Sunday, December 24, 2000

Holiday Angel


The Times Leader
December 24, 2000

Times Leader Staff Writer

It was on this very day - Christmas Eve, 1940 - that a story appeared in this newspaper that seemed to exemplify and encompass the true holiday spirit. It was a true story, offered by an anonymous reader, and although it was really just a short lesson in human kindness, it remains as heartwarming today as it did 60 years ago.

The tale appeared in Little Studies, a regular feature of The Times Leader Evening News. The feel-good, slice-of-life column, which appeared on the front page, often included inspiring tales set within the cozy confines of this self-proclaimed "Valley With A Heart.''

This particular passage told the story of a crippled man, who - facing very hard financial times - had headed out door-to-door on a cold Christmas Eve the year before, seeking help for himself and his family. Santa, he said, would not be visiting his 5-year-old son that evening. And despite the man's noble efforts, it appeared that would not change.

"No one had time,'' he wrote, "for a beggar on Christmas Eve.''

The article didn't mention where the man was from, but it did say where he visited: the Lyndwood section of Hanover Township. And it was there that a brief yet warm encounter with a good Samaritan would help change his life and provide us with this special holiday tale.

Mary Ann Orant

Mary Ann Hannigan was born April 30, 1908, and died on July 29, 1984. Throughout her life, as she married and remarried, she was also known as Mary Ann Roberts, Mary Ann Orant and Mary Ann Zakonis. She was apparently unconcerned with titles or formalities. She sometimes went by "Marion,'' "Marian'' and, to most of her family, "Aunt Mamie.''

One young lad simply called her "Nanny.''

She - the daughter of Irish immigrants - often called those she cherished "Love."

She knew both joy and pain in her life, and in a time of limited medical technology, she was widowed three times. As a young woman, she also lost a child.

Yet this woman, who lived through the Great Depression, two World Wars and all of the remarkable and tragic things her generation witnessed, never seemed to complain. She always demonstrated great courage and, most often, great kindness. She was warm and cheerful, had a tempered smile, and although she was of modest means, she loved to give.

Although Christmas also marked the birth date of the young son she had lost and most likely came with some difficult memories, she still treasured the holiday season and enjoyed its celebration. A decorated tree, a hearty meal, special treats, bayberry candles and Mass at St. Aloysius Church were all parts of her holiday tradition. The sights, the sounds and the smells of Christmas always filled her home - a home that was as warm as the holiday carols she would playfully whisper and sing in her daughters' ears. And it was upon her door that a tired and weary stranger would knock on that blustery Christmas Eve and, in turn, experience first hand the very spirit of Christmas.

'A new start'

"Home after home,'' wrote the man of his joyless journey, "I went without success. My crippled legs were exhausted, and I was numb with the cold.''

"Doors,'' the story would also tell, "were slammed in his face.''

It was then, with great discouragement, that he came upon the home of Mrs. John Orant. After shyly and hesitantly ringing her bell, he wrote, he was quickly welcomed inside. Soon, the young lady had summoned him into her kitchen, where she began preparing him a meal. While he ate, she filled a large shopping bag with goodies for his family, and upon his departure, she extended her hand and wished him a "Merry Christmas.''

Seeing that he was properly warmed and replenished, she then clasped a few dollars into his hand.

"That bag of food and that money gave me what I needed so badly - faith and a new start in life,'' he wrote. "It was a grand Christmas, thanks to that generous woman."

The following Christmas Eve, the man - who signed his letter only as W.R.S. - wrote to Little Studies again. He told of how, since the Christmas of '39, he had turned his life around.

"Best of all," he wrote, "a daughter has been added to our home. We have called her Marion, the given name of Mrs. John Orant - that kind and generous woman who gave us a new start.

"Once again, our hearts go out to her and hers.''

Nanny's touch

My grandmother never told me this Christmas story.

Even my mother, who is also named Mary Ann and shares many of her mother's qualities, was unaware of it. It only recently came to our attention when my Aunt Joan, my grandmother's eldest daughter, sent me a copy of the Little Studies article.

And although many in our family smiled when we first read the two little clips that have been reprinted here today, I can't say any of us were really surprised. My grandmother - the subject of this story - was the most loving woman I've ever known. And as I sit here today writing this holiday story, I can still feel her warmth and, in some ways, her presence.

Now, 60 years later, I like to think that somewhere out there, perhaps still in this very town, is an extension of that family which had once been touched by her goodwill.

I like to think that somewhere out there, perhaps still in this very town, is a woman who, because of my grandmother's kindness, also shares her name.

I don't know why Nanny - as I called her - never shared this mirthful story with us. I don't know why she, despite her modesty, never shared with us the tale of how someone, probably much to her embarrassment, wanted to tell this "Valley With A Heart'' about the special lady he'd encountered on a frosty Christmas Eve so many years ago.

What she did share with us, however, were the same things she apparently shared with everyone she ever knew. Nanny, more than anything, always shared her wisdom and her warmth.

Nanny, at Christmas and every day throughout the year, always shared her love.