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Simple Treasures



Rainy days are not any fun. Sam and his little brother Jim knew this all too well. The constant rain for the past week forced the two boys to resort to other means of entertainment. Both of the boys would have loved to play in the snow, like they saw on the TV shows about Christmas. But the TV and Christmas Cards were the only places they saw snow.

It had been raining for several days, and the constant rain killed any thought of going outside, resulting in them being stuck indoors playing games. The boys sat at the table and looked out the window shaking their heads as they sat at the kitchen table playing “Chutes and Ladders”. For a change they were not accusing each other of cheating. Not at this time of year. They both knew that they must be on their best behavior because Christmas was near.

Their mother, Pam, was happy it was not snowing. If all the rain had been snow it would be piled up to the roof by now. She knew her sons were struggling to behave themselves, and she had an idea to keep them occupied. It was time for her to start baking the traditional Christmas cookies, and both the boys were old enough to help. They jumped up and started to clear the table when she went into the kitchen to ask them if they would like to help with the cookies.

She told them to change clothes to avoid getting their good shirts smeared with cookie dough and food coloring. Pam was delighted to see how her boys were growing into such well-behaved young men. When she looked around the neighborhood, it was clear that not all the kids were troublemakers, but there were a lot of kids that seemed to look for ways to get into trouble. Her husband, John, worked shift work at the local refinery. This meant he was on rotating shifts, and was often not at home or asleep when the boys came home from school.

The work schedule did not know what weekends were. The operations at the refinery were 24/7, and John was hardly ever home for an entire weekend. Only on the rare occasions when the shift change worked out that way, did he get to spend a weekend with his family. When he was at home, he did his best to live up to the expectations of his wife and all the parenting magazines she read. Pam could see that John was doing all he could to provide the boys with a proper male model. Judging from the visible results, it must be enough, as she always got compliments from everyone they knew about how well behaved they were. That was why she wanted to have them start to be a part of the Christmas preparations. They were old enough to start to understand the true meaning of Christmas.

Sam was 9, almost 10, and Jim was all of 7 years old. They were old enough to know all of Santa’s secrets. Pam told them it was important to keep those secrets from the little boys and girls, because it was all part of the CHRISTMAS MAGIC. Both of the boys could remember well, how just a few years ago it was them that could not wait to get a minute atop Old Santa’s knee, to whisper in his ear the list of gifts they hoped to receive. Oh yes, those were special times with wonderful memories of trying to see where Santa hid the secret spies, the little elves, that made reports to him when they were “NAUGHTY”. Now that they were older and had learned all about Santa’s secrets, they were a bit sad that the MAGIC was no longer as powerful as it had once been. Just like watching a magic trick on TV, if you knew the secret, it was no longer magic.

Sam and Jim were old enough to know all the secrets behind the MAGIC that Santa used. They knew that the department stores all used local men dressed up to pretend they were Santa. But they did not try to spoil the joy and the thrill for the little children. They both would stand in the toy department to watch the young children waiting in long lines to spend just a few moments atop Santa’s lap. The young children’s eyes were actually gleaming, and they would be jumping up and down on tiptoes as they came to the front of the line.

As young as they were, they felt how the magic of Christmas was slipping away. Too many young children were openly questioning the magic, as if a “GRINCH” was running around stealing the joy. They wanted to restore the MAGIC and wonder to the season. But what could they do? They were just two young boys stuck in the house on a rainy December day. Remembering the wonderful times of their childhood Christmases was one reason they were eager to help overcome the dreary, rainy day and make this Christmas a joyful time.

They learned from their parents that the true Christmas spirit was much more than Santa, reindeer, bright lights and stacks of festively wrapped gifts under a beautifully decorated evergreen tree. Their parents always stressed that the true spirit of Christmas was in your heart. Every year they watched their mother make all the delightful Christmas cakes and cookies, so it was really exciting to be asked to help decorate the Christmas cookies. They had watched the procedure many times and were sure they could do a good job “painting” the sugar cookies that were cut with special cutters that were kept hidden all year, only to be brought out for this one special occasion. Making cookies may not bring back the joy of the season to everyone, but it did dispel the gloomy atmosphere of a gray, rainy day.

