A Magical Christmas
Eric’s assistant Sarah walked into my office holding a piece of paper and said that I had to listen to a sad story. It was a letter to Santa from a little boy that lived in a garage. A cold garage. As a mother of two young children, it broke Sarah’s heart. I wasn’t similarly moved, and it faded from my consciousness as quickly as Sarah left my office.
A while later, she returned with another sad letter to Santa. Where was she getting these letters from?
She explained that Eric, a co-worker, was involved in the local Jaycees Christmas toy drive, and our receptionist, Rosa, was translating the letters to Santa written in Spanish that they had received. Figured I should check out what was going on and discovered that Sarah, my assistant and Jim’s assistant were helping Rosa by transcribing and organizing the letters by age, sex, family and location. It was almost a Christmas miracle to see these four fully engaged in a task together. (Full attendance, production and harmony were exceedingly rare in that office.) By then Sarah was almost in tears from hearing Rosa read so many sad stories, and not knowing what else to do, I suggested that maybe our office could “adopt” one of the families for Christmas. Do a little more for them than drop off a toy.
A proposal they all immediately accepted (another first). But which family? Carolyn wanted the family in the garage. Rosa wanted the family with five children. And Sarah wanted the adolescent boys that only wanted their own soccer balls. With only twelve employees in the office (seven of whom I knew it would fall to me to hold up for contributions), adopting three families was out of the question. I asked them to choose one. Or maybe two.
They settled on all three. And our little world began to respond.
A small bike, outgrown by a co-worker’s granddaughter, appeared, and Sarah cleaned it up and added new handle grips with streamers to make it look new. Carolyn’s father’s boss donated down comforters for the children living in the garage. A friend of mine that was doing copyright work showed up with a box full of new children’s books. Sarah filled bags for the children’s Christmas morning with crayons, coloring books, assorted other stocking stuffers and candy canes. Another friend of mine added Disney socks to the bags. My mother sent me a check. Managing a nice toy for nine children was so easy I wondered why I had ever questioned their decision to adopt three families.
More letters to Santa arrived. I didn’t want to hear any more sad letters to Santa. Not that that stopped Rosa and Sarah from reading more to me. But they weren’t too sad, at least not as sad as the ones we had already chosen to take care of. Except for one. How was I supposed to turn my back on the ten year old boy that only wanted a jacket? Or his sister that didn’t have a jacket either? Okay. That was it. I would take this one on alone. (And the nod between Rosa and Sarah clued me in to how well they’d played me.)
It was all coming together. A nice toy or coat, a stocking bag of goodies and a book for each of the children, a big basket of fruit and cookies for the family and a supermarket gift certificate for their Christmas dinners. That last one was a bit controversial. Someone thought we should get them one of those ready-made Christmas turkey dinners. But what if they didn’t like turkey and they wanted their Mamas to make tamales. Someone else was concerned that the parents could buy alcohol with it. Would it be so bad if they had a little brandy (or tequila) and eggnog for Christmas? The spirit of Christmas includes respect for others and only an open gift certificate would send the right message. (The original plan had been for a small certificate, enough for a nice meal, but so much money rolled in that it ended up being be enough to feed the families for a week.)
We were having so much fun planning, shopping and collecting everything that I couldn’t help sharing the story. In a phone conversation with a Home Office executive, I detailed all of it and when I’d finished, she said, “How much?” Puzzled, I said, “What do you mean, how much?” She said, “How much for a family?” “No, no, you don’t understand. I wasn’t asking for a contribution. We have it all covered.” (Guess I’d gotten so good at collecting toys and money that I was still automatically making a sales pitch.) She responded, “But I want a family, too!” and she promptly held up a co-worker that entered her office at that moment to cover half of it. I said, “I’ll see if we can find another one.”
Sarah, naturally, had another one tucked away, just in case. A poor but loving family. The seven year old boy had written the letter for himself, his five year old brother and three year old sister. We had enough books to add these three, but otherwise, everything had to be purchased for this last family. We had collected so much in two weeks for “our families” that when we added up the cost for another one, the price tag surprised us and their Home Office sponsors when I called back to with the answer to “how much?) -- after they caught their breath, they said, “Okay, but we expect pictures of “our family” for that much.”
