My mom worked at least two jobs for as long as I can remember during my growing up years. It was difficult as a single woman raising three kids on her own, especially during the holidays. The Christmas of my fifth grade year was especially hard for her. She had decided to go back to school and get her license to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). By choosing to go back to school, she also had to make the choice of only working one job and having to adjust financially to an even tighter budget . A few weeks before Christmas she set my six year old sister and I down to inform us she would probably not be able to buy any presents this year. At the time, my baby brother was a toddler and oblivious to the signifcane of the conversation. My mom assured us that we would still get gifts from my step dad Dennis, whom she had divorced the year before. She reminded us that he would be picking us up on Christmas Eve to celebrate at his house.
You would think that hearing we would get gifts for Christmas would have made me happy. I remember seeing the sadness in my mom’s eyes because she would not be able to get us anything and feeling guilty at the thought of being excited about receiving presents from my step dad. I knew that she was resentful at times because of how the divorce had impacted her finances, yet he was still thriving and able to indulge my siblings and I with what we wanted. My ten year old self tried reassuring her that we would still have a wonderful Christmas.
Mom went out of her way that year to emphasize our family traditions. We made snowflakes from craft paper, cookies, baked pies and sang Christmas songs. Even with her efforts I sensed her sadness increasing as we inched closer to Christmas day. The night before Christmas as I prepared for bed, I remember walking past the empty tree and reminding myself that the amount of presents I received was not what Christmas was about. I had caught glimpses of my mom throughout the day with red rimmed eyes. I hurt for her more than the skinny, plastic tree with silver icicles setting barren in the living room.
The next morning, we all slept in. There was no reason to race to the tree that year. I heard the doorbell ring and wondered who would be coming over so early. As I got dressed I heard the booming voice of my Uncles Anthony and Leslie. I could hear their excitement as I rushed into the living room to see what the commotion was about. In both men’s hands were black bags filled with gifts. My sister and brother walked groggily in and we all watched in amazement as gifts were placed all around our little tree. I will never forget my mom’s face. Her joy as tears slid down her cheeks. I will never forget the gray leggings and matching green striped sweater. How special that simple outfit was to me. For sure I will never forget how two big hearted men stopped in and gave us the Christmas Day my mom so desperately wanted us to have.
As I had children of my own, we began celebrating Christmas and creating our own traditions. The Christmas from my childhood was never far from my memories or my heart. Although my children never had to face an empty tree, it was important to me that they not only heard my personal story and understood how blessed as a family we were, but that they also realized that there were many children that were not as fortunate. I wanted them to know the importance of giving back and how much of a difference it could make in a child’s life. So, every year at Christmas we would grab a star from the community tree or pick a family to surprise with a Christmas basket.
It was not until 2008 while living in Florida that I felt my kids were able to finally get a true glimpse of the power of giving. The church we had been attending not only allowed us to pick a family but we were able to personally deliver the gifts to them. I remember loading the kids into the car and heading to Walmart to pick out the presents that were on the families wish list. The kids had so much fun carefully selecting the perfect gift. The day before Christmas the kids were bursting with excitement as we drove to the address provided to deliver the presents. As we pulled into the mobile home park and searched out the house number, I noticed how quiet my kids had become. They were silent as we unloaded from the car and walked toward the front door, their eyes taking in the grassless yard and broken, creaking tiny porch. A smiling woman who seemed to be in her early 20’s opened the door and ushered us in. There around their tiny tree sat three children. They were waiting expectantly as my family passed out the gifts selected for each of them. I seen the smiles on my children’s faces as they watched gift wrap and ribbon begin flying around the floor. I heard the happy exclamations coming from the little one’s receiving their treasures.
I looked up at the young mom’s face. Saw her joy as tears slid down her cheeks. It took me right back to that Christmas years ago. As I felt my own tears dripping down my chin I realized that my kids were not the only ones that got a lesson in the joy of giving. Blessing that family allowed the little girl from my past, who was unable to make things better for her mom, make a difference on Christmas for the mother who stood before me. To the Christmas’s behind us and the one’s before us, may we never forget the gift and joy of giving.