I hate this time of year. The holidays ... bah humbug! The excitement for the season was lost to me a long time ago. To me, Christmas is just another day on the calendar. I think it's been hyped up by the media to increase the sales at the various stores and shops. The real meaning of Christmas is barely even mentioned. I wonder how long it will take before stores will open early on Christmas for the big after the holiday shopping sales.
I don't even remember when I last celebrated Christmas. I know that my wife was still alive. That was about 15 years ago. The following year, she went shopping on Black Friday. As she was reaching for an Ernie doll, the person next to her grabbed it and ran off. The incident threw my wife off balance and she fell and hit her head on the corner of a display. She didn't die immediately; she was in the hospital for several weeks.
She never regained consciousness. I was at her side when she died. She just barely squeezed my hand and then she was gone. The other joy of my life was taken from me on that day.
Our son had died several years before. He had always experienced problems in his breathing, since the day he was born. One summer, when he was eight, he developed pneumonia. We tried everything we could to save him, but he died anyway. My wife and I took it very hard. We always had a very rough time around his birthday. He had been born in late November.
At any rate, the holidays brought me no joy ... just memories. Those memories were often too difficult for me to bear. I would sit around my house and watch old movies and drink whiskey. My folks had passed away at an early age. I was an only child. I was pretty much left alone except for an aunt out in California.
If I did go out, I would encounter happy parents hustling their kids to move along. I would also see young haggard-looking women who had not yet completed their shopping. I yearned to say to them, "Spend your time with your family while you have them. It's not the presents and wrapping that are important ... it's the love." Of course, I knew that they would just look at me like I was a nut. I guess that's one of the curses of being a lonely old man; everyone writes you off and thinks you are strange.
One day, early in December, I heard a knock at my door. Who would be bothering me? I thought to myself. It had better not be some carolers. I had quickly dispatched a similar group only a few days before. One of the members had commented that I was a real Grinch. That comment didn't even faze me. That is exactly what I had come to be.
I looked out the upper window of the door and saw nothing. A prank, I wondered? I opened the door a slight amount and saw a young boy. He had a scarf wrapped around his neck and a stocking hat on his head. I gruffly asked him what he wanted.
"I'd like to shovel your walk so I could earn some money," he said with much enthusiasm.
"I can still shovel my own walk," I replied. "Not leave me alone."
His clothes were rather tattered and I heard him mumble something under his breath.
"What did you just say?" I sternly asked.
"I'm sorry sir. I just need to earn some money for Christmas presents. Please, would you allow me shovel your walk?"
I'm not sure exactly what came over me, but I felt some sympathy for the kid. Why not let him do the work and then send him on his way, I reasoned? It's not like I didn't have the money.
"Ok kid, shovel the walk and then I'll pay you. But don't ever bother me again," I said, as I closed the door.
I went over to my desk and sorted through some of the bills. I could hear the shovel as it scrapped against the concrete walk. I figured I'd have to shovel it again myself when he was done. I didn't have much time for kids anymore. I had tried to be nice to some children after my son had died. The mothers would quickly pull them away from me, like I was some kind of a pervert.
I was about to get up and fill my glass when I heard a knock at my door. I slowly made my way to the living room and opened the door.
"I've finished your walk," the young boy said with a smile. "I sure hope you like it."
It was the look on his face that caught me completely off guard. In his eyes I saw excitement and eagerness. His whole face radiated hope. There was something in his manner that drew me to him. I was surprised by my reaction and it made me uncomfortable.
"Here's your money kid. Now get lost," I gruffly said. I felt more comfortable with my hardened exterior and I wasn't about to let my guard down.
The boy looked at the twenty that I had handed him. I don't remember ever seeing so much joy in a young boy's face.
"Thank you sir," he said. "Thank you! Thank you!"
I watched as he ran off down the street. On the surface, I hoped that I would never see him again. Deep inside, I knew that wasn't true.
Several days later it snowed again. As I was turning on the news, I heard a knock at the door. Once again I was ready to chase away anyone who might be selling wreaths for scouts or popcorn for the volleyball team.
As I opened the door, I saw it was the young man from several days before. I felt a slight joy in seeing him again but kept the stern look on my face.