A few days before Christmas, my neighbor Luke stopped by to chat. His ten year struggle with AIDS was coming to an end, a struggle that he and his partner Sam had not shared with me until three years earlier. Over the years, Sam and I had been friends, but my friendship with Luke was newer. He was an artist and temperamental, and had had little use for me until fairly recently. This was the first time he’d ever paid me a visit. I told him all about “our families.” He got very quiet, looked at me soulfully and said, “But Marie, you didn’t get a nice toy for the children in “your family.” I responded, “They need and want coats. I got them nice coats. I’m practical and if they hadn’t asked for coats, they wouldn’t even be “my family.” He shook his head and said, “Children need a toy for Christmas.” After another moment of silence, he asked, “Would you mind if I do that for them?” I knew that Luke hadn’t worked in years and had little money but could see that he’d made his decision and objecting didn’t feel right. Plus, somehow in those few minutes, his heart had shown mine that he was right. They did need toys. And did Luke ever know how to select a great toy for a ten year old boy and eight year old girl. Top of the line remote controlled car for him and the most extravagant Barbie with a full wardrobe for her.
Rosa had sent notes to the families to expect us on the morning of the 23rd (the last work day before Christmas). We loaded up the vehicles in our caravan with all the gifts, Sarah’s children in tow and our official translator, Rosa. The first stop was the garage. It was a garage, but the handsome young father of the two young boys was renovating it and someday it would be very nice little house and not so cold. Then the single mother with the two boys in need of soccer balls. On to the large family with an apartment so clean that you could eat off the floor. I’m not sure any of us remembered any of those five children. We were simply too stunned by the spotlessness of the place to take in much else.
Next on our list was the “Home Office” family. By this point I was getting pretty good at saying, “Hola.” As we walked in the door and saw the children, I began counting, “One, two, three, four -- four? Standing there was a girl older than the other three. Where did she come from? I turned to Rosa, “Ask them who this girl is?” The news wasn’t good, this was the eldest. Apparently her younger brother didn’t include this sister in his letter because she had written her own. A letter that in our haste we hadn’t linked up with that of her brother’s.
I quickly handed the girl a couple of books (the only surplus in our inventory). She sweetly told us that she loved to read. Rosa nudged me and said, “You have to do something.” “Like leave now” appeared not to be an option since the others were already on the floor playing with little boys and girl and Sarah was busy snapping pictures. I was stuck with the girl with no gifts. When in doubt, retreat to small talk. So, I asked her what she would like for Christmas. She thought hard for a few moments, and then explained that she could use some ribbons to fix her dolly’s hair. Ribbons! What kid in America asks for nothing more than ribbons for Christmas? I was hooked, and told her I could come back tomorrow and pushed her to tell me what else she wanted. She thought again and then shaking her head up and down, said, “Just some ribbons.” (Luke taught me well, and the next day I handed her a bag full of cool things all wrapped up.)
The last stop was what I had come to think of as “Luke’s and my family.” Two of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen. The boy looked like a Latino version of Harry Potter, the movie Harry. The girl was tall with long dark hair, a future stunner and heartbreaker. They were the only shy children we visited that day. (Odd considering that having a motley crowd of strangers bearing gifts showing up at their houses should have made all of them wary and retiring.) They only reluctantly agreed to pose for a picture. Then we were off, back to the office to clean up last minute work and then on to our own and separate Christmas celebrations. And a week’s vacation for some like Sarah.
Sarah with the developed pictures and a letter from the mother of “Luke’s and my family” showed up in the office the same day. The pictures confirmed what we thought we’d seen and felt that day. Looking through them made all of us happy all over again. I only hoped that Luke would be pleased to see “his children.” When I got to his house that evening, it was obvious that he was having a bad day. I told him not to move, stay right where he was lying on the couch. I kneeled down beside him and handed him the pictures. He smiled. Then I read the Rosa translated letter. The mother said that her children thought they had gone to heaven on Christmas morning. Never had they had toys as wonderful as what they opened that day. Never had she seen them so happy. So happy that she cried and cried at their happiness. She didn’t have the words to thank the people that had done this wonderful thing for her children. Luke clutched the pictures to his chest and said, “Thank you.” “No, Luke, thank you. For the magic.”