What follows is a gift to those of you who have faithfully been a part of my writings on Ted's site. Therefore, there are no warnings about copyrights and illegal duplications. Have at it. It's yours as much as mine. And, frankly, you can't take my memories from me anyway. You can only add to them. Thank you to Jess Mercer for somehow, after reading his new story, inspiring me to give you this very particular story, written in the few hours before a good night's sleep.
The Most Wonderful Christmas Ever!
He heard something, something he couldn't quite put his finger on, but it came from right in front of their apartment building. All of the apartments opened up onto an open walkway so it was easy for him to look down from their second floor living room windows and see ...
"He is not here for us, Manuel," said his aunt, closing the curtains, blocking his view. "Lie down and sleep. It is very late."
But outside ...
"It just doesn't give us the time we need, the time we value most. We spend all our time unwrapping gifts or waiting for someone else to. By the time we're done, it's time to go home."
She was right.
For years the adults of the Spencer family had drawn names. The kids that turned nineteen were automatically included. They still bought gifts for the little ones, taking great delight in watching their joy as their eyes lit up when they discovered what was beneath the colorful papers and bows.
And since they drew names, they only had to buy one gift for an adult in the family, so the fun came in how to give it, whether it was a specially wrapped package or it might include a puzzle to solve to find the gift's location in the house. Sometimes a great deal of time was needed to solve such a mystery. While it was all fun, it did take a great deal of time.
So, when Rachel, the oldest sibling of the immediate family asked to consider an alternative, the rest of the family members and friends started throwing out ideas.
Their Thanksgiving meal was complete and they were comfortable, sitting around in the large front room of the oldest brother's house. The kids found things to do and were pretty quiet. In all, there were twenty gathered for their yearly Thanksgiving dinner, one of the two times they all were able to get together each year.
"Well, we certainly don't want to deny the kids their fun. I so much enjoy watching them." Their cousin was the siblings' age and loved the kids as her own, though glad she could go home to her quiet abode at the end of such a day, where her cats were the only family she had to worry about.
"Of course, the older kids would mutiny if we suggested keeping their gifts from them just to save time," said the oldest brother, Benny.
That got a laugh and several 'you bets' and 'for sures'.
The matriarch of the family, the mother of the three Spencer adults was usually content on listening to the family discussions. But some things couldn't wait.
"I'd like another cup of coffee, someone," she said, holding up her small mug.
"I say let's serve dessert and see what we come up with," said Dean's wife, Bethany, standing up and taking the empty cup from her mother-in-law.
"I'll help," chimed in several of the ladies.
Dorothy Spencer had been widowed for many years but she was still the motivating factor for such get-togethers. The family revolved around her. Her children, Rachel, the oldest, Benny, then Dean, adored her as did the rest of the clan.
Rachel had the oldest grandchild, Freddie, and two twin girls, though hardly identical. They'd all graduated high school several years before and were now part of the adults over eighteen. She had been divorced for quite some time, raising the kids by herself. Benny, Dorothy's second born, was the last to have kids. His were among the youngest, a boy and a girl, still in grade school. His wife, June, was a part of the family as well. Dean, the youngest of Dorothy's children, and Bethany Spencer's boys were sixteen and fourteen, and the source for much of the family humor when their dad and his brother weren't busy making everyone laugh.
Olivia Burton was the Spencer's cousin, her dad being the late brother of Dorothy. And there were several family friends that were just as close as family. They provided a few of the little ones as well.
All told, it was quite a diverse clan whose main goal that year was to have a more relaxing Yuletide celebration. Oh, it wasn't as important to have that celebration on Christmas day as it was to have it on a day that everyone could be together. That meant their fun would be on the Saturday, a few days following Christmas.
"What if we gave our gifts, or the money, to someone who couldn't afford to have a Christmas?" asked Bethany of the group enjoying several kinds of homemade pie.
"Of course," said Rachel. "We could pool the money we'd normally spend on each other and get whatever this needy family needed so they could celebrate too.
"Oh my," said Dorothy. "Do you think that's such a good idea?"
"Oh, I think it's a wonderful idea," bubbled Olivia, clapping her hands together over her piece of pecan pie.
"Well, maybe it is a good idea," their mother decided with a smile.
"Get this," whispered Bethany to Dean sitting next to her.
Dean scrunched up his nose, not understanding what she meant.
