Read Wise Men and Other Stories Online

Authors: Mike O'Mary

Tags: #Anthology, #Christmas, #Fiction, #Holiday, #Humor, #Retail

Wise Men and Other Stories


Also by Mike O’Mary
The Note

A story about the power of appreciation

Saying Goodbye

To the people, places, and things in our lives
Julie Rember, Editor
Mike O’Mary, Series Editor

Be There Now

Travel stories from around the world
Julie Rand, Editor
Mike O’Mary, Series Editor



Wise Men and Other Stories
Mike O’Mary

Copyright © 2009 by Mike O’Mary


Smashwords Edition
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.


Dream of Things
Downers Grove, Illinois



Dedicated, with love, to my mother, Barbara


Many of these essays were first read on WNIJ - Northern Illinois Public Radio, as part of NPR’s
Morning Edition
program. Others were published, sometimes in different versions, in the following publications:
Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, Peoria Journal Star, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Baltimore Sun Magazine, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine, Louisville Courier Journal, Joliet Herald
, and
Catholic Digest



Wise Men

Snow Ice Cream

Unwrapping Our Gifts

The Scariest Costume

Decorating the House

John’s Thanksgiving

The Best Meals

Christmas at the Carl Sandburg Mall

The Christmas Program

Family Men

Kid Talk

A Note From My Sister

The EcoSphere

Little Arms

Holiday Parties

The Difference Between Men and Women

New Year’s Resolutions

The Rose Parade

The Top Ten

The Scrabble Tournament

Dog Days

Lucky Duck



Wise Men

When I was in the second grade, I played one of the three wise men in the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Christmas play. I was the second wise man—the one who brought the frankincense.

I enjoyed being one of the wise men. It was a pretty easy part. The first wise man says, “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold,” and that serves as the cue for the next wise man who says, “and I bring you frankincense,” and so on.

We also got to wear robes. I brought a bathrobe from home.

But the main thing was that you were a “wise man.” There were bigger parts—Mary and Joseph had pretty substantial roles, and even the innkeeper and shepherds had more lines—but being a wise man was quite a distinction. You had to carry yourself with grace and dignity. You had to look wise.

That’s why I was a little confused when I learned that Mike Walston had also been designated a wise man.

Mike Walston was the poor kid of the class. As it turned out, most of us at my old school were pretty poor, but we had not yet seen enough of the world to know it. What we did know was that we were better off than Mike Walston.

We knew because we started each day at St. Elizabeth’s by going around the room and telling Sister Julia what we ate for breakfast that morning. It turned out that Mike Walston seldom had breakfast. When it was his turn to answer, he’d stand up and smile a big unselfconscious smile and say, “Nothing.” After the kids laughed at his answer a few times, he stopped smiling, but his answer didn’t change. As it was, Mike Walston was singled out as different, possibly ignorant, and, generally speaking, not a good person to associate with. All I knew was that the honor of being designated a wise man had been diminished by my having to share that distinction with Mike Walston. And to make matters worse, he was the head wise man. He was to present the gold.

We began rehearsals right after Thanksgiving. We three kings would stand in the wings during most of rehearsal, Mike Walston first, me behind him, and Joey Amback, the myrrh guy, behind me. When it was time for us to enter, Mike Walston, being gold, would lead the way.

Unfortunately, Mike Walston was having trouble remembering his lines. (“We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”) And, of course, every time he stumbled during rehearsal, the class would laugh at him. I only made matters worse by making faces whenever he messed up, causing the class to laugh even louder.

As we got closer to opening night, Mike Walston was still having trouble. Many of us speculated that Sister Julia would have to make a switch, and that I, being frankincense and the next wise man on the totem pole, was the likely candidate to move up. So when Sister Julia asked me to stay after school the day before the performance, I was prepared: if she felt my talents were better suited to the role of head wise man, I would, with all due grace and dignity, accept the promotion and present gold to the Christ-child on opening night.

But that’s not what Sister Julia wanted. Instead, I heard these shocking words: “I want you to help Mike Walston remember his lines when we perform the play tomorrow night.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“I want you to practice his lines with him before you go on stage,” Sister Julia continued, “and if he forgets his lines when he kneels down by the baby Jesus, I want you to kneel down beside him and whisper his lines to him so the audience won’t know he forgot.”

I said I would do it.

