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"How many times do I have to tell you! You can’t have a puppy!"
"But dad, I want one so bad! It would be the greatest Christmas present ever. Dad, please.”
“Your mother will end up having to feed and water him. I don’t want poop in the yard. Who’s going to pick that up? You certainly won’t. You’re irresponsible and lazy. The answer is no. I don’t want to hear another word about it!”
Ted’s face scrunched into a frown. His dad reacted with a hard backhand which caused little Ted to stumble back a step. “And stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” his father yelled. “No dog now or ever!”
Kent's ten year old son quickly had to walk on eggshells around his dad. Any slight provocation could light his short fuse. Ted was not allowed to frown or express any emotion. He lived in fear of his dad. If he expressed fear, his dad called him a ‘fraidy cat and coward.' If Ted showed any sign of anger, he was impudent and sassy. If depressed, he was a loser and would never amount to anything. Even as a pre-adolescent, he was learning to hide his feelings. To numb them. To deny them. It was not emotionally healthy for him to bottle-up his feelings, but over time, he had learned to suppress them completely.
When he entered high school, Ted felt alone and different and unsure of himself. He desperately wanted to be liked and popular but he was socially inept. It was better to draw up into his safe world of make believe than to risk ridicule and rejection.
An incident close to the last day before Christmas holidays caused him to retreat even deeper into his shell. One of the cheerleaders hatched a plan of unspeakable cruelty. Carmen told her clique, “Let’s have some fun with Ted.”
"Whatcha got in mind, Carmen?” Eileen asked.
"Let’s pretend we like Ted. I catch him out of the corner of my eye looking at me quite a lot. It gives me the creeps. I’m going to play up to him. Talk with him. Flirt with him. Turn him on. I’ll do that and then introduce him to you girls.”
Her friends giggled in delight. “This will be fun,” Marcia said and laughed. At lunch, the beautiful and popular Carmen purposefully sat down by Ted. Her friends joined her.
"Say Ted, you going to the Christmas dance this Friday?”
"Well, uh, uh, yea, I’d like to but, but,”
"You can go with me," Carmen chime. "Pick me up about 6.” She wrote down the quarterback’s address instead of hers, and then said, “Here’s my address.”
Eileen added, “Yea Ted, after a dance, we always go to a party. You can come over to my house. My parents are gone for the weekend. We’re gonna have some fun.”
Ted’s face flushed. He couldn’t believe it. The girl in his make believe world wanted to go to the big dance with him, and they wanted him to party with them.
During the afternoon, a sense of dread came over him about asking his father for the car and staying out late. There would be a million questions and put downs. But, he would think about that tomorrow. He had just taken the space shuttle to the moon!
“Hey Harold, can you give me a ride home after school. I don’t want to take the bus home. I need to stop by the drug store.”
“Yea, sure.” Harold was the one person who would have something to do with Ted.
Harold parked, and the boys got out. Ted bought them a Coke, and then he walked over to the Christmas candy isle while Harold checked out the store. There it was. The perfect Christmas gift for Carmen. He took the gaily wrapped Whitman’s Sampler to the counter and paid for it. Visions of sugar plums danced in his head. They got in the car. Harold was dying to know what was going on.
“Hey man, who’s the Christmas candy for? Your mom?” Ted smiled like the cat who had swallowed the canary. He told him all about his good fortune.
"Man, you lucky dog!” Harold said and shook his head in disbelief. “I’d give my right arm to go out with Carmen.”
Ted had a hard time going to sleep that night anticipating the next day.
The cold chill of that December morning dissipated from the heat in Ted’s heart as he practically skipped down the driveway to wait for the school bus. He had had a hard time sleeping that Wednesday night. He couldn’t wait to get to school and give Carmen the gift. She would sure be pleased. He dreamed of her smile and her “Oh wow! You are so thoughtful to do this for me.”
Ted decided to give her the Christmas gift after third period before lunch. Ted got the Whitman’s Sampler out of his locker and carried it in one hand and his algebra and biology books in the other. He looked for Carmen. There she was! Holding court with the other girls next to the vending machines. His heart skipped a beat or two as he approached her.
