70: Two Bits for Christmas

70: Two Bits for Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Two Bits for Christmas

One can never pay in gratitude; one can only pay “in kind” somewhere else in life.

~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

It was a few weeks before my first Charlottetown Christmas when I heard my mother-in-law Nanette say, “Well, fifty cents don’t mean nothin’ to me! It doesn’t now and it didn’t then!”

When I asked her to explain, she told me a story that helped me get to know her.

For Nan, it had always been easier to give than receive. “Not knowing how to receive is even harder when you don’t have a gift in hand to return,” she explained.

It was 1966 and Christmas was approaching. For Archie Reardon, not knowing how to give, and for Nanette MacLeod, not knowing how to receive, was a way of life. They both worked at the Oakville GE Electric Plant, just west of Toronto. The plant employed about a thousand people. Archie was the foreman on the factory floor where Nan inspected the incandescent light bulbs before they went for packaging. The eighty-seven dollars a week she earned paid the rent, and part-time house cleaning jobs bought food and clothes for her three kids.

Nan was thirty-one, and she and her husband Ed came from the kind of sturdy, working class, Irish/Scottish backgrounds so predominant in the red dirt of Prince Edward Island. But like so many Maritimers, they had left the “have not,” smallest region in Canada for one of the biggest and richest, simply for its steady paychecks.

Life was not easy, and for some, the strains of life are harder than for others. Married now for fourteen years, over the past few years Ed had gradually become a full-blown alcoholic. By 1966 his erratic behaviour and drunken depressions had spun out of control, and in September that year he ended his own life.

Between the police, the funeral and the unforeseen bills that were quickly mounting, Nan’s already tough life had become unbearable. Now it was December, and with the constant grind of working two jobs she was worried about her children. They had all huddled together and found ways to survive the terror of that September night. But how were they really dealing with their father’s death? Who was there to help a single mother now carrying the weight of the world?

Many people pitched in and many more offered, but with her natural defiance and self-sufficiency Nan was not given to accepting charity. Her strong work ethic demanded she double her efforts and rely on herself. But despite her steadfast determination she was burnt out and at wit’s end. By December the company nurse had sent her home to rest several times. Nan’s tough determination had staved off a formal breakdown, but the truth was she had hit rock bottom.

After three years Nan was known as a hard and dependable worker. But since September she’d made more “on the job” mistakes than in all the previous years. She had trouble focusing and frequently felt like she was asleep on her feet. Aware of her situation, the foreman did his best to ignore these issues. This was hard given the state of the business, but it was Archie’s attempt to give someone a break.

Now there were rumours of plant layoffs expected in the New Year. Nan knew her lack of seniority would automatically put her job in jeopardy, and now, with her recent mistakes and the state she was in having drawn the attention of the company nurse, she was in trouble. When the layoffs came she’d be amongst the first to go. Job or not, there’d be no Christmas this year for the MacLeod family.

Just two days before Christmas, she had no presents and no plans. She’d done her best to prepare her kids. Even buying a turkey seemed unlikely. There was no money and no joy. There was only work and worry.

That day, two fellow workers were selling fifty-cent raffle tickets for a small prize to raise money for a good cause. Even in 1966 fifty cents wasn’t that much. But they hadn’t asked her. Approaching them at break Nan pulled two quarters from her purse.

“I seen you fellas sellin’ tickets earlier. Why didn’t you just ask?” she grumbled, dropping her coins into the hat.

As the two women handed over the fifty-cent ticket they glanced at each other, and then said, “We know things have been hard for you, and we didn’t want to bother you… money being tight and all.”

“Well, fifty cents don’t mean nothin’ to me,” said Nan pridefully. And for her, that statement was enough. An opportunity to feel good on a bad day had presented itself, and she took it. It was the right thing to do, and besides, it’s always better to give than receive.

Soon after that Nan was told to report to Archie Reardon’s office at the end of her shift. This could not be a good thing, and a knot formed in her stomach. The rest of the day dragged on as the anger, fear, resentment and defiance that had shaped her life twisted in her belly. When she finally stood at Archie’s door it felt like she was moving in slow motion. Like an aging fighter entering the ring her senses were on high alert. Now focussed solely on survival, she swore she’d maintain her defiant dignity.

In his mid-forties, Archie was a stern, somewhat unemotional man. As Nan entered he was looking out over the plant floor, his back to the door. She knew he’d watched her make her way up, so his not looking at her straight away couldn’t be good. As he turned toward her, eyes down, she seemed to notice everything at once. The sounds from the production floor had disappeared. She noticed papers on the desk, the old wood smell of the office, the tired, greenish-yellow battleship linoleum floor, and Mr. Reardon’s coat and boots set neatly behind the door. Now, as his eyes rose to meet hers, she noticed the tired wrinkles and furrowed brow on his worried face. She glanced down, and at that moment both sets of eyes went to a hat on the desk. Her mind was suddenly filled with many questions, but they were all shattered as he prepared to speak.

Before he could begin she heard herself, in complete submission with not a trace of defiance, pleading for another chance. She was begging for her children. But the screaming was only in her mind. Toughness and pride kept her silent as she braced for the coming blow.

“Nan,” he said, “we here at the plant know what you’ve been going through.” Pointing to the hat he continued. “You know I’m not very good at this kind of thing, but we took up a collection and we hope it helps. It’s about five hundred dollars.”

If he said anything else, she didn’t hear it. If she spoke, she didn’t know it. As they both stepped toward the hat she froze, as if uncertain this was all real. Then, the awkward moment passed and her fearful anticipation ended. In 1966, five hundred dollars was a lot of money. Almost six weeks’ pay. Almost five months’ rent.

The sudden relief, the joy and the embarrassment all flowed in tears down her face. In an instant, she felt the love of almost a thousand souls who, at fifty cents apiece, had shown their compassion. Nan had nothing to give back except her tears, and she was too overwhelmed, too tired and far too shocked to be defiant, so she accepted the gift the only way should could, with relief.

Archie Reardon, uncomfortable with giving, was happy that Nan MacLeod, uncomfortable with receiving, did not overstate her obvious thanks and gratitude. Although brief, and awkward for both, the moment fulfilled the needs of an entire company of people.

For Nan, being a giver was always easier, but her gratitude was genuine and she was truly humbled by this kindness. It was a kindness, and an eternal moment that she remembers with great emotion to this day.

The gift for us all resides in the beauty that can be expressed in the simplest of terms. “Well, fifty cents don’t mean nothin’ to me,” but for Nan, two bits for Christmas really meant everything.

~Bob Mueller

Summerside, Prince Edward Island

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