By the time the boys returned to the kitchen, their mother had a batch of dough rolled out, started to cut the different shaped designs out, and was placing them on cookie sheets for the boys to decorate. There were cookies shaped like Santa with a big sack full of toys, some shaped like two big bells with a bow holding them together, and a special Christmas tree cutter that had a star on the top, and outlines of ornaments and garland to make the cookie-tree appear decorated. There were some shaped like stars with a long tail, and of course some shaped like angels. The bowls of color were already set up, and there were bundles of Q-tips to be used. The colors were just simple food coloring diluted with water, that was why Pam asked the boys to put on old T-shirts, in the event the color ended up in places other than the cookies.

Sam took one sheet of cookies, Jim took the other, and they both started to “paint” the cookies using Q-tips to apply the food color to the raw dough. Gently they moved the Q-tips over the soft cookie dough. Their mother had cautioned them not to “scrub” too hard, as it would not look good when it was baked. The first trays of cookies were soon decorated and placed in the oven to cook. While the oven performed its magic of transforming the soft dough into hot aromatic cookies, Pam worked getting the next batch ready for the young artists.

As if Pam had a built-in timer, she always retrieved the cookies from the oven at just the right moment, preventing them from scorching the bright colors or getting a dark brown edge. With each new sheet of cookies, the boys became more creative in their artwork. With great pride, spurred on by healthy sibling rivalry, they experimented with different color combinations. They tried outlining the shapes with one color, then filling in with a different color, or used colors for objects that were not traditional, like a blue Santa or a red Christmas tree. Each cookie took on a distinct and unique appearance. All afternoon this cycle repeated itself, until two huge cookie jars were filled. Before she put the lids on the jars, Pam put an apple half in each jar to keep the cookies moist and add a special aromatic flavor. The cookies needed a few days to “rest” before they could be packaged with some of the other seasonal treats that Pam had prepared to be given to friends and neighbors

The following weekend was as cold and wet as the one before, and Sam and Jim were both looking out the window wishing it would snow. Their mother decided that the cookies had aged enough to be packed and delivered. Pam had been collecting small boxes and small tin cans for the past two months to be used to pack the cookies and candy as gifts. She told her sons, “You send Christmas cards to friends and family that you can’t visit, but you always go to visit the homes of the friends, neighbors, and family that live nearby. Christmas is a time to share the blessing of the year. That is why we bring gifts,” she explained, while she gathered all the wrapping paper, bows, boxes and containers to be filled with the festive cakes, cookies and candy. The process of finding just the right sized container for the person in mind took Pam a lot of time. Not everyone got the same assortment or the same quantity. Family got large tin containers filled with a large assortment, while close friends got a smaller box and not as much, and neighbors would receive a small box filled with a few nice colored cookies and some of her fudge. Each container, whether large or small, was carefully wrapped and a card with a personalized note was attached.

The afternoon turned out to be better weather. It stopped raining, and the sun was trying to break through the leaden, gray cloud cover. The streets were still wet. The open storm drains were filled and appeared to be raging torrents. Pam told Sam to get the little red wagon to haul the packages. They bundled up in heavy quilted jackets to protect them from the blustering wind that whipped the water puddles, creating rippling waves. It only made sense to start at the home next door. At the homes of relatives, they received gifts in return. At houses of those not related, they were warmly greeted and heartfelt hugs were exchanged along with repeated chanting of “Merry Christmas”.

Sam was awed at the way each family greeted them. He knew that the simple cookies were not anything like the ones you could buy in the supermarket, yet to the people they gave them to, it seemed they were the most special gift anyone could bring. At each house they would be invited in to share something to drink or eat some candy and cookies that were on large plates on the kitchen table. When they were at a home of a distant relative, they would be presented a gift from under the big, decorated Christmas tree. They would store the new gift in the wagon before they headed off to the next home.

