I climbed into my old car and slammed the door, my face stinging from the cold wind and colder rebuff I'd just received when applying for the last job listed in the want ads. The classified section of the newspaper lay crumpled on the car seat beside me. I stared at the listings I had penciled through. I marked through this one and felt I was crossing off the last remnant of my self-confidence.
At first I had been logical about it. I had told myself that it was simply a case of too many veterans like myself just home from the second world war, fresh out of service and looking for work in a job-scarce market. But, as the weeks went by, I began to fear it was me. (Strange that most of us raised with the work ethic feel that unless an employer thinks we're worth a paycheck, we're worthless as persons. Anyway, that's how I felt.) "Lord, what should I do?!" It was more a lament than a prayer.
But right away my eyes fell on the part-time listings. I hadn't considered that; I needed more money. I ran my finger down the "Holiday Help Wanted" column, pausing at an ad for Santas for a popular department-store chain. "Really what we want isn't just holiday help," the ad read. "It's Christmas help we're after--Santas who believe in the Christmas spirit of caring!" I sighed. My war injury had resulted in some hearing loss, which counted me out as a good department-store Santa.
But it was just as well, I told myself moving down the ads, because I'd never felt less like a cheerful Santa. All my time at war, this paratrooper had dreamed of coming home to Utopia. But home had proved to be no job, savings nearly gone, and an awful feeling of being out of step with civilian life. How I longed for a feeling of being "at home" again inside! Only my wonderful wife, Mary, and our two kids kept me going. But lately I was too moody to be sociable with them.
Suddenly my finger was resting on the last holiday help ad: "Post office needs package delivery men from December first through Christmas." I knew city addresses well: I'd try!
I went into the post office with a doubtful heart and came out with a job for the next three weeks. At least the kids would have a little something under the tree.
That night I felt so much better about everything that I played games with the kids for the first time in several days while Mary made popcorn. Just before bedtime I listened while she read a family devotional. "These are the words . . . which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the elders of the exiles." That hit home. I felt like an exile myself, somehow out of the mainstream of life. Could it be that I was being sent a message too? Mary read on, "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find welfare." Jeremiah 29:1, 7 RSV. I shrugged, feeling a little sheepish about thinking such a thing.
My first week as a mailman was so hectic that I didn't have time to brood. But, by the second week, the job's end loomed up like a monster before me. That monster might have devoured me if it hadn't been for the' nice folks on my route—the old couple whose car battery I jump started, the frail widow whose groceries I carried to her kitchen a few times, and the little Troost boys. The towheaded boys—six and three years old—often walked to doors with me in their neighborhood, their shining eyes fastened on those brightly colored packages with their mysterious contents—packages I was delivering up and down their block. I knew they must be hoping for one of their own.
That Friday, the boys' mother was standing at the curb when I drove up. She leaned into the mail truck—a thin woman with wispy blond hair. "Package for Troost?" Her voice was softly southern and her smile patient. The neighbors had said they were newcomers. When I shook my head, she thanked me and moved away from the truck.
On Monday of Christmas week, she met my truck again. But, this time at my head shake, she didn't move away. "Are packages often delayed?" Her eyes were worried. "Do they," she bit her lip, "sometimes get lost?"
"Sometimes," I answered honestly. If you'll tell me what package you're expecting, where it's coming from, and when it was mailed, I'll do my best to check on it for you?'
"My folks in Montgomery, Alabama, mailed two boxes to us for our boys' Christmas. And we sure hope they get here in time." She swallowed hard. "You see, it's all the Christmas that the boys will get because we used up our money coming here for work. My husband has got a job promised as a construction worker, but the job won't start until January. If the boxes don't come---" I followed her gaze to the towheads playing ball in the driveway.
"I'll try to see if they're hung up somewhere," I ,..olunteered, "but I'm sure they'll get here." I took the information and turned it in. There didn't seem to be a delay anywhere. She and the boys met the mail truck every day, but no packages arrived. Not even on Christmas Eve morning!
That last day, before I drove out of the post office, I checked every package in the pile again. But there were none for Troost from the Fred Greenaways in Alabama. I'd have rather made another jump over enemy territory than face that wispy little woman and her kids with a mail truck loaded floor-to-ceiling with Christmas packages—and none for them!
When I drove up, she was waiting at the curb in spite of a cold drizzle —worn coat over her aproned dress. Twisting the hem of her apron, she leaned inside. "I sure do hope you brought my boys something." Iler soft southern accent couldn't hide the catch in her voice.
"I checked everywhere, but your packages haven't arrived," I told her. "Now don't give up entirely. When I get through with all my deliveries, I'll check one last time before I go home." The boys came running out, eyes lit up like candles. But the candles flickered out when the boys saw there was no box for them.
Mrs. Troost hugged her sons to her, "That's nice of you to go to that trouble," she said, "but we'll enjoy tomorrow even if those boxes don't come. We know what Christmas is really about, don't we boys?"
It was dark and the cold rain had turned icy as I delivered my last package. I was so tired, cold, and hungry that all I wanted to do was go home to a hot supper and a warm bed.
But I wouldn't let myself do that until I'd kept my promise. All day I had kept seeing those little boys' faces—their disappointment similar to my own at coming home from war and finding things fallen short of my shiny-eyed expectations.
As I drove hack to the post office, I had a prayer in my heart—a real prayer, not a lament. "Lord, let those packages for Troost from Alabama grandparents be there, please."
But when I saw the mammoth pile of last-minute packages, I realized how foolish my prayer had been. There was no way I could part that sea of packages to even walk through them, let alone turn each over to check the address! Just about that moment my eyes fastened on the first of the Troost packages right near my foot! The other wasn't far away. For those two from Alabama to be floating like twigs on the surface of that whole sea of boxes took more than luck. Surely it was the work of the good Lord. Moments later, I had both big packages in my arms, struggling out the door. Leaving, 3 was surprised to hear my own voice sound so joyous as I called, "Merry Christmas!" to the postmaster.
Neighborhood Christmas lights were winking from rooftops and windows as I retraced my route. I could hardly believe it of myself, a big strapping paratrooper, but I could almost hear sleigh bells jingling on my old car as I pulled into the Troost's driveway. Though officially the family had given me up, I could hear the kids shout for joy when I rang the doorbell!
Eyes dancing, the older boy helped unload the packages into his father's arms, while the three-year-old jumped up and down, squealing. Mrs. Troost smiled through happy tears. "Thanks, santa," she whispered as she and her husband saw me to the door. The Troosts hugged each other in the lighted doorway, calling "Merry Christmas!" as I drove away.
When I got home to my own wife and kids on that cold Christmas Eve, I hugged each tightly to rne. "Hey," Mary said, her eyes searching mine, "you hugged us as if you'd just this very minute come home from the war!"
"Maybe I have, Mary," I said, glowing inside. "Honey, God has blessed me so in my life with you and the kids! If I ever act otherwise, kick me!"
"Welcome home!" Mary smiled. And, at last, I felt "at home" again inside—no longer an exile.
That's when it hit me. Maybe Jeremiah's message had been meant for Inc. I'd prayed for the welfare of someone else—the Troosts—and in their welfare I'd found my own.