Another year has gone by. You would think 364 days would be ample time to dream up what has become my annual Christmas letter. Similar to last year, I could not get motivated, inspired, call it what you will…perhaps simply too lazy, to write.
I had made up my mind to bag the letter/story, snap a picture of a can of Beanee Weenees with a dollar store Santa hat and call it good. I changed my mind when I received a Christmas card from my Aunt Doris. Aunt Doris and I have exchanged Christmas cards for as long as I can remember. Aunt Doris will be 99 years old in three months. Her handwriting is not only legible, but it flows with the artistic stroke of a calligrapher. Aunt Doris has always inspired me. From her stubborn independence to her simple, steadfast faith.
First, I’d like to share Aunt Dori’s card with you.
I so enjoy your stories and letters. Hope you keep them coming! Got them in my scrapbook to keep – (if that isn’t motivation enough to get my butt in gear, nothing is.)
I’m still able to take care of myself even though I have (“old age pains.”) I don’t phone anyone now cause my hearing is about gone and can’t hear without keeping repeating. I guess that comes with some of us, depends on our heritage. Being 3 months away from being 99 years old, I am well blessed. Have 2 wonderful sons and daughter in laws that look after me. I hope God takes me home before I am much older – But like Jesus prayed in the garden “not my will but thine be done.” So I live with joy and thankfulness! I love you,
Aunt Doris Parrott.
PS: I remember the times you visited us before and after Floyd died. I think you are pretty special.
After reading Aunt Dori’s letter I pretty much had to come up with a Christmas letter. Not only does she actually read them – she looks forward to them and keeps them in a scrapbook! Best Christmas present ever.
I didn’t write a typical Christmas letter or a typical Christmas story, for that matter. I took an excerpt from a story I’ve been working on for some time. I refined it only slightly to make it more “Christmassy.” The story I’ve been working on is tentatively titled: A Man Misunderstood. The events are real. The characters are real. The names have been changed to protect the snobbish and unkind.
The Christmas Raffle
Excerpt from: A Misunderstood Man
He looked nothing like the Grinch. One might say he bore a closer likeness to Ebenezer Scrooge – more so in attitude than appearance. He was a man with little time for the frivolous things in life. He was a hard man, at times coming across as strict and unfair, seldom giving in to unsolicited displays of affection. It wouldn’t be until one Christmas Eve, many years ago, that another side to this man would be revealed: A man misunderstood.
He was the younger of two boys who grew up without a father. The oldest both brother and father figure. He could be stern and unyielding and in the mind of a child at times unapproachable.
He was a business man and a meat cutter by trade. He built the small town grocery store with a mixture of sweat, calloused hands and a heart beating to the rhythm of independence and entrepreneurship. The concept of “borrowed money” was inconceivable. What he built, he would build by his own means.
The luxury of 9-5 does not exists for the small business owner striving to eek a living from a rural town of farmers and ranchers. He worked day in – day out. Sixteen to twenty hour work days kept him from the family that couldn’t understand why the man seldom shared their supper. Many late evenings found the children waiting for his arrival, nodding drowsily over a plate of cold, black pork-chops and fruit cocktail.
The man hunched over a plywood desk. A strip of white ribbon curled in a spool of printed numbers as his fingers punched the numbered keys of the adding machine. A fistful of paper slips in the other hand. “What are those?” Asked the child perched behind him on a wire milk crate. “Charge slips.” He growled. “What are charge slips?” She asked. “Charge accounts.” He growled with more impatience. “What are charge accounts?” She asked. The adding machine vibrated across the plywood counter with the slamming of his fist.
“Can’t you shut up for five minutes” Just FIVE minutes, please!” He barked.
The child recoiled. She’d made him mad again. She hadn’t meant to. It was late, she was tired and she wanted to go home. She didn’t like being at the store after closing. If the pistol under the meat counter and the other laying on the desk within reach was supposed to make her feel safe, it didn’t. She didn’t know how to use them. She was especially scared when the man left her in the office alone while he worked in the back recesses of the dark, cavernous building. Tears streamed down her face.
He mopped at her tears with the blue bandana he pulled from his front pocket. It smelt of laundry detergent and suet. He explained to the child about charge accounts in what would pass as an apology for his impatience. People, he said, came in to the store for groceries and left without paying for them. The charge slips were a promise in writing to pay for the groceries later when they had the money. Feeling braver than usual, the little girl pressed on.
“Don’t they have money to pay for the food?”
The child looked around her.
“There’s a lot of food in here. Why don’t we give it to them if they can’t pay for it?”
It was an opportunity to teach his youngest child a little about life.
“Most of the names on these charge slips have steady jobs. They could pay their bills, but they don’t. They don’t see anything wrong with taking a handout. I suppose they weren’t taught any better. The folks that could use some help are the ones who won’t ask for it. You won’t see many of their names on these slips and those you do are good for it. Those folks always find a way to pay their bill even if they have to do without.”
