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The uplifting conclusion of The Christmas List, a heart-warming account of the power of encouragement and appreciation, is based on a true story that circulated on the Internet. A nun told her fourth-grade students to write their names on a piece of paper and then pass the paper to the next person, who was to write a sentence of appreciation about the person named at the top. When the exercise was done, each student had twenty-four comments of admiration and appreciation - one ...
The uplifting conclusion of The Christmas List, a heart-warming account of the power of encouragement and appreciation, is based on a true story that circulated on the Internet. A nun told her fourth-grade students to write their names on a piece of paper and then pass the paper to the next person, who was to write a sentence of appreciation about the person named at the top. When the exercise was done, each student had twenty-four comments of admiration and appreciation - one from each classmate.
The Christmas List follows James Engler, who returns home to Iowa one Christmas, after his fiancee calls off their marriage, and discovers that his best childhood friend, Mike, has just been killed in the Gulf War. When Mike's parents reveal at a memorial service that Mike had carried his fourth-grade list with him, most of James's former classmates confess that they, too, kept their lists as a reminder, even in the worst of times, of their admirable traits and that they were appreciated.
James also renews his acquaintance with his former classmate Sarah, who wrote on his list, "You are a great guy and some day I'm going to marry." And she does.
Perhaps a little levity would help.
"Mom," he'd say, "Dad, good news! Catherine dumped me-more lutefisk for the rest of us."
"Mom, Dad, I know you were expecting Catherine to be with me, but-"
Part of his problem was that each time he returned home, he felt on the spot anyway, as if more were expected of him than of his siblings-bringing up the rear of the family, as it were. And because he'd moved so far away, he felt he had to justify the move by achieving success.
Home was a town of 15,370 people, a farming community called Onagle, Iowa, just south of the Minnesota state line and an easy two-hour drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul. His family had been the richest family in town for almost one hundred years, owning Onagle Federal Savings, of which James's father, Walter Engler IV, was president. They lived in a brick, slate-roofed Queen Anne Victorian-style home near the country club. James was the youngest of five children, three boys and two girls, separated from his oldest sibling, Gerry (Walter Gerald) by a distance of sixteen years, though Gerry had died in 1972, when James was nine. Gerry had been a pilot, shot down over North Vietnam at the age of twenty-five.
The first Walter Engler, who was a great believer in learning and never thought much of the local schools, had begun the tradition of sending the boys in the family back east to be educated, to a place in western Massachusetts called Mill River Academy. As a result, some people in Onagle considered James's family to be standoffish or high-horsed or, at the very least, in violation of the concept of jantaløven, a Norwegian word meaning, approximately, "Don't-think-you're-better-than-anybody-else-but-don't-let-anybody-else- tell-you-they're-better-than-you. Some saw the Englers as standing apart from the community, despite the charity work James's mother and grandmother had always done, and despite a family history of philanthropy, and despite the family's active participation in the church, First Emmanuel Lutheran, where James's father was a deacon.
The irony was, at Mill River Academy, the Englers were considered ill-mannered, farm-boy hicks. Sometimes the ridicule was deserved. James Engler, for instance, had acquired the nickname "Otis" from his classmates when he'd gone down to New York City with a group of school chums and tripped in a revolving door at Brooks Brothers. He'd been jammed in the door for a humiliating eight seconds, so his buddies had called him Otis, after Otis Elevators-as if elevators and revolving doors had anything in common.
Because they didn't fit in at school or in their hometown, the Engler men developed a kind of displaced loyalty to both, often extolling the simple virtues of small-town Midwestern life while at school but bragging about their East Coast adventures when they were back in Onagle, their outsider status partially self-imposed as a consequence. The massive home on the edge of town thus became a kind of family fortress. The house was the place they returned to, the spiritual center of everything, the sort of place that, had it been built in the South, would have been given its own name, like Tara or Ten Oaks or Longview. It stood on a hill surrounded by oak and black walnut trees, the property bounded by a road in front, woods to the north, fields to the east, and the country club to the south. Behind the house stood a barn and stables and, beyond the barn, a cottage for the hired handyman, a lean and deliberate fellow in his late sixties named Cully (Culligan, first name Bert). Cully had worked for the railroad in his youth. Now he farmed two hundred acres leased from a neighbor in addition to helping out at the Engler place.
The main house had seven bedrooms, six baths, five fireplaces, four balconies, three porches, two garages, and one hard and fast rule: Everybody had to come home for Christmas. No exceptions and no excuses allowed short of hospitalization in an ICU-with at least one limb at risk for amputation.
THAT WAS WHY JAMES, ON DECEMBER 23, 1990, WAS sitting in his car at the highway rest area wondering what to say to his family. Technically, he wouldn't be breaking the rule by arriving without his fiancée, the woman he'd introduced to the family the year before. She was not yet a member of the family in the legal sense. Yet they'd welcomed her as such, telling her how glad they were that little Jimmy had finally found his soul mate, joking how they'd begun to worry if he'd ever meet the right person. He wished he hadn't used the term soul mate when he'd first spoken of her. At any rate, they would expect to see her. His family would want an explanation. And how could he tell them the truth?
