Life's best gifts often disguised

Memory of unpleasant holiday past now remembered with laughter, thanks

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2000

It's the gift-giving season, with packages of all variety of shapes and sizes. Made by a child with plenty of tape and glue; ornately crafted by a skilled jeweler. Some gifts fit perfectly; others have to be exchanged.

Several years ago I received a completely unexpected gift. Coming from someone I'd never met and lacking fancy ribbon or bows, it dealt a powerful punch that left me spinning.

I have given and received other gifts since then. Some I remember clearly; some gather dust in the dark corners of holidays past. But every year that particular gift brings clarity to a season overshadowed by commercialism and misplaced motives. It demands meaning of the gifts I give.

And it adds value to the people I know and the people I don't.

That year my two daughters were students at the University of Oregon. Due to last-minute plans to bring them home and thousands of others traveling over Thanksgiving weekend, Jennifer and Emily didn't arrive until the day after Thanksgiving. We simply shifted all our plans to Friday.

Helping others less fortunate than myself is something I've taken very seriously and worked hard to instill in my daughters. We've cooked and served Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to those without family or food. We've packed food baskets and shopped for children whose names we found on department store Christmas trees. We've shared our home with those who lacked shelter.

So I was thrilled that year to discover that a Kenai church was hosting a big day-after-Thanksgiving dinner. The timing was perfect. We had our dinner with family and friends early Friday afternoon. While we ate, I slid an additional green bean casserole in the oven so we'd have something to take to Kenai.

Our friend Sam decided to join us. Bundled up against the evening cold, excited with our charitable intent, the four of us headed north. The smell of the hot casserole filled the car, mixing with the anticipation of bringing joy to others.

At the church, a crowd of like-minded well-wishing individuals spread counter tops and tables with turkeys, hams, vegetables, salads and desserts. There was plenty of coffee to ward off the winter chill and pitchers of juice for all the children. We decorated the room, stacked plates and napkins and set out silverware. When we were finished, we opened the door, eagerly anticipating a crowd of appreciative unfortunates.

We waited, but no one came.

We nibbled at food, humbly complimenting each other on recipes. We poured coffee for ourselves and juice for the children. And we continued to wait.

And then one man walked through the door.

He was wrapped in layers of assorted clothing which protected him against the freezing outdoor temperatures. An old scarf was wrapped tightly around his unshaven face. As the heat of the room instantly warmed him, his long, hawkish nose began to drip.

We surrounded him. Helped him with his coat. Led him to a chair. Filled his plate. Poured him something to drink.

Then we filled our plates and refilled his. Served him more coffee. Brought him pie. Took turns sitting with him and introducing ourselves.

When an opening appeared at his table, my daughters, Sam and I joined him. Introducing ourselves, we waited to hear his name.

"I know your people," he said to me, in a rather loud and accusing voice.

Smiling and nodding, I proudly assumed the familiarity was because my family has lived on the peninsula for many years. But he said he remembered one of my family members crossing paths with the police.

I flinched as he told the story, others in the room witnessing my red-faced embarrassment.

When he stopped for a bite of food, I glanced at my daughters, hoping my weak smile would assure them the worst was over. But our guest was far from finished.

"What did you bring?" he asked, looking at the food on his plate.

I proudly answered that I'd brought the green bean casserole. He curled his lip. Obviously it wasn't his favorite dish. How dare he be so picky, I thought.

"What do you do?" he asked, his voice increasing in volume.

I described where I worked, talking softly, hoping to communicate that quiet was better than loud.

"Why aren't you home taking care of your kids?" he shouted, nodding at my daughters, turning his voice up yet another notch.

I explained that my daughters were in college.

"What's your husband do?" he bellowed, indicating Sam.

"That's not my husband," I whispered, really trying hard to be nice, but beginning to feel anything but friendly.

"No wonder!" he screamed back, obviously judging me unworthy of a marital partner.

At that moment I caught sight of a cleanup crew moving into action, wrapping up food, washing dishes and wiping off tables. Like a condemned prisoner who suddenly discovers an escape route, I bolted from the table and joined the effort, eager to distance myself from that rude and ungrateful man.

The evening finally came to an end. Jennifer, Emily, Sam and I found our coats and said our good-byes. We were almost out the door when the guest spotted me. As I stepped into the cold, clear winter night, he fired one last parting shot. It hit my ego dead center, putting my overly serious charitable attitude out of its misery.

"Good night, bean head," he shouted, his booming voice seemingly echoing back from the distant stars.

My daughters and friends and I still chuckle over that story. The words of that holiday guest still ring in my ears, causing me to laugh at frequent bouts of self-righteousness. They remind me that gifts aren't ribbons or bows or dollars and cents.

And they can't be measured by the attitude of the recipient.

The only true gift is the one from the heart.

McKibben Jackinsky is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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