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A steelworker son’s advice: Time and friendship are the best Christmas gifts

As a boy, John Vukmirovich writes, his father convinced him to give his old toys — including his Hot Wheels cars — to other children more in need. Since then, Vukmirovich writes, he has come to understand that most possessions don't much matter, and the best gifts are our time, friendship and good tidings. | AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

In December 1971, a few months shy of my 14th birthday, I learned a lesson about giving, but more importantly, about the need to be done with toys. My teacher was my father, a steelworker, union man, and combat-tested veteran of World War II.

He could be, at times, a hell of a tough grader.

OPINION

Dusk was falling when I entered the stewy kitchen after shoveling wet, after-school snow. After I kicked off my boots, he asked me, firmly but fatherly, when was I going to get rid of my toys?

In our basement, behind the stairs, we had an old wooden kitchen table, topped with white enamel with red trim. On it, I had boxes of toys — Hot Wheels, green and gray plastic soldiers, board games — that I hadn’t played with for a year or more.

Children are, after all, easily bored.

Despite their dustiness, I felt a twinge at the thought of giving up those toys. It was, of course, the twinge of possessiveness. Before I could reply, or whine or moan or complain, he told me a story, and a true one.

He knew a woman whose husband had been a fellow steelworker (had he died?). She was raising two small boys by herself, and she had no money for toys for Christmas. Why did I need all of those toys, he asked, if I never played with them anymore? Besides, he added, he needed me to grow up and take on more responsibilities at home. Growing up meant putting aside your toys.

Not wanting to disappoint him, and buckling under the weight of his words, I sighed and shrugged my okay. A day or two later when I came home from school, I found that my toys were gone. Later that evening, the telephone rang, and after a few words and a grin, my father summoned me from across the living room: “Hey, it’s for you.”

It was the woman with the two sons, and she thanked me profusely for all of the toys. She then proceeded to put her boys on the line (I guess now that they were between eight and six), each squealing their many thank you’s.

After I handed the receiver back to my father, I felt embarrassed, but also proud, as I had made those two boys happy, as well as my father. The twinge of possessiveness had been replaced by an inner peal not unlike the peal of a church bell on a cold, crisp Christmas morning.

One might assume that I’m about to expound on the joy of giving this Christmas. I would like to suggest, instead, that we need to let go of our possessions, as too many of us lead lives dominated by objects, our various toys.

We have extended childhood far into adulthood. Televisions, cars, computers, and smart phones (our supposedly adult toys), control us, not the other way around. Also, we acquire more objects than we need, along with debt, and we wind up placing more trust in those objects, rather than trusting ourselves and others. And like children, we become easily bored and have to acquire something else to fill an inner void.

Objects do not define our humanity; rather, they diminish it.

If you want to call me Scrooge, go ahead, although that wouldn’t be true. It’s Christmas time, and I do want you to give, but give of yourself, your time, your friendship, and your good tidings. What more do you and yours really need?

If you follow my advice, perhaps you’ll wake up the day after Christmas feeling at peace with yourself, and hopefully, you’ll hear that crystal clear peal of an inner bell.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.

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