Those who have read my posts before will know I’m not overly sentimental. In fact, when it comes to holidays, my most abiding emotion is disgust. Not for the holidays themselves, but for the retail industry that has taken every genuine emotion and turned it into an occasion for profit. Beginning in October, you can’t turn on the television, surf the internet or listen to the radio without being met by sales pitches wrapped in streamers, luxury sedans with big bows on them, or visions of Saint Nick shilling for the ad agencies. I don’t think disgust  is too strong a word for what I’m feeling, and when it comes to the consumer frenzy that accompanies the festive season, I’ll bet I’m hardly alone.
Despite all that, everyone has a holiday memory that has little to do with the machinations of commerce. Many of these memories are not particular to the holiday season – they could happen at any time throughout the year. But that’s part of the bizarre power of the holidays: they take tales of goodwill and amplify their power tenfold, even for a curmudgeon like me.
Many years ago, during a protracted stretch of unemployment, I was in dire straits. It was November and I’d been pounding the pavement every day for months, applying for anything and everything, but to no avail. My money, such as it was, had run out – and just so we’re straight, this was not bohemian poverty, but real hand-to-mouth desperation: there was no credit card, no savings, no banknotes under the mattress or coins in the couch. There was not anyone to ask for a loan. I was flat broke, in the most fundamental sense of the word.
As you might expect, bills were piling up and my rent was past due. I’d already received two notices from my landlord, the second of which set a date for my eviction. In an ironic twist of fate, I faced the grim prospect of having my utilities shut off just in time for Thanksgiving. My refrigerator was empty but for a half-loaf of white bread and an overripe banana. Oh, and a jug of tap water: can’t forget the tap water.
That day, I was sitting glumly on my mattress, wondering how all of this might end, when my doorbell rang. I thought it odd, since I rarely had guests and was not expecting any. It’s either Mormon missionaries or one of my creditors, I thought to myself. Maybe if I dowse the lights and don’t answer the door, they’ll go away. But then I had an idea: surely missionaries carry snacks, because doing the Lord’s work must require a lot of calories. Maybe we could strike some kind of god-for-grub deal, where I’d listen to their spiel as long as they handed over their granola bars. It was a scheme worthy of a George Bernard Shaw play.
When I drew back the bolt and swung open the door, I saw no white shirts and name tags; instead, there was a diminutive figure standing in the threshold. The person was obscured by two large paper sacks, one in each arm, stuffed to overflowing. As I looked closer, I noticed they were grocery bags, and as I peered over the teetering towers of bread, vegetables and canned goods, I recognized the face of my girlfriend’s mother. I hadn’t been dating the daughter for long, and I’d met her mother only once or twice before. But as the parents of girlfriends go, she seemed very nice, and wholly unconcerned that her daughter was dating a cantankerous, unemployed yob.
I invited her inside and helped her with the bags. After the usual round of pleasantries, she told me why she had come.
“My daughter told me you were having trouble finding work,” she said. “When you don’t have work, you don’t have money. And when you don’t have money, you can’t buy food.”
She then told me of her own youth, growing up in Tokyo during the Second World War. Tokyo was the site of some of the most furious aerial bombardments of the war, with some of those attacks  killing as many as 100,000 people in a single night. Air raid klaxons were part of the soundtrack of daily life. The phrase “shelter in place” was almost a form of personal greeting.
After the war, with Japanese cities in ruins and the national economy hobbled, many faced abject poverty. My girlfriend’s mother told me of having nothing to eat and how her whole family went barefoot because they had no shoes. “It was a very difficult time,” she said, her eyes full of memories.
“So, you see, I know what it’s like to be hungry. And I didn’t want that for you.”
Later on, I would tell this story to my own grandmother, a steely type that people of her generation might have called a tough old broad. She wept as I finished, and it was one of the only times I ever saw her cry. To this day, I can hardly tell this story without tearing up myself. It remains one of the kindest things that anyone has ever done for me.
This Thanksgiving, I’ll play host to my girlfriend’s mother, who is now my mother-in-law. Even at 84, she’s still a spry and delightful presence. For our feast, we’ll enjoy all of the usuals: turkey, cranberries, asparagus, maybe a glass or two of Prosecco. We’ll pretend to watch a football game. But as the day wanes, and we’re cleaning up the mess we’ve made, few things will seem more precious to me than the memory of that day. I hope that despite the ads and avarice, you’ll manage a fond memory of your own this season. Or perhaps this will be the year that your doorbell rings, bringing an unexpected guest.
*Illustration above by Heather Busch, In a Sentimental Mood , ink on watercolor paper, cc2012.