I've been blessed with many wonderful Christmas gifts over the years. A silver charm bracelet from my mother. A gold locket from my husband. The most memorable gift I've ever received, however, came from a surprising source, and under very unusual circumstances.
The summer I was nine years old, my best friend, Marty, invited me to go to a movie with her family. It was a big deal. My parents were fairly conservative in their Christianity. There wasn't a drop of alcohol in our house, rock music was frowned upon, and going to the movies was a rare and carefully monitored treat.
Still, to my delight, Mom and Dad said yes. Before Marty's parents picked me up, my mom gave me the usual set of instructions—stay close to a grown-up at all times, be polite and respectful, don't forget to say "thank-you." Then, as Marty's family's car pulled in front of our house, my dad tucked a five-dollar bill into my pocket. "Use this only if you need to pay for your ticket or popcorn," he explained. (Yes, back then five dollars would have covered both!)
"Okay," I agreed, already halfway out the door.
At the movie theater, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard insisted on buying my ticket, as well as popcorn and soda for Marty and me. As I was standing at the glass counter, waiting-politely—for my snack, I saw it.
For some reason, the theater was selling a small assortment of stuffed toys. Nestled between a spotted dog and a gray elephant lay the most beautiful little lion cub I'd ever seen. With plush tan fur, golden brown eyes, and pink ears, it was irresistible to a stuffed-animal junkie like me. I had to have it.1