Christmas morning 1952. Light drizzle was falling as my sister Jill and I ran out of the Methodist church, eager to get home and play with the presents Santa had left for us and our baby sister Sharon.
Across the street from the church was a Pan-American gas station where the Greyhound bus stopped. It was closed for Christmas but I noticed a family standing outside the locked door, huddled under the narrow overhang in an attempt to keep dry. I wondered briefly why they were there, then forgot about it as I raced to keep up with Jill.
Once we got home, there was barely time to enjoy our presents. We had to go off to our grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner. As we drove down through town, I noticed the family was still there, standing outside the closed gas station. My father was driving very slowly down the highway. The closer we got to the turnoff for my grandparents’ house, the slower the car went.
Suddenly my father u-turned in the middle of the road and said “I can’t stand it.” “What?” asked my mother. “It’s those people back there at the Pan-Am, standing in the rain. They’ve got children. It’s Christmas! I can’t stand it.”
When my father pulled in to the service station, I saw there were five of them: the parents and three children – two girls and a small boy. My father rolled down his window. “Merry Christmas,” he said. “Howdy,” the man replied. He was tall – had to stoop slightly to peer in the car.
Jill, Sharon and I stared at the other three children and they stared back at us. “You waitin’ on the bus?” my father asked. The man said they were. They were going to Birmingham, where he had a brother and prospects of a job.
“Well, that bus isn’t goin’ to come along for several hours and you’re getting’ wet standing here. Winborne’s just a couple of miles up the road. They’ve got a shed with a cover there, some benches,” my father said. “Why don’t you all get in the car and I’ll run you up there?”
The man thought about it for a moment, then he beckoned to his family. They climbed into the car. They had no luggage, only the clothes they were wearing.
Once they were settled in, my father looked back over his shoulder and asked the children if Santa had found them yet. Three glum faces mutely gave him his answer. “Well, I didn’t think so,” my father said, winking at my mother, “because when I saw Santa this morning, he told me he was having trouble finding y’all, and he asked me if he could leave your toys at my house. We’ll just go get them before I take you to the bus stop.” And all at once, the three children’s face lit up, and they began to bounce around in the backseat, laughing and chattering.
When we got out of the car at our house, the three children ran through the front door, straight to the toys that were spread out under our Christmas tree. One of the girls spied Jill’s doll and immediately hugged it to her breast. I remember that the little boy grabbed Sharon’s ball, and the other girl picked up something of mine.
All this happened a long time ago but the memory of it remains clear. That was the Christmas when my sisters and I learned the joy of making others happy.
My mother noticed the middle child was wearing a short-sleeved dress so she gave the girl Jill’s only sweater to wear. My father invited them to join us at our grandparents’ for Christmas dinner but the parents refused.
Back in the car on the way to Winborne, my father asked the man if he had money for bus fare. His brother had sent tickets, the man said. My father reached into his pocket and pulled out five dollars, which was all he had left till the next payday, and pressed the money into the man’s hand. The man tried to give it back but my father insisted. “It’ll be late when you get to Birmingham, and those children will be hungry before then. Take it. I’ve been broke before and I know what it’s like when you can’t feed your own family.”
We left them at the bus stop in Winborne. And as we drove away, I watched out the window as long as I could, looking back at the little girl hugging her new doll.