It happened one Christmas Eve

Published 10:39 am Wednesday, December 12, 2018

by Charles Qualls

had a complicated relationship with my Dad’s old country store. On the one hand, I found the store itself to be a fascinating place. It sat right on the edge where old Roswell, Georgia, met new Roswell.  People who had lived in the little community for generations came by every day. Often at exactly the same time as cultured, wealthy newcomers.

On the other hand, pretty much without choice I had begun working there in the third grade pumping gas and stocking shelves. Running the cash register would come a few years later. So, when I was there I was an employee.

There was always a new product to get to know about, alongside all the old staples that one needed to count on to be there. My Dad was innovative in a corn-pone sort of way. He always had some new side-business going on out there, or a new item that was catching the attention of customers.

Children are born with pretty concrete ways of processing information and events. As a matter of development, the frontal lobes don’t quite connect up to always make good judgments or to think abstractly until quite a bit later.

One Christmas Eve, I was working until closing time with my Dad. I was probably 10 years old, so I had learned a few things. I would find out that Christmas that I still had an awful lot to learn. 

A man shuffled in our door with his head bowed down. We both knew this humble man. He had been a customer of ours for years. He mostly kept to himself and never spoke much. 

My Dad’s store had its own internal credit system. Some people called it, “Sign-and-Drive.” That is, we totaled up a given purchase and wrote that amount on a little carbon-copy ticket. They signed, we handed them the pink carbon-copy, and they drove off. End of the month, my Mom would take all the customers’ tickets, total them up and then mail them a bill. It was a simpler age when businesses still operated that way a lot of times. 

That Christmas, I had recently learned not only about the ticket filing system, but also I had found the little drawer where all the past-due bundles sat. Instinctively, and trying to be helpful, I rifled through that drawer curious to see if this particular customer was in there. 

Meanwhile, he had stopped by the cooler where dairy and meat products were. He held in his arms packages of sandwich meats and hot dogs. A roll of sausage and some bacon. A 1-lb. can of coffee rested on his arm, and a loaf of bread dangled by its plastic closure, pinched between his fingers.   

He laid an armload of groceries up onto the counter and headed back down one of the aisles where canned foods awaited. I pushed his bound packet that was stamped “past-due” over to where my Dad could see it. He nodded his head. I pushed it a little further toward him, unsatisfied with his apparent lack of concern. 

That’s when it happened. I don’t know if you’ll think it’s as big a deal as I still do. My Dad took the packet of credit slips and put them under the counter where the #2, 5 and 7 paper grocery bags sat in stacks. Now, I was confused.

The man walked back up with another armload of groceries. My father totaled them up, wrote him another credit slip and let him sign it. After bagging them all up, Dad sent him and all his groceries out the door and said, “Now, you have a Merry Christmas. I’ll see you soon, right?” 

The heavy glass door closed. As soon as the metal frame settled back into place with a solid “thud,” I turned to my Dad.  We were alone in the store. “He owes us money. Why did you let him get more before he pays us what he owes?!” I asked. 

My Dad looked at me firmly, but spoke to me gently.

“Son, it’s Christmas Eve.  He’s had some tough times lately. But, he’s a good man and a hard worker. We know him. He’s alright. I’ll be danged if I’m gonna send a man that I respect home hungry on Christmas Eve as long as I have things and he doesn’t.” 

Now our business needed to make us a living, and it did. But right as that year came to a close, I learned a lot about my father and a lot about life. I also learned something about the dignity of others, and about quiet generosity. And, it all happened on one unforgettable Christmas Eve.

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.