I don't know if it's the Thanksgiving holiday or not, but I have had something stuck in my mind since last week and I've decided that it's something I need to share. Last week I racked up an obscene amount of hours working and I just didn't have it in me to cook dinner Friday night so we ordered some pizza. On the way to pick it up, the traffic was stacked up heavy on the county road to the plaza where I was picking up dinner. It wasn't our regular rush hour traffic (we aren't exactly in a bustling metropolis), and the closer we got to the intersection, the heavier the traffic was. Cars were stuffed in the parking lot of the church on the corner and spilled out along the gravel shoulder for a good quarter mile past the light. The place was downright crowded with a sea of people, adults and children swarming the small brick building. We couldn't figure out what was going on. We thought maybe there was an event, or one of the Christmas tree vendors that come to town set up shop early and had trees on the cheap. As we inched our way past the driveway, we saw a very small, nondescript sign. Since we were going so slowly, I got a look to see what could possibly be drawing such a crazy crowd in our small town at 5 o'clock on a Friday night. On the painted white wooden sign, the words "Mobile Food Pantry" were stenciled in black spray paint.
Just seeing those words brought back so much for me. It struck a chord in me so deeply that something that happened to me twelve years ago was suddenly so fresh in my mind and heart it felt like it was yesterday. I had just moved into my own apartment in November. I had been on my own since I was 18, but this was the first time I had a place for just me and my girls. My incredible dad and stepmom had paid for my security deposit and first month's rent because there was no way I could have swung that on my own. They had gifted me some of their old but very nice furniture. I had Banana and Red's bunk beds and dresser, the living room was from my dad and stepmom and they had also given me my dad's old kitchen table and chairs. I had my own odds and ends including dishes and the like. I had enough to function, and even though I didn't have a bed of my own, I didn't mind. I had already been sleeping on a couch for three years anyway.
One December night I had gotten off work and I got a call from my best friend telling me that she wanted me to stay at work for a little while because she had my Christmas gift. Even though I was uncomfortable accepting a gift because I had no idea how I was going to pull Santa gifts out of my ass let alone get her even a trinket, I agreed. I grabbed a drink at the bar and waited for her to show up. As more people got off work, they pulled up chairs and we all kind of hung out waiting for her to come in. After about 45 minutes, she came walking through the door and grabbed a seat, placing the small silver gift bag on the table next to her. After some conversation, she handed me the bag and told me to open it up. In the bag was a card. I opened it up and instead of seeing her name, I saw the names of probably twenty of my coworkers and another small envelope. I looked at the faces around the table and I knew something was up. I opened the accompanying small envelope and I was speechless. It was a $600 gift certificate to Ikea. My friends had decided it was high time I got a bed instead of sleeping on the couch like I was crashing for the night at my own place. I was so touched that anybody thought enough of me to do something like that, let alone 20 of them. I found out that they had plotted for weeks, slipping money to my best friend (that I ended up naming my Midge after, I shit you not, I still call her my baby mama) in the galley, by the coffee machine in the kitchen, and after work in the bar. I had never in my life felt so blessed until then.
About a week later, I was getting off work after working a holiday banquet, where I managed to squirrel away a couple of to-go containers of the banquet food to bring home. Meat was too expensive for me to buy and the girls always devoured anything I brought home as I'm sure the break from macaroni, ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches was a welcome change. I had gotten up the hand-me-down tree and we decorated it with the hand-me-down ornaments, but I was in full panic mode as to how I was going to buy them any more than $50 worth of presents. They were good girls, and even though they would have never questioned why the fat man that brings presents for all the good children was stingy with them, the fact that I knew there would be a few sparse presents under the tree weighed heavy on me. I made my way to my piece of shit car in the employee lot, walking quickly as I didn't even have a winter coat, and as I came closer, I noticed there were some black plastic bags stuffed and in the back seat. I looked in and saw a piece of paper on my steering wheel, so I hopped in the driver's seat and opened it. I have it tucked away and won't be sharing it here, but it said some incredible things. The last line, however, said something that I will share.
It simply said, "Believe in the magic of the season."
Those black trash bags were stuffed full of presents, Santa had come to my crappy Mazda. There was everything from clothes to mittens to pajamas, crayons and coloring books, stuffed animals and real Barbie dolls. I was so delirious I sobbed. I ran back inside, practically feral and absolutely too overcome with joy and gratitude to let my warped sense of false pride try to convince me that I should deny accepting them. I confronted my coworkers and demanded they tell me which one of them had done it. None of them would confess, so I did the only thing I could. I thanked them all through my tears because I knew whoever did this was sitting at that table. Banana was 5 and Red was 3. It would be the last year that my Banana would believe in Santa. I couldn't have known that at the time, but looking back and knowing that the last year my first born believed in the magic of a fat man in a red suit leaving presents for her because she was a good girl was a good one because a kind soul decided to make some magic of their own is still almost too much to bear. Which brings me back to the mobile food pantry....
All of this came flooding back when I saw all those people last week. I know exactly how it feels when you have no idea how you are going to make ends meet and provide for your family. I could feel the crushing weight of coming up short in my chest. The lump in my throat came back in exactly the same place it did a dozen years ago and I felt that shortness of breath when the gravity of your circumstances refuses to be ignored. I can't begin to fathom how much pride those people swallowed to go seek help because I was in such a bad and damaged place, there is no way I would have been brave enough to ask for help. It would have equated to admitting defeat to me at the time. I was the queen of cutting off my nose to spite my face. Just like my to-go containers of meat and potatoes, I know the relief those bags of food brought for all of those people. I could sit here all night but I don't know if I could ever come up with the words that would make you understand what it is like to have the indescribable mix of heartbreak and exhilaration I felt for each one of those people I saw in that parking lot that night.
So on this Thanksgiving, I have so much to be thankful for that I could write for days. My life has been so blessed. I have tried in my own small and quiet ways to pay forward the love and kindness that has been shown to me and my family over the years. I am too old to believe in the magic of a fat man in a red suit, but I will never be too old to believe in the magic of the human soul.