Christmas #11: A Lesson from Sylvester

Sitting at the foothills of the mountains, life in the small town was
very laid-back and unhurried. Neighbors visited in the streets,
discussing the events of the world happening so far away. Children
played kickball on summer evenings, and the park was always filled with
young boys playing baseball. Everyone was concerned about their
neighbors and willingly helped them when any need arose. Neighbors
waited for neighbors as they crossed the only bridge into town. If a
car had already entered the small, one-lane bridge, other vehicles had
to wait. [Cut and combine.]
Such neighborly kindness was evident everywhere in town.
Well, almost everywhere.

At the top of one street lived an old gentleman with a full head of
white hair. He had lived there by himself for as long as anyone could
remember. He was known as “old Sylvester”. [capitalize the Old and you don’t need to use quote marks, which are sometimes awkward.] The adults in town
tried teaching [taught] their children to be polite to him, but never invited him
to their homes for Sunday dinner. Sylvester was a loner.

Children were known to be “mean” to him. Some of the big boys
might even throw rocks at him, just to hear him yell. He suspected the
boys in town of being the cause of his troubles. If a window was
broken, it was “the boys”. If something was missing, it was surely
“the boys.” Sylvester sometimes walked to the boys’ homes and had
a little visit with their parents. Trouble stopped for a little while,
then a new group of “boys” took their place and the cycle started

Sylvester had an old, bent bike which he rode everywhere. He rode
downhill to the small grocery store where he picked up meager supplies–
a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, and sometimes a few other items. He
reached into his pocket and pulled out a few coins to pay for his
purchases. Most of the time the coins were not enough and the grocer
told him he could pay later when he had more change, knowing that he
would never see the money.

Sylvester continued on to the post office where he checked his mail for
any sign of friendship, but all he received were the monthly electricity
bill, water bill, and a few advertisements. “Good morning” he said
to anyone who stopped to nod at him. But it seemed that no one ever had
time to really talk to Sylvester. Waving his hand, he put his mail
alongside his groceries into the basket, and pedaled uphill this time,
to his ramshackled home.

Sylvester rode that bike during all kinds of weather. The streets of
the town were not paved, just gravel and dirt. This created many
problems for Sylvester, for the weather changed the road conditions
continually. During the hot, dry summers the road was dry and dusty,
settling on his clothes. In spring and fall the road turned to thick mud
during sudden rainstorms, making it very difficult to ride his bike.
After a storm, cars splashed mud as they passed him. Winter brought its
own problems. The snow froze on the road, turning it to a sheet of ice,
nearly impossible for riding a bike uphill, and so easy to lose control
going downhill to the store. So during the winter, Sylvester would walk
in the cold.

Sylvester’s clothes were old and worn. He wore an old pair of blue
woolen pants and a frayed white shirt. His shoes were loose and worn.
His coat was a size too big, with patches on the elbows, repaired by one
of the nicer ladies in town. He always had an old dusty top hat on his
white hair and fingerless gloves on his hands.

Sylvester walked with a shuffle, bent as though he walked
against the wind. His head was bend and his tousled hair shaggy in his
face as he passed everyone on the streets. Sylvester was quite the
“odd” character in town.

Sylvester could always be found in church on Sunday morning. His
clothes were the same that he had worn during the week. His
transportation was the same, that old bike, or his own two feet. But
there was something different about him on a Sunday. Every Sunday he
carried his violin case with him to the church house. He walked up the
flight of stairs to the chapel carrying his old tattered case with his
precious violin tucked lovingly inside. The congregation shook their
heads as they watched him slide into the pew at the back of the chapel.
People turned and whispered to each other, no doubt asking the same
question, “Will he do it today or not?” and secretly hoping the
answer would be “no.”

Sylvester had one problem that was very obvious to everyone in town.
He had a difficult time speaking. His words came out mumbled, making it
very difficult to understand. He tried to speak during the church
services, sometimes standing and expounding for a very long time, or so
it seemed. Children snickered and laughed behind their hands, following
the examples of their parents and church leaders who tried to shush the
children at the same time. Many times Sylvester then walked to the
front of the chapel, pulled out his violin and proceeded to play hymns.
The boys laughed at him, ducked their heads and chortled in their hands.
Girls giggled behind their paper fans. Adults rolled their eyes as
they listened, praying he would soon end and allow the meeting to
continue. It was obvious that he had musical talent because he made
that violin speak in a way no one else could, but everyone felt
ill-at-ease because it was not the appropriate thing to do at that time.

