By the winter of 1948 my family’s fortunes had fallen on hard times. The first few months of our arrival in the city were our salad days—my father found a job as a bricklayer, my mother started working at a mail-order business and my sisters Jan and Rene got jobs at department stores. Everybody pooled their earnings and the family coffers grew to the point that we could afford to move out of my aunt’s home and rent an older house of our own on the west side of the city. We had our first Christmas there and I, a five-year-old spoiled and pampered brat, was the main recipient of my family’s newfound wealth.
My sisters in particular used the better part of their salaries to shower me with gifts. Battalions of tin soldiers, miniature plastic Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy figures mounted on Trigger, Champion, and Topper, a two gun holster set with silver cap guns, and enough candy to supply an orphanage. There was no end to it. It couldn’t have been better and unfortunately, it never was.
Shortly afterward my dad lost his job as a bricklayer, settled for less pay working for a trucking company, then lost that job also when he threw an abusive foreman off the loading dock. Then my mother was laid off and my two employable sisters fell in love, got married, and moved away. Those of us left were in a tight spot.
When we could no longer afford our rent, our only option was to find cheaper accommodation, and that meant moving across the city to Cabbagetown. That area was notorious as North America’s largest Anglo-Saxon slum, so named because previous generations of desperate occupants had dug up their front lawns and planted cabbages.
Christmas was rapidly approaching when we arrived at our seedy digs but I was not excited about the prospects. In three short years my status in the family had diminished from pampered prince to inner city urchin. My mother made it plain that there would be very little under the Christmas tree that year. She said she would be very surprised if Santa showed up at all.
This was not good news because all of the loot I treasured and saved from our first Christmas had been stolen when we arrived at our crime-ridden new home. The only toy that survived the pillage of the trunk of our old car was a rusty tin windup train engine that mom had found discarded on the curb close to our former home.
It still worked and I had it pulling cardboard train cars around the living room trying to imagine it being one of the beautiful electric trains I watched and longed for when I stood nose pressed against the Eaton’s store window.
My father, if we had been back on the farm, could have made us wooden sleighs, toboggans and other toys like he used to, but now he was marooned in an asphalt jungle without his tools.
When Christmas Day rolled around I woke to the aroma of the turkey cooking—we were poor but we were never hungry.
I made my way to the living room to have a look under the tree. We got our pathetic injured fir free late on Christmas Eve when the remaining culls were being thrown out.
I was about to examine one of the puffy parcels that could only be an item of clothing when I noticed my old train engine protruding partway out from under our sofa.
As I stepped forward for a closer look the room erupted in sound and a beautiful new Lionel electric train engine pulling six cars came roaring out, crashing into my old engine and sending it rolling off the track. We all gathered around and watched as Dad, smiling his toothless grin, used the controls to send the new train flying in and out of the furniture legs.
“It looks like that old trickster, Santa, showed up after all,” he shouted. But it hadn’t been Santa and it wasn’t a gift of the Magi.
My father, once a respected farmer and owner of a large tract of land on the prairies, too embarrassed to let us know, had got himself a job wiping down other people’s vehicles in a car wash to save up enough money so that we all would have food and something under the tree. I can’t remember what he got for Mom and the other kids but I’ll never forget my wonderful train.