Thinking of Christmas

In a small town down the Maine coast, years ago, there lived an interesting family. They were supposed by some to be "Malaga Islandites," but they were not. Mainers have always felt the less said about Malaga Island the better. During the booming days of down-east sail, Malaga Island became a haven for the riffraff of the world; folks not wanted ashore were put off there, sometimes with a promise to pick them up on the "next time out." It wasn't long before the place was a mix-up of every race and color, and nearly a century ago the Maine Legislature acted. As nearly as the resettlement commission could establish them, families were taken off Malaga Island and settled, one each, in the towns along the coast. In time the Malaga Islandites have been assimilated, and until they could support themselves each town involved carries them on its "poor out" account. Folks in the almshouse, or town farm, were the "poor in." Malaga Island was thus cleansed, and throughout Maine for a generation and better any strange-looking people in a needy situation were presumed to be resettled Malaga Islandites.

But this family I speak of had not been thus resettled. Their family name more than suggested Portuguese origins, not unusual coastwise, but the same was true of many Malaga people. The mother was somewhat fair for that, however, and her complexion showed in the seven children, four of them boys. The father looked as if he had jumped ship from an old-time banker, but it had been, of course, his grandfather or better who had done that.The one thing that proved absolutely that this family was not from Malaga Island was the town report. They had never been on the pauper list. The father fished and clammed, the mother did occasional cottage work for the summer colony, and as the children became old enough they found gainful chores. They were poor as grass, but they held up their end. Now two things happened one Christmas that, I think, have not been set down.

Christmas eve the "boys" were around the stove in Gilly Whitmore's general store, just before closing time, and Gilly happened to say, "Well, I guess I'm some stuck with that ribbon candy!" He'd bought a case of ribbon candy and hadn't moved more than five or six boxes. At first Gilly priced the candy at two dollars a box, but then he knocked off 50 cents. But at a dollar and a half the town passed it up. Just then in came the little fellow I'm talking about, the father of the poor family. Everybody spoke, but the conversation fell off, and you could see the boys felt a strain sitting there Christmas eve and watching this man spend what little money he had for things he needed. He got his molasses jug filled, and took some soda crackers, and three cans of evaporated milk, and so on, and he counted out the right amount and pushed it over the counter to Gilly. As he did, he looked at a few odd coins in his hand and making almost feeble joke he said, "Well, I guess what's left is for Christmas." Johnny Meader, telling about it afterwards, said, "I had all I could do to keep from bawlin'!"

So the man looked around and he said, "How much is the ribbon candy?"

Gilly looked at the boys, his eyes saying for them to keep their traps shut, and he swallowed hard, and he lied, "Comes 10 cents a box."

Soon as he said it, Gilly took on the expression of a big-time philanthropist , and he looked as happy as if Christmas, all of a sudden, had been his invention. He even reached over and took a box of the ribbon candy and laid it beside the man's groceries.

"Ten cents?" says the man. "Very good. Let me have seven boxes."

The other thing that happened, that same year, was with the mincemeat. The mother had made venison mincemeat, putting it in quart Mason jars, and just before school vacation there came the usual preparations for the goodie boxes. Children brought jams and jellies and stuff to school, and boxes were made up for "the poor." That year the mother, perhaps for the first time, had something to contribute, and the middle girl, Helen, brought three jars of mincemeat for the Christmas boxes. Then, on Christmas eve, the boxes were carried to cheer the poor folks of town.

That's right. This family got a box, and in it were three quart jars of mincemeat.

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