The child thought back earlier in the day. She was standing next to her father behind the cash register ringing up a customer. The customer was a portly woman with blue polyester stretch pants and hair the color and texture of straw. She couldn’t help but imagine her pony grazing atop the woman’s head. She couldn’t imagine even her garbage-gut Shetland would find it appetizing.
The woman hauled herself to the counter with two scrawny kids in tow – both in dire need of a good bath. A girl and boy no older than 4 and 5. The woman pulled a carton of cigarettes from the shelf and slapped them down on the counter to be rang up. “These too.” Her voice was hoarse and her breath reeked of tobacco.
The man’s jaw tightened. He’d witnessed the familiar scene countless time before. It sickened him.
“You can’t pay for those with food stamps.” He said.
The little girl heard the woman mumble under her breath something that sounded like “no good cheap mustard” before pulling a wadded twenty from her purse for the cigarettes. Strange, the girl thought – she hadn’t bagged any mustard.
The boy standing behind the woman tugged on his mother’s sweat shirt. The woman acknowledge with a sharp, “WHAT!?” that made all three children instinctively duck. The boy handed up a chocolate bar. “Can we have one?” The woman snatched the candy from the child’s hand and tossed it back on the counter. “NO! We can’t afford it!” She sneered at the man across the counter. “This store don’t let you have candy if you ain’t rich.”
The little girl finished bagging the groceries before helping to carry them to the customers’ car. She was the only one to see the man slip two chocolate bars into the pockets of the children in tow.
It was that time of year. The holidays. Eleven months out of the year the girl could have passed for invisible. Most kids paid her little mind and the teachers less so. Until the holidays. It was the same every year. Donation asking time. Surely she wouldn’t mind asking her farther to donate the Christmas Turkey for the school raffle. She couldn’t even tell you what “worthy cause” the proceeds went towards. It was her responsibility –heck, it was her duty – as the daughter of the man who horded the entire towns food supply to ask him to ante-up the holiday bird.
She sat across the table from him. He seldom looked up. Dinner was a necessity. He wolfed down his food in haste. The faster he finished, the sooner he could get back to the store. She didn’t understand it. He didn’t seem happy when he was there – why was he always in such a hurry to get back to it? Maybe it was because she talked too much and annoyed him. She kept silent and watched him over the top of a spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Still, it was her “duty” to ask. She did so without making eye contact.
“My teacher wants to know if you could give ‘em a turkey for the Christmas raffle.”
At the time she didn’t fully understand his answer.
“Half that school owes me money and the other half has nothing good to say about me until they want money for something. If they want a damn turkey they can come ask me for it themselves. You tell them that.”
She wouldn’t tell them that. The truth seldom came easy for the horribly shy and self-conscious. So, she did what any red-blooded American kid would do: she lied. “The stores not getting any turkeys in this year. There’s a shortage on them. I don’t know what caused it. Some sort of turkey eating fungus wiped ‘em out, I hear.”
Somebody somewhere had mustered up the courage to ask for the turkey donation. He reluctantly complied; 22 lbs. of frozen fowl…fungus free. Each year the man hoped the turkey went to somebody that truly needed it. Somebody like Mrs. Smithers, the elderly widow raising her granddaughter. Yes – he would happily donate a dozen turkeys if Mrs. Smithers could get just one. He knew life didn’t work that way, though. The turkey, as always, would end up on somebody’s table that had more than enough. Somebody who had nothing pleasant to say to him, or about him, other than grumble under their breath of “cheap mustard.” This year would be no different.
The raffle was held during the Christmas programs intermission. The little girl scanned the bleachers from behind the black music stand. The elusive notes for “Deck the Halls” splayed in front of her. Who would be the lucky winner? The bleachers were full. Practically everyone in town was there to listen to their adoring band student’s rendition of classic Christmas carols. The Smiths were there. The Jones, the Wilkins and the ever important Parker family. Aunts, Uncles, moms and dads – all lined the bleachers in anticipation of the drawing. Yes, practically the whole town. The girl looked for Mrs. Smithers. She wasn’t there. She’d been ill and unable to make the drive into town to watch her granddaughter’s Christmas concert.
Trisha Christianson, student body vice-president and all around snob, reached a dainty, manicured hand into the coffee can full of raffle tickets. She pressed the ticket closer to her face in order to see the name. With much pomp and circumstance, she cleared her throat in true raffle fashion: “And the winner is….Mrs. Elouise Parker!” The bleachers erupted in applause.
Elouise Parker was an important person. All one had to do was ask her or any one of her important family. She was on all the important committees and boards. She attended Sunday services at least twice a year (on Christmas and Easter) and never grew tired of spouting the family’s generous donations to the widowed and orphaned. The school should feel lucky such an important person found the time to grace the Christmas program with her presence.