Sister Julia dismissed me, and I walked home that day in a daze. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Nonetheless, the next night, I did as Sister Julia told me. Mike Walston, Joey Amback, and I showed up in our bathrobes, somebody from the props department handed us cardboard crowns covered with tinfoil, and then Mike Walston and I went right to work on his lines: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”

He did it fine offstage when he was relaxed, but I was afraid that once we got on stage, he’d freeze. I was prepared though: if he froze, I’d kneel down beside him and bail him out. If nothing else, my friends would know who was the hero and who was the goat.

The play went on and we watched as the innkeeper turned Joseph and Mary away, they shacked up in the stable, and the sheep and goats and cows gathered around. Mike Walston and I went over his lines once more while the shepherds did their thing, and then it was time for our big entrance.

Mike Walston led us across the stage toward the Star of Bethlehem and the manger. With Mary and Joseph looking on, Mike knelt in front of the baby Jesus and—didn’t say a word. He froze. I was about to kneel down to help him, but just then, he glanced up at me and smiled a big smile. Then he turned, looked at Mary, and spat out his lines in the same matter
fact tone he used when he told us about breakfast: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”

I was stunned. There was a fairly long pause before Joey Amback gave me a nudge. Then I remembered where I was. I knelt down next to Mike Walston, turned to Mary, and said, “And I bring you gold.”

I couldn’t believe my own words. I was the frankincense guy, but I had said, plain as day, “I bring you gold.” There was a shocked hush over the entire church basement audience—broken only by a few nervous coughs—until Joey Amback knelt next to me and said, “Yeah, I bring you gold, too.”

Then the whole audience roared. The third wise man had bailed me out. Life in the second grade would go on. I would not have to spend my remaining days standing against the fence during recess. And Mike Walston would receive kudos for his fine performance.

The lesson stuck with me. Years later, when my boss was having trouble and there was talk of replacing him, I remembered the Christmas play and lent him a hand. Sure, I wanted to move up, but not at all costs. I know firsthand that the wisest of wise men stumble once in a while. And when that happens, it’s nice to have somebody around who will cover your rear.


Snow Ice Cream


The first snowfall. When I was little, new snow meant one thing: we’d get to make snow ice cream.

As soon as enough snow had accumulated on the ground, my mother would send my brothers and sisters and me out to collect the new snow in mixing bowls, drinking glasses, soup cans—anything we could find. Then we’d bring all of the containers back to the kitchen.

While Mom dumped the snow into a big glass mixing bowl, we kids would take off our coats, hats, and gloves, and spread them throughout the rest of the house to dry over any available furnace vent. Then we gathered in the kitchen where we’d take turns warming our feet over the vent next to the oven.

Mom would take the big bowl of snow, add some sugar, milk, and vanilla extract, and mix it all up. Then she gave us each a bowl full, and we sat around the kitchen table—me with my little brothers and sisters at a time before we were old enough to know pain or worry—eating snow ice cream while Mom took care of everything else.

Those were rare, beautiful moments…frozen in time, frozen in memory…and I’d give anything to go back to that kitchen with my mother, brothers, and sisters for just five minutes.

I haven’t had snow ice cream in a lot of years. And there are probably many reasons
to eat snow ice cream nowadays. Even though new fallen snow may look pure and white, there are probably lots of impurities in the stuff. It’s just a matter of time before somebody sounds the alarm about the harmful effects of acid snow.

Even so, snow ice cream still sounds pretty good to me. It sounds like kids warming their cold little toes over the furnace vent. It sounds like Mom mixing up a batch of something cold and sweet in the kitchen. And in the middle of shopping for presents, sending out Christmas cards, decorating the tree, balancing the checkbook, and myriad other holiday-related activities, it sounds like a pretty good way to spend a December afternoon.

we keep those mixing bowls anyway?


Unwrapping Our Gifts

When we open our presents at Christmas, I am in charge of gathering up the wrapping paper.

I don’t know exactly when or why I became my family’s designated cleaner
upper, but over the years, as I’ve gotten to know myself a little bit better, I understand that this was no accident. Getting rid of the wrapping paper is part of who I am.

I learned from my mother how to wrap gifts. She wrapped things in plain white tissue paper with a simple ribbon and hand
made bow. And after all the presents had been opened, she gathered up the tissue paper, ribbons, and bows, and saved them to be used again next year.

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