This story takes place around Christmas, but it tells a truth that is true all year ’round.
I’ve told it before in various versions. Some of you were kind enough — thank you — to ask me to reprint it from a column I wrote years ago. That would require finding it. And I have trouble finding my own shoes.
So, I’m going to retell it from memory, which is always an adventure because every good story has a mind of its own. You never know at the start where it will lead or how it might end.
This one starts at a picnic on the Fourth of July. I was big, 8 years old. My brothers were small, 4 and 3. Little did we know what lay ahead.
My stepfather, in my eyes, was strong and solid as the trunk of a hickory tree. He earned just enough to keep us sheltered and fed by standing eight hours per day on his big flat feet running a loom at a textile mill.
That summer at the company picnic — when he lost his footing in the Tug-of-War and slid downhill like a jack-knifed big-rig — he also lost his job.
I learned this from my mother, who said, as she watched him fall, “Lord help us! If he can’t walk, he can’t work! And if he can’t work, we can’t eat!”
He was on crutches and out of work for six months. Somehow, we still managed to eat.
That December, my mother announced Santa might be running a bit late.
“How late?” I asked.
“Maybe spring,” she said.
They had ordered a few gifts on credit from a catalog, she explained, but the shipment might not arrive in time.
“It will still be Christmas,” she said, “even without Santa.”
I tried to picture it, Christmas minus Santa. I couldn’t see it.
The next day, some good and caring people from our church came to our door with a ham, a tin of cookies and a tiny Douglas fir trimmed with paper birds.
My stepfather hid in the kitchen. My mother thanked them for their kindness but forgot to offer them coffee.
After they left, she handed me a cookie. “Life,” she said, “is a bank. Sometimes, you put in. Other times, you take out. Either way, it’s all the same bank.”
Then, she added: “You need to remember how hard it is to receive,” she said, “because someday, you’ll do the giving.”
Every day that last week before Christmas, my stepfather would shove his crutches in his ’49 Ford and drive to the depot to wait for the train. I would wait on the porch steps praying.
And every day, he’d come back shaking his head, looking grim.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, he limped into the living room holding a box under one arm.
“Merry Christmas,” he muttered, dropping the box on the floor by the little Douglas fir. It was a case of tangerines.
We ate them all. They were good. But that night, for the first time, they tasted like Christmas. And for me, they always will.
I’ve seen a lot of Christmases since then and received far more than my share of gifts. I also have done a little giving and learned my mother was right. Giving is easy. Taking is hard.
In this season of giving, and through the coming year, I hope we all will know the joy of giving to family and friends and strangers in need. But I also hope we’ll be willing to accept a little help, just to keep us humble.
When you find yourself in need, remember: Sometimes, we give. Other times, we take. And one day, you will do the giving.
You don’t need to send me a Christmas card or New Year’s greeting (P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley, CA 93924) unless, of course, you really want to.
May your stocking be filled, not just at Christmas, but every morning. And in the toe, may you always find a tangerine.