Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Do You Know Barbara's Story?

Outside, the snow fell. Robert May sat in his dingy two room apartment and listened to the wind as it blew the snow against the window pane. There was a good reason that they called Chicago the windy city. In happier times, thirty four year old Robert would not have minded, or even paid any attention to, the wind. But tonight, as he sat listening, he realized how alone and helpless he was.
Across the room on the couch lay his wife Evelyn. For two years she had been bed ridden - her body racked with cancer. Robert knew that she would not last till the end of the month. She was young and had put up a good fight, but in the late 1930’s there was not much that could be done against that deadly disease. All of their meager savings had gone for treatments and medications that had proved futile. So now broke, and without hope, Robert sat listening to the wind and watching his wife die. Once again, the loneliness seized him and clung to him like the frost that clung to the window pane.
Suddenly, a bit of warmth started to melt the icy prison that trapped his lonely heart. It was his four year old daughter, Barbara, slipping her tiny hand into his and climbing up on his lap. She was his whole world now. Robert held her close, and looking down into her cherub-like face, tried to smile.
Barbara had never really known her mother in the same way that other little girls know their mothers. For half of her young life, her mother had been too sick to interact with Barbara and do the things that other mothers do with their little girls. Barbara was still too young to understand what was happening. She only knew that her mother was different than other mothers.
It was then, on that snowy December night in 1939, that four year old Barbara May, in child-like innocents, asked her father a question that would change their lives forever, and touch the lives of countless millions of others worldwide.
“Daddy,” she asked, “Why is my mommy not like other mommies?”
Robert looked down into his daughters face, searching for a way to answer her that she might understand. She was too young yet to comprehend what many adults struggled with - what he himself was struggling with - with life and death and the meaning of it all. He had no answers to those questions. But she did comprehend that her mother was different. Perhaps he could approach it from that angle, and explain to her that to be different was not a bad thing. In fact, it could be a blessing in disguise.
Robert understood about being different. As a child, he was small and delicate. The innocent cruelty of his childhood playmates would often bring the frail Robert to tears. Even at Dartmouth, from which he graduated in 1936, Robert was always being mistaken for someone’s little brother. Yes, Robert understood about being different. But how could he explain these things to Barbara? Like most four year olds, she liked to be told stories. Perhaps he could make up a story for her that would help explain.
Then it came to him. You see, Robert had been pondering something else that night, as he sat in the dark by his wife, listening to the snow and wind outside. He had been pondering a work assignment that he had been given.
Robert worked as a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department stores.  He had been asked to write a little Christmas story that could be printed up in booklet form and given out to customers as a promotional gimmick. Now with Barbara’s question ringing in his ears, he had an idea, and set to work.
The story that Robert May wrote over the course of the next few nights was indeed printed up in book form and given out free to Montgomery Ward customers. That year they gave out over 2.4 million copies. War time paper shortages curtailed its printing over the next few years, but by the end of 1946, six million copies had been given away. The popularity of May’s story inspired a song in 1949 which became the second most popular song of all time. Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon in the years that followed, producing several versions of the story which have become Christmas traditions for many families.
Robert May understood all about being different, and because he wanted to share that understanding with his four year old daughter, Barbara, the whole world now knows that being different is not necessarily a bad thing. It could be a very good thing. And the world knows this because they know the story he wrote. The story about a reindeer named Rudolph, with a shiny red nose.