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A Surprise Christmas Gift

outline_of_a_television_set_0515-0911-0317-3308_SMUWhile shopping at the Goodwill Store, I hear the crackle of an intercom and then a lady’s voice.  “Is this on?” she said.  I looked toward the checkout counter.

“Will the young man who looked at a TV and wanted it please come to the front?” the lady said.  I looked around.  No one walked toward the front.  Without using the microphone, the lady turned to three other store employees who stood crowded around the counter close to her and said, “What if he doesn’t know who he is?  Anything else I can say?”  They talked among themselves, but I could only hear the lady who made the announcement.

“Will the tall young man who told someone that you wished you could buy a TV please come to the check-out counter?”  she announced.  “Think he’ll come now?”  she said without the microphone.  “Shouldn’t we go look for him?”

He was tall.  Taller than six feet and slim.  He walked in a slow, easy-going way with his chin tucked low as he approached the checkout counter.  The Goodwill employees parted to make space for him.  A TV sat on the counter.  “This is for you,” the lady to the man.  I couldn’t see his face or hear him.  “No, really, it’s yours.  A gift.” she said.

The employees clapped and laughed.  One patted him on the back and all except the lady who’d made the announcement walked away.  “Another customer brought it up here and said to give it to the young man who wished he could buy it.  He paid for it,” she said.

The young man obviously said something and I wanted to walk closer and hear the conversation, but an audience would have been an intrusion.  “All I know is he wanted you to have this TV and he paid for it and it’s yours.  So Merry Christmas!”  she said.  He didn’t pick up the TV.  “Yes, you can take it right now unless you have some other shopping.  I’ll keep it right here till you’re ready to go.”

He wrapped his arms around the portable TV and picked it up.  He walked a few steps away from the counter.  “Oh, wait,” the lady called to him.  “I forgot something.  There’s money left over.  The man said to give it to you.”  He shook his head and walked back to the counter where he set the TV.  “Yes, I’m sure,” said the lady.  She laid some bills in his hand.  With the back of his other hand, he wiped his eyes.

I hope the anonymous donor saw that tall young man as he walked toward the store’s door. He took long intentional steps and held his head high.  And he was smiling.  As he walked out the door, he dropped his head and shook it from side to side.

A surprise Christmas gift for one young man.  A gift that was generous and kind.  A gift that reminded me the reason we celebrate Christmas.

Merry Christmas from the Ray household to yours!  May all your Christmas wishes come true.  Look for the next Where We Are column on Tuesday, December 31st.


A New Christmas Tradition

Picture 1We stacked Christmas gifts under our Christmas tree until three years ago when Husband came home with two big boxes a few days after Thanksgiving and said, “I bought us an early Christmas present!”  An electric train.  I never knew we needed a train.

This surprise gift was actually for our Grands.  And prompted by our oldest Grand, David, who was five years old at the time.  When he visited, he’d drag out the little wooden train set that our son played with when he was young.  David connected the track pieces and pulled the rail cars around the track.  Then he would take the pieces apart, create a different track, and while lying on his belly on the floor, he pulled those cars around and around.

The past two years, Husband has set up the electric train under our Christmas tree and filled the train cars with treats –our Grands’ favorite candies.

But now, as of last week, we have a new Christmas tradition.  The setting up of the train.  Our three oldest Grands bound into the living room.  David, age 8, said, “Where’s the track?  We need to get started.”  His sisters Lou and Ruth, ages 6 and 4, went straight for the bags of candy.  Husband suggested to David where to place the curved and straight track pieces.  Lou ripped the top off a bag of peppermints and arranged the candy in a green train car.  Ruth opened a bag of Dum Dums suckers and dumped them on the floor.  The fun had begun!

But we were missing one Grand who needed to be a part of this new tradition.  Dan is 2 ½ and lives an airplane ride away.  That little wooden train set is now his and he spends hours making tracks and pulling the cars around and around just like his daddy and his older cousin did.  And I wanted Dan to see his Pop’s electric train and his cousins setting it up.  So through the magic of video communication, Dan’s daddy and I connected on iPhones.

