By Jason Wright
I've been thinking about chocolate-covered cherries lately. The tiny treats have symbolized my childhood Christmas mornings, and my mother always had several boxes scattered out on the counter when we came downstairs. We never had to ask if we could have one.
And, obviously, we never had just one.
But why are they on my mind as we march through March? What has me thinking of the cherished chocolate treats with the holidays fading in the rear-view mirror?
I have a good friend who loves the 7-Eleven store and all of its convenience-store cousins. Is it an unhealthy affection? I can't say. But it wouldn't surprise me to learn he has a spare room in his home lined with maps of every Circle K, Handi-Hut, mini mart and snack shack within a day's drive.
When he walks in for a cold drink or quick snack, they don't just call him by name. They ask about his kids and how his daughter did on last Friday's spelling test.
I've noticed that my friend shares my affection for chocolate-covered cherries. Each time he visits a store that carries them, or any of its individually wrapped siblings -- York Peppermint Patty singles, caramels, tiny Reese's Peanut Butter Cups -- he always buys one or two extras.
One of the extras always goes to me and I appreciate the kindness. But the real generosity happens at checkout.
"How are you today?" he asks the clerk.
Their replies are often predictable. "Eh. OK, I guess. Just another day."
"That's it?" he asks. "Come on, we can do better than that."
They don't usually reply with words, but their eyes say plenty.
"Here, I promise this will turn your day around." He slides the candy he's just bought right back across the counter.
"Excuse me?" Even the clerks he knows well act surprised each time he treats them.
"Trust me," he says, "nothing turns your day around like a chocolate-covered fill-in-the-blank."
They always reach for it and slide it the rest of the way toward the edge of the counter and it lands in their outstretched palm and a smile always lands on their face.
"Thank you," they say, often more than once. "Thanks very much. You didn't have to."
My pal winks, pops his own treat in his mouth and walks out.
I eat my freebie, too, and the conversation turns to sports, politics, work and all the other things guys talk about to feel relevant to one another.
Sometimes my friend repeats the same scene on the same day at another location. I've been present for many of these chocolate-covered cherry miracles. But how many have I missed?
I wonder how much money my friend has spent serving others in this small way. At 25 cents each, it can't be much. I wonder if he's bought 500 of these tasty gifts. More? A thousand?
But it's not the money, is it? Like all other acts of service, it's the message. For a few seconds every time he walks into a gas station or convenience store, he sends the unmistakable message to those who wait on him that they are not alone.
He speaks with action and with his gift of time. He says to them, "I see you. You're not alone. You're important."
He practically shouts: "You matter!"
Wouldn't it be wonderful to have someone step into your life, especially on the days you wish would end early, and look you in the eyes with that powerful message?
My friend isn't naïve and neither am I. We know that a 25-cent treat doesn't solve life's serious problems. It doesn't help someone find a new job, cure family illness or return the prodigal son. But it just might make all those things seem more possible.
When life gets tough, when days seem bigger than our spirit, having someone look us in the eye and remind us we're not alone could be the greatest gift of all.
I'm grateful that after so many visits to our favorite watering holes, I'm finally paying attention to my friend's chocolate miracles. And I can't wait to start performing my own.
In fact, I think I'll hit 7-Eleven on the way home tonight.
I hope they have chocolate-covered cherries.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at email@example.com or jasonfwright.com.