THE PEOPLE IN LINE
I was having guests in my home for Christmas Day lunch – a group of people who, like myself, were single, & who had no plans to be amongst family. It was a last minute gathering, & I had forgotten to buy foil, which would be necessary for sending home leftovers. And though I do not particularly like beer, I knew that a couple of my guests liked it. Christmas morning I put the finishing touches on my makeup, & noting that I had a few minutes to spare, I called the local super store, then the local supermarkets, only to find that they were closed. On a whim, I decided to jump in the car & go in search of a gas station that might be open. Sure enough, one within 2 miles of my house was not only open, but had a constant flux of people who, like myself, were rushing to get to holiday gatherings.
As I approached the door, I felt a twinge of guilt for patronizing a place that made their employees work on Christmas Day. But as I rushed up & down the tightly packed, crowded aisles inside the convenience store, I cringed even more as I overheard not one, but two people in a row say rude & hateful things to the elderly woman running the cash register. “How could they be so inconsiderate & demanding,” I wondered? But quickly I chastised myself as I was reminded of times in my past when I, too, had been perhaps a tad unnecessarily rude to workers when I was stressed to the max – facing illness, challenging issues at work, sick kids at home, deaths in the family, & going through a divorce are just a few of the things which we all face at some point in time, & which can cause us to be uncharacteristically short with others, even strangers.
I entered the huge walk-in cooler where they sold a wide variety of beers, wondering which one my guests might enjoy? “No wonder the aisles are so crowded & hard to navigate,” I mused, “they allocated all of the floor space to this big refrigerator.” I stood there, tightly gripping the last box of foil that was left in that little store, & was a bit daunted by all of the beer choices. Light? Dark? IPA? What to buy?? What was the name of that one someone told me about the other night? I needed to get a move on, because one of my guests had arrived to watch a football game with me not too long before this day, only to find that I was still not home from the store! I remember feeling mortified when she called me from my driveway that day to see where I was, though I was only two minutes away. I did not want to risk that happening again!!
It was so cold in there, & my search for aluminum foil had made my time run short, so I grabbed a carton of beer I saw that sounded upscale rather than redneck, & headed out to get in line. I lifted the carton up to the half dozen people that were in line as I passed, & asked whether they thought that would be a good beer to serve guests? But most of the hurried & harried customers in that line were frowning, & ignored me altogether. (Nothing wrong with rednecks, or redneck beer, either, but I was trying to make the dinner special by making my guests feel special.) Finally, an older black lady smiled feebly at me, & said, “Honey, I don’t drink beer, but if I was coming to your house, I’d drink that. So nice of you to go to so much trouble for your guests.”
It was no trouble, but I was beginning to feel a tad bit troubled that I might be at the store when the visitors began arriving, & impatience was beginning to creep in. But my own lack of patience rapidly dissipated as I noted that yet another customer in line in front of me abruptly grabbed their merchandise, & quickly fled, ignoring the clerk’s bright & cheery greeting of, “Merry Christmas!” There were people lining up behind me now, but the line was moving smoothly & quickly. There was no reason, really, for all of these people to be so annoyed.
Finally, it was my turn to pay. I looked at that older lady, & with an expression that was half smile, yet half frown, I said to her, “Thank you so much. I am so very sorry that you are having to work on Christmas Day, but I appreciate your being here for us to pick up last minute things. Thank you!!” Her mouth dropped open, & she stopped punching buttons for a moment, obviously startled, & with a wistful look on her wrinkled face, she replied, “Thank you for saying that. It’s my job. I’m just surprised at how many people are so very cranky on Christmas!”
“I know. I’m so sorry. Maybe try to remember that some of them are sad because they have lost loved ones, or sad because they are all alone,” I gently reminded her. She did not appear offended as she replied to me, “I know. But some of them are downright rude. But I will try to remember!”
I felt a tug on my heart strings as she looked back down to complete my transaction. I wanted to give this stranger a hug, & invite her to join us for lunch. But I knew she had to work. Instead, I reached into my wallet & withdrew a twenty dollar bill. Still in divorce recovery mode, I really need that money, I thought. But as she placed my aluminum foil into a paper thin plastic bag, I decided that this woman needed someone to show her some semblance of kindness more than I needed to eat lunch out in the coming week. So I held out the bill in my extended hand as a Christmas gift & token of my appreciation.
She stood stock still, mouth agape, & time stood still for a slight moment, as I waited for her to return my debit card to me, & take the money from me. In the minuscule space of that awkward, pregnant pause, I was painfully aware of the five people waiting in line behind me, cognizant that they, like me, might also be in a hurry. I turned to glance over my shoulder, but instead of scowls, I saw smiles.
“Oh, no! Thank you, ma’am, but I am not allowed to accept that. But it means so much that you would offer it!” She handed me my debit card, with a smile now brightening her formerly grim face. On impulse, without thinking that it might be inappropriate, I literally crawled halfway across the counter as I leaned in as far as I could, arms open, to give her a big hug, which she returned in full force. “Merry Christmas to you,” I told her. “MERRY CHRISTMAS, MA’AM!!”
I grabbed my small bag in one hand, & the beverages in the other, & smiled to myself as I turned to leave. I heard her tell the next customer, “Merry Christmas!” But I turned to glance back when I heard that lady reply in like kind, & saw the remaining four customers in line grinning broadly. “Yes, it looks like this little lady is putting the “Merry” back into Christmas, one greeting at a time,” I thought happily to myself.
As my car flashed back to life, I saw that I barely had a few minutes to get home before guests were set to arrive. I slid into the garage as if I was sliding into Home Plate, stuffed the beer bottles into the fridge, & ran to the back of the house to use the restroom. I hurriedly washed my hands as I heard the doorbell ring. It rang again before I could get to the door. There on my porch was the very lady whom I’d been late to meet a few weeks prior, along with another guest. As I flung open the door, the wreath clattered with the forcefulness of my hurried state, & with a small laugh she said, “There you are – I thought you might be at the store again!” Keeping my secret, I brightly said, “No, I’m here. Merry Christmas!! Come in!!”
Just as the first two guests were settling in, another one arrived, carrying a hot casserole. After she set that down in the appointed spot, I asked her what I could offer her to drink: “Poinsettia punch, cucumber infused water, bottled water, coffee, sweet tea, or BEER?” She reached out her arms to encircle me, & said, “I want a hug first!” Gratefully, I accepted it, before serving her some punch from my grandmother’s antique Christmas punch bowl. As I handed it to her, I wondered how many times my grandmother, with her twinkling eyes & merry spirit, had handed punch to her guests over the years. I bet my Daddy, my aunts, my cousins, & grandparents had shared Christmas cheer from those exact same punch cups over the years. That thought made me happy, for it made it feel as if my own family was, in a way, present with me, in this group of friends that I was entertaining.
More importantly, I felt that the true spirit of Christmas had been infused into my day. For I had been given smiles, hugs, & a sweet remembrance of loved ones long gone from earthly celebrations.
Afterwards, my guests used that foil to take home leftovers. But that beer? It cluttered up my refrigerator, for no one opened a single bottle. Instead, they preferred the punch I made in the old punch bowl. Perhaps it was that sweetness of the Christmas spirit from Christmases past that it contained?
But that beer was worth every penny, for it reminded me to be kinder & gentler to those who must serve us on the holidays when most of us are off of work & spending time celebrating with family & friends. And there are many of them: convenience store employees, waitresses, utility workers, firefighters, & law enforcement officers, to name a few.
The holidays are not yet over. No matter how stressful our days, let us remember to be kind to those who are serving us, not just on the holidays, but every day of the year.
– Lou Lehman Sams