"What do you want now?" I asked. In no way was I going to allow myself to become attached to another person again.
"Well sir, the snow has fallen again and your walk needs shoveling. You paid me so much last time that I thought I'd return and do it for free."
I was completely taken aback at what this young man had said. From what I knew, nobody, especially young people, were like that anymore. Everyone I knew was only out for themselves and what they could get out of you. Just the other day I had tried to cancel a service on my phone, only to be hounded to sign up for additional services. People were constantly calling my phone and trying to get money out of me.
The kid had done a really good job the last time he did my walk. It sure wouldn't kill me to let him shovel it again.
"OK, you can do my walk. Just let me know when you are done."
I headed to the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. I couldn't get the kids face out of my head. In him, I saw a hint of a life that wanted to take on the world. I found that difficult to ignore. Stay away from the kid, I reminded myself. No one trusts an old man. You are just going to be hurt and may even get yourself into trouble.
A half hour later, I again heard a knock at the door. I opened the door to see that eager young face once more.
"Here's your money," I said, as I handed him another twenty.
"Oh no sir, I said I was going to do it for free. Thank you for your kindness. That money you gave me last time was more than enough."
I watched as he turned and ran down the walk. I saw him stop and break a few panes of ice that had formed along the curb. What an amazing lad, I said to myself. I secretly hoped that I would see him again.
That weekend, I was in the store buying some groceries when the boy walked by with a haggard looking woman. For some reason, he looked back and spotted me.
"Hey mom, it's the man who let me shovel his walk," he said.
His mom looked my way and smiled.
"Let's go talk to him," the boy said.
His mother seemed reluctant to move, but the boy pulled her in my direction.
"Please forgive me for bothering you," the woman said shyly. "Johnny is always coming up with some new plan or scheme. I just don't know what to do with him."
I glanced at the woman's clothes and could tell that she had fallen on hard times. I could tell by the heaviness on her face that she was experiencing difficulty.
"It's no bother," I replied to her. "He is quite a boy."
I continued my shopping and didn't see them again until we were up at the checkout counter. From the items that were placed into her cart, I could tell that money must have been very scarce.
When she reached for her purse to pay, I heard some strange words come out of my mouth. To this day, I don't know what came over me.
"I'll pay for this woman's groceries," I heard myself say. "And while you're at it, I'd like you to put this ham in her bag also."
The woman turned to me with an unbelieving look on her face.
"You can't do that sir," I heard her say.
"I can, and I will. There will be no more discussion. Your son did a very nice job on my sidewalk and I would like to thank him. Please don't argue with me."
The lady thanked me and began to walk toward the door. Johnny just stood there and looked at me. For a moment, I felt like I had just slain a dragon.
"Thank you sir," I heard him say. "No one has ever been so kind before."
His mother motioned for him to come. I could sense that she was embarrassed, but was unsure as to how to deal with me. I figured that she felt the best way to respond was just to leave.
I tried to put the incident in the back of my mind. I figured that I would never see them again and that would be that. I could go back to being my grumpy selfish self and the world would just keep on turning.
Several days later, I heard a knock at my door. The knock sounded surprisingly familiar. I opened the door to see Johnny standing there in his scarf and cap.
"Mother is making a casserole for dinner tonight and she would like to know if you would able to eat with us. She said she is going to save the ham for Christmas. She felt uncomfortable about having you pay for our food and would like to do something nice for you."
I was completely caught off guard. I didn't know how to respond. I had planned on making myself a sandwich and watching some TV.
"Please sir," the boy implored.
What was it about the boy and the affect he had on me? He possessed something that very few people had. Maybe what I saw in him was myself as a young boy. I remembered the excitement that I felt about the pure joy of just being alive. Unfortunately, all of that had been sucked out of me because of the unhappy turns that my life had taken.
Before I knew what I was saying, I heard something odd come out of my mouth.
"Just let me get my jacket and I'll follow you." I heard the words but couldn't believe I said them.
Johnny grabbed my hand and pulled me along. We walked for several blocks and then stopped at an apartment building that I didn't even know existed. He rang the apartment and we were soon buzzed in.
