Green Ink

Green Ink

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

Green Ink

If there be any truer measure of a man than by what he does, it must be by what he gives.

Robert South

The rush of Christmas was again upon me. I was opening a stack of Christmas cards, glancing quickly at photos of friends’ children while listening to my four-year-old daughter rehearse the Little Drummer Boy for her preschool Christmas program. My mind swirled with commitments, cookie recipes and carols, and then it froze.

Staring at the letter in my hand, I couldn’t draw oxygen.

My ears burned as if I had just come out of the December cold into a heated house.

I opened the envelope to find, not a Christmas card, but a letter signed by Helen’s four children letting me know of the unfortunate passing of their beloved mother. Forty-seven years had passed since Helen Tibbals walked into my mom’s living room. I dropped to my kitchen floor, shaking, while tears flowed down my face for the loss of this angel. And then I smiled. Helen was in heaven where she had always belonged and from where she certainly had come. My mom has told her tale so many times I can still smell the scent of spruce and hear the clang of ornaments in the living room of their house on Hollywood Place:

We heard the echo of someone knocking. Grandma opened the squeaky front door of her small home, where my three brothers, my sister, my mother and I lived. A slim redheaded woman and her teenage boy stood smiling at us. I watched in awe as the two strangers carried armloads of packages wrapped in red with our names written on white tags in green ink. They also lugged a pine tree, strings of colored lights and glass ornaments, transforming the drab room from black and white to Technicolor. I backed against the threadbare couch to allow her and her son room to unload these treasures. They brought Christmas into our living room.

The woman in the green silk dress introduced herself as Helen Tibbals and her awkward-looking son as Todd Junior. She was a member of First Community Church, the same church we attended, and explained that she had taken a paper gift tag shaped like the star of Bethlehem off the Christmas tree standing in the church vestibule. It had our name on it. She was all lipstick and smiles and smelled like the department store downtown. The sharp scent of peppermint filled my nose as she opened a box of candy canes and invited us to join in decorating the evergreen. All the while, she asked questions about us kids as if we were her own. I had so many questions for her, but was too shy to ask them. Where had this angel and her elf come from, and why did she care so much about my family?

Helen was the gift of Christmas present, not past. A reminder that despite a father who had deserted us, a terminally ill mother and the fact that all five of us lived in a two-bedroom home with my mother and grandmother, God’s hope and love lived in the world.

Helen became much more than a Christmas gift; she became a part of Mom’s family. Until my mom and her siblings graduated from high school, Helen regularly brought them school supplies, new clothes and chocolates. She even sent them to summer camp each year. When my grandmother struggled with breast cancer, Helen brought candy bars and magazines to the small home as if she were Grandmother’s sister. When my mom, aunt and uncles were in college, Helen wrote them faithfully, always using her signature green pen. She attended my grandmother’s funeral, my mother’s graduation from high school and my parents’ wedding.

Helen’s generosity expanded to the next generation as she adopted my brother and me as grandchildren, including us in her umbrella of selfless giving. She invited us to her home each summer for a feast and a stroll around her goldfish pond. Every birthday, gifts arrived at our house, our names written across the top in green felt-tip marker. I remember the excitement of seeing an envelope with my name scrawled in Helen’s green ink every Easter and Valentine’s Day. Poinsettias in December would bear her green signature, and even the place cards at the annual Christmas dinner at her club, where she made sure the waiter kept our Shirley Temples refilled, were written in green ink.

I was still weepy when my husband, Brett, came home from work. I pulled a boiling pot of pasta off the stove, placed it in the sink and scooped up our toddler, Max, whose hands reached to the sky. “Hold, Mama, hold.”

I pointed to the tear-spotted letter on the counter.

Brett set his keys down and scanned the note. He turned and wrapped his strong arms around my quaking body. Soon I was able to exhale and push a smile onto my streaked face.

“Honey, can you get an extra name off the Giving Tree at church this year?” I swallowed hard, then continued. “Helen came into my mom’s life by picking her name from a tree. I would like to follow her example.”

“Of course,” he smiled and kissed me on the tip of my nose.

The next day when Brett came home from work, he pulled two yellow pieces of paper cut in the shapes of mittens from the pocket of his parka.

“The directions said to put our name on the half of the tag still hanging on the tree so the church would know who was responsible for that gift,” Brett explained while easing his briefcase off his shoulder. “I guess that way no child will go unaccounted for.”

I nodded while drying my hands on the holly-embroidered towel by the kitchen sink.

“I wrote B. Smith on this tag, our tag,” he said, holding up one of the canary-colored cards. “And on this mitten,” my husband’s turquoise eyes twinkled, “I wrote ‘H. Tibbals’— in green ink.”

Laura Smith

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