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December 13, 2006

The Christmas Book

Not a Christmas has gone by in the past fifteen years that I have not thought about the Christmas Book. It was November of 1991 when I received word that an elderly supporter of the college where I worked in my native state of Louisiana wanted to make an end of year contribution. She had some difficulty getting out and no longer trusted the regular mail since a prior contribution had gone undelivered.

I had met her on a few occasions, but I really did not know her very well and I had never visited her home. She always impressed me as being somewhat stern and serious, not someone who laughed a lot.

I arrived at her small neat single story brick house in Baton Rouge in the early afternoon. The decorative ironwork on her windows and doors served a dual purpose for someone who lived in a deteriorating city neighborhood. I had expected a brief visit and planned to move quickly on to my next appointment. When she opened the door I knew that this might take longer.

She was dressed in her Sunday best. The good china was laid out for coffee or tea and it was clear that I was being welcomed as a special guest. My hostess, at my urging, was soon telling me engaging stories about her life. She was a life long teacher and began her career in a one room schoolhouse. She had the Southern teacher’s gift for storytelling and her tales of the joys, trials and tribulations of that rural school had me mesmerized. She was also wonderfully informative about my institution and told me things about its history that I had never heard.

I also learned what had caused some of the sadness that I had observed in her before. She had encountered unusual tragedy. Her husband had suffered from a lengthy illness that required her full attention for many years. Not long after her husband’s death, and just a couple of years prior to my visit, she lost her pregnant daughter, her son-in-law, and her only grandchild in a single automobile accident caused by a drunken driver. It was during the Christmas holidays. As she told me that my only thought was how seemingly insurmountable the grief must have felt. If anyone ever had reason to feel that life owed them something, it was my new friend.

As I readied to leave that day I noticed a large book on the coffee table. It had a decorative cover and had been meticulously inscribed with the words “Christmas Book.” Curious I asked her to tell me about it.

She told me that her Christmas Book was her way of focusing on the good things that happened to her at Christmas. For the first couple of years after the death of her family she said she would get so despondent that she could hardly stand it. She said that to deal with her pain she started the Christmas Book. Beginning December 1 she put a record of all the good things that happened to her in the book. On one page was a card from a friend. Another page contained a letter. Neatly inscribed in calligraphy on another page was a phone conversation with a close relative. And there on the last completed page was my handwritten note confirming our visit and a blank page reserved for a record of it.

I was humbled that this little lady could find a way to dwell on the joy and light of Christmas instead of succumbing to the dark side of life. I am not sure that I have the same strength and resolve of my friend, but I did learn a valuable lesson from my Christmas visit.