Vantage Point

A Winter’s Tale


My mother used to tell wonderful stories about her childhood. One story is about her grandmother and an incident that took place in the winter. I don’t know whether it happened at Christmastime, but it might have, because Mom said that the weather was very cold. I think there was a thin coating of snow on the ground.

My mom, whose name was Irma, was 8 or 9 years old at the time. She lived in a house in New Rochelle with her mother, sister, grandparents and uncles. Her father had died a month before she was born. It was the 1920s, and the house was heated with coal. Mom told us that she liked to watch when the coal truck arrived. The delivery men put a chute into a cellar window and slid the coal into a container in the basement. Mom liked the loud, rumbling noise that the coal made as it tumbled down the chute.

One day she noticed that one of the delivery men was wearing only a thin jacket. He flapped his arms, trying to keep warm in the bitterly cold air. Mom wasn’t the only one who noticed him; her grandmother, Claudina, also was watching from a window. Mom called her grandmother Nonna, and they were very close.

Suddenly Claudina turned and began climbing the stairs to the second floor, then the third. When she returned a few minutes later, she was carrying something over her arm. Mom recognized it instantly. It was the winter coat that her grandfather, Nonna’s husband, used to wear. He had died, and the coat had been stored in the attic. It was made of black wool, and it had a velvet collar.

Nonna went to the window and tapped on it. When she caught the attention of the man with no overcoat, she beckoned him to come to the door. When he did, she handed him the coat. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, a big smile of joy and gratitude, Mom said.

I doubt that Nonna and the coal man said much to each other. Nonna was an immigrant from Italy, and she didn’t speak much English. I know nothing about the man, although Mom did mention that he was black. Conversation wasn’t necessary, because compassion and gratitude speak for themselves. Sometimes, just being human is the only connection that’s needed.

I love to think about what my great-grandmother did. She not only performed an act of kindness; she also stepped across a divide that was wider in her day than it is in mine. It mattered not at all to her that she and the delivery man were of different races. She saw a human being in need, she knew that she could do something to help him, and she did it. Perhaps she reflected that she and the man came from the same kind of background: hardworking people who often don’t have the money to buy what they need, people who learned how to do without.

Claudina’s family saw harder times later on; they would lose their house during the Great Depression. But on that winter day, when Claudina was able to help, she did.

If all the families with stories like mine wrote them down, there is no telling how many pages they would fill. We walk in the footsteps of the good people who have gone before us. Their example is a light that will never stop shining, and their good works are the best part of their legacy to us.

I received a special legacy: My mother named me, the first of her four children, after the grandmother she loved so much. I never knew Claudina, who died before I was born, but her act of compassion will forever touch my heart.

May the goodness of the people in our lives—relatives and friends, past and present—bring us joy, hope and inspiration as we celebrate the birth of Christ, who taught us that what we do for others we do for him.

Merry Christmas.