Streetwise - Gifts Given and Gifts Received

by Frank Dunnigan
December 2014


Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Whenever I think back over Christmases past—more of them now than I can count on six pairs of hands—I often take pleasure in recalling certain gifts—not necessarily those received, but rather some of the unique gifts that I have given to others.

One of the first times that I made something for my parents was in Mrs. Beckerman’s kindergarten class at Parkside School in the fall of 1957. Each one of us was provided with a dried pine cone securely mounted with a glob of Plaster of Paris in a tiny Dixie paper cup—thanks to Mrs. Beckerman’s husband. Then, armed with large bottles of Elmer’s Glue, plus thousands of tiny beads and sequins and many small bottles of different colors of glitter, each member of the class went to work on a project that left all of us shaking tiny flecks of glitter out of our hair for days. It’s a safe bet that some of this artwork may still be on holiday display in a handful of homes.

In fourth grade at St. Cecilia’s in 1962, everyone in our class made a Christmas “pin” for our mothers, consisting of slightly overlapping cut-outs of red, white, and green felt in the shape of a three-inch Christmas tree, secured with a large safety pin on the back. Each of us then glued ornamental rows of sequins and tiny stars on the small cloth trees, again with the ever-present bottle of Elmer’s. At the 9:00 a.m. Mass on Christmas morning, it was easy to spot the mothers of fourth graders, as each of them proudly wore those fabric trees on their lapels.

It was always my job to deliver jars of Mom’s Chex Mix to our neighbors in mid-December. Wrapped in foil and topped with a bow, the jars were then labeled with gift tags that had been cut out of old Christmas cards, then hole-punched with a piece of red string added—a regular “rainy day project” that produced shoe boxes full of tags, a supply that lasted for decades. I still recall the pleasure that so many of our neighbors expressed at receiving such a small but thoughtful gift. Sitting in a variety of living rooms—some of them belonging to people who were universally perceived by all of us kids to be “crabby old people”—I learned a lot about their lives, about our Parkside neighborhood (many of them were original residents dating back to 1936), and also about the history of San Francisco, including the times before the 1906 Fire.

Kindergarten stars in the St. Anne's School Christmas play in 1939. - Courtesy of Maryhelen Colling Nightingale

Early each December, Dad and I would take a ride down to the Hromada Candy Company in a factory near the Embarcadero, where we bought boxes of peppermint candy canes for Santa to hand out on the night of our 18th Avenue block lighting. If I was lucky, we sometimes went on a weekday afternoon after school when the factory was in operation, and I got to watch those huge ropes of red and white candy mixture getting twisted together, bent into shape, cut to the proper size, and then sealed in plastic—and I would always be given a few samples. On the night of the lighting, Santa would arrive by fire engine and sit in someone’s garage entryway, listening to holiday wishes from young and old alike, and my job was to hand out candy canes to the crowds—especially to the younger, smaller children who might be a bit leery of Santa on his throne, surrounded by bright spotlights—before we all adjourned to numerous open house parties up and down both sides of our block.

Beginning when I was in about sixth or seventh grade, our across-the-street neighbors asked my parents to hide Christmas gifts for their four toddlers in our garage—Dad and I then carried these back across the street late on Christmas Eve when the children were sound asleep. For years, those kids thought it was magic that so many wrapped packages—especially large items like bicycles—could magically appear on Christmas morning when they had not been able to find any trace of them during pre-holiday searches of their own house. It also served as another reminder to me that the spirit of the holidays involves doing for others in many different ways, both large and small.

In college at University of San Francisco, a couple of friends were still living at home with widowed Moms, and it was an annual ritual for a group of us to get together and help them put up their Christmas trees. Everyone stored decorations in old Emporium, White House, and City of Paris gift boxes, and many families still had a few ornaments that had belonged to grandparents, often with wax drippings from lighted candles in pre-1906 San Francisco living rooms. Some families still had tiny metal disks on a red ribbon that were once licenses or ID tags for family pets who had departed for kitty or doggy heaven years earlier. In Catholic households, the rule was that the Nativity scene could be set up in advance, but that the Infant was always placed in the manger by the youngest child on Christmas Eve. Wise Men were allowed only in the distance, gazing the skies and searching for the Star. While they could be moved progressively closer to the stable each night, tradition had it that they could not be placed in front, presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh until January 6th.

In 2001—a grim holiday season if there ever was one, coming on the heels of 9/11—I was caring for an elderly cousin who lived at the Fort Miley Veterans Affairs Hospital on Clement Street. After listening to him reminisce about seasonal decorations, another cousin and I decided to take him out for a night-time ride around town. Ray thoroughly enjoyed that evening, telling his VA friends for weeks afterward the details of what he had seen—the decorated windows of downtown stores, the tree at McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park, plus homes lighted with menorahs, mechanical reindeer, blinking stars and electronic snow-people.