“Oh look girls,” Carmen drippingly said. “It’s Ted.”
Eileen joined in. “Oooo, it’s Ted."
“I’ve, I’ve got you a little something for Christmas, Carmen," Ted stammered. Even though he had rehearsed the event all night, he lost his confidence and nervously, shyly, and awkwardly stuck the gift out for her.
“Oh look, girls. It’s chocolates. Isn’t that sweet? A box of chocolates. Just what I wanted!”
“I wish I had a box of chocolates,” Eileen added. “Oh, that’s so sweet of you, Ted, to get Carmen a box of chocolates!”
Just as Ted was feeling a little bit better, a little more confident, a little more self-assured, Carmen walked over to the trash can and threw the gift in it. The queen of Colleton High then haughtily flung her long flowing blonde hair back and said, “Come on girls. Time for lunch.”
As they walked away, Carmen said loud enough for Ted to hear, “Ha, and he thought I would go out with a loser like him!”
“Yea,” Eileen joined in. “What a loser he is!” Ted wanted to run and run and run, but there was no where to run. Humiliated. Embarrassed. Shamed. He just stood there. The laughing stock of Colleton High. Standing on an island in a sea of teen-agers, but who should turn the corner and menacingly approach him? It was Glenn Joiner, the quarterback.
Glenn towered over him like a giant oak tree dwarfs a stump. “Hey creep! You been talking to my girl!” Glenn grabbed Ted’s jacket and jerked him close to his face. “Listen you weed, Carmen’s my girl. If I ever see you around her again, I’ll wipe the floor with your face!” Glenn pushed him away. “Now get outta my way dork!”
Ted felt like every eye in the school was on him for the rest of the day. He believed that every laugh that he heard in the hallways had to be about him. Needless to say, he spent his lunch period in the library hidden away in a carrel.
That afternoon seemed like a thousand years, but the dismissal bell finally sounded to Ted’s relief. He walked away from the school bus with his head down. His steps were laborious as he made his way up the gravel driveway to his house. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something moving. He turned his head and saw a brown and white little puppy on the corner of their property. Something was wrong with the little critter, and he decided to take a closer look.
The dog didn’t try to run from him and began weakly wagging his tail. You could count his ribs. Ted could see something was wrong with his left hind leg as the puppy limped to meet him. Ted thought, “Little fellow, you’re kinda beat up like me.”
Ted saw himself in the abandoned, rejected puppy and immediately identified with him. At once, Ted wanted to keep him, clean him up, give him some water and something to eat forgetful of how his dad felt about him having a dog.
Nevertheless, Ted gathered him up all the while thinking what he could do to keep the little poor emaciated brown and white abandoned puppy. Ted walked around to the back of the house holding his newfound bundle of joy. He opened the basement door, walks in, and gently laid him down.
He hurriedly went into the house to find him something to eat and get a bowl for water. “Humm, that old towel momma used in the kitchen would suffice for something to lay on,” Ted thought.
"Ted, is that you?” his detached mother queried from the den. The TV was always on, and she was watching her afternoon soaps to escape from her miserable life.
"Yea, mom. It’s me.”
What are you doing?”
“Uh, nothing.” He got some scraps from last night’s dinner, filled a cereal bowl with water, tucked the towel under his arm, and quickly hurried away to the basement hoping his mother wouldn’t ask any more questions.
Inside the basement, he tenderly kneeled down beside the forsaken puppy, stroked him and talked kindly to him. The little fellow eagerly ate the scraps and drank the water. “You gotta have a name,” he said. He thought for a few minutes reveling in the happiness of his new found best friend. You know, a dog is the best friend that a kid has in this world. Others walk away, but a dog will never leave you. He stands by you in good times and bad. He’ll guard you as if you were a prince. He’s faithful to the end. And that’s what Ted needed - a faithful friend.
“That’s it!” Ted said aloud. “I’ll name you Harper.”
Now Ted spent a lot of time reading in his room. It was a safe haven for him, and reading was an escape from the wrath of his father. One of his favorite books was Tom Sawyer, and Joe Harper was Tom’s best friend just like the little forlorn puppy had already become his best friend.
