“Merry Christmas! We brought a few things you may be able to use.”

Our friend Dan was at the door, carrying a box with turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes — what looked like a complete holiday dinner. Behind him came a teen boy with another box of groceries.

My husband, Bob, and I welcomed them into our living room, where they set down their loads. They were running errands for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Our eight children came from all parts of our Irvington home to see the visitors. Dan stepped outside for a moment, returning with a carton of gift-wrapped packages marked “Boy – 11,” “Girl – 9,” etc. — one for each child. Our 13-year-old daughter burst into tears and ran from the room when she saw the Santa Claus-decorated box of gifts. We learned later that she had recognized the paper Santa on the box as the very one she had made at school for “poor people.”

After sincere thanks, we said goodbye to our two benefactors. We were grateful for the groceries and gifts and yet wondered who had submitted our name.

“So this is what it’s like to get food from St. Vincent de Paul,” I thought. For years we had contributed to Christmas baskets. Ever since Bob and I were teens we had helped deliver them to families in The Madeleine Parish and “poor” neighborhoods. But this year, neither of us was embarrassed to be a “taker.” We realized it was our turn to receive help.

That Christmas was a time of hardship for our family. A company merger had eliminated Bob’s position. Unemployment benefits took care of the mortgage, and nothing else. The Christmas of 1967 came after two months of no work — and ahead stretched 16 more months of little income. We experienced many kindnesses, put up with a few humiliations (like the young letter-of-the-law lady at the food stamp office who found us ineligible for aid one month), learned to do without even more than usual and counted our blessings every day.

We repeatedly assured God that we had, indeed, learned invaluable lessons about poverty, faith, friendship, sharing. Would God please realize this and put an end to the worrisome test? We promised ourselves we would never forget what it was like to need help, to have to ask for it or, hardest of all, to have no one to ask. We became sensitive to the dignity a “taker” needs to preserve in time of need.

Giving is much easier, especially when the giving is your own idea.

In 1961, it had not been our idea, but our Catholic Charities caseworkers’, to provide a temporary home to two Cuban teenage girls who had fled their country after Fidel Castro came into power. At the time we were asked to do this, our foster daughter, Evelyn, had just left our home after a 16-month stay to live with relatives. Our five children ranged in age from 2 to 7, and I did not look forward to coping with teens and their habits. The allowance for room and board would just about cover food and the heating costs of our upstairs bedrooms.

So it was that in August of that year we welcomed our Cuban “daughters,” Susie and Bertha.

Labor Day came. My body was threatening to miscarry a two-month pregnancy. “Stay down,” said my doctor. “Don’t get up for anything except the bathroom.” Good medical advice, but not very practical with my brood. Yet Susie and Bertha, accustomed to having servants in their native Havana, took over the housework, cooking meals and caring for our children.

Their families came to Portland that December. Our newfound Cuban friends cooked a traditional Cuban Christmas dinner, sharing it with our whole household.

I have learned that life is a tightly woven tapestry of giving and receiving. There is joy in helping others, but we must exercise tact and sensitivity as we give.

I also believe we have a duty to be cheerful receivers. At times this is difficult, but we should at least try to be gracious when someone helps us.

There is a time to give and a time to receive. Our family has learned this truth in a thousand ways — never better than at those two memorable Christmases.

Mitchell is a longtime member of The Madeleine Parish.