Best Christmas I Ever Had

When I was a little girl, I had lots of wonderful Christmases. I had Christmas mornings filled with the kind of wonder and excitement that only a child can experience. But this is not a story of a child’s Christmas. This is a story of the best Christmas I ever had as an adult.

In order for you to understand the best Christmas I ever had, you must first hear about the worst Christmas I ever had. It was Christmas day 1965, and the first Christmas I celebrated as a married woman. Alan and I were in college and some of my sisters and their husbands or boyfriends were spending the day at my oldest sister and her husband’s home. The smell of turkey and pine filled the air, and Christmas carols were playing in the background as we sat down to open our gifts.

Mom opened her gift first. Just like always, Dad had somehow gathered together enough money to buy Mom something truly special. Mom’s gift was a bracelet with gold letters separated by pearls that spelled I LOVE YOU. Everyone ooohed and aaahed approvingly as Mom put on her bracelet and Dad beamed with pride.

Then came my oldest sister Cynthia’s turn. Despite the limited budget of a growing family, Seth had purchased my sister the most beautiful beige lace nighty and robe set I had ever seen. It was such a romantic gift. They exchanged tender glances as the nightgown was carefully refolded and put away.

Sharon’s gift was two crisply folded one-hundred-dollar bills placed in a card which read, “To the one I love,” on the outside. That was more money than Alan and I made in three months working at the college library. Everyone in the room let out a squeal at such luxury.

Kay was the next sister to open her gifts. She was going with a couple of different guys at the time, if I remember right. One gave her a gold wristwatch and the other gave her a beautiful Geistex sweater. Geistex sweaters were very expensive and really “in” in 1965.

All of my sisters were so beautiful and I always felt inferior by comparison. It seemed to me that their gifts were befitting them. I dreaded the fact that I was to open my gifts next.

Before I tell you what I received, I have to give you some facts. Alan was raised to believe that Christmas was basically for little children, that gifts weren’t terribly important to adults. In fact, sometime between October and December, Alan’s mom would announce that she had purchased a “so-and-so,” and that this item was her Christmas gift from Alan’s dad. In other words, older members of their family usually exchanged permission to purchase something at a later date. Also, because Alan’s siblings received lavish gifts during the year, another nice present was just not that big of a deal.

I came from a different background. As long as I could remember, I thought of Christmas as a time to splurge. Christmas was when you showed the ones you love that “price was no object.” And it wasn’t just the money; it was an attitude about Christmas. Christmastime was when you showed the other people in your life how much they meant to you. They were so important that you saved up all year to buy them “things they had always wanted,” or presents that “you shouldn’t have.” Christmas was the time you made dreams come true.

As all the eyes in the room turned toward me, I felt a disaster in the making. “Oh, please God,” I prayed to myself, “make the small package something sweet and personal, a necklace or a locket.” As I opened my gifts, a lump formed in my throat. Alan had gotten me a ball point pen and a pair of heavy duty slippers. Tears welled up in my eyes. Wasn’t I more important and more beautiful than a ball point pen and unisex slippers that could be worn by either a man or a woman? Was that all I meant to Alan?

I prayed for a diversion. Maybe the tree would catch on fire (now that I think about it—maybe this prayer was answered years later as another story) or a bomb would hit the garage. I felt so embarrassed that I wanted to die.

That particular Christmas taught me two things: One, never open my presents in front of my beautiful sisters, and two, never look forward to Christmas ever, ever again.

There were many differences in Alan’s and my backgrounds, so it wasn’t surprising that we ended up in marriage counseling years later. It happened to be Christmastime when we started therapy.

Dr. Hoffman started off the session by asking me what problems would arise during the holiday season. That was easy for me to answer: “Disappointment and depression.” So Dr. Hoffman came up with this wonderfully simple idea; make Alan a shopping list.

“What?” I protested. “You mean that it still counts if the gift is requested?”