Now I’m pretty good with video chat on a big computer when I sit still and watch and talk.  But I need practice with Face Time.  I heard Dan’s mother say, “I think your phone is on mute,” and “Can you take your finger off the camera?”  And there’s a tiny screen, smaller than a postage stamp, that I was suppose to be able to see what I was showing Dan.  Even with my glasses on, I couldn’t see that screen.

David moved around the Christmas tree connecting track pieces.  Ruth poured bags of Hershey’s kisses, Smartees, and chocolate Santas onto the floor.  Lou stacked candy in train cars.  I pointed my phone all around the room to share the fun with Dan, but he wasn’t happy.  He wanted to touch the train and eat a piece of candy.  He wanted to be here.

The Grands here shouted, “Bye!” to Dan.  Husband promised Dan that he could blow the train whistle and that his favorite candy, Dum Dums, will be on a train car when he visits soon.

Chaos?  Yes.  Mess?  Yes.  Making memories?  Yes.  Do it again?  Yes.

Glad Husband bought the train?  Yes.  That’s how traditions begin.  And there are reasons to create new traditions just as there are reasons to keep the old ones.






What Season is This?

beautiful_christmas_tree_6_hd_picture_170696 A few weeks ago, my 4 ½ year old Grand and I were together in my van.  While we waited for a traffic light to turn from red to green, Ruth and I admired the bright golden leaves on a maple tree.  We talked about the many colors of leaves during the fall and that fall is also called autumn.  Time for another fact.  I grab teaching moments with my Grands.

“It’s fall now and next will be…?”  I said.

“Christmas!”  Ruth shouted.

“Christmas is a holiday.  But you’re right.  Christmas is in the next season.  It’s winter.  Does that make sense?”  I said.

Ruth was seated directly behind me so I couldn’t see her face.  Since she was silent, I guessed that she was thinking.  The traffic light turned green and we’d travelled several blocks when my Grand said, “Well, Samuel calls the next season Christmas and Elsie calls it Christmas and I call it Christmas.  Mommy and Daddy call it winter.”  If you were four, would you agree with your older brother and sister or your parents?

The more I’ve thought about Ruth’s answer, the more it makes sense.  These December days certainly don’t feel like fall.  Golden leaves and orange pumpkins are long gone and by the calendar, winter begins December 21st.  So here we are with a few weeks that aren’t really fall and not yet winter.  And it’s a time with activities all its own.

Christmas Season – a time to decorate.  The only time of the year that we rearrange our living room furniture.  That’s so our Christmas tree can stand front and center of the window with enough floor space for Husband’s electric train under it.  The everyday decorative knick-knacks are packed away.  Out come Christmas pillows, a manger and nativity, family pictures of past Christmases, carolers, red candles, boughs of green, gold ribbon.

Christmas Season – a time to shop.  I shop more now than I do all the other seasons put together.  Shop for gifts and things I didn’t know I needed until I saw them advertised at door buster prices.  Shop at the local toy store, bookstore, kitchen store, bazaars, department stores, drugstores, online, wherever gifts are sold.

Christmas Season – a time for bells.  The ringing of church bells, jingle bells, hand bells, Salvation Army bells.  Bells on my mailbox, bell collection on my pump organ, bells tied to little girls’ shoelaces and hair ribbons.

Christmas Season – a time for mistletoe.  One tiny sprig of green leaves hangs on the doorway between my kitchen and dining room to encourage hugs and kisses.

Christmas Season – a time to party.  With friends and family and coworkers.  With food and drink and presents.  To play games and sing and visit.

Christmas Season – a time for good wishes.  Husband and I have friends with whom we connect only at this time each year.  Call me old fashioned – I like Christmas cards and family newsletters and pictures.  And I like the shouts of “Merry Christmas!” across grocery aisles and parking lots.

Ruth is right.  Winter doesn’t come after fall.  Christmas does.  Christmas Season.







Christmas Glimpses

imagesAs I relax with cup of hot tea and homemade fudge, I’m relishing pictures of Christmas.  Husband and I celebrated Christmas with our Grands and their parents for two days.  Six adults and five children – age seven and under.  Lots of food and gifts and squeals and fun.

