The Examples We Leave Behind: A Christmas Story


Funny what we remember. My wife recalls a long-ago winter day wearing high heels. A big deal for a 13 or 14-year-old young woman dressed in her holiday best for a Christmas celebration. But that isn’t why she remembers it. Instead, her recollection of stockings and hair styles is an incidental add-on to something more important — more emblematic — of how to live: her dad’s unspoken example of an honorable man in the midst of a storm: the storm of life and a brutal winter day.

December was unusually snowy. Well-organized teams of snow plows didn’t exist outside of Chicago. My wife’s dad, Thomas Henek, thought it best they all take an early train to the family gathering in LaSalle, IL. The ride, he knew, would be safer than dealing with impassable downstate roads in the car. It might take more than an hour to get to Chicago’s Union Station, but at least everyone would be comfortable from there: a two-hour train ride to his mother-in-law’s home. Better than winding up in a ditch, he reasoned, with his 14 and 11-year-old daughters and his spouse Helen.

The gathering itself was unremarkable as my wife thinks back. Soon after their morning train ride, however, the snow began to fall again. When the Heneks made ready for the after dinner departure, they prepared for the worst. Grandma Grigalunas had no place for four extra bodies, and towns without a tourist trade and little manufacturing lacked motels: the unadorned life of a barely middle-class family in middle-twentieth-century America.

Events did not cooperate. All the Christmas celebrants on the route had taken the seats long before the Henek family arrived at the train. The downpour of the heavy white stuff slowed the steam engine’s progress. Past midnight, finally, Union Station in downtown Chicago appeared. Perhaps my wife remembers her high heels because she stood in them all the way. Everyone was beat. The trip — the second excursion of the day — the standing and the time of night had done what you might imagine.

“Wait inside. I’ll grab a cab for the trip home. Then I’ll signal you to come out,” said Tom. The unaffordable ride to the suburbs couldn’t be avoided. The plan made sense, as public transportation would be missing in action even were there no blizzard.

Only one problem. Other people from the station were waiting in the flesh-slicing wind, slush, cold, and falling snow. Accumulating precipitation, by now mounds of it, was everywhere. Almost all the cab drivers knew better than to make an extra buck late at night on such a day — a day they devoted to celebrating Christmas on their own. To the bone tired females inside, the clock was stuck in place, the time as heavy as the dense, wet-white on the ground outside.

Finally an empty cab! The man of the Henek house told the driver he first had to signal his family. They began to move out of the station when a young woman appeared near Mr. Henek. She was soaked-through, as was Tom. She held an infant in her arms and a preschool girl — herself dragging an overweight suitcase — by her hand.

Tom Henek was a man’s man, the best friend to countless buddies, the kind of person you could rely on when fate had you by the shoulders. He’d been a supply truck driver in hostile territory during World War II and lived through the blood spatter of his best friend in the passenger seat beside him, killed by a sniper.

If you knew Tom Henek you understood what he would do when the lady appeared.

Afraid for the baby, Mr. Henek offered the door while the mom and her charges entered the taxi, sent them off, and turned to look behind him.

A few feet away (it is true) one might have heard a bit of groaning. Yet everyone understood: understood who Mr. Henek was, what mattered in life, and what you should and should not do.

Back in the station once again, time was frozen like the weather outside; but the family did step into a cab after another hour. They couldn’t get home to Franklin Park soon enough.

I never knew Tom Henek. He died a couple years before I met Aleta. He was imperfect, as we all are. A gambling addiction didn’t help and a smoking addiction killed him in his 50s. Still, I’ve had the luck of knowing his daughters — one the love of my life — and knowing him by who¬†they are and who our children have become.

How do you measure a life? I wouldn’t even try. As William Bruce Cameron wrote, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

To me, this half-century-old story is remarkable and unremarkable, all in one. In a time of great inhumanity, civility and nobility are kept alive by men and women like Tom Henek.

We should be proud to do half as well.

The top photo is called Miniskirts in a Snow Storm, February 10, 1969. It was sourced from the National Weather Service Collection, wea 00957 via Wikipedia Commons. This post adds some detail to one of the episodes of Mr. Henek’s life, as I wrote about it in 2014: Tom Henek’s life.