Charity Christmas
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“Charity Christmas,” New Era, Dec. 1984, 16

Fiction:

Charity Christmas

False charity hid our pride. Then we found out Christmas is contagious.

As soon as Brother Malone announced that the priests quorum was going to give a Christmas to a needy family for our December service project, I knew our family was in trouble. Since Danny’s operation and Luke’s mission call eight months earlier, things were tight around our place. I don’t know what the official poverty level was for a family of nine, but I knew we were miles below it, and I was convinced that we were prime targets for all the ward service projects and Christmas charity drives.

“Hey, Jason,” I said, cornering my younger brother that night before we climbed into bed, “we’re in trouble. I think we’re on the list.”

Jason just looked at me and retorted innocently, “I haven’t done anything. Honest!”

“How many weeks till Christmas?” I asked solemnly.

He shrugged and pulled the quilts back from his bed, fluffed up his pillow and remarked indifferently, “I don’t know, but I’ve got a test in English tomorrow and I need some sleep or I’ll …”

“Would you believe three?”

“Hey, I’ll believe anything. Just let me get to sleep,” he said, yawning and pushing his feet under the covers and snuggling up in a ball. “Besides, I’m not counting on anything for Christmas this year. Mom and Dad are broke.”

I turned the covers down on my bed, flipped off the light, and dropped heavily onto the mattress. “Well, when your teachers quorum chooses our family for their December service project, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The light flipped back on. Jason was sitting on the edge of his bed. “What’d you say?”

“Have you seen the storeroom lately?”

“Yeah, Mom sent me for a bottle of fruit tonight.”

“Was the door locked?” Jason shook his head. “It should have been. It always is this time of year. That’s where Mom and Dad hide the loot, but there’s no loot this year.”

Jason shrugged. “We’ll survive.”

“You don’t get the point,” I growled. “We’re charity material. Charity as in service project, needy family.”

“Come on, Brett,” he grinned nervously. “Mom fixes a few beans now and then, and we have lots of whole wheat bread, but that doesn’t make us candidates for welfare. Dad’s got a job. We’re not out on the street or anything.”

I flipped the light off again. “Wait till Christmas and find out the hard way,” I warned.

Five minutes later the lights came back on. “That’s just great!” he muttered. “All we need is 50 care packages on our front step Christmas Eve.” He groaned, shaking his head morosely. “How embarrassing!”

“The trouble is there’s not much we can do,” I complained. “How can you stop a charity project?”

“Let’s just tell them we don’t want anything.”

“Tell who? It could come from anybody. It’s not like we can send letters to everyone in the ward declining their good will.”

“Let’s move,” Jason growled.

“Where?”

He shrugged. “Could we hide?”

“For a month?”

Glumly we sat on our beds and brooded as we pondered the inevitable. “I know,” Jason suggested after a moment of silence. “We’ll beat them to the punch.”

“Huh?”

“We’ll pull off our own charity job, on somebody else.” He grinned, enthusiasm brightening his eyes. “If we’re helping another family—anybody—nobody will bother us. Everybody will think we’ve got enough to throw away.”

“Maybe,” I whispered, considering the plan’s plausibility. “It just might work. But who? Who’s in worse shape than we are?”

“What about the Bradleys? She’s a widow, three kids. You home teach there. You’d know what they could use.”

I smiled, but the smile was temporary. “We’re forgetting one thing. We’re broke. How do we help if we don’t have anything to help with?”

Jason sighed. “I forgot about that,” he mumbled.

It was true. We had no money, no job, and we struggled with a pride that prevented us from going down on main street with a bell and pot to solicit contributions.

“I know,” Jason volunteered, the excitement obvious. “We can collect pop cans and sell them. Twenty cents a pound.”

“In the middle of winter? Nobody drinks pop in the winter, and I’m not about to rummage through garbage cans just to pinch a few pennies.”

“How about newspapers. Morgan’s Shopping Center gives 30 dollars a ton for them. Everybody’s got newspapers, winter or summer.”

“Can we make enough money collecting newspapers?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“Could you go around begging for newspapers?” I asked skeptically.

