I chose to do my first year of college at a small school in southern Texas—sixteen hundred miles from home. Shirley was pregnant with our first child and had complications with her pregnancy. That meant we were unable to travel back to the Chicago area for the Christmas holidays. Even if she had been able to travel, we didn’t have the money.
I went to school on veteran’s benefits. By watching our finances closely, we survived. We regularly ate Kraft’s macaroni-and-cheese mixes, bought hurt cans and marked-down vegetables at the supermarket. Neither of us considered it a sacrifice. In many ways, it was an adventure.
Christmas season began on Tuesday and most of the afternoon the campus was a plethora of people rushing from place to place and cars driving out of the campus. The last students left early Wednesday morning. By Thursday, two days before Christmas, the classrooms were empty. They closed the library and locked the student dorms. No one would return for ten days. In the married couples’ dorm we were the only ones still on campus. We didn’t have a telephone and it was long before computers, so we depended on the postal service for connecting with our families.
I had checked out all the books from the library that I thought I might want during the holiday period. I looked forward to the opportunity to study without pressure.
On Christmas Eve, Shirley and I had a meal that was a mixture of a dented can of corn and an even more dented can of chili. Someone had given us a box of candles that had been “delicately used,” as the person said. Shirley had embroidered my initials on six new handkerchiefs. I had bought her a small bottle of cologne.
The church where we worshipped had a Christmas Eve service and we attended. Normally the church was full, but that night not more than thirty people came to the special service.
Christmas morning would be like any other day except we would have a nicer meal—meat loaf and baked sweet potatoes, food not normally on our diet.
About nine thirty, someone knocked on the door of our two-room apartment. I was shocked that anyone else was on campus. When I answered the door, the man smiled at me. We hadn’t met, but I knew his last name was Willard. He was one of the instructors at the college.
“I heard you two were here for the holidays,” he said.
“That’s right.” I invited him into our kitchen and to one of the four chairs we owned. I offered him a cup of coffee.
“No thanks,” he said. When he came into the room, he had a strange way of walking, almost as if he swayed from one foot to the other.
“I don’t want to stay,” Mr. Willard said. “I’m a bachelor and I want to take you two out for Christmas dinner.”
Shirley could hear us from the bedroom, where she had been lying down. She came into the room and grinned at me as I said, “We’d like that very much.”
“I came early because I didn’t know if you’d be preparing a big meal or had other plans to visit someone or—”
I laughed. “We have no plans.” I would have countered with an invitation to share our Christmas meal, but two small sweet potatoes wouldn’t be enough for three people.
“How about one o’clock? Is that all right?” After we nodded, he said, “I’ll come by and pick you up.”
He was five minutes early and we were ready. He took us to a fine Chinese restaurant. “They’re about the only ones open today,” he said.
I felt genuinely touched that he would take us out for Christmas dinner. We talked and slowly he told us about himself. He was a vet and had lost both legs in combat, which explained the strange way he walked. He shared a sad story about the woman he loved. She couldn’t stand to look at his legless body and broke off their engagement. “It hurt and I loved her,” he said, “but it’s better that she left before we married.”
For almost two hours we sat by the window and talked. I won’t say it was the best Christmas I ever had, but it was a special one.
When we reached our apartment, Shirley was nauseated and hurried inside. I sat in the car and talked with Mr. Willard for a few minutes.
“Thank you,” he said to me. “It means so much that you would spend part of your Christmas with me.”
I invited him to come inside, but he declined. As I walked into the building, I kept hearing his words inside my head. He had made Christmas Day special for us and yet he thanked us.
A few days later I again answered the knock on our door. Mr. Willard was there, this time in his wheelchair and without his artificial legs. One of his army friends had contacted him and they were going to West Texas for New Year’s.
I thanked him again for our Christmas dinner, and he held out his hand to shake mine. As I leaned down toward him, he embraced me and whispered, “You two made this a special Christmas. I was so depressed, I wondered if life was worth living.”
I stared at him and felt the moisture in my eyes. I don’t remember the words between us, but I do remember he pulled me down to his level and embraced me. He released me, backed up his wheelchair, and left.
I never had Mr. Willard as an instructor and I never saw him again. The following year I transferred to the Chicago area. I can’t even remember his first name. What I do remember is how special he made Christmas for a young, impoverished couple. And to make it even more wonderful, he thanked us.
I’ve learned many lessons about Christmas, but this is one I treasure. He gave to us and yet he seemed to get more pleasure out of the giving than we did out of the receiving. That truly is the Christmas spirit, isn’t it?
Copyright © 2011 by Cecil Murphey and Marley Gibson
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