I wasn’t fond of Christmas cards, whether receiving or sending them.
Then one day, just before a certain 1966 Christmas, a card arrived for me at home, depicting a snowy landscape with a tawny kitten, red ribbon around its neck, snuggled in a window in the cast of a candle’s glow.
It changed my life.
When I opened the envelope to see who had sent the card, I was surprised. It was a girl from my college days; in fact, I even remembered the first time we had met. It was a winter day, the wind was crisp as celery on the campus of Temple University as I was walking to basketball practice – I was a starting point guard on Temple’s team. Suddenly, I stopped and stared in the large storefront window of the campus diner.
I was looking at a rare beauty: statuesque with long, dark hair cascading like a curtain over her angular shoulders, and her eyes lit up like chocolate fireflies.
I stopped in and this rare beauty – Ellie was her name – and I spent some words over a cherry Coke. I found out she had a penchant for French literature, and, in fact, could toss around the works of Sartre and Camus and Baudelaire with astonishing ease. On the other hand, I could toss around the philosophy of Auerbach, Wooden, and Litwack, basketball coaches all, with equally astonishing ease. We were as different as the Louvre and Madison Square Garden.
Even so, we went out several times. But there was barely enough spark to light up a pocket flashlight. I figured I was out of my league, so after those three or four dates, we went our separate ways.
Until that Christmas card.
I had filed away her phone number (after all, she was a rare beauty), so I dug it out and called her.
She told me she had seen my picture in the newspaper – I had scored 50 points in a basketball game – and thought of our brief time together, then looked up my address in the phone book and sent me that Christmas card. We talked for an hour on the phone, catching up on our lives. Then I said, “Let’s get together.”
Two days after Christmas we took a long walk and discovered more about each other. I learned that she visited the elderly who were lonely and would sit and talk with them for hours, that she volunteered in a hospital, that she cared for the poor. She discovered I was now writing poetry.
We started going out regularly, and soon I had made up my mind: She was the one for me. I had even published a book of poetry, “The World I Feel,” dedicated to Ellie. The dedication went this way:
And my hands didn’t get cold.
Maybe because you were there.
However, that same commitment didn’t seem to be there, at least palpably, on her part. I wasn’t sure it ever would be.
One spring day in l969 when I was working with my pop in his tiny flower shop in the Paradise section of Philadelphia, I told him I was in love with a rare beauty, but then added, “I’m not sure she is as committed as I am.”
An incurable romantic and a sucker for a good love story, my pop walked over to his desk, pulled out a couple of hard-to-come-by tickets to the famous Philadelphia Flower Show, and said, “Take her here.”
“I was thinking more in terms of a fancy French restaurant,” I replied.
“I’m still your father. Take her here!”
I did. I couldn’t tear her away from the sprawl of rose displays. To say the least she was impressed by my, er, rather my father’s, choice of the flower show. I watched her drink in the displays in delicious gulps. My pop was right, as he usually was. He had always told me that flowers are a gift from God, that they speak to the verities of the heart and soul, to honor, truth, and love.
At the flower show I thought of that Christmas card. I knew we wouldn’t even be here if it hadn’t been for that card. And I couldn’t help but remember that night when, after I had called her, we got together and took a long walk, and when on that walk we stopped at a playground to play a little one-on-one basketball.
I married her.
On our wedding day, 38 years ago, she carried a bouquet of roses in her arms as she walked down the aisle of the church. Twenty-five American Beauties, arranged by my pop.