John W. Cowart
A pleasant surprise awaited me at the cemetery.
But I didn't know about it yet.
I felt depressed and frustrated as I drove to work on Christmas Eve morning. I wanted to give my three children more presents than I could afford. Their grandparents on both sides were lavishing goodies on our kids, but I only had a few dime-store trinkets and some primitive wooden toys I'd made by following the instructions in a library book.
I parked the car and someone yelled, "Hey, John, get your fat tail over here and look at this." I walked up the hill to the work shed where we reported to work each morning.
This shed is a rickety, corrugated tin lean-to screened from the beautiful cemetery grounds by thick clumps of bamboo.
It's built over -- and supported by -- the chimney of an old brick bar-b-que pit where the labor force cooks lunch. Usually tin cans, scraps of aluminum foil wrapping, crushed paper sacks and empty bottles litter the dirt floor, but, during the night, some unknown benefactor had raked the place out, cleaned the fireplace, moved in a table and decorated a small Christmas tree trimmed with gold Styrofoam balls, blue ribbons and icicles.
Beneath the tree lay 28 individually wrapped and tagged presents, one for each one of us on the labor crew.
An enormous Christmas card propped against the chimney provided the master touch -- a note from Santa written in red felt-tipped pen saying, "Merry Christmas this year. But if you guys don't clean out this #Š**% fireplace, I ain't coming here no more!"
With grins on our faces, we tore into our presents. Each gift contained a candy cane, two cigars, a candy bar, a sample of aftershave and a few comic books which told various Bible stories. Laughter filled the shed as we speculated on the origin of these gifts. Several of the men remarked that this was the first real Christmas present they'd received in years. Smokers traded off candy for extra cigars, and illiterates puzzled over the simple words of the comics.
We joked and teased each other as the supervisor assigned our duties for the day; then we cheered when he announced that the last funeral to be serviced would be at 1 o'clock and we could have the rest of the day off. He teamed me with a man I thought of as a degenerate, old wino, Harry Gilby. We were to serve a 10 o'clock burial then edge stones in Section 18 till the one at 1 o'clock.
After the early funeral, Harry and I took a break before starting over to Section 18. We lounged against a fence puffing our gift cigars and looking out over the cemetery.
For over 100 years, families have erected monuments to their dead in this Jacksonville cemetery. Gigantic angel;s hover on marble wings above some tombs; granite obelisks tower over others. Tiny stone lambs curl asleep atop the graves of children. Fine cast bronze markers lay flat over other resting places. And in honor of the season, thousands of poinsettias, holly wreaths or miniature Christmas trees decorate the cemetery blending with the natural solemn beauty of the grounds. I noticed that streams of morning sunlight slanted through the branches of one ancient oak making a silver lattice-work silhouette out of the trailing beards of Spanish Moss.
A few yards away from us something fluttered against the flat bronze marker of a recent grave.
Curious, Harry and I strolled over to see what it was -- a letter from a child scotchtaped to the tombstone:
"Dear Daddy, I hope you like it up in heaven. Do they have Christmas there? If they do, get me a big teddy bear and a ..."
Rain had faded the rest.
Since several of the principals in this story may still be wanted by the police -- I don't know why -- the names (which in Harry's case was an alias anyhow) have been changed.
The letter brought back to mind my own financial problems; how could I give good gifts to my children with this miserable minimum wage job? I wondered why the Lord had put me in such sad straights -- or was it my own mismanagement of opportunities that reduced me to gravedigging?
Harry scrutinized the child's letter; then said, "Little kids. Death's rough on 'em; life's rough on 'em -- Look here, John. I wants to ask you about something. There's this girl, see. She lives upstairs at the place I stay at. She's got this little boy, see. And she don't have nothing for him, see. She's hooked on the stuff and I doubt if she even really knowed Christmas was coming till this morning. She was gonna go down to the Welfare or someplace and get him a present, but she's been high and forgot. Then she comes tells me this morning, but I ain't got nothing but bus fare to get to work... I mean, there's nothing for this kid. What with his mama out peddling her ass or high all the time, there ain't never gonna be nothing for him. What I was wondering -- you got kids -- was if you might have some li'll old something you was 'tending to give yours that you could slip me for him? I'm gonna give him these little comic books from this morning, but that ain't no toy. What's you say?"
I felt indignant.
If Harry were so concerned, why hadn't he saved up a few dollars to buy the kid a present instead of drinking up his paycheck? Doesn't the government have programs to help out people like her? Or the churches? Why should I share the little bit I had for my kids? After all, this unknown street walker had chosen her own lifestyle; let her live it. If she could buy dope, she could...
Even as I reasoned, I recalled the words of Jesus who said nothing about the deserving poor but who spoke of "the least of these my brethren".
Why is it that the words of the Bible come to mind at the most inconvenient times?
Anyhow, I looked at the letter on the gravemarker -- at least my kids have a father who cares -- then hesitatingly, I said, "Well, Harry... I don't know what we can do... but we'll work something out. How old is this kid anyhow?"
"I don't know, 'bout three or four I reckon."
After the rest of the crew left for the day, Harry and I took the little Christmas tree from the tin shed and stuffed it in the back of my car. We'd decided to fix that kid up in style. (I justified this theft by thinking somebody would just burn it in the fireplace after the holiday anyway.) And we drove to my house.
