By Ray Lenarcic

Christmas memories. We all have them. Some good, some bad. The former probably include family get-togethers replete with joyous laughter, scrumptious meals and, of course, the opening gifts around a large fir tree dressed in a finery highlighted by multi-colored bulbs and lights and, in days of old (my youth) silver tinsel. The latter-that one time when the Elf King didn’t bring you the one gift your heart most desired-DeeDee didn’t get her barbie, Kelly his BB gun, Pete his superman outfit, Rudy his paint-by-numbers set, and in my case, the pearl-handled, sliver-plated Lone Ranger cap gun. Forgave him the next year when I got my sled-subsequently driving mom Vivian crazy every time I went flying down Skinner St. and blindly crossed Furnace into the park.

My memories go way back. The earliest was having a part (Christmas angel-talk about miscast) in the Sunday school play at First Baptist. Also recall at its end joining everyone in singing The First Noel. Then, as mentioned in my previous essay, dinner at the Lenarcic residence on West Main-can still smell the fresh baked potica and streukla. Later, the Christmas concert in the LFHS auditorium in 1959-played a trumpet solo almost flawlessly (Frank Peckay would have had me play it over!).

As an adult, I can still see the smiles on Carrie’s and Jen’s faces as they raced downstairs to open their gifts. I’ll never forget the Crouse Family Christmases-they sure as hay know how to party-each year at a different venue with a different theme. This year’s at Shelley’s, featuring the Grinch, may have been an all-timer! Kay’s and my first Christmas in a living room featuring the world’s finest Christmas village, a magnificent, real tree, lit candles in the window and holly and ivy adorning the mantle of a fireplace freshly ablaze, with Alan Jackson singing O Holy Night in the background, will forever be etched in the fabric of my mind.

And then there are the Gram Lorraine memories. As most readers know by now, the latter is an extension of my Kris Cagwin Adopt-A-Child Program at HCCC. It’s named after my beloved mother-in-law who was the victim of a tragic, avoidable accident and provides deserving elementary school children with a new coat, four items of clothing and a toy, book or game of choice. Participating schools include Benton Hall Academy, CVA, Frankfort, Mt. Markham, Owen D. Young, Fort Plain and BOCES. Since its inception, the program has served thousands of children. Our motto? “Every child should have a merry Christmas.” Memories abound regarding pick-up day-far too many to recount every one. Two should suffice.

The first involved my fellow Slovenian good friend, former iconic Little Falls Treasurer Dave Petkovsek. Along with Kira Andrilla, Gail Potter, Stacie Shephardson and educator Mike Paragi (God Bless the late Kathy Lowery), Dave helps run one of our longest and best programs. A while ago, Dave volunteered to drive a recipient and her children home as it was snowing and she had walked to the site. After helping her bring the bags of gifts into her house, he turned to leave when he felt a pair of arms wrap around his legs. The little three-year old girl looked up at him and said,” I love you.” A forever Christmas memory. A few years later, the mother showed up at the site and told Dave she wasn’t there to pick anything up. Her fortunes had changed. She had met a decent guy, married and begun a new life. She thanked him and handed him a candle. Many of our recipients never forget.

Yesterday, I was walking into the office when the phone rang. I let it ring as I felt too sick to answer (got the latest “plague”). As I listened to the answering machine, I learned that it was a woman asking for help for her grand- babies. I was about to let the call play out but for some unknown reason (fate?) I picked up the phone. The result-another Christmas memory. Come to find out, she’s a grandmother living in the valley and raising her four grandchildren-three aged five and under. Her story is tragic. The children’s father OD’d last year and the mother’s parental rights have been revoked. All the caller wanted were toys for the young’uns. Well, she’ll be getting them and more. Santa’s number one elf, Kay, got on Amazon and ordered Paw Patrol, Barbies, new winter coats and PJ’s-all to be dropped off tomorrow (Thurs.) compliments of the Coalition. Presents under the tree.

My final memory repeats itself every year as it will as long as I live. December 24th. Christmas Eve. The day in 1969 that my childhood buddy and Furnace Street Gang member, Marine SSgt. Joseph “Stash” Zawtocki, Jr., mercifully died. Held captive, starved and tortured for 686 days by the Viet Cong, his noble heart gave out the night before we celebrate the birth of the “Prince of Peace.””Tis better to give than receive.” Stash gave everything he had. In return in his memory, he should receive a promise from us to do something to improve the quality of life in our community and to make each of our tomorrows better than our yesterdays. If we do so, we can help insure that the death of one of the Rock City’s finest was not in vain. ( Note: Maybe the park where he played away his childhood could be named after him-a small plaque at its entrance telling visitors who he was.) Christmas memories. Some good. Some not so good.

On behalf of the Coalition, thanks to everyone who helped make 2023 one of our most successful years ever!