gave each of the youngsters a wrapped toy or game. We used to look forward to these breakfasts with the joyful impatience of children.

But last year, about six weeks before Christmas, Alice died. I could not concentrate at work. I could not force myself to cook anything but the simplest dishes. Sometimes I would sit for hours without moving, and then suddenly find myself crying for no apparent reason.

I decided not to invite the children over for the traditional Christmas breakfast. But Kathy and Peter, my next door neighbors, asked me to join them and their three children for dinner on Christmas Eve. As soon as I arrived and had my coat off, Kathy asked me, “Do you have any milk at your house?”

“Yes,” I replied. “If you need some, I’ll go right away.”

“Oh, that’s all right. Come and sit down. The kids have been waiting for you. Just give Peter your keys.”

So I sat down, prepared for a nice chat with eight-year-old Beth and six-year-old Jimmy. (Their little sister was upstairs sleeping.) But my words wouldn’t come. What if Beth and Jimmy should ask me about my Christmas breakfast? How could I explain to them? Would they think I was just selfish or self-pitying? I began to think they would. Worse, I began to think they would be right.

But neither of them mentioned the breakfast. At first I felt relieved, but then I started to wonder if they remembered it or cared about it. As they prattled on about their toys, their friends and Christmas, I thought they would be reminded of our breakfast tradition, and yet they said nothing. This was strange, I thought, but the more we talked, the more I became convinced that they remembered the breakfast but didn’t want to embarrass Grandpa Melowski (as they called me) by bringing it up.

Dinner was soon ready and afterward we all went to late Mass. After Mass, the Zacks let me out of their car in front of my house. I thanked them and wished them all merry Christmas as I walked toward my front door. Only then did I notice that Peter had left a light on when he borrowed the milk—and that someone had decorated my windows with snowflakes and angels!

When I opened the door, I saw that the whole house had been transformed with a Christmas tree, a nativity scene, candles and all the other decorations of the season. On the dining room table was Alice’s green Christmas tablecloth and her pinecone centerpiece. What a kind gesture! At that moment, I wished that I could still put on the breakfast, but I had made no preparations.

Early the next morning, a five-year-old with a package of sweet rolls rang my bell. Before I could ask him what was going on, he was joined by two of his friends, one with a pound of bacon, the other with a pitcher of orange juice. Within fifteen minutes, my house was alive with all the children on my street, and I had all the food I needed for the usual festive breakfast. I was tremendously pleased, although in the back of my mind I still feared that I would disappoint my guests. I knew my spur-of-the-moment party was missing one important ingredient.

At about nine-thirty, though, I had another surprise. Kathy Zack came to my back door.

“How’s the breakfast?” she asked.

“I’m having the time of my life,” I answered.

“I brought something for you,” she said, setting a shopping bag on the counter.

“More food?”

“No,” she said. “Take a look.”

Inside the bag were individually wrapped packages, each bearing the name of one of the children and signed, “Merry Christmas from Grandpa Melowski.”

My happiness was complete. It was more than just knowing that the children would receive their customary gifts and wouldn’t be disappointed; it was the feeling that everyone cared.

I like to think it’s significant that I received a gift of love on the same day that the world received a sign of God’s love two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. I never found out who to thank for my Christmas present. I said my “Thank you” in my prayers that night—and that spoke of my gratitude more than anything I could ever say to my neighbors.

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