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THE CHRSTMAS I REMEMBER BEST

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It was the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence. Some of our questions had already been answered, and we were looking for some "new magic" in Christmas. Adults told us there was magic in giving. They suggested helping some poor and needy person. My best friend, Lynette, and I were not convinced, but we determined we would try it anyway. The problem was finding a poor and needy person. At Christmastime all of the good ones were already taken.

I asked my mother for help. Without hesitation she suggested Old Bill. I sighed. I was not thrilled about giving anything to Old Bill. I had a background with him that was not good.Bill was an old drunk who lived two doors down from us. His house, and the big lot surrounding it, were an enormous junk heap. Sharon, my friend across the street, had let her baby kittens wander onto his lot, and they were never seen again. Bill didn't even have indoor plumbing. We would sit in my back yard and snicker as we watched him stagger out to the outhouse.

I was frightened of Bill, too. Several years before, while running through a vacant lot near my home, I tripped over him, lying flat on his back, eyes open, passed out in a drunken stupor. When Bill walked down the street, usually going to and from the liquor store, all of us children would run inside our houses. Part of the reason was our fear of him, but the other reason was that he smelled so bad that we couldn't get within 100 feet of him and still breathe.

I didn't want to give anything to Bill for Christmas. Bill was not a poor and needy person. As far as I was concerned, Bill wasn't a person. He was lower than humanity. But as Christmas drew near, Lynette and I had no other choice. It had to be Bill or no one.

My mother suggested we fill a basket with nutritious food. Bill didn't eat properly, and she was concerned about his health. We gathered together some of my mother's home-canned vegetables and fruits, a loaf of homemade bread and some Christmas goodies baked by Lynette's mother. We topped it off with a bow. It was a beautiful basket, and we were proud of it.

A few days before Christmas, we went together to deliver the basket. It was early evening. Bill's house was set back in the lot, and it was a spooky walk through garbage to reach his door. We knocked. No answer. We knocked many times and finally the door opened. Bill stood in the doorway with bloodshot eyes and reeking with liquor and other smells.

"Go away," he barked.

My knees were shaking, but I forged ahead. "Merry Christmas!" I said as I pushed the basket toward him.

"I can't buy anything. I have no money."

"But it's free," I retorted.

"Nothing's free," he snapped.

"It's a Christmas present for you."

"Go away," he said again. He slammed the door in our faces.

We were no longer scared, we were angry. If we had gone to all that trouble to make Bill a Christmas basket, he was going to have it whether he liked it or not. We left it on the doorstep and stomped away. Where was that warm feeling that came from giving? "The best warm feeling I've felt at Christmas is when I got my new bike," Lynette said. We were sure adults had giving mixed up with receiving.

The next day, I returned home from school and was surprised to find Bill sitting with my mother in our kitchen. He had made an effort to clean himself up a little, even combed his hair. When I walked in, he cast his eyes down. Maybe he was ashamed. He ignored me and continued speaking to my mother.

"I feel bad about last night," he said. "I wasn't myself. I didn't realize that they were children from our neighborhood."

Was that a tear glistening in one eye?

"I liked the good food. I had the peaches this morning and the bread. Do you know my mother used to bake bread just like that for me." The tear slid out of his eye and down his cheek. He reached up with a shaky hand and brushed it away. It left a dirty smudge on his cheek. With that he pulled out a present wrapped in grimy paper and pushed it toward me.

To this day, I don't remember what was in that package. I only remember looking at Bill in my mother's kitchen and feeling confused. Up until then, the world was all black and white. There were good people and bad people, and Bill was certainly one of the bad people. All of the sudden he looked different. I blinked. I saw some mother's little boy. I couldn't comprehend that a dirty old drunk like Bill ever had a mother. I also saw a man who had given up part of a precious bottle to buy me a present.

After Christmas we visited Bill frequently. One day he did not answer. He was unconscious on the floor. Lynette's parents took him home and Lynette's mom, a nurse, cleaned him up. It took seven bathtubs full of water to get Bill clean. They encouraged Bill to get professional help. He did.

He didn't live many years after that, but during that time he was a valued friend. We helped him clean his yard and house, an impossible task. He'd ask with a twinkle in his eye if we'd like to share a beer - root beer. Bill presented all of us with gifts of lace he had tatted himself, a skill taught to him by his mother.

Lynette and I are each grown, married and we have a bunch of children between us. The bonds of friendship still pull us together now and then. Our Christmas seasons are busy and memorable. But sometimes I think of Bill and that Christmas, and I remember the announcement of the angels on the first Christmas.

"For behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."

That Christmas I learned that "all" included the Bills of this world, too. It is a lesson that I have never forgotten. And it all began with a Christmas basket.

*****

(Additional information)

"From the time I was a young girl, I liked to read and compose my own stories and poems," says Marie Poulson. "I used to daydream about being a published writer. My life is so filled with busy things that I seldom take time to write."

But she did take time to remember one Christmas in Springville, where she was born and reared, and that childhood experience became today's story.

Poulson graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor's degree in English and history, and she has a teaching certificate in secondary education. She and her husband, Salt Lake dentist Daniel S. Poulson, are parents of five children.