“I sure hope mom does not intend to go to the spooky house”, Sam whispered in Jim’s ear. All the kids in the area called the old house far down the block the “SPOOKY HOUSE.” It was an old house, over one hundred years old, and in dire need of some paint on the outside. It was the only house in the area that never got visited on Halloween because a witch lived there. They saw that their mother was steadily heading in that direction. Each stop brought them one house closer.

Sam tugged at his mother’s coat, “Don’t go to that house. A witch lives there and she might do something terrible to you,” he whined.

Pam could not restrain her laughter. “You kids are afraid of this place,” she said while pointing to the old structure. “Come on! I promise I won’t let the witch do anything to hurt you,” she continued as she dragged her sons behind her up to the porch.

A black cat, napping on a dilapidated porch swing, jerked its head up to scrutinize the trio with its big yellow-green eyes. Pam stepped up and knocked on the rusty screen door that hung slightly ajar. The noise caused the cat to spring from the swing and run off to the shelter of the overgrown shrubbery. Pam waited for a long while before she knocked a second time. Jim was fidgeting and trying to get his mother’s attention, “No one’s home, let’s get out of here,” he said in a whispered voice filled with fearful foreboding. Pam knocked one more time, harder this time.

“I’m coming, I’m coming. Just give me a second,” a wizened old voice rasped out from behind the old door. The sound of locks and latches being opened and a safety chain being slipped out of its latch could be heard. The big weather worn door slowly opened with the moaning sound of a rusty hinge. Sam and Jim were pulling away ready to run for their lives, as visions of “Hansel and Gretel” flashed through their heads, when a weathered hand pushed the screen door open. The figure of an old woman hunched over holding a walking stick in one hand while she tried to open the screen door confirmed the boys’ belief of a witch living in the old house.

“Oh dear, Martha, let me help you!” exclaimed Pam, as she reached out to help open the screen door. “You look like you have not been feeling well. I have not seen you out and about for a few days. Is everything alright?” Pam inquired. She had her arms wrapped around the two boys, and was holding them tightly against her side.

The old woman looked up to greet Pam, and shook her head in a slow sideways motion. She made a beckoning gesture with her free hand and said, “I have not gone out because of all the rain, Pam. My boys have been by to check on me, and I give them lists of things I need, so I am ok. So these are your boys? My, they are growing fast, dear. I am so happy you brought them along with you. It’s always nice to have company. Please come on back to the part of the house I manage to keep heated,” Martha said with considerable effort through her labored breathing.

They passed from the barren gloom of the old front room into a cozy, warm living room with a fireplace and a Christmas tree that dominated the corner of the room. The furniture was old but in good condition and the air was pungent with the smell of freshly baked bread. “Please sit down and have a cup of tea. I don’t get many visitors, and it is so nice to have someone to chat with, and catch up on the local gossip,” she wheezed as she shuffled her feet into the quaint kitchen filled with loaves of freshly baked bread. “Please excuse the mess. I have been busy baking bread for the big charity dinner tomorrow. They will be picking it up soon. I always bake bread for them. It makes me think about how in the Bible the bread was divided and fed the multitudes. At this time of year I just feel compelled to give to those that have less than I have,” she continued, as she brewed the tea in an ornate pot stained from frequent usage.

Pam went into the kitchen to assist the old woman. “I know how you feel about Christmas, Martha. It is a time to give to others in the true spirit of giving. You bake bread and I always bake cookies for the neighbors. We could open the box of cookies to go along with the tea, if that is ok with you,” Pam suggested, while she took the teapot from the old lady to assist her in serving the hot beverage. Pam started to chuckle. “You know what I found out today? My boys explained why you did not have anyone come to your door on Halloween. Everyone thinks this is a haunted house and you are some old witch like in ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ I had to promise them that it was safe to come here!” she exclaimed while fighting to avoid laughing out loud.

“Oh dear! I never thought about how the house looks to someone else. Never thought it might look like some old haunted house. Now that you mention it, I guess it sort of resembles what you see in the scary movies. But it is just my home, and it was my father’s home before that. It does need some fixing up, I guess. But you know I don’t get out much anymore, so I just do not notice how the place looks. You boys need to tell all your friends that if I am an old witch, I am one of them good ones. I suppose I do not present an image much better than this old house. I am old, and my bad back makes me hunch over. I bet I do look like one of those storybook witches. I sure do not look like I did back when I was your age, Pam,” the old lady reminisced letting out a chuckle.

