Last year, my wife Rose and I volunteered to take a crew of seven junior high kids, a big pile of presents, food and a Christmas tree to a needy family in East Austin. We left straight from church, so we were in our Sunday finest. That was my first mistake.
We packed the tree and the food into Rose’s SUV, put the presents in the trunk of my car and we were off. We sang Christmas carols all the way to the part of East Austin where the roads turned to dirt. The heavy rainfall the night before had created giant mud pits that we had to drive around. We were looking for the home of Maria Ceballos and her six kids. When we finally found the right road, it was a dirt road with its own huge, insurmountable mud pit right in the middle of where we had to go. But I was undaunted. We had Christmas presents to deliver.
I stopped just short of the mud pit to plot out the best strategy. It looked like if we stayed to the left of the deepest part of the mud pit, we might get through. I shifted into gear and vowed to keep moving no matter what. That was my second mistake.
Into the pit I rolled and my tires immediately started spinning, but the car was not moving. “Got to keep moving,” I said to myself. I turned the wheel hard to the left and then hard to the right to keep wheels from digging into any one spot. It worked. I kept the gas peddle down and kept turning the wheels hard left and hard right until I had “walked” the car all way to where there was an “almost dry” spot and then I pulled off the road onto the grass. Then I got out to check on Rose and the kids who were in the SUV behind me.
Sure enough she was stuck in the mud pit and she was doing the worst possible thing – gunning the engine and digging herself deeper. These Wisconsin girls can drive in snow, but not in good ol’ Texas mud. I waved her off and she turned off the engine. She and all the kids piled out of the SUV and into the mud in their nice, clean church clothes. The little Mexican kids from the neighborhood just stood there, staring at us wide-eyed as if we were crazy.
I left Rose and the kids with the vehicles and walked down the muddy road to see if I could find the Ceballos’ house. Only half of the cinder-block houses and mobile homes had addresses on them. No one seemed to know who Maria Ceballos was or where she lived. I was getting depressed, thinking we might not even be on the right road and now we were stuck in the mud with a group of hyper-active junior high kids. I turned around and walked back toward the cars only to see Rose and the kids all happily marching toward me and carrying bags of presents and the tree – like a prize. “What are you doing?” I shouted. “Isn’t this where they live?” Rose asked. “I thought that’s why you pulled off the road.”
The kids dropped the Christmas tree in the mud on the way back to the car. So now we had a slightly muddy Christmas tree to deliver. I was trying not to get frustrated. It was Christmas and we were there for a good cause. I managed to get the SUV unstuck and over onto a semi-dry spot. It looked like the road was a bit drier a few hundreds yards away, but we’d have to make our way through the rest of the mud pit to get there. Our only other alternative was to go back out the way we came in and go around the block. We decided to go around the block. But first, we had to go back through the mud pit from which we had just escaped.
By this time, I felt like a pro. I laid the hammer down and sent mud flying everywhere and made it back through the mud pit with no problem. Rose, unfortunately got stuck again. A couple of young guys saw her desperately struggling and ran up to give her a push from behind with their hands. She baptized one of them in mud as she finally spun out the hole and made it to the other side. “Sorry!” she shouted from the window. “No hay problema!” came the response. I’m sure the last thing they wanted was a couple of yuppies with a pack of teenagers stuck right out in front their house for the rest of the afternoon.
We went around the block and came down the same street from the opposite direction and finally found the right house – thanks to some men who were out in their front yard playing with roosters on leashes. I asked them in Spanish if these were cock-fightin’ roosters and they proudly responded “si” and told me the names of each rooster. The names sounded like Spanish versions of Top Gun fighter pilots. They showed me the battle scars on their roosters as though they were medals of honor.
I told one of the men out front that we were bringing “regalos de Navidad” and he shouted in Spanish to the open windows of the Ceballos’ house. Almost immediately six little Ceballos kids came spilling out of the house with wide open, expectant eyes. “Donde esta Maria Ceballos?” I asked, and all the kids pointed to the open door of the cinder block house. I could see Maria shyly peeking at us from behind the door. “Okay guys, everybody unload the gifts and follow me.” We were finally home.
Seven junior high kids and Rose descended on the little house like a tornado and set up the tree on the cold, concrete floor of the living room. Then came all the presents and the food. The Ceballos kids immediately began squeezing and shaking the presents and looking for their names. During the entire trip, little Tiffany Wilson had been carrying a brand new stuffed kitty with no name on it. She alone knew who it went to. “Quien es Daisy?” she finally asked and a little girl raised her hand. Tiffany walked over and handed the kitty to Daisy and she snuggled it closely to her chest and smiled. It was a beautiful sight. We sang the only Spanish Christmas carol that everyone knew – Feliz Navidad. Then we said a prayer of blessing on the Ceballos’ home.
As we walked out of the house, the men outside had decided to give us a show. They released the cocks and immediately they started fighting. Our church kids just stood there – with mouths open. “Why are they fighting?” a little girl asked me. “It’s their instinct,” I said. “When you get two male roosters together, they always fight. This is one of the biggest sports in Mexico. Everybody places bets on the rooster they want to win. The rooster left standing wins.” Just about that time, one of the men asked me if I wanted to bet $5.00. That was our cue to leave. “Gracias. Feliz Navidad,” I said and we piled seven muddy teenagers into the cars and left.
As I thought about it, I realized that the Ceballos family could have very easily been my family five generations ago, when my ancestors first came to Texas from Northern Mexico. Those guys out front with the roosters could have easily been my uncles. I imagined that I had gone back in time to give my family a Christmas tree and a pile of presents and food and I wondered how I would have felt as a little kid seeing piles of presents being brought into our house – totally unexpected. For just a moment, I was that kid, and my heart swelled with excitement.
And then I wondered – what if I really could go back in time and give my own ancestors a gift. What would I give my ancestors, knowing that it would one day benefit me? My imagination ran wild. Would I give them the gift of education? A million dollars to invest over the next five generations until it was passed down to me? Stock in Coca Cola which would increase over the years? Political connections like the Bush’s or the Kennedy’s? Faith in God?
As my mind wandered, it went further and further back in time . . . to two thousand years ago . . . to an ancient hill overlooking a small village where shepherds were watching their flocks by starlight. And then I realized that God had already gone back into my past and given me a gift –the greatest gift of all – the birth of his son Jesus Christ . . . and I smiled.