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Rich: The spirit of giving can last for a lifetime

POSTED: March 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.
At a Thanksgiving luncheon, I was holding my 18-month-old nephew, Tripp, as I visited tables to speak to folks. I stopped and greeted a friend, patting him on his back. Tripp watched quietly then leaned down, stretching out his little arm and patted Billy, too, in that awkward, uncoordinated way that babies have.

I chuckled, realizing that Tripp had simply emulated what he had seen me do. See, children are like that. They, more often than not, simply grow up imitating those they watch. Good or bad.

Every Christmas, I find myself imitating adults who used Christmas as a time of kindness and generosity. Last week, I mentioned that there are two particular Christmas memories that link arms and skip through my memory every Yuletide season. My heart always warms at thoughts of Daddy's many generosities, but mostly I am humbled by what I watched happen repeatedly, especially when he gave what he didn't really have to give. Amazingly, whatever he had given away came back to him many times over.

"You can't out give God," Daddy always said. "Just try to out give him." He'd wink in that smart-aleck way he sometimes had. "I dare you."

So, each Christmas, I think often of that financially bleak year when he had given away part of his property tax money because he found someone who needed it more than he. By that evening, God, not to be out given, had sent back the money in the form of business.

As much as I love that story from childhood, there is another that still moves me as deeply as it did the December afternoon that it happened when I was five. The memory is so powerful that it still easily coaxes tears from my eyes.

Remember dime stores? The predecessors to dollar stores? Mama and I were shopping a few days before Christmas in an old-fashioned one with ancient, unvarnished hardwood floors that were oiled regularly and creaked mightily. It was fascinating with its endless rows of trinkets and sparkling items. While Mama shopped for Christmas odds and ends, I wandered around the magical, dimly lit store until she called, "C'mon. I'm ready to check out."

Running my fingers across the edge of the display tables, I trailed behind her to the check-out. A young man, perhaps 17 or 18, was handing his merchandise to the clerk. There were a couple of costume baubles, a bottle of cologne and a scarf of which he seemed particularly proud as he tenderly handed it to the clerk. It was obvious, even to a child, that he was doing his Christmas shopping. I folded my arms, placed them on the counter and rested my chin there as I watched him. Excited, he waited as she rang it up.

"That'll be $4.87."

Carefully, he counted out dollar bills and change. Suddenly, panic sprang across his face. He didn't have enough.

"Oh no," he whispered. "That's all I've got."

The clerk shrugged. "Well, you'll just have to put somethin' back."

Tears welled in his eyes. He dropped his head.

"How much does he need?" Mama asked.

"Thirty-seven cents."

Wordlessly, she counted out the coins into the clerk's hand. Should the good Lord will me to live to 100, I shan't ever forget the look on that boy's face. He swung his head around and pure, heartfelt gratitude melted across his eyes. A million dollars would not have meant more.

"Thank you," he said softly, sincerely. Mama smiled and nodded silently. Bag in hand, he walked to the old wooden doors and pushed one open. He turned around and took one last smiling look at his angel and then he was gone.

Mama didn't see that last look. But I did. And I have never forgotten it.

Just as Tripp reminded me, children learn by watching.

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




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