Jason cleared his throat. “Maybe. As long as we don’t go to people we know.”

“When do we start then?”

Jason chewed on his thumb. “Couple of weeks from now.”

“You’re stalling.”

“I’ve got some tests coming up and a paper to write and …”

“I wonder what your teachers quorum will get you for Christmas.”

He glared at me. “Maybe we better start tomorrow afternoon.”

So with dubious motives we embarked on our questionable Christmas crusade. The next day after school we dragged ourselves over to Fruit Heights. We were sure no one there knew us, so we figured we could commence our campaign without fear of being recognized.

The trace of an icy mist hung in the afternoon air, bit through our coats and sweaters, and numbed our cheeks and noses. Pulling our collars up around our ears and digging our hands deep into our pockets, we approached our first house with an emotional mixture of trepidation, loathing, and melancholy endurance. I took a deep breath, gingerly pushed the door bell, and stepped back, shivering from cold and abject embarrassment.

Hearing someone approach, Jason turned to me and whispered nervously, “Maybe you’d better do the talking. I don’t know anything about this.”

“And what do I know?” I hissed back. “We’re in this together, you know.”

“Yeah, but you’re the oldest,” he added, stepping behind me just as the door opened and an older man greeted us with a curt nod and a withering scowl.

For a moment I just stood and stared, unable to call to mind the door approach Jason and I had rehearsed. Finally the man demanded gruffly, “Well?”

“Do you have some paper?” I blurted out.

“Paper?”

I gulped. “Newspaper.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, waving us away and turning to go. “The Collins boy brings it. I don’t need another paper. I hardly read the one I take now.”

“No,” I called out in desperation, “we don’t sell papers. We’re collecting old papers. To sell.”

“What?” the man asked.

“We’re trying to help a family for Christmas,” I explained. “The papers are for them.”

“It’s a widow’s family,” Jason volunteered from behind me. “It’s not really for us. The money from the papers, I mean.”

The man rubbed his chin with the back of his hand and looked us up and down. “I’ve got a few papers, I guess.”

“Could you save them? We’re not picking them up today. We’ll be back in two weeks. On a Saturday.”

“It’s for the widow and her kids,” Jason called out again. “And we’re not her kids either. We’re just trying to help her out. We’re not …”

I poked Jason to shut him up. “We’ll be back in two weeks then,” I repeated, my cheeks flushed purple.

By the time we made it out into the street again, I had to unbutton my coat because I was sweating so much. “I don’t know how many more of those I can do,” I muttered. “That wiped me out.”

“That wasn’t bad at all,” Jason grinned, pleased with himself.

“You didn’t say anything either,” I returned. “At least anything sensible. But the next door’s yours.”

“Mine?” he protested.

“And leave out the part about us not being the widow’s kids. Just act natural or they really will think we’re the widow’s kids.”

Our whole operation that afternoon lay between abject drudgery and acute torture, but we persisted. Our commitment did waver at times, but each time one of us faltered in our resolve to continue, the other would comment matter-of-factly, “It’s this or care packages Christmas Eve.” With that humiliating possibility looming before us, we beat down our pride and trudged on to the next house.

It was getting dark when we knocked at the last house on the block. We had already promised ourselves that if we could endure till then, we would call it quits for the night.

An older woman, Mrs. Bailey, hobbled to the door, leaning heavily on a cane. She peered skeptically over the rims of her glasses and pressed her thin, pale lips together.

“Hello, ma’am,” I greeted her, a pinched smile frozen to my blue lips. “We’re collecting old newspapers,” I announced. “For a needy family.” Mrs. Bailey didn’t respond, and I began to wonder if she could even hear me. “We’re going to sell the papers and help this family with Christmas,” I all but shouted, just in case she was slightly deaf. “Do you have any old newspapers lying around?”

“Well, my husband has collected a few,” Mrs. Bailey said in a shaky voice.

“Would he like to donate them to the cause?” Jason asked.

“Well, he planned to read them.”

“Do you think he could read them by a week from Saturday? That’s when we’ll pick them up.”

“Oh, I doubt it,” she answered bluntly.

