A Present for a Stranger

(Originally published in the Chicago Tribune)

As I write the gift tag, “To a twelve year-old girl,” I remember with startling clarity myself at the age of twelve. I am waiting excitedly in a crowd of children for just such a gift to be delivered into my hands.

It was 1964, a time when people still had large families (I am the oldest of seven). A time when those of us growing up didn’t know we were on our way to becoming boomers and yuppies.

My family struggled daily to maintain a foothold on the lowest ring of the middle class. We were never on public assistance or welfare, but we were the next level up. My father worked during the day at his “regular job” (that job changed with some predictable frequency), worked nights at Montgomery Wards selling carpet, and on summer weekends at the track. He drove the bookmobile once a week to make an extra $15. The bookmobile was an enormous, lumbering blue thing that you could never believe made it up and down the mountain roads. My mother waitressed when things got really tight.

Today when my family gets together at the holidays we can laugh about the time my sisters and I desperately wanted a Monopoly game for Christmas, but my parents couldn’t afford it. So I made one – board, money, property cards, Chance and Community Chest cards – out of cardboard and paper. It didn’t seem like a terrible hardship at the time; it was just the way things were.

Every Christmas a holiday party was held at either a church or school auditorium for families with, shall we say, limited financial resources. We were never made to feel
shameful; rather, we felt special and lucky to be invited. My sisters and I would perch eagerly on folding chairs, nibbling cookies and sipping punch, awaiting our turn to be called for a gift.

I have no memory of who arranged those lovely holiday parties, and even though my name wasn’t on the gift I received, “To a twelve year-old girl” was close enough for me.
You never knew what the gift would be. One year it was a Barbie doll. The next year it was a fancy toiletry set for a pre-teen. Even though the gift tag didn’t have my name on it, I knew the gift had secretly been selected just for me.

We lived in a small town, so my family’s needs were common knowledge, although discreetly never discussed outside of our home. Therefore, we were not surprised one year when some church ladies appeared one snowy evening delivering a turkey and some brightly wrapped gifts to our front door.

Did we ever feel shame at having to accept things from other people? I don’t recall feeling that emotion at all, nor do I think my parents felt that way. We were touched that others cared, we were grateful and their gifts made us happy. The year the church ladies came I received a small but elegant book of scriptures, which I still have today. I do not attend church and I am not a particularly religious person, but I treasure that book given in love by a stranger.

Which brings me back to today, and the gift I am wrapping for a twelve year-old whose face I don’t know. I know she’s out there, though, and there are many more out there than I have gifts for.

I won’t be able to meet her and tell her that maybe, just maybe, life won’t always be as difficult for her as it is on the day when she receives a gift from a stranger.
That maybe someday she will be the one doing the giving.

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