Every family has traditions. In the Pransky house, we have several, especially around the holidays. The tree goes up on Thanksgiving day, after the meal. Presents are wrapped all at once, on Christmas Eve after the kids are asleep; no one sees the full stack until Christmas morning. There’s an elf on our shelf. In the past, we used to use flour or baking soda to fake a set of Santa’s footprints from the fireplace to the cookies we left out, then to the tree, but the kids are getting a bit old for that one.
And every year, we stuff stockings with items from our local dollar store. Thoughtful junk, we call it. That’s my favorite shopping trip, because I get to pick items that have no value in and of themselves, but each item forces a family member to connect to some event or something I know about each of them. A new spatula to replace the one my wife broke on chili night. Candy canes for the kids because … of course. Something with a squeaker in it for the dog. That sort of thing.
This particular tradition stems from the earlier days of our marriage. We struggled. I had made the decision to quit a relatively lucrative corporate job to go back to school and get the degree that escaped me in my youth. (To be honest, it didn’t escape. I knew right where it was – I just couldn’t find my way out of a keg party for long enough to earn it.) After earning my first undergrad, I enrolled in a graduate program at Ohio University. My choices landed us in some financial trouble, and while my wife was able to pay the bills with her hard work, the double-digit hours per day I had to put into a graduate degree, plus the 160-mile round trip to Athens each day put us in a tough spot, albeit a temporary one. Add a new baby, which we did a couple months earlier, and the Pransky family could officially be called broke as a joke, pardon the cliché.
My dollar store trip in that year was more important than others. I had to get it right because we didn’t have the money to get any of the things we really wanted. I remember walking the aisles for a good hour, unable to find anything that would make up for the state I had put the family in. I couldn’t find the right thoughtful junk to make it all ok. I still can’t remember a single item I put in my cart. I remember being as depressed as I have ever been in my life. Looking back, I was the richest man in the world. I just couldn’t see it.
It was the night of the 23rd, two days before Christmas, so the store was busy. I waited in a long line to check out. We all know how that goes – every movement made by the people in front of us gets scrutinized.
Why is she just now opening her purse? She should already have her card out.
Good, that guy’s paying cash.
Did she just ask to go back and grab something? Unbelievable!
OMG – Is that a checkbook?
We’ve all done it. And around the holidays, when we wait in a lot of lines, most of us experience a loss of patience, and all the tinsel in the world can’t fix that. And then, just as it was looking like I was going to be released from retail purgatory, the woman in front of me committed the ultimate sin. Her credit card was declined.
She tried again, and again, and then another card, and again. It just wasn’t happening. She had three kids; one in her arms, one in the cart, and another climbing it. She was visibly shaken, desperate, and sad, not that the mob cared. The groans from behind me became audible, and one of my own might have slipped out. I was just as impatient as everyone else. I had my card out and ready to go. It was our “just for emergencies” card, but we were that kind of broke at the time. And that’s when I had the greatest Christmas moment of my life.
Yes, I bought her cart, but that’s not my point. That’s not the moment.
As my new friend pushed her cart out to the parking lot, I started unloading my junk onto the counter to be scanned and totaled. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to meet the woman behind me in line. She wasn’t crying, but looked as if she might, and she apologized to me, which I found to be a rather odd act at the time. She explained that when I stepped forward to speak to the cashier moments earlier, as that young mother was struggling to pay for her thoughtful junk, the woman behind me assumed that I was going to ask the cashier to speed things up so the rest of us could be served. That was her first impression of someone she had never met, and she was ashamed of herself.
She asked for forgiveness, and a hug, receiving both. Before I left, I must have hugged a dozen. There were quite a few of us in line.
Aside from telling my wife about it, I’ve never told this story before. It must be ten years old by now. I’ve always thought that any good act done for the sake of recognition is not really a good act, so I always thought that by telling the story, I would be patting myself on the back in some way, and nobody wants to be that guy. But the real story is nothing like this. It contains something else I have never told.
To be completely honest, as I approached the cashier, I was as annoyed as everyone else. Up until the very moment I spoke, I intended to do something other than what I did. I just wanted out. But when I opened my mouth, something else, something kinder came out, and that momentary break from my lesser self has been and always will be the greatest Christmas present I have ever received. And I almost missed it.