It wasn’t exactly a turn down, but neither was it an offer. In nervous perplexity we stood shifting our weight from one foot to the other. “Well, thanks just the same,” I said, turning to go.

“What’d you say they’re for?” she spoke up suddenly.

“We’re helping a widow and her kids.”

Mrs. Bailey cocked her head to one side and tapped her cane on the front step. After a moment of contemplation, she shuffled into her house and returned with a sweater thrown about her frail shoulders. She motioned for us to follow her. We inched along behind her as she limped her way to the driveway. She led us to her garage and stopped. Banging on the door with her cane, she commanded, “You’ll have to open it.”

Jason and I jumped for the door and pushed it up. It squeaked and creaked and finally crashed into place overhead. We squinted into the black interior but could see nothing.

“There’s a light on the back wall,” she remarked. “One of you will have to turn it on.”

Jason volunteered me by giving me a shove. Reluctantly, I ventured into the darkness.

“Straight back,” Mrs. Bailey directed. “You can’t miss it.”

Before I had taken four steps, my feet smashed into a lawn mower. I teetered forward and tried to regain my balance, but in stepping over the mower, my feet became tangled in a garden hose and I crashed to the floor, knocking over cans, boxes, rakes, and hoes.

“Watch your step,” Mrs. Bailey cautioned from behind me.

“It’s on the back wall,” Jason encouraged from the safety of the driveway.

Muttering, I extricated myself from the tangle of tools, wire, and hose and continued my perilous journey to the back wall, this time with my hands outstretched, groping the blackness for other obstacles. After banging my shins on cans and boxes and scraping my head on a bucket hanging from the ceiling, I finally reached the back wall and flipped on the switch.

A pale yellow light cast a thousand shadows throughout the garage, and it was hard to determine just how effective the light was. The garage was stacked almost to the ceiling with a lifetime collection of odds and ends—tools, pots, old furniture, tires, and boxes. I was amazed that I had even managed to reach the light switch without maiming myself permanently or losing my life.

“There they are,” Jason sang out, pointing to two boxes right inside the garage door. “We didn’t even need the light for these,” he laughed.

“Now you tell me,” I growled under my breath.

“Oh, that’s only part of them,” Mrs. Bailey whined. “The others are in the corner under the tarp.”

In the shadows, I hadn’t noticed the dark mound in the far corner. I waded through some ragged lawn furniture, stumbled over two saw horses, and finally fell against the enormous mystery hidden under an old army tarp, gray with years of dust.

Grabbing one corner of the tarp, I jerked it back. A suffocating cloud of dust choked and blinded me. I sputtered, gasping for breath, and rubbed the dirt from my eyes, tripping over a croquet mallet and sitting down hard in a rusty, battered wheelbarrow filled with flower pots. My nostrils were filled with the musty smell of dirt and dried and decaying flowers, and there was a gritty film between my lips and teeth.

Jason whistled. “Would you look at that,” I heard him say in amazement.

Flailing the air with my arms to beat the dust away, I cracked my eyes and stared in disbelief at the huge mountain of newspapers before me. “How long’s he been saving them?” I gasped.

“I lost track after 20 years,” Mrs. Bailey replied simply. “Some people collect stamps. Some collect coins. My husband collected newspapers. He didn’t have time to read them, so he stacked them in here to read later. He insisted that the time would come when he’d be able to sit down and enjoy them. Nothing I could say ever changed his mind. And he wouldn’t let me get rid of them until he read them. So here they are. And he still hasn’t read them.”

“Is he going to care if we take them?” I wondered out loud.

“Oh, it’s hard to say with him.”

“We could leave some of the newer ones in case he wants to read them,” Jason offered.

Mrs. Bailey waved his remark aside with her hand and shook her head. “He won’t read them. Any of them. Not now. He died three years ago. They’re yours if you’ll haul them off.”

It was just a wild guess, but we estimated that there was at least a ton of newspapers in Mrs. Bailey’s garage. All ours! As we hurried home that night, a new enthusiasm was born. What had begun as a sheepish attempt to conceal our own poverty suddenly became a personal quest.

“You know,” Jason said, “I think we can really do it. Mrs. Bailey’s papers alone are enough to give the Bradleys a little Christmas. But we can get more, lots more. All we’ve got to do is keep knocking on doors.”

