Mike looked out the window of the Coffee Shop. It was snowing fairly hard, the neon lights gave a warm colored glow to the swirling blasts of winter. Like a lot of winter scenes, the harshness of the cold was hidden by the beauty of lights reflected off of the snow, and the muffled sounds of street life. It made Mike glad he was inside looking out, his hot chocolate warming his hands, which in turn warmed his heart, as memories popped up like small marshmallows to the surface of his mind. It was in the mellow place forming in his mind, caught between the beauty of the lights outside, and the even brighter memories glowing in his thoughts, that he first saw them.
At first, he didn’t believe his eyes. He thought, perhaps, that his memories had somehow altered his perception and thrown him back to a Christmas week more than two thousand years ago. For he saw three forlorn, frozen, feeble forms take shape in the blowing snow. All of them female. All of them dragging a burden over their shoulders, and with their other hand- towing wheeled luggage that left gouges in the deep snow. Each step they took proved that they had been at this a while. Ice had formed on the small wheels of the luggage, the exposed eyebrows of all three, and exhaustion warred with determination as each foot lifted to plod on to just one more step.
Mike stood up. He moved closer to the window to see the three vagabonds more closely. Each of them was wearing a threadbare coat stuffed with newspapers as a lining. None of them had gloves, and only the littlest one had a hat. If ever there was a picture of three weary travelers at the end of a long journey bereft of hope, it was those three. Mike’s breath fogged the window, forcing him to use his sleeve to clear it. His warm thick comfortable jacket lay hanging from the back of his chair- seeing the three of them out there in the cold, made him shiver, both from the cold, and the embarrassment of being so warm. He could shed his jacket. A bit of guilt that his jacket wasn’t outside doing its job, protecting one of those women from the bitter cold, a cold that numbed the brain and made it unable to think of anything but shelter.
To Mike’s surprise, the small discouraged troop stopped right in front of the window, and gathered like the proverbial Wagon Train’s of the Old West. They gathered in their small heartbroken huddle to discuss something. Mike realized, as his heart dropped from the weight of pity and empathy that pulled heartstrings to the limit. For the three females were combing their pockets, combining what little money they had, to see if they could, between the three of them, afford to go into the Starbucks and purchase at least one hot chocolate.
Mike guessed the oldest to be not more than 35 years old. The other two looked to be a teenager and a girl who couldn’t be more than 8 or 9 years old. He almost cried at the simple fact that none of them could quite uncurl their hands. Hands that were frozen in the shape of the handles they pulled, like little ice claws extended out to hold the coins.
Mike couldn’t take it. He swung around and snatched his jacket off of the chair, raced out the door with the grace and elegance of a World Class Soccer Player headed towards the goal. The three small wisps of humanity, huddled in their tiny circle, did not see him at first, as they were busy trying to count the coins, and way too few pieces of paper in their hands. Out of the swirling snow stepped Mike.
His jacket, flung like the cape of some Matador, wrapped around the two younger girls, snapping them into a warm embrace as it gathered them up, and they it. He put his arm around the Older Woman. There was no resistance. She simply leaned into his warmth, her mind empty of any conscious thought, except for one: “Safety.” No words were spoken. He was a shepherd, and for a brief moment, they were sheep. Someone had finally come to lead them - so they followed. Three sets of lips were too cold to speak, all of those lips were already split by the arctic weather. The last set of lips, Mike’s, were set firmly in a straight line pressed together in that way that signals things better left unsaid.
He was mad. Not at anyone in particular. But at whatever circumstance, world, or God who could let three thin people wander in weather like this. The few customers in the coffee shop, and the two Baristas, looked with undisguised disgust, as Mike shepherded in his raggedy flock. One look from Mike, his lips still straight and compressed, quelled any commentary from any of the onlookers. Even the usually outspoken Barista, a girl who was used to her good looks allowing her to make comments that most would have been shunned for- backed down under the certainty of Mike’s glare. This was not the time to judge, or at least not out loud.
Even a second glance at the small mound of luggage, covered in melting snow and ice, leaving little puddles running down the ramp to the door, the black hefty bags, shiny with wetness, and stuffed with who knows what piled on top, was denied to the Barista. Mike’s eyes would have none of it. She turned to make herself busy, and get out from under that intense scrutiny, a scrutiny daring her to dismiss any of the three women because of their poverty. In her heart, she was a bit disappointed at her own superiority, and fleeting thoughts of the cliques in High School that left her out, for her beauty and body were late in blooming- sprung from that disappointment. Her heart softened.
When she turned back around to meet Mike’s stare, she motioned to the three hot chocolates she had made; steaming in their paper cups, covered with whip cream, chocolate sprinkles, and cocoa. A part of her knew the role chocolate played in any season, and especially when it was matched with females frozen from the outdoors. Her smile was genuine, and Mike’s return one was its own gift.
