The holidays are a time of year when people seem to band together to help those less fortunate have a happier holiday. There are toy drives, food drives, Angel trees, Adopt-a-Family, holiday meals, etc. With all the bad news in the world, bombarding the television, social media and print outlets, this helps me feel like most of the world isn’t crazy terrorists or psychopaths. I’d like to believe there is more good in the world than bad, otherwise, our world may not even exist soon.
Today, my daughters and I are going shopping for a girl, age 10, whose mother is living at a women’s shelter. I don’t know anything about her, her life or her situation other than the list of her like on a paper stocking. I picked her name from our break room board because we always pick the oldest kids as their names are usually the last ones chosen. This girl loves books and science and girly things. I figure my daughters could relate to her as they are self-proclaimed nerds who love books and science and sometimes even girly things.
I have no idea if the child we pick will like even one thing we purchase or if she even appreciates the gifts. We give in faith that we are guided to make the right choices. I overheard someone Scroogy when I was out one day shopping saying to their shopping companion, they didn’t give to programs like the angel tree because they figured the parents or kids would return the gifts or sell them for drug money. The person went on about how it was a waste of their money and I had to bite my lip to not walk up to a perfect stranger and tell them how short-sighted they were being. I just reminded myself, that they were missing the entire reason for giving. Sure, I bet some people do take this charity and convert it into drug money. But I’m pretty sure the majority of people who are struggling to give their kids Christmas are not corrupt, drug-addicted heathens. They are simply having a rough patch. Anyone can have a rough patch.
Some people think you have to give a lot to give at all. Not true. Even a ten-dollar football or baby doll could turn out to be a cherished gift they always remember. Even if you don’t have a lot of money to give yourself, you could buy 10 cans of canned corn to put into the food drive the next time you grocery shop. Every little bit helps. Not all charity has to be donating thousands of dollars to matter. Even something so small as reaching something on a top shelf at the grocery for an elderly person makes someone’s day brighter. Acts of kindness are another type of charity that cost $0 to do. And think if everyone in the world, every day did one kind thing for another person how much better our world could be as the positive energy affects others through a wave of kindness.
I’ve told this story before but when I was young and living in a very, very tiny town in Missouri near my father’s parents, our life was always in upheaval due to my father’s alcoholism. I never felt as if I fit in at school where I had 7 people including me in my class because everyone knew my daddy was a drunk. I literally attended a two-room Lutheran school-house, it even had the bell on the roof much like a church. At times I would get tormented by the other students if my dad did something stupid like ran his car off a dirt road into a tree one night. There wasn’t much going on but farming in that area, so someone like my father generated a lot of gossip which of course kids over heard and then fomented me with shortly after. I always prayed for summer break because I could lose myself out in the fields of my grandparent’s dairy farm, milling about with the farm animals who didn’t judge me or just hang out in my bedroom, safe from ridicule and the knowing, scorning glances of my classmates. We were the joke of the area. The family that made everyone else feel better about themselves.
Looking back and knowing more about my classmates families, mine wasn’t the only one that had dysfunctional drama going on behind closed doors, mine was just more public. I imagine it made them feel better about their own issues and I don’t hold any bitterness or anger toward anyone. Not fitting in gave me the gift of my own company, a very creative imagination and the ability of enjoying being alone without feeling as if I’m missing out on something. This also started me writing as I would make up stories of “dream lives” where I could escape from my own pain. This bred a lifelong love of writing and reading that has always been a comfort and escape. It also taught me humility and how even the smallest charity can bring love into a troubled family.
I might have been 8 or 9 when the social worker showed up at our small white house next to the cemetery . Someone on my mom’s side of the family who lived in another state called social services worried about our living situation. Actually, I believe they thought my dad was sexually abusing my sister and I which was the furthest from the truth. My mom was angry and bitter about that for years, I can’t really blame her, I would be too. The social worker would talk to my sister and I, both together and separately with my mom there or not. It’s been so long it’s all a blur at this point. I didn’t really understand what was going on. I just remember it was near Christmas and the social worker had pretty blonde hair that was curled into ringlets almost which was the fashion of the late 1970’s. She had a kind face and bright blue eyes.
One day she came with oddly shaped packages wrapped in bright Christmas paper, two of them. We sat on our small couch and she gave one to me and one to my younger sister. We were so excited, a present BEFORE Christmas and from a complete stranger. This never happened. We knew we were poor, at least I did. My father didn’t work but attended college classes when he wasn’t too drunk and my mom worked as a typist for a company near the University of Missouri campus that typed dissertations and papers for faculty and students. We got a few from our parents gifts on our birthday and Christmas and usually not in between.
