There have been only three Christmases in the history of my thirty years where I have not been able to make it home for Christmas to be with my family. The first one was when it snowed so badly that I could not leave my apartment and was worried about driving home. It was miserable. I sat there, staring at my computer, editing photos because I didn’t have anything else to do, and talking to my parents on the phone while they told me about the awesome dinner that my mother had made. My little TV dinner that I baked in the oven later paled in comparison to her cooking, as TV dinners always do.
The second was the first Christmas after I’d moved to Florida. I’d just started my job, I was broke, I had no plane ticket money, and of course I’d just seen them in November as we were driving the truck down. But the wonders of Skype prevailed. The camera feed was awful, and it was not the same as being there, but I could at least watch them open their presents. And as I was seeing someone at the time, I wasn’t alone at any rate. I cooked a dinner of epic proportions – a spiral ham with all the trimmings, and after dinner, I fed the leftovers to the colony of stray cats that lived outside the apartment where I was staying.
The third will be this Christmas. And this time, like the first time, it is not my choice. I knew that when 3.0 and I broke up that I was fortunate to have the Thanksgiving tickets already purchased way ahead of time so that I could take refuge with my family for a bit. Funnily enough when he was bringing the hammer down on the relationship, ending it effectively, the first thought I had was, “Well now what am I going to do for Christmas?” Because that had been the deal – he would go home with me for Thanksgiving, I’d stay here in Florida and spend the holidays with his family. When the relationship ended, of course, that plan changed. I tried to find tickets – I looked everywhere. But given that I didn’t want to take more time off to go home, and given that the prices of tickets had already skyrocketed, I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be possible this year.
I was upset for awhile. Pissed at 3.0 for being so inconsiderate as to string me along for a whole year – long enough to make plans for the holidays and then for those plans to not work out. I am still a little pissed at him for that. But I realized that none of that really would make a difference in the grand scheme of things – things still are what they are. And there was nothing that I could do to change that. The only thing I COULD change was to try to find a way to make the holidays bearable – to try to find a way to make them good, even though I was not going to get to be home.
First, I considered the weather. I am fortunate, after all, to live in a state where we get no snow, where the sun shines the majority of the time, where at any given moment I can look outside and see foliage on the trees and ducks swimming in the lake. Considering the cold weather I’d be going home to (that I suffered through last year), I was sort of pleased that I wasn’t going to have to wear winter parkas and boots just to visit Kentucky.
And there were places I could put that plane ticket money. I remembered the promise I’d made to myself two years ago when I first started working down here. The company I worked for had sponsored thirteen children from a children’s home in town to fulfill their Secret Santa lists. These lists aren’t like the ones you get on the Angel Tree where you buy two or three things and you’re done. These lists are extensive. And usually very expensive. Shopping for the kids was an involved process that required multiple trips to the malls and the purchase of thirteen iPods with no video capabilities (among many other things). It’s a lot, but the research I’ve since done on the place confirms that these kids really do need someone to do this for them. I didn’t have the money to do it two years ago – I was lucky if I was able to pull one of the kids’ names off of an Angel Tree to fulfill that wish, but I was involved the first year anyway, even if I didn’t bankroll the resources, and it didn’t matter so much then. This year, though, my life had changed. I got a huge raise. I am making more money and am more comfortable than I ever have been. Could I have afforded the plane ticket home? Sure. It was never about the money – more about the time spent there for the money I was putting out. I decided, then, that if I could not have the Christmas I wanted, I was going to use my newfound riches to give someone else the Christmas that they needed. After all, I am thirty years old. Christmas gifts and Santa Claus don’t mean as much to me as they do to a child.
So I called the home and inquired about getting a list for one of the children. I called twice, since the first time I called no one answered and I had to leave a message. The due date was not even a week away and if I were going to do this, I needed to do it now, or else there would be no time to shop. The second time, I got someone on the phone – a harried but nice lady who seemed at first in disbelief that I would want to do something like this, warning me of the money I would spend. I assured her that it wasn’t a problem and that it wasn’t about the money to me. I must have talked for fifteen minutes before I managed to break through her skepticism and she sent me the wish list. As I looked at it, I smiled. It was going to be a lot of work, and it would mean a lot of driving to a lot of places, but this kid was going to get everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, on that list.
