This is a story of a teenaged boy whom I will call Ignacio. He was brought to America from a village in South America to live in a small town for a year as a foreign exchange student.
He lived with the Cash family. Mr. Cash owned a feed and grain store, and Mrs. Cash was a homemaker. They had three children, a boy about Ignacio’s age and two girls, one older and one younger.
Mrs. Cash wanted to climb the social ladder in the small town where they lived. The family could not yet afford to join the town’s sole country club, and she was concerned that even when they had accumulated enough money to do so, they might be turned down. After all, the owner of a feed and grain store did not occupy the same stratospheric social altitude of a chiropractor, a funeral director or a lawyer.
“. . . and this is our beautiful new sewage plant!”
So Mrs. Cash sought out opportunities to improve the family’s status. She chose the right church, played in two bridge clubs, and did charitable work. She volunteered to lead tours of the many recent improvements that made the town a wonderful place to live, taking visitors to see the new sewage treatment facility north of town. It was brand, spanking new–and you could hardly smell a thing!
Mr. Cash worked hard for every nickel he made, and he hated the thought of ever having to give one back. If a customer brought back an auger or a drill that didn’t work, he’d say “Sorry–store credit only.” Some people grumbled that the only time you ever got any cash out of him was when he gave you his business card.
As the holidays drew near, Ignacio was feeling homesick, and Mrs. Cash tried to cheer him up with the prospect of Christmas Day. “It will be wonderful,” she said. “There will be many, many presents under the tree.”
“Even for me?” Ignacio asked.
“Especially for you!” Mrs. Cash said, because Ignacio’s presence in the house had brought a great deal of notoriety to the family. A reporter from The Smithville Picayune-Item had written a story about Ignacio and the Cash family, and it had appeared in the paper with a large photograph–on the front page!
All of this was new to Ignacio. In the humble village in South America where he came from, they knew the story of the birth of Jesus, but nothing about the giving of gifts. Christmas morning was a time to celebrate with family and play, and later to eat a big meal.
“Where do these presents come from?” he asked Mrs. Cash.
“From Santa Claus, but we buy them ourselves, too,” she explained. “We have charge accounts at all the nice stores in town. You go downtown and pick things out, all right?”
And so Ignacio put on his wool coat with the sheepskin lining that he had brought with him from his native country, and walked downtown. He went from store to store, picking out things that looked nice. When he was asked how he wished to pay, he would say “Put it on the charge account of Senorita Cash.” “Excellent,” the sales clerk would say, and would throw in gift wrapping for free.
As Christmas approached, excitement began to build at the Cash house as everyone admired the many beautiful presents under the tree.
“Oh, Ignacio,” said Ruth Ann, the younger daughter. “I can’t imagine what’s in all those boxes!”
“It is a surprise,” he said. “You will see soon enough!”
The children and Ignacio were old enough to wait until Mr. and Mrs. Cash had woken up before going downstairs on Christmas morning.
“Well,” said Mrs. Cash. “Since this is Ignacio’s first Christmas in America, we should let him go first.”
“Yes,” said Norberta, the older daughter, as she picked up a package and handed it to him. He opened it up and inside was a lovely sweater. “Gracias, Norberta,” he said.
The gift giving continued around the room until it was Ignacio’s turn to give someone a gift. “Now you pick out one of your gifts,” said Mrs. Cash.
“All right,” Ignacio said, and he took a box wrapped in red ribbon from under the tree, returned to his chair and began to open it.
The members of the Cash family looked at each other with surprise, but said nothing. When Ignacio had finished unwrapping the package, they saw that it was a pair of festive red pants.
“Those are very nice,” said Mrs. Cash, with a tone of repressed disapproval in her voice. “Perhaps you did not understand me when I explained Christmas to you.”
“No?” he asked her with a puzzled look on his face.
“Apparently not,” she replied. “When you buy a present, you buy it for someone else.”
Ignacio looked around at the others.
“Ah,” he said. “I buy–for you!”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Cash.
“Oh–the present is not for me?”
“No,” said Mrs. Cash.
“Ah,” Ignacio said, pursing his lips and nodding his head as if to show that he understood. “This is . . . how you say . . . “
“Unfortunate?” asked Ruth Ann.
“Yes,” said Ignacio. “I have bought many things for myself–accidentally?”
Mr. Cash gave out a little snort. “Well, that’s a fine how-de-do.”
Mrs. Cash intervened in the hope of preserving the spirit of good cheer that had prevailed only moments before. “That’s all right,” she said to Ignacio. “You just pick out the thing you like the most, and we’ll take the others back when the stores open tomorrow.”
“All right,” Ignacio said, and proceeded to open up the other boxes. There was a pen and pencil set, a pair of warm pajamas, a funny Chia Pet of a little dog–so many nice things!
After much deliberation, Ignacio decided to keep the Chia Pet, and to give the other gifts to Mr. Cash to return. He had received so many gifts from the members of the Cash family, he wasn’t even disappointed to lose the items he had shopped for with such great care for himself.
The next day, Mr. Cash hit the streets of town bright and early, grumbling about how much time his unexpected chore would take away from his duties at his own store. He stopped first at Pattison’s Department Store, where Ignacio had bought the bright red pants.
“Say,” Mr. Cash said as he accosted the first sales clerk he saw. “I’d like to return these pants.”
“Do you have the receipt?” the clerk asked.
“Well no, but you can check our charge account.”
“Hmph,” the clerk sniffed. “What’s wrong with them?”
“Well, uh, nothing. It’s just that our foreign exchange student didn’t understand what the deal was when he bought them.”
The clerk looked at Mr. Cash skeptically. “And what was the deal?”
Mr. Cash grew angry. “The deal was, it was Christmas, and he was supposed to be buying presents for everybody else!”
“But he could have walked in here and bought a pair of pants for himself–right?”
“Well, right. But he didn’t know. He’s from some godforsaken village in the Andes, where they burn llama turds for fuel.”
The clerk examined the pants for rips or stains, then, when he was satisfied that they were undamaged, he spoke. “I can give you store credit,” he said, “but not cash.”
“Store credit!” Mr. Cash exploded. “We just spent a bundle in here on presents! I want cash.”
“Sorry,” said the clerk. “No can do.”
Mr. Cash was stunned, and angry. “To hell with you!” he shouted, then spun on his heels and walked out.
At the next store, the story was the same; no cash, just credit. And at the next, and the next, all down Ohio Street, from Broadway to Main Street. The after shave, the model car kit, the fancy Italian loafers. No one, it seemed, ever gave cash refunds.
And so Mr. Cash headed home, loaded down with Ignacio’s presents. He trudged up the front sidewalk, climbed the steps and, working one hand free under the armful of packages, pushed the doorbell.
Ignacio came to the door, his Chia Pet in hand, and opened it. When he saw Mr. Cash standing there with the presents that had been carried away that morning, his eyes lit up in wonder.
“This,” he said, “is the most wonderful Christmas ever!”
Moral: Do unto others and first chance they get, they’ll do unto you.