Pam sipped her tea and smiled. “Martha you are one of the sweetest women I know. From the first time I worked with you at the homeless shelter serving Christmas dinner to those poor hungry people, I have known you to be the most giving person around. It was a big shock to me when I learned that you were no longer healthy enough to stand on the serving line. Yet you always provided fresh baked bread for the hungry souls. That is one reason I wanted my children to meet you,” she stated. “I wanted them to see that it is wrong to judge things by what they look like on the outside. Often the true treasure is deep within. But there is a second reason I am here. Everyone at the shelter is very concerned about you. They wanted me to check up on you, and make sure you are doing ok. They wanted to give you a gift for Christmas, and they all decided that your house needs a new paint job. Everyone knows you have had a lot of setbacks, and that you are not able to do the work alone. But I guess my boys said it best when they were afraid to come to the door,” Pam continued in a caring tone, as she reached out her hand to take Martha’s hand.

“Oh Pam, what can I say? I just can’t believe that anyone would want to do all that work for me. I must admit that the old house does need some Tender Loving Care. I don’t get out much, so I just don’t see the way it looks to other people,” mused Martha. “If they want to paint, I will make sure they do not go hungry,” she asserted, as she squeezed Pam’s hand in a gesture of thanks.

“Great, Martha! The guys at the shelter will be here tomorrow to get started. I wish we could just wave a magic wand and make it happen overnight, but as you know all too well, this is the real world where things have to be done with the sweat of your brow. I will be here to help you with the meals, and I am sure my boys will help out with serving,” Pam explained while sipping on her second cup of tea. Pam’s sons were looking around in amazed awe at all the photos that covered most of the available wall space. Martha was in all of them shaking hands with people that looked to be very important. In some of the photos she was holding up one end of a huge check that represented money donated for the homeless shelter. “All those photos of you with the Mayor and Congressmen really do show how long you have been working to help those that need help. That is why everyone at the shelter is eager to come out and help you. So if it is ok with you, the workers will be here first thing in the morning to start prepping the house for a fresh coat of paint,” Pam concluded as she started to gather her purse and coat.

“Pam, you can assure everyone working they will get the best meal they have ever had. That is the least I can do to thank everyone for giving me this wonderful gift,” Martha choked out between a violent coughing spell. “I just can’t say thank you enough,” she repeated over and over as she escorted her visitors to the front door.

The next morning just after sunrise, Pam knocked on Martha’s door. When Martha opened the door she was amazed to see over forty men and women gathered in her yard.

The sun had just cleared the horizon and it glared in her eyes making it hard to see, but she saw enough to know that a lot of people had assembled to work on her house.

Pam came up to the door followed by Sam and Jim. She shook Martha’s hand and said they needed to get busy making coffee while these good people strip the old paint off her house. Then she turned to the group and shouted, “No one gets any coffee until the paint is stripped!” The statement was met with a laugh. As the work group scattered in different directions armed with paint scrapers, sandpaper, hammers and other tools that would be required to prep the old wooden siding for a new coat of paint, Pam and her sons went into the old house to start making coffee. The noise of the workers outside could not be overheard. Even with such a big crew, it took a lot more than just a few hours to remove all the paint that had managed to cling to the old house.

Pam carried a big box of cookies and candy to be served with the coffee and hot tea. Big thermoses were placed on folding tables just off the porch in order to prevent loose flakes of paint from getting into the food. As each team finished a section of the house, they came to the serving tables to grab some coffee and a snack before they started on the next section. Big cups of coffee or tea were offered to each in turn, and they grabbed a handful of cookies to boost their energy levels. Everyone took a minute to admire the progress made thus far, and each came by Martha and shook her hand, telling her how they considered this just one small way they could repay her for all she had done to keep the shelter going over the years. Many said that she had provided them with a home, and it was a labor of love to help fix up her home. Sam was stunned at the way the homeless men and women were moved to tears as they drank the coffee and ate the cookies before starting the next section.

