Updated: January 21, 2014 11:15AM
My grandfather, I.J. Martin, was a little boy in 1865 when the Civil War was coming to an end. He lived with his family on a farm outside a small central Illinois town. His father was a farmer, carpenter and part-time Baptist preacher.
It was nearly Christmas. I.J. was helping take care of a white lamb whose mother had just died. I.J. hoped that when Christmas came, his father would give him the white lamb as a Christmas present.
The lamb didn’t seem to know he was a sheep. He thought he was one of the children. He learned to come when he was called, and nuzzled up to show his affection.
A few days before Christmas, a stranger came up the walk. He said his name was Turner, and he and his family had moved onto the place just to the west. He told I.J.’s mother that he had heard the family had a cow for sale. He also noticed the white lamb. I.J.’s mother said the lamb was a nuisance. She said Mr. Turner should talk to her husband about the cow. I.J.’s sister took their new neighbor down to the barn to see her father.
They talked a while about things … and the cow. I.J’s father needed cash to pay his taxes, so he set a high price for the cow. Mr. Turner finally said he would pay the price but only if I.J.’s father would throw in the white lamb. I.J.’s father said, “I can’t do that. My wife wouldn’t want me to sell it.”
Mr. Turner said, “I just heard your wife say it was a nuisance and she’d be glad to be rid of it.”
So I.J.’s father said, “Well, alright, take the lamb.” He told his son to get the cow and the lamb and bring them to Mr. Turner. I.J. did as he was told, but afterward he went to his room in the attic so no one would see him cry.
When his father told his mother about the deal, she said: “How could you do such a thing. You know I.J. was hoping to raise him next year.”
I.J.’s father said, “I thought you said the lamb was a nuisance and you’d be glad to be rid of it.” I.J.’s mother replied, “I said nothing of the kind. You’d better go over to the Turners and see if you can undo the deal.”
I.J.’s father said, “I can’t do that. A deal is a deal. I don’t want to start off having trouble with a new neighbor. I’m sorry to disappoint the boy, especially at Christmas. But I’ll give him the next lamb that is born.”
I.J. and the other children bitterly hated to lose their pet. But even at that age, I.J. had learned something. Neighbors had to stand together and help each other. They had to be on good terms.
I.J.’s father helped Mr. Turner the next fall during haying time, and his mother helped Mrs. Turner when her baby was born. And the next winter when I.J.’s sister had pneumonia, Mrs. Turner sat up with her three nights.
Many years later, Grandfather told the story of the white lamb to his children, and they passed it on to theirs.
Sometimes the best gifts come without wrapping paper and ribbons.