We pulled down the box of toys squirreled away out of my kids reach in the top of the closet. Then I began the painful process of deciding which plastic trinkets to give up.
I wanted more for my kids, not less. I could think of good reasons to keep each thing: Donald needed this truck for his sand pile in the back yard; save that dot-to-dot book because Jennifer is just learning her numbers; but I bought this cute pull-toy especially for Eve Mercy. Slowly, reluctantly, I laid aside treasures to go.
Virginia, my wife, was out grocery shopping with our kids when Harry and I arrived at the house, but now she walked in the door to find me and a man she'd never seen before decimating her children's presents.
"There is need," she asked. I nodded, and she herded our children into the bedroom so they couldn't see their presents. Then she returned and began helping us select stuff without question.
Although I took it for granted, Harry was amazed at her reaction and enthusiastically told her about the situation. She said, "They'll need something for dinner. I've just come from the market and I've got a canned ham; that'll be just the thing." She rushed out to the kitchen to pack up some groceries.
I was beginning to fell good about what was happening. I snatched down some foil paper and began to wrap a little red fire engine.
"I wouldn't do that if I was you," Harry said.
"Why in the world not," I demanded. "We want to fix up the best Christmas we can for this kid. He ought to have some stuff wrapped."
"Yeah, But you doin' too much to do good, see what I mean. I mean we takes her a tree that's all decorated and a ham that's most already cooked and if the presents is already wrapped... then what's for her to do for her own kid? She needs to do some of the fixen or it just ain't her's -- and she wants to give the boy something. That's what this is all about, ain't it?"
I felt ashamed because I suddenly recognized this woman's desire to give good gifts to her child as the same yearning I felt about giving my three more than I could. It feels terrible not to be able to give at Christmas time. Everyone wants to be a giver; it makes you feel important.
"What should we do?" I asked Harry.
"Let's just put the paper and ribbons in the bag of stuff and let her wrap the things. A mama needs something to busy her on Christmas Eve. And this gal needs to feel like a mama."
After we had tucked away their own presents, Ginny called our kids out and briefly told them about the little boy who wouldn't have a Christmas unless we shared. Then we bowed around our glittering tree and she led a prayer for this child and his mother.
Looking on the groceries and toys packed to go, I was surprised at how much share-able stuff our family had. God always sees to it that we have everything we actually need and enough to share with those who don't -- why, we aren't poor at all!
Jennifer, our seven-year-old, helped Harry and me load the stuff in the car beside the little tree. She clamored to go along. Thoughts of Christmas excited her to a near frenzy. I relented and let her go with us.
Following Harry's directions, I wove through Springfield streets more and more desolate. We parked at the curb behind the rusted out hulk of an old Ford sitting on wheeless axles.
Harry carried the tree, Jennifer, the bag of toys; and I followed with the groceries. It was a huge old Victorian home chopped up into one-room apartments. There was something nasty -- I think it may have been a pig's skull -- in the garbage littering the front yard.
We went in. Things scuttered inside the walls. No bulbs in the light fixtures on the stairway. Strips of cardboard nailed up over windows. Foreign music blared from somewhere. Smells reeked in the darkness. I felt uncomfortable -- afraid -- apprehensive -- on guard. The folks who have to live here must feel that way all the time.
Harry pounded on a door.
The woman, Sharon, disappointed me.
I guess because she looked normal.
I'd expected a bombed-out, glassy-eyed zombie, or a brazen, vulgar huzzy. But this was the woman in line beside you at the supermarket, the woman standing at the bus stop, the woman across the aisle in church -- just a pleasant-looking normal young woman.
She greeted us with warmth and delight.l She oohed and aahed over the little tree. She woke up her little boy, Kevin, to show him its wonder. She apologized for not having coffee to offer us.
"How'd you find me," she exclaimed. "I went down to the Salvation Army place, but I couldn't find the address. I didn't even fill out no application. Harry, this is all your doing!"
Harry beamed with pride and accepted all the credit.
"Oh, I got to get busy wrappen and fixen," she said. Then she paused in her excitement. "Look here Mister," she addressed me. "There's this girl, Corinthia -- lives over across the way. She's got a baby boy too. Suppose you folks at the Army can get some stuff for her -- they is like we was -- won't have nothing tomorrow."
Harry said, "He cain't give out no more stuff like that. He ain't from the Army or the Welfare, Sharon. He's just another guy. Works at the cemetery like me."
When this information soaked in, Sharon did something which amazed me: She spread out the goodies on her kitchen table and began to divide them into two equal piles. Finished, she loaded one pile back into the bag and shoved it over to Harry. "I cain't do nothing about a Christmas tree," she said, "You cain't give what you ain't got. But I wants you to take this here over to Corinthia's place -- Don't you tell her where it come from. She and that baby ought to have a Christmas too."
Jennifer and I slipped out while Sharon gave Harry directions to Corinthia's place. I had climbed those steps feeling like I was a 300-pound male Mother Teresa, swooping in to bless the poor heathen. I went down humbled. Old wino Harry knew more about giving with dignity than I did. My wife gave without hesitation, without question. The streetwalker addict Sharon gave more generously -- two equal piles.
Do I need to tell you about Christmas Day?
The grandparents outdid themselves. Uncles sent in boxes of stuff. Our landlady came bearing gifts.... Two-thirds the gross national product of Taiwan flooded our living room. God made sure my kids were provided for. We lacked nothing -- but then, when you come to think about it, His children never do.
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