A Mighty Fine Christmas Message


A Mighty Fine Christmas Message

“It was a good message, boy,” Bill called to me as I climbed out of his ancient, army-green Plymouth and pulled my coat more tightly around me to protect me from the icy night. Bill stared down the street into the darkness, his cracked, calloused, grease-stained hands clasping the steering wheel. It was always hard for me to know what Bill was thinking. All his secrets were locked behind the wide, leathery face topped by his graying, short-cropped hair.

“I’d sure like to know the scriptures like you, boy,” he muttered, shaking his head. “But,” he added with resignation, “I figure I’m too old for all that now.” He cleared his throat, and a hoarse chuckle rumbled in his chest. “I could tell you plenty about diesel engines—I’ve worked on them for over fifty years—but I never had much time for the Bible and that sort of thing. Yeah,” he added with a sigh, “it was a mighty fine message, boy.”

I coughed nervously into my fist and muttered a short good night. I didn’t ever know what to say around Bill. I had known him all my life—at least I had lived down the street from him—and yet, I still felt uncomfortable when he was around.

Slamming the car door, I started up the front walk. I glanced about me. The porch light was encased in a misty haze of snow. I ducked my head further into my collar and leaned against the white wintery onslaught.

“Well, Daniel, you’re back early,” Dad greeted me. I pulled my coat off and shook the melting snow from it. “How did it go?” Dad asked.

I shrugged. “Same as usual,” I grumbled, dropping down on the sofa and closing my eyes.

“How’s Sister Rencher?”

“She says she feels a lot better. At least she can get up and around with her walker.” For a while both of us were quiet, and then I said, as much to myself as to Dad, “Well, there’s one advantage of home teaching with Bill. When he’s not in a talkative mood, which is most of the time, we can visit all three widows in about thirty minutes. That must be some kind of record.”

There was a rustle of paper and I opened my eyes. Dad had dropped the newspaper he had been reading into his lap and was staring at me. “What’s wrong with Bill?” he asked.

I heaved a sigh. “Nothing. I guess. That is if you don’t mind doing everything yourself,” I added sarcastically. “All he ever does is show up and beep his horn. The second Wednesday of every month. There are some things that never change: Bill’s beeping horn is one of them. No appointment. We’re just supposed to know that he’s coming. But all the rest is my job. I do the talking, give the lesson, everything.

“Why does Bill home teach anyway?” I asked, suddenly curious.

“What’s that?” Dad asked.

I shrugged and shifted my weight. “Well, ever since the bishop assigned me to Bill three months ago, I’ve wondered why he even goes. Has Bill ever gone to church?”

Dad dropped his paper on the floor. “He used to go some. Before his wife, Tillie, had her stroke. But even then he always seemed more at home in his garage dressed in a pair of dirty coveralls with grease to his elbows.”

“I can believe it,” I grinned. “He always smells like an old engine. He’s never able to get all the grease off his hands.” I hesitated. “Bill smokes, doesn’t he?”

Dad looked over at me and shrugged. “I’ve never seen him.”

“You don’t have to see him. All you have to do is look at his yellow-stained fingers. And he sucks those awful green lozenges to kill the tobacco smell. That’s why I can’t understand Bishop Clark letting him be a home teacher.”

“Those three widows never complain,” Dad said.

“But a home teacher is supposed to set an example. And don’t tell me this is my chance to get Bill to come to church. You and I both know that’s not ever going to happen.”

“I suppose the Lord knows that home teaching is one place where Bill can do some good,” Dad answered somberly.

“Do some good?” I gasped. “But he’s totally inactive!”

“You can learn something from Bill.”

“I don’t want to be a diesel mechanic.”

“Maybe you can learn something about the gospel.”

“From Bill?” I asked incredulously. “I’ll bet he has never read a scripture in his life!”

“I don’t think you know Bill. When he stands before the Lord, I doubt the Lord will be looking at his greasy hands and tobacco-stained fingers.” Dad cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Can you deliver newspapers for your brother again in the morning? He still has that bad sore throat and cough.”

The next morning I was up a little before five o’clock, tossing bundles of the Herald onto the back seat of the car. During the night the snow had stopped, and the world was buried under its wet cottony mass. I glanced down the driveway and wondered if I should take a few minutes to push some of the snow away before pulling out. Blowing on my numb fingertips and stomping the snow from my feet, I shook my head. I didn’t have time, I reasoned. And I was sure I could get out without getting stuck.