Bethany motioned toward her mother-in-law and said, "Just watch." Then she said robustly, "Oh, Dorothy, I think it's a great idea, to help someone in so much need, don't you?"
Dorothy sat up a little straighter in her chair before she said with renewed enthusiasm, "Of course I do. I think we've come up with a marvelous idea." She smiled to all and then took a sip of her coffee.
Bethany was beside herself, trying not to laugh. Dean was nodding his head, realizing what had just happened, again.
It was a joke within the family that if you mentioned something such as this plan to Dorothy, the first time she would poo-poo it, the second time she was asked she would consider it of some importance, but by the third time it was mentioned, inevitably, it would come out as her idea, practically. She was a funny, quirky old broad, and they all loved her dearly.
"So, how do we go about this?" asked Benny, ever the skeptic.
"Well, first we need to find a family, like through an agency or someone that handles those kinds of things," answered Rachel.
"Or maybe if someone knows of a family in a tight situation, that would be so amazing to help them," added June, timidly.
"I certainly don't know anyone like that, but I do look forward to helping. I think it's a good idea as well," stated Olivia.
"I do too," piped in Dorothy, again.
"Okay, it's agreed. I'll start looking into agencies while some of you can too. But think about someone that you may know ..."
"Or someone that knows someone that's in need," added Bethany.
It was the next week, during a break at her job, when Bethany mentioned the Spencer Family's idea to help a family. Several of the other women thought it was a perfect idea as well. But one young lady, rather new to the workforce, was visibly touched, but quiet.
"Flora, you seem so quiet. Don't you approve of the idea," one of the ladies asked of the cute Hispanic.
"Oh, yes. I think it is such a wonderful thing that you will do. But tell me, Bethany, how did you decide on the family to give this great gift to?"
"Oh, we haven't. Some of us are going to ask agencies, but we're also supposed to seek out someone that might know of a family that wouldn't have Christmas this year."
Oh. I see," said Flora, with a sniffle.
"Flora, are you okay? What's the matter?"
"Oh, it's just that I know of such a family as you are looking for. But I hesitated to suggest them. I didn't want to impose."
"No, no," said Bethany, excited at the prospect. "Please share what you know about them."
"Well, they are just a poor family that live in the same apartment building as we do. The father can't find steady work and the mother just had her second child. He couldn't be but a few months old. There is a sister living with them but none of them speak English so it is very difficult for them to find work."
"Oh, my, they sound perfect. Don't they, Bethany?" asked one of the ladies at the table.
"So far. Please tell me more."
"There's not much to tell, except one more thing. See, my seven year old son plays with their oldest boy. He'll be ten ... oh, that's right! He'll be ten on Christmas Eve."
The excitement that was building in Bethany began to show in her smile at her young friend. She just couldn't get over the feeling that their search had come to an end.
"But there is a problem. He told my son that he does not believe in Santa Claus. Now, my boy may know that Santa is a wonderful fantasy but he was also wise enough not to play down the older boy's concern."
The ladies waited as Flora continued, after a bite of her snack.
"My son asked why he did not believe. Manuel told him that Santa never came to their house, ever. He had never left even one gift for Manuel in all his years."
The women left out a collective, empathetic sigh.
Bethany's brain began to register those facts so she could tell the rest of the family what she had discovered.
"Flora, if our family decided to help this family, would you be willing to help us? Like finding out what they needed the most and maybe even a little something Manuel would like from Santa."
"Oh, Bethany, I am almost in tears. It would make me so happy and my son as well, if we could help this family. Yes, of course, I will find out everything I can."
"But remember, they must not know that we will be doing this for them."
"No?" asked Flora.
"No. Our gift to us will be just knowing we were able to be of some help to them. We don't want recognition. We want to remain anonymous."
"Okay. I will do what I can."
It took nothing to persuade the others in the family to agree wholeheartedly to sponsor this family's Christmas. People started to make lists even before they knew all their needs.
"It can't be too hard to figure out they need baby clothes, maybe even for several sizes to grow into," suggested Olivia.
"Of course," said Rachel. "We could find very good clothes at Goodwill or even some of our own houses. I know there's plenty of good things I don't wear anymore."
"Yes, we only need to wait for sizes, then the fun begins."
Food was discussed, as well as some special things for the kitchen that they might find. Even towels and bedding would probably be appreciated.
Now, this all happened way before personal computers were a necessity as they are today. Emailing, blogging, social networks were years from being developed. So, all their planning was done by dozens of excited women talking back and forth, one on one, for several days.
