‘Keep it,’ he said with a warm smile

‘Keep it,’ he said with a warm smile

A gesture of kindness provides a panicked, inexperienced young shopper with a sense that people are good

BRATTLEBORO — It was December 1969, the week before Christmas. I was a curly-haired redhead, 10 years old, with dreams of gift-giving and no funds to support those dreams. We were a family who had more than many but not a lot.

But my father, who worked in the post office downtown, had been working a lot of overtime. Knowing my wish, he gave me a $20 bill and told me that I could use the money to buy Christmas presents.

I couldn't believe it. I had never held such a large amount of cash in my small hands. In today's economy that $20 would be worth well over $100, and I felt the gravity of this huge sum.

My holiday head filled with dreams of being Santa himself. I made lists of what I wanted to purchase and tried to create a budget by guessing how much each gift would cost.

* * *

The following Saturday, with a sprinkling of snow gently falling from the skies of Brattleboro, my father dropped me off on Flat Street at the Giant Store (a pre-big-box discount store, housed where the C.F. Church Building now stands) for my big holiday shopping escapade.

I bounced out of our green Ford station wagon. “Call me when you want a ride,” my father yelled to me as I turned only to slam the door shut. He had a big grin on his face. A child of the Great Depression era, nothing pleased him more than giving his children experiences he'd wished he'd had during his own difficult childhood.

I flew into the store without so much as a goodbye to him, thrilled to be there all by myself for the very first time.

* * *

Inside the small purse slung over my shoulder was a tiny, zippered bag that held the single bill. Dad had also given me a dime to call him from the pay phone just outside the building when I would be ready for a ride home. I decided not to put the dime for the pay phone into the purse so that I wouldn't spend it. I put it in the pocket of my ski pants.

I yanked the gift list and a small pencil out of my pocket and began strolling around the store. There were no shopping carts available because of the number of shoppers in the store, so I made a reconnaissance tour, pencil in hand, jotting down prices, and then returning to pick up the items after adding them up on my paper.

I knew my sister would love the 45-rpm single of the latest Beatles' hit, “Come Together.” It would cost a big part of my budget at $.98. She'd also enjoy having her own Sweet Story, packaged to look like a little book that opened to display five rolls of Life Savers on each side, from Butter Rum to Pep-O-Mint.

I knew Grandpa John was an “Aqua Velva Man,” and I picked out a big bottle of aftershave for him.

Wouldn't Mom and Dad be surprised by the six tiny colored shotglasses from the shelves in the giftware section? They had a thick base and were gently blown in soft pastel hues.

Grandma would enjoy having a new blue apron, and maybe she'd be so thrilled, she'd use it to bake cookies with me.

I selected some animal erasers for my friend Bridget.

And I couldn't forget our orange tabby, who would have a box of Hartz Cat Treats under the tree.

And, of course, like any other shopper, I picked up a few extras in the hopes that I could cover the costs.

* * *

Arms overflowing, I took my haul to the very back of the store and sat down in the toy section on the cold, grey linoleum in the corner of two aisles. I spread my legs out on the dirty floor and put the presents in between them as I checked each pricetag.

I added and subtracted gifts for a long time, trying to make the combination of purchases come in under $20.

I added the numbers repeatedly and, when the sum finally came out to $19.75, I went back down the aisles, arms still full, to trade in the aftershave bottle for a smaller one and put the animal erasers back on the shelf.

There were presents for everybody, and I would even have a quarter left over for a candy bar to celebrate my success.

So proud of myself that I could barely believe what I was about to do, I walked tall as a grownup to the four checkout registers near the front by the door.

* * *

The long lines were full of holiday shoppers. I'd been in the store so long my overcoat was making me sweat. I'd already taken my hat and mittens off and stowed them in my coat pockets, but I couldn't take my coat off because my hands were full.

My arms began to ache as I stood in the long line, as I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. When it was finally my turn, I carefully handed each item to the check-out man. There were no conveyor belts in those days; you held your items until it was your turn to check out.

