This is my 69th Christmas. I was born in October. The other day, my wife, Jana, and I were discussing Christmases past. Memories. Her family went snow-skiing in the Alps. She's from Switzerland. She asked me what my favorite Christmas memory was. Like I said, I have decades from which to choose. I had to think about it.
My first Christmas in Cleveland, Tenn., was a good one. My two brothers and I had just come to live with Dad in a little 950-square-foot house over on Hickory Drive. We had come from a difficult situation, living with my mother. She was dealing with her demons.
It had been awhile since any one of us had had a fun Christmas.
I remember us getting up in the morning with Dad. There was a lit-up Christmas tree in the living room with beautifully wrapped presents under it. Dad had some help wrapping them, from the ladies at Parks Belk.
The tree wasn't award- winningly decorated. It had some lights and ornaments and an angel at the top. Frankly, it looked like someone just threw things at the tree. Dad had given it his best shot.
We went to church and then onto Cedar Lane for Christmas dinner. When you're in the sixth grade, eating in your Sunday School clothes is uncomfortable. But it sure felt good to be safe and loved. Dad was our hero. It was truly a wonderful Christmas.
But if I'm completely honest about it, even with the great holiday gatherings I spent with my Grandmother, Miz Lena, one of my most memorable Christmases was spent with the Vaughn family in a little spit-in-the-road town in Middle Tennessee, just south of Columbia.
We were living with my mother. She was a teacher at the school. First through twelfth grades, all under one roof. We lived in a little bitty trailer out behind the school.
Mr. Vaughn and his wife were the custodians of the school. They lived in a rundown shack on the other side of a creek that you run and jump over or walk across via a 2-by-4 board that had been laid down over it. The Vaughns had six kids, ranging in ages from 1 to 12. Four girls and two boys. They were poor as church mice.
The whole family worked at the school. Many times, they worked hours into the night cleaning up. They were a hard-working bunch. Sometimes, from our back door, I could hear them all singing spirituals together as they worked. Their voices bounced off the walls and concrete hallways and out into the night. Perfect harmony.
I woke up that Christmas morning with the realization that we had no tree and just a couple of presents that Grand Mom and Dad had sent over. Mom was still in bed. I immediately felt sad. It didn't feel anything like Christmas morning. I suppose you could say I began to feel sorry for myself.
Then I remembered what Miz Lena had told me about thinking too much about myself. She told me, "You coulda been born crippled or a orphan with no parents. Don't have no home. Nothin' to eat. Just remember, they's folks out there with nothin' and they's makin' the best of it. When you start feelin' sorry for yoreself, just think about all them poor people with nuthin'. Them's the ones to feel sorry for."
With that sentiment in my head, I wrote out a Christmas card to the Vaughns and headed their way. As I approached their house, I was thinking how sad it was going to be. I envisioned them all sitting around with frowns on their faces. I was hoping my card would lift their spirits and show how much they were loved.
As I approached their little home, I could hear a Christmas song blaring out from the record player. As I crossed the creek, I noticed icicles and a few ornaments strewn over an old juniper bush up next to their porch. I heard a happy commotion and kids' laughter coming from inside.
Mrs. Vaughn opened the door. Her eyes were twinkling. In an almost singing voice, she said, "Hey there, Billy. Merry Christmas! Come on in."
There they were, the poorest people in the county, celebrating Christmas. You should have seen their faces. The kids were grinning from ear to ear.
It wasn't because they had received anything much from Santa. The kids got fruit in their stockings. They pulled the oranges out and put them right back into the refrigerator. Most of their presents were hand-me-down clothes and shoes.
The Vaughn family was thrilled to have a Christmas tree. It had come from the school faculty. The teachers had tied dollar bills to the limbs. Mrs. Vaughn counted the money and reckoned there was enough there for all the kids to get new shoes. The school had also given the Vaughns a big turkey. They were overjoyed.
Mrs. Vaughn thanked me for my card and asked me if I'd like to have Christmas dinner with them. I accepted.
We sang Christmas songs until supper was ready. All of us gathered around the old wooden table and held hands and bowed our heads while Mr. Vaughn gave the blessing. Even as young as I was, I realized that these people were making the best of their circumstances. Kind of what Miz Lena had preached to me.
As Mr. Raymond Vaughn wrapped up his prayer of thanks, he said, "And dear Lord, please look out for them people with nothin. In Jesus' name, amen." That snapshot of rural poignancy has stuck with me through all these years.
So I'll be grateful for what we have, and I'll remember that there are those who have nothing. I'm praying for them this Christmas.
Merry Christmas to you all. Be sure to say a prayer for those less fortunate. While you're at it, ask God to look out for the safety of our service men and women, everywhere. God bless.
Bill Stamps is a native Tennessean who spent four decades in the entertainment industry before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook.