The weather’s finally turning cool. A fall nip is in the air, the one that tells me, “cozy nights by the fire” are not far off! I smile as I sip my coffee, and am happy that I’ve once again turned my attention to shoeboxes. I mean the shoeboxes filled with gifts that Samaritan’s Purse gathers. They spend their Holiday carrying them to children across the world who might otherwise not have a Christmas at all.
My boxes for this year are just about ready. A couple more things to tuck into them, and I’ll be done.
A couple of years ago, I was in a very tight space financially. In my life, money has ebbed and flowed, and I’ve always been pretty good at rolling with it. But that year the money was especially thin.
I was watching TV one morning that autumn, and heard Franklin Graham talking about Operation Christmas Child. He was saying that people could fill shoeboxes with items for children in third world countries. He explained how the process worked, talked about what to put in the boxes, shared video footage of children exploding with excitement over these shoeboxes, and … while he was still talking …
I went upstairs. I went to my closet and opened the door. Almost like a robot, I dumped shoes out of two large shoe boxes, turned, and carried them downstairs. How will I afford this, I thought. But even before that thought was finished, the answer came: you’ll figure it out.
I pulled out wrapping paper, and went to work. These shoe boxes were the big ones with hinged lids, so the wrapping took its own time. I’ll tell you with no pride whatever that I’m a perfectionist. It is a curse more often than not. The results are usually worth it, but when it came to these boxes I’d call it a draw. I re-did them. Twice.
Once the boxes were ready, I had to find things to put in them. I poured the loose change out of the money canister in the kitchen, counted it … it came to about 12.37, I think. I put the money in a baggie, put the baggie in my purse. I grabbed my coat, got my keys, went to the car, and drove to the Dollar Store.
What was I looking for? I wasn’t sure. Tooth brushes, maybe? tablets, crayons, combs, stickers, a stuffed animal. Two.
I spent more time than anyone should in that store, parsing pennies and figuring out how to get the most with what little money I had. I was able, with my meager sum, to get everything I needed. Yay, Dollar Store!!
I then went to Kohls. My Kohls credit card had a little room left on it, and I knew they had stuffed animals for $5.00 each. I went in and selected a monkey (Curious George) and a bear (Classic Teddy). I found a cute girl’s jewelry set on clearance, and a boy’s shirt.
I went home, and tucked everything inside the boxes. They were looking so cute! My heart was soaring, even though my pockets were empty. EMPTY.
There were only a couple of days left to deliver the boxes to the drop off location. I looked up the address for Lighthouse Baptist Church, put the boxes in the car, and headed out.
When I walked into the church, there were several ladies waiting there.
“Welcome,” they chorused. One woman — whom I learned was “Miss Rita” — came toward me to take the boxes.
“You’ve brought shoe boxes! God bless you!” I had a grip on my two boxes. Strange sensation; I didn’t want to let them go. But I let her take them with only a slight tug; we walked to a long table where she placed them and began labelling them for gender, age, etc. I looked along one wall and there were filled boxes, several deep, stacked about twelve feet high.
Miss Rita finished up and snapped a rubber band around each of my boxes. “I had to do this,” I croaked lamely. My throat was tightening up. Why am I so emotional? My heart was racing.
“You had to do this?”
“Yes. Because I’m broke. I’m flat broke.” She looked confused, so I continued.
“This for me is an act of faith. God will take care of me. He sees me helping these children. And yes. He will.” My eyes welled up. “He will. He’ll see me through this. And Lord, it feels good to give! Doesn’t it?” My speech brightened and I smiled, but there was a tear rolling down my cheek.
“Baby, God sees you, He KNOWS you, and He knows your heart.” She reached up and wiped my cheek, wrapped her arms around me. “Would you like some hot cider?” I nodded, blinking fast so I wouldn’t cry. What in the world is wrong with me, I thought.
She handed me the cider, and said,
“We always pray over the boxes, and we would also like to pray over you today. Would that be alright?”
“Oh, my … yes, I would be so humbled. Thank you.” Eyes welling again. I looked down, swallowed hard, and took a sip of cider.
The ladies gathered in a circle around me, hands linked. Miss Rita prayed. She prayed loud, and proud. She asked God to bless my shoe boxes, and to bless me. She prayed me so big, and so full, that when she ended it and all the ladies shouted, “Amen,” I could hardly breathe.
I hugged Miss Rita. “Thank you. So much.”
“No,” she said, “thank YOU. Baby, you are the blessing. And God uses you to bless others. He’s got His eye on you.”
We said our goodbyes and I went to my car. The woman I was climbing into the car was different from the woman who had climbed out. I’d been changed. I was lifted. Lightened.
