Some folks are just born storytellers. My high school chum, Colleen Day Amos, has done it again with this magical tale of a carriage ride on the Country Club Plaza.
With all the flap over the carriages on the Country Club Plaza, my mind has been drawn back over 30 years to an incident that took place over these very same carriages.
It was the coldest evening in recorded history when I decided to take my daughter and her best friend down to the Plaza to look at the Christmas lights. We arrived just a bit after dark and drove around all the streets, enjoying the bright lights. The girls wanted to get out and walk around and, miraculously, I found a parking spot in the old Sears outdoor parking garage. We bundled up, got out and set off. We got a Happy Meal at the Plaza McDonald’s and added their hot chocolate as a treat. Then we hit the Plaza Store and I was able to purchase each of them a small ornament so they would always remember this evening, not knowing they would never forget this evening for an entirely different reason.
As we were walking back to the car, we had to pass the carriage stand and there it was — the lighted Cinderella carriage in all its splendor. I’d already told the girls, several times in fact, that I couldn’t afford for them to ride but that they were welcome to watch. For some reason, I felt the need to “remind” them of that fact once again. As we stood there, the Cinderella carriage whirled away in a dazzle of lights and another ordinary one pulled up. A tall man in a Carhartt farm coat and leather cowboy hat approached the girls and asked them if they wanted to pet the horses and give them a treat. Of course they did! As he helped them step off the curb safely, he turned to me and began what would prove to be a significant conversation — another of those “life lessons” from a very strange source.
Keeping a close eye on the girls, he began to chat with me. “I heard what you told your girls about not being able to afford for them to ride in the Cinderella carriage, but what impressed me was that they didn’t bawl, squall, whine or carry on about it. You’ve done a good job with ’em, Mama.”
“Not really, “ I said. “I just didn’t want to disappoint them when we actually got here. Forewarned is forearmed, you know.” He chuckled as he helped the girls back up on the curb and the carriage pulled away. “Well,” he said, “I’d like to make this happen for your girls, if you would agree.”
“Oh no,” I responded, “that’s ok. They’re just happy to see the lights and pet the horses. We’re fine.”
“Not a fan of “charity” I’d guess,” he said with a wry grin. ”I’d guess your Daddy taught you that.” “Yes, he did,” I said. “Well, he was wrong – at least about the Hershey bars,” he said with a smile.
Immediately my mind flew back another 30 years to a Christmas Eve when I’d returned home from church with my big rowdy bunch of brothers to find a large sack of groceries on our back porch. Sticking out of the top of the sack was a package of Hershey bars – five in all! One for each of us — no sharing — hooray! My father opened the door for us and saw the sack we were fighting over (as usual!) to carry in. We could see he was already angry about something — anything — we never knew what the trigger would be. “We don’t take charity in this house,” he said. “I provide for my family; we don’t depend on other people. Take that sack over to the neighbors and leave it on their porch.” Obediently we did as we were told, complaining, but very quietly, knowing if our father overheard, some or all of us would feel his big old military-issue dress belt on the backs of our legs.
“No, I’m not a fan of charity,” I countered. “It’s more blessed to give than receive you know; at least that’s what my Bible says.” “Yes, I know that”, he said, “and I know you must be woman of faith if you know the Source of that quote. I’m glad to see you’ve not lost your faith, but what you have lost is your hope — hope in tomorrow, hope that things can and will get better, just hope in general I’d say.”
How could this tall stranger know the truth of this? I had almost lost hope — life was bleak and getting bleaker by the day. Even the festivities of Christmas, which I’d always loved and celebrated whole-heartedly, seemed dimmer this year.
“I want to give your girls some hope this year. We have donors who help out with our expenses each year. Please let me give your girls a ride in the Cinderella carriage,” he offered. I looked to see if the girls were listening, but they were still focused on petting the horses. I didn’t want them to hear my refusal of this most generous offer. But before I could give voice to my denial, he continued. “I know you want to be able to give your girls this experience yourself, but if you can’t, why not let someone else help out? Know what you need, Mama? You need to learn to be a Grateful Receiver. Oh, and don’t be afraid.”
The Cinderella carriage pulled up to the curb and he swung the girls inside. By now their eyes were like saucers and their smiles stretched from ear to ear. “Can we ride, Mama?” they asked. “Absolutely,” Mr. Carhartt Jacket replied. “In fact, your mama is going too!” he told them as he grabbed my arm and shoved me inside as well. The carriage whirled away and the girls were squealing, singing, and laughing while listening to the driver’s lame Christmas jokes. I blamed the stinging cold wind for the moisture on my cheeks.
What a marvelous time we had! The Plaza, the night, and the pleasure of the girls was magical. As we pulled up to the carriage stand, the driver didn’t stop. “Wait, ” I said. “We need to get off here.” “No, you don’t,” he replied. “I’ve got tickets for TWO rides here!” And away we whirled again.
Ad we completed the second lap, we were all giddy with enjoyment as we got out. I looked for the tall cowboy but didn’t see him anywhere. I approached the man at the carriage stand and asked, “Where’s the guy in the farm coat and cowboy hat who was just here?”
“Who?” the man asked. I repeated my description with more detail this time. “The tall man in the Carhartt jacket and leather cowboy hat who was helping people get into the carriages,” I said. “He was just talking to me and my girls.”
“I haven’t seen anyone like that since I’ve been here and I’ve been here since 4 P.M. I just saw you talking to the girls, or maybe just talking to yourself,” he replied. “Well, I just wanted to thank him,” I said. “If you see him, please tell him the Grateful Receiver says ‘thanks’! “Okay,” the man said with a very puzzled expression on his face.
As we made our way back to the car, the girls couldn’t stop talking about their wonderful experience, but it got quieter in the back seat as we drove home. I sneaked a peek in the rearview mirror to see two heads — one red, one blonde — leaning on each other, sound asleep but still smiling, dreaming of carriages and the princes who would one day come to claim them. In the silence, I was trying to figure it all out with my ever-logical, non-fanciful brain. Why had the man told me not to be afraid? I’d been a very fearful child, but in adulthood I’d learned painfully that what doesn’t kill you DOES make you stronger and I had very few fears left. And how did he know about my father and the forfeited Hershey bars? I’d never shared that story with anyone but my siblings. And why did he feel the need to deliver such a cryptic message about being a Grateful Receiver?
Then it came to me — in a flash of blinding insight. I’d just read those same words the night before as I brushed up on the Christmas story. “Do not be afraid,” an angel told Zechariah as he told him he would have a son named John (Luke 1:13). “Don’t be afraid,” an angel told a young girl in Nazareth who would bear the Son of God Himself (Luke 1:30). “Do not be afraid,” an angel told a carpenter in Nazareth, calming his fears about taking an already-pregnant girl to be his wife (Matt. 1:20). “Don’t be afraid,” an angel told a bunch of shepherds out in a field on a star-filled night (Luke 2:10). Was my own “don’t be afraid” message telling me that while it’s better to give than receive, it’s okay to receive sometimes too? The word “angel” means “messenger” and now I was sure, beyond any shadow of doubt, that underneath that canvas Carhartt coat was folded a long, strong pair of finely-feathered wings.
Thirty-plus years later, when these same “girls,” now grown women, meet up in our little hometown on the holidays, they never fail to recount the story of the time “that man” let them ride in the Cinderella carriage, not once, but twice! I’ve never shared my belief in the man’s true identity with them, but perhaps they can read it now.