When you're a kid, sometimes time drags. When you get down to just a couple of days before something good is about to happen, the clock takes twice as long to tick. Two days before school lets out. Two days before a full week of Florida vacation. Just two more days until Christmas, the toughest of all two-day waits.
In the last year of the 1950s, I was living with my mother and two younger brothers in Franklin, Tennessee. We lived in a little rock house, just behind the post office, smack dab in the middle of downtown.
A couple of blocks over, the city's affluent families lived in fine homes with big yards and 60-year-old maple, elm and oak trees bordering their property lines. My dog, Prince, and I used to walk up into the neighborhood and peek in the windows of those homes.
Many of those folks put their beautifully decorated Christmas trees in a front window. Some of them displayed Santa in a sled or Baby Jesus in a manger out on their front lawns. Christmas lights were strewn across the roofs and around the windows. If you snuck up close, you could hear songs like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" playing on their hi-fis.
It was like walking around in a Christmas card. I envied those families. They had everything: Love for one another. Happiness. A Christmas tree. Presents. Plenty of food. Last, but not least, they were families with a devout faith in the Almighty.
I hate to say it, but our best times after the divorce and over the past three years had been when Mom went away to fight her demons and we went off to live with my grandparents in Columbia, Adrian and Miz Lena, my mother's parents. As time went on, Mom stopped reaching out to Grand Mom every time we hit rock bottom. Her pride, what was left of it, kept her from picking up the phone and asking for help. Again.
Consequently, we all suffered. Mom's meager part-time teaching salary just didn't support three kids and her habit. She wasn't completely coherent. As a result, her working hours dwindled down to nothing.
My mother's broken heart and dreams of a fabulous life with my father were gone. It put her in the bed for most of the day, and she stayed up all night. Head-on depression. It's tough to see your mom so very unhappy. I was only 10. There wasn't much that I could do other than love her.
We had no money for a Christmas tree, much less presents. There were no plans to go to Grand Mom's house. It was just too hard for Mom to snap out of it and make herself presentable to the gathering of jovial relatives coming in from all parts and congregating at Miz Lena's on Christmas mornings.
So, like it or not, we toughed it out in the little rock house with the shades pulled down. One light on in the back room.
It was Wednesday morning, Dec. 23. Two more wake-ups 'til Christmas. Most of the mothers had finished up their shopping lists, wrapped the presents and hidden them under the bed and in the upstairs hall closet. Magically, Santa, sometime in the early hours of Christmas morning, would tiptoe in and relocate the presents, tucking them under the flocked lower branches of their Christmas trees.
From my bedroom window, I looked straight out at tall green treetops and beyond to the big red-brick Baptist church on the corner. In the spring and summer months, I could only see the top of the roof and a white cross. Colder months, after the leaves fell, I could see the entire church and the black wrought-iron fence around it. It was snowing.
There was quite a procession of people zipping in and out of the church. Something was going on. Chuckles, a little black man who cleaned up around the church, told me that they were setting up for an evening of Christmas carols, followed by a Christmas-themed buffet. That was music to my belly. I pulled out my Sunday duds and made plans to attend.
I had gone to several functions at that church, mainly wedding receptions and funerals. Getting hitched or passing on, Baptists feast after either ceremony. They put on quite a spread. The service was to begin at 7 p.m. I started thinking about ham and yams and cranberry sauce and, of course, fried chicken.
The morning was over, and the countdown was on. Seven hours moves slowly. I was getting fidgety and started thinking about pumpkin pie.
I decided to take a walk up into the rich neighborhood. I bundled up the best I could. In the winter, I could never get warm. Since I didn't have gloves, I put a pair of socks on each of my hands and a small blanket over my coat. I looked like the world's littlest homeless person. I didn't care. Prince came with me.
Smoke billowed out of the brick chimneys. I was already an experienced chimney sniffer and could tell what kind of wood was burning, especially cedar logs. Seeing and smelling the quiet gray smoke rising from atop rows of homes evoked feelings of comfort and coziness, maybe even a touch of security.
