My grandfather forms the basis of most of my early Christmas memories. He died when I was 10 but before that, he was a constant holiday presence. He had the deepest voice you can imagine, the sort that sticks in a child’s head, and his laugh sounded like a foghorn tooting. Like many grandparents, he loved to spoil his grandkids with presents. My brother tended to receive the coolest, newest bells-and-whistles action toy, but Zha-Zha (which is what we called him, since I could not pronounce “Grandpa” properly for a few years) tended to get me monogrammed things. You see, my grandfather’s name was Victor Hugo-Vidal, and he was perpetually delighted that I had been named after him. It’s been 20 years and I’m still using the blue and yellow child-sized canvas suitcase he gave me with “Victoria” stitched in red on the front. It’s the perfect size for a weekend bag.

But the book bags from Mom and Dad were my favorite. Not backpacks, although I probably got one of those at some point too. Every year I got a bag full of books. One glorious year, my mom scored a dozen Baby-Sitters Club paperbacks at a yard sale. There are multiple pictures of young Victoria curled up in an armchair, surrounded by Christmas detritus, ignoring the brand-new toys in favor of a 50-cent paperback from Goodwill.

The bag-o-books is a bit of a family tradition. When my mother was growing up, her mom was a single parent for several years, and money was always tight. Grammy had enough to pay for necessities but not enough left over for extravagances. But books could be gotten with love and cheaply from yard sales and library discards. Every year my mom got a bag of books under the tree. Is it any wonder that my mom and I both became readers, who became writers? (So if you don’t like my columns, take it up with my grandmother.)

I am musing on memories of old Christmas presents because of the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund in the Spirit of Bruce Roberts. (In the words of an old local jingle: “Long name, amazing results!”) What this project does is simple: It purchases toys for kids. Families in need apply to the fund, and if they are accepted, they pick up a toy (or toys, depending on the number of kiddos involved) and boom, that kid will be getting a nice new toy on Christmas morning. The fund serves folks in York, Cumberland, Lincoln, Knox, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties. the fund has been doing this since it was started in 1949 by a Press Herald columnist, thus giving all the rest of us columnists a heck of an act to follow.

Maine has no shortage of families in need, and this year is particularly bad. The holiday season is already shaping up to be rough: families separated because of the dangers of coronavirus, the economy in tatters, savings accounts spent out. Technically, the Toy Fund accepts donations all year round, but the active fundraising takes place in November and December. That’s why I’m writing a Christmas-themed column before Thanksgiving has even happened.

Now, there are a lot of good charities out there to donate to, and that are underfunded. Demand at food banks is up, cash on hand is down. Toys on Christmas are a want, not a need. They are a delight, not a necessity. There are parents in Maine this year who are making tough choices to cover the bills, who will pinch their pennies and skip doctor’s appointments just to keep the heat on and food on the table. But we don’t really notice or appreciate the sacrifices our parents make when we’re growing up. Children tend to gloss over “the true meaning of Christmas” in favor of focusing on presents. That is as it should be.

So if you are lucky enough to have some extra money lying around, and you are looking for someplace to donate to, I humbly request that you consider the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund. You can donate online, at brucerobertstoyfund.org, or you can mail a check to Press Herald Toy Fund, PO Box 7310, Portland ME 04112. I will be donating my salary from this column.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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