I’ll print and treasure many photos.  Our eighteen-month-old youngest Grand wore the red vest that I made for his daddy 35 years ago, and  he sat on the windowsill to test-taste a dill pickle.  Elaine, age 19 months, climbed to the top of the spinet piano and found the hidden out-of-reach candy.  Ruth, age 3, hugged her new doll and asked her uncle to help change the doll’s clothes.  Lou, age 5, knelt to the floor to kiss her little cousin good-bye.  Our oldest Grand, David leaped in surprise when he saw his gift – a remote control car.

Some Christmas images can’t be printed.  Some are happenings.  I saw the antlers, fuzzy and worn, stuck onto the roof of the brown compact car.  Who’d do that?  It seemed dorky.  “Look, Momma!  Rudolph!”  I heard a child’s voice.  A little girl tugged at her mother’s hand that held her tightly as they hurried across the shopping mall parking lot.  “Momma, look at his red nose!”  I looked and I chuckled.  A softball size red sponge ball was attached to the grill of the car.  I wish I knew who’d done that.  My hectic shopping day turned into a happier day.

One evening, Husband I stood outside the doors of Spring Street Market ringing a bell for Rescue Mission donations.  The smell of hot donuts floated our way from Ralph’s Donut Shop, just a block away.  As a customer carried her groceries out of the market, we were talking about the wonderful smell.  She agreed the aroma was enticing and waved to us as she drove out of the parking lot.  A few minutes later, her small green car swerved alarmingly close to us and then stopped.  This angel lady rolled down her car window and said, “Merry Christmas!”  She handed us a white bakery bag.  Two hot donut twists straight from Ralph’s.  We shouted, “Thank you!” as she drove away.

My college roommate, Jo Ann, visited me before Christmas for a day of candy making and my five-year-old Grand was also here.  “We need two cups of Chex cereal.  Lou, do you know how to measure?”  Jo Ann asked.  Lou, standing on a chair and on eye-level with Jo Ann answered, “Sure, I help Momma cook all the time.”  I stood aside.  For one thing, we were using Jo Ann’s White Trash candy recipe, but mostly I wanted to watch two people I love.  Jo Ann and Lou knew each other by name, but had never been together for more than a few minutes at a time.  Never stirred with the same spoon.  The next day Lou asked, “When’s Aunt Jo Ann coming back to make more candy?”

Glimpses of Christmas.  Some printed on paper.  Some printed in hearts.

Under the Christmas Tree


Under the Christmas Tree

            There’s an electric train under our Christmas tree.  Nothing unusual for most people.  But we never even owned an electric train until December 20th last year when Husband came home with a big box.  “I got something for a little surprise.”  And then he set up the railroad tracks in the bedroom where the Grands sleep when they spend the night.  The train was a hit, but it rarely ran.  Out of sight and away from the action.

This year is different.  “David,” I said to our oldest Grand, “let’s set up Pop’s electric train under the Christmas tree.”  David, age 7, was slow to respond.  He eyed the space between the low tree branches and the floor.  “But then there won’t be room for all the presents,” he said.  His silence questioned if I was suggesting that the train would replace presents.  I assured him that gifts could be stacked near, not under, the tree.

David and I connected the train tracks and hooked the train cars together.  Black engine leading and red caboose at the end.  And the Grands loved it.  When they visited the next time, each took a turn at the controls.  The train zoomed, forward and backward.  And the horn blasted.  Ah, just as I’d envisioned.

And a few days later, Husband went shopping again.  For candy.  Now an open hopper car is full of chocolate candy kisses – wrapped in read and silver and green.  Another hopper hauls peppermint patties.  Chocolate Santas are stacked on the flatcar and held securely with red rubber bands.  And inside the boxcar?  It’s loaded with Pez.  Every flavor made.  “Look at all the special treats!”  said Lou, our five-year-old Grand.  And each Grand ate a special treat, chocolate Santas, after lunch.

“You know, this train is missing something,” David said.  Maybe another car loaded with candy?  “It needs a tunnel.”  Husband and David went on a hunt for a box.  None, in recycling or those saved for wrapping gifts, were the right size.  “I know.  I’ll be right back.”  He rolled our play grocery cart filled with large cardboard building blocks into the living room.  He and Lou built a tunnel that encloses one end of the tracks.  Lou took the controls and both agreed the train wouldn’t knock down the tunnel.  But they’d have to tell Elain, their baby sister, to not take the tunnel apart.

