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Rich: Stranger’s kindness is repaid over time

POSTED: March 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Christmas never comes to me without a childhood memory that, in turn, throws its arms around another memory and brings it tagging along.

Neither is about anything I ever received — not the red bike, the Barbie doll house, my first little sewing machine nor even the little Kodak Instamatic camera that was a joyous gift one year.

In fact, those precious memories are not even about receiving. They’re all about giving.

Daddy never made a lot of money but he believed firmly in giving even when it meant his own wants had to suffer. "You can either give it or God’ll take it," he often said. "One way or the other, it’s goin’."

Property taxes always came due at Christmas, a tough reminder to render unto Caesar that which is his. For months, Daddy had worked, scraped and saved for the money that was due in the tax office in two days.

He heaved a sigh of relief, padded the wad of bills in the pocket of his work pants and silently thanked God for — again — providing. He added a few sticks of wood to the woodstove, stepped up on the platform that looked out over the rest of the shop and poured a cup of coffee from the ever present pot.

Taking a sip, he settled down in his little black chair to join the conversation among the endless stream of men who stopped by his garage throughout the day to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and shoot the bull.

The door of the shop opened and the men looked up to see a stranger, a bearded young man with blonde hair that tumbled way past his shoulders. A hippie, the conservatives all thought to themselves. Shyly, he approached the staring group and, voice shaking, asked for my daddy.

"That’s me." Daddy eyed him suspiciously.

"Someone told me you’d help me." The young man explained that times were hard, money was nonexistent and there was nothing for Christmas. He hadn’t worked in a long time though he had constantly looked for work.

"If there’s any way you could help me ..." His voice trailed off.

Daddy nodded sympathetically. He hated to turn anyone in need away, but he just didn’t have any extra money. "Son, I’m sorry but I can’t. Taxes are due day after tomorrow and that’s all the money I’ve got."

The young man’s face fell. Quietly, he dropped his head, swallowed hard and nodded. "I understand. Thank you anyway."

He turned to go, taking a few steps before he stopped and looked back. "You know, the sad thing’s the kids. Me and my wife, we can make do. But if we just had a little somethin’ for them."

It took the young man a few seconds to make it to the door, which is exactly how long it took Daddy to make his decision.

"Son, wait a minute," Daddy called, standing up, reaching into his pocket and touching the precious bills that had taken a lot of hard work to accumulate. He pulled out the small wad and peeled off a few bills. "Would a hundred dollars help?"

Grateful happiness flashed across his face. "Yes sir! It’d help mightily."

Neither Daddy nor the boy ever forgot that moment. Daddy would often recall that by that afternoon, miraculously, enough car repairs came in to more than make up the money he had given away.

The young man, now turned into a grandfather by the passage of years, never fails to remember that desperate Christmas when he humbly depended upon the kindness of a stranger.

Every Christmas, we hear tales of some hapless soul who finds a splendid gift — a new pair of work boots, a warm coat or rent money — that has been mysteriously delivered. And we know from where it came.

It all started from one man who borrowed temporarily from Caesar to render unto the Lord that which was his.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)."



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