It was the story of a cobbler who had a message from God that He, God, would visit him on Christmas Eve. The cobbler stayed at his bench throughout the day waiting for God's arrival. A beggar, a crone and a lost child come through his life that day in great need, and as the day wanes on he helps each one by offering shoes, a loaf of bread, warmth, guidance and direction, but is saddened that God had not arrived, as promised, as the day grows dark. He calls out to God asking if God has forgotten His promise and God answers that he had visited that day as a beggar, a crone and a child and that the cobbler had served Him well. It brought tears to my eyes remembering a Christmas that God brought out the best in my family through acts of kindness and unselfishness.
"What then can I give Him empty as I am?
I was ten that Christmas in 1964. It had been a very hard year for our family. My parents had both been hospitalized, at different times, my dad had lost his job...and we had lost our home...because of his extended illness. My mother had given birth to her sixth child that year and had been so weak following my sister's birth that she was unable to return home from the hospital for some days. Hospital bills had mounted and debts had taken away all that we owned.
My dad had finally found work driving tractor-trailer cross-country hauling one of the most dangerous cargoes..."wide load" modular home units. The roads between our home in the southwest and the destination for his last load of the year, on the East coast, were particularly treacherous that December. My mother, left at home with her six children...ages ranging from my baby sister at 9 months, to me at 10 years...tried to do her best to prepare for the holidays in the house that was assigned to us by a local philanthropic organization which provided needy families in our city with food, clothing, and shelter. We were grateful for the 50 pound bags of rice and pinto beans that were delivered regularly, but we had to wait until dad was paid following the conclusion of his delivery of his outgoing cargo and his return with another load, to purchase anything further.
My mom did everything she could to make Christmas wonderful for her children. She helped us make Christmas tree ornaments for the tree (that the Optimist Society had delivered to all of its recipient families) a week before Christmas, out of newspaper, string and tempura paint. She helped us learn a version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" that we five older children could sing and perform for dad when he made it back from his delivery. She took us to every possible free Christmas activity she could unearth in our community...activities that often included free hot cider and Christmas cookies made be loving volunteers. Christmas cookies that would replace the ones we wouldn't be baking that year without butter, eggs, and flour to spare.
As Christmas approached we children were oblivious to the heartache she faced each day. Without a phone (this was a luxury that was not provided for) or a car (ours had been lost along with our home when their financial security disappeared with dad's job) and no money for a baby-sitter, she was housebound much of the time unless a kind neighbor offered to watch the children so that she could run errands. Each of those occasions found her rushing off to the busstop and returning an hour or so later with a couple of large paper grocery sacks. We never thought to ask her where she had been or what she brought back. Late at night, after we children were snugly tucked into bed, she could be found out in the garage..her breath making small puffs of steam in the cold air...busy as one of Santa's elves.
She didn't know if our dad would make it back from his latest run in time for Christmas morning. Refusing to be daunted by a lack of money and reports that icy roads and winter storms were standing between dad and his children's dreams of presents under the tree, she set her heart and her mind on the tasks at hand.
My younger sister had been searching the Sears catalogue with her friends for the perfect Christmas gift to request in their letters to Santa and all had settled on child-sized kitchens made out of painted tin, replete with miniature stove and refrigerator filled with small pans and plastic fruits and vegetables. Not to be hindered by dollar signs mother spent her few hours away from her six children, in those weeks leading up to Christmas, scouring the local junkyard for orange crates, old stove knobs and cupboard handles with which she filled those shopping bags and brought home to her workshop in the garage.
The boys had set their sights on a train set and mom was going to make that dream come true as well. She found an old piece of plywood on which she painted a birds-eye-view of the small New England town she had grown up in. Discarded ends of two-by-fours painted with windows and the names of cargo companies hosted large buttons glued on for wheels and were tied together with pieces of ribbon. Branches from dead trees became miniature trees and bushes and discarded milk container, rinsed and covered with construction paper became houses, churches, and a fire hall.
The baby was given a small stuffed bear that mom had made from an old furry jacket that she really needed herself to keep stay warm. Instead she could be found in one or two of dad's old flannel shirts layered for warmth after ears and legs were cut out of the back and front sections of her own jacket and its small black buttons became eyes and a nose.