Prince and I walked every block more than once. As we lapped ourselves, I could still see parts of our footsteps and paw prints from our previous walk-around. The snow was light but coming down steady. Christmas music was coming from somewhere. Down by the town square, the ticking courthouse clock faintly rang out 3 o'clock. Four more hours to go. It started getting dark around 5.
Baptists are punctual. Seven o'clock, on the dot, and they were piling into the church. I was going to wait until I heard the organ music before I went over and attempted to blend in with the rest of them. I would sing a few Christmas songs. I was especially looking forward to the buffet. I brought a small, brown, folded paper bag with me.
Living the way my family did was tough. We were hiding the truth from everyone. It made it especially hard to step out into society. Even for a kid. There was something sad about being around happy people having a good life, with all their laughter and big, glad-to-see-you hugs. As I slipped into a pew in the back, I wondered if anybody could tell that I was living a much different life than they. I put on my best front.
Out of the blue, the little gray-haired lady sitting next to me reached over to me, gave me a big hug and wished me a Merry Christmas. You could see the Christianity in her eyes. I was sure that she was a grandmother by the way she hugged. We sang together.
My stomach was making that hungry sound. The preacher was only halfway through his sermon. His message was all about it's better to give than to receive. At last, everyone said their final amens. Time to eat!
Downstairs in the basement, the buffet line was already forming. Mountains of fried chicken to my left. Whipped potatoes and green beans in front of me. Down the line, an array of other meats and vegetables. It all smelled so good. I went for the chicken first.
I sat with the gray-haired lady and one of her friends, another little elderly woman. They chitter-chattered with one another and tee-heed back and forth. They said nice things to me and took turns rubbing my back. It sure felt good to be lovingly touched. I began to cry. They both thought that I had been touched by the Holy Ghost. I wasn't sure.
I excused myself and got back in line. There was still plenty of chicken left. I loaded up and took it back to the table. The little ladies were gone. I filled up my bag with enough chicken to share with my family and tiptoed out the front entrance.
Two grown-ups, a man and a woman, saw me come out with my paper bag. The man motioned me over and asked me what I had in the bag. I copped to the chicken.
The woman reminded me what the preacher had said. That life was better served and more rewarding when one gives rather than receiving and that God notices a giver and makes sure that the giver receives blessings back tenfold. I felt a little guilty and eased on out to the sidewalk.
From out of the dark, almost out of thin air, a black man appeared and walked toward me. It was unusual to see people of color in town after dark. Ignorant grown white men paid good money to rent a billboard just outside of the city limits, coarsely warning black people to be in their homes before sunset.
The black man didn't have a coat. Just a shirt and a pair of dungaree pants. He was cold. He looked at me and smiled as he passed me by.
I hollered out to him, "Would you like some fried chicken?" He sure did! I gave him one piece after another. He was loving it. With every piece I gave to him, he said, "Thank you, young man. God bless you." I had three pieces of chicken left and decided to hold on to them. The man was extremely grateful to me, wished me a Merry Christmas and headed on up the sidewalk back into the night.
The only way to describe the way that I felt right then is that I began to tingle. I wasn't cold anymore. In fact, I was warm. If only for that moment, it seemed like everything was gonna be all right. Then it hit me. The content of that night's sermon sank in. Giving to someone in need makes you feel better.
I rationalized that my family was also in need and walked back home, wondering if I was square with God. I hoped he saw more good than bad about the chicken caper. I wondered if I was in line to receive his blessings tenfold. The answer turned out to be yes. Through the years, I've been rewarded over and over. Ten times more than I deserve.
This Christmas, reach out to someone in need. There's plenty of them out there — fellow Americans who have fallen on hard times who are all by themselves. Show them some love and compassion. You'll see. It's far better to give than receive. It'll make you tingle.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.