A space that had contained all the Christmas ornaments and decorations we'd accumulated in the five years we'd been together.
When Christmas rolled around, it found me determined to ensure the kids and I at least had a tree even though money was tighter than tight. I found a live one in the 'discounted' area of the local lot that had only one complete brown side and whose wooden 'x' stand wasn't too wobbly. I had made a few paper ornaments and even covered a cardboard cut-out star with tin foil for the top.
But it didn't have any lights, which for some weird reason bothered the hell out of me. I guess an unlit tree, even the kind with only one brown side and a stand that only wobbled a little, just didn't say 'Christmas' to me.
And that year, more than any other either before or since, I needed it to.
Lucky for me the little hardware store just up from where we were living was running a one-day only sale with a coupon.
Fifty lights for fifty cents!
It was late when I got off work and collected the kids from the sitter before making my way to the little shop. All three of us were tired and hungry and I remember it was, even for Southern California, cold. But, I was determined and thought it would be a brief stop. You know the kind--get in, get it and get out. So I bracketed my daughter on my hip and dragged my overly tired, hungry little man by the hand instead of wrestling the double stroller out of the car.
And it was a good thing I did because as soon as we'd cleared the door, they closed the store! I was the last customer for the day. I grabbed a box of the lights and made my way the end of a long line to check out.
I wasn't paying much attention to what was going on since my little ones were getting fussy as young ones will when their tired and hungry. So I was doing the 'mommy move' of hip-sway and arm jiggle while singing 'Jingle Bells' as quietly as possible in order to keep my kids from having a meltdown.
There were two children in front of me, standing next to a man that was a little older than I was and I envied him for how well behaved his family was compared to mine. The little boy and little girl held hands as we all stepped closer to the check-out.
"A twee!" I heard the little girl exclaim on a gasp and followed her eyes to the little aluminum tree on the counter. Covered in lights, it was a vision of all things shiny from the bulbs to the garland all the way to the plastic star on its spire.
"Pweety," she breathed and I watched as she looked at the boy she was still holding hands with.
"He said maybe next year," I heard the boy say and watched as the man reached a hand and stroked the children's hair, each in turn. It was such a loving gesture, such a private moment between the three of them, I had to turn my eyes away.
The lights above us begin to turn off until the only illumination in the little store was over the counter which held that brightly lit, more than shiny, tree.
"Boo-ti-ful," the little girl said in awe and I saw both of them staring at it in open mouthed wonder as the line moved again.
"You like our tree?" the man behind the countered asked them when it was their turn.
Both little heads nodded as I watched the father pay for his purchase, using the same 50% off coupon I had clutched in my sweaty fingers.
The counter guy smiled huge, reached behind the counter and unplugged it before scooting the little tree closer to the man in front of me. "It's yours!"
I watched as the customer, who I assumed was the kids dad, started to shake his head 'no' before he glanced at his children. I saw his face soften as his eyes roamed over the two little ones at his side, their sweet faces tilted up to his.
He finally looked at the tree then at the man behind the counter before mumbling, "Thank you."
You always hear the words 'Goodwill Towards Men' during the Christmas season but, up until that night, that crazy night where I stopped at a little hardware store in order to get a string of lights for my mangy little Christmas tree...I had never actually seen it.
Not up close and personal like that. A random act of kindness that rocked a scrambling single mom to her bones with its simple beauty.
Now, thirty-something years later that memory pops into my head every time I hear that phrase.
And each and every damn time, it makes me teary-eyed.
Here's hoping you get to see or perform your own little piece of Goodwill this season!