Pam went back into the kitchen to help Martha prepare the next meal. Fresh bread was cooling on the counter. A big pot was on the gas range ready to receive all the ingredients. Pam had gone to the local supermarket and explained the project to the manager and he had arranged for her to pick up boxes of supplies to help make the meals. Fresh vegetables and beef were brought to the house by store employees. Disposable bowls and plastic forks, knifes and spoons were stacked on the end of one big table outside. A big group can prep a big house in a short time. The teams of workers took turns to eat lunch. The little groups of homeless would huddle at a table and talk to Martha, letting her know how much she was missed, and they assured her that when they were finished her house would be the best looking house on the street.

The old structure needed a lot of prepping, and darkness comes early in December, requiring the workers to work hard and fast. The self appointed foreman made a final inspection of the work done, and thanked everyone for a job well done. Everyone sat outside at tables full of food that Martha and Pam had worked all afternoon preparing. Exhaustion kept the mood quiet. The food was eagerly consumed. Everyone agreed that Martha had kept her word-- it was the best meal they had ever had. Sam thought that was strange, because it was nothing more than bean soup with a little ham, a tossed green salad and some fresh baked bread with butter. The group leader turned to Martha and told her that the sanding was done, and they would start with the primer early the next day. The old lady could not say a word but she wrapped her arms around the man and hugged him, and whispered “Thank You” through a coughing sob.

All the workers returned the next day with the morning light. Quickly they were divided into small groups and armed with paint rollers, brushes, paint pans and buckets. Each group was assigned a section of the house. The thick, gray primer went on quickly. Each sweep of the rollers dramatically changed the appearance of the old house. The groups would stop for coffee and grab a handful of cookies each time they had to move to a new section. Martha and Pam kept the coffee and tea hot. Sam and Jim made sure the plates with food were never empty. The work was really progressing rapidly. By two O’clock the entire house was completely covered with the light gray primer. As each group of painters finished and cleaned up, they came by the serving table and were given a large bowl of stew, thick with fresh vegetables. There were baskets of fresh bread and butter. Soft drinks, hot tea, and coffee were available at the end of the serving line. The yard was filled with conversations and everyone was commenting on how much better the house looked already. To some it seemed like a miracle that the weather had turned out to be so nice.

The sun was bright and there was no trace of the dark clouds that had plagued the area for the past few weeks. A light breeze carried the smell of smoke from the chimney of one of the houses down the block. Martha hobbled over to one of the tables where Pam and a group of the older men were seated. “Everyone, I just want to say once again how happy I am that you are working so hard to paint this old house. It means more than I can ever express. You see I was born in this house. I have lived here all my life. It was my father’s house. He had it built just before he got married to my mother. When I got married, my father let us live upstairs for very low rent, and when my parents died I took over the house. Both of my sons grew up in this house, but they live in their own homes in different cities and can’t come home to visit very much. They have been coming around a bit more often now that I am getting too old to go out shopping on my own. They have their own families and jobs that take up all their time, so I do not get to see them much anymore. Pam, every year when you bring your box of brightly decorated cookies over I always take some of them and put them into the box I send to my sons as a little reminder of the love shared by the people on the street they grew up on. Yes, they still remember those cookies,” Martha managed to choke out the last sentence as she fought back tears.

