Cousin John’s gift

Every December I sit down for an hour and once again savor Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — and think about my cousin John.

When I was about nine or ten years old, John gave me probably the best Christmas gift I ever received (not counting the birth of my son, twenty years ago this week, just two weeks before Christmas!):

John gave me a collection of paperback books, the first books I ever owned, and for that I will forever be in my cousin’s debt.

John was a very cool guy, one of my early role models. He was well-read, sang and played saxophone, dabbled in experimental theater, seemed to always have good-looking girlfriends, dodged the draft, grew a goatee for while, introduced me to “Mad” magazine…I could go on and on. John died young, of lung cancer — it’s got to be more than ten years gone by now — and I never did get around to telling him what he did for me with that gift. He turned me into a reader and, eventually, a writer; simply put, cousin John changed my life.

The books were “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island,” both by Robert Louis Stevenson; “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” by James Hilton; a single volume containing “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” by Jack London; “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain; “The Little World of Don Camillo” by Giovanni Guareschi; “Captains Courageous” by Rudyard Kipling; “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle — and “A Christmas Carol.”

All of them still rank among my favorites, books I still reread now and again. And every year I hold in my hand the actual paperback my cousin gave me long ago — a small, almost square edition with  a dark blue cover, with a red rectangle in the center of the cover containing the words “A Christmas Carol” and the name Charles Dickens. A closer look at the book reminds me that this Christmas present truly represents Christmas past — the cover price is 35 cents!

And after I once again reach the end of Dickens’ wonderful ghost story, and the narrator reminds us of the words of of Tiny Tim, who did not die — “God Bless Us, Everyone!” — if there’s a glass of rum-spiked egg nog in my hand, or a Bailey’s on the rocks nearby, I toast the Yule, and close my eyes, and remember my cousin John.