Note: This is based on Johnny Gage being 12 years old in 1962 (since in my world he sometimes is around 22 in 1972) and although Rock'em Sock'em Robots weren't around until 1966, for story purposes they were in 1962.
By Audrey W.
Johnny climbed into his Land Rover after getting the mail out of his box and set it on the passenger seat. It was December 24th and he was due at Captain Hank Stanley’s home for a late afternoon and evening of Christmas celebration with the rest of the men on their crew.
The firemen and paramedics had pulled a busy twenty-four hour shift that started on the morning of the 23rd and it had left them all in need of some down time to recover. Now feeling refreshed, Gage headed out to pick up his date on the way.
As he pulled onto the street and into the still busy traffic, he took a quick glance at the mail that had spread out slightly from the motion of the vehicle. A smile spread across his face. There was a light green envelope with a familiar return address on it.
His attention returned to the street and traffic ahead of him, Johnny thought of earlier times with the woman who looking back now reminded him of June Cleaver from the television show 'Leave it to Beaver'. Shirley was always in neatly tailored dresses, her blonde hair styled and never without make-up. Somehow she’d become like a third mother to him, with his own parents having died and him left in the care of his aunt Ruth.
* * * * *
“John Gage, what am I going to do with you?”
“What can ya do, Mom? He’s not your kid!”
Twelve-year-old Johnny munched on the newly baked peanut butter cookie he’d snatched off a plate as he and his best friend Gary tromped through the kitchen of Gary’s home. The latter knew better than to try the same. His mother had more jurisdiction over his behavior.
Shirley sighed audibly as the two boys disappeared into the hallway that led to the bedrooms, headed to play another challenge round of ‘Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots’.
“You’re lucky you know,” Johnny stated as he pushed the head of his blue robot back into place.
“What makes ya say that?”
“You’re mom’s pretty nice. . .an’ she can cook, too!”
“Well, your aunt’s nice. And she cooks.”
“Yeah,” he agreed as he sat back. “I guess. But she doesn’t make cookies very much.”
“You’re right. I am lucky.”
Before they had a chance to play another round, Shirley called them back into the kitchen. When the boys came into the room they saw two glasses of cold milk on the table each near a holly print napkin for a place setting, and a small plate with five peanut butter cookies on it in between the two.
“Five?” Gary asked as he took a seat.
“But how’re we s’posed to divide ‘em?” Johnny wondered, eyeing the treats. “Break one in half?”
“No. You already had part of your share.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but immediately closed it when she gave a sly grin that told him she was going to win no matter what.
Johnny took his two cookies from the plate and set them on his napkin. “Yes, ma’am.” At least she let him have any after he’d stolen one.
“So what are you and your aunt doing for Christmas?” Shirley wondered.
“I’m just asking him.”
Johnny shrugged. “I dunno,” he commented, his mouth full of cookie.
She shook her head at the bad habit, then offered, “How would you like to come caroling with us Christmas Eve?”
Again he shrugged.
“We’ll have hot cocoa and cookies afterward.”
Johnny’s face brightened. “I’ll go ask Aunt Ruth!”
He got out of his chair and with the remains of a cookie in one hand and a whole one in the other, raced off as he heard her call out behind him, “I think it can wait till you and Gary are done playing! It’s only the 20th of December!”
* * * * *
Johnny grinned at the memory. Thanks to her inviting him to carol with them, it turned out to be one of the best Christmas Eves he’d ever had. Looking back now, he was grateful for the walk from house to house, where they were greeted by smiling faces at front doors as they sang. People just didn’t seem to do it much anymore, so he was glad he’d been given a chance. But he recalled how at the time, the laughter and treats afterward were what really made the night so special. And he’d been glad to share a few more Christmases much the same way. Until at the age of fifteen, being cool became too important to do what they then called 'sissy stuff'.
He’d never forget the cigarette incident. . .
* * * * *
Johnny and Gary decided, much like their peers, that smoking was the cool thing to do. And walking down a side street several blocks from their homes, who would know that would care?
Nearly done with cigarette number one, Johnny took a drag and started choking.
“Whatsa matter? Is it getting to ya?” Gary snorted.
Gage shook his head. “Your. . .” he coughed. “Your. . .”
He struggled to get out the words, but it wouldn’t be necessary. Gary saw what caused the reaction.
With her station wagon stopped at the curb, Shirley reached across and rolled down the front passenger window.
“Just what do you boys think you’re doing?”
They looked at one another in surprise. Did she really have to ask?
“We’re just trying it, Mom.”
She raised her eyebrows and shifted her gaze to Johnny.