I turned on Christmas carols; I sang, and cried, and laughed along with them all the way home.
A few days later, I was watching a morning show and there was a handsome young man who was talking about the scarf he had around his neck. It was a muffler like we wear in the winter. But his story was incredible:
When he was a little boy, he’d received that muffler in a shoe box of gifts at Christmas. He said that shoe box was all he got for Christmas, and he chuckled when he talked about taking out that scarf. He said,
“Where we lived it was never cold. Ever. I had no idea what that scarf was for. But I knew it was something important. So I kept it. I used the toothbrushes, and the crayons, and the toys … but that scarf I kept with me.
“And now, here I am, a grown man in New York City. It’s winter time here, and look:” He held up the tail of the scarf around his neck. “This scarf. This is my shoe box scarf. I’ve always kept it with me. And I always will. It’s more than just a piece of cloth. It’s a message that I’m not alone, that the world is bigger than I know, and it’s filled with good people.”
That man’s message stopped me in my tracks. I pray that the shoeboxes I pack will help fill the hearts of those little children with hope, and the knowledge that God sees them. God loves them. They are never alone.
That’s also true for me.
And for you.
When the season turns crisp and cool; when there’s the tiniest bit of frost on the lamp post; when I grab a wool scarf on my way out the door “just in case,” and end up glad I did … those are the days I relish.
They take my mind a hundred different directions: shore up the house, bring in the wood, stock up on dry beans in the pantry for soup. Visualize where the garland will go, begin gathering little goodies to fill the “Christmas shoe boxes” that are shipped to children far away.
It’s the time of year when my eyes shine brighter, my step is quicker, and my to do list is longer. I have so many things to accomplish, and so little time to do it in!!
The Christmas movies start early for me — sometime just after Halloween. I keep them playing in the background as I move through the day. And, soon after, comes Christmas music. I know most people don’t want to hear those songs played outside the “four week Christmas window,” but I play them off and on year round. It’s like stepping back inside my favorite season anytime of year.
So yeah, it’s November 9th, and the carols are playing in my house. Flannel pajamas are being sewn for all the Littles, and calls are out to handy-workers to get things done on the house before winter sets in.
Once the cold snap hits hard, “first fire” night arrives. Wood blazing in the fireplace, chili in the slow cooker, and friends gathered ’round for music, stories, and laughter. These are the things and the people that warm my heart.
Christmas tree – at least one, there have been as many as five – is installed, decorated, and the halls festooned with holiday swag. To me, too much is never enough. Let’s do more!!
Christmas cookies rolled, cut, and decorated by small hands. The gingerbread man’s leg broke off, tears start, but hey! Here’s an idea, buddy! Let’s give him a cast, and a crutch! A laughing little boy, proud of his cookie. Problem solved.
Fudge making in the microwave, homemade pecan pies, peanut brittle, and my special “Nanny-Boo cookies.”
Holiday tins filled, ribbons tied, but no one enter the dining room! The sign on the swinging door, in big red letters, reads: “Nanny Clause’s workshop; boys and girls keep out!” The Littles are excited, but they grudgingly obey.
Advent wreath, three purple candles and one pink, marks the waiting for the Baby’s birth. Nightly prayers, with candles lit, keep us mindful of the meaning, and take us through each day.
A Birthday cake is made, white with white icing. Writing on the cake, “Happy Birthday Jesus.” The candle is a star.
On Christmas day, family gathers, and – just as it should be – children are the center of attention. Of course. It’s the Baby’s birthday, after all. Let us all be as little children this day; allow our hearts to fall open like old gates with loose latches. On this day … and every day henceforth … let’s hold on to what we’ve found in these moments. A feeling of connection, of love, of knowing that, while we’re part of something bigger, there is nothing bigger than Love. And that is what we’re made of.
But for today, I run out the door and grab my wool scarf. I smile, because there’s a nip in the air. I sense the beginning of something familiar and wonderful; I know it’s pulling me, and I go willingly. I love every step of this journey.
Miss Honey seemed to love everyone. Her little house was surrounded by a picket fence, and the kitchen window faced the front. Perhaps that’s why the air around Miss Honey’s always smelled like fresh bread, sugar cookies, or apple pie.
Through the window at night, and in the early morning, you could see the kitchen light burning bright. And you could hear Miss Honey singing along with her Frank Sinatra records.
When the children walked home from school, they went out of their way to pass by Miss Honey’s. There were always tasty baked treats waiting for them in the wicker basket that hung on Miss Honey’s front gate.
