A New (True) Christmas Story
A New (True) Christmas Story . . . About a “Secret Santa” that delivered gifts all year long.
Episode 29 - A New (True) Christmas Story
Many of our celebrations and rituals are based on stories, and conversely, many of the stories we tell are based on the customs of our ancestors, practiced hundreds, and in some cases, even thousands of years ago. And over time, we collect our favorites.
And with each re-telling, we remember the meaning and significance of the story, the ideals, and principles we hope to pass along to the next generation.
Hey, Welcome back. This is Roger Reid with a special holiday episode of Success Point 360.
I’m recording this episode just a few days before Christmas –a time for holiday decorations, giving presents to family and friends, and setting the table with turkey and all the trimmings.
Ideally, we also remember the season as a time of generosity, kindness, and compassion. And we do it by remembering and re-telling the stories that have become as much a part of the holiday as putting up a Christmas tree or hanging a sprig of mistletoe over a doorway.
And while those stories are both old and new, there is a consistent message of generosity, kindness, and compassion that’s associated with the season.
There’s The Christmas Carol, written by Charles dickens in 1843. And then there’s a collection of twentieth-century movies that echo the Christmas spirit, movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, the animated, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th street, and a nostalgic look back at Christmas in the mid-twentieth century through the eyes of Ralphe, who finally gets his Red Ryder BB gun in what has become a yearly classic, A Christmas story.
The majority of these movies are repeated each year because they’re popular representations of the spirit of the season –the way we’re supposed to be, the way we wish we could act – not for just a few weeks during the month of December – but all year long. At least that’s the idea.
Beyond the entertainment value, all of these stories demonstrate the underlying meaning and significance of Christmas – translating the traditional phrase, Peace on earth, goodwill to men, into examples we can relate to, and perhaps, even apply to similar situations in our own lives.
And that brings me to my favorite Christmas story, which ironically, has nothing to do with Christmas, at least not in the traditional sense of the celebration that takes place on December 25.
So, along with all the movies you’ll watch this holiday season, I’d like to add my own version of a Christmas story. I hope you find a reason to repeat it, and to make it a part of your holiday celebration.
In the neighborhood where Ardell Jr grew up, Christmas was a time for children. It was about counting down the days until Santa would arrive, and waking up Christmas morning and finding a huge pile of gifts underneath the tree.
But for a lot of families, the Christmas season wasn’t about each child receiving those special gifts they hoped to find waiting for them on Christmas morning. It was just the opposite.
The approach of Christmas brought additional stress and frustration. Because the parents couldn’t afford to buy their children gifts. Many of them couldn’t even afford to put up a tree unless they waited until the last minute, usually a day or two before Christmas, when some of the merchants discounted the price of scraggly, left-over trees to a few dollars.
It certainly wasn’t the way those poor families wanted it . . . they just didn’t have the money. In the 1950’s and “60’s, the small town of Yuma, Arizona wasn’t known for its collection of high net worth individuals, or its upscale residential areas.
In fact, it was about as far as you could get from the serene and privileged life often depicted on the canvas of a Norman Rockwell painting. There were no storybook houses sitting on deep, manicured yards, no estates with gated entrances and long driveways sheltered by the leafy canopies of hundred-year-old oak trees.
No, in the 50’s and 60’s, Yuma was a blue-collar town, where people worked six and often seven days a week, mostly just to get by, to pay the mortgage and utility bill, and to put food on the table.
These were the hotel maids, the gardeners, the construction and field workers, the fry cooks, and waitresses, and the migrant workers who received minimum wage, doing their best to support their family on whatever income they could make that week.
So for a lot of folks in Yuma, the arrival of Christmas didn’t bring the good-natured attitude and the sense of joy that’s usually associated with the season.
Instead, they reluctantly accepted the holiday as a stressful, worrisome time, a time when their children’s expectations for electric trains, bicycles, and Barbie dolls had to be balanced with a limited income and a tight budget. About the best they could do was hope to pick up a ten dollar toy that wouldn’t leave their kids disappointed.
I tell you this because, for a lot of people, Christmas has not always been a day of celebration. For them, it was a difficult day, made even harder, because they had to explain to their kids why Santa wasn’t able to visit them that year.
And yet, even in the small, windswept desert town of Yuma, there were those who tried to make a difference.
