Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Two Christmas Memories

Every Christmas, I always recall the memories of Christmas past. I can’t help myself. For me, Christmas is nothing if not for the retelling . Maybe it’s because my memories are so hazy and so few. I remember nothing specific about Christmas, other than special presents I received, like my first bike and the genuine Colt45 cap-guns with leather holsters. But other than the occasional transcendent boyhood dream-gift, Christmas is all a blur. Except for two memories that remain bright and alive in my mind.

The first one happened around the time that I was 10. There was a family that had recently moved in down the road from us. I believe they were from St. Louis. They had three kids who I had never met. Actually I had never seen any of them. My Dad was the pastor of the local Baptist church and he talked about them at dinner one night. He told us that the father had lost his job back in St. Louis and had moved to Virginia to go to work someplace in Ashland but had soon lost that job as well. Now he was broke and looking for work, and didn’t have enough money to head back to St. Louis. Someone observed that they wouldn’t be having much of a Christmas.  I can’t remember who came up with the idea, probably my Mom, but we all decided that we would do Christmas for them.

  These people didn’t go to our church. Dad had just visited them and found out about their story. Before long my Mom somehow had gotten all of the kids’ clothes sizes and other important information like what kind of toys they would like. There has never lived a woman who was better at finding out important and secret stuff than my Mom. The CIA could learn a thing or two from Betty Dunnevant. Next thing you know we drove into Ashland on a shopping spree with our own money and some from a couple of other families who had gotten in on it. While we were in town we stopped by Western Auto and picked up a big cardboard box that had once held a washing machine. When we all gathered to wrap the presents,  I remember being so incredibly happy with it all, the joy of it, the feeling that I was in on something grand and holy.

  Once we wrapped everything, we then wrapped the huge box, stuffed all the other presents inside and then sealed up this miracle Christmas with a big tacky red ribbon. Then it gets hazy. I remember talking about how we should give this to them. Someone said that we shouldn’t present it to them in person, that we wouldn’t want to hurt the man’s pride, something about not letting the left hand know what the right hand was doing. I didn’t really understand it very well at the time. All I knew was, the plan that we came up with was the stuff of which dreams are made. At 10 years old on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, I found myself in Fred Schwartz’ pickup truck backing down a dirt driveway with the lights off right around midnight. We quietly carried the box to their front porch and left it there with a note that said..”Jesus Loves You….Merry Christmas”. We never heard from them as far as I know. But that Christmas day was unlike any other for me. We spent all day with smiles on our faces, wondering what it must have been like when that poor, homesick family opened their front door.

The second memory was from a couple of years later. My Mom had stumbled upon a family that lived in a shockingly poor community called “sawdust lane”. I knew that the people unlucky enough to live there were the poorest of the poor in our county, but I had never actually met anyone from sawdust lane, let alone visited anyone there. But one December day my Mother took me with her to visit this family. I remember nothing about the visit other than the most disturbing thing I had ever seen up to that point in my life. The house had a dirt floor and the two little boys who lived there were barefoot outside in the middle of winter with feet that looked as dirty as rusted iron. My Mom and some other lady from church gathered the boys up, put them in the back seat with me and drove into Ashland. There we bought each of them a winter coat and two pairs of shoes. When the boys tried the shoes on they stumbled around awkwardly, falling and giggling until we realized that they had never worn shoes before. I remember the looks on their faces and the strange lump in my throat as I watched them delight in a package of three pairs of socks. In my world, I knew no one who was rich. We didn’t have much at home, but I had never seen poverty before in all of its ugliness until that moment. Mom never told me what she was thinking by taking me with her that day and she never asked me about it. But it made an impression that changed how I viewed the world and especially Christmas. I don’t ever think I’ve been as grateful as I was that year.

I enjoy Christmas every year. My first Christmas as a husband, the first Christmas with my children, they were all magical and glorious. But nothing has stayed with me like the two years over 40 years ago when I learned the joy and wonder of giving.

“ O, lay aside each earthly thing,
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight.”

Alfred Burt