By Christina Maxwell
Distinguished Young Woman of America for 2012
My dad is one of the most influential people in my life. One of the things that is most unique to him is his gift for writing and telling stories. They manage to oftentimes nudge me in the right direction in life and serve as a comfort for me. A few years ago, he shared this story with me and every year around Christmas time, it reminds me of the spirit of the season. Here is the story, as told to me by my dad:
When I was in high school, I had a job at Jackson’s IGA in Pink Hill, North Carolina, bagging groceries. I worked there often during the winter when there was less work to do on the farm.
One year, we were planning to have Santa in our store for the kids on Saturday before Christmas. For more than a week, I reminded parents and kids as I took their groceries to their car that Santa would be in the store on that particular Saturday. I found myself looking forward to seeing the eager faces and looks of wonder when they came into the store and saw Santa.
When I arrived at the store that particular Saturday, I was crushed to learn that the scheduled Santa was unable to make it. But it was even more unbelievable to learn there was no back up plan. All I could think about was all those kids that I had encouraged to return and how disappointed they would be. “How can Santa just not show up?” I kept asking myself. Finally, I had an idea. If no one would step up, maybe our store manager would let ME be Santa. He not only agreed but he also let me use his car to drive the 40 mile round trip to Kinston where Mrs. Lib Watson turned a very skinny 6′ tall, 160 pound kid into Santa Claus. Pulling her late husband’s Santa suit from storage, she used every pillow, sheet and towel in the house to help me fill it up. I still imagine what must have been going through motorists minds that morning as they saw Santa flying by in a brown 1975 El Camino! Although Santa would be late, he would NOT be a no-show!
I enjoyed every moment of my store job that day. The excitement on the faces of the kids was the perfect reward for a frantic morning and the sweltering environment inside that suit. But there was a side story developing that day that became more meaningful to me in my adult years. Early afternoon, an old black gentleman walked into the store and towards my direction. Although I didn’t know his name at the time, I had seen this man many times making the short walk along NC Highway 11 into town and back home again. I knew where he lived – an old, unpainted, deteriorating plank sided house with a rusty tin roof – but, being a busy white kid with places to go and too many things to do, we didn’t run in the same circles and this was the first time I had seen him this close.
“Well Merry Christmas, young man!” I exclaimed. “What do you want Santa to bring you this Christmas?”
“You never come to see me at Christmas. Why would I ask for anything?” He stopped and stared at me with no particular emotion on his face that I can recall. I was stunned and heartbroken at the same time. How can anyone feel that way at Christmas time I wondered? Not knowing exactly how to respond, I quickly said with a confidence that surprised even me:
“I don’t come to see everyone on Christmas day. Sometimes I come at other times of the year when you don’t expect me. It may be small but I always come, because I always care.”
He nodded his head as if to say “good day” and moved on through the store. The powerful moment was soon lost on this 16 year old as more kids came in to see “Santa.” As I was finishing up with a kid giving me his robust wish list, I noticed a quiet, still figure over my left shoulder. When I turned, I saw the old man politely, patiently waiting to see Santa again. This time, it was his turn to talk.
“Santa, I thought about what you said and I know it’s true. I should be thankful. I got to thinking about how you do all the giving and you probably never get anything from anyone, so here.” He extended a small brown paper bag. I took it and pulled out a quart of eggnog. Unlike our first encounter, I was speechless. This gentle spirit who had not known material prosperity, took from his own meager purse and bought something for a stranger. He was giving what he could from a sincere heart. When I finally composed myself and turned to speak, he was gone.
I’ve learned to appreciate that story more now as an adult. So at Christmas, I choose to honor Mr. Branch’s memory. I want others to know the lessons I’ve learned from his simple act. Each year, I choose 11 people (in memory of his walks along Highway 11) to receive a quart of eggnog in a brown paper bag with this story attached. I ask each person to share this story and a quart of eggnog – in a brown paper bag of course – with two other people (one a friend and one a stranger) because this story began with two people from very different worlds.
There is something about the holiday season that suddenly brings things into focus. With Bing Crosby’s rendition of White Christmas playing out of nearly every speaker in existence, red Salvation Army bells ringing in nearly every street corner and beautifully sculpted and reverently arranged life-size nativity scenes standing in front of churches hemmed with garland and candles, it’s as if a contagious generosity, usually smothered by the hectic pace of life, suddenly thrives. Not only does this generosity thrive, but it is no longer limited to the people we normally notice. We begin to notice the people who the world oftentimes forgets or dismisses because they live in the shadows of our society, people like Mr. Branch.
Who is in the shadows of your life? Is it the guy who sits quietly and somberly in the back of your Psychology class, afraid to talk to anyone? Is it the homeless woman who you always pass on your way to the gym, but never acknowledge? Is it the friendly but lonely old man who swipes your Student I.D. card in the dining hall each day? My dad reached out to someone who often went unnoticed. He was amazed by all that Mr. Branch had to offer. Because of Mr. Branch, my dad now reaches out to more people every Christmas. You never know at first glance what you can learn from someone. This holiday season, may we reach out in a spirit of uninhibited giving not limited by the lines we have perhaps unknowingly drawn. I think we may be surprised by what we learn and that in giving, we do indeed receive.
Christina Maxwell is a college freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan majoring in Musical Theatre. Originally from Asheville , North Carolina, Christina was a participant in the Distinguished Young Women program and was selected as the Distinguished Young Woman of North Carolina for 2012 and the Distinguished Young Woman of America for 2012. Learn more about Christina here!