Ted and Harper spent some happy moments together in the basement. In spite of the little dog’s bad leg, he wagged his tail, and they played together.
“Ok, Harper. I’ve got to go. I’ll check on you in the morning before school.” He closed the basement door, but Harper started yelping not wanting to be alone. Ted opened the door and calmed him down. Maybe if I leave my sock, he’ll be OK. Ted had read somewhere that sometimes a dog’s anxiety at being left alone could be assuaged if a personal item of the owner was placed near the dog. Harper laid down on the towel with the sock in front of him. “Shhh,” Ted whispered. Harper seemed comfortable and didn’t make a sound and with that, Ted closed the door and left.
Ted walked back into the house thinking of how he could persuade his dad to keep Harper. It wouldn’t be easy. “But at worst,” he thought, “maybe I could find someone to take him who would let me see him from time-to-time.”
Ted was in his room, his safe place, when his mother called him for supper. He hadn’t seen his dad since he came home from work and wondered what kind of mood he would be in. He would gage his father’s disposition at supper. If he was in a good mood, he would ask about getting a puppy to see his reaction. It was a big risk for him. He never knew when his dad would explode. Supper was eaten in chilly silence. His dad seemed tense. “Must have had a bad day,” Ted thought. “Now is not the time.” Just as they were finishing dessert, Ted heard Harper whining from the basement. “Oh no!” Ted thought. “Please be quiet little fellow.”
"What’s that?” his dad demanded. “Don’t tell me a dog is around here. I don’t want no dogs around here. They ain’t nothing’ but trouble.” Ted wished he could run to the basement to quiet and comfort Harper. In fact, he wished he could run anywhere. Ted stammered in a low voice answering his dad before Kent could find the dog himself. That would really set him off.
"Uh, uh, that’s a little puppy I found after school. He was, was on the edge of the yard. Something’s wrong with one of his legs. I, I thought maybe I could keep him for a day or two and try and find him a home.” Ted didn’t have the courage to tell his dad the truth. He feared his dad.
Kent angrily pushed back from the table and got up. He headed to the gun cabinet, opened it, got his rifle, and loaded it.
“Nooo, Dad! Please don’t. Don’t do it. Please, please let me keep him.”
"Oh, Kent, let the boy keep him. He wanted one for so long. It ain’t gonna hurt nothing’,” Louise pleaded.
Boiling, Kent slapped her. “Stay out of this woman! How many times have I told both of you? No dogs. I don’t want their mess. They bark all the time. They’re nothing but a nuisance.” He turned on the flood lights and stormed out the back door with his rifle in hand.
Kent yanked open the basement door. Little Harper instinctively slunk backwards from the menacing ogre. Mad as fire, Kent grabbed the puppy by his neck and walked double quick to the edge of their huge back yard next to the woods bordering their property. Kent slammed the defenseless puppy down and backed away a few steps. That stunned the puppy. Harper laid there motionless with hurt in his eyes. Bam! Bam!
The deadly shots penetrated the still winter night piercing Ted’s soul. Ted ran into his room, shut the door, and locked it. He crawled into bed and buried his head in the pillow to catch his flood of tears. Carmen, the puppy, his dad, the shots. Carmen, the puppy, his dad, the shots. Carmen, the puppy, his dad, the shots. They whirled around inside his mind like a ravaging tornado.
Kent stormed into the house with eyes flashing. Louise didn’t look up, blew out a puff of smoke from her cigarette, and stared at the TV. ”Where is he? Where’s Ted? He’s got to learn to obey what I tell him. He’s impudent and rebellious. Never gonna amount to nothing.”
"He’s in his room,” Louise mumbled without acknowledging him or looking away from the TV.
Kent stomped down the hall like a wild bull. He came to the door and without knocking, twisted the door handle to Ted’s room. The locked door added fuel to his already hot flame. “Unlock this door! You hear me? Unlock this door right now! Go get the shovel and bury him. I don’t want his body to start stinking up the place. You hear me? Open this door and get the shovel! Now!” he screamed.
