Three years ago at Christmas time (early December)
There I was, gazing into the lights of my lovely and lovingly decorated Christmas tree, feet curled up under me and sitting on the couch after everyone else was in bed. And I was thinking of my list of tasks for tomorrow. All the stuff that I felt so necessary to get done. I knew I'd need to get an early start if I wanted to get it all completed. It looks like a mighty busy day and not a whole lot of fun either. Aunt Bedelia is a picky gal and wants the perfect robe which I'm hoping to be able to find for her, while Cousin Henry is never easy to please and Randy wants a "strobe".(whatever that is!) I've got to order a 10 pound ham and a 20 pound turkey for the feast. And in between get my hair permed and get the car's universal joint greased. (or at least I think that's what they said)
Now Christmas is a joyful time for everyone I know. I always work especially hard, just to make this statement so. Our family has a 100 friends with whom we keep in touch. Cards must be sent even if my hand cramps up from having to write so much. I always make at least ten kinds of cookies. The baking takes several days, so I start before Thanksgiving. Thank heavens I have a large deep-freeze! But when I'm finished baking there's still a lot to fix. What would Christmas be without the bourbon and rum balls, the chocolate and peanut butter fudge? And don't forget the creamy devinity!
Oh, we all know that this season is really about so much more. It's just that I can't seem to find it's true meaning when I look in any store! Now, on my way to the Mall the next day, I hurried into the Church office. The young married's group I belong to and was president of, had voted to adopt a family for Christmas and since I wanted to help spread the cheer today, I'd decided to find out what their wish lists were and shop for them while I had to be out anyway.
The office secretary had the needs-list sitting on her desk. "They really need a lot, hon" she said. "You all will have to do your best. A young widow raising five kids, aged from eleven down to only two. She is really trying, but there is only so much she can do. Her husband died of cancer only three months ago, after a long but hopeless fight. Jessica is only thirty-one herself." And tears flooded my eyes. With a jolt of shock, I heard her age, realizing she is the same age as me. In an instance, this became very personal -- trying to make a Christmas for six someone-else's from the cranberry sauce all the way to the tree.
Before I left that office, eighteen times I'd used my cell-phone. Every other club member was called and all the tasks assigned. I was sure that the concern in these voices would soon be followed by acts of sublime generosity. Jessica's family would find their way to Christmas morn through the caring of a few special strangers. We each knew that fate's finger could have as easily chosen one of us to face the same sad end. But in the midst of this sadness, we hoped to provide a new direction and the wonderful promise of Jesus' birth to give this dear family a way to reach through their despair. Even something so simple as a Christmas tree may help, when offered along with prayer.
New excitement and purpose sent me racing toward the Mall and, in my head, I quickly juggled my list of things to do. So many plans to make but I knew I could make it work. To my mind, Jessica had already lost too much. I vowed 'she will have the peace of knowing that Santa's trip is in her grasp' (plus a little something for her.) Aunt's Bea's robe turned out to be royal purple with a satin shawl collar and sash. And for Jessica I added a snuggly,ice blue robe of silky velour and soft cushioned slippers of navy blue. When I went to MediaMagic and bought Henry's DVD of Terminator3, I added a favorite book of meditative, inspirational poetry and two CDs of relaxing music for Jessica. I love fragrance candles and bathsalts and think perhaps she will, too, so picked them out on the way to get my perm.
Others in the group were choosing clothes and toys and games and books and other useful and fun things for each child. In material things, I knew they'd not want for anything on their lists, if it should be in our power. And now for the other things that caring strangers could provide: Food for a special Christmas dinner that will fill tummies. And when I was thinking of this, I had a funny, daring idea.
If it were me, I would want to be asked about the food that would make my Christmas dinner seem more like the kind of celebration that I and my children would like to have. On the list had been a request for us to provide a tree for the family. Since I had set that as one of my tasks, it would be easy to deliver it and, in person, ask Jessica for suggestions of what she would like to have in the grocery bags we would purchase for the family.
My husband Joel and Jenny and Danny were amazed to be invited to share another trip to the tree lot to help me pick out the tree. But with Christmas carols ringing in the minivan, they gladly jumped at this rare opportunity. Jenny, at eight and full of curious compassion at this time in her life asked "Is there a girl in this family?"
"Yes," I answered, "there are three. One who is nine, one six and a half and the baby who is two." Six year old Danny chimed in and asked "Are there boys, too, Mom?"
"Yes, son, ages eleven and four."
