Christmas always begins with the same rituals for the Kehoe clan. Someone lights the tree; someone else loads the record player with Bing Crosby's rendition of White Christmas and then, the stories begin.

John Lawrence, always dubbed `Our Johnny,' tells his story first. As he speaks, we easily slip back to December 1944 and a very different Christmas. John Lawrence was one of 100,000 soldiers who fought the German army in Belgium in the infamous Battle of the Bulge.

"The fighting started on the sixteenth," he says. "The Allies were caught by surprise. Foggy weather held off the air force." He shakes his head, reliving the memory.

Johnny always skips over any mention of heroic deeds, bloody battles, or even his two Bronze Stars and Purple Heart.

"We were captured, force marched, and then moved in box cars. . . ." He stops.

Older family members step in. They recall the waiting and the telegram: Missing-in-Action, the words that put fear in their hearts. .

He continues: "It was almost Christmas when we reached the camp. We were interrogated and often brutalized if we didn't co-operate. But we'd been taught: give your name, rank, and serial number." He listens to the music. Sighs.

"When it was my turn, I was interrogated by a German officer, a sandy haired young man who didn't look any older than I was. He told me to empty my pockets. I put my rosary beads, Mary Pat's kindergarten picture-the one I took just before I went overseas-and a few coins on the table between us."

The officer picked up the photo. "She is very pretty," he said. "Is she your child?"

I said, "No." Johnny stares at the Christmas tree lights and seems to have returned to that other Christmas. Then he continues. "She is my cousin, the baby in the family. Her name is Mary Pat."

The officer put down the picture. "I have a daughter about that age. She has wispy blond hair too."

"We were all starving." Johnny tells us. "Twice a day we had a runny soup made with potato skins. By then, the German officers fared no better than the prisoners. The dampness seeped into you. Most of us had ringworm and hacking coughs. We all just wanted to go home."

And then he always asks, "Do you know what he did? That officer?

My enemy? He gave them all back to me: the photograph, the beads, and even the coins. Then he waved me away, out of the room.

"Such a gift. . . ."

We always honor the gift in silence.

Then he adds, "We would spend almost six months in that camp before the Allies liberate us."

"It was May. You sent the postcard in May," Aunt Helen says.

He nods.

"I can remember every word of it." She recites. "I'm all right. Pray for me. Give my love to Mary Pat." Her voice breaks at the last.

Someone always clears his throat, offers another Christmas drink, starts another story. But it's always Johnny's story I remember best.

When people talk about the Battle of Bulge, they usually regale you with tales of strategy, of skirmishes won and lost. But for me, as the child in the picture, the real story of that battle, that war, is the story of two young men from opposing sides, forever bonded by the memory of a gift of kindness given that Christmas of 44.

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