One of those people was a man named Mr. Ardell. He not only understood the true meaning of Christmas, but he also saw it as an opportunity – to do something that needed to be done. And he didn’t restrict his actions just to the holidays. When he recognized the need, he did what he could, regardless of the season or time of year.
Mr. Ardell owned a small neighborhood grocery store, located just a few blocks from the old downtown area. Surrounding the little store were blocks and blocks of run-down houses that hadn’t seen a coat of paint in twenty years. Many of these old houses were built at the turn of the century. The rooms were stark and drafty, and the walls were often covered with peeling wallpaper.
There were depressing places to live, but rentals in this neighborhood were the cheapest in town, and so most of the houses were occupied by families that couldn’t afford anything better.
Mr. Ardell had a son, an 8-year-old named Ardell Jr. And Mr. Ardell often took his son with him on Saturday mornings to open up the store and start another business day.
Ardell Jr. enjoyed spending time at the store, and during the week, and after school, it wasn’t unusual for the boy to walk the four blocks to the store, to visit with his father, and to take care of what he called, “his after school job.” In reality, it wasn’t a job at all, and Ardell Jr. usually spent most of the time enjoying a soda and reading all the new comic books.
For an eight-year-old, it was a great diversion and Ardell Jr. spent as much time at the store as he could.
It was there, during those few hours after school and on Saturday mornings, that Mr. Ardell’s son learned about how other people lived—and struggled. He listened to their stories, about an earlier time, when they were so much younger, and how they’d imagined they would become successful and prosperous, only to find that life had something else in mind.
Ardell Jr learned to listen, and when it was appropriate, to say something encouraging, or to look for a reason to offer a compliment. He did it by watching the interactions between his father and the customers, realizing that his Dad made everyone – regardless of how they were dressed or how much money they had to spend -feel right at home.
And although Ardell Jr. didn’t understand it at the time, there was also something special in the way that others treated his father; they not only respected him, they knew that he was, in a most honest and reliable way—a good man. A man of integrity. The same words the preacher would use to describe him at his funeral, some fifteen years later.
As it happens in all families, Ardell Jr. grew older, and after graduating from college, he moved to Denver to work for a large company. And like many adult children, he’d always return home on holidays to visit his family and to see old friends.
It was during one of those visits, some twenty years after the death of his father, that Ardell Jr – now in his early forties – sat down with an old friend from high school. They had decided to meet over lunch at one of the little fast-food restaurants in the older part of town. The restaurant had been there for over sixty years, and Ardell Jr hadn’t been inside since the eighth grade, when he’d walked across the street from the junior high school to buy an order of fries and a Coke.
As he looked the place over, he saw a new Formica counter and newly upholstered booths, but for the most part, it looked the same, except for a large display of pictures—old black and white photographs—that covered an entire wall.
They were pictures of Yuma, many of which showed the downtown area from the 1940’s and ’50’s. Even the original post office was there and, in later photos, taken in the fifties and sixties, the J.C. Penny store, the Western Auto store, and the Madison Hotel coffee shop. All places that Ardell Jr had visited as a child, usually with his father, to buy a piece of hardware to fix a broken lawnmower, or to pick up a new coat for the start of the new school year.
The server noticed how absorbed Ardell Jr. had become in the old photos, and she came from behind the counter, asking him if he recognized any of the old downtown area. He told her that he did and, in fact, had spent much of his childhood working in his father’s grocery store—a store that no longer existed, having been torn down years before to make room for a new county administration building.
“What was the name of the store?” the server asked.
“Five point market,” Ardell Jr. told her, and then he pointed it out in one of the pictures.
The server – a forty something latino gal – asked, “Is your name Ardell?”
Ardell Jr. nodded.
“And the man who owned that store, he was your father?” the server asked.
Ardell Jr. was becoming a little apprehensive at this point, but he admitted it.
“Yes, that was my dad.”
The server’s eyes lit up. “You wait here,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” The woman raced back into the kitchen and began yelling in Spanish. A burst of conversation followed. Now, Ardell Jr’s Spanish wasn’t very good, and with at least three people talking at once, he had no idea what was going on.
Seconds later, the kitchen door burst open. The server had returned with her two brothers. And as they swarmed around Ardell Jr, one of the men said, “Your father would drop off groceries at our front door. He would ring the bell and then run back to his car, because he didn’t want us to know where the food came from, he didn’t want us to see him.”
