A long time ago, when I was a very small girl growing up in Yorkshire, England, I received a most unusual Christmas gift. I had asked Santa Claus for a pony and had generously excused him from bringing me anything else since I realized ponies were quite expensive, and probably pretty heavy to go dragging around on a sled with all his other presents.
However, I was not getting my hopes up too high since I had asked for a pony the year before and either Santa had run out of them, or he thought I’d been bad, which was probably true!
Happily, this year had looked promising. I was more grown up now; seven on my last birthday, and mother said my behavior was improving. Also there had been a number of very mysterious things happening.
The postman had delivered letters which had been read and then very carefully locked away where I could not read them. Telephone calls were abruptly ended when I entered the room. And mother was forever tidying out drawers and moving small pieces of furniture around upstairs. Granted, this last activity did not coincide at all with pony ownership, not that I could see. But then, I had never owned a pony, nor had anyone else I knew, so I was not at all sure what was involved.
Then, on Christmas Eve morning, mother left to go off on an unexplained errand and my imagination ran riot. Obviously it had something to do with Christmas, probably with me, too. Later in the day she arrived home holding a little boy by the hand. Leading him over to me, she said, “This is your cousin Stanley. He’s going to live with us. He’ll be a nice playmate for you.”
I was thunderstruck. I ask for a pony and I get – a cousin. I said the first thing that came into my mind. “Where did he come from?” Mother sighed. “He’s been living in a sort of hospital. You see he’s not quite like other boys. He’s very quiet and gentle but I think once you get used to him you’ll really enjoy having him around. It will be as good as having a brother.”
Who’d ever asked for a brother? If I wasn’t to be allowed to have a pony I might have settled on a sister. But I wasn’t sure. I could see that he was quiet and I would take mother’s word for it that he was gentle, but I wondered why he smiled all the time if he’d been living in a hospital. When I had my tonsils out I’d cried every day in hospital until they brought me home.
“Where’s his mom and dad?” I demanded. “They’re in Heaven,” said mother quietly. I must have accepted her explanation because that was the best Christmas I ever remember. True, I didn’t get a pony, but I didn’t give it another thought after Stanley arrived.
He was the ‘perfect’ playmate. My naturally bossy nature suited Stanley to the ground. So long as he was getting attention he felt secure and cared for. And because he was incapable of theoretical thinking, he left all the planning and organizing up to me. It was a match made in Heaven.
Although he couldn’t go to school, he was content to stay home with Mom and wait anxiously until I got home. Then he’d show me pictures he had drawn for me and jumbled up buildings he’d made with my blocks. If he was ever troublesome for Mother to deal with, she never mentioned it.
We usually spend the time before supper playing school. I would tell him what I had learned that day and try to teach him the same things. He tried very hard to understand but so much of it was beyond him. Even so, he eventually managed to learn the alphabet and could count up to ten and he got better and better at colouring between the lines and drawing pictures freehand.
I’ve no doubt that repeating my lessons to Stanley was good for me; and in some small way it was good for Stanley, too. I don’t ever remember asking Mother what she and Stanley did when I wasn’t around. I just took it for granted that he would be there waiting for me with a big welcoming smile, eager to embark on whatever games I suggested and always lovingly grateful for my attention.
Slowly, the years passed. I was only a few months away from graduation when I suddenly realized that if I left home to go to university as had been planned, there would be a big hole in Stanley’s life and in mine, too. My cousin towered above me now but he was still the sweet, lovable boy he had been on that long ago Christmas Eve.
I began to worry about his future. That winter the big flu pandemic struck our town. Always susceptible to respiratory infections, Stanley was one of the first to become ill.
In four short days, he died. To say that we all missed him would be the grossest understatement. His constant good nature, his smile, his cheerful obedience and eagerness to learn had been a shining example to me for over a decade.
How would I have turned out without this sterling cousin-come-brother to lead me? How would I manage without his unconditional love and cheerful spirit? I could not imagine. Stanley’s wholesome nature became the model I strived to achieve. His willingness to concentrate on pleasing others became, for me, the epitome of “Love thy neighbor as thyself”.
Many years have passed and this gentle giant is still an important lodestar to me. And, one thing I do know – no pony in the world could have been as loving, and as loved, as was my cousin Stanley.