100: Brighter than Any Christmas Lights

100: Brighter than Any Christmas Lights

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Brighter than Any Christmas Lights

Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.

~Author Unknown

I can’t actually remember Wally’s face. I only remember certain details, like how he cast down his head when he stood up to shake my dad’s hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw poor Wally’s free hand try desperately to close the gap, the broken zipper in his threadbare pants.

For weeks we’d nagged Dad: “When are we going?” Every year he drove the three of us to see the Christmas lights around our home-town of Port Arthur. When the big night arrived, I felt impatient when Dad turned the wheel of the Chrysler New Yorker away from the edge of the suburbs onto a bumpy snow-caked path into what I thought was a junkyard. Dad had told us kids that we had to make a detour.

“Got a gift for an old friend,” he said.

I looked up to see a weather-beaten boxcar shack. Smoke floated out of a small stack in the roof. I wondered aloud: “Does somebody live here?”

“Yes, his name is Wally,” said Dad. “You call him Mr. Wilson.” Dad opened his car door allowing cool air to waft in.

My little brother in the front seat said, “Yuck.”

“Shhh,” said my sister Jane sitting next to me.

“Be polite,” my dad said.

“Yes, Dad,” Jane said.

I frowned. Jane was almost two years younger than me, but acted older.

Dad set Wally’s gift down on a wobbly table, careful to lay the brown paper bag flat. Wally watched, and then turned his eyes away. He offered my dad the only chair. My sister and brother sat on either side of Wally on a bed that was covered with ragged blankets. Several of Wally’s bare toes stuck out from his slippers. Standing by a wall, I managed to avoid brushing up against anything. Tattered seemed a good word to describe everything there.

As we got up to leave, Wally stood, still talking with his hands. This made it awkward to hide the opening of his trousers. He lowered his eyes, head down. I guess he opened the gift after we left.

Walking down the path my dad explained that wealthy neighbours were trying to get the government to bulldoze Wally’s house.

“That’s not fair,” my sister said.

I spun my head around to see Dad smile her way.

“Well, Janie… these rich people pay a lot of taxes.”

“Humph,” she said. My dad put his arm around her laughing softly.

I kicked snow her way.

As we cruised by the big suburban houses my dad cried out, “Wow… look at that one.”

But for me, the bright lights of Port Arthur no longer had the same sparkle they usually did.

When my dad turned the car onto our street, illuminating for a moment my sister’s face, I caught a strange look in her eyes.

Back home we got ready for bed. I was almost asleep, when through the darkness of the bedroom, words floated over to me from Jane’s bed on the other side.

“I know what we can do.”

I said nothing.

“We’ll have a circus.”

She really had me awake now. She began talking about how we could raise money for Wally. I turned my head on the pillow and sighed. She talked about decorating the garage. Then she said, “You can make up games that we could play. You’re good at that.”

My ears tuned in immediately.

Jane said, “You’re good at spreading the word too. Kath, you’re kind of artistic, right?”

I lifted my head and said, “Yes. I’ll make posters.”

“That’s great.”

I said, “Okay… but please go to sleep. We have school tomorrow.”

By 3 p.m. Saturday, we had raised $1.80 from circus admission alone. We took in $5.60 from games of chance like Ring Toss. I invented a game that I called Ball Throw. For twenty-five cents a pop, if you hit and broke an old 78 LP record album hung by a string from the garage ceiling you won a prize. If you hit it dead centre it created great smashing noises. When Jane had to call out, “Watch it,” one too many times because of razor-edged shards flying about, she cancelled Ball Throw.

We made the most money from my next game. We charged fifteen cents for jumping off the garage roof into the next-door neighbour’s backyard snow bank. This was very popular. When we were up another $4.35, Jane hugged me. “You always have the best ideas,” she said. “I wish I could be more like you.”

Hearing her words, I felt like something inside cracked. In its place warmth flooded in.

Soon, our neighbour Mrs. Novak came home and phoned our father to make us stop. Total fundraising efforts for the day: $11.75 — which back then was a nice haul.

On Monday Janie was in charge of buying Wally’s present.

“They’re nice,” I said, when she showed me the slippers. “I hope they’re the right size!” When I looked at the other items — safety pins, a plastic washbasin, a fluffy yellow towel and a bar of white soap — it set my stomach in a knot. What would he think?

Four days before Christmas, as we drove to Wally’s boxcar home, I watched my dad’s head bob and shake like you see one of those toy dogs on a car dashboard.

“I’m so proud of you kids,” he said, letting his hands fly off the steering wheel. “I feel like the richest man in the world, like I have three million dollars!”

My little brother beamed.

I said aloud, “Dad, it’s not fair they’re going to make Mr. Wilson move. When I’m in government, I’m going to make new laws.”

At that, Dad said, “I forgot to tell you . . . Town Council didn’t approve the eviction notice. Wally gets to stay.”

My heart leapt. My sister nudged me and smiled.

Dad held the door for the three of us as we stomped our boots and trudged into the boxcar house. Being the oldest, it was my job to hand the large brown shopping bag to Wally.

“This is for you, Mr. Wilson,” I said simply. Then, not being able to think of anything else to say, I put an arm around my little brother’s shoulder.

“Merry Christmas,” Jane said.

I saw Dad attempt to hide a smile as Mr. Wilson tried on the slippers. They looked about two sizes too big.

Mr. Wilson then pulled the other things out of the bag one by one. With the dim light from the table lamp I noticed the grey in the stubble on his chin. Gently, he set down the pins, washbasin, towel and soap next to the shoebox, making a straight line along the edge of the bed. He smiled. I breathed out deeply.

When Wally turned around, he had his left hand holding his trouser gap closed and his right reaching out to me. Suddenly, I lifted my arm. In turn, Wally shook each of our hands the way I saw our parish priest greet us when Dad finally brought us back to the church.

I looked down at the contrast of Mr. Wilson’s old bed covers and the objects lined up along the edge. Their shiny newness reflected in his wet eyes. It was a display that lifted up to my heart and burned brighter than any Christmas lights.

~Kathy Ashby

Bracebridge, Ontario

More stories from our partners