I believed what I had seen in the movies. Alan was somehow supposed to magically know the deepest desires of my heart. “You mean I could write him out a list and if he gave me an item on the list, it would show that he loved me, even if he hadn’t thought of it himself? Amazing,” I muttered to myself.

“You mean the longing looks as I passed the crystal department and the quiet glances toward the jewelry counter weren’t enough? Are you telling me, Dr. Hoffman, that the man doesn’t know what I want by magic?

“Okay!” I said defiantly, “I’ll make the man a list.”

I will never forget the serious way I approached my list writing. Poised with a hot cup of coffee and a sharp pencil, I proceeded. First, I thought, I should probably put down something he wants also. That way I am more likely to get the gift. I honestly felt that unworthy inside. So a color TV headed up the list, followed by the microwave oven. He’d benefit from that as well. Then I became more daring and I asked for a crystal decanter. No, what the heck, I reckoned, I wrote down, “a Fostoria crystal decanter.”

If this was a test for Alan, I was going to make it a good one. I threw myself into the task with reckless abandon and filled two full pages. I wanted to make sure that there could be no excuse that the stores “were out of it.”

When Dr. Hoffman asked for my list, he questioned me to make sure that the items listed were my most secret desires. I concurred that if I received any one of these items on the list, I would be happy. I thought to myself as I drove home, good Lord, I’d be happy for life.

On December 23rd, I opened the front door to a TV service man. He said, “Where do you want the TV, lady?” My heart jumped as I screamed to the children, “Kids, Daddy bought us a color TV.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, a microwave oven arrived. My heart was pounding as I opened the package. It was just like I’d seen in the movies, wrapped in gold with a big red bow. “Thank you, Dr. Hoffman.” I shouted into the air. He was right. It did feel just as good if you spoke up and let the other person know what you wanted.

On Christmas morning, I was totally content. I eyed the color TV in the living room. It was just the model I wanted. As I happily heated rolls in my new microwave oven, I thought of different ways to tell my sisters about the gifts.

As I wandered back into the living room with a tray of hot chocolate for the kids, I heard these startling, amazing words: “Mom, there are some other presents for you under the tree.”

I thought these were probably some sweet handmade treasures made by our children, Roger and Natalie. But when I sat down, I saw a gift clearly from Bullocks, a high-end department store in Long Beach. I squealed as I opened the Fostoria decanter. My neighbors told me later they could hear me screaming. Next I opened an incredibly beautiful pink nighty with matching robe and “super feminine” slippers from Robinsons (no man would wear those slippers.) What would my sisters say when they saw the crystal sugar and creamer to match the decanter, a real leather handbag with a matching wallet and key holder, and a gold locket with “Love, Alan” engraved on the back? To top it all off, there was a gold watch in a black velvet case. My God, Alan had purchased everything on my list and he’d thrown in the watch for good measure.

I don’t remember what Santa brought the children that year, I’m sorry to say. I was too busy screaming and jumping up and down and crying myself. When I finally calmed down, I looked over at Alan and saw he had tears in his eyes. He was in shock and his face held an expression of sheer amazement.

He choked up as he said, “I never knew it would make you so happy or I would have done it years before.”

I realized several things that Christmas. I realized that I was a worthy person, but that I had to declare that fact myself before others would. Whether I received the gifts or not was not important. What was important was that I had written the list. The list was my declaration of worthiness. Alan’s purchasing the gifts was a confirmation of that declaration. I learned from that declaration that I can’t depend on others to affirm my worthiness. I have to do that myself, and I do it a lot now. In fact, this IBM Selectric typewriter was a gift to myself so that I might write this story.

Alan learned a few things that Christmas too. He learned how much fun it is to find something special for the ones you love. He now looks for things I want and he listens carefully to find out what special secrets are in my heart. Best of all, he learned that he could help me most by encouraging me to fulfill my own dreams for myself. And he does that.

