Once upon a time, Christmas morning dawned just as it was expected to do so. My four sisters and I flooded into my mom’s and dad’s bedroom, all of us ready to besiege them, plead with them, and beseech them to wake so we could fall upon our respective piles of presents with the energy and fervor of starved cannibals with a taste for blood. My mother and father, barely clocking in three hours of sleep, eventually responded to the gaggle of us. They ordered us to our positions at the top of the stairway as they slowly (and surely begrudgingly) exited the blankets.

With a discipline Captain Von Trapp would approve of, my sisters and I filed from oldest to youngest (that was me) at the top of the stairs. Meanwhile my father made his way downstairs to ensure that Santa had visited. Really, he turned tree lights on, snuck a bite of a cookie, sipped some milk, and turned on the coffee pot.

“Looks like Santa was here after all,” my father would send up the stairs to our impatiently eager ears. That was it. Our green light. The pistol shot marking the beginning of race down the stairs.

My sisters and I shot down the stairs, careened around the landings with a proficiency to which Olympic bobsledders aspire, and scrambled over one another in pursuit of the Christmas Tree’s glow and the gifts a certain red-suited obese man had surely left behind. Skidding to a halt, however, I noticed four mounds of gifts, not five, none of which were labeled for me. Nestled between two colossal stacks of presents, however, rested a measly pile consisting of a rather diminutive and unexciting looking box, a standard mailing envelope, and a burlap sack.

Before I tell you what I found in the box, envelope, and burlap sack, allow me to deviate from chronological storytelling in a manner befitting a Tarantino film. Let me set the clock back five or six weeks.

Walking home from school as a wee lad, I lost a shoe. Not the pair, but a single shoe. A dressier shoe I wore at Saint Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic School. A shoe I was certain was in my backpack on the walk home because the pair was so nice and demanded being taken care of. Not sure how I lost that lone shoe, but my parents gave me hell for it. They yelled at me and punished me in ways that might provoke children of today to cry out “abuse!” They lectured me on the importance of keeping track of things, and how much of a struggle it is to afford new shoes (we were not a well-to-do family) while somehow still providing five children with a Catholic school education.

Despite the cost, I had a new pair within a couple days. The incident receded from minds as life returned to something like normalcy. With less than a month before Christmas, excitement crept its way into my thoughts. All was right in the world.

Yet, with only days remaining before Christmas vacation, I lost another shoe.

You read that correctly. I lost another shoe.

The punishment this time was far worse. Silence. That was it. Just silence. Silence and my parents’ disappointed eyes. Just thinking about it now sends pangs of guilt into the very depths of my heart and tickles my tear ducts into reflective agony.

Oddly enough, only the few days following the shoe loss were memorably stressful. Once school dismissed us for the holiday break, the entire debacle was forgotten. Or so I thought.

Remember the box, the envelope, and the sack? Let’s get back to those.

In the box was a pair of shiny new shoes, a replacement for the pair(s) made useless. In the envelope was a letter from Santa Claus, a correspondence warning me that my parents struggle enough and to take better care of my possessions. In the burlap sack was coal.

Santa gave me coal.

My parents gave me coal.

There were presents hidden behind the couch, but my loving parents allowed me to sit in tearful devastation for a time before alerting me that “Santa left you something after all.” Sources (my sisters) can’t agree on the amount of time sobs and agonizing convulsions coursed through my young body. One says only minutes passed and another swears my parents let a couple hours pass. Doesn’t matter, really. I can’t recall a single gift received that year. All I can remember is the shoes, the letter, and the coal. And the hurt.

Greatest takeaway? My parents are savages. They’re gangsters. They’re hard-lesson slinging thugs the likes of which few of us will ever know or experience.

And, in case you’re wondering, I can’t look at a pair of shoes without some mild anxiety.