A Gift-Wrapped Memory

A Gift-Wrapped Memory

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Gift-Wrapped Memory

Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.

Henry James

Every holiday season since I was a teenager Dad asked, “Do you remember that Christmas Eve? Remember those two little children who asked us for carfare?”

Yes, I remembered. Even if my father had not reminded me of that strange event every season for more than thirty-five years, I would have remembered.

It was 1935, a typical Christmas Eve in St. Louis, Missouri. Streetcars clang-clanged their warnings. Shoppers rushed in and out of stores for last-minute gifts. Even then, mothers forgot a few ingredients absolutely necessary to complete the family Christmas dinner. Mother had sent Dad and me on such a mission.

Our frosty breaths made a parallel trail behind us as we hurried from the car to her favorite grocery store on Delmar Avenue. Mother liked Moll’s because its shelves were stocked with exotic condiments and fancy foods.

Up and down the aisles we hurried, selecting anise and cardamom for Christmas breakfast bread, double whipping cream and jumbo pecans for pumpkin pies, and day-old bread for a fat gobbler’s stuffing. We checked the last item off Mother’s list and paid the cashier.

Once again we braced our backs for the frigid cold. As we stepped out of the store, a small voice asked, “Please, would you give us a dime for carfare so we can go home?”

Taken aback, Dad stopped. Our eyes met those of a little girl around nine years old. She was holding the gloveless hand of her six-year-old brother.

“Where do you live?” Dad asked.

“On Easton Avenue” was the reply.

We were amazed. Here it was night—Christmas Eve night—and these two children were more than three miles from home.

“What are you doing so far from home?” Dad asked her.

“We had only enough money to ride the streetcar here,” she said. “We came to ask for money to buy food for Christmas. But no one gave us any and we are afraid to walk home.” Then she told us that their father was blind, their mother was sick, and there were five other children at home.

My dad was a strong-willed urban businessman. But his heart was soft and warm, just like the little girl’s brown eyes. “Well, the first thing I think we should do is shop for groceries,” he announced, taking her hand. Her brother promptly reached for mine.

Once again we hurried up and down Moll’s aisles. This time Dad selected two plump chickens, potatoes, carrots, milk, bread, oranges, apples, bananas, candy and nuts. When we left the store, we had two huge sacks of groceries to carry to the car and two small trusting children in tow.

They gave us directions to Easton Avenue. “Home” was upstairs in a large, old brick building. The first floor housed commercial establishments,while rental units were on the second. A bare light bulb on a long cord hung from the ceiling at the landing, swaying slightly as we climbed the long flight of worn wooden steps to their apartment.

The little girl and her brother burst through the door announcing the arrival of two sacks of groceries. The family was just as she had described: The father was blind and the mother was ill in bed. Five other children, most of them with colds, were on the floor.

Dad introduced himself. First on one foot and then the other, concerned that he would embarrass the father, he continued, “Uh . . . er . . . Merry Christmas.” He set the groceries on a table.

The father said, “Thank you. My name is Earl Withers.”

“Withers?” Dad turned sharply. “You wouldn’t know Hal Withers, would you?”

“Sure do. He’s my uncle.”

Both Dad and I were stunned. My aunt was married to Hal Withers. Although we were not blood relatives, we felt related to Uncle Hal. How could the sad plight of this family be? Why were they in such need when they had so many relatives living in the same city? A strange coincidence, indeed.

Or was it?

Through the years the incident haunted us. Each succeeding year seemed to reveal a different answer to the question, “What was the meaning of that Christmas Eve?”

At first, the phrase repeatedly quoted by elderly aunts, “God works in strange and mysterious ways,” surfaced. Perhaps Dad acted out the Good Samaritan role. That was it! God had a job for us to do and fortunately we did it.

Another year passed. It was not a satisfactory answer. What was? If I am my brother’s keeper, am I also my wife’s sister’s husband’s brother’s blind son’s keeper? That was it! This tied the incident into a neat package.

Yet it didn’t. The years rolled by, and each year Dad and I would again toss the question around. Then Dad, who was born in the Christmas season of 1881, died in the Christmas season of 1972. Every December since, though, I still hear him ask me, “Do you remember that Christmas Eve?”

Yes, Dad. I remember. And I believe I finally have the answer. We were the ones blessed when two children innocently gave a middle-aged father and his teenaged daughter the true meaning of Christmas: It is more blessed to give than to receive.

This gift-wrapped memory became the most beautiful Christmas I ever celebrated. I think it was your best one, too, Dad.

Dorothy DuNard

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