National Story Project
With Paul Auster

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December 24, 2000 -- Paul Auster reads two stories of special Christmases past, submitted by Sylvia Seymour Akin of Memphis, Tennessee, and Don Graves of Anchorage, Alaska.

Christmas Morning, 1949

audio buttonA light drizzle was falling as my sister Jill and I ran out of the Methodist Church, eager to get home and play with the presents that Santa had left for us and our baby sister, Sharon. Across the street from the church was a Pan American gas station where the Greyhound bus stopped. It was closed for Christmas, but I noticed a family standing outside the locked door, huddled under the narrow overhang in an attempt to keep dry. I wondered briefly why they were there but then forgot about them as I raced to keep up with Jill.

Once we got home, there was barely time to enjoy our presents. We had to go off to our grandparents' house for our annual Christmas dinner. As we drove down the highway through town, I noticed that the family was still there, standing outside the closed gas station.

My father was driving very slowly down the highway. The closer we got to the turnoff for my grandparents' house, the slower the car went. Suddenly, my father U-turned in the middle of the road and said, "I can't stand it!"

"What?" asked my mother.

"It's those people back there at the Pan Am, standing in the rain. They've got children. It's Christmas. I can't stand it."

When my father pulled into the service station, I saw that there were five of them: the parents and three children -- two girls and a small boy.

My father rolled down his window. "Merry Christmas," he said.

"Howdy," the man replied. He was very tall and had to stoop slightly to peer into the car.

Jill, Sharon, and I stared at the children, and they stared back at us.

"You waiting on the bus?" my father asked.

The man said that they were. They were going to Birmingham, where he had a brother and prospects of a job.

"Well, that bus isn't going to come along for several hours, and you're getting wet standing here. Winborn's just a couple miles up the road. They've got a shed with a cover there, and some benches," my father said. "Why don't y'all get in the car and I'll run you up there."

The man thought about it for a moment, and then he beckoned to his family. They climbed into the car. They had no luggage, only the clothes they were wearing.

Once they settled in, my father looked back over his shoulder and asked the children if Santa had found them yet. Three glum faces mutely gave him his answer.

"Well, I didn't think so," my father said, winking at my mother, "because when I saw Santa this morning, he told me that he was having trouble finding y'all, and he asked me if he could leave your toys at my house. We'll just go get them before I take you to the bus stop."

All at once, the three children's faces lit up, and they began to bounce around in the back seat, laughing and chattering.

When we got out of the car at our house, the three children ran through the front door and straight to the toys that were spread out under our Christmas tree. One of the girls spied Jill's doll and immediately hugged it to her breast. I remember that the little boy grabbed Sharon's ball. And the other girl picked up something of mine. All this happened a long time ago, but the memory of it remains clear. That was the Christmas when my sisters and I learned the joy of making others happy.

My mother noticed that the middle child was wearing a short-sleeved dress, so she gave the girl Jill's only sweater to wear.

My father invited them to join us at our grandparents' for Christmas dinner, but the parents refused. Even when we all tried to talk them into coming, they were firm in their decision.

Back in the car, on the way to Winborn, my father asked the man if he had money for bus fare.

His brother had sent tickets, the man said.

My father reached into his pocket and pulled out two dollars, which was all he had left until his next payday. He pressed the money into the man's hand. The man tried to give it back, but my father insisted. "It'll be late when you get to Birmingham, and these children will be hungry before then. Take it. I've been broke before, and I know what it's like when you can't feed your family."

We left them there at the bus stop in Winborn. As we drove away, I watched out the window as long as I could, looking back at the little girl hugging her new doll.

– Sylvia Seymour Akin
Memphis, Tennessee

A Family Christmas

audio button My father told me this story. It occurred in the early twenties in Seattle, before I was born. He was the oldest of six brothers and a sister, some of whom had moved away from home.

The family finances had taken a real beating. My father's business had collapsed, jobs were almost non-existent, and the country was in a near depression. We had a tree for Christmas that year, but no presents. We simply couldn't afford them. On Christmas Eve, we all went to bed in pretty low spirits.

Unbelievably, when we woke up on Christmas morning, there was a mound of presents under the tree. We tried to control ourselves at breakfast, but we rushed through the meal in record time.

Then the fun began. My mother went first. We surrounded her in anticipation, and when she opened her package, we saw that she had been given an old shawl that she had "misplaced" several months earlier. My father got an old axe with a broken handle. My sister got her old slippers. One of the boys got a pair of patched and wrinkled trousers. I got a hat, the same hat I thought I had left in a restaurant back in November.