During the Christmas Holidays, Miss Honey hung a fresh evergreen wreath on the front door, tied with a big red bow. Colored lights were swagged along the pickets, and a candle shined in the kitchen window. The basket on the front gate filled up with decorated cookies: Santas, Christmas trees, bells, stockings, and gingerbread men.
Though everyone in town felt they knew her, people rarely saw Miss Honey. She was always calling “Heeelloooooo!” out the window or “Merry Christmaaaas!” as she swooped around the corner to the market or to church.
Miss Honey’s only child – if you could call him that – was a big orange cat named Carl. Carl was the size of a small dog, and acted like one some of the time.
When Carl wasn’t playing fetch with the school kids, he was parked on the welcome mat on Miss Honey’s front stoop. In the winter when it was snowy, Carl watched the lacy flakes come down from inside the kitchen window.
Miss Honey’s birthday was the first day of Spring. Every year, on her birthday, she baked cupcakes and used colorful frosting to create flowers on top of each one. She arranged them on a platter, and placed it on a little table underneath the basket on the gate. She watched through the kitchen window with a twinkle as the school children ooh’d, aaah’d, and tore in to the delicious treats. “Happy Birthday to me,” she whispered happily.
One year, on the night before her birthday, the school children and the townspeople all visited Miss Honey’s gate. They quietly placed hundreds of bouquets of Spring flowers in the wicker basket, and on the ground in front.
On her birthday, when Miss Honey came out with the cupcakes, she saw the flowers. She sat the tray down, swatted Carl away, and opened the card peaking up out of the wicker basket. Inside it read,
“We love you too, Miss Honey. Signed, everyone.”
“Where’s Hudson?” I looked around, the other kids were heads down on their iPads. “Hudson?” I got up off the sofa and walked to the hallway. “Buddy? Hudson?”
I looked out the window, maybe he’d gone outside. Nope. I lifted my chin and called into thin air,
“HUDSON!!” I caught Gabby’s eye. She gave a head check toward the couch, mouthed the words, “He’s over there.” I nodded and went to see.
Sure enough, there was Hudson, crouched behind the sofa.
“What are you …”
“NannyBoo! I’m busy! Go! Go!!” He waved me away, his face beet red. I got the message. I went around, lifted him up, said,
“Buddy, there’s nothing for you back there,” and – in spite of his wailing objections – carried his stiff, folded body to the bathroom.
By now, he was sobbing.
“I do not want to go in there!”
“Well, Buddy, you don’t have a choice. This is where big boys – and all civilized people – do their business.”
“I … I’m sort of a big boy, but … I’m not with those civilized people.” I peeled his pants and underwear off, and sat him on the toilet.
“Well, you need to be with the civilized people. Life’s gonna be tough if you’re not.”
He glared at me.
“Okay, now will you please get out. I need my privacy.”
“Okay. But I’ll be right outside if you need …”
“Yes, I get it. Go. Please go.” I went.
Five minutes later,
“NannyBoo.” I cracked the door and peeked in.
“How you doin’?”
He was sitting there stripped naked, and shot me an exhausted look. Big sigh.
“Good job, Buddy.”
As helped him get his clothes on he asked, “Am I one of those civilized people now?”
“Yes you are!”
“Do they get treats for pooping in the toilet?” I took his sweet little face in my hands, kissed his forehead.
“Today they do.”
This picture was taken when we lived on South Madison. In it Mama is her beautiful, comical, musical self. Back then she would strike a pose, then collapse in laughter. She had flair, a free spirit, she was my personal movie star, even before I knew what movie stars were.
I’ve gone back and looked through as many events as I can remember, trying to piece things together.
I’m searching for the turning point. To find when things changed. When the sun stopped shining, and the world went from bright colors to shades of grey.
I remember we had moved to the little house on North Marion. The one with the crayon blue linoleum floor. I remember a pivotal darkness, but nothing will speak to me from there. I try to go inside that space, but it’s always …. like the memories in it are right on the tip of my brain. I can almost see them. But not enough to grab hold, and to understand.
The things I know are that they had friends back then. At night they would get dressed up and go out together, and leave me with Ma Welp. But what else was happening?
I remember kitchen cabinets, with the doors open. Mama’s friend was rearranging. I remember Mama crying, and putting things back in the right places after the friend left. It was during that time that she stopped laughing.
I remember the priest coming. I remember feeling confused, and then it fades to black.
After whatever happened, that friend who was changing Mama’s kitchen never came over anymore.
Years later, when she was into her cups and in the mood to offer sage advice, she would say that you should never let anyone into your life because they’ll just walk in like they own the place and take over everything. Never get too close to anyone, she said. That’s the only way you can be safe, she said.
