Note: Last night I gave a speech at Toastmaster's. I used one of my favorite blog posts, added a section in the beginning and one at the end to make it applicable to Christmas. Some of you may recognize the majority of the body. Think of it as an ice cream sandwich. The ice cream is the same, but there are two new cookies. In any case, I hope you enjoy and thanks for reading!
Christmas is coming up, and like many of you I am preparing by buying, wrapping, and putting presents under the tree. Of course, I am looking forward to giving and receiving these presents as well, but let me ask you something. Quick—do you remember the gifts you got last year?
Chances are you don’t remember too many of them. Most of the time, those gifts of material objects are transitory. In this season, of gift giving, I’d like to expand the concept of giving a little and think about gifts of the spirit, the gifts that we receive from others that live within us and stay with us our entire lives.
When I was about eight years old, I announced to my dad one evening that I was going to learn to milk cows. We had about 12 milk cows at the time and my father milked them by hand every night and every morning. My dad just smiled at my suggestion that I would be able to help him once I learned.
So, determined to do this, I followed him out to the milk barn, which was a small, low building back of the big barn. The path to the barn was made up of large stones, strategically placed in the dirt and manure that made up the lot. They were placed for my father's long stride, so I had to jump from stone to stone to get the barn. I got there just as my dad opened the door and called the cows in.
They were lumbering giants, these cows. They were beautiful in the way they responded to my dad's voice, their big, trusting liquid eyes watching him as they all went to their spots and stood, placing their heads in the v-shaped grips on the walls, their tails toward the door.
I stood, my back to the wall, and looked down the line at these massive animals. The smallness of the barn and their close quarters with one another only emphasized their enormity. Their square rear ends were now still, their tails periodically swinging to the loud country music my dad always had on the radio in the barn.
Sitting on his T-shaped stool, my dad began milking the first cow, humming to the radio. He stopped before the first bucket was full and poured the warm, foamy contents into a large pan that sat at one end of the barn. Instantly, about ten barn cats showed up to lap up the milk. These feral beauties I had never been able to get close to, were now within arm's length and they were letting my father pet them.
My head swam with happiness. It was the warm summer evening, and I was filled with bliss, being in the barn with the cows, the cats, but most of all being with my dad, in his domain, watching the way he sang, and worked. The tension he sometimes carried while he was in the house seemed to slip off his shoulders here and he was totally at ease and best of all, I was with him.
It was while I was in this blissful state that I noticed with great interest that the cow directly in front of me had raised its tail and I could see its crusty anus, twisting and turning like the shutter on a rusty camera.
I was transfixed there by this sight: it was if it was a real camera and I had to remain still until the picture was taken.
I heard my dad's voice, "I wouldn't stand behind that one if I were you" but still I didn't move. I was memorized, hypnotized, transfixed. I heard my father's voice again, this time more urgent, "That one's sick. You need to move."
Then it happened: the camera shutter opened, my eyes grew wide and my mouth opened in surprise, as the projectile diarrhea shot directly towards me. I felt the warmth coat my entire body and I sputtered as I stood, draped, covered, cloaked in runny light brown goo. I immediately started crying. (Not a good idea.) Each gasp brought a new assault to my tongue and throat.
"Oh. Oh," my dad said calmly as he came my way.
That's all he said as he surveyed the situation. There was no scolding, no admonishment, no kidding, no teasing.
All he did was put down the bucket of milk he was carrying, gently take my hand, and helped me over the large stones, back through the big barn, and down the path to the house. I could barely see out of the small holes I had managed to make around my eyes.
The evening was a warm one and I could feel the hardening of the crust on my skin. I felt low. I felt... well, like one does when one is covered in cow poop, but I also felt my hand in my father's hand and knew at least I was headed in the right direction.
I remember at least one sister screamed when she saw me and I remember the (understandable) shrinking back (I did look like a walking Snicker's bar, quickly turning into a Crunch bar) and then some shouts for my mom. She came out of the house, took my hand from my father and led me to the bathroom to get cleaned up. I felt remarkably clean and good after that bath though I would continue to find residue of the adventure in my ears and scalp for weeks.
I received a great gift from my father that day.
He gave me this lesson: there are times in life when we all feel just the way I did that day and the greatest gift we can receive is for someone to quietly, and without negativity, put down the work he or she is doing, take us by the hands, help us maneuver our way over the big stones in our lives, and gently guide us back home to get cleaned up.
Sometimes in life we are the ones who need the help and sometimes we are the ones who offer the hand. In the end, both situations are gifts.
So, this Christmas, I’ll be grateful for the presents under the tree. Heck, I’ll probably be the first one there Christmas morning, ready to rip through that shiny paper and find out what’s in that package.
I’ll thank those who thought of me, but amid all of that hustle and bustle, I’ll find some time to be grateful for the gifts of kindness and dignity from those who showed me how to be a better human being.
Those are gifts that we keep with us our whole lives and if we are lucky, they are gifts that we can pass on to others.