The Secret INGREDIENT
In Memory of my Dad, Delmar Win Ayers (November 7, 1924 - February 23, 2011). Papa has been gone for a month now, and it is hard to believe. But his kindness and generosity lives on in my heart. Please enjoy one example of what Daddy taught me as a child.
“Santa’s coming tonight!” Daddy rushed inside from the cold North Georgia night, closed the door with his shoulder and dropped a bag of navel oranges, nuts and stick candy beside me on the floor. A box of Moon Pies, my favorite treat, rested on top.
I sat cross-legged in front of the crackling fire and stared up at the tall, broad-shouldered man with thinning hair and an engaging smile. Even at eight years old, I realized that Daddy, a hard-working man of few words, was an unlikely Santa. I also knew from past Christmas Eve’s that we’d deliver toys, clothes and candy to a neighbor who Daddy said needed our help.
“It’s almost nine o’clock,” he said as I grabbed the Moon Pies, anticipating the joy of biting into the chocolate covered cookie sandwich with the marshmallow filling. “The presents for the Reynolds are bundled up in the back of the truck.”
I followed him to the kitchen to find Mom.
“Just in time to add the secret ingredient,” she said to me and slid the first of four cake layers on a plate, then stuck holes in the layer with a pointed knife.
As I had done for the previous two years, I spooned on a bit of juice from two oranges and watched it seep down into the cake. “There’s no cake as good as Sara’s,” I repeated what everyone at her office said about her baking. Mom smiled, and I ran my finger over the mixer beaters, scooping the sugary icing into my mouth. “Yum,” I murmured.
Mom iced the cake, and I retrieved the bowl of freshly grated coconut.
“Okay, it’s ready to go,” Mom said after sprinkling on the last of the coconut.
“What?” My mouth flew open.
“We’re giving it to the Reynolds’ family.”
“Not our cake?”
“Giving to others is what Christmas is all about,” Dad said.
“But Mom can’t make another one before Christmas,” I said. “Can’t we slice it and save some for us?”
“No.” Mom placed cellophane lightly over the cake.
“Let’s go,” Daddy said, buttoning his jacket. He pulled my new wool coat from the peg by the back door and handed it to me. Mom carried the cake. I grabbed my box of Moon Pies and stepped outside.
The winter wind stung my face. I tucked the box under my arm, buried my hands in my pockets, and dashed to Dad’s old, battered ‘56 Ford pickup that in no way resembled Santa’s sleigh.
I slid across the cold vinyl seat. Mom settled beside me.
“Why doesn’t Santa deliver their gifts?” I asked.
Mom glanced at Daddy.
“The Reynolds’ children don’t believe anymore,” she said.
The old truck bounced over the bumpy roads. I stared at the cake jostling on Mom’s lap and hugged the Moon Pies to my chest. Maybe if they believed, we’d be able to keep our cake. I fumed as we stopped in front of the small wooden house. A single bulb burned on the porch leaving the rest of the house dark and remote. A dog barked in the distance. I shivered and hoped they weren’t home.
Daddy hopped out, eased the door shut, and left us in the truck. His work boots crunched across the frozen ground to the porch. The truck’s heater whirred, but my breath still froze in the night air like smoke from a cigarette.
Within seconds Daddy returned with Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds.
Mr. Reynolds, the tallest and skinniest man I had ever seen, opened the door and leaned inside the truck. “Hello, ma’am,” he said to Mom.
The dim light threw shadows across his thin, drawn face. He pushed back a lock of black hair from his wrinkled forehead. Dark, bushy brows framed eyes that sunk into his head like a skeleton’s. “How are you, little one?” He extended a hand across Mom to me.
“Fine,” I said and shook his bony, calloused hand. I remembered Daddy saying that he was an excellent carpenter when he was able to work. Even in the shadows, I could tell he was sick. One night I’d heard Daddy telling Mama, “He’s a proud man. He refuses to go to the hospital because he doesn’t have the money to pay for it.”
Mr. Reynolds backed up two feet and stood by his wife, a woman half his height dressed in a flowered cotton housecoat and a pink, threadbare sweater.
Mom stepped out of the truck and handed the cake to Mrs. Reynolds. They huddled together talking.
I clutched my box of Moon Pies and peered out the window.
Mr. Reynolds met Daddy at the back of the truck, accepted the bags of gifts from him, and started toward the house. After a few steps, he stopped and let the bags fall to the ground. He turned around and walked back to face my dad.
I watched, spellbound.
After a few moments of silence, he said, “These toys and that beautiful cake --.” He choked back tears. “Now we won’t have to disappoint the children. We’ll have a special Christmas celebration like we used to have.” He wiped at his eyes with both hands. “I don’t know how to thank you.” He threw his arms around my dad and hugged him.
Daddy patted his back. “It’s what Christmas is all about,” he said, clearing his throat.
Mr. Reynolds nodded and picked up the gifts. A tear rolled down Mrs. Reynolds’ cheek as she joined him.
“Wait!” I jumped out of the truck. “Take these,” I said. “Everyone loves Moon Pies.” I handed the box of my favorite treat to Mrs. Reynolds.
Daddy put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I climbed into the truck. Mom slid in beside me and cupped my hands in hers. My heart pounded against my chest. But now I understood why Daddy wanted to help Santa even if no one knew but us.
Daddy’s giving heart showed me that God would provide all we need so that we would be able to share with others. From that moment, I believed in using the power of love and concern to give hope to others. Like Daddy said, “It’s what Christmas is all about.”
Note: The Secret Ingredient was published in The Embrace of a Father: True Stories of Inspiration and Encouragement (Bethany House, 2006) and is available online and in book stores.