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JAMES BEHRENS: Goodness persists at Christmas, despite sad, painful events

Christmas comes every year. It is a time when we celebrate the coming of the Lord, as well as awaiting His return at the end of time.But we take to heart the message that the Lord is in our midst. He is not easy to find in the busy-ness of our days. Time must pass, the days must recede and settle in our hearts' memories, and then it is perhaps easier to see where He has been and what He is about.

During my high school years, I worked in a small grocery store in my home town of Montclair, N.J. The years were in the early 1960s. The name of the store underwent several transformations during the time I worked there. It was a First National Grocery, then a Safeway, and lastly a Finast.

I remember my first day there. Nelson was the manager. He was my first real boss and I was nervous. He looked me over, made a few welcoming comments, and then told me to put on an apron and to head out to the parking lot to round up the errant grocery carts.

As the days and weeks passed, I learned about the finer arts of stocking shelves, pricing food items, bagging groceries, cleaning up messes, changing prices which I had marked only a day or two before, taking inventory, sweeping the floors and, finally, learning to work the register.

I had a lot of help learning these things. There was Fred, an older man who looked to have been in the store forever. He patiently taught me how to work the register and count change. He stood next to me and watched as I cashed out orders. He was the shop steward and enrolled me in the Retailers Union. I still have the card.

Frankie was from Newark and looked like it. He was the aisle boss and strutted around with pointy leather shoes, a Fabian style hairdo, and a Marlboro hanging out of his mouth. I think he was a James Dean wannabe.

Roy and Joe went to college and were hired soon after I started. Nice guys and funny. They told me all their date adventures -- the good ones, as well as the disasters.

I ran into Roy some 30 years later. He was a parishioner in a very wealthy parish. He did not remember me but I recognized him right away.

Sissy worked in the meat department. She lived in Elizabeth, which was a long drive from Montclair. She loved leather -- leather shoes, a big leather purse, a leather coat, leather gloves. All black. She was what we used to call a "hard girl," but as I got to know her I realized that she had a heart of gold.

And she had a great sense of humor. She taught me some words I had never heard of.

Old Joe was in charge of the produce section and he drove Nelson crazy. Joe was not too bright. He had a lot of trouble with numbers and the scale. There were daily complaints from shoppers as to why lemons were so overpriced or a bag of vegetables was marked below the normal weight.

Joe liked displays. He would arrange row after row of oranges in an ascending pile and then shake his head in wonder when the bottom gave way and the oranges rolled onto and all over the floor.

I can hear Nelson's voice to this day. "Joe...oh Joe...it is getting very dark outside...you notice that, Joe?" Joe would shake his head and pick up the oranges.

And there were the customers -- Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Sutera, Mrs. Upton, Mr. Taggart, Mrs. Trowbridge, Mrs. Duffy. They were the regulars. I got to know them well. They bought the same stuff week after week.

Nelson always gave them extra Green Stamps. And for those he knew to be having a rough go of it, he would give big discounts and throw in extra food items on top of the bag.

Every week, the food delivery would arrive. We would set about placing the food items on carts and arranging them on the shelves. There were also big paper advertisements that boasted in huge letters the sales of the week. We unrolled the papers and Scotched taped them to the big front windows.

Christmas was a special time. We decorated the store in whatever Christmas finery we could find. Green and red ribbons and banners, a Christmas tree or two, snowmen with snow out of a spray can, bells and ribbons all over the place.

It really was a beautiful time. Nelson delighted in giving us all some extra money -- and I know he added some extra gifts to those in need.

Almost 50 years have passed. Another Christmas is here and I look about me and wonder. There are problems in the world. Sad and painful events have marred every year that has come and gone. For some reason, we tend to focus on the bad, the evil, and allow it to downplay all the goodness that has taken place in our world.

But goodness is stubborn in its persistence. It is always there, growing from such small and obscure places. Like a grocery store, like a magic extra in a brown paper bag, like a man named Nelson who decorated for Christmas, yet lived it all year. Kind of hidden from sight. Like Bethlehem.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.