By any measure, 1937 was a dreadful year for little Donald Hagert.
An unscrupulous neighbor swindled the family farm near Wabasso, Minnesota, away from Don’s father, Joe, and his beloved mother, Anna, became steadily weaker from stage 4 breast cancer and died in September.
With no means to care for his seven children, Joe boxed up their clothes and dropped them off at their maternal grandfather’s home in northwest Iowa.
For 8-year-old Don, it was the bleakest of autumns, as he grieved for his mother and all the things – the farmhouse, the cousins, the friends, the grade school – that were left behind in Minnesota. As Christmas approached, he remembers having had little sense of anticipation or joy.
And yet, when you ask my father what is his all-time favorite Christmas memory, he surprisingly will tell you it happened on Dec. 25, 1937.
That Christmas morning, well before sunrise, he awoke in a second-floor bedroom of his grandfather’s house and tiptoed down the dark staircase.
He remembers the Christmas tree was aglow and underneath it was the “prettiest, shiniest, silver scooter in all the world.” It had a compact handlebar and best of all, a small bell that emitted a merry tinkling sound.
He immediately hopped on the scooter and began ringing the bell as he circled the dining room table. His grandfather, roused by the commotion, came out of his bedroom and told Don that perhaps he should go back to bed for a while and get up when the sun was shining.
The scooter – so unexpected and so welcomed by a little boy, who had so few possessions and had lost so much that year – has forever remained my dad’s best Christmas gift ever.
Few gifts under the tree
Just a year later – 1938 – my mother, Jean’s, favorite Christmas memory took place.
Her parents, Romain and Della Henrich, were farmers struggling to survive through the Dust Bowl years, when soils were parched and crops withered in blistering heat.
Money was so tight, Romain took an evening job as a bartender in tiny Struble, Iowa. As Christmas approached, he was downhearted to see very few gifts under the family’s tree.
So, on Dec. 23, he bought a used boys bicycle that he had spotted for sale a couple days earlier and hid it in an abandoned outhouse in the farmyard, where it went unnoticed.
After sunset on Christmas Eve, “Santa Claus” scratched on the windows and the four girls in the house giggled with delight. When they dashed toward the door in hopes of catching a glimpse of St. Nick, there was a big, two-wheeler bike in the back hallway.
It didn’t matter that it was a used boys bicycle, or that it was a single bike to be shared by four little ones. It was magical in the eyes of Jean and her sisters.
They spent all Christmas afternoon whizzing down a gravel road hill with the bracing feeling of the winter air on their faces.
To this day that bike remains my mother’s favorite gift, and just the mention of it makes her laugh and smile.
A small scooter given with kindness and love by a grandparent who could see the pain and sadness in the eyes of his 8-year-old grandson. A second-hand bicycle purchased by a dad who had little money to spare but wanted to provide some happiness to his young daughters. … When I get swept up in the busyness of the holiday season and feel my spirits sag as I scan my long shopping lists, I sometimes need to step back and remember my parents’ favorite presents from so long ago.
And remind myself that a gift doesn’t have to be expensive, or the latest trend or even brand new to be precious in the eyes of the receiver.
Mary Lee Hagert is a retired journalist and Cottage Grove resident.