It Happened One Christmas Kettle
by Pauline Hylton
“Don’t forget to check on Clarence,” Dad reminded me as I hurried out the front door.
“I won’t. See you tonight,” I replied, closing the door behind me on a cold December morning, cornet case in one hand, car keys in the other, and hot breath hitting the wool scarf wrapped snugly around my ears and face.
I was home for a six-week holiday break from Asbury College. My parents were The Salvation Army officers in Decatur, Illinois, and part of my job was checking on our kettle workers and playing the cornet while they ate their lunch. Most of the workers were on public assistance for either a physical or mental disability, so the money they earned gave them a little extra for Christmas. Clarence was one of those people.
He didn’t talk much, except to me. I figured him to be in his mid 40’s, but of course at the ripe old age of 21, I had no idea. Anyone over 30 was ancient. I understood that Clarence couldn’t function completely on his own and that he didn’t have a regular job. His speech was slow and came with some difficulty for him, but I enjoyed listening to him and watching him smile when we spoke.
His kettle was at the end of a long mall in Decatur. He’d been assigned to the furthermost exit of Sears. He’d already worked for three weeks, so there was only one more week before Christmas.
I drove up to the mall and parked. Business was good. Many rushed in, talking and laughing. Others exited, weighed down with large bags or wrapped presents. A grin spread across my face as I spotted Clarence. He was there, of course, timidly ringing the bell, a faraway look in his eyes. Just then, I had an idea.
“Hey, Clarence!” I waved as I approached the kettle. Clarence smiled and waved shyly. “I’ve got an idea. How about we take your kettle inside and leave it at the desk, and I’ll take you to lunch.”
His grin faltered. “Well, okay,” he answered haltingly.
We lifted his kettle and deposited it with the clerk.
“Where do you usually eat?” I asked.
Clarence looked at me questioningly. “I usually just eat in the store.” He stammered.
He was referring to the coffee shop in Sears which sold cold sandwiches and grilled burgers. “Let’s try something different!” I suggested. He still had a puzzled look on his face, but took my hand trustingly.
We walked through Sears and came to the main entrance to the mall when I felt his hand pull hard. He’d stopped. I turned to look at him. His gaze was fixed on the elaborate Christmas decorations in the mall and the two-story, fully-decorated Christmas tree with the twinkling lights, the shiny over-sized bulbs and the large, colorful boxes wrapped and placed strategically underneath.
“This is beautiful! This is beautiful!” He exclaimed. We continued walking hand in hand as Clarence admired everything around him declaring, “This is beautiful!”
Clarence had faithfully been standing kettles at the far entrance to Sears, never realizing that it was attached to a block-long, decked-out mall. He was mesmerized.
I don’t remember much about where we ate or what we ate, but the memory of his delight in discovering the inside of the mall made a permanent impression on my mind and heart.
I also don’t remember much about the rest of my vacation. It seems as if I saw Clarence a few more times. Then on Christmas morning, my dad and I went to The Salvation Army transient lodge and made breakfast for Clarence and some truckers who were stranded at The Army because of bad weather. We enjoyed homemade biscuits and gravy and light conversation. And then we all went home. I went back to school in Kentucky, the truckers journeyed back to their homes in another state, and Clarence walked to his nearby home.
I never saw Clarence after that; but I’ll never forget him.
He made me realize that there can be a great treasure right outside my door that has gone unnoticed. He made me see the importance of stopping to wonder at the little things around me. And Clarence made me appreciate the value of each individual person that I ever see in a crowded mall.
That is beautiful.
“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36