After everything was cleaned up, the workers all came by to hug Martha before they left for the night. Pam grabbed her boys and rushed them back home. They had a lot of work to do and she wanted to make sure it was done by the morning. On the way home she told Sam and Jim that they were going to be busy painting cookies again tonight. This news resulted in them running down the street as if their house was on fire. This time they did not have to change clothes as they had been wearing old worn out shirts that a little paint would not hurt. They did have to hang up their jackets and wash their hands before they touched the dough. It was just before midnight when the last cookie was put into a big box. Pam did not have any trouble getting the boys into bed. She was exhausted and fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Pam fell into a deep but fitful sleep. She did not dream of sugarplum fairies or angels heralding a new born king. She had chilling nightmares of blizzards and being chased through a blinding snow storm by a pack of wolves. In this surreal world she rushed blindly onward. The sound of the howling wolves was nearly drowned out by the howling wind through the branches of the evergreen trees. As in most nightmares, the harder she tried to run, the less progress she made. Terrified, Pam struggled to escape the wolf pack. Out of the corner of her eye she could detect the dark, shadowy shapes as they gained on her. The white vapor plumes of the wolves’ panting breath appeared to be smoke, as if they were breathing fire. Exhausted, Pam leaned against the trunk of a tall pine tree. Gasping for breath, she tried to gather her last reserve of strength to make a final effort to flee from the terror of the wolves. As she stood in the shelter of the great tree she felt the wind shift. Now it blew in her face, and she detected the aroma of freshly baked cookies and hot bread. Keeping her back to the tree she leaned forward to look in the direction of the wind and saw a house not too far away. The little rectangles of the windows were radiant with yellow light. Those little windows were almost like the great sweeping beam of a lighthouse guiding ships to safety. Running with the last ounce of energy, Pam sprinted the distance to the house and fell into the front door. Pam fell into the door and fell and fell and fell eventually falling awake. Trembling from head to toe, she sat bolt upright. Her room was still dark. A quick check of the alarm clock assured her it was only 4:30 AM. John was working “Graveyard Shift” and would not be home before 7:30 in the morning. She decided not to try to go back to sleep. She did not want to give that nightmare a chance for a rerun.

Pam took a hot shower and got dressed; all the while the nightmare haunted her thoughts. She was not trained in dream interpretation but she was sure that the dream had deep meaning. One point did stick in her consciousness--the feeling of complete security when she had reached the house. She knew that the house in the dream might not represent her home, but it could just be a symbol for all HOMES. Then she thought that her mind must be filled with the plight of the homeless people that were painting Martha’s house. The house in her nightmare might represent the security of the HOMELESS SHELTER, and how it protects “those in need” from all the evils of the outside world. With a shake of her head she dismissed the thought as just being a bit too philosophical.

The shower helped to wake her up but the thought of a hot cup of coffee seemed like the perfect way to greet the day. The old percolator soon started to sing its crazy tune and the room was filled with the rich aroma of hot coffee. She tried to avoid making noise. The boys were still in bed and she did not want to wake them up so early.

As she sat in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to percolate, she thought about her life. They had moved into this house just after John returned from WWII. He used the GI Loan to afford the mortgage. It was the only way they could afford a house and start a family. His job at the refinery paid well but the shift work took its toll. John often volunteered to work double shifts during the Christmas season to earn more money so he could afford to buy all the toys that were on the “letter to Santa list” from his sons. She knew he loved his sons more than life itself, and he tried to be the kind of father that was always highlighted in the popular magazines. She was sure that working 16 hours three times a week on top of the regular schedule was not good for any man. John had served in the Navy, and he would joke with her when she expressed concern about him working too much. “I was in the Navy when the ships were made out of wood and the men were made of steel,” he would quip. At the moment she did not consider the possibility that all these factors were a part of her nightmare.

Maybe it was that little speech that Martha gave that sparked all these thoughts. Now she knew how deeply Martha felt about her home and her husband. She had strong ties to her children even with them living out of town. Now Pam thought about her life and how much she loved her husband, her children, and her home. Perhaps Christmas was just a good time to stop and reflect upon the things that really matter.

John would be home soon, and they could enjoy a nice breakfast together. Pam poured a cup of coffee after the percolator stopped perking, and the little light came on indicating the coffee was at the proper temperature. Pam sat in the brightly lit kitchen sipping her coffee waiting for her husband to come home. She thought that it might be good to get the kids up for breakfast so they could get ready for the long, hard day working at Martha’s house. They would get a chance to see their father even if he was tired. He would be tired from working all night, but at least they would be able to talk while they ate breakfast.