I think back on that Christmas occasionally and I believe Natalie summed it up best when she said that morning, “This is so much fun. Let’s do it again next year.”

Christmas with one of our grandkids….London

Family History or Family Mystery… Why You Should Write Your Memoir

This is my family, the Strothers, at my father’s company picnic at Irvine Park in Southern California. The year was 1952, and my sisters, Cynthia and Kay (The Bell Sisters), had just won a TV talent show, and they were headed off to Hollywood.

We were a scruffy bunch and quite the competitors. It was a day-long contest, family against family in sports from three-legged races to baseball. We should have won…but Dad forgot a small prize he had tucked away into his shirt pocket.   

Since publishing my book several years ago, I have presented at dozens of book signings from California to Canada. I have met so many extraordinary individuals. From these contacts, one thing has become crystal clear to me…EVERYONE has a story to tell.

At the end of my presentations, I ask for questions. Without a doubt, the most common inquiry I receive (after “Are all those crazy stories really true?”) is “How do you go about writing a memoir?”

I love that question. Because, like I said, everybody has a story to tell. Like, the World War ll veteran who told me he met his wife on a small farm in France during the liberation of Europe. 

“We fell in love almost instantly, and it took months of hard work to bring her home to the States.” 

Still married decades later, the herculean task and the fear of being separated from the woman he loved was still fresh in his mind.

Or, the lady whose parents lived through the Dust Bowl in the drought-stricken Southern Plains region of the United States. 

My father said, “Nothing would grow, so we boarded up the family farmhouse and headed west with the tired old pickup stacked high with all of our belongings hefted up on top.”

Still seared into his memory was the sad looks on the faces of town folks they passed by. 

“Loaded down with dirty kids and crying babies, we must have been a pitiful sight to see,” he told me with a hint of sadness in his watery grey eyes.

Then there was the elegantly attired lady who shared the plight her family faced when her father died of typhoid fever, and her mother had to work outside of the home, leaving her to become the mother to her younger siblings.

“In those days, women didn’t work in town. I was barely eleven and had to cook, clean, and care for my three little sisters.”  

Or, the immigrant from Poland who landed in New York City with only a scrap of paper with a name on it.

“I only had an address and a name of a distant cousin. I was excited to be in the USA and terrified at the same time. This person I barely knew let me sleep on his couch until I got on my feet.”  

I heard one story after another, each unique and special in its own way. Some were very dramatic, and others were just the musings of a life well-lived. There were funny and weird stories as well – like paying neighbors in beer to push a piano around the block for your songwriting daughter. Or how you meet a rich man on the bus, and he pays for your college career … and then your sister’s college career when you dropout.

Of course, no one’s life is pain-free. All the folks I spoke with had trials and tribulations to overcome, some more serious than others. But, upon hearing their stories, I felt each needed to be remembered and passed along to family members so they might know more of their history. 

I’m not suggesting that everybody needs to or wants to go to all the work and energy it takes to write and have a memoir published. (Maybe “memoir” sounds too overwhelming. Perhaps your “life story” might be a better description of the project.) I feel confident you won’t regret the decision. When I finished my memoir, numerous family members thanked me for doing it.

My grandson said, “I had no idea all those things happened. Thank you for preserving our family history for future generations”.

Continue reading “Family History or Family Mystery… Why You Should Write Your Memoir”

A Painful Palm Sunday

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored — Aldous Huxley

We live in Florida, and like many senior citizens, Home Depot is a store we frequent.  We are always working on a house or garden project.  Like many retired empty nesters, we enjoy spending our time in useful pursuits. 

For me, it’s the yard.  I love all kinds of plants and I adore the changing of the seasons, which we enjoyed tremendously during the four years we lived in Ottawa, Ontario Canada. 

Wait, let me add one small caveat to that statement.  Spring, summer and fall are awesome.  But winters in Canada are another story; you can keep ‘em. Last year, Ottawa suffered several weeks of -40 degree weather.  Yep, we now fly south like other smart birds when winter sets in.  