“And maybe tomorrow we better split up,” I suggested. “We can cover more ground.”

Two weeks later everyone in Fruit Heights had been contacted. We had even swallowed our pride and asked people in our own neighborhood to donate papers.

The Saturday before Christmas we were getting ready to collect our newspapers in Dad’s ancient, temperamental truck. The truck was a battered antique, but it was all we had to make our Christmas drive. It had traveled its share of miles and was now content to live its remaining moments rusting in front of our house. On a good day, which was rare, and if it was treated just right, it might consent to run. Unfortunately, that particular Saturday didn’t seem to appeal to the truck. When I turned the key and pushed the starter, it coughed and emitted a blue puff of smoke from the exhaust, but it refused to start. I tried again and again, but each time the cough became weaker and the smoke from the exhaust more faint.

We fumed and fussed. We pleaded with it, petted it, yelled at it, kicked it, and would have taken a sledge hammer to it. But it was dead. We had told everyone in Fruit Heights that we would pick up their papers, and we were afraid if we waited, those papers would end up in Monday’s trash.

“We’ve just got to go today, Brett. If we don’t get those papers, the Bradleys might not have anything.”

“Someone else might help them,” I said, trying to be positive just in case the old truck had finally fallen victim to age.

“Maybe, but we can’t be sure,” Jason countered. “We’ve just got to get it working.”

“Why today?” I growled, pounding helplessly on the steering wheel.

“Well, we sure aren’t going to get it running this way,” Jason said. “I’m getting some tools.”

I pressed my lips together and shook my head. “Do you really think you can fix it? What will Dad say if you ruin it?”

“It’s already ruined. I can’t hurt it.”

“I wish Dad were here,” I moaned.

“Well, we’ll have to do more than wish. Let’s get to work.”

Next to Dad, Jason was the best mechanic in the family, so if anyone could coax the truck into starting he could. I sat back and watched while he checked everything from the points to the gas pump. After an hour of grunting and experimenting, he dropped the hood, wiped a greasy hand across his forehead, and said optimistically, “Fire it up.”

I whispered a prayer, turned the key, and pressed the starter. The truck groaned, coughed, sputtered, rattled, and finally purred. “Hop in,” I commanded with a grin, “before she changes her mind.”

Jason tossed the tools into the truck, wiped his hands on his pants, and jumped in just as we jerked away from the curb and headed for Fruit Heights.

The truck’s miraculous resurrection was not our only surprise of the day. We soon discovered that our project had become contagious. A host of people in Fruit Heights had been pricked by the Christmas spirit. When we made our first stop a man shuffled out and asked, “Could this family you’re helping use a trike? Our kids are too big for it now. It’s just sitting in the garage gathering dust.”

At another place we picked up an electric train set. A couple gave us a miniature table and chair set. We received a wagon and some Lincoln logs. A widower gave us a rocking chair.

When we stopped at the O’Briens’, there was only a small pile of newspapers, hardly enough for the stop, but before we left, Mrs. O’Brien came out and asked, “Is there a little girl in this family?”

“Trina’s four,” Jason replied.

“I have a doll—one I bought years ago, thinking I’d have a girl. I had five boys instead.” She smiled shyly. “Boys don’t take to dolls. I’ve been meaning to do something with it.” She left and came back with the biggest, prettiest doll I’d ever seen in my life. “It’s never been used,” she explained.

“Gee!” we gasped. “Are you sure you want to just give it away?”

She looked at the doll for a moment and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “I would have just given it to one of my girls had I had one.” She sighed. “If Trina will like it, I want her to have it. I would like to see her face Christmas morning when she sees it.” She took a deep breath and flashed a weak smile. “Oh, well. I guess Christmas morning I’ll have to imagine what Trina is doing.”

By the end of the day the old truck had made six trips and was about to die a second time after our rigorous demands, but we had collected just under 150 dollars worth of newspapers, not to mention the donated gifts we had received. We bought shoes and coats for the kids; a gift certificate for Sister Bradley; and two boxes of groceries, candies, and nuts for the stockings and Christmas dinner.