The smell of bacon frying must have been too much for Sam and Jim to ignore. The two came running down the hallway still clad in their flannel pajamas. Pam was surprised to see them up so early. “Breakfast is not ready yet, so why don’t you two get dressed? I will make some hot chocolate for you. I even have some of those little marshmallows,” she told them as she tried to prevent the bacon from burning. While the boys were busy putting on their work clothes, Pam filled a sauce pan with milk then, using a recipe that she kept in her head, added sugar and cocoa powder. The bacon was done and put on a paper towel to drain the fat while the hot chocolate was slowly brought to a boil. Pam waited for the milk to rise and then fall again before pouring it into the big mugs to serve.

“What a surprise! What’s the big occasion?” John exclaimed as he entered the kitchen through the garage door. “I sure was not expecting to see anyone up at this hour, much less such a wonderful breakfast,” he continued just before he stopped to give Pam a kiss on the cheek.

“Oh John, I just could not sleep. I had a really strange nightmare and I just did not want to try to go back to sleep. It was about time to get up anyway. This is going to be a long hard day working on Martha’s house, so I decided to get up and fix a nice breakfast for everyone. We do not have much chance to eat together as a family, and I know the boys love to see you when you are at home,” Pam explained. Sam and Jim came rushing into the room just in time to see their parents kissing.

“Oh yea, you were telling me about that project. I noticed that it is all gray now. So that means the primer was all done yesterday? What color is it going to be when it’s finished?” John inquired as he pulled up a chair at the breakfast table and ruffled Jim’s hair.

“Strange you should ask. I really don’t know. It seems that one of the old guys at the shelter used to be in architectural design and has sort of taken over the project. You know, John, it is amazing to see the amount of talent these people have. Almost all of them have had good jobs in the past. I know that some of them had health problems, and the cost of hospitals drained their savings, and in time they went bankrupt. Some lost their job because they were considered too old and did not fit the corporate image. I am sure there are some that just did not want to apply their nose to the grindstone and refused to be a part of the free market enterprise. I found out one thing for sure--no matter what caused them to fall on hard times, they are not bad people,” she told him as she filled his cup with coffee.

“I know they are not bad people, but most of the people in the area are concerned about the effect the shelter has on local property values. I am really happy that they were willing to work on old Martha’s house. That place was really a bad image for the area and was not helping property values. I know she is old and alone but that old house was a real eye sore,” John commented. He grabbed two slices of toast and some bacon and started to eat his breakfast. “I am sure that you have all worked very hard, and I am happy that you have the boys involved because learning how to work around the house is important,” he continued between bits of food. “What have you guys been doing besides helping your mother with the cookies?” he queried his sons.

Both of the boys tried to answer at once but Sam took the lead, “We helped do the sanding on the first day, and then we got to do some painting on the second day. They would not let us get up on the ladders, but there were lots of things to do along the lower level. It was a lot of hard work and we got all dirty too, but mom did not get mad at us because we were so dirty,” Sam rattled on in his youthful exuberance. Jim sat next to his brother and nodded concurrence.

John just had to smile at this report from his kids. He could tell they were getting a great lesson in civics and he was visibly proud of them. “You guys know that what you are all doing for Martha is the greatest gift anyone can give to someone. You are giving her your labor from your heart and that is the best Christmas gift ever,” he told his sons.

Pam had already started to clear the table and clean up the kitchen when her husband turned to her and held her close. He whispered in her ear, “Thank you, dear, for taking the lead on this and getting the kids involved. This is a lesson that will help them all their lives. I really need to get some sleep. But I think I will set the alarm to wake me this afternoon so I can come by to see how the work is going and get some of that famous food you will be serving to the workers,” he said as he kissed her on the neck before he drifted off in the direction of the bedroom.

By the time Pam and her sons arrived at Martha’s, the crew had already unloaded a truck from a local hardware store. The group leader was making task assignments and setting the teams to work. Martha waved to them from the porch as she struggled with a big pot of coffee. Pam was burdened with a huge box that was filled with cookies, and she put the box on the table before she went to assist Martha with the coffee pot. “I am sorry I am late. John came home and we all had breakfast together. I see the guys are hard at work already,” she observed while helping Martha set up the table.