"And their daddy is dead, Mom?"
"Yes Danny. I know how sad that must make them all feel. But we want to help give them a nice Christmas and let them know that Jesus loves them very much."
Explaining the unexplainable to children is really somewhat simpler than trying to understand it myself, but I just keep praying that we will do the right things to help Jessica and her children to have a good Christmas celebration and just leave the details to God's tender mercy.
Joel re-cuts the tree trunk at home before putting it into a bucket of water on the back porch, then we say bedtime prayers with the children and Jenny adds a prayer (on her own) for our "Christmas Family". She is a tender hearted child and I feel such a burst of emotion for my precious family as I kiss each of them good night that I have to keep myself from hugging them too long and too tight.
And that night I sat again in front of my own lighted tree and let the tears fall when reminded of how little I had looked forward to that day, while sitting in the same spot on the couch the night before. And now I know that buying gifts for difficult relatives is less than nothing compared to watching your beloved partner dying and being unable to do anything to change his fate; of facing life without your husband and the father of your kids; of raising (and caring for the needs of) five children alone.
The next morning I settled into my rocking chair with a second cup of coffee and the list of tasks that must be done for Jessica's family. I ticked through the list, putting stars or question marks by several items. Really, I am mostly playing a game of delaying ... steeling myself to telephone the number on the card I was given and speak with this woman in person. I desperately want to help her and not make her uncomfortable. I say a silent prayer that God will be with me and his spirit be in my words. Then I dial the phone.
"Hello, is this Jessica Thompson?"
"Yes, it is" replies a soft voice. In the background I can hear the music from Sesame Street and the giggles and high clear voices of young children. I gulp air, say a silent prayer for guidance and continue, "My name is Cindy Bowen and I'm the president of the St. Monica's group that was given your family's name to help you at Christmas this year...You had requested a Christmas tree and I wondered if you would like me to bring it to you today?"
Suddenly, I have a panicky thought! "Do you also need decorations?"
"Oh...no...no, we have those...I...well, we moved here when ... well, when my husband was being treated for cancer....we felt that the Kettering Institute was where we could hope for the best treatment for his condition ...so we did move everything. It's just that ...well, with everything...all the expenses and the children already in school...I just couldn't face...well, it's difficult to move again...but, no...to answer your question. We have plenty of decorations for the tree. Thank you though...and...Thank you for...what you are doing."
"Mrs. Thompson, Jessica...I'm grateful that we can help. I have children, too. I know how important it is for them to have a Christmas. I'm just so glad we can do this to help out."
We set a time to deliver the tree and I continued to pray for God's guidance as I completed some chores while waiting for the appointment time.
God was doing a very good job of listening to my prayers that day. For it was that day that I made a new friend. Oh, not right away, because it turns out that Jessica and I are both just a little bit shy and reserved. It takes us some time to warm an acquaintanceship into a friendship. It's just one of many, many things we found that we had in common.
She had been very isolated for nearly two years. In a new city and having Jack, her husband, so sick had taken all her time after they moved to our town. Most of her energy was in keeping the children buoyed up while Jack was treated as an outpatient for the cancer that would eventually take his life. They were so focused on keeping their family together while coping with their worsening financial situation that they let everything else slide. It had taken a great deal of courage for her to ask for help for Christmas, but Jessica was a brave, newly bereaved mother who knew she must now fight to keep her little family from falling apart.
In the beginning, I called her more than she called me. But I never kept count. We had coffee a few times. Either at one of our homes or at Patterson's coffee shop downtown. Then we progressed to meeting for lunch or would sometimes go shopping together. Finally, I asked her if she would be interested in coming to our church and in May, Joel and I invited her and her children to a Memorial Day cookout with other families in our neighborhood who had kids her children's ages. She insisted on bringing the potato salad and it was the hit of the picnic.
Soon after Christmas, she opened a small day-care for tots in her home and there was such a demand that, within nine months she approached the church board about expanding and using the Sunday school rooms and hiring some of the parishioners, mostly young moms and a couple of retired ladies, to help. I'm the business manager and bookkeeper for our St. Monica's Tot Care and we make a very modest profit that goes to the church maintenance fund over and above the expenses of salaries and supplies and insurance.
Now, three years later, when I sit in the silence of my living room and gaze at my glowing Christmas tree, I think of Jessica's Christmas tree the year I met her. I count that year among the very best Christmases I will ever have. And it had nothing much to do with cards, cookies or even food or presents. It had everything to do with Friendship and reaching out to others.
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