Friday, December 23, 2011

The Christmas that Almost Wasn't

"The  Christmas  
that  Almost  Wasn't"
(c) DeNeice Kenehan

My childhood was blessed. Mama and Daddy had both endured extremely difficult childhoods. Daddy's father died when he was just five years old. Mama's parents were both alcoholics, and she was living on her own at age twelve. 

          So when they met in Denver after high school graduation, they discovered a shared dream of creating an ideal family life. And their desires assured that my childhood was especially sweet and satisfying.

          My family always had so much love, not much money but lots of affection. Daddy was a young "entrepreneur," Amarillo's "lawn,  tree, and shrub doctor" and "creator of a greener Golden Spread." He was proud that he had made his own way in life.

          When I was five, we left the Methodist faith after visiting my grandmother's new church, a small New Thought movement called "Unity." Mama had discovered a local study group that met Sunday mornings in a cozy house in a quaint old neighborhood. A small sign on the front door said "Unity Center of Truth." And the sermons were called "lessons."

          The minister was a gentle, tiny white-haired angel named Eugenia B. Lane. She had been a member of Myrtle and Charles Fillmores' first prayer group in Kansas City. The Fillmores began the Unity movement. Mrs. Lane valued children so much that she taught our small Sunday school. It was an invaluable experience that contributed greatly to my sunny outlook on life.

          Mrs. Lane's daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Ann and Dr. Lee, were the royalty of our little congregation. Both chiropractors, Dr. Lee was a Shriner clown who always had a Keep Smiling pin on his lapel and  Double Bubble gum in his pockets.  Dr. Ann bellydanced with the Shriners' auxiliary, Daughters of the Nile. She had huge rhinestone jewels for her belly button and led yoga classes. Everyone adored them.

          I will never forget their home -- an immense, impressive, romantic antebellum estate outside the city near the country club. Complete with a carriage house where their maid lived, a winding "Gone with the Wind" driveway, a goldfish pond with lily pads and frogs, a fragrant rose garden on the five-acre grounds, and a dumbwaiter inside the red brick three-story mansion.

          Every Christmas they hosted a fantastic open house where the congregation joined their hundreds of patients and friends to toast the Yuletide season with Dr. Lee's homemade "adult" eggnog. And years later, when the Unity youngsters matured, Drs. Ann and Lee chaperoned the youth group's annual trek to Unity Village in Lee's Summit, Missouri.

          So rich in such memories, my childhood seems totally carefree. But a few years ago Mama reminded me of our hardships as she told me about a Christmas that almost wasn't.

         One winter in the early '60s was so cold Daddy couldn't find any work. He was the young kid who knocked doors to see if people needed their trees trimmed, shrubs sprayed, or lawns mowed. If they said "yes," he could pay the rent and we didn't eat leftovers.

          And in the frigid Panhandle winters, folks said no more than yes. So my parents had to borrow money from the bank to make the mortgage payment for our humble two-bedroom home. We had family meetings to discuss how to save money by turning off lights, dressing more warmly, using more blankets.

          I never knew that there was no money for Christmas dinner that year, that there would be no Xmas tree, no turkey, no presents. Mama had placed a prayer request in the church basket. She asked for "Santa for DeNeice."

          A few days later, mixed with the holiday mail was a plain white envelope without a stamp. It was from "Your Secret Santa"  and a generous amount of cash was enclosed... enough money that I never knew about the Christmas that almost wasn't. 

       And our Secret Santa never revealed himself.

          When I was a senior in high school, Dr. Lee died in a car accident. Dr. Ann was heartbroken, moved from Amarillo, and disappeared for several years. She returned when I was a sophomore in college and lived with my family for about six months. I was occupied with college and courtship and don't recall her extended visit.

          But Mama tells me that Dr. Ann had met a young man who had conned virtually her entire estate and abused her. She was penniless and hairless.

