Thursday, December 19, 2013

Forty-six Cents, a Christmas story re-visited

I am re-posting this story for today...

Because I love this story. Because it speaks to me of what Christmas is,
... and should be. I re-post this once every Christmas season because that night... the moments... the cold, the wind, the starkness of these old people's dress, spoke to me of love, of sacrifice, of vows, unbroken.... of sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.

This was us, bell ringing a couple of weeks ago... No snow this time!
My little peeps inspired many folks to dig into pockets. They are enthusiastic ringers!!!
So bear with me as I tell you a story with nothing more to eat than hot chocolate provided by Critic's Family Restaurant...
And an old couple's sacrifice.

It was a cold, windy December night.
I was bell-ringing for the Salvation Army outside a mall in upstate New York.
It was the week before Christmas, and people were hurrying.
But smiling.
And nodding.
They dropped change in my bucket.
And "quiet money", too.

Beth and Mandy took turns being with me because it was bitter.
Temps were in the teens.
Wind chill? Straight out of the west, the direction I was facing. The temperature considering that?
Much lower.

A car pulled up, an older SUV with signs of wear. A driver emerged, came around the side, and opened the door for two elderly folks, a man and a woman.
They were not dressed for the weather. I hurried over and opened the mall door for them to get inside, and ached for the length of time it took them to walk, supporting one another, into the mall. Both were infirm,
but they seemed stronger as a unit than separate, each one holding the other up.

"Thank you," the woman signed to me as she passed through the door.
The man, hunched and thin, struggled to turn his bent head to smile at me, but the curvature of his spine made it very difficult. He dipped his chin lower in acknowledgement.
"You're welcome," I signed back, one of two signs I know. The other is "Feed me. Now."
(Not really, but I need a little comic relief before I tell you the rest.)

Time passes. Beth went inside to get me coffee. The restaurant actually sent out hot chocolate. Free. 
So nice...

It was growing late. Colder. Windier. Snowier.
The elderly couple came back through the door, one tiny bag slung on the woman's arm.
There was no driver. 
No car. 
No one was waiting for them, and I couldn't talk to them because I don't sign. Beth was a sign language major in college, but she was inside.

The man clung to the woman's arm. She held on tight to him, the bag and her small purse. They wore nothing but windbreakers, thin and unlined, the kind you find on the "El Cheapo" racks of discount stores. No warm scarves. No heavy jacket to protect them. I stood there, trying to tell them to go back inside, that I'd come get them when their driver came.

Of course they didn't understand me and I 'bout near cried.

Beth came out just then. She signed to them and the woman smiled, understanding, but then signed that  they'd better wait.

I didn't want them to wait. I was bundled in layers, and about thirty years younger, and I was freezing. My heart ached, watching them huddle, the inhospitable night gathering forces around them.

The car pulled up a few minutes later. By now, this old couple had to be frozen. Literally. But as the woman tried to head toward the car, the old man pulled his arm free and walked toward me.

The woman waited, a sweet smile on her utterly cold face.

The man came up to me. He tugged off the glove he wore, then went searching in his pockets for long moments, hunting up money. Bit by bit the hand withdrew coins.
A quarter. A dime. A nickel. Another nickel. A penny.

Forty-six cents.

He reached for me. His gaze rested on his own hand in explanation.

His hand was deformed with arthritis. Gnarled. Twisted. Turned. Virtually unusable. His hunched shoulders and bent neck were probably due to the same condition. My heart ached that this gentle, loving, bent man could no longer do the little things most of us take for granted. Like pulling change from a pocket.

He trained his gaze on mine. I could see he was afraid the money would drop into the snow and be lost so he wanted me to put it into the kettle.

"I understand," I said. Beth signed the words for me. 
"Merry Christmas and thank you."

He smiled.
Oh, that smile.
It was like God himself smiled at me through that bent, aged face. Cold. Wind-burnt. Poor.

Like the widow who shared from her lack, this man's sacrifice came from his need.

That was years ago, but I never face a problem, a predicament, a moment when I don't see the love and devotion of that couple to each other. To God. To others. And that gnarled hand groping for forty-six cents.

And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.


  1. I love this story. I think of it every time I drop a coin or two or more into one of those red kettles. Thanks for sharing it again!

    1. Well, it was late and this was EASY. :) Kidding, I mean to do it every December one day or another because it just gets to me each time I re-visit that night, that old couple. And I wonder will I have the chutzpah to be that patient, that forebearing, that strong when I'm old???

      And then I try to stop whining. Remembering this helps.

  2. Lovely, just lovely. This year as is my annual redux, I buy hot chocolate for a bell ringer in your honor, Ruthy. And of course put some coins in, because I know full well what the Salvation Army does. Thanks for sharing, Ruthy.

    1. Tina, go you! I did an online "kettle" this year, seeded it with money, but then forgot how to promote it.... So I'm kind of a dunce, but when you're bell-ringing those kindnesses mean so much. Bless you!

  3. This brought tears to my eyes...again! What a beautiful example of charity in action. Thanks for sharing...and for ringing that bell!!!!!

    1. You know I got to hobnob with a slew of Salvation Army Majors in NYC last week. They all gathered in uniform and we escorted Zach to his award in Midtown Manhattan... and it was truly an honor, talking to them, listening to their stories, their "reassignments" the travel... I love William Booth's sentiment as quoted in "To the General" by Charles Coller, in All the World (April 1906), p. 169

      "While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while little children go hungry, as they do now, I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight — I'll fight to the very end!"

      That's the kind of sentiment that helps the little Ruthys of this world. :) I love that pledge.

  4. Replies
    1. Well, duh.


      That was the intent, darling! :)

      Wuv you.

  5. This just reminded me of the last time we passed a bell ringer (two days ago). I gave my kids money to put in and the man asked if they wanted to the ring the bell. My three year old took the bell by the metal part and shook it, with the handle facing out. The man looked up at me and said, "A little too much time on the computer, eh?"
    I almost busted myself laughing.
    I told him, "No, we're homeschoolers. We're just different."
    On the way back from shopping, the three year old had it all figured out and gave it a nice loud ring.

  6. Ruthy, I just love this story. Glad you re-posted it.

  7. BTW, I put some money is a bucket today at the mall and thought of you, Ruthy. I thanked the guy for ringing. :)