December 04, 2009

The Christmas Celebration of Helen Dutton

This is the way it went during a mid-winter Sunday School class in Idaho Falls in the mid-sixties. Families that attended church together made up an assortment of farmers, ranchers, local small businessmen and employees of the National Reactor Testing Station located west of town. Some families had steady incomes - many did not. For more than a few, hard scrabble times were the norm. I remember once a good friend - from such a family telling me that it was tough being poor. You started out with used stuff and then when it broke down there wasn't enough money to have it repaired and so the cycle went - usually downward. I have had conversations with people not from Idaho who tell me, once they learn I grew up there that they have never seen that kind of poverty before. Though, times have improved in the ensuing years, my early associations with kids who sprang from the salt of the earth have given me a degree of compassion for those less fortunate than myself.

The Christmas Celebration of Helen Dutton
by Paul Kern

Christmas had come as quick as it went,
Cold was breezin' through the hot air vent.
Us rowdy kids didn't much give a care,
For what the teacher was sayin' there.

It was cold outside and the snow was high,
It squeaked underfoot as you walked by.
Your breath would freeze inside your throat,
Arctic wind nipped at your old winter coat.

Like colts in the mornin' of an early snow,
We were buckin' up and wouldn't let go.
And then she did it without makin' a fuss -
She asked what we'd all got - for Christmas.

Well, Mike he got a new pair of chaps,
A Stetson, new boots and a pistol with caps.
And Butch by golly got a bunch of new shirts,
Some games and a monster toy called Lurch.

Lanona, the quiet girl, if I correctly recall,
Got a blue gingham dress and a Barbie doll.
And Rayelle the redhead got somethin' too,
A three-speed bike that was fancy and new.

From kid to kid the teacher went round,
We listened good to what the others had found,
Under the Christmas tree - when all of a sudden,
She turned and asked that little Helen Dutton.

The Dutton's lived in a tarpaper shack,
On a ramshackle farm they rented out back,
And well out of sight on a rutted dirt road.
No one should go there - or so we'd been told.

Well, Helen brightened up just a speck,
And we did too, hey what the heck -
Maybe she'd had a celebration too -
Good, that's what families normally do.

Helen Dutton hadn't washed in a while,
But when she broke into this great big smile,
Could it be she was ready to tell us all -
About some new clothes, new shoes or a doll?

Or maybe about a holiday feast with her Dad,
With turkey and ham when he wasn't all mad.
Or maybe a box of oranges and treats and candy,
Or the party they'd had - that'd sure be dandy!

Now it was time for Helen to take the floor,
There'd been none of what was said before.
But she smiled softly as she began to talk -
She'd got a colorin' book and two pieces of chalk.

That's it? That's all? What about the toys?
And sugar plums for good girls and boys?
Not there. Just a crooked smile and tangled hair.
Helen had a few more words to share.

This girl with threadbare clothes and a dirty face,
Would teach us somethin' 'bout dignity and grace.
Little Helen Dutton went on to say -
"Toys don't count much - 'least not on Christmas day.

"Mamma was home and the fire was warm,
And Daddy'd came in from working the farm,
He put up a sagebrush for our Christmas tree,
And we all got excited my sisters and me!"

After a meal of oatmeal and a horehound stick,
Helen reached under the sagebrush and went to pick,
The present with the colorin' book and chalk.
Then Mamma picked her up and gave her a rock.

She whispered somethin' as she cradled her tight,
Like Mary musta' done that first Christmas night.
Those quiet words of Helen Dutton just won't go away -
"Toys don't count much - 'least not on Christmas day."

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