My Christmas vision

In a 10th Avenue deli, an elegant girl from the prairie manages a herd of damaged boys with grace and good humor

Topics: Christmas, New York,

My Christmas vision

My little girl was born within a week of Christmas and, believe you me, conceiving one to hatch on target like that is no simple task. It takes planning and biotechnology, and the male is force-fed raw oysters, and the female must hang upside down in a dark room for hours.

I was 55 at the time and remember it well. This bonus baby was the last grandchild in my family, a last attempt to breed some frivolity and high-spiritedness into our somber Anglo line, and we seem to have succeeded. She is a socialite and comedian who shows almost no interest in clothes or toys or other material goods, despite our best efforts, and who only craves beautiful experiences such as swimming, a train ride, a party, lunch in a cafe with tablecloths and oddball waiters, or a stage show with singing and dancing and not too much smooching (euuuuuuu).

We brought her to New York in time to catch the big Christmas snowstorm, and she got to see the Radio City Christmas show in which one Rockette kicked off a shoe and kept dancing though off-kilter. Priceless.

We parents don’t teach delight. We try to cover the basic stuff such as Please and Thank You and why you should take turns. You browbeat your kid into sticking with a job and finishing it and you praise the results, whether brilliant or only above average. You teach your child that there is a time to come home, and it’s sooner than you think: that nothing good happens after 1 a.m.

This is a hard lesson to learn. The world looks rather magical after all the working stiffs have gone to bed. The stars twinkle through the trees and around 2 a.m. you’re feeling like the law of gravity may not apply to you. By 3 a.m., you’re ready to quit the day job and become a famous movie star.

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We try to save our children from wild, unreal expectations. And now here is Christmas, a wild story of 3 a.m. miracles if ever there was one. It surely isn’t about good manners or good work habits. We teach it to our children, each in our own version, and God alone knows what they make of it all.

My own Christmas vision appeared three days before Christmas, in a deli on 10th Avenue in New York, where a rather elegant young woman was managing a herd of eight teenage boys, ordering their breakfasts from the lady behind the counter. The boys spoke Spanish, which the young woman translated into English for the counter lady. I’m standing there, waiting my turn, observing. The boys are docile, cautious, soft-spoken, and then it dawns on me that they are so because of brain damage, mild retardation, however you want to put it, and the young woman is their hired shepherd. A teacher’s aide, perhaps. Probably minimum wage. She is lovely, green-eyed, dark hair spilling down on a puffy parka, red wool scarf, and her English sounds very Midwestern to me.

The boys want muffins for breakfast except one boy who earnestly desires a sesame bagel, toasted, with cream cheese, but the deli is all out of sesame, and this is a cruel disappointment to him. He really was counting on it. When you are 14 and so desperately vulnerable in the big city, you do pin your hopes on certain small pleasures. His face crumples and he is about to melt, and the elegant young green-eyed woman puts her head down next to his where he sits slumped on the deli stool. Her pale cheek against his cheek, she murmurs to him and a string of his enormous tears runs onto her face and she wipes it away and says something in Spanish that makes him laugh. And then I notice at the end of her red scarf, the word “Nebraska.” Nobody would wear this in New York except a Nebraskan.

I might’ve asked her a few questions, but she had turned her street face toward me, and so I didn’t bother her. A girl from the prairie using her Spanish to care for damaged boys in a callous world where, contrary to everything the Savior said, the poor and powerless get short shrift — in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere — and she is sharing the tears of the sesame boy and making him laugh. She’s my Christmas angel. I hope she gets to go to a party and sing and dance until 3 a.m.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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