Kent loudly banged on the door. “Open this door, or I’m gonna break it down!” Ted trembled in fear. But, he didn’t move or answer his father.
Frozen. Louise hollered from the den, “Oh leave him alone Kent! Just leave him alone!” Kent turned from the door and entered the den. It was to be another night of yelling, cussing, and arguing. “Now you listen to me, woman! I’m tired of not getting any respect around here.”
Louise didn’t move. She just kept staring at the TV. This enraged Kent even more. Kent thundered out words you can’t print and moved menacingly toward Charlotte as if to strike her. Louise covered her face with her hands waiting for the blow. “I don’t know why I put up with this!” he yelled. I shoulda moved out a long time ago!” Breathing out fire, he flew the coop slamming the door behind him.
Kent used any excuse to get away from the mess he created. He was a pro at blaming everyone else making them the villains to rationalize his leaving. Louise had a pretty good idea where he was going, but she had quit nagging him about it a long time ago. She was glad to see him leave. She settled back into the couch to watch an old Christmas movie. Ted also was relieved to hear the front door slam shut and the car crank up.
Ted turned over and looked on his dresser where he kept the Christmas star, the precious treasure, which was a symbol of his grandparents love for him. It brought great comfort and hope to him.
His mother’s parents lived in another state out in the country where his grandfather farmed. He loved going to visit them with his mother. His dad didn’t like them and never went. Besides, he used their absence for opportunities to (shall we say), go over there.
Ted’s grandparents also made the trip every summer to pick him up so that he could spend two or three weeks of summer vacation with them. And during every Christmas holiday break, his mom and he would visit them for a few days.
Ted always enjoyed going to their little country church on the Sunday night before Christmas. Each year, the small, choir performed a Christmas cantata compete with narration and children playing the part of Mary and Joseph and the angels. No one cared that Aunt Beulah always sang a little flat. It was a joyous time.
Ted’s mom had quit going to a church in town shortly after she married Kent. It wasn’t worth the effort to be the brunt of his berating tirades about the hypocrites in the church. And besides, He incessantly said, "All they wanted is your money." One Sunday morning, he even hid the car keys to keep her from going.
But, Louise would go to the church of her childhood when she visited her parents and take Ted with her. Ted really loved the few days they spent with them before Christmas. The fire in the fireplace on cold nights. The fresh Christmas tree. And they always waited for his visit to let him help decorate the tree. Last Christmas, his grandfather said to him, “Well son, you’ve really sprouted on up there. I think you’re tall enough to put the star of Bethlehem on the top of the tree.”
Ted felt all warm and important in his grandparents house. He could feel their love for him. After the star was in place, his grandfather gathered them all around the roaring fire and read the Christmas narratives from Matthew and Luke to them.
Ted was fascinated every time he heard the story of the Christmas star. The bright star in the night. The light that guided the Wise Men to the Light of the world. There hadn’t been much light in Ted’s life, and in his reverie, he from time to time, meditated on the guiding star of Christmas. Somehow, his grandmother perceived how much that star meant to her grandson. I guess it’s a woman’s intuition. At any rate, last year as they were about to leave and return home, she walked up to the tree. On her tip toes, she reached for the star, took it from its lofty perch, and handed it to Ted. “Here Ted. Take it home with you.” His face lit up like, like, well like a Christmas tree! Joy and thanks filled his heart. He cradled it like it was a fine, expensive piece of crystal. But it wasn’t. It was simply a cheap ornament from the dollar store in the little county seat town about ten miles or so from where they lived. But to Ted, it was gold, frankincense, and myrrh!
And on that gloomy night when his dad had killed his new best friend and after that horrible day of ignominy at school, Ted fixed his teary eyes on the Christmas star sitting on his dresser as he had done on so many lonely, dark, and empty nights.
Looking at the star, he found a little light for his soul. Somehow, he managed a faint smile. He thought of his grandparents, he thought of the guiding star, he thought of the little newborn baby in the manger. His heart warmed on that bleak, cold December night. Then, he drifted off to sleep.
