Every Christmas season when the Salvation Army bells start to toll, Christmas trees light up, people’s hearts either open or close, I think about it.

In my little, cold, seaside Massachusetts hometown, suffering from some of the varied, inexplicable sadness that can plague the human mind . . . my mother often wandered along Main Street. In the process, she occasionally befriended the homeless. Perhaps she saw in them kindred free spirits. Or, perhaps the lack of societal demands inside such a friendship comforted her.

There is one memory of a transaction between her and a homeless woman that never left me. I was five, all bundled up. She was old, and huddled in a shoddy blanket. Her usual camp was across the sidewalk from my mother’s favorite bookstore, the one filled with endless shelves of the rare and used.

It was a Cape Cod December night, a snowflake-less, cheerless December night, a not-even-another-car-on-the-winter-road December night. I trudged along the sidewalk ahead of my mother’s meandering path. Not a single streetlight seemed bright enough to cut the fog.

My mother’s steps halted behind me, so I turned. I watched in a mixture of awe and horror, as my mother, on food stamps, welfare, and housing assistance, pulled out the last five dollar bill she had in a purse stuffed full of coupons . . .and handed it to the homeless woman.

But then I saw a light bright enough to cut through the relentless gray. It was this woman’s glowing smile, as she muttered her “Thank you.”  My mother nodded, intermittently happy. We trudged forward.

 “But give it to your daughter.”

I turned again, but this time because the homeless woman had leaned forward, reached out to me, taken my little mittened hand, and stuck that five dollar bill right in it.

She had nothing left to give. Yet she held nothing back.

It was many, many Christmases later when I finally got it. That smile on the homeless woman’s face had actually come from the realization that she, too, was about to be able to give.

~Danica Oliver, Junior League of San Diego