Chamberlin Christmas garden, 760 Mary Street, McKees Rocks, PA: photo circa 1948.
JOSEPH CHAMBERLIN’s most recent work is Joseph: Illegitimate Catholic: Memoir of a Scandalous Bastard (working title), preceded by his autobiographical novella, Our Father Frank: The Story of a Priest, The Woman He Loved, And The Sons He Left Behind, and his collected stories, A Doctor Dies, from which the following Christmas remembrance is borrowed.
“He Gave Us His World” was first published in The Washington Post. Like the film, A Wonderful Life, and Truman Capote’s short story, “A Christmas Memory,” Joe’s touching Christmas story deserves to be shared again and again.
He Gave Us His World: A Christmas Remembrance
by Joseph Chamberlin
SEVEN MILES WEST AND NORTH OF WHERE THE ALLEGHENY RIVER JOINS the Monongahela sits McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, the first stop on the Ohio River. And there, off Margaret Street, past St. Frances de Sales Church, is 760 Mary Street, my second stop in life but nonetheless a place of important firsts.
There in that house is where my life began, almost two years after I was born. There is where I learned of family and love. There, I celebrated my first Christmas, my first memory.
I was adopted, you see, as a toddler. The man and woman who would become my parents, Mike and Ida Chamberlin, lived on the first floor of 760, renting from John and Sophie Marmak, who lived upstairs. When my parents considered adopting children, they asked Sophie’s opinion. And without hesitation she said yes. Then, as the process began, they learned I had a brother.
“Don’t even think of separating those brothers,” Sophie told them. “You will adopt them both.”
So began my life, and my brother Mickey’s, on Mary Street over 60 years ago. Our apartment was cozy. Mom and Dad’s bedroom, situated off the living room, was the only way into the room Mickey and I shared, which sat next to the kitchen. Between the living room and my parents’ bedroom were sliding doors. Stained to look like oak, they remained open throughout the year— except for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
We were still eating leftover turkey sandwiches on toast with mayonnaise, and skillet-warmed stuffing, when my father pulled them closed—right after he moved the Motorola and one of the living room chairs around the corner into the bedroom. It made for a very snug corner where my brother and I would watch TV, one of us in the chair or on the floor, the other sometimes stretching out on the bed as Dad made endless trips behind the doors.
After moving the saw horses and large pieces of platform plywood into the living room, he brought in the boxes. Mickey and I were instructed to look away. And mostly, resisting temptation, we did.
Dad usually worked on this project in the morning.
Because he was on the second shift as a guard at the Dravo boat yard, he left the house by three in the afternoon for a workday that ended at midnight. After an abbreviated night’s sleep, Dad would start his never-ending cup of coffee, have a few Pall Malls and begin his labor of love. He wore guard clothes that had become too shabby for regular work wear: heavy black trousers, plain-toed black shoes and a gray shirt that my mother no longer ironed crisp and that no longer had the benefit of the thin metal collar stay. He did not shave till it was time to go to the boat yard, and so he often had a day’s growth or more.
Dad’s labors went on for longer periods of time as Christmas drew near. During the last several days, he would extend these efforts, sometimes working all night, finding his rest for the next boat yard shift in a nap. His work coupled with my mother’s flurry of activities: Shopping and baking and decorating created much of the holiday excitement. There was about the house a quickened pace, a Saturday morning sense— the opposite of Sunday afternoon foreboding—that signaled coming joy. It was now everywhere, every day, all day long.
One of the most difficult parts of the waiting was not being able to go through the living room into the vestibule and up the stairs to Mar’s, my name for Sophie, a word I couldn’t pronounce (we called John Marmak “Daddy Mar”). We would have to go through the basement, taking a circuitous route that ended in a dark, drafty hall leading to her living room. And we had to go because Mar’s was our second home. Their living room was where the other parts of Christmas happened. Though not as secretive as my father, Mar would spend hours decorating her mantel. She would cover the wall above it with wrapping paper and tiny lights that spelled Noel or Merry Xmas, and she would line the mantel with little winter figurines and a crèche in a field of cotton snow.
We also went there for the vegetable beef soup Daddy Mar cooked on Saturdays. It was his own recipe and he would make enough for the entire week. Each day he would warm some for his supper and add it to noodles that were kept in a separate bowl, also cooked on the weekend. The soup was special, so much so that my brother, who didn’t like carrots, would eat them only in Daddy Mar’s recipe. We usually had at least one bowl at the kitchen table on every visit, regardless the time of day. But at Christmas, Mar would let us eat in the living room. First she would spread newspaper on the floor and then bring in the soup with either slices of Mayflower’s rye bread with chunks of butter or a ham sandwich and a tall glass of iced tea with a piece of lemon.
And we would watch the marionettes in The Night Before Christmas and The First Christmas. There on the floor of her living room we would wait for Christmas.
Sleep was difficult. It seemed to come just before we were awakened. As Mickey and I stood in our sleeper pajamas with the soled feet, I almost didn’t want the doors to open. Waiting had taken on a life of its own and in the wait a new meaning had come to be. In the wait was a life where all possibilities existed; once the doors were opened, the anticipation would end. In its place came wonder and excitement.
There was so much to see and take in. There, just beyond the doors, was a city. A city that stretched all the way to the windows across the room. The streets were made of white sand, edged by the green sand of the yards where the houses with their cellophane windows, many built of wood by Dad’s own hands, sat next to the latest Plasticville buildings: the hospital, the diner and the split-levels. The street lights were hand-bent, each with its own tiny bulb, and stood near to telephone poles as hand-painted citizens made their way motionlessly along the streets.
There were two Lionel trains: the Santa Fe, with its imaginary passengers eating and sleeping and enjoying the winter scene, and a freight train complete with a log-dumping car and a smoke-puffing engine. The city had an industrial section and a downtown and a poor section, all neat and near to one another. On the two ends of the platform were elevated sections: one held the airport and Dad’s handmade mountains, and the other, across the room near the windows, held the Christmas tree topped with an angel. Beneath the tree sat the manger, the reason for it all, according to what we learned each day at St. Francis De Sales school.
While that was also part of Dad’s reason for this creation, I believe his real motivation was to let the three of us know how important we were to him. And so he would give us this world, his world, each Christmas.
I left McKees Rocks nearly 50 years ago. And yet each Christmas season, as I prepare for the holidays, I open my box of Christmas memories. This one is always there, a lasting treasure.
Book cover by children’s book author/illustrator Kevin O’Malley. “He Gave Us His World” appears as “Dad’s Gift” in Joe’s book A DOCTOR DIES and Other Stories, available through Amazon.com. MY FATHER FRANK can also be found on Amazon.com. Amazon reviews are valuable. Please take a few minutes to write a few words to boost Joe’s views / ratings. Numbers of Amazon reviews bring attention to the book.