"Since you know Flora and will make contact with her on that night, will you and Dean agree to deliver all of the goodies?" asked Rachel of her sister-in-law, Bethany.
Bethany was hoping that they could be involved. She looked forward to seeing their eyes when they brought in all that had been gathered.
"Oh, yes. I know Dean is looking forward to being involved. The boys are old enough to become involved too. I'm sure they'll enjoy the experience."
"Then you have to promise us good stories when we meet on the day of our Christmas."
Dean had acquired a full-sized van some months before that would be perfect for hauling whatever would be given. The rest of the family would deliver their portions just before that day.
Flora met with Bethany several times, telling what she and her son had found out.
"You must realize that they speak very little English. I think Manuel knows more than the rest do, combined!"
"Ha! That should be interesting then. I know some from high school as does Dean."
"Maybe I should go with you, then."
"Oh, no. Please, Flora, it will work out somehow. If you go then they will know that it is something that friends did for them."
"And you want them to think that ..."
"Well, I guess I just see it as some fantasy come true for them; something a little magical maybe."
"Bethany, you are so cute. Okay, I will let you know when they are home from midnight mass. Luckily it starts at eleven o'clock so it won't be really late, I think. Oh, and I am having a party at my apartment so we will be up too."
That weekend, Bethany's company had their annual Christmas party. It was always at a nice restaurant. Spouses of the hundred or so employees were included and they really had a lot of fun. The company was involved with sacred music so when it came time to sing carols, they were all in their comfort zone.
But there came a time, at the very end of the evening when a light bulb shone so bright on Bethany that it settled any question of how they were to work out the delivery of their gifts to their family.
Each year one of the men was secretly asked to play Santa. The rumors and spying and carryings on to find out who that would be were almost childish, but great fun for all. When the time came for their Santa to walk in with gifts for each employee, Bethany only saw one thing.
A red suit with white fur trim! A Santa suit, ready to go.
"Ow!" complained Dean, rubbing his arm where Bethany had elbowed him. "What's the idea?"
"The idea, silly, is for you to play Santa. There's the suit. It will be perfect."
"I don't know."
See Dean had the makings for a Santa, albeit a younger version. He had a full dark brown beard and his hair was somewhat long, something Bethany had wanted him to take care of for quite a while. The other part of what makes a good Santa is just behind the thick, black belt. A gut! Dean was well on his way to that end, something Bethany also tried to get him to trim.
For the next few days Bethany would look expectantly at Dean, waiting for him to agree to play the part.
"Okay, I'll do it, but we have to think about this very carefully. First, I will not wear those fake boot things made of vinyl. I have my work boots. All I have to do is stain them black and polish them up."
"Okay, and ...?"
"This boy does not believe in Santa, but he wants to so bad. How would it look if he pulled off a fake beard or a pillow fell from under the belt? It would devastate him."
"Well, I doubt if he would be traumatized for life or anything, Dean. But, rest assured, you have a great beard, just don't trim it and we'll figure out a way to make it white for the occasion."
"As for the pillow, I think you are a long way from needing any more padding my dear, sweet hubby." She hugged his arm and did her twinkling eye thing, fluttering her lashes as Dean laughed at her.
"Okay, okay. No need for a pillow. I'll just be a skinny version of a ..."
Bethany couldn't help but interrupt him with her laughter.
Everyone, from the president of the company, when Bethany explained why we wanted to borrow the Santa suit, to the whole Spencer family was as thrilled about the new development as was Bethany. Dean was still a little unsure, since most of the pressure would be on him for the presentation.
The day was fast approaching and hearts were light and happier people couldn't be found as they collected a substantial accumulation of items to take to their adopted family. As sizes came to them from Flora and needs around the apartment too, they found themselves spending a little more than they had bargained for.
But surprisingly, not much more.
Devon, the oldest of Dean and Bethany's boys, tried to convince his dad to let him drive them to the apartment building that Christmas Eve night.
"Oh, Devon, I don't think so," teased Dean. "I think you and Jeremy will be tucked into your warm little beds, waiting for your own Santa to come down the chimney. It'll be past your bedtime anyway."
"Of course, you can, son. You're a good driver and I'll have other things on my mind."
"YES!" said the boy, running to call his friends to tell them of his new responsibility.
The day finally came. Never had the Spencer's anticipation for something been so totally overwhelming. Somehow, the family made it to their own church's Christmas Eve Service, getting out in plenty of time for the much anticipated phone call, telling them that the family had arrived home.
