“How Long Had Mother Known This Joy?” Ensign, Dec. 1988, 38–39
Christmas without snow was a common thing in the small Arizona desert town where I grew up. But what we lacked in snow we made up for in spirit. Spirit was something we had to have plenty of since money was scarce—especially at Christmastime.
As I look back on those snowless, often penniless Christmases, the one that still brings a warm, glowing feeling is the Christmas of my tenth year.
The holiday season was approaching at its usual snail’s pace. The calendar on the living room wall only heightened my eagerness for the big day to arrive. Behind her locked bedroom door, Mother spent countless hours at her old sewing machine. We all knew this meant that no matter how tight the budget, there would be some beautiful creations under the tree for us to wear.
I kept myself busy making gifts for my brothers and sisters. Each year I longed to be able to purchase something nice for everyone from the five-and-ten-cent store downtown. Mother reminded me that it didn’t matter how humble or expensive the gift was; it was the giver who received the most joy. In my ten years I had never experienced such a feeling. I thought that perhaps if the gift were really nice, not homemade, that I would feel the joy of giving.
I sensed that this Christmas was going to be like any other. There would be the same strain on the budget and the usual warnings that we must not expect too much. So I was surprised when my parents announced that we were going to “play Santa” to Brother Thornton, a lonely old man in our branch. Each of us would buy him a present, they said, and Mom would pack him a box of Christmas food.
My first thought was, “How am I going to afford a present for him when I can’t even buy things for my own family?” Wasn’t it enough that we were bringing him a ham, rolls, pie, and candy? And I certainly didn’t want to have to go inside his smelly, tumbledown house. Brother Thornton rarely shaved, he had no teeth, and he always smelled of grease. But, grudgingly, I added my gift to the box.
The next day was Christmas Eve. All I could think of was the beautiful new dress that I was sure I would find the next morning. I also thought of the night ahead—certainly the longest night of the year—with all of us but the baby sleeping in one room, straining to hear just one sleigh bell before we fell asleep.
That night, as we loaded ourselves and our gifts into our old station wagon, I had mixed emotions. I wondered if our gifts would embarrass Brother Thornton. I feared the worst, expected the least, and secretly hoped we would leave the box at the door and run.
Soon we were parked in front of his little wooden shanty. Dad knocked on the door, and after a bit it was timidly opened just a crack. Mom began singing a Christmas carol, and we all joined in. Suddenly, the doorway filled with light from within. There stood Brother Thornton, stooped and unshaven, with a look of childlike surprise and a toothless grin. His eyes danced as he beckoned us in.
As we crowded into his tiny home, I stayed close to Mom. Brother Thornton listened while we finished our caroling. After a brief, awkward silence, tears welled up in his eyes, and he thanked us over and over. He was astonished that anyone would remember him at Christmas.
He slowly, shyly picked up each gift as if it were a treasure. When he came to mine—a pair of nail clippers—I was afraid he would be offended. But as he held them in his gnarled hands he looked tenderly at me and said, “Bless your heart.”
When he spoke those words, a strange feeling warmed me inside. He didn’t seem so repulsive or frightening anymore. For the first time, I suddenly saw Brother Thornton as a person—a person who needed to be loved and remembered. A person like me. I felt a tightness in my throat and swallowed hard.
My ten-year-old, self-centered concept of Christmas matured in those few minutes. I wondered how long my mother had known the secret of this kind of joy. I no longer thought of what tomorrow might bring me. The song in my heart was louder and more joyous than any carol I’d ever sung.