One cold, snowy Sunday afternoon, while eating dinner with his family,
a newly-ordained church leader made a surprise announcement. The next
night the family would be going on an adventure to spread Christmas
cheer to several of the needy families around the town. The three young
daughters rolled their eyes, knowing that they were being involved
because of their father’s position, not because they could actually
spread Christmas cheer. They would rather stay home and complete their
homework, or do some other household chore, simply because they really
didn’t want to go. But their father insisted, not telling them
exactly where they would be spreading this fabulous cheer.

Monday evening arrived. Following their father’s lead, they climbed
into the car. The first two stops were at homes of widows, friends of
their grandmother. The visits were friendly, the ladies happy to see
the girls and their parents out visiting on such a cold night. While
climbing into the car after leaving the home of the second widow, they
learned the destination of their last visit for the night.
Sylvester’s home.

The house at the top of the street was a scary thought to the young
girls. It was a place they had never been and was not on their list of
places they wished to ever visit. Their father assured them he would
protect them, and everything would be fine. He told them if they
approached this visit, looking through understanding eyes, they just
might learn a lesson that they would never learn elsewhere.

The father led the way with their mother following and the girls,
youngest to oldest, walking behind. They walked up the squeaky, wobbly
steps to the side door where the father knocked loudly so the old man
inside would hear.

Sylvester was excited to see the family at his doorstep. He quickly
invited them into his home. As the girls walked in, the lesson
immediately began. They entered into the dark and cold kitchen of this
humble home. The cupboards had no doors so it was easy to see they were
empty and bare. An old plate and cup sat in the dirty sink, along with a
dented tin saucepan, a coffee-pot sat on the counter. The coal-burning
stove had a small fire, not large enough to warm the house, but with
enough smoke pouring out to create a smoky haze throughout.

The family followed Sylvester into his living room. They passed a
small Christmas tree empty of decorations except for a few cards that
had been saved from past years. Sylvester picked up a small pillow
sitting on his couch. He pounded it against his leg, sending billows of
dust and smoke into the air. Apologizing for not cleaning up his place,
he invited them to sit on the couch. The girls looked around and
noticed bits of food left on the floor where he obviously ate his last
few meager meals. The room was cold, dirty, and smelly and the girls
were amazed that someone in their town actually lived in this type of

Sylvester was telling the father about his own children living in
California. This was the first time the girls realized he had children. He said they were planning on coming to visit him, but they wouldn’t
be able to make it this year. He rushed over to the Christmas tree.
Reaching behind, he pulled out a picture frame, wiped off the dirt, and
showed the photograph to the family. With pride in his voice, he
explained this was his daughter, his pride and joy. He couldn’t wait
to see her again; after all it had been more than 15 years since he had
last seen her.

He spoke of his years in California where he played the violin during
the silent movie era. The girls learned that he once had a wonderful
life, a life that he lost because of his own choices, a life he would
never get back. He said he learned from his mistakes and was trying to
be the best person he could with what little he had.

Sylvester was humbled when the mother gave him a loaf of bread and a
dozen of her famous raisin-filled cookies. He explained that he
didn’t keep gifts on hand to give out to his friends because people
did not visit him during the Christmas season and it was very difficult
for him to travel around town to deliver gifts. Continuing to make
excuses for this lack of gifts, he suddenly stopped. Turning around, he
said “Excuse me just a moment,” and disappeared down the hall.

He returned carrying his violin case. Wiping off the dust, he opened
the case and pulled out his precious violin. Turning a few of the
tuning pegs, he tuned the violin with the expertise of a master
musician. Then, in that cold, dusty room, he gave the young girls a
concert of the most beautiful Christmas music they had ever heard.
Sylvester closed his eyes as his fingers warmed with the notes of music
learned long ago. He played song after song, never stopping. He
connected the carols together in a way that made the songs flow one
after the other, like a bow wrapped around a present. All too soon, the
music slowed to the end of “Silent Night”. With tears in his eyes,
he bowed his head and said a prayer, thanking God for bringing these new
friends into his home, and for letting him share with them his precious
gift, the talent of his music.

