By Elise Jenson
He lived next door to me through all the years I was growing up and I thought he was the meanest man in the world.
Mr. Kramer had thick, dark black hair and bushy eyebrows that dominated his tiny dark eyes. He was fair skinned, some would say pale. A prominent nose and a weak chin made his whole look a bit creepy. But it was his sour demeanor that really scared me.
He looked mean and he acted mean. Mr. Kramer did not socialize with the neighbors. He often puttered about his garage or worked in his yard in silence. He walked with big, heavy steps and he scowled perpetually.
I remember trick-or-treating the year I was seven years old and I lost a bet with my big sister. She had to approach the home of the new neighbors who had a big dog she that she feared. If she did it, I had to trick-or-treat the Kramers.
Nobody bothered to trick-or-treat the Kramers. Everyone thought they were too spooky – and not just on Halloween. Mr. Kramer was known in the neighborhood not only for his dark moods but also for chasing even the cats out of his carefully kept yards.
My sister got off easy. The dog had been put away and when she came triumphantly back to the sidewalk she insisted that my Mom take us to the Kramers right away. It was my turn to take the spooky walk.
So I approached the dimly lit house. The yard, as always, was impeccably kept. Mr. Kramer’s lawn was the envy of the neighborhood. I once heard my best friend’s father say he wished the Kramers would go on a vacation so he could go putt on their lawn. Although we shared the property line with the Kramers you could always tell where our dandelion-specked lawn ended and where Mr. Kramer’s lush green carpet began.
He was a tedious man. He mowed his lawn every other day during the summer, “whether it needed it or not”, my father used to say. After he mowed his lawn he hosed down the underside of his mower and wiped the top of it down with a rag. I never saw him sweep or rake and there was never a blade out of place in his yard. Everything was kept perfectly trimmed, even the dug-out holes for the pop-up sprinklers.
Neat as the yard was it gave me the willies to approach the door that Halloween. One singular light provided the shadows on the sterile walkway. But nothing in the yard or on the porch really scared me, to be honest. It was the thought of who or what was behind the door that scared us all. It didn’t help when my mother observed that she had never seen anyone approach the door at the Kramer’s on Halloween.
I rang the doorbell and waited. Inside, I could hear movement. I looked back at my mother and my sister standing far away on the sidewalk and I noticed how different everything looked from the Kramer’s porch. Even though their porch was level and only twenty feet distant from my bedroom window I was surprised at how unfamiliar something like home could look from such a different point of view.
Suddenly the door opened. There stood Mr. Kramer with a full bowl of candy in his left hand. He looked down at me. “Trick or treat!” I managed to squeak. He looked down at the bowl and silently pawed at the candy. He put some into my sack and said: “Give some of that to your sister.”
“Yes, sir.” I said. I was mildly surprised at the sound of his voice. For all the years I knew of him I never really heard him talk before. He never visited with our family and I had never even heard him converse with his wife.
He just kept to himself, coming and going to work in the same heavy canvas work slacks and khaki button-up shirt. He looked like he could have been an electrician but my sister said he worked at the cemetery digging graves.
But the truth was we knew very little about Mr. Kramer and his wife. You could set your watch by their schedule. They were quiet and predictable. On this Halloween night, I learned that Mr. Kramer had a voice and it was not scary at all. It was very pleasant, in fact.
I turned and ran back to my mother. Behind me I heard the screen door slowly shut. It was over. I had survived.
When we got home later I was a conquering hero. For days afterwards the tale was told and news of it spread to the kids at school and to the other families in the neighborhood. I had to relate the experience over and over. Already dares were being made amongst the kids for next year’s Halloween.
But for the discovery that Halloween was when it came to the Kramers it was Christmas of that same year where my view of Old Man Kramer changed completely. My friends and neighbors would never believe the story I had to tell of Christmas.
My Dad got hurt that October in an accident at work. He worked construction and he fell off of scaffolding that was improperly secured. Injured and out of work, we were warned that Christmas would be lean.
Most of our Christmases were lean. December was a down season and being a union man my Dad didn’t work for much of it. As the bad weather set in the work dried up and spending for Christmas became a lower priority. This particular Christmas was going to be bad because Dad hadn’t worked since the middle of October.
To make matter worse about five days before Christmas I got the flu. I had a fever, couldn’t eat and felt miserable. It was the kind of bug that just hung on. As we went through our usual festivities on Christmas Eve, I was merely a bump on a log. Not much fun at all and not really seeking it either. My mother medicated me and put me to bed. I slept a hard sleep.
Late that night, having missed dinner, I awoke in a sweat and got up to get something to wet my miserable throat. As I stumbled in the dark I grabbed my cup from the shelf by the sink and was just about to turn on the water when something outside the window moved.
I looked out and there was a man in our yard. He was walking back and forth between the Kramer’s driveway and our front porch. It was cold and the window was fogged. But I could not mistake the slightly hunched profile of Mr. Kramer as he toiled in the dead of Christmas night between our two homes.