“Now,” said Lou, “where’s the engineer?”  Out came the Legos.  David constructed.  Lou advised.  The engineer sits atop a platform so he can see the train really well.  The platform is attached to an overhead water sprinkler – “just in case there’s a fire on the train,” David told me.  Lou built a small Lego house so the engineer will have a place to sleep when he isn’t working.

Now our electric train is complete, I think.  And I love it.  But there’s still time for Husband to go shopping and hide a little special surprise in the boxcar.


It’s So Much

It’s Not Much

When a teacher dares to open her heart, a student crawls in, twisting the teacher’s heart.

            Annie didn’t own Crocs with Kibitz – those trendy plastic shoes with fancy button-like decorations—that most of my 4th grade students wore.  Her shoes were Wal-Mart white tennis shoes that the school counselor purchased.  Her jeans were fashionable and well worn or not so fashionable and almost new.  She had chosen two pairs from the box of donated clothes at school.

Everyday, Annie smelled like cigarettes.  Her hair wasn’t brushed.  She ate government-paid-free breakfast and lunch and didn’t understand why she couldn’t take home the leftover food that her classmates left on their cafeteria trays.

On the last school day before Christmas vacation, twenty-two excited students crowded around my desk.   They were excited and eager for me open their gifts.

“Open mine first!”

“Mama paid a lot for that fancy candle.  She said you’d better like it.”

“Mine has the biggest red bow.”

“It’s candy.  And I helped make it.

Annie sidled close beside me at my desk and put most of the discarded Christmas paper and bows in the trashcan.  But she clutched a crumpled piece of shiny red foil paper and a big gold bow tightly in her hands.

While I continued to open gifts, Annie asked to use the Scotch tape on my desk.  She took the paper, bow, and tape to a corner in our classroom.  Then she ran back to her desk and stuck something from inside it under her shirt.  The other students didn’t notice Annie.  In fact, they rarely noticed Annie.

I put on every gift of jewelry.  I marveled over a Christmas sweatshirt that was decorated with a sequined snowman, a hand crocheted Santa Claus, and a glittery angel.

I stashed gifts of food—honey, banana bread, chocolate candy—into a basket.  These were my family’s favorite teacher presents.

As the party ended, the children ate cupcakes decorated with chocolate frosting and green sprinkles.  They drank red fruit punch.  The girls clustered in groups of twos and threes.  The boys sat in one big group on the floor.

Annie wandered toward me as I set a cup of punch on my desk.  “Mrs. Ray,” she said. “I’ve got something for you.”  She held a gift tightly in her hands.

“Do you want me to open it now?”  I asked as I sat down.

She laid her gift, wrapped in wrinkled red foil paper and the gold bow bigger than the box, on my lap.  “Yes, but nobody else gets to see.”

As I torn away the many strips of tape, Annie stood so close that her body leaned against mine.  “It’s not much,” she said.

Inside a well-worn gold paper Avon box was a button.  A plastic gold coat button with tiny glistening rhinestones.

“Read the note,” Annie said.

To:  Mrs. Ray

                        I’m sorry, but the present isn’t that much it’s all I had.  I hope you enjoy it.

                        Merry Christmas

            Annie was wrong.  It was much.

It’s so much that every Christmas I wear that gold button, held by a safety pin through the button’s loop on the back, on my coat lapel.

It’s so much that it reminds me that giving a Christmas gift isn’t about the gift.

It’s so much that it reminds me why we celebrate Christmas.


A Gift I’ll Never Forget


Angel trees.  Operation Christmas Child.  Food baskets.  Bicycles for Kids.  Rescue Mission.  It’s that time of year when we know about more opportunities to give than we have dollars in our pocket.  And oftentimes, we help people we never meet.

Mikey, I knew well.  His big brother, Steve, had been a student in my class.  Steve was Mikey’s caretaker, not only at school, but also at home if both brothers’ stories were true.

