The list of the 21 must-have, shiny new gadget gifts for Christmas sure to sell out this coming infamous Black Friday, does not include the greatest gift of all.
It’s one all of us have been given, used, for a time appreciated, but with inattentive maintenance allowing it to fall into disrepair as the years have gone by, perhaps broken at some time or another, it was deemed no longer useful and one day, can’t remember the exact day, was discarded.
When we moved into our new home which my father designed and built my bedroom was in the basement.
All. By. Myself.
My room in the basement was a long, long way downstairs.
Seven-zillion steps separated me – at night – from everyone else.
My sister’s bedroom was upstairs. My mom and dad’s bedroom was upstairs. But mine? Down, down, down.
In the dark.
I was five years old.
As a five-year-old, on my first day of kindergarten, having been left in this most unfamiliar and why-are-you-leaving-me-here world, my mom left.
So, I did too.
I walked back home.
And my mom walked me back.
Tardy, my first day of kindergarten.
Then, on that dark and stormy night, there I was, alone, sitting on the very bottom stair, scared of the noises I heard in the shadows. Things whirring, clanking, monsters lurking.
It was my mother’s fault.
It was my mother’s fault that I had to return to kindergarten and it was my mother’s fault that I had to go back to my room.
And it was my mother’s fault that when I traipsed back down those stairs I stopped and sat at the very bottom.
Because my mother loved to read, and more often recite – if they rhymed – scary stories. Her favorite was “Little Orphant Annie.”
She knew it by heart.
Mom knew lots of poems by heart. While laboring away on the ironing board mom would recite “The Children’s Hour” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
John Greenleaf Whittier was a poet she liked as well. “In School-days” would bring tears to her eyes.
But, being Halloween was her favorite holiday, though Christmas and Thanksgiving were favorites too since the whole family would be together, Halloween was different.
On Halloween at our house the whole community came together.
The school bus would reroute to go by our yard where skeletal hands reached up from the soil, and things – probably the best way to describe them – hung down from the trees and one year a coffin my mom insisted dad should build lay in the very middle of the driveway leading to the front door.
On Halloween night, as children made their way down that dark driveway, a voice in that black-painted box would plaintively wail, hauntingly holler: ‘Let me out! Let me out!’
There was nothing in the coffin except a speaker, the wires for which were run to the house and there in the darkness of the kitchen was my mom: the voice.
Well, there was one more thing in the coffin.
My dad was a dental technician and had a skull by which to study cuspids, molars, mandibles and the like.
That was in there. The skull.
When the braver of kids, usually older, but sometimes brave parents too, would lift the lid of the coffin – I guess to assist whoever was in there requesting to get out – at the very moment the skull became visible mom would at the same time scream into the microphone and, without exception, children and parents alike would drop the lid – and sometimes their candy – and only the very bravest then would still venture further toward our door.
So, this was my life as a five-year-old.
In a new, unfamiliar house, in the basement, sitting on the bottom step.
As a little boy I’d said my prayers. I didn’t want, after all, to end up searched for “in the attic and cubby hole and press, and even up the chimney flu and every wheres, I guess.”
I didn’t want the goblin to get me and besides, my room was not away upstairs as in James Whitcomb Riley’s version.
But I was a very little boy and I was very down, very far down, the stairs.
Where, to dispel whatever it was clanking about in the darkness, to discourage any attempt to catch me unawares, I turned on the light.
And, all by itself, the light went off.
There was a light switch just above me that I had touched to go on. But I hadn’t touched it to go off.
It did that all by itself.
It wasn’t an up-and-down switch but rather a new-for-its-time touch-the-top for on, touch-the-bottom for off.
I retouched the top. The light went on. Then, it went off.
I was to find out later – after my dad said ‘no, there were no monsters in the basement’ and gave me a tour of the room with the furnace which was the source of all the whirring and blowing noises – that in my mom and dad’s bedroom there was a master panel where they could control every light in the house.
Each time I had turned the stairway light on they, unseen by this five-year-old, had turned it off.
Which leads me these many, many years later to observe that one of the saddest times of the year is approaching as it does every year following Halloween, and then Thanksgiving: Christmas. When loved ones gather but there are those who will be missing. Gifts will be exchanged but there will be grief too for those not present to receive theirs.
But if it were possible sadder still is that once again, as we do every year at this time, we will forget that the greatest gift is not under the tree but already in our heart, one we were given from the earliest days on.
The gift of conscience.
Conscience is a light that shines in dark places.
Conscience is a light that for some has gone out, and worse remains so.
Conscience has been likened to “an inner firewall, (which) acts as your prosecuting attorney.”
Jiminy Cricket was Scrooge’s ‘prosecuting attorney’, the little fellow making an appearance as the Ghost of Christmas Past in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”
“Scrooge is perplexed at his size, but Jiminy shoots back at him that if Scrooge were measured by his amount of kindness, ‘you’d be no bigger than a speck of dust!’”
There is no better present any of us has been given than the conviction of having done wrong; a sixth-sense as it were that distinguishes between right and wrong; and when, having found ourselves in the latter category, to refuse to acknowledge that the justice rendered is appropriate; to ignore the nagging prick of having fallen short; to plead not guilty though the evidence says otherwise is to have forsaken the greatest gift of all.
There is a worse calamity than languishing in a prison of jangling keys and clanking barred doors.
Worse is to be imprisoned within the walls of our own denial, to no longer hear our conscience say, ‘you were wrong.’
As “courage and undauntedness are the attendants of integrity,” wrote James Roe, “fear and remorse are the offspring of guilt.”
But there is no boldness and there is no freedom when there is no conscience, the greatest gift of all.