"Oh," cried Jeremy, sometime during their late meal. He ran down into the basement. After several minutes they heard the jingle jangle and clippity-clop of reindeer on the basement steps. Okay, it was really the clomping of the boy who had found a string of sleigh bells attached to a leather strap, just like a real Santa might use.
Bethany was excited. "Jeremy, how'd you remember those?"
"I don't know. I just thought and I saw them down there and there they were," said the boy with an ear to ear grin.
They saw the hands of the clock pass by eleven o'clock. The family was just starting to enjoy their own Christmas mass.
All too slowly the minute hand moved once more around that clock, tediously slow. All heads saw the big hand wave at the twelve, straight up.
Both boys immediately turned toward the phone, anticipating its ring any second.
"Dad, what's taking so long," asked Devon, nervously jingling his own bells, the keys to the van.
"Devon, it's only been five minutes. We don't know how long the service is or where it is. They might be quite a while just getting home. Then what if they have a coffee hour or ..."
It was no time for humor, evidently. This was serious stuff in the lives of two young men, ready to make an impact on a family that they didn't even know. And they didn't seem to care that they may never know just how much of an impact they would make that night, or early morning as it was quickly becoming.
You'd have thought a bomb went off under all of them.
Bethany jumped for the phone and almost knocked it out of her hand. With great difficulty she managed to get it to her ear.
"Hello, hello. Oh, Flora, is everything okay? They are? They have? You want what? Oh, that's a great idea. Sure we can."
"Oh, gotta go. I have some very anxious boys and a sweating Santa; a little nervous, I think. Bye."
"She asked ..."
"Mom, can you tell us in the van? We'll be late!"
"Son," asked Dean of his youngest, "How can we be late to something that they don't even know is going to happen?"
Bethany had come up with the idea to rub Vasoline into Dean's beard and hair, then generously sprinkle and shake talcum powder into his beard and hair, making it white.
"Not baby powder!" insisted Dean. "I will not be smelling like a baby's butt!"
Christmas music flowed from the radio as they made their way the three miles to the family's apartment. Other than that the silence carried with it a tension that seemed to build with every stoplight they had to wait for.
"Take it easy, son. It won't do us any good if we wreck the van before we get there."
"Sorry, Dad. It's just so ... I don't know what to expect and I'm ..."
"Yeah, me too," added Jeremy a little jumpy sitting next to Dean in the middle of the van. The van was weighed down and literally filled to the brim with, well, just wait.
Dean had driven by the apartment building and had made note of the precise apartment that was their destination. He noted that the stairway to the second level was only one apartment away from the door they sought that night.
When the van stopped, Dean pointed to the door and the porch light that was still burning brightly.
"There it is, guys. Ready?"
"As we'll ever be, I guess," said Devon.
"Jeremy, reach behind and grab those two wrapped presents. Those will be the first ones I'll give Manuel."
Bethany was a little confused. "Where'd they come from, Dean?"
"I bought them. After all, I assumed that if the boy hadn't had a visit from Santa Claus, he probably never got a birthday gift either."
Bethany sighed and hugged the velvety red arm of her husband. "And that's what I love about you - always thinking of others."
As they got out, Bethany dropped the swag of bells, making a jingle that could be heard for quite a distance.
Just then ...
The curtain of the apartment was pulled back just an inch, barely enough for two eyes to look out at the strange noise that sounded like ...
Then, almost as fast, the porch light went out.
"Oh no!" came three voices.
"Sh-h-h. Nothing's changed. Let's get up there," declared Dean, confidently walking to the stairs.
If you'd have had the opportunity to ask him later, he couldn't have told you where that confidence came from, it was just, well, so natural all of a sudden; like it was really the right place to be at the right time. Like nothing, nothing could make the magic of that evening go away.
As Dean knocked on the door, giving a hearty and loud, "Ho, ho, ho!" Bethany rang the bells and the boys held their breaths.
An eternity passed in the next few seconds. The boys thought that something must have gone wrong until ...
The door slowly opened to see a young woman in her thin robe and night gown. To her side, barely peeking around her was a young boy of just ten and one day, in his t-shirt and underwear, ready for bed. He had a pillow in front of him for some modesty and a look of amazement on his face.
"Ho, ho, ho! Santa is here, looking for a boy named Manuel. Do any of you know of a boy by that name. Se llama Manuel?"