Humbled, the family quietly shook his hands, knowing they were
shaking hands with a master. They thanked them for this wonderful gift
and quietly returned to their car.

Words could not express the lesson the girls learned that evening.
Sylvester was now a different person in their eyes. Not someone to be
laughed at and ridiculed, but a person of worth, someone who had paid
the price for his choices, and still had so much to give.

What I liked best: The theme of not judging, of being willing to see with your heart and not your eyes.

Magazine ready? Not yet. But this has potential. It’s a lot of telling, not enough showing. I’d like to see this played out in real time from the point of view of one of the girls, maybe a teenage girl, or a boy from the town.

Author: LDS Publisher

I am an anonymous blogger who works in the LDS publishing industry. I blog about topics that help authors seeking publication and about published fiction by LDS authors.

22 thoughts on “Christmas #11: A Lesson from Sylvester”

  1. touching story. I especially like it because I play violin and have played for others as my gift for the season.

  2. In my many years and though I know the author I have NEVER heard this story. If I have I must not have listened. How great is this story.

    By small and simple things, great things come to past.

  3. Lori, shame on you as I sit here with tears rolling down my face. You brought back memories that I had forgotten. You captured those memories of our youth perfectly. You should have told us all this story while we were in high school. I have thought about this man over the years and well remember his concert during testimony meeting and long to hear him play again now that I’m grown up and can appreciate his talent. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with all of us.

  4. As you well know, this man was my cousin. I never realized that everyone laughed at him so much. As I read it I felt like crying because of that. I wish that I had known some of those things then. He may have told you the reason for him being like he was was his choice, but not so. He had Menningitis when a young man that left him like he was. I think that the story is wonderful and that many hearts can be touched by that. It’s true he did just as you said, and lived just as you said, but thank goodness for your Father and his kindness to my cousin. I spent many hours with him playing the piano with and for him. And his other brother who was so famous in California, who played the voice of God in the Ten commandments. And all the rest of his brothers who were so talented. I have fond memories of him, he never had an enemy in his mind. I believe his trial was to teach all of us in this little town what you and your family learned that night. God bless you for writing this. I vote for this one.

  5. Your sister, Julie, votes for this one too. I was one of the girls in the story and I remember so well the dust, the little tree, the cold room and the jam and pickles that mom took there that night. I remember seeing his bike in front of Uncle Bruce’s store and not wanting to go in there because he was in there. To me, as a little girl, he was scary when out on the street, but at church he wasn’t scary to me.

    Good story Lori. (hey, that rhymes!)

  6. I vote for this story. I also knew this man. This was a wonderful story, Lori. It reminds me that we need to be mindful of those who are a little “different” because they too have so much to give. Thank you for this. Carol Stilson

  7. This story sure helped me get in the Christmas spirit. I vote for this because of the beautiful descriptions, and how it touched my heart.

  8. I vote for this one.

    I was a little girl when I lived int this small town but I still remember this fine gentleman. This story touched my heart.

  9. He and his brother played with my grandma at the piano every week for years and years at the nursing home in Ferron. I sat in her house and listened to them play old dance tunes, folk songs, and hymns. Never any music for any of them. What talent. Nice story cousin.

    I vote for this one.

  10. I knew this man and learned that you should always judge a person from the inside, not the outside.
    I vote for this story.

  11. Anyone from here will recognize this wonderful man. He taught us all a lesson we should always remember. I vote for this story.

  12. I think this story would have had much more impact if the author would have gotten away from an omnicient point of view and either told the story from her/his point of view or from Sylvester’s point of view.

    This is an intimate story and it deserves and very intimate, touching voice that was never employed by the author.

    If this story is touching to those who lived it, the author needs to find a way to let those who did NOT live the story live it through the view point of one who did.

    Missed opportunity!

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