I’ve always wondered if that was the philosophy she used through the years to stay so far away from me. We’re closer now than ever before because, at 92, she has no clue who I am. It is a brokenhearted comfort that she always says she’d “love to get to know you.” I’d like to get to know you too, Mama. Or at least to understand what happened that kept us separate. But whatever it was, I loved you so; I choose to know that you loved me.I’m reminded of Birdie’s mother saying,
“All mothers love their daughters, even if they show it poorly.”
If three year olds can be gang members, I was one. We had a pack of kids in our neighborhood on North Marion Street. Each morning, as early as any parent would allow, a youngster drifted out the front door of his little clapboard house, and stood in the yard wearing nothing but a pair of rumpled camp shorts. Maybe he’d wander the length of the driveway, bend down, pick up a rock, survey the street for signs of life, and head back to sit on his porch stoop. And wait.
Almost immediately, sets of young eyes threw quick glances out picture windows. Front doors opened, and small, tan feet ran or skipped or sauntered to assemble where the child was planted.
Thinking back, it gives new meaning to “the gang’s all here.” But we were. The men in our gang wore shorts; the women, bloomers. We were brown as biscuits, the soles of our feet well seasoned from weeks of running around bare.
We played all day, moving in a raggedy clump from one yard to another. Bill’s dad had left the hosepipe hooked up on the front spigot, so we all ran over because Shorty and Margo were thirsty. Mitchell and Bobby turned the handle, and the water spurted out. It went quickly from hot as fire to so clear and cold that suddenly we were all thirsty. Everybody got a chance. About eight or ten three year olds bending over spouting water, slurping it down their throats and bellies, all of us clamoring for more.
I don’t remember every name from back then, but I remember that water. It started in Lake Spavinaw, and came pouring out of that front yard hose icy and sweet, flavored with a touch of rubber hose and a dash of brass metal. We all loved it, and kept drinking until Bill’s mother came out on the porch to shake the dustmop and caught us.
“You kids turn that water off and go play!” she hollered. She gave us the hard eye till Bill went over and cranked the handle. By that time we were soaked, but we didn’t care. In fact, we liked it. It was 90 degrees in the Oklahoma shade, which there wasn’t much of.
Our gang lasted till we all started school, then life its own self took over and we drifted into our separate worlds. But if anyone ever asks me about gang membership, I can tell them, quite honestly, that I was a gang member very early on. And I’m proud of it.
I don’t wax nostalgic often. But when I do, it seems my nostalgia — my longing — is for moments of connection. Moments confirming that the thread I bring to the tapestry of life is sufficiently interwoven with those of others. Moments that say “yes” to the presence of me. I know; self-centered is all I can call it, and yet … it seems to me that same sweet ache lives at the heart of us all.
We need reassurance that our time here matters, or mattered. In that sense, I think we’re all well advised to do the very best we can, always, with everyone. Then we must leave the rest to those who write about it afterward. Even so, if I could, I’d write of moments experienced or, at the very least, dreamed of:
- Standing at the kitchen sink in summer, barefoot, washing dishes and singing to the radio; breeze through the kitchen window makes the curtains flutter and plays with my hair. He slips up behind me, wraps around me and we become one, soapy hands in the water, swaying to the music.
- The children, rosy cheeked and sleepy eyed, pile into the bed where we snuggle under the covers and read The Velveteen Rabbit
- He wakes me in the wee hours whispering, “Hey, sleepyhead, come with me.” He takes my hand, urges me into my slippers and coat, then leads me outside where it’s snowing. We dance under the night sky with snowflakes falling all around us.
- The children come into us in the dark of morning squealing, “Mama, Daddy, it’s Christmas! Come see!” We roll out of bed, into our robes, and settle on the couch where we lean into each other over cups of hot coffee while watching the children open their gifts.
- He and I, walking hand in hand, talking, laughing, and scuffling through drifts of Autumn leaves.
- Peaking in on my sweet, sleeping children, touching them softly, blessing them, wondering if they know how much they are loved.
- He takes my bare face in his hands, kisses my forehead, looks into my eyes and whispers, “You. It’s you and me. It’s always been you and me. Forever. You and me.”
- A card arrives in the mail. Old fashioned roses painted on the front. Inside, a simple message: “We believe in you. We’re proud of you. We love you. Mother and Daddy.”
- A family dinner of all the siblings, children, and grandchildren. The main course served amongst us all is love, with laughter a plentiful condiment.
- That final moment when, having fought the good fight and for all the right reasons, I know without question that I’ve done my best. It no longer matters if anyone else knows. I know. And that’s enough.