Giving Back, Getting Back

By Jeffery Cohen

Giving Back, Getting Back

“What about this one?” I asked my wife as I pulled a Douglas fir away from the wooden rack it was resting against and shook off the ice crystals that coated its branches.

“Looks good to me,” she answered. So I tied the tree onto the top of the car and headed for home. As I set it up in the corner of the living room, my wife stacked boxes of ornaments she retrieved from the attic. With each delicate decoration that was lifted out, a memory was attached.There were a few delicate glass balls, survivors from our childhoods, still intact. Homemade angels crudely glued together by our children reminded us of those days when the twins scampered happily around the Christmas tree. Now, there was only my wife and I to celebrate. We began to feel just how empty a house can become on a holiday. Our folks had passed away. Our children had moved away. The grandkids were just visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads as we listened to their tiny voices over the phone from the other side of the country.

We debated whether to have a turkey or ham for our holiday dinner.

“It’s just the two of us,” my wife said. “That’s an awful lot of food for just two people.” But we both knew it wasn’t the size of the meal that concerned us. It was the loneliness we’d be dining in.

“Maybe we should do something different this year,” my wife suggested. She handed me a newspaper with an article headlined, “Giving Back.” It was a story of a man in town and his wife who prepared Christmas dinner in the basement of a local church for anyone who’d like to come. “It says they can use all of the help they can get. What do you think?” 

I remembered my father telling me of lean years during the Depression when he was far away from home. He’d spent one Christmas at a city mission, sharing dinner with a host of fellow travelers down on their luck. It was one of the sweetest meals he said he’d ever eaten.

We couldn’t think of a happier way to spend the holiday. We slipped into our winter coats, pulled woolen caps onto our heads and headed out. It was cold and gray, and biting winds spat sprays of icy flakes in every direction. What began as a dusting had now gained strength, and large white flakes poured over the streets and sidewalks as we cowered behind upturned collars. Turning the corner, we came upon a hand written  sign that simply said, “Free Holiday Dinner Inside – Join us.”

We opened the door and were ushered inside by a gust of wind, which abruptly slammed the door shut behind us. We stood in a large room. Over an ill-matched tile floor, tables and folding chairs had been carefully arranged. Through a doorway, a handful of people buzzed about the kitchen, emptying pots of hot food into waiting aluminum pans.

“Welcome brother.” A tall, lanky man in a green and black plaid shirt and blue jeans purred. With the hint of a smile, he placed his hand on my shoulder. “Name’s Jim. Will you be joining us for dinner?”

“We came to volunteer,” I explained.

“Terrific. We can always use more help. Just grab yourself an apron over there, and we’ll put you to work.” He winked. “Folks should be arriving anytime now.” As he finished his words, a line of shy figures began skulking through the doorway, shaking off crystals of winter as they entered.

He ushered me over to a serving station where he instructed me to lay one scoop of mashed potatoes next to the slices of turkey as each tray passed down the line. Side by side, people shuffled, their grateful eyes hiding behind empty plates – a sad parade of the lost and forgotten in search of a hot meal and a little company. Tattered, torn and shredding at the edges with no place else to go, they came to celebrate the warmth of the holiday.

With every outstretched hand, I realized how lucky we’d been. As I happily dished out dinner, my wife welcomed newcomers at the door, ushering them to a table and wishing them a happy holiday.

“Gravy?” A voice called out. “Can I get a little gravy here?” A leather-faced woman with a missing tooth asked, as her frail finger pointed to her plate. “Hard to find good help on Christmas,” she cackled to those around her and was answered by a chorus of giggles down the line. Then she flashed the most serene smile. “And we’re sure lucky to have you. You’ll never realize just how much you’ve given us.”

As I gazed around the room at the smiling faces and listened to their laughter, I realized that we were the lucky ones. We had gotten back far more than we could ever give.

About this writer

  • Jeffery Cohen Freelance writer and newspaper humor columnist, Jeffery Cohen, has written for Sasee, Lifetime and Read, Learn, Write. He’s won awards in Women-On-Writing Contest, Vocabula’s Well Written Contest, National League of American Pen Womens’ Competition, Southern California Genealogy Competition, and Writer’s Weekly writing contest.

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One Response to “Giving Back, Getting Back”

  1. Erika Hoffman says:

    You grab the reader’s attention with the first question regarding the ornaments for the tree. Everyone can identify with that. Then, as the story progresses, you elicit empathy. Baby boomers nod as you describe the loneliness of missing parents, long distance kids, and now grandkids who are voices on the phone rather than present in the flesh. Yet, you and your wife come up with a solution which saves the day and helps others, in keeping with the spirit of the holiday. Your apt details make the scenes come alive. I see you have won many awards, and I understand why: You tell an emotional story without being maudlin or clichéd.

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