For the first time all season, I was feeling like Christmas. I'd received word that my husband was coming home from Afghanistan for the holidays. This gave me impetus to finally go down to the basement and drag out a little plastic Christmas mouse that lights up. Amid the visual cacophony of the neighbors' powerful light displays, I put Mousey Claus on the front step. I also set up the nativity scene –Christmas isn't complete without it. Gradually feeling a bit more festive, I went shopping five days before Christmas at one of the local stores. My list was small, as our needs were few. Shopping was quick.
I stood in an aisle surrounded by candy and magazines, waiting in line to check out. The mother behind me was dressed in a pair of blue jeans. She had on a t-shirt that was a little too small, and carried a slightly dinged up handbag. But she also had an innocent yet weary smile, the kind that invited one to talk. We spoke as her baby, dressed in pink, gnawed on a new bottle still in the box. I looked in her cart. There was a shirt and pants, some New Year's Eve hats, two pairs of gloves and a baby bottle.
Our conversation centered on the economy. We agreed money was scant. Indeed, most people ahead of us were buying practical things: shampoo, toilet paper, or a pair of shoes. I learned that she had three children, and each was getting a piece of clothing and a toy. The shirt and pants were for a son, the gloves for a teenage daughter, and the baby was getting the new bottle. The New Year's Eve hats were for everyone – a bit of fun for the day. They'd gotten free toys from the toy drive, where coincidentally, my daughter and her friends from the Boys and Girls Club worked this past Saturday.
The mother explained she only had $20 to spend for Christmas. She wasn't sure if the $20 would cover everything since there's always tax. The best I could offer sounded like a greeting card platitude: as long as the family was together, presents mattered very little. But that's an adult speaking. In our society, presents mean a lot to children. And to a parent, being able to give a child a gift means even more.
I looked at the contents of my cart. I'd followed my daughter's request for new clothes. Even though I'd shopped in the sales racks, comparatively she was getting a lot. Ironically, out in the car I had three bags of old clothing of hers to give to the charities. The point was driven into my heart like a stake: we have so much. For a moment, I considered putting stuff back, but truthfully, the one sweater, two shirts, underwear, camisole, knit cap and three pairs of socks were things she would use. Though I kept everything, I was very aware when the total came up that it was much more than the woman behind me had in her purse.
When her time came to check out, I lingered. If the total didn't come under $20, I was prepared to make up the difference. There was no way I was going to watch her put a single item back. So I dug through my purse, looked at the stuff in my wallet, within earshot of the young mother. Finally, the clerk hit total. The woman had done a good job at estimating the costs. It came out to $17.58. There was even change.
I pushed my cart outside. I hoped they had money for a tree, and that her teenage daughter would find not only a pair of gloves, but a hat as well. Chances are, she will not. I grasped onto what had been a quickly uttered platitude and turned it into a wish. I wished their family peace, and the kind of love that is more enduring than any gift bought from a store.