When winter sets in and Canada gets cold, you understand why the smart fowl fly south.

Florida ‘s climate is different from most of the country, which enjoy the typical four seasons.  The “Sunshine State” is broken up into just two seasons, wet and dry. Wet season in Florida usually begins in late May and ends by mid-October. Sea breeze showers and storms are practically a daily afternoon occurrence. Vero Beach, where we live, racks up an average 58 inches of precipitation and the wet season is hot and humid.  But regardless of the heat and humidity, working in the garden fills my heart with joy.

On one sunny Sunday, as my husband and I were idly watching Rusty, the young lot attendant, stuff all the plants, mulch and garden rocks we’d purchased into our SUV, we chit-chatted about all the “snow birds” living in Florida (we are also called “Q-Tippers” by the locals because older folks are often short and when they drive all you can see is their white hair.)

“Yes,” our handsome helper said laughing, “Loading cars for the north folks can be a challenge. Some people buy stuff like they are loading up their plates at at the Last Meal Buffet.  Their eyes are bigger than their stomachs … or in this case, their cars.”

“Yeah.  I get that,” I nodded. “I hate to waste the time it takes to make a second trip. I guess you could say when it comes to home projects, my cup (or car) runneth over.”

During a lull, I asked Rusty the funniest experience he’d ever had loading a customer’s car.

“That’s easy,” he said.  “There is one guy who is a legend here at the Home Depot.  He always buys big items and insists, that if we really try hard enough, we will be able to fit them into his car.  We call him Tennis Tom, because he always dresses in tennis togs.”

According to Rusty, Tennis Tom refuses to admit that his spiffy white convertible sports car is not the best choice for his do-it-yourself projects.

“One time he had me load a high-end Kohler toilet onto his front leather passenger seat.”

“Make sure you attach the seat belt, will ya kid?  I don’t want to hear the darn thing beep all the way home. But, could you hurry up a bit?  My plumber is waiting on this beauty.  And you know what plumbers cost.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Rusty said, shaking his head.  “Tom drove off with a giant toilet as his co-pilot.  It was quite a sight.”

“Another time, I loaded a dozen big bags of mulch in his front seat and one of my co-workers had to tie down a screen door for the guy.  He’s just won’t take no for an answer.  When he wants something, he wants it NOW!”

But, despite his loading quirks, Rusty said Tennis Tom was a really nice guy.

“He always thanks me for my efforts and tries to slip me a $10 tip.  And I tell him every time that tips are not allowed.” 

“Well, that’s dumb,” he says.  “We tip everybody in New York City.”

“That’s hilarious,” I commented, as Rusty stuffed the last big bag of garden mulch into our car and hit the automatic button that closed the trunk door.

Rusty sighed with relief, “I wasn’t sure all that stuff would fit.  But it did.”

As we drove away from the store, I just had to remind my doubting husband, “See, I told you we could get all that stuff in the car.”

I love being right, at least once in a while.

Well, it fit alright, but our car was jam-packed and smelled like a cross between a flower shop and a barn. I was holding a flat of begonias on my lap and a pair of beautiful red roses were sitting at my feet with the blossoms sticking up between my knees. And Chico, our Jack Russell mix (and constant companion on Home Depot runs), was straddled precariously on the center console.

“Yay!” I chirped gleefully.  “We don’t have to make a second trip.”

A few Sundays later, I was at the Home Depot again, and this time I ended up in the checkout line directly behind the infamous Tennis Tom.  True to form, Tom was all decked out in white and sported an expensive pair of sunglasses.  He was purchasing a large palm tree, which was perched on a loading dolly, with trusty Rusty in attendance. 

When Rusty recognized me, he flashed me a quick smile to say, “This is the guy… the guy I was telling you about.”

