On this, our second consecutive COVID Christmas, I want to share with you a story that I wrote in 2004. It’s about an act of kindness on Christmas Eve the prior year. It reminds us of long time friendships, family traditions and the kindness that rests in the hearts of the world. Even though the story is quite timeless, I invite you to step back in time with me. I hope that it lifts your spirits. I share it with you because you’re my friends and family and I love you. I hope that your holiday is a safe one.
Christmas Eve 2004
The last few Riley Christmas’s Julie and I have slept at the home of AP and Sarah James. The James live across the cul-de-sac from Mom and Dad at Croasdaile Village, a large elderly community in Durham NC. AP and Sarah are long-time friends of the family through Asbury Methodist Church. In fact, AP coached my older brother, Lin, and me in YMCA church league basketball when we were kids.
Now, in their eighties, they’ve offered their extra bedroom to us when we visit so we don’t have to room in a hotel.
Sarah is a precious woman with a natural twinkle in her eye when she speaks. She truly could pass for Mrs. Claus. AP couldn’t be more of a gentleman to her or anyone else with whom he comes in contact.
They offer us their guest bed, an antique in a room furnished in antiques loaded with pictures of them together, always in love. So cute. So romantic. So real. It’s a wonderful place to stay in the comfort of their honest lives. Their only instructions are to come and go as we please. Don’t mind them. Use their home as our home. And so we do.
AP suffers through some medication that makes him a little dizzy every now and then so he spends a lot of time in his chair, reading, working cross word puzzles and other hobbies. And he loves to share a story or two with passers by. Last year he asked me, as we were preparing to leave for our Christmas Eve traditional dinner, just how our tradition began. I told AP of my father’s mother, Pep, and how she always hosted Christmas Eve for her children’s families. She cooked like only a farm-raised Southern woman could, turning out greens, turkey, ham, beans and her signature dish, chicken ‘n dumplins, while her husband, Skin, did anything she asked of him. From concocting the hand squeezed lemonade, to fetching this and that, Skin assisted her in putting on a huge meal all cooked on a small combination oven and stove.
After dinner, the grandchildren (that was me and my brothers, sisters and cousins) all got to open a few meager presents. But it was fun because it wasn’t even Christmas Day yet and we were opening gifts. For quite a few years, Pep and Skin gave each and every grandchild the same gift: a brand new shiny silver dollar. This was back in the day when it was minted in solid silver. As I told this part to AP it struck me, and I said this as I thought it out loud, that I wished I still had those silver dollars. I had spent them or cashed them in at some moment when I needed some cash to buy some silly thing or another. He asked why I would want a silly old coin. “To carry a piece of my grandmother with me,” I told him. “Sort of like a memory chip.”
Pep died right before Christmas in 1976. Her children vowed to continue bringing their families together to honor Pep and Skin and to keep their memory alive. As our parents became the grandparents, our children have learned all about Pep and Skin through our tradition – and like us, they love chicken ‘n dumplins.
It was passed time for us to go help out with the dinner that night so we said goodbye. AP thanked me for the story and wished us a joyous Christmas Eve.
And joyous and raucous it was as we all gathered together like we have for as long as I can remember, coming together as one in a circle of hand holding while my father, Homer, said the blessing, always remembering Pep and Skin and the legacy of love and family they bequeathed to us all.
The next morning, Julie and I freshened up to go back over to Mom and Dad’s to start cooking Christmas breakfast. AP and Sarah were sitting in the living room, she on the sofa and he in his recliner.
“Steve, I know you have to go but could you tell me that story one more time about your family’s celebration?”
We were running a little behind, but I knew how much he enjoyed listening and sharing, like a wine connoisseur, letting the story sit on his palette a while, just enjoying the tale and the rhythm. So I told him. I didn’t cut anything out, remembering how my kids called me for skipping pages in their books when I was reading them, and me, to sleep.
When I finished my lament once again about the silver dollars AP said, “That’s a wonderful story.” And he reached to his left, brought his hand towards mine, palm down and said, “I want you to have these.” I reached out and he dropped something into my hand. Although his hand covered mine I knew, from the weight and the sound it was pieces of silver. He pulled his hand back and revealed in my hand three shiny silver dollars.
I could hardly see them. My eyes and heart welled up so quickly and I responded the only way I could. “You shouldn’t give me these coins,” I said. He laughed and said, “Well, give them back to me then.” But I didn’t. Then he told me a secret. “Use a Pink pearl eraser to clean away the tarnish”’ and he brandished a very dirty eraser. “I cleaned ‘em up for you this morning.”
I looked over at Sarah and could tell she was so proud of her husband, so in love with his warmth and graciousness. And I felt so special. I really couldn’t look at Julie as I struggled to maintain my composure.
I actually don’t remember how I thanked him right at that moment. I am sure that I did. I will always remember leaving their home, stepping into the crisp Christmas morning for the short walk over to my folks. I walked on a cloud of love with wonder jingling in my pocket. I kept checking them throughout the day, turning them over and over again.
AP had given me the greatest gift, a gift from his heart. The oldest coin dated back to 1885 so I can only imagine how much he cherished them. And now I have another wonderful memory that brings back my grandmother so close that I can feel her. I will always remember AP’s kindness and generosity. It turned my heart from one weighted down by sadness and worry for Julie’s mother so recently diagnosed with leukemia, to one of hope and love and a renewed sense of spirit, that in a world of trouble, sickness and sadness, simple goodness remains.
I wanted to recount this story for you now, one year later, with the urging that you look around you at home and at work, at your colleagues, friends and family, and open your ears and hearts to their stories, grab the key to their heart…and turn it. One kind act at a time.
Merry Christmas to each and every one of you.
Christmas Eve 2021 Addendum
Sadly, AP, then Sarah passed away 10 or so years ago. So has my dad. But I reread this story every year on this day and pull out the silver dollars that I keep in a pouch in my chest of drawers. I polish them if needed…with a Pink Pear eraser…and smile my Christmas smile…and try to do something nice to someone who needs it.
Bless you all. Merry Christmas