The memory plays in my head like an outtake from an old-fashioned home movie, flickering on a white bedsheet hung on a wall.
I’m 6 or 7 or 8 years old. I can’t remember where this took place, whether it was in Berea or whether we’d already moved to Butler County, Ohio, which would eventually become J. D. Vance territory.
In this memory I’m with my dad. It’s dark outside, and as we get out of our car I feel the sharp December air biting through my mittens.
Dad has brought me along on a Christmas mission of mercy. He wants me to see something.
He lifts a cardboard box from our car’s back seat. Inside it, I know, are food and a couple of presents wrapped with festive paper that conceals the kinds of cheap toys that can break a kid’s heart.
He knocks at a run-down house. A round-shouldered woman opens the door. She says, almost too low to hear, “Hello, Brother Prather. Come in.”
We enter a drafty living room almost as cold as outside. Its ceiling is high. The lights seem far-off, yellow, dim. It’s as if the room is bathed in a sort of grim haze.
In this living room there’s a bed. That’s unusual, and it’s the first thing that draws my attention. A skinny, pale man with sunken eyes lies in the bed, propped on pillows. Dad speaks to him by name.
Then I notice the two kids sitting in chairs, a boy and a girl about my age. Their eyes dart from my dad to me to the box my father holds, and then stay on the box.
Dad asks the man how he’s feeling. “We’ve brought you all some things,” he says.
I don’t remember anything else that happens in the house.
When my memory resumes, Dad and I are back in our car. His jaw is set hard, as if he’s trying not to show what he’s feeling.
“What’s wrong with the man?” I ask.
He swallows, clears his throat. “He’s got cancer.”
I’m not sure exactly what cancer is, but I know it’s bad.
“Why did we have to take them food?”
He pauses again. “Because some people aren’t as lucky as we are. Those kids won’t have a Christmas like you have. Their dad is too sick to work. He doesn’t have long to live.”
My heart sinks at this idea. I’ve never realized there are people worse off than we are, because we aren’t well off ourselves. I’ve never seen kids whose father is dying, never seen kids who might not get even a cheap toy without help from strangers, never imagined there are kids in our own little town who might not have enough to eat on a cold night in a cold house.
Then I understand. This is what my father wanted me to see.
There the home movie flickers out. The end.
It might seem like a hard lesson to teach a small child, to drag him off, practically on Christmas Eve, to witness such a stark scene.
I’ll tell you this: The lesson has stayed with me for nearly six decades now.
I don’t remember which town it was. I don’t remember the family’s name.
But I remember that emaciated man in his bed in the living room, and those kids’ scared, longing eyes.
And almost every year about this time, whatever’s going on in my life come Christmastime, whether it’s a good year or only a fair one, I still realize with a start that somebody just down the road a mile or two is suffering real ills. People are hungry. People are dying.
I think of my father, unable to redeem that poor family’s suffering — but doing the little he could to help them.
I think about how that’s the duty we’ve all been assigned: to carry a few bags of food to some rusted-out house trailer, to slide a haggard waitress a $20 tip on a $10 meal, to shop for an Angel Tree kid, to pay for the toys carried by the woebegone parents behind us in line at Walmart.
I think about another poor child who once lay in a feeding trough in Bethlehem, and imagine he’d be pleased by any meager efforts we can make toward peace on Earth and good will toward everyone.
This is the time of year for us to become the hands and feet of God.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.