According to Wikipedia, there are over 2,500 species of palm trees and almost all of them can be grown in Florida.  The Phoenix Robellini, the type Tom was purchasing, is often planted in clusters for visual impact, has a maximum height of 12 feet and makes an impressive statement on any lawn.  But, like many palms, the Robellini has sharp and bothersome thorns where the palm fronds affix to the trunk.  And when I say thorns, I mean BIG thorns that hurt.  Thick gloves are a must when trimming a Robellini.  And, when you’re trying to plant one, you’d be smart to wear eye protection.   

When I finished paying for my purchases, I followed Tennis Tom and his tree into the parking lot. Luckily, my car was parked directly across from his in the lot. I could hardly wait to see if Tom would try and fit a full-size palm tree in the front seat of his sports car. 

And yes, yes he did. 

“The safety belt won’t fit around the palm, sir,” Rusty warned his customer.  “It’s going to be loose in the seat. And I don’t think that heavy cardboard you brought is going to protect your leather from the thorns.  Are you sure you want to do this?  You do know, sir, that we make home deliveries?” 

“I know, I know,” Tom answer impatiently.  “But my gardener is working today and he’s at the house waiting to plant the palm.  Just buckle the belt behind the tree and don’t forget to cover the leather beneath it with a bunch of that plastic stuff.  I’ll drive very carefully.  Don’t worry kid.  It’s not my first rodeo.  The tree and I will be fine.”

I took my time loading my few purchases into my trunk so I could watch and hear the Tennis Tom spectacle.  As predicted, I heard Tom offer Rusty a tip and I heard Rusty refuse, again.  politely.

“Well, that’s a dumb rule.  We tip everybody in New York City.”

With that ritual behind him, Tennis Tom adjusted his shades, revved up his beautiful white Mercedes convertible and drove out into the traffic with his six-foot tree in tow.   A sports car, with a tree sticking out of top is not a common sight in our town.  So, it didn’t take long for a gaggle of gawkers to develop.

Traffic was light, so Tom was able to easily pull into the left-hand lane at the traffic signal. He waited patiently until the light turned green and then he began his turn. 

As he turned, it happened.  When Tennis Tom leaned into the turn, the palm followed and instantly landed on Tom’s right side.

As the turn progressed, so did the sounds.  Even a half a block away, we could hear loud groans and moans of a person being impaled by the sharply pointed thorns of a Robellini palm. 

“Ouch, ouch, OUCH!!!  Holy shit!” 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is palm-with-big-thorns.jpg
This gives you an idea of what palm thorns look like. The Robellini has slightly smaller thorns, but they hurt just as much as these big beauties.

The crowd of onlookers watched helplessly as the gloveless man tried to fend off the onslaught of puncturing palm fronds. It was obvious from the sounds that Tom was being skewered as he fought to upright the thorny beast in his car.

“Holy moly!  Poor Tom,” yelled Rusty.  “I was afraid that might happen.”

A grumpy old guy standing next to me didn’t feel a bit sorry for Tom.  On the contrary.  He just shook his head and yelled, “The guy is an idiot!”

I didn’t mean to laugh.  It wasn’t funny, really.  But the scene was comical and so I did.

Impatience can cause wise people to do foolish things — Janette Oke

I would like to say that I’d never pull a stunt like the one I was witnessing.  But of course, that would be a total lie.  My past is littered with stories about me pushing the limit or refusing to deal with the reality of a situation.  Let me give you an example. 

When Alan and I bought our first house, we went to the hardware store (I don’t think Home Depots were open then) to purchase an additional sheet of laminate for the inside of a shower we were remodeling in our modest master bath. The project was almost complete.  All we needed was one last section of laminate about two feet wide and seven or eight feet long.

When we got to the store, my husband took one look at the laminate pieces the store had available, and wisely said, “We can’t get that in the car.  We’ll have to wait until we can borrow a truck or something to get that home.”

