Two days before Christmas 1897, Heinz the milkman dropped me off in front of my building. I’d been working for him since April when my father died after collapsing on the dock where he worked. Heinz had a ruddy face, snow white beard, and a big fat belly like Santa Claus. He handed me a bottle of milk and said, “Tell your mudder this’ll be part of your weekly pay.”
My eyes bulged as I held the thick glass bottle filled with the delicious nectar that I rarely had an opportunity to drink. “Gee, thank you Mr. Heinz.”
“See you tomorrow, Davey,” he said. He clicked his mouth, grabbed the reins, and the horse started pulling him and the cart down the street.
Before my father died, we kept a simple Christmas. Now, since Mama wore black and cried all the time, the prospects for any kind of celebration looked dim.
I ran upstairs and went into the apartment, and Mama was working furiously at the sewing machine. To help pay our expenses, she made clothing for people, cleaned apartments, and cooked for old Mr. Lasky down the hall.
I held up the bottle of milk and said, “Merry Christmas, Mama!”
Mama stopped spinning her wheel. Her eyes widened, and she jumped up and grabbed the bottle. “Davey, did you pay for this?”
“No, Mr. Heinz said it’s part of my pay now,” I said.
Mama rushed to put the milk in our little ice box. I saw the water on the floor under it. It had been leaking for a while, but that also meant the ice was almost all melted inside. “Mama, should I get more ice?” I asked.
“Louie said he would bring it home tonight,” Mama said. Luckily, my older brother worked on an ice truck.
My little sisters came home from school, their faces red from the cold. I quit school in the spring when I was in third grade to work. At least I could read, write, and do math. I wanted that for my sisters too. Tessie and Anna were hungry, and Mama gave them each a small piece of bread she tore from the loaf that was meant for us all to share that day.
Mama put the board on top of the bathtub next to the sink, and the girls sat down and started doing their homework. That was always Mama’s rule – do your homework as soon as you come home from school. I didn’t miss that at all.
I went down the hallway to the bathroom shared by the four apartments on the floor. I only had to pee, so I didn’t need to bring the toilet seat that hung on the wall next to our door. We were lucky that we moved here to Cherry Street because our old apartment on Baxter Street had no kitchen and an outhouse in the backyard.
Mr. Lasky looked out the door of his apartment as I came out of the bathroom. He was tall, skinny, and old. His wife died and his kids moved out, so he was all alone in the world. I waved to him, and he rushed past me into the toilet.
Louie came home with a block of ice and a sprig of holly. He tacked the holly on our front door and said, “Merry Christmas.”
Mama cried, “First Christmas without Papa.”
Tessie and Anna picked baby Nicky out of his crib and sat him on his little highchair. Mama had a pot going on the stove, and the room smelled good. I went to the front room – Papa always called it our parlor – and looked out the window. The street was busy with people and traffic and snow started coming down. Although I had never had a Christmas tree or even a present, I believed in Santa. I just figured it was hard for him to find us poor kids.
On Christmas morning, Mr. Heinz and I made the deliveries early. We’d always talk about our families, and he was describing the feast his wife was preparing. I told him Mama would make what she could for us, and as we came down the street and stopped in front of my building, Heinz turned to me and said, “Here’s something for you from Krauss the butcher.” He handed me something wrapped in white paper. I looked up at him and smiled. “It’s a nice ham for your mudder to cook. Merry Christmas, Davey.”
“Thank you, Mr. Heinz,” I gushed.
He handed me a cold bottle of milk. “And something to wash it down with.”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Heinz!” Looking at him with the white beard and fat belly, I guessed he was my version of Santa Claus.
As good aromas filled the apartment, Louie came home from work carrying little packages wrapped in brown paper and tied with strings. He gave Tessie and Anna little dolls, Nicky a small rubber ball, Mama a Christmas ribbon for her hair, and me a flat package. When I opened it, I was shocked to see the book Robinson Crusoe. I used to read it in the library at school but never got to finish it after Papa died.
“Oh, Louie, thank you,” I said.
“Let me know how it ends,” he said.
After a better meal than we ever expected, we all sat in the parlor. Mama said, “On this first Christmas without Papa, God has blessed us with so much. It’s as if Papa put in a good word for us.”
The girls started crying, Nicky bit his ball, and Louie nodded solemnly. I glanced at my book, but it could wait.
That night before bed, I looked out the window and watched the snow falling on a quiet Cherry Street. I looked up at the dark sky and whispered, “Merry Christmas, Papa.”