It was Christmas 1954 and Jesus's birthday was being heralded big-time in downtown Richmond. On every streetcorner Salvation Army workers rang bells or gathered in small bands playing Christmas carols in the hopes that it would inspire generosity from the passersby.
Christmas lights (the ones with the big colorful bulbs, not the skimpy little things we have today) curled around traffic lights, snaked up the tall buildings, and hung from every tree that hadn't been cut down to make way for Richmond's recent growth spurt. Not a single thing, living or dead, along the wide boulevard that was Broad Street escaped being decked out with holiday cheer. It was all very magical for a six-year-old who had been looking forward to this shopping trip for weeks.
Every nickel, dime and quarter that I had managed to get my hands on over the past few months was now tucked inside a pink patent-leather purse that I clung to with a death-grip. Staring, wide-eyed, at the enormous Thalhimers display windows, I held my grandmother's hand tightly and felt like the richest kid in the world.
Thalhimer's Department Store was a Christmas tradition for Richmonders. The store's wonderful window displays drew holiday shoppers from all over Virginia. It had been one of the first stores to use animated displays and that year the windows had been skillfully decorated to look like a miniature UN. Within each 'nation' happy little animated children, dressed in their finest native costumes, danced, swayed and blinked to their native music. Every nation was represented...England, Germany, Mexico, Japan, Africa...all populated by little caucasion children singing their traditional (Christian) songs. Not exactly politically correct, even for the times, but the business-savvy merchants, most of whom were Jewish, would not waste a minute of the busy holiday season on political correctness. That would come much later after white flight had caused most of the stores in downtown Richmond to pull up stakes or go belly up. But in 1954 no one had ever heard of the word 'diversity', and the only color that mattered was green.
Thalhimer's always had the most beautiful Santa, too. If there was ever such a thing as a prince of Clauses, it would be the Claus at Thalhimer's. He was magnificent with his perfectly white beard, his spotless velvet red coat and his spit-polished boots that were so shiny you could see the Christmas lights reflected in them. It was the easiest thing in the world to believe that this Santa was the "real deal", that there was no such thing as human suffering, and that the world was a kind and benevolent place.
Over the next several hours, Nanny and I immersed ourselves in everything the season, and Thalhimer's, had to offer. After having my picture taken with Santa, we lunched in the elegant Tea Room, then shopped for presents. Two dollars went a long way in 1954. For 35 cents I purchased a glass perfume bottle for my mother (which Nanny promised to fill later with some of her very own 'Evening In Paris'), I spent 20 cents on a pack of cigarettes for my father, 10 cents for a big lollipop for my little brother, and 50 cents for a soft green scarf for Nanny (I fibbed and told her it was for my teacher). After spending another 50 cents on a half-pound of Thalhimer Fudge, I was delighted to find that I had enough money left over to buy a big bag of penny candy at Happy's General Store! It had been a good day.
Tired, but looking forward to our ride home on the warm city bus, Nanny and I made our way back through the long lines of shoppers and out the huge Oz-like exit doors of the department store into the chilly winter air. It was fast approaching evening and the streets were even more crowded than they had been earlier as everyone rushed to get home. Hurrying to our bus stop, I suddenly felt something bump into me roughly causing me to lose my balance and fall painfully onto the concrete sidewalk, my packages flying off in all directions.
No one seemed to notice as I sit on the pavement howling at the top of my lungs, but Nanny was there right away, doing the best she could to help me to my feet and gather up my packages.
"There, there, no harm done" she reassured me, but I was inconsolable. The scrape on my knee hurt like Hell and some of my packages had been stepped on by the crowd, ruining the pretty bows I had been so proud of.
I looked around angrily to see what had caused my misfortune and spotted it in the form of an odd little man sitting in the middle of the sidewalk shaking a tin bucket at the crowd. Covered with dirt and grime, he was not in the least concerned about my fall and he rattled his bucket rudely at everyone who dared come within a few feet of him. The few coins in his bucket made a horrible racket and drowned out the happy din of holiday noise. He shouted curses and obscenities at the crowd but few bothered to acknowledge him. Like a river that divides itself when it encounters a big rock, the crowd swiftly and expertly diverted itself around the beggar as though he were not a person at all, just another annoying obstacle to have to deal with in the holiday rush.
"Nanny!" I tugged angrily on my grandmother's worn coat to get her attention, "Why is that man sitting there? Did you see him trip me up?" I couldn't understand why someone would sit in the middle of a crowd of people and make such a fuss.
"Shhhhush!" Nanny whispered sharply. Then her tone became softer as she looked at the ragged man and said, "He could be Jesus!"
To me, the dirty old man with one leg, filthy clothes and an eye that seemed permanently swollen shut, looked nothing at all like the picture of the beautiful blond-haired smiling Jesus that hung over my grandmother's bed. To my dismay, instead of yelling at the man for tripping me, Nanny pulled some coins out of her purse and dropped them into the man's bucket, causing him to stop shaking it for a moment and look up. As their eyes met, the man tipped his ragged hat in her direction in a manner as grand as any that I had ever seen performed by a wealthy gentleman. In response, my diminutive grandmother smiled and nodded, looking every inch the lady. And for a brief moment it seemed as though the two knew each other, or, rather, had known each other, perhaps in gentler times. At that moment, our bus arrived. Still angry, and not understanding my grandmother's actions at all, I gave the man my best frowny-face as I limped aboard. But he never saw it, he had already turned and was rattling his bucket fiercly at the crowd once more.
On the ride home, I pouted and asked my grandmother how that dirty man could be Jesus. She tried to explain that sometimes Jesus comes back to Earth in the form of a beggar or some other kind of desperate human being as a way of testing the good hearts of His followers, but it was hard to wrap my six-year-old mind around such a concept. I wasn't buying it and I said so.
"Why can't Jesus just watch everybody from Heaven?", I insisted. But Nanny was tired now. It had been a long day.
"Because that's just the way He does it!" she snapped, weary of fielding theology questions from a child, "Now hush up!"
I have thought about that beggar many times in the decades since. In my mind I can still see his desperate, dirty, worn face as clearly as though it were yesterday. I have often pondered where Nanny got the notion that Jesus comes to Earth wearing strange diguises, but I have never heard a sermon preached about it, nor have I ever been able to find a reference to it in the bible.
Recently, I took my own little granddaughter shopping. I love these outings and so does she. It is fun to see things through a child's eyes. It gives you a fresh perspective and reminds you of the important things in life. For a special treat, I took her to a restaurant. As she devoured an ice cream sundae, I noticed her staring rather intently at a lady sitting alone in a booth across the aisle.
"Grandma," she whispered, "that lady isn't beautiful at all. She looks like an ugly witch," Observing the disfigurement in the woman's face, probably the result of a stroke, I had to admit that she was pretty unattractive from a human perspective. Suddenly the lady, perhaps feeling some kind of psychic nudge, looked up and caught us watching her. She smiled at us and we smiled back.
"See, Sweety Pie," I whispered, hugging my granddaughter for the millionth time that day, "the lady is beautiful after all (I pointed to my chest), in her heart." I then went on to explain to her how we should always try to be kind to everyone, no matter what they look like.
A little while later, I found myself thinking about Nanny and the beggar while I gathered up our belongings for the trip home. And when we waved good-bye to the lady in the restaurant, she suddenly seemed oddly familiar and I couldn't help but wonder, as I have with so many of the people I have met during my life...could she be Jesus?