The first stop I made was at Sister Rencher’s. With most people, I didn’t make the effort to set the newspaper inside the front door. I just tossed it in the general direction of the porch. But with Sister Rencher I made an exception because it was so hard for her to get around. I snatched a paper off the back seat, stepped from the car, and sprinted for the front steps. I stopped at the end of the walk and stared in disbelief. The front walk and steps were shoveled completely clean of snow. I glanced at my watch—5:15 A.M. “Boy, somebody’s sure been up early this morning,” I muttered, hurrying up the clean walk and setting the paper inside the storm door. “Maybe Sister Rencher can get around with that walker better than I thought,” I grinned.

“That was quick,” Dad called to me as I burst in from the cold ninety minutes later. He was just putting on his coat and stuffing papers into his briefcase before heading out the door for work.

“There’s a ton of snow out there,” I remarked. “It must have snowed another four inches after we went to bed.”

“I guess you cleaned off our walks and driveway,” Dad joked.

“What did you want me to do, get up at three o’clock?” I grinned back. “I was lucky to get the papers delivered. But somebody was sure up early. Sister Rencher’s walks were completely clean.”

Dad smiled. “What about Sister Hatch’s and Sister Ballard’s?”

“Dad, I was delivering papers, not home teaching. I don’t go over that way.”

The following Tuesday, a week before Christmas, I was in my room getting ready for a Young Adult Christmas party. We were going caroling and then to Tracie Heath’s for food and fun. As I pulled on my heaviest socks and stomped my feet into my boots, a car horn began beeping out on the street. I ignored it until Mom called down the hall, “Daniel, were you going home teaching tonight?”

“Tonight? No, I’ve got a Young Adult caroling party.”

“Looks like Bill’s out front waiting for you.”

“Bill?” I gasped, coming down the hall. “We’ve already done our home teaching this month! You sure it’s him?”

“That’s his black Ford truck, isn’t it?”

I rubbed the steam from the kitchen window and peered out. It was Bill’s truck all right. I thought his ‘63 green Plymouth was ancient, but his black Ford truck was an antique, something from the early ‘50s. “If anybody thinks I’m going with him tonight—” I glared out the window again. “What does he think I do, just sit around waiting for him to pick me up to …”

“Daniel,” Mom cut me short, “you don’t even know what he wants.”

“Mom, I’m almost late!”

“Just tell him,” she said. “Surely he’ll understand that you had other plans.”

Grumbling to myself, I stepped out into the icy evening in my shirt sleeves and trotted out to the black Ford. Bill opened the door and leaned across the seat to talk to me.

“Did we have an appointment tonight?” I asked before he could speak. I flapped my arms and shuffled my feet against the biting cold.

“Christmas is next week,” was Bill’s simple explanation as he rubbed the bristle on his chin. “I had a couple of things for the ladies,” he added. “Would you like to come?”

“I have a Young Adult party. I didn’t know we had planned anything.”

“It should take only a minute,” Bill said. “You’d better grab a coat, though.” He chuckled. “This old truck ain’t got much of a heater. But I had to bring it instead of the Plymouth.” He nodded his head toward the back. “Got a little something extra for Vivian Rencher.”

I glanced in the back of the truck. A bulky object lay under a ragged canvas tarp.

“I’ll get you back for your party,” Bill went on when he saw my hesitation.

“Did you have an appointment?” Mom asked as I banged the front door and went to get my coat.

“No,” I sighed, “but that doesn’t make much difference to Bill. And I’m going to freeze in that black heap of his. No heater and the door on my side doesn’t close. Dang! Of all nights!”

Bill and I didn’t speak as we drove to Sister Ballard’s place. And as I expected, I almost froze.

When we stopped in front of Sister Ballard’s place, Bill grabbed a brown paper sack from under the seat, and the two of us started up the walk to the front door. I knocked once and, almost immediately, Sister Ballard pulled the door open and peered out at us. It was a moment before she focused, and then a huge smile burst upon her face and she pushed the storm door open and greeted us cheerfully. “I wondered if you would come tonight. Well, come in.”

We took our usual places on the worn couch with the afghan draped over it. Before Sister Ballard could drop into her chair in front of us, Bill held out the brown paper sack and announced gruffly, “Some walnuts. Off my tree.”