Twenty years later, Ted woke up on Christmas morning thanks to his two precious boys who had invaded their room shouting, “Dad, Mom, get up. Santa has been here! Come see! Come see!”
Charlotte rolled over. “Ted, what time is it?”
Ted glanced at the alarm clock. “It’s a quarter til five. I think Christmas is here,” he sleepily said.
Ted had left for the United States Army two days after graduating high school. He had enlisted during his senior year. He had to get away, far away, and get away fast. He did basic at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and was also trained there at the Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic School. He fulfilled his four year enlistment which included a tour of duty at Camp Casey in South Korea near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). There, he helped keep the Army trucks running for the 2nd Infantry Division. His last assignment was at Ft. Campbell, a sprawling base astride the Kentucky-Tennessee border. He had made it all the way up to the rank of E-4 a few months before he was honorably discharged. He felt successful and confident. The Army had been good for him. He had come out of his shell and had developed some close friends along the way.
Ted liked Kentucky and had found a job with the service department at a Ford Dealership in nearby Paducah after his hitch in the Army was done. He liked it there too because it was far away from his mom and dad. They had become even more distant during his time in the Army, and he had no intention of settling anywhere near them.
In Paducah, he rented a nice little place, and you guessed it, he purchased a little brown and white Sheltie puppy from an elderly lady in the church he attended. Ted named him Harper, Jr.
Ted met his wife two years after he got out of the Army at the blue collar church on the working side of town. About 100-150 attended the church and yes, they had a small choir too and put on a Christmas program each year. They even had their Aunt Beulah singing off key in the choir.
Putting their incomes together, they bought a starter home, and two years ago had bought a more spacious and comfortable home.
"Well, what did old Santa bring you kids last night?” Ted asked and then did his best, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” trying to rouse himself from a short night’s sleep.
The boys had had a hard time going to sleep on the night before Christmas. Ted and Charlotte had to make sure they were nestled all snug in their beds before they became Santa.
It was a nice magical morning. His heart filled with thanksgiving, love, and joy for the Lord's rich blessings upon him.
Even though the star on top of the tree was two decades old and had been half-way across the world to South Korea and even though it was faded and worn, it never looked brighter and better to Ted. It had also become special to his wife after she became familiar with her husband’s story.
About 11 o’clock that Christmas morning, a strong, mysterious knock at the door was heard. Harper, Jr. went crazy barking and ran around in circles as Shelties are wont to do. Harper then ran to the door and barked some more.
“Who in the world could that be?” Charlotte asked her husband.
“I’ll get it,” he said. Ted opened the door. The color drained from his face. There stood his dad. On Christmas, morning no less. Ted flashed back to that horrible day in high school. There stood the towering oak of the quarterback, and he, the stump.
"Uh, uh, hi Dad,” he said in a shaken voice. It had been years since he stuttered. He had worked to overcome it, and had been successful. But in a flash, the stammer reared up again.
Harper’s barks turned into a low growl. It’s amazing the perception that dogs have about people.
“It’s OK,” Harper. “Sit, boy. Sit.”
Harper wasn’t too sure about the whole matter and walked behind Ted. The hair on his collar was standing up. Harper told a defensive position just in case he was needed to defend his friend.
“Merry Christmas,” son.
His mom stood slightly behind Kent and chimed in her “Merry Christmas” too.
"Who is it?” Ted.
"It’s mom and dad.” Charlotte swallowed hard. It had been a couple of years since they had seen them. She disliked them from the moment she had met them.
On those rare occasions when they visited, she put on a happy face and was always nice and cordial to them. But, she was always glad to see them leave.
Charlotte braced herself, smiled, and walked to the foyer. “Well, hello. What a surprise. It’s good to see you," she lied. She walked over and hugged Louise and then gave Kent a hug.
"Won’t you come in?” The kids are in the den playing with the toys Santa left them last night.
As the four of them made their way to the den, Kent said, “We left at three this morning to get here. I really wanted to see you.”
Ted felt that statement a little odd. They had been estranged for a long time.
As the four of them made their way into the den, Charlotte called out, “Look who’s here!”
"Grandma, Granddaddy! Look what we got!”
