A Christmas Tale about the gift of music
by Lori Jagow
From my small apartment, the tune of “Good King Wenceslas” blared from my son’s shiny brass trumpet. My eight year old son, Jimmy, practiced for his first Christmas concert in the school orchestra. Jimmy is autistic and his music teacher recommended he play an instrument to improve his attention span. His teacher had noticed his musical aptitude.
The cost of the trumpet was steep for my income, but by carefully budgeting, and cutting coupons I was able to make the monthly payment. No sacrifice was too great to help my son improve his skills.
School was difficult for Jimmy. He’d often get lost on the way to and from the building. Sometimes, he would mentally withdraw during class to escape from difficult social demands, typical of kids on the autism spectrum. He had special accommodations in the classroom to help keep him on target including a personal aide.
The Christmas of 1998 was going to be lean as usual. I had been a single parent for the past few years and since my divorce my income was drastically reduced. Money became even tighter when I was laid off earlier that fall.
I was good at making do with what we had. We had seen hard times before. To cut costs, I packaged homemade cookie gifts in decorative tin canisters which I had been collecting throughout the year. My freezer was packed full of cherries which Jimmy and I had picked in the summertime from my mother’s orchard. Mom lived nearby and we visited her farm home often. Putting Moms’ cherries to good use, I made pies for gifts. They were a beautiful Christmas red with lattice top crust and holly-shaped cutouts made from shaping pie dough with a cookie cutter. The local baker gifted me with several free pie boxes making the perfect presentation for my pies.
Focusing on the true meaning of Christmas, I thanked God for everything he had blessed us with – my parents, friends, and Jim’s music. My mother had given me a few toys she picked up so I would have a gift to give Jimmy on Christmas morning. I was truly grateful. While most people enjoyed the rush of Christmas shopping, I was content to make do with what I had, and eagerly awaited attending my son’s fourth grade Christmas concert.
The smell of warm vanilla and sugar filled my apartment as I frosted the last batch of cut-out cookies when the phone rang. The telephone hung on the wall near the windowsill of my little kitchen. I licked the butter cream icing from my fingers before reaching for the receiver.
“Hello,” I said.
“Yes, this is Ms. Jagow.”
“This is the collections department attempting to collect payment for your son’s trumpet.”
The instrument was almost paid off, but I had gotten behind in payments since losing my job.
“Ahh . . . how much is the current payment?” I inquired.
“You would need $100 to make your account current,” she explained.
It might as well have been $1000 because I didn’t have it. My heart sank into my stomach as I thought of having to take from my son the only source of motivation he had for going to school.
“Well you see…. I lost my job several weeks ago and have not been able to keep up with the payments. Will you accept a smaller amount until I can get caught up”? I asked.
“No Ma’am,” the woman from the music store said firmly. “If the $100 is not paid in full we will have to repossess the trumpet.”
I hesitated a moment. “That would be just awful as my son loves playing and music gives him a reason to go to school.” I sighed. “You see he is autistic and school is very trying for him.”
After a few moments the conversation shifted. “What is his music teacher’s name?“ the woman asked.
“Mr. Volpe,” I answered somewhat confused by her inquiry.
“And the school I have listed here is in Buffalo, New York,” she went on.
Was she going to send someone out to the school to get the trumpet? I wondered. Then the woman asked me If would wait on hold.
The phone cord attached to the wall didn’t reach very far and I stood staring out the window. It was a typical Buffalo winter that year. The snow was coming down harder than it had been earlier that day and gusts of wind brought blizzard-like conditions reflecting the churning going on inside my stomach as I gazed out the window. My body pressed into the chilled window pane which was almost as cold as the thought of snatching the trumpet from my autistic son.
Several minutes later the woman came back on the phone saying “Mrs. Jagow? I just spoke with your son’s music teacher and he tells me your son is quite talented. Please accept the trumpet as a gift from us.”
I hesitated a moment. Did I hear her correctly? Then breaking the silence, “You can consider the trumpet paid in full,” she reassured me. “Merry Christmas!”
As I hung up the phone tears of gratitude fell from my eyes.
The evening of Jim’s first school concert performance finally arrived shortly before Christmas. My mother accompanied me to the show. The curtain opened and Jim proudly walked out on stage with the rest of the band, his treasured trumpet in hand. Nervously, I twisted my purse strap around my hand as I wondered if Jim would be able to remain focused and follow directions of the band leader. Musically, he had a good ear, could read notes and had a good sense of rhythm. However, he was unable to follow the direction of his classroom teacher without the help of his aide.
The conductor raised his baton cuing the band. All eyes were on the conductor; mine were on Jimmy as I watched with anticipation. The band broke into a rendition of “Sleighride” with Jim, following along in perfect time as if he were not affected by his disability. Gabriel himself couldn’t have sounded more beautiful to me in that moment. My mother and I both wiping the tears of joy from our eyes, sat back and enjoyed the show. The band continued with many old familiar Christmas classics, one after another and Jimmy didn’t miss a beat.
Many Christmases passed since then. Some more abundant than others, but I will always treasure the gift of music my son and I both received the Christmas of 1998.
This year, I am looking forward to attending Jimmy’s Christmas concert at Berklee College of Music.
James Jagow performing his rendition of “Sleigh Ride” on the guitar. Ed Croft on bass.
James Jagow is a composer and master guitarist. He and his mother Lori reside in Buffalo, New York. James’ award-winning music has been featured on the radio, TV and in film. James is pursuing a career in film and video game scoring at Berklee College of Music. Whether he is singing, shredding licks of rock or jazz, or composing a symphony, the gift of music has helped him break through his limitations.
Photograph by William Carpenter.