          Daddy says he used to sit with Ann every day for hours at the kitchen table, counseling, praying, participating in her healing process. And when she was strong enough to leave, she moved to Baltimore and spent her last years with a wonderful man. After she made her transition, her husband Don told my mother and father a beautiful secret.

          And I thank you, Dr. Lee and Dr. Ann, for being my secret Santa so many years ago. And more importantly, all these years later for giving me the greatest gift of unconditional giving. You knew that the gift was in the giving, not in even receiving our gratitude or acknowledgment of your generosity.

          So many families have faced a Christmas that almost wasn't. So I decided about six years ago to continue Dr. Lee's and Ann's legacy of the Secret Santa. I started an angel tree at my church, where every holiday season members of the First Church of Religious Science in Las Vegas buy clothing and toys for several dozen children at the city's most economically disadvantaged grade school.

          The Christmas that almost wasn't turned out to be the best Christmas of my childhood, maybe my entire life.

© 1997 DeNeice Kenehan, all rights reserved

The author. Christmas 2011

POSTSCRIPT.  DEC 23, 2011.  Have you seen the moving Pay-it-forward "ONE DAY" video?

CLICK! IMAGINE a day when everyone gives spontaneously to another...and themselves.

This video has generated stories about how we are blessed by giving to and receiving from others.  Several weeks ago, I was passing through Eugene, Oregon on an extended road trip.  We spent my birthday in a cozy saloon called CORNUCOPIA, which was filled with wonderful things, including our rambunctious, colorful waitress "Mama Kay."  She promptly arranged for my free birthday burger. And when Rob complimented her gorgeous glass beaded choker... she removed it from her neck and gave it to me.

Had I ever been so randomly generous?


I recall a Christmas season when a woman standing near us in a long line exiting a church holiday service complimented my new winter scarf.  I'd bought it as a memento during my milennium visit to The Big Apple. I bought it from a street vendor.  And the only thing that made me happier than wearing this fun scarf, of course, was sharing it with this stranger whom I bet was more touched by the giving...than the receiving.

My childhood friend from the Amarillo Unity church shared a story today on her Facebook wall.  She handles disputes in a bank's credit card department:

"My Christmas was given to me today. Received a letter from a customer who I had to reverse the refund I gave her as she lost her dispute case. She asked if I could put back just $100 of it so she could get her kids Xmas gifts out of layaway. My manager approved it and we will take it back in increments. She left a message on my phone while I was on break just crying and thanking us...she was full tilt bawling and thankful. She even said we could take it back a week earlier than we had told her. This is why I love what I do and why Zions Bank is still a caring hometown feeling bank wrapped into a large Corporation. We haven't forgotten who keeps us in business and we prove it. MADE MY DAY AND MY CHRISTMAS."

Another dear friend emailed this Christmas morning with this similar report of an anonymous angel, after reading my story:

" I read your blog about the Christmas that almost wasn't.  I loved it.  Reminded me of a Christmas I had about 6 months after my first baby, a daughter, was born.  My husband and I were dirt poor and I'm not making that up.  He being in college full time and working fulltime.  And me...staying at home to take care of a little baby. No extra money for much, especially not a dress for my little Emily at Christmastime to wear to church.  One crisp and cold morning I found a package outside our frontdoor and inside it was a lovely hand-stitched red dress with a sweet white-laced pinafore.  I just cried. A new dress for my daugher!!  To this day I still don't know who sent it to us.  But I have never forgotten the kind deed. "

Do you want to eperience the Christmas spirit more profoundly?   It's about giving.  The US Postal Service has a department that helps fulfill the holiday wishes of children who have written Santa.  CLICK HERE! if you want to be part of this unforgettably enriching project


  1. DeNeice..
    I just read your story about "The Christmas that almost never was"....that was truly beautiful and inspiring...and Thank you for sharing that with us....!!
    It may truly be part of the way you resonate with so MANY people at so many levels and your depth of understanding such a variety of personalities....
    Love you.....