“It’s true! We are.”
“This is our first time,” Gary added.
Again, she eyed Johnny in question.
He tried to look everywhere but directly at her, but it was no use. “Okay,” he finally broke. “It’s the third.”
Gary stared at him in disbelief.
“I can’t help it. She looks like she’s reading my mind.”
The two put out their cigarettes and got into the car, Gary in front and Johnny in the back seat.
Man, my aunt’s gonna wring my neck, Johnny thought as he watched out the passenger window.
But much to his surprise, when they arrived at his home, Shirley helped to buffer the situation by explaining she’d already lectured them on the way over in the car. By then his Aunt Ruth just wanted to know if any of it had sunk in.
“Yes, ma’am,” was his answer.
He watched as the station wagon left, grateful his friend had a mom who understood the trials and tribulations of growing up. And grow up, they did. . .
“Oh, don’t you boys look great!”
It was time for high school graduation, and Johnny and Gary were in their blue caps and gowns.
“Will your aunt be able to make it?” Shirley asked Johnny.
“Yeah, she’s gonna get off work early and meet me there.”
“Do you need a ride?”
“Gary, I’m just asking.”
Standing nearby them another friend, Gil Robinson, teased, “John’s the ‘Galloping Greyhound’. He can probably run to graduation and beat us all there.”
Gage rolled his eyes, followed by a “Ha ha.” Galloping Greyhound was a nickname he'd gotten for running so well in high school track. He shook his head. “No, I’m gonna drive me and Gil there.”
Gary winced. He knew that look on her face. So did Johnny.
“Well, we can. . .we can change plans, huh, Gil?”
“We can—?” He immediately felt Johnny step on his foot. He looked at his friend in surprise, then agreed somewhat in pain, “Yeah, we can.”
Gage grinned and nodded. He couldn’t get over the pride she wore on her face that day for all of them. It meant a lot to him; just as much as it did to have his aunt taking time off to share in his achievement.
* * * * *
It was in the Fall of that year Gary went off to college at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut and the rest of his family moved to be closer to him. It was the last time Johnny would see them. Gary wasn’t one to write and neither was Johnny, so the soon to be fire fighter probie kept up with just a yearly ritual of sending the Roberts family a Christmas card. Shirley did the same with him.
Last Christmas the card came with pictures of Gary, his wife and a new baby girl. Johnny wondered what news this year’s would hold. He’d already sent his off to her over a week earlier with the usual, ‘Not much new. . .’
The paramedic thought about opening the card when he arrived at his date’s home, but decided it could wait. He put it and the other mail inside the glove compartment, then climbed out of the Land Rover and proceeded up the walkway.
It wasn’t until late at night when he arrived back at his apartment after dropping her off at her house that he remembered the mail he’d tucked away. With the dome lights inside the Land Rover on, he opened the glove box and took out the Christmas card from Shirley.
It was a snowy scene with a farm house off in the distance, a lit Christmas tree visible from one of the windows.
Johnny opened the card and began to read the handwritten note on the left side.
‘I’m sorry to have to deliver such sad news at this time.’
It was a jolt.
Don’t tell me somethin’ happened to Gary. . . or his family. . .
He hoped nothing had happened to her husband either. Johnny quickly read further and had to go over the words twice before they sank in.
‘Mom died of Leukemia three months ago.’
Mom? Shirley’s dead? Luekemia. . .
‘She passed away shortly after being diagnosed. I’m sorry we neglected to contact you sooner.’
Johnny was stunned. It wasn’t what he was expecting at all and the news hit like a punch in the gut. Not that the same news regarding Gary or anyone else would’ve been any easier. But it never entered his mind that the card would hold this kind of information. Now that he knew she was gone, he recognized it wasn’t her handwriting on the card or envelope.
“Ah man. . .”
Eyes glistening with tears, he looked at the Christmas lights that lined the roof of the apartment building; the tree lights blinking from within some of the apartments. Shirley loved Christmas lights. She always decorated to the hilt. He and his aunt would have a tree every year, but thanks to Shirley, the Roberts would have a house full of holiday décor inside and out.
Johnny sat quietly in his Land Rover as the song ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ played on the radio. Memories of caroling and laughter once again ran through his mind. The paramedic sniffed and let out a sigh as he wiped at his watery eyes with the back of his right hand. Shirley was gone, but she’d never be forgotten.
This is dedicated to my friend Sherry who passed away from Leukemia. I found out last Christmas when I sent a card to her and her family, and her husband sent me a card in return with the sad news of her passing. I think of her often.
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