“Why, thank you, Bill. I used your last ones at Thanksgiving. I guard them all year. I keep them in the freezer to keep them fresh.”

“They’re shelled and cleaned and everything,” Bill added, looking down at his rough, cracked hands. He rubbed them together, and I could hear the dry chaffing sound. I studied them for a moment, remembering the message I had given last month on the Word of Wisdom. Though the Word of Wisdom had been only a small part of the First Presidency Message that month, I had emphasized it pretty heavily. I really hadn’t needed to, not for the sisters. I suppose it had been a cruel attempt on my part to dig at Bill’s bad habit.

“Why, Bill,” Sister Ballard exclaimed, bringing me back to the present, “there must be five pounds of shelled nuts here.”

Bill shrugged self-consciously and pulled on his nose.

“It must have taken hours to do all this work,” she said. “Thank you so very much.”

Bill wasn’t one to accept praise or compliments very well. Any fuss over him seemed to make him nervous, self-conscious, and tight-lipped. His only escape was to turn the focus to someone else. He jerked out his red handkerchief, blew his nose, and then to my surprise announced, “The boy’s got a Christmas message for you.”

Startled, I glanced over at Bill, who began rubbing his hands on his pants and tapping his right foot. I wanted to protest, but any protest at this stage would have been futile. With no further notice or preparation, the only thing that seemed appropriate was the Christmas story.

When I finished my choppy Christmas account, having forgotten some parts and mixed up others, I ducked my head, my ears and neck bright red with embarrassment. Bill pushed himself to his feet and said, “That was a mighty fine Christmas message, boy.” He coughed and added, “The boy can say a prayer before we go.”

Sister Ballard nodded her consent and I prayed. As we were leaving, Bill stopped by Sister Ballard’s woodburning stove as though remembering something. Turning back to Sister Ballard, he asked, “Them deacons did bring you your load of wood, didn’t they?” She smiled and nodded. “And it’s split, ain’t it?” he asked.

Sister Ballard hesitated. “Oh, I can take care of that fine.”

“You mean they didn’t split it?” Bill burst out, almost angry.

“Don’t worry about it, Bill. I can manage fine. I don’t use the stove that much anyway. Bishop Clark keeps telling me I shouldn’t fuss with my stove, that I should just turn on the furnace. I do most of the time, but on cold nights I surely do enjoy putting my feet up next to that warmth. …”

“But they didn’t split the wood?” Bill broke in.

“Oh, the neighbor boy comes over sometimes and …”

“Me and the boy will split the wood,” Bill cut in. “I’ve got my ax in the truck if the boy can borrow yours.”

I couldn’t believe that Bill was really offering to split wood! Tonight! I had my good clothes on. And if we split wood, I would never make it over to Tracie’s place before everyone left to go caroling. But Bill was already halfway to the truck.

A few minutes later the two of us were in Sister Ballard’s backyard splitting wood in the dim yellow light from a weak bulb on the back porch.

“What good’s a bag of nuts?” Bill muttered as he swung his ax furiously. “She can’t get warm with a bag of nuts, can she? I shouldn’t have forgotten. I usually don’t forget, boy. I usually check up better. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what. Then I saw that cold stove. She usually has a little fire going in it. That ain’t much to ask for. These widows need to be taken care of. A sack of nuts and all the talk about angels and shepherds and mangers is fine, but on cold nights Martha Ballard likes wood to burn.”

I stopped chopping and stared over at Bill. I forgot my good clothes, my cold hands, my wet feet. I studied Bill for a moment, this time looking past his chapped, cracked, stained hands. When I resumed chopping, the caroling party seemed so insignificant.

Thirty minutes later, all the wood was split and piled next to the back door. As we were leaving, Bill warned Sister Ballard, “Now don’t you go splitting no more wood. There’s them that can do it for you, that should do it for you.”

Then we drove to Sister Hatch’s home. She seemed to be waiting for us and opened the door after the first ring, her face lighted up with a smile. She grabbed my arm and pulled me inside. “I just knew this was the night,” she laughed, pumping Bill’s hand and leading us both into her living room. “I even have hot chocolate and fruit cake.”

“These are for you,” Bill said, holding out another sack of walnuts.

“Oh, Bill,” she gasped as she took the sack, opened it tenderly, and peered inside. “You never forget, do you, Bill?”

Bill’s nervous agitation started again, and he jabbed a thumb in my direction and said hoarsely, “The boy’s got a Christmas message, and then we’ve got to be on our way. The boy’s got a party.”