As Ardell Jr. stood there, he wasn’t sure what they were talking about. Then the server told him the story.
“Sometimes,” she said, “there was no work, and our parents had to struggle just to put food on the table. I remember how much they hated it, because they were so proud, and yet they knew they needed help. But your father, Mr. Ardell, he also knew. So they all played this game. Our parents would pretend not to know who brought the food, and your father did his best to keep it a secret, not telling anyone.”
And that’s when Ardell Jr. experienced a flood of memories that, before now, had never made sense.”
About twice a week, just before it was time to leave the store for home, Mr. Ardell would tell his son, “I just need to fill this order and drop it off.” Then he would go down the aisles, filling a large cardboard box with canned goods, soap, fresh hamburger meat, a loaf of bread, longhorn cheese, some deli meat, a head of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, an onion, and a half-dozen potatoes. He didn’t stop until the box was full, finally topping it off with a bag of penny candy and a handful of suckers.
Ardell Jr. always wondered why his dad never parked close to the house where he was making the delivery. Instead, his father would pull around the corner, or stop several doors down, even though there was plenty of room directly in front. Leaving the engine running, Mr. Ardell would tell his son to wait in the car while he carried the box to the door. Suddenly, he’d be running back …. fast. He’d jump back in the car and take off.
“I’m just ready to go home,” he’d say. And that’s all he would say when his son asked him why he always ran from each house. And now, thirty-five years later, Ardell Jr. had finally discovered the truth—the real reason his dad was always in a rush to get back to the car.
“We were chasing him,” the server said. “My brothers and I would hear him knocking on the screen, but when we’d open the door, there was only the box of food. The first few times, we didn’t see anyone. Then later, we saw somebody running away, fast. We wanted to catch him, to find out who he was. But our parents told us not to chase him, to always let him get away.
Then one day, we saw your dad’s car drive past and we knew it was the man who owned the grocery store on the corner. Sometimes we would see both of you in the car. And we would think about how lucky you were. To be so rich, to be able to give us candy.”
At the time, 8-year-old Ardell Jr. saw it as just another delivery, another order that had to be dropped off before they could go home. But to the people who opened the door and found the box of food, it was kindness and compassion—and hope.
For many families in the fifties and sixties, Mr. Ardell became a mystery Santa Claus. And while he never wore a Santa costume, he would make the same stealthy approach to each house, and then, after ringing the bell, he’d take off like a streak, determined to remain anonymous, hoping his gift would feed both body and soul—but never at the cost of another man’s dignity.
I don’t believe Mr. Ardell ever told anyone what he was doing. Maybe he saw it as simply something that needed to be done, and he knew he was the one to do it. But even today, some 45 years after his death, there are still people in the town of Yuma who remember the man who owned Five Points Market, a man who understood that the ideals of Christmas meant more than hanging a wreath on the front door, or stringing lights all over the front yard.
Most important, Mr. Ardell believed concern and helping others was something that needed to be done throughout the year, and not restricted to a couple of weeks in December.
Over the twenty-five years that Mr. Ardell gave food to families in need, it’s estimated that he delivered over 2500 boxes of groceries. I could put a value on that food, but since Mr. Ardell never thought about the cost, It’s not appropriate that I evaluate what those gifts were worth in dollars and cents – only that they often made the difference between a healthy child and one who went to bed hungry.
I’ll end this story with a small confession.
It’s no coincidence that my middle name is Ardell. I know about this story, and about Mr. Ardell, because that eight-year-old boy who worked in his father’s grocery store on Saturdays and after school . . . was me.
I sat in the car while my father delivered those boxes of food on the doorsteps of families in need, never knowing what he was really doing, or why he was always in a hurry to drive away, not wanting anyone to recognize him.
I didn’t find out the truth until I met some of the kids from one of those families, and they told me what was really going on—and how much it meant to them.
And that’s why . . . this is my favorite Christmas story.
Thanks for listening to this special holiday episode. And I also want to thank all of you who have subscribed to the podcast through stitcher or I tunes, or where you receive your podcasts. The audience growth has exceeded even my most ambitious expectations. So I appreciate your support. As usual, a transcript of this and all the episodes are available under the show notes. Just visit www.successpoint360.com
Thanks again for listening, and I hope you and your family have a great holiday.
© 2020, Roger A. Reid, All Rights Reserved
Contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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