Once she was content that all was ready for the workers, she let her sons join in the activities. She knew that Martha would need her help inside cooking food for lunch and dinner. It was clear from the amount of corn bread stacked on cooling racks that Martha had been busy most of the night. The big pot was on the gas range and Martha was busy preparing the ingredients for her special chili. The room was filled with the smell of onions and garlic simmering in the big pot. Martha asked Pam to add the chili powder, salt and pepper while she put the ground beef into the pot to brown. She remarked that letting the meat brown with the seasoning made the flavor soak into the meat better. After the meat was browned, the remaining ingredients were added and Martha tasted the results to ensure that it was properly seasoned. It took several tests with additional seasoning added each time before she finally gave her seal of approval and the pot was left to simmer until lunch time.

Pam rushed out to refill the coffee thermos and ensure there was enough to eat on the table. When she turned around to return to the house, she was shocked to see the progress made. The entire front of the house was now a wonderful canary yellow. The window trim was painted with bright, glossy, white enamel. The midday sun made it seem even brighter, and the sight took her breath away. She grabbed her sons and had them help her refill the coffee and tea containers. Then she told them to put out the bowls and plastic ware in preparation for lunch. Lunch was served in shifts. As each group finished the section they were assigned, they stopped by the table and got a bowl of chili and corn bread. Pam could tell by the conversations she overheard that everyone was excited about how great the old house looked. It seemed to bring out a greater feeling of pride in their accomplishment to see how much the new paint transformed the old “Spooky House” into a BEAUTIFUL HOME.

Pam kept Martha inside the house working at the stove to prevent her from seeing the results until the work was complete. Late in the afternoon when it was time to serve dinner and a second pot of chili, Pam helped Martha carry the big pot out to the serving table. The painting was complete, and all the workers were gathered in front of the porch with its bright white railing. Pam helped carry the big pot down the stairs and put it on the table. Then she told Martha to turn around and observe her new HOME. As the old woman turned, the Salvation Army Band that had been concealed by the group of workers started to play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and her two sons along with their entire families came rushing over to encircle her in a great family hug. The event was just too overpowering, and there was not a dry eye in the crowd.

Now as everyone looked at the finished results of the days of hard labor, the old house was truly one of the best looking on the block. John walked up behind Pam and grabbed her around the waist. He whispered in her ear that he could not believe how good the old house looked.

As Martha tried to take it all in and control her emotions, a smartly dressed man stepped forward and took Martha by the hand. “Martha, when Pam first told me about this project, and how much you have done for the community homeless shelter over the years, I knew that more was needed than paint and food for the workers here. That is why I went to the local chamber of commerce and had a special fund raising drive set up in all the stores across the city to gather donations for the shelter. As Mayor of the city I take great pleasure in presenting this check to help the people living at the shelter this holiday season. The outstanding results shown by their efforts on your home show there is much talent available. I am sure there are many projects to improve the shelter that could be done with their help if they had some money to pay for supplies. It is our collective hope that this money will be used to make the shelter a better place for everyone,” the Mayor beamed as he wrapped his arms around Martha. Taking this act as a cue the band started playing “Silent Night” and suddenly everyone present started to sing.

Pam escorted Martha to a table and sat down next to her old friend. All the men and women that had worked so hard to get the house painted in record time were all busy eating the meal Martha had prepared for them. For long minutes everyone was quiet. Slowly voices of the gathered group could be heard in little conversations. Most were just exchanging news about their families and friends. Sam sat next to his mother and looked around in wonder. He knew that this Christmas would remain in his thoughts forever. It was so amazing how a small deed of kindness can bring about such a miracle.

Epilogue

Miracles happen every day but we are often too busy to notice. Sharing the treasure of the Christmas Spirit can be as simple as a box of cookies or as grand as painting an old woman’s house. For it is not the size of the gift, it is the spirit within your heart that makes it special. Sam never did forget that Christmas nor did he forget the magic of the special Christmas cookies his mother gave to friends and family. Please take time this year and every year to share the Treasures of Christmas.

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