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mark matcho

He was broke, both financially and in spirit, as that long-ago holiday season approached. The father and his two young sons had moved to a rural setting to rebuild their lives in the wake of divorce; they by meeting new friends and tasting new country-boy adventures, he by struggling to carve out a living as a self-employed writer who had left behind a newspaper career.

The kids had been far more successful with the transition, oblivious to such realities that if an overdue payment didn’t soon arrive from some publisher, tending the rent on the small stone cabin they called home might pose a problem.

Such was not their worry to suffer. Ages 5 and 8, theirs were days of warm innocence with no concern more serious than whether? the fish would be biting along nearby ?Cypress Creek when the school bus delivered them home.

As the Christmas season arrived, their new home, a little community called ?Comfort, began to sparkle with the colored lights strung along the eaves of houses. The man and his boys followed the tradition of most of their neighbors, locating a small, well-shaped cedar sapling on a nearby hillside and taking it home for decorating.

There was the annual holiday band concert in the high school auditorium, a moonlit night of church-sponsored caroling through the town, and while there was no snow, a sudden ice storm briefly turned the landscape into a winter wonderland. And there was the steady adult hum of excited whispers about gifts bought, wrapped and hidden away.

Yet as the days too quickly passed, the man struggled with little success to find joy in the season. With the postman arriving empty-handed day after day, he worried that his first Christmas as a single father would be remembered for what it was not rather than for what he’d hoped it would be.

He had shopped carefully, his limited funds spent on small items — a puzzle book here, a toy or two there, wrapping paper and a spool of red ribbon — in hopes that once they were placed beneath the tree they would appear as more than they really were.

One evening, long after his sons were sleeping, the man sat alone in a room illuminated only by the single string of lights on the tree, pondering the meager offering of gifts. Christmas was not just about an abundance of toys and trinkets, right? Hadn’t we, as a generation, overindulged our kids?

So deeply in thought was he that he didn’t hear the first few late-night rings of the phone. When he finally answered, he heard the cheerful voice of his sister. She and her husband were thinking about making a drive through the picturesque Texas Hill Country. OK if they stopped in for a visit?

The man had not seen them since the move, and his gloom was swept away by the prospect of their coming. That in itself would be a welcome gift.

By the time they arrived, the house had been cleaned spotless, the giddy anticipation of guests warming the day. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the kitchen.

They hugged, talked and laughed for some time before the brother-in-law suggested that his wife would enjoy a tour of the town. She wanted to see the boys’ school, where their friends lived, view the landscape of their new life. And so they soon departed, leaving only her husband behind to rest from his long drive.

It was a few hours before they returned to find him asleep on the couch. In the corner where the Christmas tree stood, gifts in a rainbow of colored wrappings were piled. Large and small, they formed a dazzling display. Additional lights and new ornaments had been added to the tree, and a tiny angel smiled down from the top of its branches.

In the years that followed, the writer father would forge a new life, a modest degree of prosperity ultimately achieved. He is old now, his sons long since grown to manhood. Yet each year when a new chill invades the air and the holiday season approaches, he thinks back to that special time and an unexpected act of loving kindness.

To this day, it is the fondest of my Christmas memories.