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Matt Kinnaman

More than Meets the Eye

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PARK CITY, Utah — Willimantic, Conn., a mill town past its prime with a growing drug problem, didn’t have much to offer in December 1973. Or so it appeared.

I lived there back then, in a gritty neighborhood disparagingly known as “Down Sodom.”

We were jammed into a rented house, our family of seven, hard against the pavement and parking lots.

Money was scarce. That’s why we lived there. My dad was in grad school trying to become a professor, and my mom worked hourly jobs and together they juggled five kids. Most times, everyone loved each other and at Christmas, our decrepit house was decorated, and I thought it looked good.

In the run-up to Christmas that year, I found a copy of Skiing magazine lying around in the entrance lobby of the YMCA where I’d play basketball after school. Many things in life are inexplicable, like why I picked up that magazine. From the first moment, I was mysteriously mesmerized by the alpine world on those glossy pages. I was not a skier, but now, I wanted to be.

In the falling dusk, I’d walk home from the YMCA past the thread factory, stopping first at Nassiff Arms, a Main Street sports store that stocked a few pairs of new skis. Day after day I’d stare at them.

From my now tightly-held copy of SKIING magazine, I knew the best skis were made with fiberglass. They were much better (and much more expensive) than laminated wood skis. And one pair of those skis at Nassiff Arms fueled my dreams: blue Yamaha All-round 1’s, with “Combination FIBERGLASS” emblazoned on their tails. I wondered, “How amazing would that be?”

Christmas was coming. I needed those skis. I also knew that was impossible. It didn’t make sense to even ask. If anything, maybe cheap laminated wood skis would somehow appear among my gifts. I’d ask for those.

Every December my parents worked some kind of budget-stretching Christmas magic. Somehow, my two brothers and two sisters and I always had lots of presents. We opened them late on Christmas Eve. Comic books, 45 rpm records, $2 department store sneakers, maybe a flashlight, or new gloves for our cold early-morning paper routes, stuff like that.

Then, on that Christmas Eve in 1973, in that disparaged neighborhood, in that cramped little house with my big family jammed all together in our tiny living room, something bigger happened. The moment is indelible.

We were opening presents, and then my mom left the room for a moment. She returned with a big smile. She was carrying a pair of blue Yamaha All-round 1 Combination Fiberglass skis. She brought them straight to me. How could this be? I was in near disbelief.

It turned out that my mom had finagled the Christmas budget to include cheap laminated wood skis for me. Then, somebody at Nassiff Arms, maybe in a last-minute rush against Christmas deadlines, mounted the right bindings for me on the wrong skis. Not the cheap wood skis, but on the expensive fiberglass skis. In a timeless Christmas gesture, the store then gave those fiberglass skis to my mom for the price of the cheap laminated wood skis. At that moment, the inexplicable and mysterious met together to create a surprise that transcended all I had asked or imagined.

As always, there’s more to life than meets the eye. Like Willimantic in 1973, the town of Bethlehem didn’t appear to have much to offer either, but the one born there, whose birth we now celebrate on Christmas, offered it all, for all of us, for all time and beyond all time. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.

Merry Christmas!

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