I had promised Grischa an ice cream cone if he could sit keep up with me on a jaunt through the grocery store. He ran along beside me through produce, over to get milk and back by the meats. Then we got into line. The check-out line moved slowly. We got to Baskin Robbins and it was closed. This particular day felt different. He seemed to avoid my gaze. Every time I looked toward his deep blues eyes, he looked away. When I asked him what was going on, he sat, stoic. I could not get him to tell me about anything bothering him. In desperation, I curled thumb over my ring and index fingers, formed mouse ears with my pointer finger and index finger. I held my hand toward him.
“Hey Grisch,” I said, trying not to move my lips. “I’m Mousie. Don’t let your mother see me. Would you believe she wants to trap mice? Actually kill them? Can you think of anything more cruel?
“You look a little sad. What’s going on?”
“I don’t want Mommy to worry, but I miss Indiana. We had all these trees, and we went outside for walks, and my Daddy had a lot of fish in his ‘quarium. Now Daddy doesn’t have any fish, and I don’t see any trees.”
Mousie was born. We took him everywhere with us as we explored our new city, Boston. Mousie walked the Duckling walk around the Massachusetts State Capital building, out to the Charles River, and back into the Public Gardens. He and I quacked right along with Grischa, Ouack, Pack and the rest of the gang. He got to take a swan boat ride in the Public Gardens. He joined us at the Stone Zoo, and assured Grischa he was not afraid of snakes when they were behind glass.
Soon, when Grischa was troubled by something he tugged on my hand, “I have to speak to Mousie.” He and Mousie discussed living accommodations in Boston. Mousie assured him that with the proper insulation one can live in a cozy fashion in this city. He and Mousie looked for trees in and around Boston. They loved Walden Pond and Concord. The Arboretum provided greenery as well.
Now the holidays were coming. We would go out west to be with Grandma Frances. She lived in an assisted living facility in Los Angeles. Hanukkah would end almost as soon as we arrived. We brought our menorah and a small gift. We lit the candles, and the residents, some with tears in their eyes, sang Hanukkah songs with us.
Christmas was coming in two days. I knew the residents would get such a thrill from watching a three-year-old opening gifts on Christmas. I had fought off Santa Claus for two years now. I was raising Grischa as a Jew. How could he get any gifts Christmas Day? I got an inspiration. I drove to a nearby Toys R Us and bought several inexpensive matchbox trucks and finger puppets. I even found a very small stuffed mouse. I wrapped these gifts and used my messy left hand to write Grischa a greeting. “Don’t tell. I snuck onto the plane, just to be with you here. And I found a few toys, too. I love you.” Mousie had already told Grischa he got Christmas gifts. All self-respecting mice got every gift they could!
That Christmas day proved to be magical. The little boy with his gifts, the elderly residents. They joined together and sang Christmas carols as Grischa cradled the tiny stuffed mouse in his hands.
Mousie remained in our lives. He ushered in the birth of Grischa’s younger brother, Doron. I turned to this little “finger puppet” as a part of our Christmas day.
As Doron began to grow, I had recognized the importance of holiday traditions. Living among many Christian neighbors with Christmas trees and their own traditions, I realized I needed to begin family rituals of our own.
First, I wanted my sons to understand the true nature of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish principle of healing the world. This principle was, after all, one of the most important of the Christmas messages, too. I needed to find a way my young sons could learn to practice ways we could heal the world around us.
I discovered Boston’s Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly. They prepared and delivered freshly cooked holiday meals to elderly shut-ins. Volunteers came in at 10:00 to pick up the meals. They were encouraged to spend time with the person getting the meal.
We arose early Christmas morning. We dressed up and and drove into downtown to pick up a holiday meal. Other volunteers had prepared delicious turkey meals, packaged them.
We combed through the list of possible people to visit. We selected Mrs. Leary who lived in Jamaica Plain, not far from our own home. We climbed several stairs to her apartment. Her tiny living room, though sparsely decorated did have a small plastic tree in the corner.
Mrs. Leary loved children. Soon she had Doron on her lap as she described a time when milkmen came to deliver milk in horse-drawn wagons. Grischa giggled as she told him she was five before she realized milk came from cows, not horses.
Our service project complete, we went home. Gifts were not to be forgotten, living in American Christian society. But I felt we needed to downplay that part of the day. I returned to Mousie. Pretend mice could give gifts to Jewish children on Christmas, couldn’t they? I loved gag gifts, not the stuff our children received during the eight nights of Hanukkah. I bought wind-up race cars and push button dogs. For the entire year I bought gag gifts, nothing over a dollar or so. I tried one year to stuff individual stockings with these gag gifts. They overflowed the stockings. I could not always remember who was destined to get the ugly vase or the pez machine with cherry candies.
I bought some bright red flannel and fashioned an enormous stocking. I began wrapping gifts and stuffing them in the stocking in November. There were always a few left to be wrapped Christmas Eve. When I was done each year, I dragged the enormous stocking to the dryer to hide until it was ready to be found.
While we were away with Little Brothers, Dad hid the stocking for us. I wrote out clues to its discovery with my left hand. No need to give away Mousie’s identity with my handwriting.
Our family shared the Tikkun Olam project and then the Mousie stocking until Grischa went off to college. We moved from Boston to the Washington D.C. area. We visited a variety of nursing homes and hospitals. Wherever we went, we were sure to stop and talk to the people we were visiting. Our Jewish take on Christmas brought our family closer together each December.
Christmas always took on an identity of its own within our family traditions. The combination of the service and then the family fun made the day special. I still have to stop myself from buying those gag gifts! Maybe by next year my grandson Max will be ready to meet Mousie.
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"