Mike put the oldest on his lap, trying to act like a human comforter, afghan, or knitted couch blanket. One of the other customers silently slid up to the table and put her bright red full length coat with a soft fur collar over the slender woman on Mike’s lap. She tucked it in neatly, lifting one of Mike’s arms to make sure that all of it covered the shivering woman. Mike’s jacket was big enough to enclose both the younger girls, who reached out from under it to take the hot chocolates. The way they looked at those steaming cups, could have graced the most grateful of any supplicant at the foot of her God. It was a look of wonder shaded with thank you, the tears of gratitude hung unspilled making their eyes shiny. Warmth is a good gravy.
Over the next hour, ice claws uncurled, lips stung as the damage done by the cold leaked the anesthesia of numbness from them, bodies, hearts and minds - thawed. Mike found out their names and ages: The Mother (Cynthia) 37. The Eldest (Mariam) 16. The youngest (Elaine, but everyone called her: “Elsie”) 8 and 1/2. Their circumstance: Having been thrown out of their Motel on December 1st, because they were $65 dollars short of the rent (and when she counted it out in front of the Landlord, he took every penny- as she was paying by the week- leaving them with only the change in their pockets). For 23 days, they had been wandering around the city. The shelters forcing them to leave at 8 AM, and not letting them in before 6 PM. Most shelters wouldn’t let families in, and the few that did were almost always full before Cynthia and her ragged troop showed up. So they wandered.
Mike made no comments. His probing questions were both gentle and empathetic. He found Cynthia to be graceful in her speech, elegant in her manners, and mannerisms. Mariam he found to be a bit shy, the kind of shyness that hides the soul of a poet. Little “Elsie” Mike found to be one of those rare practical people, completely devoid of any form of guile, self pity, or pettiness. He loved them all by the end of that hour. And that is only one of the Miracles that night.
Mike had gone to the Coffee shop bemoaning the fact that it was even open on Christmas Eve- the fact that Mike was alone on Christmas Eve and looking for an open Coffee shop to sip hot chocolate in completely escaped his awareness. His home was nearby, within walking distance of the coffee Shop. Those things all conspired to make sure he was there to look out the window and see Cynthia, Marian, and Elsie. Much later he was certain that it was all part of a plan. One not of his making. Or anyone’s on Earth. (Now, back to the story.)
After a while, Cynthia was warm enough to return the bright red coat to its original owner. The soft hug they shared, of two women saying thanks in different ways, meant the world to both of them. She was loath to leave the comfort of Mike’s lap and strong arms, even to return the coat to the kind stranger who had loaned it to her. When she walked back to the table, she was secretly thrilled, relieved, and overjoyed to see that Mike had held his arms open in a blatant invitation to return to her snuggle- she did. It wasn’t an obvious “come here”, or a demanding “sit on my lap”, it was simply understood that she was safe there, belonged there, and was welcomed there. Nothing showy about it at all. So she snuggled in comfort that reached much deeper than being warm.
Mariam and Elsie had two more hot chocolates, a danish a piece, and a small salad with ranch dressing - Mike was discreetly aware that both of them had licked their plates free of any last crumb, or salad dressing. He filed that away for later. He would make them a dinner that would leave them stuffed even more than the bird they ate. That thought made him smile, and all three of them caught the flicker of it as it raced across his face. He turned to look at all of them together. They looked back. Hope trying desperately not to show itself. The were warm for a bit, fed for a bit, and now, well, if they were flung back into the night, they had a wonderful memory to fight off the cold with. Mike could see in all of their eyes that they expected goodbye’s soon. Maybe a small gift of money, some food and drinks to go, and a hearty round of hugs and well wishes as they parted ways.
Mike could not bear to even harbor the thought they would be back out in that cold forlorn snowy night. Alone again. Cold again. Hopeless again.
“Ah… I don’t have room at the Inn.”
The smiles on Cynthia, Marian, and Elsie’s faces saddened, sagged, and turned wry. It was too good to last, so it didn’t. But they were grateful for all that had been done, and they would hold stout smiles, sincere smiles, for Mike, and the two hours of family that he had given them. Their eyes did water a bit, but only gratefulness and thanks shone in them.
“But, I do have room at my house.”
There are places in the world where you can see beauty all around you. There are homes that cost millions perched on seaside cliffs with spectacular views from every room. There are places in nature where the Human Spirit pales at the awe and majesty it is witnessing. There are rainbows, and kittens, and star strewn skies, paintings that will bring tears, sculptures that take your breath away. None of those things compared- in even the tiniest way- to the sheer brilliance that the burst of radiant hope and joy that leaped straight from the hearts of three human beings. It was not the milk of human kindness, it was a river of it. In that single sentence, that single moment, that single experience - Mike was no longer single.
The four of them went out into the snow. Mike’s jacket around Mariam and Elsie, where it belonged. Mike’s arm around Cynthia, where it belonged. They would come back tomorrow - after their first night as a family- and pick up the rest of their belongings.
There was no room at the inn, but there was a home to go to.