I was in the thrift shop yesterday. Elated because I had found a coat I could afford for five dollars, which was all the money I did have with tax. After wearing my husband’s old leather jacket, which dwarfed me for three years in a row, I was thrilled to finally be able to get something of my own that was feminine.
I stood a long time in line. You know how it is a few weeks before Christmas. There was a rather fragile, elderly man in front of me that had done his darndest` to dress the part of a gentleman. He wore a hat atop of thinning, curly hair, had donned a gray suit jacket, slacks that didn’t match but were of good quality in their day, mismatched socks and dress shoes that had seen better days.
His snowy hair had been slicked back and it was obvious that despite his poverty he took great pride in his appearance. The way people used to when I was a child. However it was just as apparent that he hadn’t bathed in a few months. He reeked of human feces so overpoweringly that we were all forced to keep our distance while trying to retain our places in line.
Despite his stench, he was a sweet man. Cloudy pale blue orbs appeared half blind with glaucoma, but you could still see the light of his soul shining with excitement when it was his turn to place his purchases on the counter.
You would have thought by his merry countenance that he’d found the bargain of the century, so I was stunned when I saw what he placed in front of the cashier.
Two faded pink plastic bowls and plates, a Santa hat that had been well worn, was so dilapidated in fact it was amazing to me that it had even been put up for sale.
The cashier rang up his treasures at a nickel apiece, except for the hat which was fifteen cents. He took out a weathered old leather coin purse that looked to be as old as he was and began counting out his meager coins, which for the record looked so battered I had to wonder if he’d found them on the street. (You know the kind of coins you see that have been flattened by tires or turned green in the weather.)
The disgust on the cashier’s face was tangible. I admit the old fellow was pretty ripe. She didn’t try to hide her disgust at having to pick up the coins or her revulsion as she waited on him.
“You still need eleven more cents!” she barked at him impatiently.
He looked crestfallen turning bright red with embarrassment.
“I’m afraid that’s all the money I have.”
“Well you’ll have to put something back!” she snapped.
He looked near tears. “But you don’t understand. These are our dishes for Christmas supper.”
In that moment I understood that those dishes were like the most exquisite china to him and knew that for whatever reason he had fallen in love with them that he had to have them. I could wear my husband’s jacket another winter.
I leaned in, holding my breath and smiled offering him one of my dollar bills. “Here. I want you to have your dishes.”
He looked at me in confusion. “Oh no! I couldn’t take charity.”
I waved away his protest. “It’s not charity. It’s a gift. Merry Christmas!”
He still looked alarmed for another moment, then his eyes cleared and for a brief moment turned the most amazing shade of vivid blue I’ve ever seen. For a split second I could see what a charmer he’d been in his youth. He beamed, then swept me a bow that would have honored a queen.
He paid the cashier with my dollar as if it were a million-dollar bill and then offered me back the change. I declined declaring that he might find a few other little trinkets he wanted.
Pushing it into his little coin purse as if it were the last dime he’d ever have, grateful for it, he left the store holding his purchases as if they were the most fragile package he’d ever carried.
His smell permeated the air, even after his exit, and the gust of wind that blew in with the next customer caused all of us to exhale in relief.
I laid the coat on the counter a little wistfully. I told the cashier I couldn’t get it, should I rehang it? She reached for it with a rude remark about to toss it in her discard pile when the lady behind me placed a firm hand on it. She laid a five-dollar bill on the counter. I protested. She smiled patting my arm.
“It’s a Christmas present.”
I left the store beaming with my new coat and as I climbed in my car I notice a little boy standing beside a bicycle heavily laden with black garbage bags. He was dressed like his Grandpa, a little gentleman his cheeks dirty, but rosy from the cold. Atop his tiny head was that old worn out Santa’s hat, and he was examining a pink bowl like it the finest china he’d ever seen.
He handed the dish back to his Grandpa as if it were delicate, taking great care not to hurt it, then smiled the most radiant smile of pleasure in sharing their treasure that I’ve ever seen. It made my heart catch in my throat as I watched the two of them.
They didn’t even own coats. Just thin suit jackets. I sat there helplessly, tears streaming down my cheeks not knowing what to do. I couldn’t just drive away and leave them to the mercy of the winter elements. It was obvious they had no home.
While I was bickering with myself they rounded the corner and when I finally got up enough courage to follow them and offer them a hot bath and a meal, the use of a phone to call a shelter, they disappeared forever.
I’ve been trying since yesterday to find them. I had dreams about them last night. On Christmas day I don’t know what they will be eating out of those dishes, or even if they will wash them first, but I do know that if they are alive, they will be together and it will be the finest dinner in the world because they shared it and ate it from their treasured dishes.
That is what I will think about on Christmas morning this year. I regret that I hesitated to offer them the milk of human kindness because the old man stunk or because in the past when I tried to help others they hurt me.
I want to offer this story to my family and friends this holiday season with all my love and the sincere wish that each of you have each other and pink plastic dishes in your lives, to share your dinner with, but most of all that you will remember what this celebration is really all about.
God so loved us that he gave his only son so that we might live forever. Let us live and enjoy our lives meaningfully not only this Christmas but throughout the entire year!
God Bless each of you!
Copyright © 1998 by Darlene Purcell All rights reserved.