But night after night she agonized over what she would do for her two eldest daughters, my sister Nancy and I. We had our hearts set on the same dream as all of our 4th and 5th grade friends. Bikes! We had torn the pictures of our favorite models from the Sear catalogue and had them tacked to the bulletin board in our bedroom. Blue bikes with baskets on the front for carrying books from the library or our lunch sacks to school. We had dreams of riding our bikes to the local pool in the summer time and even offered to carry groceries home for mom if our dreams came true that Christmas.
You see, mother had made our Christmas...no, our lives...so full with her creativity and joy that we were clueless as to the desperation or the financial mountains she faced each day.
As reports of more winter storms were forecasted for dad's route, and no hope of knowing his whereabouts without a phone mom made a decision on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. She asked the next-door neighbor if she would invite us children over to watch the bubble lights on her Christmas tree and sing carols while she ran an errand.
Later that night she tucked us all into bed and went to her workshop in the cold garage to put the finishing touches on a miniature town, a small kitchen made of orange crates and old dishtowels for cupboard doors and tied the piece of pink ribbon on the bear for her youngest before she brought it all into the living room to put under the tree.
We tossed and turned in our beds. Mother having finished every last detail climbed onto the sofa where she and dad slept each night and turned out all the lights but the Christmas tree. When we woke up the next morning and ran down the hall there she was curled up in dad's arms. He had arrived home sometime in the middle of the night and crawled in behind her amazed at all that she had done.
We were so happy to see him and each knew our part. We lined up in the hall from youngest to eldest and to the tune of "Chopsticks" we marched out singing "'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...."
Dad woke up and smiled up at us and I will never forget the look on mom's face when she realized that he was there. She had been so tired that she hadn't even felt him tuck himself in behind her on the open sofa bed.
After our song we all welcomed dad home and went to the tree to see all the beautiful gifts that my mother had made. Nancy and I didn't say anything when we realized that there were no bikes for us to ride to school that year. Dad had brought home small gifts for each of us, including a small bottle of "Windsong" perfume for mother.
We went to the kitchen and were thrilled to see small bright orange tangerines, an assortment of tiny boxes of cereal (we would keep those boxes for Linda's child-sized kitchen cupboards), and cocoa powder for hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows to float on top of each cup. Cereal boxes were opened and the pot came out of the cabinet for cocoa but there was no milk. At least until dad told Nancy or I to go out to the back porch and bring it in from the cold where he had left it to stay cool...why we didn't question the wisdom of it not being in the refrigerator escapes me, but we didn't. We obediently went to the back porch and there standing side by side with red bows on each of the handle bars were two shiny blue bikes.
We were so happy....it wasn't until later that year that I noticed that my mother's left hand was bare. She had pawned her wedding and engagement rings to purchase those bikes and when she went back with her claim tickets to retrieve her rings it was too late...they had been sold. My mother never complained. She never mentioned her empty finger or the absence of rings that she had loved.
Three months later my parents were reintroduced to the study of Christian Science (my mom had grown up going to a Christian Science Sunday School as a child but had left it her religious roots in the past when she married and my dad didn't know anything about it) and its practice of Christ's law of selfless charity, compassion and love. I have always believed that my mother's unselfishness that Christmas opened the door of our home for the Christ Spirit to fully enter and transform our lives and our hearts with abundant grace and vast opportunities for gratitude.
By the next Christmas my dad had two great jobs that allowed him to be home with his family at night and we had moved into real home of our own in a lovely neighborhood. We had a Christmas tree that we picked out at a local lot, there were presents wrapped in colorful paper, and Bing Crosby singing from a record player in the living room. Our lives had changed and our tradition of little tangerines and tiny assorted boxes of cereal had been born. We would never forget the BEST Christmas ever.
Seven years later I would try to relive my mother's lesson of love by replacing her engagement and wedding rings with a simple gold band....but that's another story...
How are your acts of selfless love, kindness, compassion, generosity and charity opening doors for the Christ to enter into the hearts and homes of loved ones, neighbors and strangers this Christmas?
"What then can I give Him
Empty as I am?
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wiseman
I would know my part.
What then can I give Him
I must give my heart."
"In the Bleak Midwinter"