The Giant Store worker was dressed in a blue pinafore with red piping and a Giant Store patch hand-sewn near his name tag. All these shoppers had put him in an impatient mood.

He punched each item's price into his cash register, a huge machine and entirely mechanical in those days.

“That will be $20.38,” he said.

I panicked. How could this be? My stomach tied into knots, I knew that even with my dime to call home, I didn't have enough money.

I asked the store clerk to rip the receipt off the cash register so that I could look at it, hoping he had made a mistake.

He stood before me; arms crossed tightly across his chest with a frown on his face. I looked behind me at the long line of people waiting for their turn to check out, and I felt nausea rising in my body as I glanced over the purple ink on the receipt.

So familiar with the prices at this point, I recognized every charge on the receipt - except the last one.

In all my figuring, I had forgotten the money for Vermont state sales tax.

Sales tax was new to Vermont in 1969. I'd heard plenty of annoyed muttering about it from the adults in my life, but this was the first time it had affected me personally.

Now I knew what all the grumbling was about.

* * *

I didn't have enough money. What would the store do to me? Would they call the police? Would they call my parents? I began to anxiously check my pockets for more coins, but I found only the dime to call my father.

The amount on the register tape would need to equal the amount of money in the drawer each evening, so managers would need to mark mistakes and adjustments by hand on these rolls. Many times, I had heard my mother complain when the person in front of us realized they didn't have enough money and the store manager would have to come running.

“Why couldn't they plan better!” she would say in exasperation.

I was so proud of my math and my extensive planning. I was so sure I wouldn't be that person. I started to think about calling for the manager as I looked at the presents, wondering whose I could return.

Unexpectedly, I felt a tap on my shoulder from the tall man behind me in line. He was wearing a black overcoat and a grey fedora. He was a stranger. I wasn't supposed to talk to strangers.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, as he opened his hand in front of me. A shiny Kennedy half dollar lay on his palm.

“Take it,” he said with a grin, “I want to help.”

In an otherworldly fog, I handed the half dollar to the store clerk, eyes wide, trying to take in the moment. When the clerk handed me the change, I turned back to the stranger and offered it to him.

“Keep it,” he said with a warm smile.

* * *

I've never forgotten his care or the flood of relief that washed over my body with a heaping dose of Christmas cheer at the sight of the coin in his hand. This gesture of kindness had provided a panicked, inexperienced young shopper with a sense that people are good. I can still picture his face in my mind's eye over 50 years later.

Every December since that magical moment in the Giant Store, I've honored my benefactor's compassion by helping others in simple ways at Christmas time.

Sometimes I've slipped other young shoppers a few bucks when they've come up short at the register. Once I paid for a teenager's meal at McDonalds. When I was abroad for the past 10 years working at international schools in countries that didn't celebrate Christmas, I still found ways to honor my childhood Christmas angel.

Sometimes I would stash a beloved book into a child's backpack without a note. Other times I'd see a child in the streets, clearly living in poverty, and I'd simply stop on my bicycle on the ride home and offer small gifts of fruits or nuts.

By far, the most memorable holiday season was a few years back. I watched a boy of about 7 pleading with his mother for a pair of sturdy ski mittens that she had told him they couldn't afford. We were all strolling through a store in the USA. Stacks of warm winter clothing were all around us, and he'd found what he thought was the perfect pair.

“But Mom! I'm cold on the playground! I lost one mitten and that's my last pair!” he pleaded. “Please, will you buy them for me?”

She shook her head and walked away.

I snuck out from behind a display, looked the child in the eyes, and pressed a $20 bill into his hands.

“Hey! Take this! Buy the mittens! Merry Christmas!” I whispered to him.

He was too dumbstruck to respond as I slipped away into the crowd of shoppers. But did I hear him run to his mother and yell.

“Mom! Mom! Wait up!” he said. “You'll never believe this! Santa Claus is a woman!”

May the spirit of giving remain in your heart all year long.

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