Random Acts of Kindness: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round…as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, ‘God bless it!’” -Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
The other day, as I pulled up the collar of my heavy, woolen overcoat around my neck to shield me from the late November biting wind, I heard a familiar seasonal sound from my market’s sidewalk. Cling, ka-cling, ka-cling, ka-cling. Standing over his red Salvation Army bucket with bell in hand, the apron-clad smiling man offered me a warm “Merry Christmas” as I approached the store. I returned the greeting, nodding, at what I had hoped he understood, that I would make a donation upon leaving. I noticed a few curls of salt and pepper hair peeking out from his navy toboggan and that the tip of his nose was cherry red. I was sure that he must be freezing in the damp cold but you would have never known it by his jolly demeanor. I thought what a wonderful thing it was that he was doing, of how nice he seemed, his voice comforting and sincere as he continued his enthusiastic fundraising campaign, despite the rushing customers who embarrassingly hurried past him, as if to render him invisible. I plopped my purse in a shopping cart and stood in front of a holiday display, looking back at him, thinking about charity. Adam and I always support fighting hunger by buying bags and bags of groceries for those in need, especially this time of year. I have often secretly done a pay-it-forward and sprung for the person’s coffee in line behind me. I’ve put a few coins in a stranger’s expired parking meter before, too. And, I always bake batches of cookies to thank people who do so many wonderful things for us all during the year.
But, although any deed of goodness is a lovely thing, I couldn’t help but think about one momentous occurrence that forever changed my life.
After moving to North Carolina when I was in the fourth grade, our Christmases were not exactly what you would call “normal.” We didn’t have the Rockwellian experience of waking up on a frosty Christmas morning in our pajamas with our hands wrapped around steaming mugs of hot chocolate while we excitedly opened our gifts from Santa. No. We were up at the crack of dawn, packed in a cramped, over-loaded station wagon, traveling to Florida to visit my grandparents. Because my folks were business owners and dependent on the season’s income, like all retail shops, theirs stayed open on Christmas Eve. Although I loved seeing my relatives and welcomed the balmy temperatures of a Sunshine State holiday, I hated that we faced a grueling sixteen-hour drive every 25th of December. It was a lonely, lonely road. Lonely and sad. And, I selfishly decided, just plain wrong.
I was jealous of all the other kids who got to be in their home for the entire day. In their beds and not on a make-shift pallet behind the front seat in the wells of the floorboard (although I got pretty good at cushioning the hump). I loathed the fact that we ate mediocre Christmas dinners at truck stops or 24-hour diners with leggy, faded poinsettias dotting the shabby counters, fitted with windows that were spray-painted with fake snow that exclaimed “Happy Holidays!” and illustrated with poorly drawn snowmen.
One year, the one year I will never forget, Dad pulled over somewhere outside of Valdosta, Georgia, to refuel and grab a bite to eat at Denny’s (they’re always open, you know). As we made our way to the restaurant from the parking lot, the family watched in shock as the manager violently yelled at someone, waving, shooing him off outside the entrance. The man he was verbally attacking was obviously homeless – disheveled, dirty, wearing tattered and ratty rags, and, from the looks of it, starving. The manager was vile and cruel, spitting out unspeakable things to this poor man, like he was a diseased stray dog skulking around for a few scraps, beneath any human decency. I suddenly felt terrible for my childish insolent pouting for being forced to eat at this restaurant when, standing there in front of me, was a humiliated, skeleton of a person who was begging to. My dad immediately grabbed his wallet from his back pocket, withdrew a large bill, and demanded, in a controlled but firm way, as he waved the money in his face, “You feed this man! Take this money and let him order anything he wants. Whatever’s left over will be the tip.” The manager, ready to defend his stance, looked down at the cash and glared at my dad, who did not release his gaze until he agreed to his terms. He grumbled an acceptance and grudgingly opened the door for the now customer. When the waitress, menu in hand, cheerfully said, “Right this way!” the homeless guy turned his misty blue eyes to Dad – eyes that surely had seen years of pain and hard luck that, now, were brimming with tears of gratitude. He didn’t know that my dad was on a tight budget and really couldn’t afford to do that. But, then, anyone who does know my dad, knows that he couldn’t afford not to.
As I strolled out of the grocery store with my wares, I stopped on the sidewalk and pulled out my billfold. Stuffing my money in the slot to the bell-ringer’s thanks, holding back tears that were seriously threatening, I again replayed that day at Denny’s in my mind. After seeing the homeless man’s changed face – from shame to one of hope and thanks, who knows? Maybe that one act of kindness may have turned his life around.
Because it certainly did mine.
Cinnamon Palmiers, also called Elephant Ears, are the classic French cookie made with puff pastry and sugar. The dough is folded and rolled to give it its signature heart shape, which I think is the perfect symbol and reminder this holiday season to open up our hearts with charity and love to our fellow man. Because I know that it has done me good.
- ⅔ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
- 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 sheets frozen all-butter puff pastry, thawed
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
- superfine sugar, for sprinkling
- In a small bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and cinnamon and set aside. Unfold one pastry sheet on a lightly floured surface and roll out to a 9 x 11-inch rectangle. Brush the pastry with butter. Evenly sprinkle half of the sugar mixture over the pastry to cover. Gently press it in with your rolling pin. Working from the short ends, fold each end half-way to the center. Roll each side up towards the center until the rolled edges touch. Wrap the log in plastic. Repeat with the second pastry sheet. Refrigerate both logs overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with one log at a time, cut the logs into ½-inch slices and place 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle each cookie with a little sugar; bake until puffed and golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool in the pan for 3 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Planning: I think the cookies are best eaten the day that they’re made, but the dough will keep in the refrigerator for several days and freezes well, too. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight and bake as directed.
Product Purity: I’m not one for pretentious or frou-frou ingredients, but I am adamant about good puff pastry – and not the kind available at most grocery stores, chemically-engineered, gummy and made with hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup. Dufour makes a fabulous all-butter puff pastry, available at Whole Foods and specialty kitchen stores.