69: The Door

69: The Door

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

The Door

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

~Dalai Lama

Weird old Mr. Fingolde was our reclusive and eccentric neighbour. His quirky, unpredictable behavior made every child on the block afraid of him. Not that he ever hurt us. Or even spoke to us for that matter. Old Man Fingolde (if he had a first name, we didn’t know it) was my childhood fear. My boogieman under the bed. And so, like the other kids, I was unkind to him in that uniquely cruel way that children possess. Singing a nasty song about him to the tune of “Jingle Bells” was our way of “warding off the devil.”

Actually, he seemed a pathetic creature, a grumpy, old man who talked angrily to himself while walking around in the shadows of his dark, overgrown yard. Dandelions sprouted everywhere, the only element of colour in a primordial tangle of weeds. Winter was kinder to the Fingolde property, allowing it to look pristine and manicured under the undulating drifts of snow. During this season, neighbours found it less of an eyesore.

At school, my Grade Two teacher was pulling out the dogeared bundles of Christmas carol song-sheets provided free to all Winnipeg public schools, compliments of the then thriving T. Eaton Company. Choirs were organized according to grade, and by the first week in December we were all gaily singing without even looking at the words. However, more often than not they were the “misheard” words, the phonetic words that sounded perfect to our seven-year-old ears. Phrases like “We three kings of porridge and tar” or “Oh come, froggy faithful,” and of course, “Olive, the other reindeer.” What we lacked in musical ability, we made up for in enthusiasm, including our twisted words.

As Christmas drew near, and with it, the school concert and the holidays, the excitement increased. Christmas parties in every classroom were planned, and inexpensive gifts were bought at Woolworth’s. The wrapped gifts were then arranged under the classroom tree, which we’d all decorated.

But oddly, I wondered, why wasn’t a Christmas tree also being put up at my house? Why wasn’t my mother baking cookies with sugary designs of Santa and snowmen on them? Why wasn’t my father stringing sparkling lights on our house, like nice Mrs. Carruthers next door, who smilingly invited all the kids on the block in for frothy cups of eggnog and gingerbread bells? In contrast, there was crazy Mr. Fingolde, a scary galoot who crept around in the neglected house and overgrown yard across the street, and that’s when I learned he was something called Jewish. And then I learned the fact that altered my life forever: I was Jewish too!

“What’s Jewish?” I naively queried my mother.

“Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas because that is Jesus’s birthday,” Mom explained.

“Well, what do we celebrate then?” I asked.

Here came the second fact to inextricably alter my life: Jewish people celebrated something unpronounceable called Hanukkah. To me, the word sounded like a sneeze.

Then one day, while visiting Mrs. Carruthers, she revealed a story to me while I sipped on a cup of her chocolaty hot cocoa: Mr. Fingolde was really a lonely old man whose wife of fifty-one years had died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving him heartbroken. After that there was no one to take care of him, and his mind was never the same. He and his wife had never been able to have children, which had deeply saddened them both. “Mr. Fingolde is just a little mixed up and angry sometimes, because he’s so sad,” explained Mrs. Carruthers.

Then Mrs. Carruthers revealed something else. It turned out that Mr. Fingolde had a first name. It was Bernard. His wife’s name was Pearl. And in the years before she died, Mr. and Mrs. Fingolde had been as nice as Mrs. Carruthers. When the Christmas sugar-cookies and eggnog she served to the neighbourhood kids began to pall, there were crispy, golden “latkes” with honey-sweetened applesauce being served right across the street. All you had to do was knock on the Fingoldes’ front door.

Clad in a white apron, her round face beaming in welcome, Mrs. Fingolde would half-yank, half-carry the rosy-faced kids out of the frigid cold. Mr. Fingolde would shyly hover behind her, murmuring his quiet “hellos.” One by one, he would make his way through the parade of little visitors, peeling off parkas and unlacing heavy, wet boots. Then the couple would usher the children into their warm, fragrant kitchen to the table, which was already set with fine china plates, heavy, filigreed silverware and linen napkins. A crystal bowl, full to the top with Mrs. Fingolde’s special applesauce, sat in the center of the large table. Mrs. Fingolde would then drop a half-a-dozen sizzling “latkes” onto each plate the minute her “guests” sat down, then stand back, smiling with anticipation, as the hungry children dove into the stacks. There were always more to come when a plate became empty. By the time the children went back into the cold and snow, hearts, as well as stomachs, were lovingly content and full.

Yes, Mr. Fingolde had been my boogieman under the bed. But the more I learned about him, the more I came to heartbreakingly regret my childish spiteful behavior. The epiphany came for me in a sudden flash as Mrs. Carruthers described the couple as they had been before life and its inexplicable losses had laid its burdens on them. And in that moment, I felt the searing shame of my thoughtless and childish behavior, both cruel and ignorant, and for the first time in my young life I knew compassion. With tears in my eyes I buried my head in Mrs. Carruthers’ lap, repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” into her apron. Oh, how remorseful and ashamed I was! She let me cry until there was nothing left but dry muffled sobs, then gently lifted my head and looked into my sorrowful eyes.

“Do you think you can look at Mr. Fingolde with more sympathy and understanding now that you know why he acts as he does? Do you see why he is so sad and confused some of the time, now that you know what has happened to him?” Mrs. Carruthers asked softly.

“Yes, yes I can. I promise! I’ll learn to be as nice as you.”

Graham Greene tells us “there is always one moment in childhood when a door opens and lets the future in.” This was my moment… my door. It was the door that opened to compassion, the door that opened the way to my heart, the door to growing up.

~Sharon Melnicer

Winnipeg, Manitoba

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