"Mom, Dad, I wanted to tell you before-the engagement is off. She didn't believe in me any more. And neither did I."
Something like that.
He felt, more than ever, like a failure, the black sheep, the problem child, the lone loser in a long line of successful marriages and relationships. No one in his family had ever been divorced. No one had called off an engagement or been dumped on the way to the altar. No one had truly blown it ... until now.
He couldn't sit by the side of the road forever. Finally he turned the key in the ignition and steered carefully back onto the highway, still not knowing what to say but hoping he'd think of something when the time came.
He turned into the long driveway around noon, wondering who'd be there to greet him. His oldest sister, Lisa, and her husband, Joe, and their two children, Kirstin and Abigail (eight and six), had arrived the day before from Minneapolis, where Joe was the manager of a large suburban branch of Twin City Federal. Lisa was blonde, blue-eyed, and, for the first fourteen years of his life, James's least favorite sibling baby-sitter, a strict enforcer of bedtimes and parental TV-viewing injunctions. The only kid in the family who'd been a member of 4-H, she was a champion gardener now, specializing in roses. Where Lisa was relentlessly serious and would at best arch an eyebrow upon hearing the world's funniest joke, Joe was one of the world's most cheerful individuals, always singing or whistling to himself.
James's older (and balder) brother, Eric-a Republican and a bank vice president, and a three-handicap golfer despite the fact that he never fudged the rules or took mulligans-was due in from Denver that afternoon. He and his wife, Rachel, and their three boys, Paul, Thomas, and Henry (ten, nine, and five) would arrive in Minneapolis around four and then drive down in a rented car.
At his best, James was happy for his siblings' successes, their families, and all the substantial things they'd done with their lives. At his worst, he was envious and felt like a failure in comparison. His sister Julie, of course, was still single, but even Julie was a force to be reckoned with. Two years older than him and an artist, she was driving in from Chicago and due to arrive some time that afternoon, depending on the roads. Eight inches of snow had already fallen, and it was still coming down. Julie drove a red canvas-top Jeep with fat, knobby tires, and she'd told everybody that nothing would stop her. Considering how she liked to load her Jeep with camping gear and blank canvases and drive off by herself to remote wilderness locations to paint landscapes for weeks at a time, James had no doubt she'd make it through a mere eight inches of snow.
The long, tree-lined driveway made James feel at home, but it also made him feel, as he reached the end of it, disappointed in himself as he looked up at the grand house and compared it to the tiny Greenwich Village apartment he could barely afford, even with Catherine splitting the rent with him. He'd known at an early age that he would never be as financially astute as his father or brother. He'd never developed an interest in the family business of banking. Growing up, he'd felt his eyes glaze over when dinner-table talk turned to interest rates or the stock market, and even now he was effectively innumerate, unable to so much as balance his checkbook. For as long as he could remember he'd wanted to be a writer, and his parents, to their credit, had always encouraged his literary propensities-or rather, his mother had encouraged them. His father had told his friends at the country club, "Jimmy's long-term plan is to become a college professor one day." This, at the time, had been entirely Walter Engler's invention.
The problem was, James had been having serious doubts of late that he could make even a meager living as either a writer or as a teacher. His teaching assistantship stipend barely covered his half of the basic necessities. Catherine worked as a paralegal, but even with two incomes, they never had enough money. He'd sold a short story to the New Yorker around the time he'd first met Catherine, but since then he'd produced very little and was starting to question his abilities. Their financial worries had caused tension between them-or maybe the fights over money were just a small part of something larger. The previous month had been pure hell, full of long arguments, raised voices, sad conversations, refusals, denials, somber realizations, blame casting and finger pointing, lost sleep, lost appetites, ignored phone messages, and neglected duties. The six months before that hadn't been so great either. He'd climbed into his car for the long drive home for Christmas knowing that, sometime in his absence, Catherine would remove her things from their apartment, slip her key under the door, and move into her own apartment.
Perhaps he'd think of some way to win her back. Perhaps she'd change her mind on her own. Maybe they needed to shake things up a little. Or maybe what they had was broken and couldn't be fixed.
"You and Catherine can sleep in your room," his mother had told his answering machine a few weeks prior to his leaving. "Your father and I talked about it, and I know we've always said we wanted our kids to be married before they slept together under our roof, but since you two are practically married already and living together, we thought it would be all right."
She'd added, "Also, if you don't mind, we'd like to have some friends over for an informal little engagement party for you two-nothing fancy-sometime before New Year's, so let me know if there's anyone you want us to invite. Looking forward to seeing you."
He'd gone incommunicado after that, but he knew he should have said something.
He parked behind Joe and Lisa's Caravan, shut off the engine, grabbed his coat from the seat beside him, and went to face everybody. He remembered how excited he'd been, getting out of the car the year before with Catherine at his side.
So much could change in a year.
Excerpted from The Christmas List by PETE NELSON Copyright © 2007 by Pete Nelson . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 9, 2012