Each old cast-off came as a total surprise. Before long, we were laughing so hard that we could barely pull the strings on the next package. But where had this largesse come from? It was my brother Morris. For several months, he had been secreting away old things that he knew we wouldn't miss. Then, on Christmas Eve, after the rest of us had gone to bed, he had quietly wrapped up the presents and placed them under the tree.

I remember this as one of the finest Christmases we ever had.

– Don Graves
Anchorage, Alaska

audio buttonDecember 3, 2000 -- Paul Auster reads a story about green peas and greenbacks, submitted by Rick Beyer of Boston, Massachusetts.

A Plate of Peas

My grandfather died when I was a small boy, and my grandmother started staying with us for about six months every year. She lived in a room that doubled as my father's office, which we referred to as "the back room." She carried with her a powerful aroma. I don't know what kind of perfume she used, but it was the double barrel, ninety-proof knock-down, render-the-victim-unconscious, moose-killing variety. She kept it in a huge atomizer and applied it frequently and liberally. It was almost impossible to go into her room and remain breathing for any length of time. When she would leave the house to go spend six months with my Aunt Lillian, my mother and sisters would throw open all the windows, strip the bed and take out the curtains and rugs. Then they would spend several days washing and airing things out, trying frantically to make the pungent odor go away.

This, then, was my grandmother at time of the infamous "pea incident."

It took place at the Biltmore Hotel, which, to my eight-year-old mind was just about the fanciest place to eat in all of Providence. The three of us were having lunch after a morning spent shopping. I grandly ordered a Salisbury steak, confident in the knowledge that beneath that fancy name was a good old hamburger with gravy. When brought to the table, it was accompanied by a plate of peas.

I do not like peas now. I did not like peas then. I have always hated peas. It is a complete mystery to me why anyone would voluntarily eat peas. I did not eat them at home. I did not eat them at restaurants. And I certainly was not about to eat them now.

"Eat your peas," my grandmother said.

"Mother," said my mother in her warning voice. "He doesn't like peas. Leave him alone."

My grandmother did not reply, but there was a glint in her eye and a grim set to her jaw that signaled she was not going to be thwarted. She leaned in my direction, looked me in the eye, and uttered the fateful words that changed my life.

"I'll pay you five dollars if you eat those peas."

I had absolutely no idea of the impending doom that was heading my way like a giant wrecking ball. I only knew that five dollars was an enormous, nearly unimaginable amount of money, and as awful as peas were, only one plate of them stood between me and the possession of that five dollars. I began to force the wretched things down my throat.

My mother was livid. My grandmother had that self-satisfied look of someone who has thrown down an unbeatable trump card. "I can do what I want, Ellen, and you can't stop me." My mother glared at her mother. She glared at me. No one can glare like my mother. If there were a glaring Olympics, she would undoubtedly win the gold medal.

I, of course, kept shoving peas down my throat. The glares made me nervous, and every single pea made me want to throw up, but the magical image of that five dollars floated before me and I finally gagged down every last one of them. My grandmother handed me the five dollars with a flourish. My mother continued to glare in silence. And so the episode ended. Or so I thought.

My grandmother left for Aunt Lillian's a few weeks later. That night, at dinner, my mother served two of my all-time favorite foods, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Along with them came a big, steaming bowl of peas. She offered me some peas, and I, in the very last moments of my innocent youth, declined. My mother fixed me with a cold eye as she heaped a huge pile of peas onto my plate. Then came the words that were to haunt me for years.

"You ate them for money," she said. "You can eat them for love."

Oh, despair! Oh, devastation! Now, too late, came the dawning realization that I had unwittingly damned myself to a hell from which there was no escape.

"You ate them for money. You can eat them for love."

What possible argument could I muster against that? There was none. Did I eat the peas? You bet I did. I ate them that day and every other time they were served thereafter. The five dollars were quickly spent. My grandmother passed away a few years later. But the legacy of the peas lived on, as it lives on to this day. If I so much as curl my lip when they are served (because, after all, I still hate the horrid little things), my mother repeats the dreaded words one more time.

"You ate them for money," she says. "You can eat them for love."

– Rick Beyer
Boston, Massachusetts

The National Story Project can be heard the first Saturday of every month on Weekend All Things Considered.