Now, my reaction to seeing the size of the laminate pieces, was totally different.  In my mind’s eye, there HAD to be a way to get that last piece of laminate to our house.  Maybe it would roll up. Nope.  Maybe we could tie it on top of the car. Nope. We didn’t have anything to tie it to.  Maybe we could put it inside the car and leave the window open with the laminate protruding out the side. Nope. 

“Absolutely not,” barked Alan loudly.  “If that laminate get’s loose it could decapitate one of the kids.  That’s not happening!”

“Okay. I get it,”  I snapped back, half kidding. “But, let’s don’t give up so easily. There has to be a way.”

If I’m anything, I’m determined.  And like Tom, I’m impatient.  Especially when I get my mind set on something (and I was dead-set on getting that bathroom done, TODAY!)   So, I harped and nagged at my husband until I bullied him into the idea that I could hold the piece of laminate on the outside of the car, up tight against the door as he drove home.

“We only have to drive a couple of miles, Alan.  I’m sure I can hold it.  I want to finish the shower today.  PLEASE, don’t make me wait another week.  Come on, Alan.  Don’t be such a chicken.  We can get this home.”

Under the barrage of my persistent prodding, the poor man relented and reluctantly handed me the laminate, which I held tightly up against the side of the car.

“Okay, are you sure you have it securely?” he asked with dread in his eyes and concern in his voice.

“It’s a piece of cake, really.  Yes, it’s fine.  I’ve got it.  Let’s go.”

As Alan pulled slowly and carefully into traffic, I was feeling less confident and I was thinking, “If this darn laminate was one inch wider, I could never hold on.”

One mile per hour, two miles per hour, three miles per hour, “So far, so good,” I reassured my hubby.

But, when Alan was forced to accelerate to keep up with traffic, the wind caught the laminate, tore it from my grasp and snapped it in two…like a twig…like a bat at home plate, like brittle kindling for a fire.  You get the idea. The laminate was broken and went flying wildly into the air.

Needless to say, Alan was not a happy camper, nor was the startled man who was driving behind us who had to pull hard right to dodge the laminate projectiles that careened towards his windshield. 

I can’t repeat what the guy screamed at my embarrassed husband.  Let’s just say his barroom vernacular and graphic gestures made me feel incredibly stupid for being so headstrong and suggesting we try such a stupid stunt.  I felt like a moron.  Which I was. 

I don’t get high, but sometimes I wish I did. That way, when I messed up in life I would have an excuse. But right now, there’s no rehab for stupidity. — Chris Rock

The balance of the trip home was in total silence.  But, the story of my stupidity was the fodder for many a party joke, at my expense, for years.

When I got home from Home Depot that Sunday, I couldn’t wait to tell Alan about Tennis Tom and his painful palm experience. 

“Yea,” Alan replied smirking. “Hard to imagine someone being so stubborn as to try something so stupid.  Right, Paula?”

“Yessiree Bob…hard to believe anyone could be such a moron.”

A Door Busting Drama

Normally, I’m a bit of a wimp and I try to avoid confrontation, especially if I’m considering confronting a man dressed like the leader of a motorcycle gang.  But I was mad and that made me brave (or maybe just stupid).  So, I confronted the biker.  He had obviously stolen my money and I wasn’t going to let him get away with it.

Photo by Kevin Bidwell

My shopping cart was overflowing as I approached the checkout stand at Pic-N-Save (now called Big Lots).  It was late fall and I was buying all kinds of goodies for the upcoming holidays.  Pic-N-Save was always a great place to purchase cheap decorations and crafting items.  But, during “Door Busting Sales” their advertising tagline rings particularly true, “Pick a little and save a lot.” 

I love to people-watch.  So, while I waited to be rung up, I studied the other folks in the checkout line.  In front of me was a sweet looking grandma of a gal, probably in her late 70s (now that I’m in my mid-70s, she doesn’t seem that old).  She wore really thick prescription glasses and was fidgeting with a handful of carefully clipped coupons.  (I admire people who have the discipline to clip coupons. I have tried to do that, but I’m such a scatterbrain that the coupons never make it to the store before they expire). 