The amazement immediately turned into a smile that lasted, well, long after Santa and his helpers left for their own home.
"I am Manuel," he said shyly.
Dean noticed that the aunt's mouth had yet to shut.
"Ho, ho, ho! Manuel, I have come to bring you Christmas, but first we have a little situation to fix. Do you know what that is?"
By that time they had somehow moved into the apartment. I think Bethany may have been holding up the aunt. The boys were supporting each other with eyes as wide as Manuel's.
Dean noticed, down the hallway directly in front of them, the bedroom door open and Manuel's mother and father standing next to their bed. He also noticed that the bedroom was just large enough for their bed and a crib for the baby that was in his father's arms. He also noted that there were two couches, rather old, in the living room that were laid out with a sheet and blanket each, evidently the bedroom Manuel shared with his aunt.
When Manuel heard the question posed by Santa, yes, the Santa in his own living room, he shook his head. To him, nothing needed to be fixed, certainly not for that night.
"Well, my boy, it seems that you've just had a birthday. Is that not so? Es verdad?"
His smile grew brighter. How did Santa know? He nodded his head.
"Then we need to take care of that before we can have Christmas," said Santa, taking one of the wrapped presents from Jeremy and handing it to the astonished boy.
By then Manuel's parents had come into the room and Santa was standing over a joyful boy, carefully unwrapping his first treasure ever. Meanwhile, Bethany was trying in her poor high school Spanish to explain to the adults what they were doing there.
The two toys Manuel eventually unwrapped were totally frivolous boxes of toy cars and a few buildings to drive them around. It could have been two blocks of wood and Manuel would have been just as pleased, taking them from his very own Santa Claus.
"Now, Manuel, if you are pleased with those gifts, may we provide you and your family with a few more presents?"
Curious looks crossed the faces of the three adults until Manuel said something rapidly in Spanish. Their looks didn't improve; they just looked more confused than ever.
With that the boys began hauling in goods from the van. Over and over they made their way back and forth until the small kitchen was literally impenetrable, there were so many boxes and bags.
A huge bag of maize, another of dried beans, still another of flour. These were the size of wholesale goods, too big to be found in a local market. Next came boxes of baby clothes, of clothes to fit a ten year old and those of three adults, the sizes of which were provided by Flora. Shoes and denims, not all were new but looking like they were. Not all were famous brands but they would fit just like their competitors. On bodies not used to new clothes, a fancy tag didn't much matter.
Many more items, including fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen foods were delivered by two boys whose energy seemed to grow with each trip for new goodies.
They had to start on the living room. The kitchen and its table were full.
Bethany took it upon herself to put perishables in the fridge and freezer until Manuel's mom started to help.
When the boys drug in the last of the boxes, the Spencer's stood before their new friends and smiled.
They stood before guests in awe. It was the most beautiful sight the Spencer family had ever seen.
They began to say their goodbyes until the family realized their benefactors were leaving. Then a flourish of Spanish thank you's and God bless you's, rained down upon Santa and his helpers.
As quickly as they had made their presence known, they walked off noting the family beginning to go through some of the things brought to them.
Bethany guided her family to Flora's apartment. Flora and her seven year old son answered the door. Flora had secretly given Bethany a wrapped gift for Santa to give to the boy whose excitement was equal to that of a still grinning Manuel.
Quickly some of the experiences were shared with Flora, then goodbyes were said once more and a very tired Spencer family made their way to their sled, that is, van.
As they drove in silence, sweet Christmas carols filling the vehicle, little was said until Jeremy just couldn't hold it in any longer.
"Well, it doesn't get any better than that, does it?"
I don't think you had to be there to know that feeling, to know what gift they received even as they gave the night and their hearts to a family they never knew before and would never meet again.
Oh, you say that we could add the part where Manuel met with ... or where ...
But you see, we can't, because when this happened exactly twenty years ago this Christmas, well, it's just the way it happened.
See, this story is totally true. All but two names were changed, that of Santa Claus and Manuel who would be thirty in a couple of weeks.
I suppose you'd also like to know that the Spencer family was really the Templar family and that Santa was played by a guy named Matthew Templar, who experienced ...
The Most Wonderful Christmas Ever!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
But remember, it doesn't have to be Christmas to give from your heart.
Thank you all for your faithfulness to my writings, especially when you gift me with your acknowledgements. You don't even have to wrap them. Just imagine the smile on my face for a long time to come!