by Mike Harpold
December 22, 2003
"It's ugly," said a teen voice behind me. I had thought I was alone.
"What's wrong with it?" I asked defensively.
"It's got a big hole in the middle, and the top's all crooked. I bet you didn't even look at it before you bought it." The top was bent over at a forty-five degree angle, which admittedly was going to make positioning our treetop angel a little tricky, and at least a foot of bare trunk was visible all the way around about midway up, but nothing a few garlands couldn't cure.
"Take it back," the voice insisted.
"I bought it at the Salvation Army," I said, hoping the point about buying it from the Salvation Army would trump any further arguments about the tree's ascetics. It did.
In an annual ritual, my mother used to accuse my Dad of bringing home the most pitiful Christmas tree on the lot simply because he felt sorry for it. Dad only smiled. It was an article of faith with him that there was no such thing as an ugly Christmas tree.
Decorating the tree was his job which he did each year on the night of our school's Christmas pageant, while Mom bundled up the five of us kids and hustled us off to the basement of St. Mary's School where we dutifully played our parts in front of an audience of beaming parents. We always hurried home afterwards, stopping only to admire the collage of light and tinsel visible through the frost on our front window before rushing into the house to view the wonderful tree Dad had created in our absence.
Dad's trees were collections of everything bright and colorful he could collect: tinsel stars, balls and bells, all the working lights he could muster, tinsel birds with fiberglass tails, toy soldiers, plastic Santa's, tinsel garlands supplementing the popcorn and cranberry garlands we kids laced together earlier in the day, and tinsel icicles on the branches, lots of icicles.
Christmas was Dad's favorite time, and in retrospect it suited him well. He organized the Spreader's Club, an informal group of local merchants who put together boxes of groceries and toys for delivery to needy families at Christmas time. But Dad was just as generous the year around.
When I was old enough, I went with him to carry the grocery boxes he took around to old people and families in need. He was slightly built and as a result of tuberculosis, had had half of his lung removed and most of his right shoulder muscles. I remember one cold holiday morning going with him to the basement of a second hand store where a family with seven children was living. It was smoky and dim and the man and his wife would not stir from bed. Dad knew that the man was out of work and got the kids to tell him what the family needed. We returned with several boxes of groceries from Dad's store.
Mom was critical of Dad's generosity. Times had been tough for us during the three years that Dad was in the TB sanatorium, and she had managed our small grocery store by herself. Even after his return, and when times got better after the war, the profits from the store afforded us few luxuries. Spam and boiled potatoes were a staple at our house.
But Dad never refused anyone who asked for groceries. If they were out of a job or looking for work or the welfare check hadn't come, he carried them on the books. "They've got to eat," he would tell my mother who berated him constantly for his generosity. After a time he stopped trying to justify his charity, but he never stopped extending help to people in need.
When I grew older and left home for the Army, I carried an image of Dad as a compassionate man who perhaps too unwisely neglected his business and family in favor of people who really didn't appreciate his generosity. I feared the day when I would have to take over his debts.
Eventually a brand new Piggly Wiggly store came to town, and our small grocery store failed. Dad had to take a job as a salesman. Several years later he died, followed a decade later by my mother. After her funeral, my brothers and sisters gathered to read the will. To my astonishment, our parents had left no debts, instead each of us received a modest sum of money.
I had been away in the Army when the store closed, and so my sister, Mary, explained that when the books were finally closed on the store, less than $100 of the thousands of dollars of groceries Dad had given on credit over the twenty years our store existed had remained unpaid. I was incredulous.
I began to see my father in a completely different light, no longer as an unsuccessful businessman too easily touched, but as a man who knew so surely the worth of his fellow man that he felt no risk to his own family by offering up the small wealth that he possessed to help others. I saw a man who had himself lived hand to mouth during the depression, who had endured poor health, yet had within him a remarkable optimism and an abiding faith in human nature. I began to look at people in a new light, trusting where I might not have before, finding worth where before I would have judged that there existed none. I tried to be like my father.
This would be a Christmas story
had I discovered the full measure of my father's virtues before
he died. Such is life that children discover the true mettle
of their parents only after years of walking in their shoes,
and then most often too late. I think Dad would have been satisfied
to know that through him I discovered the full meaning of Christmas:
that God's gift is truly great, that man is worthy of the gift
He gave, that all Christmas trees raised in celebration of His
birth are beautiful.
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