By Christmas 1966—the year of the great snowstorm–my Uncle Al had disappeared. No one knew what had become of him– whether he’d finally fallen in love, or if he’d been overwhelmed by one of the deep despairs that plagued him throughout his life, or if he’d finally run into trouble during his endless travels throughout the country, riding in boxcars.
By this time, our basic family unit was my sister and me, my parents, my dipsomaniac grandmother, “Gammie,” her stone-deaf friend, Hilda Watson, and my Aunt Nora, who often thought she heard music that wasn’t there.
The blizzard that year started in the afternoon, Christmas Eve. By nightfall, the plows could no longer keep up. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania—no stranger to hard winters—had shut down.
That night my mother served chicken a la king for dinner. We ate it around the big table and then my sister and I were sent off to bed. As we fell asleep, we heard the voice of my grandmother, singing a song called “The Animal Fair,” late into the night.
I woke up at 3 AM to the sound of Santa Claus walking around in the living room. I snuck downstairs to gaze at the saint, to see, with my own eyes, that mysterious bag that contained every toy in the universe.
But it wasn’t Santa. Instead, a tall, bald man with sad eyes was warming himself by the fire. All around him were the presents that Santa had apparently left, hours earlier.
“Uncle Al?” I said, stepping into the room. He was wearing a thin raincoat, and his shoulders were covered with snow.
It was clear enough: this year, in addition to all the other gifts we’d received, Santa Claus had brought us my uncle.
He said he’d walked all the way from the bus station, which was incredible, because the bus station was in the next town over. He’d walked through the blizzard, in that thin jacket, to our house, all night long.
I was so excited to have him there I wanted to keep him secret. So instead of waking up my parents and sister, I hauled Uncle Al into the kitchen, where I found the chicken a la king in the refrigerator. I was going to warm it up, but Uncle Al said that was okay. He’d eat it cold.
So I sat at the kitchen table and watched Uncle Al eat cold chicken a la king with a wooden spoon. As he ate he talked about the things he’d seen, traveling around the country. He said he’d seen the Great Salt Lake, which was in a place called Utah. He’d seen the Grand Canyon. He’d even been all the way up to Maine, where he’d seen a log drive on a river. I said it sounded wonderful, but it all just seemed to make my uncle sad.
Then he pulled a harmonica out of his pocket, and he played the blues—quietly, so as not to wake everyone up. It was the first time I’d ever heard the blues. It was such sad music, and it made me feel so happy.
He went to sleep on the couch in the living room, next to the Christmas Tree. I put a blanket on him. He just smiled at me, and he said, “You should always be glad you have a family. You should always be glad you have a roof over your head.”
I wished him Merry Christmas, and then I headed back to my room.
In the morning, I woke to find the world covered in snow. It was years and years later—after I moved to Belgrade—before I ever saw that much snow again.
I went out into the living room to find my mother and aunt Nora with their arms around their little brother. Uncle Al looked about as happy as I’ve ever seen anybody.
I told him I was sorry we didn’t have any presents for him.
“I already got my gift,” he said. “I got you.”
Then he got out his harmonica and played “Silent Night,” while we all sat there by the fire, and listened.
(the photo accompanying this piece is of my son Zach and me before the tree in Rockefeller Center, taken last year, December 08.)