Anyhow, the coupon clipper and a heavy-set checker were reviewing her bill, item by item.  It was obvious the older lady was making sure each item had been recorded accurately and that she’d received full credit for all of her coupons.  (I have a theory about store checkers.  Unless the bill seems completely out of whack, I don’t review it. I depend on karma and assume that I get overcharged about as often as I get undercharged and things balance out in the end.) 

Standing behind me in line was a tattooed titan who looked liked a character right out of the movies, maybe Easy Rider or Hell’s Angels on Wheels (you can take your pick).  When I  first entered the store, I noticed a classic ol’ hog, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, parked up close to the entry.  From this guy’s appearance, it was obvious he was the owner.

Photo by Oleg Magni

The burly old biker had a red bandana tied around the top of his head.  Long stringy clumps of mostly grey hair fell from the sides of the bandana and dusted the top of his well-worn black leather jacket.  His jacket was festooned with colorful embroidered patches, mementos no doubt, of previous riding events he had participated in.  His motorcycle goggles hung loosly around his neck and his t-shirt, barely visible beneath his jacket, sported some kind of message.  The biker’s black leather boots were dirty, and as he got closer, I could smell rank sweat and stale cigarette smoke.  A ring of dust, which perfectly matched the outline of his goggles, gave his weathered face an almost ghost-like appearance.  I gave him a smile as we moved forward towards the checker.  He nodded and grunted a low response.  His eyes were bluish grey.

“NEXT!” barked the seemingly overwhelmed checker towards the two of us as coupon lady finished her business and edged her basket towards the exit.

The checker was dressed in a bright orange company apron with giant front pockets.  She wore a tilted name badge with “Sue” scribbled with black marker under the printed words, “Hi. My name is…”

She had a sad face and sad eyes.  I instantly felt sorry for her and wanted to brighten her day. 

“How you doing today?” I asked cheerfully.  And then, in an attempt to show empathy, I added, “Boy, this place is packed…looks like they’re really keeping you busy.”

“I’m fine,” she muttered back unenthusiastically, “Welcome to Pic-N-Save.”

From Sue’s sarcastic reaction to my upbeat greeting, I wouldn’t have been surprised if her car had a bumper sticker that read, “Thanks for refilling my ‘fed up with you’ meter.”

Sue wasn’t happy but she was fast.  She rang up my purchases in rapid fire succession:

“Twenty-two Thanksgiving swizzle sticks, eighteen gold glitter picks, three elf wreaths with battery-operated eyes, one dozen small, one dozen medium and eight large holiday bags, tissue (variety pack), etc., etc., etc.”

Not looking up at me once, or acknowledging my presence beyond our terse greeting, Sue continued counting my items, ringing them up on the register and shoving them into a couple of oversized plastic bags that began to bulge at the seams.  So as not to slow down the progress, I took five $20 bills out of my wallet and placed them on the counter as Sue was finishing.  (I don’t usually pay with cash.  But we had a big neighborhood garage sale the day before and my wallet was bulging with twenty-dollar bills.)

Just then, from outside the store, we heard the loud screech of car breaks and the bang of something big and heavy hitting metal and glass.  The whole building shook with the sound.

“What the hell?” someone yelled.

People started screaming and everyone turned immediately towards the source of the noise, the front of the store.

It only took a nanosecond to surmise the situation.  A driver had failed to put on his brakes and a big black sedan had run smack dab into the front bay window of the store.  (Now that’s what a call a door buster!)  Shattered glass, metal shopping carts and holiday decorations flew in all directions as frantic shoppers scrambled away from the oncoming car.  The black sedan eventually came to rest on top of a giant, tinseled plastic Christmas tree.  Comically, despite the mammoth tree topper that had just flown in from the parking lot, the twinkle lights continued to blink. 

