I studied a modest home and its fields from my window seat in the school bus and felt uneasy. People disliked the family that lived there; I didn’t know why.
World War II had ended, and the farmers in the rural area where I was raised worked their fields and tended their crops with renewed energy, anticipating a good yield. Then the rain quit falling.
Sugar beets, alfalfa, and corn withered under an unrelenting sun. Folks watched the sky and worried — with one exception: the Japanese man who’d recently rented the Peterson place.
As larger crops failed, his vegetable gardens grew green under a patient hand and judicious irrigation. He and his family tended lush rows that contrasted with the desolation of the surrounding acres owned by others.
But as his produce prospered, his family suffered. Perhaps because the war was recent, or because he succeeded where others failed, the people of the small community shunned and scorned him and his loved ones, turning their backs to him at the gas pumps, refusing to sit by his children on the bus.
A meager harvest was taken that fall, and as winter gained momentum, families prepared for hardship. Fathers searched for part-time jobs and Santa Claus exercised thrift.
Then, in the bleakness of January, the gifts appeared. A mother of five, investigating a noise on her back porch, found a sack of potatoes leaning against the railing. An elderly couple, expecting a Sears’s catalogue, discovered a basket of winter squash beneath their mailbox. A young husband, lowering the tailgate of his pickup, saw a cardboard box filled with carrots.
Finally, winter gave surly way to bird-singing, flower-bursting spring. Once again, farmers wheeled tractors around fields, believing this year would be better. And as summer followed spring, the rains fell; the crops thrived; hope soared.
No one noticed that the Peterson place stood empty once again.
As nature continued to reward hard work, pride softened. Soon, with averted eyes, men broached the subject of the winter gifts. In hesitating sentences, passed awkwardly, they mentioned what they’d been given and asked if anyone knew the giver. One among them had the answer:
“I can tell you who it was. Early on a March morning, unable to sleep, I was standing in the dark kitchen, staring out the window, when a beat-up car I recognized approached. It stopped briefly by my barn, dropped something off, and drove on.”
“I ran outside, bathrobe blowing in the breeze, and found a sack of root vegetables by the milk cans. Each one looked like it had been handpicked and scrubbed, just for me. I ran a few steps, yelling, ‘Thank you,’ after the disappearing tail lights. Hell, I couldn’t even call out his name; I had never bothered learning it. Later, when I drove by to shake his hand, he and his family were gone.”
In subsequent years, I heard the story of the Japanese farmer and his winter gifts many times. And each time, I knew I was hearing how to give: share what you have with those in need without judging the recipients and without expecting recognition — whether or not it’s Christmas.