Mr. Tony's Christmas Gift
Periodically I am asked to name the favorite Christmas gift I have ever received. Invariably I will call out the genuine NFL football Santa Claus brought me when I was a boy or maybe the Joe Palooka punching bag.
Of course, there was the brand new 1973 Pontiac Le Mans that I received on Christmas Day 1973. But that's a story for another time.
Truthfully I have had many, many "favorite" Christmas gifts over the years and none really stand out over the others. Yet I have no trouble remembering the most meaningful Christmas gift I ever received. That gift came from a man named Mr. Tony and, not surprisingly, it had very little monetary value. It had much, much more.
I grew up in a neighborhood grocery store and for years my family bought the store's produce from Mr. Tony, a vendor at the Farmer's Market in Birmingham. My father retired from the grocery business in the early 1980s and I ran the store for several years.
It was then that I got to know Mr. Tony very well. He was an elderly, heavy Italian man, kind of gruff to some, but he was always very kind and gentle to me. Two or three mornings each week I would get up at the crack of dawn and visit the Farmer's Market to buy the store's produce. It was one of the experiences I really enjoyed. It was nice to smell all that wonderful, fresh produce and to see the hustle and bustle of men and women beginning their day's activities.
During those early morning hours, Mr. Tony would be perched in a chair atop his produce stall, answering questions that were shouted to him and making out bills and collecting money from the merchants. He was definitely the man in charge.
"I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
For some reason Mr. Tony liked me and he took care of me. He always made sure I had the freshest merchandise he had on hand. For example, if I picked up a box of tomatoes, Mr. Tony would shake his head slightly from side to side and nod his head toward a different area. It was his way of telling me that the freshest and best tomatoes were in the "indicated" location. I would put down the tomatoes I had and go pick a box from the fresh ones. This scenario was repeated many times with tomatoes, potatoes, apples, oranges, all kinds of produce.
I always loved the way Mr. Tony looked out for me and I grew to love and respect him.
Mr. Tony always loved Christmas and that season was always a festive time at the Farmer's Market. On Christmas Eve morning each year, Mr. Tony would give out his Christmas present to all his customers. He would have a box full of pints of bourbon and he would hand them out to each of us. The little pint of bourbon was always adorned with a little red bow.
The bourbon was of the cheap variety but that didn't matter. Mr. Tony took such pride in giving out those Christmas presents. He would ask me three or four times before I left, "Did you get your gift?"
"Yes, Mr. Tony. I got it. Thank You. Merry Christmas."
Sitting atop that stall, Mr. Tony was beaming when he gave out those gifts. This was his world, this was his life and these were his people. You would have thought he was giving each of us a million dollars. He just enjoyed it so much. It was the giving that he loved.
I was proud of that pint of bourbon, primarily because it meant so much to Mr. Tony, and I made a point every year of bringing it home and putting it under the Christmas tree. That's where it belonged. On Christmas morning when my three girls were small we had a tradition to call out each Christmas gift individually. "To Jennifer from Mom and Dad", I would say or "To Brenda from Louis".
Always during our gift-giving, with Santa Claus spread all around and wrapping paper everywhere, I would pick up that small bottle of bourbon with that little bow on it. I would hold it up for all my family to see and I would say, "This one is TO ME...from Mr. Tony".