Instantly the store was a chaotic mess.  The police and fire department arrived with sirens blaring, which greatly added to the noise and confusion.  But, thankfully no one was hurt and eventually the store returned to its holiday activities, and “Joy to the World” could be heard playing, for the umpteenth time on the store’s overhead speakers.

Once things calmed down, I turned back around to the checker and looked down at the top of the counter.  During the melee, my five $20 bills had disappeared.

“Did you pick up my money?” I asked the checker, who’s day had clearly brightened up with the excitement of the accident.

“What money? I didn’t see any money.  Are you sure you put your money down on the counter?”

“Yes!” I answered matter-of-factly, looking down at my still open purse.  “I put five $20 bills right there.”

I don’t know why I thought pointing to the spot would help. 

“Well, I didn’t see any money and it’s not there now.  So, I don’t know what to say.”

Just then, I thought about Easy Rider standing next to me.  Instantly, I knew what must have happened.  The biker had taken my money during the excitement.  He was the culprit.

The cheerless checker was getting frustrated with me because I was now holding up the line.  Shoppers were anxious to get home and tell their family members about their near-death experiences while trying to pick a little and save a lot.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to pay or you’ll have to leave the stuff…that’s all there is to it.”

Normally, I’m a bit of a wimp and I try to avoid confrontation, especially if I’m considering confronting a man dressed like the leader of a motorcycle gang.  But I was mad and that made me brave (or maybe just stupid).  So, I confronted the biker.  He had obviously stolen my money and I wasn’t going to let him get away with it.

As I boldly turned to accuse him of taking my money, the biker calmly said to the checker, “Miss, why don’t you look and see if you accidently put the money in with the items you shoved into the plastic bags?”

The biker’s question did not improve the checker’s attitude.

“Fine,” she huffed. “But I’m telling you there wasn’t any money on that counter.”

With that, Sue grabed up the biggest bag and dramatically dumped out all of the contents.  Everything went spilling onto the top of the counter and onto the floor.  All my purchases.

And the five $20 bills.

Upon seeing the missing money, the checker smiled meekly and raised her shoulders up, as if to say, “Whoops.”

Obviously, I was happy to see my money.  But, I was also mortified to think how close I had come to accusing this innocent guy of being a thief.  Even worse, I was basing my accusation on nothing more than his looks.  I was embarrassed, even if the biker didn’t know what I had ALMOST done.

Do not judge my life story by the chapter you walked in on.” –

The biker helped me load my purchases back into bags and he quickly paid for his one item, a ceramic figurine of a Chihuahua. 

“It’s my mom’s birthday.  She loves Chihuahuas,” he said laughing.  “I’m on my way over to her place to clean-up before tonight’s ride.”

He went on to explain that he just rode in from the desert.  “That’s why I’m such a mess.” 

I thanked the biker for helping me find my money and for collecting all the stuff that had fallen onto the floor.  When we got to the parking-lot I complimented him on his motorcycle.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling.  “Tonight’s our big annual ride for abused kids.  I’ve been doing it for years.  See?”  He pointed proudly to a series of matching patches sewn on his jacket and his t-shirt which I could now see.  It read, “We ride for the kids.” 

I wanted to give the guy a big hug.  But he waved me away.  “I appreciate the gesture…but I don’t think I smell too good.”

We laughed as I thanked him for his service. Jake Roland, the guy that I had imagined was the leader of a notorious motorcycle gang, was a retired plumber and a Vietnam vet from Palm Springs.  I had let his appearance shape my opinion of who he was.  Obviously, there was more to this man’s person than his clothes had led me to believe.  Like they say all the time, and I had briefly forgotten, you can’t judge a book by its cover. 

When I got home, I looked up a saying I once read by an American novelist, Lauren Oliver.  I believe her words fit the situation perfectly:

“I shiver, thinking how easy it is to be totally wrong about people, to see one tiny part of them and confuse it with the whole.”

Yep…you shouldn’t be fooled by what you see on the outside because what’s on the inside is very often a different story.