Then it hit me. It was Christmas. Good things happen on Christmas. Santa Claus comes in the dark of night when we are all sleeping and leaves us presents. It took a minute for it to register but then it dawn on my seven-year-old mind: Mr. Kramer is Santa Claus!
It was a stunning thought. But the more I pondered it the more it made sense to me. Santa would not really want to live all year at the North Pole. But if he lived anywhere else he would not want anyone around him to know he was Santa either. The man would never get any peace. Santa Claus lived next door to me and now I knew the secret!
I tiptoed back to my room and crouched by my bedroom window. Carefully peeking from behind the far side of the drapes, I spied Mr. Kramer as he piled paper grocery bags on our porch. What was he doing? Why didn’t he come in the house and put these things under the tree? What kind of Santa Claus was he?
Then, a most curious thing happened. Mr. Kramer disappeared and shortly returned with a rake. Then, for twenty minutes or more, I watched him as he carefully groomed his lawn and our lawn for tale-tale signs of traffic between our two homes. He was every bit as tedious there in the dark as he was on a summer’s day mowing his perfect lawn.
In the morning, as we awoke to Christmas splendor, my father apologized from his chair about the meager Christmas spread before us. “How I wish it could have been more, girls,” he said.
“What are you talking about Dad?” I asked. “Santa left Christmas on the porch for us.”
Dad looked at me strange and Mom quickly looked out the window. She gasped. “Carl, she’s right.” And with that she opened the door and my sister and I ran out to see the large pile of goodies left in paper grocery sacks. In them were all the fixings for a Christmas dinner. Two small sacks held wrapped presents with our names on them.
As we brought them in my Dad expressed more surprise than anyone. “Who would do such a thing?”
“Santa!” my sister said.
“I didn’t know Mr. Kramer was Santa,” I blurted out. The room fell silent. I told my story of getting up in the middle of the night and seeing Mr. Kramer outside. My Dad spied out the window at the freshly raked lawn. “You’re right,” he said. “If you hadn’t said anything I never would have noticed. I’ll be darned.”
We opened our presents and were delighted with the simple gifts we received. My sister and I received matching dolls, my Dad got a book and my mother some new gardening gloves. They were thoughtful, surprising gifts.
Later that day I spied out my bedroom window again as my parents walked to the Kramers with some banana nut bread my mother had baked a few days before. I could not make out the conversation but as my father talked I saw Mr. Kramer raise his hands and shake his head. They talked for just a few minutes more, my father and Mr. Kramer shook hands and my parents started to walk home.
Life continued much the same after that Christmas. Mr. Kramer worked day in and day out, keeping doggedly to his schedule. His yard was always perfect, his garage door left open to reveal spotless organization much to the annoyance of everyone. Mrs. Kramer, always neatly wearing a dress, came and went only occasionally in her big Buick. Every now and then we would wave to each other. And Halloween at the Kramer’s became no big deal.
I grew up, went to college, got married and had a baby. I went home a few years ago to help my mother move out of her bedroom so it could be remodeled. On that warm fall day we were alarmed when the paramedics arrived and rushed into the Kramer’s next door.
We debated what to do.
After a short while we noticed a change in the urgency in which the emergency personnel were going about their duties. In a short time, they emerged from the Kramer’s home with a stretcher covered completely by a sheet. I saw Mr. Kramer talking with a police officer.
Without hesitating any further I rushed out and walked into the open door. This was the first time I had ever actually been in their home. To my left was a stunning sight – a baby grand piano on a lush white carpet. To my right was another revelation: pictures on the wall of a young man in uniform and a triangular boxed holding a neatly folded flag was mounted in the corner. In a moment, a hundred realizations about the Kramers came rushing into my mind. There was clearly more to this quiet old couple than I had imagined.
I looked up at Mr. Kramer and for the first time in my life I locked my eyes on his. I felt seven all over again as his thin lips were drawn tight, a frown lining his mouth. But his eyes were nothing like I remembered under those bushy eyebrows. I could think of nothing to say so I rushed to him and threw my arms around his shoulders. He felt old and weak to me. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” was all he told me. I cried and I cried and I cried. He was so controlled and absent of almost any kind of emotion. I felt like I was doing his crying for him. He patted my hand and said, “Thank you for being here. I’ll be fine.”
We all misjudged Mr. Kramer all those years. Just because they were quiet, private folks we took their solitude to mean that they were standoffish, judgmental and mean. In truth, we were guilty of that.
I learned more about Mrs. Kramer at her sparsely attended funeral service. Their only son had died in Vietnam. He was an adopted child because the Kramers could not conceive one of their own. They had lived a lifetime of tragedy, much of it right next door to us, and still found time to think of us when we were down on our luck.
In my mind, Mr. Kramer will always be Santa Claus. He worked anonymously. He gave selflessly. And he never expected a thing from us in return.