Steve was absent at least one day every two weeks.  Before the 8:00 morning bell rang, Mikey, a kindergartener, came to my 4th grade class door and stood quietly until I saw him.  I knew what he’d say before he said it.  “Grandma said to tell you that Steve is sick.”  The first few times I’d asked questions and determined that Steve’s sickness was a result of lack of sleep because he’d taken care of his sick father during the night or that Grandma needed Steve’s help at home.  “I’m suppose to take his work home after school,” Mikey said.  At 3:05, he’d wait beside my desk while I gathered Steve’s books and make-up work, and he always hugged my neck after I gave him a treat from my candy stash.

Steve and Mikey wore clean clothes.  Usually too big or too small.  Our school kept a closet stocked with children’s clothes for emergencies or anyone who needed something to wear.  Several times, the boys chose a pair of jeans and a shirt.

The next school year Mikey often detoured from his first grade classroom to my room after the 3:00 school bell rang.  He gave me a hug, and I gave him a candy treat.  Just before Christmas vacation break, I learned from his teacher while we were shopping together that Mikey wore two lightweight jackets on cold days.  Together she and I picked out the best looking, most in-style little boy’s blue coat in the store.  “Don’t tell Mikey where this came from,” I told his teacher as I handed my credit card to the clerk.

Two days later I sat at my school desk grading spelling papers while my students were in Music class.  Mikey marched into my classroom wearing his new coat, hood over his head.  “Look!” he said.  His grin showed every tooth and he stood six inches taller that he would’ve measured.  He held his arms high as if to catch a falling beach ball.

“Oh, Mikey.  What a good-looking coat!”  I said.  He walked close to me.

“Smell.  It’s new.  Nobody’s never wore it before.”  He turned his back to me.  I blabbered something, blinking tears away.  He looked me in the eye.  “Teacher said it’s just for me and blue is my favorite color.”

Of course, it was.  His teacher knew his favorite color and that a brand new coat would make a six-year-old boy walk taller and prouder.  Mikey probably did all his schoolwork better and quicker that day.  Because he wore a coat that no one else had even worn.

Trash or Treasure


My Christmas tree is decorated just the way I like it.  Lights, red bead roping, ornaments and an angel on top.  Ornaments handed down from my parents’ Christmas tree. Ornaments that were gifts from family and friends and school children.  Ornaments made or bought for a special memory.  I can tell the story of each one.  But there are more ornaments still in the storage box.  Some not hung for years.  Enough to decorate another tree, and one tree is all I want.

“Here,” I said to Daughter as I handed her a full plastic bag.  “Take these ornaments to your house, please.  And maybe you’ll hang some on your tree.”  She held the bag in her hands.  “Wait, let me look at those again.”  I took the bag from her.  “Maybe some should be thrown away.”

Who could trash Bert and Ernie?  Handmade, from yarn, and Bert is only missing one eye.  The white crocheted snowflake has just a few yellow spots.  The ceramic angel that I painted would look pretty if someone glued her wing back on.  I can’t trash a Nativity –even a miniature plastic one. A blue Smurf probably means something to one of my children.  The shiny red apple is still pretty.  Why do I have three wooden factory-made stockings?  There’s no name or date on the back of any of them, but they’re cute.

I can’t bring myself to throw away the dozens of calico ornaments that I made in the mid-1970s.  I stitched them at night after our children had gone to bed.  Five-inch stockings and candy canes and wreaths.  Cut from yellow and red and green calico.  Two pieces of fabric zigzagged together and stuffed with polyester pillow stuffing.  Unbreakable.  The only kind of ornament that hung from our tree for several Christmases.  The years when little hands took ornaments off the tree.  And those same hands hung them back on.

I wonder where the picture is of our children when they were 3 and 5.  They were standing beside the Christmas tree and pointing to the ornaments they’d just hung.  Twelve calico ornaments hung side-by-side on the electrical wire between two lights.  Calico really isn’t in style now, but there’s a cotton fabric candy cane and wreath hanging on my tree.

Red glittery plastic bells.  I’m not trashing those.  I bought them at the Dime Store and Husband and I hung them on our very first Christmas tree.  What if I tie a narrow green ribbon through the loop of each one and write “Pop and Gran’s tree, 1969” inside the bellI’ll attach one to the bow on each of our Grand’s gifts.

So the red glittery bells are on my gift-wrapping table and every other ornament that I thought I might cull is back in the plastic bag.  I’ll give them to Daughter.  Surely she won’t throw any away.