Monday, December 17, 2007

The next two weeks' columns, which constitute a story series along with Notes 12-16 -- pax, jbg

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Notes From My Knapsack 12-23-07
Jeff Gill

You May Be An Angel, This Week Anyhow

When the lady opened the door for him, he knew this was going to be a talker.

She was asking him questions even before he got his shoes off and set them on the mat in the front hallway. Questions that were in the form of statements about the filter she’d had her nephew change last month, how old the furnace was, the way she made sure not to let boxes and bags of water softener lean against the ductwork.

She was elderly, but he’d been certain of that from the first conversation as he answered her worried message on the voicemail. If you were going to do HVAC work these days, you had to have voicemail, though it always tightened his stomach a bit to work the buttons on his cell phone and listen intently to the muddled recordings coming to him from who knows where.

In December folks always sound fearful and a bit defensive on their messages, needing heat to come back soon, and knowing that, since they’re calling, they can’t fix it themselves, and resent needing his expertise more than a little bit.

This lady, though, was sweet and courteous in the way you expect grandmotherly types to be. He’d not known any elderly women like that in his family, but he knew they were out there, somewhere, often making cookies when he came to repair their furnaces just to confirm the image.

There was no tell-tale scent in the air this early in the morning, but she was his first stop since kissing the kids goodbye and waving across the living room to where his wife was diapering their youngest. He listened to the quavering voice standing by the sink in the kitchen, where the ruckus of off-to-school prep was around a corner and blunted just a little. She was the third message of five, but the first in need as he heard out her situation.

She continued a rattling stream of cheeriness as he levered the panel off the side of the furnace, looked about with his heavy yellow-cased flashlight, and twitched the main flow knob. Then she stopped as he leaned back and looked thoughtful.

“Is there any dreadfully wrong, after all?” she asked, this time a direct question.

“No, ma’am, but I just realized I forgot to do something.”

“Do you need a tool from your truck?”

“Not exactly,” he smiled reassuringly, and walked past her and back up the stairs.

Turning the corner where his experience told him it must be, he stood in front of the thermostat. Yep, that’s it, he thought.

With a careful check of his tone, he said “The, uh, furnace was turned off. Here at the on-off switch. I usually call and tell people to check that before I come by, but I just came right over. My mistake . . .” As he spoke, he flipped the toggle to “on” and immediately heard the hum below his feet confirming what he already knew.

“Oh, oh dear, I am so . . .” the lady started to say, and was cut off by an upraised hand, and the words “No, this happens all the time when the temperature swings around, and folks assume the worst. That’s why I should have called and even looked here first; please don’t worry about it.”

“Well, certainly I owe you something for your . . .” and the hand again, so gently raised, barely waist-high, and a response “Please, ma’am, don’t even fret a moment. Glad to ease your worries.”

He went on down to the basement, set all to rights, and came up to get his shoes on and make an exit. She stood in the same spot with a bright look on her face as he went, and just as his hand reached the doorknob, said “You are my Christmas angel, you know that? Thank you so very much, my dear.”

Driving to the next address he’d listed on his notepad, the image wouldn’t leave his mind. Him, an angel. Right.

Except for her, it was true. The heat was back on, confirmation that all was well, and no trace of his having been there – mud on the carpet, a bill on the table – all meant that, for her, he had been exactly what she called him: “my Christmas angel.”

So that’s what I am, he chuckled. An angel. OK.

With that acceptance, he pulled into a parking lot to call the next two homes and ask them to check their “on” switches. Just in case. Couldn’t be an angel that much this week; it’s hard on a man to be nothing but an angel.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he wishes one and all a Merry Christmas, and you can wish him one at

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Notes From My Knapsack 12-30-07
Jeff Gill

Christmas Day, 2007, Drawing To a Close

In some families, there are movies that make Christmas Day, whether it’s the repeating cycle of “A Christmas Story” on TNT or “White Christmas” with Der Bingle crooning alongside Rosemary Clooney.

When he had married his wife and her two daughters, they had always watched “A Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve or on the day in between presents, but their Dickens movie version was different from the one he had grown up with – plus, he was convinced that the Mr. Magoo version was the best, anyhow.

After some good-natured disputing about which line or another “really belonged” in the story, his wife had pulled a dog-eared paperback copy of the actual story out of some box, and he read it to everyone after dinner.

The book went into the Christmas decoration box that year, and came back out for a Christmas Day evening reading each of the last five years. From 1843 to today, the language gap was wide, but he suspected the girls were just starting to make the leap and really hear what the words were saying.

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

One of the girls asked if there really were people like this around today, and he sadly nodded his head. “I used to work for one, which is how I started my own business. It’s scary, but not as scary as working for someone with ice for a soul.” OK, she replied, keep going.

The three Spirits made their appearances, the revelation at the gravesides for Tiny Tim and Scrooge himself hit hard, and then the sun rose over London:

“He dressed himself "all in his best," and at last got out into the streets. The people were by this time pouring forth, as he had seen them with the Ghost of Christmas Present; and walking with his hands behind him, Scrooge regarded every one with a delighted smile. He looked so irresistibly pleasant, in a word, that three or four good-humoured fellows said, "Good morning, sir! A merry Christmas to you!" And Scrooge said often afterwards, that of all the blithe sounds he had ever heard, those were the blithest in his ears.”

Can people really change like that? They both watched him closely, wanting to know the answer; yes, he said, but not often enough. Most of us get set in a course early on, and don’t leave it.

You told us that you did, though: did you see a ghost?

Yes, I did, he smiled back, but kind of like Scrooge, it was my ghost I saw. And I didn’t want to be him, I wanted to be your dad someday. They smiled back, and then looked at the book; he picked it up, and concluded:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a
master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. . .and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; Happy New Year to one and all, and may you and your family be blessed with health and hope and happiness in 2008. And Go Bucks!

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