We ripped open the paper and immediately I was let down. It was a blonde doll with yarn for hair, a happy plastic face and a soft green calico fabric body. My sister got one with brown hair like hers. She was thrilled, she loved dolls. Me, no so much. But not wanting to hurt the lady’s feelings, I smiled big and told her thank you, I liked it very much. Then I took it up and threw it on my bed and ignored it for days. One night we were upstairs when we heard my dad’s big booming “drunk voice” carrying on in the kitchen. These are the times I would get scared and hide under my bed or covers. Usually my bed covers because our floors were not carpeted and you could hear whatever fight or commotion even more because there wasn’t much insulation between you and the first floor.
I heard something break and knew he was fighting with my mom. Sometimes he would hit her or throw things at her in a drunken rage. One time my mom called the Sheriff but they just shrugged it off telling my mom they couldnt’ do anything because they were married. Back then, domestic abuse was not something a man, at least in that area, got arrested for. Today my dad would get arrested and hauled off to jail. I am sure pre-Internet age, women’s shelters were more for people in larger cities. My mom felt as if there was no where for her to go. She would run away to her family only to have my dad follow her back to Ohio and convince her to go home. That was the time when you didn’t divorce, you had to stay, even if it was abusive.
As the fight escalated, I crawled into bed and for the first time, hugged the doll close. The soft body and yarn hair were comforting. As I cried into the doll’s hair, I was grateful for the social worker’s kindness. She must have known the doll would serve as a way for us to cope with the turmoil in our house. I kept that doll until my house burned down in 1994. It was always a reminder that a stranger cared enough to show me a small gesture of love. The doll probably only cost a few dollars back then but the love it held was priceless to a scared little girl hiding under her covers when her life was so out of control.
Eventually, in 1983, my mom and dad were then living in Ohio and my mom was employed full-time at the company I work for now. She came home one day from a business trip to find my father passed out drunk at the kitchen table, a shotgun pointed at me and my sister as we cowered in the corner too afraid to move, me, always the protective one, in front of my sister shielding her. My mom sent us to my friend’s house while the city police removed my father. This time she wasn’t patronized and told there was nothing they could do. My father never came back into the house. My mom and I took all his possessions out of the house and left them on the rental house’s car port for him to pick up. She had enough.
I can’t say I was sad about my parent’s divorce. It was more of a relief. I still lived in a small town but not near as small as in Missouri. I’m sure people knew about my father but eventually he went back to Missouri and we were left alone. He never paid child support so we were always hurting for money until about the time I was a senior in high school five years later. My mom moved up in her company and finally bought a house, all on her own where she lived until she died in 2014.
Since we worked together from 1998 until she retired in 2010, we participated together in the food drives, etc. that our company sponsored. My mom, knowing the charity and generosity of others who helped her through tough times, gave generously. Paying back and paying forward the kindness she received during her hard times. We’d go to stores and load up on canned foods, toiletries and other things she knew people would need filling up the trunk of her Buick Lesabre and sometimes even the back seat.
We would smile knowingly at each other in the car after these shopping trips because we knew we had overcome a lot together. My mom especially, raising two teenagers on her own while working long hours at a very stressful job. Sometimes she’d squeeze my hand as if to say, “we made it”. My mom and I were always a team of sorts, even from the time I was younger because we had to do the things needed to survive. I cooked and cleaned while she worked long hours, doing laundry to help out. At a young age, I figured out how to fix plumbing issues because we simply didn’t have the money for a plumber. I mowed the are and raked the leaves. I started working early to ease the burden of her having to buy me clothes and give me spending money. She never asked, I just did it as I knew I wanted to pull my weight, I wanted her to not feel bad because she couldn’t give me the things she felt she should.
We used to ride to work together, I would get phone calls at my desk all day long as she needed this or that even though I didn’t usually directly report to her. That’s just how it was with us, we relied on each other heavily over all those years up until the moment she left this earth. And now I feel her watching over me, her voice still in my head, her soul still living on in try daughters as I will watch them do or say something that sounds just like their grandmother.
Today, the girls and I carry on her spirit of charity not only just around the late year holidays, but all year in being kind to others, especially those who don’t quite fit in. I’ve seen my girls champion for kids or people who are ostracized by the larger group. They don’t see race as an issue or disability as something to be afraid of or avoid. Nor is sexual orientation or even gender differences are something they judge a person on. They seem to look past all these things that people especially in a small, predominately white town are wary to be exposed to and see the person as simply a person. I am incredibly proud of my girls for accepting others as they are and not expecting them to be just like them.
Sometimes I hope this is a bit of my influence, teaching them as they grew up that you can’t always judge the book by its cover. Like when I was younger and people of my community probably poor white trash or someone to feel sorry for as she had a drunk for a father. Just because my daddy was a drunk though didn’t mean I would grow up to be a drunk too. Or that being poor meant I was lazy or stupid or would grow up to be on welfare all my life. Or that I had to prove anything to anyone else at all. I only had to prove things to myself. There were times, when I had such a bad day at my tiny school, that the only thing that made me feel better was that blonde-haired doll my social worker gave me. I could look at that doll and know I was worth something to a complete stranger.
Charity can be a powerful way to change the path of someone’s life, it shows them love and that love can make all the difference in someone’s world.