“My, my, old Santa was sure good to you boys.” Kent stooped down and uncharacteristically patted the two boys on the head and hugged them both. Harper relaxed and laid down near the brightly burning, toasty Christmas fire.
"This sure isn’t like dad,” Ted thought to himself. “This is weird.”
After about ten or fifteen minutes of enjoying their grandchildren, Kent said, “Son, I’d like to talk with you. Alone, if it’s OK.”
"Sure dad. Let’s go into the living room.”
Kent had difficulty speaking to his son. He didn’t know quite how to say it, but say it, he most. Ted braced for the nasty onslaught of criticism and belittling that He knew was forthcoming. But, he wouldn't have to run away into his room any more. Ted had already decided that he would ask his dad to leave and not ruin their Christmas like he had done so many times when he was a child. After all, this was his house, his family, his dog, and his Christmas! He wasn’t going to allow this Grinch to steal Christmas and ruin their perfect day.
Kent gathered himself and looked his son directly in the eye. But his look wasn’t menacing or frightening. It was seriously sorrowful. Ted was puzzled to say the least.
"I’ve had a big change come over me”, he said. I’ve come on this Christmas day to ask your forgiveness. I’m, I'm sorry.”
Then for the first time in his life, Kent embraced his son and held him in his arms. Ted’s eyes watered. His taut emotions relaxed. Peace covered him like freshly fallen snow that carpets the hills and vales around Paducah.
"I forgive you, dad.” Ted had never seen his dad cry before, but he cried and shook in his son’s embrace. Kent put his hands on his son’s shoulders and stood back again looking him square in the eye. “Son, I’m really proud of you. You’ve succeeded in spite of me. You have a lovely family. You’ve done well. I love you. I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you.”
He drew his son close and embraced him again. After their embrace, Ted stood there for a moment in shocked relief. He gathered himself and said, “Dad, Charlotte just about has Christmas dinner ready.”
Kent replied, “Well, let’s go and see what we can do to help put it on the table.”
The family took their seats around the dining room table. Harper had his customary place waiting for a little tidbit to be thrown his way which used to irritate Kent to no end. But, today was different.
Ted reached out his hand to his dad, and one by one, the family circle was bound hand-in-hand, heart to heart.
Ted voiced a beautiful prayer to the giver of all good things. The Prince of Peace filled the room with the wonder of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. And if you listened closely, I believe you might hear the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
Ted stood up to carve the golden brown turkey. Charlotte passed around the dressing. It was quite a feast.
Kent tore off a bit of turkey. "Here Harper. Catch." Harper caught it, wagged his tail, and waited for more. Ted couldn't believe it!
They laughed and talked and made merry. It was a grand happy dinner. A joyous celebration! The prodigal father had come home.
After Christmas dinner and after the table was cleared, they all took a seat in the den except for the boys who lost themselves in the wonder of all that was spread before them around the Christmas tree. Presents were exchanged.
After the gift-giving, Ted raised his eyes from the happiness around the tree and looked into the Christmas tree where the lights shined bright and cheerful. His gaze moved upward. Upward to the old star. Yes, the Christmas star that had radiated his grandparents love, comforted him, gave him hope, and guided him through many dark nights. This day, it never glowed more radiant. It never looked more dazzling.
Kent squatted down and held out his hand to Harper hesitant at first, Harper mad enough his way to the outstretched hand. Kent gave him a pat, and what do you know? He put both arms around him, and held him close.
The old star seemed to break out in an ethereal glow. It was a magical time
Ted gazed again at the star. In it, he saw the Bethlehem star that had guided the Wise Men eight hundred miles across "field and fountain, moor and mountain. Leading them westward ever proceeding to the perfect Light."
That bright star in the night - leading Ted, leading Kent, leading all of us to the newborn King. God and sinners and even man and animal reconciled. Light and life to all He brings.
"We rejoice in the light, And we echo the song That comes down through the night From the heavenly throng. Ay! we shout to the lovely evangel they bring, And we greet in his cradle Our Savior and King!"
Rev. Dan White is a retired pastor and teacher and free lance writer who has been published in both secular and Christian magazines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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