Mrs. Parker leapt from her seat atop the upmost bleacher waving her hands above her head. “Here! Over Here! I won! I won!” It took her a second or two to realize nobody was going to hand deliver the turkey to her. She parted a sea of spectators as she bound down the bleachers. You would have thought Johnny had just called her name to contestants row on The Price is Right. “Mrs. Elouise Parker….COME ON DOWN!” From behind the notes of Good King Wenceslas, the girl wondered if she’d be going to hell for envisioning the woman taking a header off the top bleacher.
Trisha handed the prize turkey over to the raffle winner. Mrs. Parker raised the bird over her head in triumph before bouncing back to her seat. All without a thank you or mere mention of the birds sponsor.
The child pounded on the locked glass doors of the grocery store. She shivered as she peered through the glass hoping to catch the attention of the man in the office. He heard a faint pounding and looked up from his bookwork. His youngest daughters face peered back at him. The Christmas program. He’d forgotten about it. The main compressor had gone out in the basement and he’d worked late fixing it before everything in it thawed. He didn’t mean to forget. He never meant to, it just happened that way.
She shrugged when he asked her how the concert went.
“Eh..it was ok, I guess. Mrs. Pretty Important Parker won the turkey.”
“Figures.” He said. “Grab a cart and help me before we head home.”
She pushed the cart down one isle and up the next while he filled it with groceries. A 10 pound bag of potatoes. A package of dinner rolls. Cans of green beans, peaches and creamed corn. Lastly, he took a fresh turkey from the cooler and placed it in the cart. Odd, she thought – they already had their turkey in the freezer at home.
“Box this up while I finish checking up and we’re out of here.”
It was a good snow year. Fence posts barely emerged from a blanket of white covering the pristine valley rimmed in snow covered pines. She was mesmerized at the millions of tiny snowflakes reflecting in streaks off the headlights of the truck landing in muffled silence as it piled up around them. He drove down the center of the road, unable to see the edges. She thought he’d missed their road when he drove past the gravel road crossing the bridge to home. When he pulled into the driveway of Mrs. Smithers little red house…she understood.
He dropped the snow plow on the front of the truck and made several swipes to clear the driveway before going inside. They placed the boxes of groceries on the kitchen counter and the fresh turkey in the refrigerator.
“My daughter tells me you won the drawing at the Christmas pageant. We figured we’d drop it by on our way home since you weren’t there to pick it up.”
Mrs. Smithers new the man long enough to know it would do her no good to argue. She knew she hadn’t won a raffle she never entered. With eyes glistening, she embraced the man in her thin arms. He hugged her back with ease. “God bless you, son. You are a good man.” She said. “A very good man.”
The little girl broke the silence as the old Ford pushed snow from the last of a half dozen driveways on their way home.
“You know they’re gonna be mad at you if you don’t tell ‘em why we’re late on Christmas Eve.”
She could see the fatigue in his eyes as the corners of the man’s mouth turned up in a half smile.
“Yes…yes they will.” He sighed.
“Aren’t you gonna tell them where we been?” She asked.
“It will be our secret, ok?” Said he.
Adults were difficult to understand but none more so than the one sitting next to her in the truck. Her thoughts caught hold of the events she’d witnessed that night. Thoughts of Mrs. Parker’s game show like win of the Christmas turkey. Bounding down the bleachers to greedily snatch her winnings. The gracious, gentle kindness of Mrs. Smithers when she received the fresh turkey and boxes of food.
She could almost smell the stale tobacco breath of the straw-haired woman with her hoarse voice and polyester pants. She wished she could see the children’s faces when they discovered a chocolate bar in each pocket.
Through the years that followed, the girl watched the man drive a thousand miles to collect a ninety dollar bill. The same man that looked the other way when the old timer who lived in the one room shack stuffed a package of hotdogs in his tattered coat pocket. She watched him tolerate the folks that cussed him Tuesday through Saturday, went to church on Sunday and were the first in line for the big sales on Monday.
People like the Parkers, she thought, need to be recognized for their good deeds. They make sure the entire town knows what swell, giving people they are. She guessed they didn’t feel like they had accomplished anything unless everyone knew about it.
It seemed to her a person was seldom remembered for the kindnesses they’d done unless they advertised it, like the Parkers.
The town folk remembered him as the cheap old “mustard” that didn’t like donating to every cause they deemed worthy. They would never know he was the same man that kept a single mother in her home through the winter by paying up three months’ of her rent. The same man that found it hard to donate twenty dollars to the towns fireworks display was the same man that donated thousands every year to the Shriners Children’s hospital.
She glanced over at the man behind the wheel, his thumb tapping to the rhythm of Oh Holly Night. There would always be much about this man that would remain a mystery. A self-made man with a fierce desire to succeed independently. A man who knew the difference between a hand and a hand-out. A man that this Christmas Eve… became less of a man misunderstood.
Merry Christmas and may God bless you all.