Our last stop was Sister Rencher’s. The door opened before I even had a chance to knock, and Sister Rencher, grinning and hobbling along with her metal walker in front of her, welcomed us inside. Once more, Bill went through his ritual with the walnuts. He and Sister Rencher chatted about the weather, her new great-grandson, and the horrible condition of the city’s streets. I was rapidly reviewing the Christmas story in my mind, getting ready for the moment when Bill would turn the time to me.

Suddenly Bill stood and said, looking at the floor, “I’ve got a little something else for you.” Turning to me he asked, “Want to help, boy? You can hold the door for me.”

Bill went to the truck, tore the canvas tarp off some kind of chair, dragged the chair from the truck bed, and brought it up the walk. He staggered into the house, lugging a huge oak rocking chair, crafted and polished to near perfection. He set it down gently in the middle of the room, stepped back, and smiled proudly. Sister Rencher just stared, unable to speak. She looked first at the chair, then at Bill, and finally back at the chair.

“When your other one broke last spring,” Bill explained shyly, “I figured I’d make you another one. I used to make them all the time, you know, my daddy being a carpenter and all. I don’t figure this one will break on you. It’s not like them store-bought things.”

Bill was finished. The smile disappeared, his words dried up, and he dropped down on the couch beside me.

Slowly Sister Rencher pulled herself to her feet and crept over to the rocking chair. She touched its smooth, hard, glossy finish with the tips of her fingers. She pushed on its high back, and it began to rock rhythmically. Slowly she eased her frail body into it and leaned her gray head against its solid back. For a moment, she sat very still. Then she began to rock, ever so slowly. And as she rocked, a smile came to her lips and huge crystal tears welled up in her eyes. “Thank you, Bill,” she whispered. “Oh, how I’ve missed my other one. But this,” she added, touching the curved arms, “would put my old one to shame.”

Bill coughed and announced suddenly, “The boy’s got a bit of a Christmas message for you.”

“Let’s have a prayer first,” Sister Rencher suggested.

“The boy can pray, too,” said Bill.

“I’ll pray tonight, Bill,” Sister Rencher said softly.

The three of us bowed our heads. As Sister Rencher prayed, I understood why Bill Hayward had never been released as a home teacher.

“And, Father in Heaven,” Sister Rencher prayed, “I thank thee so very, very much for Bill and his kindness. I thank thee for the many times he has pushed the snow, raked the leaves, tilled and weeded the garden, and cared for my every need. He has truly been an instrument in thine hands. Oh, Father in Heaven, please bless and keep this great man.”

As soon as the amens were said, Bill nervously turned and stammered, “The boy’s got a mighty fine message for you.”

For a moment I couldn’t speak. I had a lump as big as my fist in my throat, but it wasn’t the lump that stopped me. My mind went blank. I, who had thought I knew the scriptures so well, especially compared to someone like Bill Hayward, couldn’t seem to remember anything, not even the Christmas story—at least not well enough to give it right then. The thing that did come to mind was a strange, strange parable. And it wasn’t even one that had anything to do with Christmas—or so I thought.

I wet my lips and rubbed my hands on my pant legs. “I guess I’d like to explain what Christmas means to me,” I stammered hesitantly. “At least what it means tonight.” I looked down at my hands.

They were clean. The nails were clipped, the palms devoid of callouses. “There were two men that went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a publican,” I began. “The Pharisee was clean and educated and thought himself so very wise. The publican was a laborer, with dirty, calloused hands. Both men went to the temple to pray, and the Pharisee …” (See Luke 18:10–14.)

When we reached my home, Bill clasped the steering wheel and stared down into the blackness beyond the piercing glare of the headlights. “It was a mighty fine message, boy,” he said. “But I don’t recall ever hearing the part of the Christmas story you gave at Vivian Rencher’s—you know, about the two fellows going to the temple.”

He paused. “I’m not even sure I figured out the meaning. I guess that’s what happens when a fellow studies diesel engines more than the scriptures.”

“Oh, but I think you do know the scriptures, Bill,” I answered quietly. I turned to him and held out my hand. I had shaken hands with Bill before but never unless he had offered his first. “Thanks, Bill,” I said huskily. “Thanks for your message,” I continued, shaking his rough hand. “It was a mighty fine message.”

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson and Jed Clark; posed by models