Henry Pease's Associated service station decorated for Christmas on corner of Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, 1940s. - Courtesy of Bud Sandkulla

Without a doubt, though, the most memorable Christmas gift I was ever involved in took place 45 years ago when I was a senior at St. Ignatius High School.

On a cold and damp Friday afternoon in December of 1969, my friend and classmate Keith Forner approached me for help in delivering Christmas food baskets for our sodality group. We both had many other things to do—study for finals, yearbook deadlines, shopping for gifts for our own families—but it was something that simply needed doing right then and there, and the sodality was chronically understaffed at that time of year because “everybody’s busy.”

Loading the back seat and the trunk of my parents’ 1964 Chevy with dozens of cardboard boxes filled with grocery essentials, all destined for low-income households, we set out immediately after school that day. We both knew the layout of San Francisco streets pretty well, but as we narrowed down specific addresses, there turned out to be several places located in run-down flats and apartment buildings that were a bit scary, even for a couple of brash 17-year-olds.

Summoning up our courage and forging ahead, we knocked on the first door, which opened just a crack as a single eyeball peered out at us from behind a rusty security chain. When we explained why we were there and displayed the box of groceries, the elderly woman’s face broke into a broad smile, her eyes twinkling, as she opened the door and welcomed us in. She spoke of losing her husband recently and of children who lived a long distance away. Helping her put away the groceries, it was easy to notice the near-empty cabinets and refrigerator in her kitchen.

The same type of scene was repeated over and over again as we visited a dozen or so houses that afternoon and evening—including several in our own Sunset District neighborhood where we had never before suspected that there were any people “in need.” Elderly folks, shuffling to open the door and peeking out at us (often with an overwhelming smell of tobacco smoke whooshing out and engulfing us as soon as the door swung open) expressed their delight and gratitude when they realized why we were there.

At a tiny Richmond District house, it was bitterly cold when we first walked in, and the lone resident stared in amazement at our cardboard box of canned goods and other kitchen basics. Layered in multiple sweaters, he acknowledged his gratitude and said that that he could now afford some additional heat, and immediately turned the thermostat up to a more comfortable setting—clearly a rare treat for himself.

One lady, upon seeing the box of groceries being delivered, was so excited to have such an abundance in the house that she immediately divided her gift into two portions, setting aside some things for her neighbor down the hall—yet another small reminder about the importance of sharing with others.

Especially in homes with children, headed by a single parent (in some cases, a single grandparent), the response was emotional—both for the recipients and for the two of us. More than once, excited toddlers tugged at our sleeves and hugged our legs, saying “Thank you, Santa”—perhaps confusing our bright red high school jackets with the uniform of St. Nick’s elf-assistants. Some of them insisted on sitting down with us and whispering what they wanted to give their families for Christmas—and often there was no mention at all of toys they might have desired for themselves.

At our final stop of the day, a lady invited us in to her small apartment near the Golden Gate Park panhandle. In that dimly lit living room, a tiny two-foot-tall Christmas tree was standing crookedly on a table in the window, with a few faded ornaments and a single string of non-working lights—a classically sad “Charlie Brown tree.” Nearby, there was a box of single-strand silver tinsel from Woolworth, and the lady asked if we had time to help her.

We spent the next thirty minutes trouble-shooting the lights and adjusting the ornaments to make the tree look better, then loaded it with strand after strand of shiny tinsel. As the lady was standing in the arched doorway watching us work, her oversized glasses reflected the bright lights on the tree, carrying her back to a time in the distant past, to some long-gone place that existed only deep within her memory. As we drove away, at about 7:00 p.m., she was standing at her window, with the curtain pulled back, admiring the glimmering tree and smiling and waving goodbye to us.

Mission accomplished—in more ways than one.

On our way home that evening—Keith lived on 31st Avenue and I lived on 18th—we stopped in at the old Villa Romana on Irving Street for a bite to eat (and if memory serves, a surreptitious glass of red wine, after stuffing our S.I. jackets into the trunk of the car). For a couple of teenagers from comfortable Sunset District homes, we had just been given an intimate glimpse into the lives of many other San Franciscans—and that was a gift that remained with each of us.

Today, all those surprised adults we visited are gone, and the small children we met are now in their 50s. I’m a retiree myself, and sadly, my friend and classmate Keith left this earth far too soon back in the summer of 1977 at the age of 25. Yet the images from that 1969 holiday season still burn brightly in my mind—just like the lighted trees, stars, and candles in the windows of so many homes across our western neighborhoods—quiet reminders about the joys of friendship, giving, and receiving.

Best holiday wishes to one and all!


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