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  • J.A.Willoughby

"The Toy Box Directive" - The Second of Two Parts of Actual Christmas Stories from My Worl

Image by Rebecca L. Willoughby

Author’s Note: “The Toy Box Directive” is the second part of a two part Christmas story series. If you read the first part, “Two Christmas Toys,” you will have some background on the following.

My sister and I shared a toy box when we were young. One of the reasons for that was that we didn’t have many toys. The other reason was that the house was small. But the first reason was the most telling; we didn’t have much.

Our parents were ‘new’ parents of the blue collar type, post-WWII, Eisenhower era and, looking back on it, they provided for us very well, considering what little money they had to work with. As children, we were happy and oblivious to any financial hardships they may have endured. That is as it should be with children – we need to be kids before we grow up. That will come all-too-soon enough. Sometimes it comes in only an afternoon. And if we miss out on the carefree, youthful part of our lives, we tend to instinctively "look" for it later in life. That can be perceived as a "problem" which would merit examination. Youthful instincts should flow earlier rather than later, in adult years - the natural way. Just something I've learned as an observer "along the long road..."

As an adult looking back on those years, it became obvious to me, for instance, why we ate the food we did. Potato and hamburger soup, chicken and beef noodle soup, ham, potato and green bean soup, so often - because it was inexpensive and nutritionally satisfying and -- they were great for leftovers. Foods like whole roasted chickens or beef were stretched through the week that followed. What was dinner meat one evening, the next day became open-faced sandwiches with gravy, or finely chopped with onions, pickles and mayonnaise to make a cold sandwich spread from the last bit of meat that was left from a main roast of chicken, beef or ham. Necessary, careful planning fed us all from one main dish, all week long.

Special snacks for us included butter spread on a saltine cracker, a little molasses or honey on a piece of bread, or “milk shakes” – a glass of milk with a teaspoon of sugar and a cap of vanilla all mixed with, and sipped from a spoon. They lasted longer that way. In all fairness, my entire family is experts on making homemade ice cream, of any flavor, on any occasion—and that tradition continues.

We never lacked the necessary things in life. They were always provided. Being the children of Depression Era children was an advantage in our lives, something that today could be taught in a classroom as a means of effective budgeting through efficient meal planning. But luxuries, like the newest trendy toys, snack foods and soft drinks, were not common items in our young upbringing. We had what we needed.

There came a time, a few days before Christmas for each of two years (but only one that I can remember), that our father asked my sister and me to look into our little, shared toy box and pullout anything that we did not want.

What? There’s not that much in there to begin with!

Still, he insisted that we clean out our toy box of any unwanted items, those things that we felt we could do without. So, obeying that mysterious directive, my sister and I worked together digging under the very few old toys we had, to the bottom our homemade container. I don’t remember specifically which toys she and I chose that day. I am fairly confident in saying that there were probably broken ones; three wheeled cars or trucks, a one-armed doll, a tail-less horse, and little, headless plastic Army and Viking figures that made their way to the “exit” pile. Still, imperfect as those playthings were, they were a part of our memories. Some had names and they “spoke” to us daily, having long conversations throughout the mornings and afternoon. I do clearly remember that it was very difficult, almost impossible, to say goodbye to them.

Why is he doing this to us??

Nonetheless, the decisions were made, the directive satisfied and now there was a pile of surplus toys that our dad was putting into a box. The mystery of why we were asked to do it had somehow driven us past our sentimental attachments to the things; we did it because we wanted to find out his reason for it.

Are we getting more toys? Sure. Santa is coming soon. We have to make room for the new ones. That’s it!

Yes, that was it -- but there was more.

Why is he asking us to put on our coats, and go out and get in the car?

My sister and I sat in the back seat of a 1955 Mercury and rode for, what seemed like, all afternoon. In reality (I found out only recently), we were only ten miles or so outside of town but we were driving through an area we had never seen before. We gawked out the windows at the unfamiliar scenery as it whizzed by. It felt like we were being transported to another world.

Rides in the car, though a common occurrence, were a treat for us. Usually, they meant we were going to the Tastee-Freeze for ice cream or the Drive-In for a movie. Sometimes it meant a really slow ride in the quiet countryside, looking for deer in a field. On a day when everything seemed perfectly picturesque –the sun was shining, the air was still, there were animals grazing and you could hear the sound of a stream nearby babbling over the rocks – dad would pull off the road, shut off the car and roll the windows down. Then he’d say, “This is God’s country”. That remark always made me a bit uneasy, thinking that maybe we were trespassing and something bad was going to happen at any moment.

That’s why he turned down the radio and shut off the car and got really quiet? So God wouldn’t know we are here?!

Eventually, we made it to our destination, although we arrived a bit confused. We weren’t at an ice cream stand, a drive-in or sitting along the road trespassing on Divine land. We were parked in front of a run-down house with barefooted children standing on the porch with no coats on. I saw my dad reach across the seat and pick up the box containing the toys! I hadn’t seen him put it there and it surprised me. He opened the door and told us to “wait here”, and he got out.

With his left arm cradling the box, he approached the house and walked up the steps to the porch. A man came out of the door to greet him as a woman stood in the doorway. They shook hands. My sister and I craned our necks to see over the high bench seats of the car's interior. They talked for a while and dad set the box down on the porch. Across the red dash and through the windshield of the car, we watched as the children’s arms dove into the box and pulled out our discarded toys. They held them up the air, smiling and laughing, and hugging them. My sister and I looked at each other in disbelief. We didn’t know what to make of it. The scene was surreal, a word I didn’t know then but defines the moment perfectly now, so much so that I remember it over fifty years later.

The visual memory ends for me there, sitting in the car looking in astonishment through the windshield at these strange children enjoying our broken toys and dad walking back to the car. I have no recollection of the ride home or what was said, if anything – although I’m sure there were many words coming from over dad’s right shoulder, directed to the backseat. Recently, my mother was able to shed some light on that time, namely the details of why we did what we did that day and on one other day during the Christmas holiday.

It was a simple explanation, if not a painful one for that family. It turns out that the man and our dad knew each other and he had lost his job. The family had only enough for what they needed to survive and no extra money for Christmas presents. Dad took it upon himself to do something about it. I’m fairly certain the man would not have accepted a hand out. That’s the way people were back then. And our dad surely didn’t have enough money to buy presents for them. But we did have more toys than what we needed, so much so that we could give some away.

My mom told me we did that the following year, too. Then the family moved away. That was it, an event of only five or ten minutes in my life has endured as a life lesson for over half a century. The looks on those children’s faces never went away. I saw them then, as I remember them now -- very, very happy. That’s the way it should be at Christmas.

When my dad walked back to the car, he walked his usual walk, leaning slightly to one side due to a high school football injury to his knee. He may have had a slight smile on his face when he slid in behind the wheel. He was clean shaven, as always. His hair was neatly combed, slicked back as he usually wore it, showing his premature receding hairline. He looked nothing like Santa Claus. But seeing what I saw him do that day, that’s who he looked like to me. ~ JW

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