The building had a musty smell. The carpet should have been replaced years ago. There were holes in the walls. It was not the type of place that I usually frequented.
Johnny stopped at an apartment door and gave a light knock. The woman from the store quickly opened the door. When she saw me standing there, I saw a big smile cross her face.
"I am so happy that you came," she said. "We don't have much, but my casseroles, I am told, are very good. I really felt I should do something to repay your kindness."
I could see that she had tried to fix herself up. From what she had done, I sensed that she might be an attractive woman under all the burdens that she seemed to be carrying.
She motioned for me to follow and then led me to the kitchen. She quickly set another place at the table.
As we all sat down to eat, I heard the woman ask Johnny to pray.
"Lord, you have been so good to us. Thank you for this food. And thank you for this kind man who has provided us with the food we are about to eat." The words flowed easily out of Johnny's mouth. I could tell that he was used to praying.
What in the world was I getting myself into? Why had I let myself be dragged into this shabby apartment? Why was I opening myself to these people I didn't even know? Didn't I realize that I would just get hurt again?
All those questions were forgotten when the lid came off the casserole. The warm smells that permeated the room made me think only about my stomach.
The food was just as amazing as it smelled. It had been a long time since I had sat at a table with other human beings. Johnny would not stop talking about the various things he had done during the day. Somehow, in between his talking, I learned that his mother had snuck away from his father several years before. His father had always been drunk He was often abusive to his mom. When her husband began to hit Johnny, she had left. His mother had found a job working part time. Because the job market was so poor, she could barely pay the rent.
As I looked around the room, I saw that the furniture was old and worn. I saw a little foil tree standing on one of the end tables.
Somewhere in the high of eating really good food, I took a chance and asked what I thought was a very foolish question.
"How would you like to go out and cut down a real Christmas tree?" I asked Johnny.
It looked like I had just asked him if he wanted to go to the moon. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back.
"Really!" he asked. "Mom, can I go? Please mom ... Please?"
I could see the wheels turning in the mother's head. I had learned that her name was Fran. I saw her glance my way and I just smiled. This was the part where they thought I was some kind of a child molester. It was just so difficult to be a kind person.
"You can go if you can take your friend Tim along," she replied. I could see the embarrassment in her face and knew exactly what she was doing.
"That would be just fine with me," I responded.
It looked like Johnny was about to burst from all the excitement.
I told him that I would pick up both boys on the following Saturday. I thanked Fran for the wonderful meal and then headed out the door for a leisurely walk home.
Johnny wanted to accompany me, but the sun had set and it was already dark outside. I thanked them again as I headed out the door.
What in the world had come over me? Deep inside I knew that what I had done was right. It was the fear of being hurt again that was giving me doubts. What was done ... was done. I wasn't going to go back on my word. Secretly, I couldn't wait until the weekend.
"What has come over you?" I heard several of my coworkers ask. I just ignored them. For some reason, I seemed to have a little more spring in my step. I tried to keep up my grumpy exterior, but it was getting more difficult. I even caught myself humming a Christmas carol. I put an end to that immediately.
The next Saturday, I drove to Johnny's apartment like I said I would. Both boys were dressed and waiting. The mothers came down to see us off and told the boys to have fun.
"Wow!" I heard Johnny say as he climbed into the cabin of my Ford SVT Raptor. "This is really cool!"
The boys talked and carefully examined the interior of the vehicle as we headed for the country.
We drove by a field and spotted about fifty wild turkeys. The boys noticed them first and asked me to stop. I don't ever remember seeing eyes that seemed to be so wide. I began to sense a warm feeling rising inside of me.
We drove further and passed a farm with buffalo.
"Stop, Stop!" the boys yelled
I pulled over and watched the boys as they crammed together at the window.
"I've only read about them in books," I heard Johnny say. "They are incredible."
Finally, I told the boys that we had to move on. The excitement that the boys were exhibiting was starting to have an affect me.
We moved onto a dirt road, which we travelled on for about two miles. Then we turned down a long driveway that led to the farm that sold trees. The boys were out of the vehicle before I could unbuckle my seatbelt. I gathered my back pack and we headed out into the woods.