“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” ― Mary Oliver
I have a Christmas story to share that I have told only a few. Mainly because what I did was dangerous, naive, and some would say downright stupid. My only defense is this time of year I’m sometimes overwhelmed by what you’d call the Christmas spirit. If you don’t know the feeling, it’s like you’ve watched one too many Hallmark channel holiday specials.
Maybe the reason I am so touched by Christmastime is because the rest of the year I’m probably not what you’d describe as an openly emotional or sentimental person. Christmas is my excuse to let it all out! At any rate, last year around this time I found myself driving on Excelsior Boulevard, my two girls were in the back in their car seats, we were listening to Christmas songs and running holiday errands. No doubt, off to buy more things for ourselves or our family that none of us needed. At the stoplight we were faced with a woman, probably in her 20’s, holding a hand-written sign that we’ve all seen before, pleading something like this, “Please help. Single mom trying to pay the rent and feed her kids for the holidays.” She was out in the freezing cold holding this humiliating sign on the corner while everyone tried to avert their eyes while waiting for the light to change. I mentioned to my girls casually how sad that was that she had to do that and that I thought God would want us to help her.
OK, before you click away, I am NOT an overly religious person who frequently cites God in casual conversation. However, I am a Christian and a mom so at that moment that is what popped into my mind.
Maybe it was because she looked so humbled and earnest, or because she was a mom and I felt that moment of “mom-community” with all moms who are trying to do right by their kids, but something made me wave her over to a parking lot across the way where I let her come into my warm car (she too was hesitant, but saw my girls in the back and must’ve felt safer and got in). I introduced her to my girls, sitting in stunned silence in the back, and we talked. Her name was Julie, and she had lost her job as a cleaning lady and was several months behind on rent and felt desperate to keep the apartment and give any little thing to her two kids for Christmas. I could only imagine what it would feel like to have to tell my kids Santa wouldn’t be able to bring presents this year. I only had a small amount of money in my wallet so we drove together to the nearby Target where together we four, Julie, my two girls, and I, went in and bought her a gift card for what I knew would be a substantial amount of money for her. When we said good-bye she leaned over unexpectedly and gave me a hug and said “God bless you and your family, and Merry Christmas.”
Her story may have been true, or it may have been a con. I knew this, but chose in that moment to believe in the goodness. If she was making it up, then even so, I accepted her; that someone would be so pitiful as to stand out there humiliating themselves in the cold for a few bucks – either way, they’re obviously not well-off. And what did I need with money that this person obviously did think they needed? Whether for rent, food, a simple present for a child, or as a cynic might say, booze, drugs, or Starbucks — who am I to judge? Do I always spend my money wisely? Am I never frivolous or self-indulgent (this blog alone would be evidence against for sure!)? But because I have more in my bank account I’m entitled to be flawed and the beggar on the corner is not? As we pulled away from the curb we dropped Julie off at my five-year-old daughter said, “Mom, I think God is happy that we did that. We made that lady really happy.” And I had to fight tears as we drove home to our warm family room to make our dinner that night.
I know I was lucky the story had a happy ending, so I will never be that rash again despite whatever emotions overcome me! But it did make me realize the importance to me of not just writing checks and donating to causes. That is definitely needed too, but for me, it obviously wasn’t fulfilling enough or I wouldn’t have reached out to this stranger. I realized I was trying to teach a lesson to my girls (and no, the lesson is not to pick-up strangers!! — We did talk about that later too)… but I wanted my girls to feel what I felt and to see what I saw in Julie’s face. So, now as a family we’re going to be finding ways to offer our time as well as our money in order to see the results and help us respect and truly acknowledge the people who go with the need we hear about in the news.
If this story and the Christmas spirit has moved you at all, I’ve included a few links to explore how to help out in the Twin Cities this season — it’s the best way I can think to really experience the joy of Christmas!
I’m sure there are many more I don’t even know about, feel free to post in comments for others if you have some you’d like to support!