A 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 that 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 but then forgot about them 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 our annual Christmas dinner. As we drove down the highway through town, I noticed that 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 into the service station, I saw that 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 very tall and had to stoop slightly to peer into the car.
Jill, Sharon, and I stared at the children, and they stared back at us.
“You waiting on the bus?” my father asked.
The man said that they were. They were going to Birmingham, where he had a brother and prospects of a job.
“Well, that bus isn’t going to come along for several hours, and you’re getting wet standing here. Winborn’s just a couple miles up the road. They’ve got a shed with a cover there, and some benches,” my father said. “Why don't y’all get in the car and I’ll run you up there.”
The man thought about it for a moment, and then he beckoned to his family. They climbed into the car. They had no luggage, only the clothes they were wearing.
Once they 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 that he was having trouble finding 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.”
All at once, the three children's faces lit up, and they began to bounce around in the back seat, laughing and chattering.
When we got out of the car at our house, the three children ran through the front door and 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 that 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. Even when we all tried to talk them into coming, they were firm in their decision.
Back in the car, on the way to Winborn, 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 two dollars, which was all he had left until his next payday. He 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 these 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 family.”
We left them there at the bus stop in Winborn. As we drove away, I watched out the window as long as I could, looking back at the little gihugging her new doll.