Better to give than receive? Count on it

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This is a Christmas story, one I have told before in various versions. Some of you were kind enough, thank you, to ask me to reprint it from a column I wrote years ago. That would require finding it. And I have trouble finding my own shoes.

So I'm going to retell it from memory, which is always an adventure, because every good story -- if it's worth repeating -- tends to have a mind of its own. You never know, when you start it, where it will end.

This one starts at a picnic on the Fourth of July. I was big, 8 years old. My brothers were little, 4 and 3. Little did we know what lay ahead.

My stepfather, in my eyes, was invincible, strong and solid as the trunk of a hickory. He earned his pay -- enough to keep us fed and dry -- standing eight hours a day on his big flat feet running a loom at a textile mill.

That summer at the company picnic, when he lost his footing in the Tug-of-War and skidded sideways down the hill like a jack-knifed big-rig, he also lost his job.

I learned this from my mother, who said, when she saw him fall, "God help us! He can't work if he can't walk!" She was right. He was on crutches and out of work for six months. We ate a lot of beans.

In December, my mother told me Santa might be a bit late.

"How late?"

"Maybe spring," she said.

They had ordered a few gifts on credit from a catalog, she explained, but the shipment might not arrive in time.

"It'll still be Christmas," she said, "even without Santa."

I tried to picture it, Christmas minus Santa. I couldn't see it.

The next day, some good and caring people from our church came to our door with a ham, a tin of cookies and a tiny Douglas fir trimmed with colored lights and paper birds.

My stepfather hid in the kitchen. My mother thanked them for their kindness, but she forgot to offer them coffee.

After they left, she handed me a cookie. "Life," she said, "is a bank. Sometimes you put in. Other times you take out. Either way, it's all the same bank."

Then she added: "You need to remember how hard it is to receive," she said, "because someday you'll do the giving."

Every day, the last week before Christmas, my stepfather would shove his crutches in our '49 Ford and drive down to the depot to wait for the train. I'd sit on the porch steps praying.

And every day he came back shaking his head, looking grim.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, he came home with a package.

"Merry Christmas," he muttered, tossing the box on the floor by the little Douglas fir. It was a whole case of tangerines.

We ate them all. They were good. And it was Christmas.

Santa showed up a week later. My brothers never knew the difference. I did. I was lucky.

I've seen a lot of Christmases since then, and enough gifts to fill several catalogs. I loved them all, pretty much.

I've also had a chance to do a little giving. And I can tell you for a fact my mother was right. Giving is easy. Taking is hard.

And still, it's all the same bank.

We'd do well to remember that all year long, especially in this season of giving.

This Christmas, I hope you'll get to give a lot. I hope you'll get to give and give some more.

I hope you'll have to take a little, too, to keep you humble. But if you have to take a lot, try to remember how it feels. One day you'll do the giving.

May you always have a Santa to fill your stocking. And in the toe, may you find a tangerine.


Sharon Randall is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service ( This column of hers was first published in 2005. Brian O'Neill is off today.


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