Tony and his sister had set up a tree, but it was skinny and sparse, with a few tinny ornaments and a scattering of tinsel. I realized then, with the kind of sudden, irrefutable insight kids are prone to, that Tony’s family could not stay here much longer, that the house would be sold, that this would be the last Christmas we would spend as neighbors.
It took her a few moments to notice us, but when she saw what we were offering she smiled. She motioned for us to put the fish and grouse in the sink, then pulled Tony into her arms in a hug. His sisters and brothers appeared. Everyone was smiling. That evening they would have the goofiest Christmas meal of their lives and it would be a turning point they would always remember—not the first Christmas without their father, but the Christmas Tony brought home pike and grouse for dinner.
It was nearly dark. I headed home, following the deep trail Tony and I kept open all winter between our houses, and walked in on my mother’s usual Christmas Eve feast. My grandparents were there, and uncles and aunts, and all my cousins. There was venison, sliced thin and served with gravy, as a side course to the turkey. We had mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows, cranberry sauce, two or three kinds of pie, and ice cream.
I watched my father as if I had never seen him: A big man at the head of the table, his sleeves rolled up, laughing at someone’s joke while he used a carving knife and fork to slice the turkey into thick white slabs. I was never so grateful to have him home.
In the morning we opened presents, and to my surprise I was handed, not a gasoline-powered airplane, but a mysterious, long, heavy package. I tore into it with fear and disbelief. Inside was a new pump-action twenty-gauge shotgun. It was the exact gun I had been coveting in catalogs for years. I had always been so sure it was beyond any possibility of possession that I had never dared mention it to my father. I was stunned. My parents sat close together, their eyes bright, watching my reaction. I could not believe they would buy me such a gift. Their generosity humbled me. I wanted to emulate it.
After breakfast I cleaned and oiled my old twelve-gauge and replaced it inside its leather case. I wrapped it in Christmas paper. My father watched. “What about shells?” he asked. He helped wrap two boxes. They made heavy, satisfying packages in my jacket pockets. outside it was cold, the morning air harsh, the snow crunching underfoot like Styrofoam.
Tony came to his door wearing a new sweater over his pajamas. Behind him his brothers stood five feet from one another, screaming into a pair of walkie-talkies. Tony grinned at the commotion and stepped aside to invite me in, but I stood my ground, hands behind my back, breath hanging in the cold air. I’ll never forget his eyes, the way they grew wider and wider as I held the bright package out to him.
Jerry Dennis writes from Traverse City. His most recent book, "The Living Great Lakes," was the Traverse City Reads selection for 2009.