I decided to finish my Christmas shopping last weekend. So, apparently, did nearly everyone else in Utah.

My feet and head took turns aching as I stood in line in department stores for up to 30 minutes at a time.I was just starting to feel sorry for myself in a very big way when the guy behind me at my final stop glanced at my glum face and smiled.

"You don't look very happy," he said. "Me, I'm glad I can go shopping this year. I think this is fun."

Fun? You've got to be kidding.

I was bored and he was pleasant, so we started talking. And pretty soon, others around us joined in.

It turns out that he was laid off two years ago from a job he'd had for a long time. His wife brought in just enough to meet most of the expenses.

Last year, he and his wife and their three kids didn't have much going for them in the money department. Christmas was, in his words, "skimpy." They hadn't wanted to ask anyone outside the family for help, which he later decided was too bad, because it wasn't the kids' fault they were having tough times.

Last April, he was rehired. His last-minute shopping trip was for the purpose of picking up "a few things" for a family he knew that was going to have a hard time this year because the father had been in the hospital.

That started the lady behind him talking.

She had looked as grouchy as I felt, but she perked up when he talked about the hospital. Her family has been healthy this year, she said, adding that she sometimes forgets to be grateful for that.

The conversation stayed with me after I'd made own way through the checkout stand. I passed the Salvation Army bell ringers and thought of all the services that agency provides to people in need. That started me thinking about people and needs in general. One thought just naturally led into another and another . . .

We had thousands of Utah families qualify for some kind of Christmas assistance this year, including Sub for Santa, Toys for Tots and Angel Tree. Each of those needy families has an individual story of how this Christmas got to be so tough. Many of the families are on welfare (and they don't apply for welfare because it would be fun to live in poverty for a while).

Divorce leads a lot of families to the welfare rolls. And with divorce I would list abandonment, since most of those on welfare are not receiving child support from a noncustodial parent. If those parents paid, fewer children would rely on welfare.

That means children are coping with the aftermath of seeing their parents - their anchors - split apart.

Some of the welfare families are there because a parent is severely disabled.

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That made me think of a fellow I knew who was severely burned when he was working on a smoke stack and a fireball blew up its inside wall. He lost both hands and a foot, his face was burned and he had repeated surgeries. One night, when he was having dinner with my roommate and me, he mentioned he felt sorry for someone else in the hospital burn unit.

It had never occurred to me that he would recognize there were people worse off than him. I'm usually too selfish to look beyond my own pain and it didn't occur to me that others were so much better at it.

I've been feeling sorry for myself this year because my father died, and I've been dreading Christmas without him. Today, I realized how lucky I was to have so many holidays with him. Many people don't have their parents around as long as I have.

It occurred to me that I, too, was blessed just to be able to stand in that long and slow-moving line. I was certainly lucky to be standing next to that cheerful man. Talk about impulse buying. I went in for sundries and ended up getting an attitude adjustment.

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