Christmas Eve everything was ready. Dad helped us fire up the old truck one more time. Jason and I filled it to overflowing and sputtered down the street to the Bradleys’, coasting the last block so as not to announce our arrival.

It was starting to snow as we climbed out of the truck and sneaked to the Bradleys’ front steps with our arms bulging with gifts. We could hear Sister Bradley and her three kids singing Christmas carols, and we paused for a moment in the shadows to listen before returning to the truck for the trike, the rocker, and the table and chairs.

When we had placed the last box of groceries on the step, we rapped loudly on the door and then sprinted to a clump of bushes where we could observe unseen. Sister Bradley opened the door and peered into the darkness. She was beginning to close the door when she spotted our Christmas project all over her front steps. She gasped and looked up and down the street, then back at the pile of presents. Slowly she dropped to her knees and began to cry.

My vision blurred with tears, and something swelled up inside of me until I could hardly breathe. Starting from deep in my chest and finally reaching to the tips of my fingers and toes, a gratifying warmth overwhelmed me. Never in my life had I felt such an all-consuming fulfillment. I was sure I would burst, and I wondered why I had waited so long to discover this side of Christmas.

When we returned home, all the lights were off except those on the tree, and everyone but Dad was in bed. He was there waiting for us in the dim light next to an enormous package—addressed to Jason and me!

“Where’d that come from?” I asked as soon as I saw it.

Dad smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “Someone left it on the doorstep while you were over at the Bradleys’.”

“Left it for us?” I groaned. He nodded. “You mean a Christmas package for us?” He shrugged again, obviously amused. “Well, we don’t want it!” I flared. “That’s exactly what we didn’t want.”

“They can just keep it,” Jason rebelled. “I’m not opening it.”

“It’s an insult,” I added. “I’m not taking anybody’s care package.”

Dad held up a restraining hand. “Talking isn’t going to change a thing,” I insisted, anticipating his argument. Dad motioned for us to sit down. We did, grumbling irritably. He waited for our protests to subside, and then he asked quietly, “Has this been a good Christmas?”

I looked over at Jason and he at me. “Yeah,” I muttered, staring at the floor but avoiding the package.

“Why? What’s so special about this Christmas?”

“Because … because we were giving something. We were making somebody happy.”

“Does taking this package change that?”

“It’s charity,” I flared. “We don’t want charity.”

Dad nodded. “Do you know what charity is? Real charity? Love, pure love. This package is a token of someone’s love, not of their ridicule or pity. It is the offspring of charity, of love, just as your gifts to the Bradleys sprang from love.”

“But Dad,” I protested.

Dad shook his head. “How would it have been had the Bradleys reacted to your gifts like you’re reacting to this one?” He looked at Jason and me and waited for an answer, but all we could do was shrug our shoulders and stare at the anonymous package. “You know, sons, there can never be a giver without a receiver. Both are necessary and good.”

He paused a moment. “When Luke went on his mission, I wanted to support him all by myself. I thought it only right that a father support his own son. My pride had a lot to do with it. I was being a little selfish. I didn’t realize until I started getting secret contributions that there were those who wanted to give also. I came to understand that I didn’t have the right to deny them the opportunity.”

He looked at our package. “I don’t know who left this for you. I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew. But whoever it was has as much right to the joy of giving as you two. Unless you accept the gift, they can’t enjoy the full satisfaction of giving.” He placed his hands on our knees and concluded, “At Christmas time we give generously and receive graciously. That’s the spirit of Christmas. When you can do those two things, equally well, you will have taken a giant step toward manhood.”

Long after Dad went to bed, Jason and I stayed by the tree contemplating our unexpected gift. It was the hardest gift for us to accept, but we knew Dad was right.

“I wonder what’s in it?” Jason finally mused.

We glanced at each other. A spark of curiosity glowed in our eyes. I looked around to determine whether we were alone. “We could always peek,” I suggested furtively.

Jason nodded. “I never could wait till Christmas morning.”

We both grinned, nodded our agreement, and then eagerly pulled the package toward us and began peeling off the wrapping.

Illustrated by Dick Brown