I started shopping the very next day, tearing apart the malls, looking for the shoes that she wanted, the watch that she’d asked for that could only be found in Macys. I spent the next evening tearing apart Michael’s Crafts to find the very best drawing set that I could, and Bieber-fied my shopping cart with the posters and the CDs she requested. The one thing that I could not find, at all, was the diary. There were plenty of diaries, yes. None with locks. None to be found in the places I’d gone to anyway. None to be found in Orlando either as I rummaged through the stores in the outlet malls that weekend. I was starting to think I was going to just have to settle for a nice, Bieber-themed journal and hope for the best since there wasn’t enough time now to order it and have it shipped to me from Amazon.
And then, with one shopping day to go before I had to turn over the gifts to be wrapped by the staff at the home, as I was walking through Barnes and Noble, I found a section for journals. And as a last resort, I walked to it. There were all kinds – leather-bound journals, spiral notebooks with inspirational sayings on them, bound diaries with animals. And then, on the shelf, almost forgotten among all the others was one with hearts on it. And two circular rings on the side, bound together by a heart-shaped padlock with a very small key. This was it, the last thing on the list. I snatched it, still in disbelief over my good luck, and added it to her stash.
On that following Monday, the deadline for the gift collection, at work and between webinars, I printed the directions to the home. It wasn’t far from work but as I didn’t know where I was going exactly, and as I wasn’t sure how long it would take to drop off her gifts, I knew that it was likely that this would take the entire hour. No matter, I told my rumbling stomach as I got into the car. I’d grab something at the drive thru if I had to and if I couldn’t, well, a little bit of afternoon fasting wasn’t going to hurt me. I could get a big dinner later and I’d be okay. And anyway, this little girl needed her presents. If I didn’t bring them, then there would be no one else who would. And as I have said many times, and continue to believe, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been, everyone deserves a Christmas.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find when I got there. This wasn’t in the best area of town, at least that I knew. And I half expected to find a towering structure, something like what you see in Annie where the orphans are cleaning the building and a tyrannical matron is dishing out harsh words and punishment (even though I know that is fictional, and I know it’s not really like that – at least not anymore if it ever was). But when I pulled onto the campus, I was pleasantly surprised. It was plain on the outside, the fence and buildings were a pale yellow against the well-manicured lawn. But the main office was decorated for Christmas and it was well-kept. I could see the dorms lined up down the driveway, and imagined that this is where the children probably lived. It reminded me of the camp I’d worked at, actually, as a teenager. I parked next to the door to check in as instructed per the email I’d gotten and as I got out of my car, noticed the empty basketball courts. Yes, this was like camp. There were no children to be seen, but as school had not yet let out, this wasn’t a surprise to me. And it was just as well – I didn’t want her (whoever she was) to see her gifts until she was supposed to.
But I was happy to find that the campus was clean, the staff was very nice. Dropping off the gifts took a few minutes – there were papers to fill out, things to sign. But when I left the three large shopping bags behind at the makeshift “Santa’s Workshop” that had been set up in one of the cabins, I felt good. Better than I had in weeks. I had taken my own misery and disappointment and I had made something good come out of it.
And now, a week later, Christmas is almost upon us. I’ve ordered all of the presents for my family on Amazon and had them shipped to their house. They were received, per my mother, neatly wrapped in pretty Christmas-colored solid wrapping paper. My parents packed my gifts neatly into a large shoebox, then wrapped the box tightly in brown paper, and shipped it to my apartment where they were delivered several days before Christmas. Plans have been made to spend Christmas Eve on Skype, opening up the presents on the webcam and spending some time together that way instead of not seeing each other at all. I have a spiral ham waiting in my refrigerator for cooking (a small one – I can’t eat all of a large one by myself) and have spent this first four day weekend cleaning my apartment to get it ready for the impending new year.
It still isn’t the same. I’d still rather be home instead of here, alone, shaking the wrapped packages to try to figure out what is in them. But what do I have to complain about? I have a roof over my head, enough money to buy the things I want to buy for myself, I am comfortable and don’t have to go hungry unless I want to. I have a family that loves me and that I can visit any time I want. I have a mother and father who wrap and ship Christmas presents to me even when I can’t be there to open them in person. And I have always had these things. There has never been a time in my life where I have ever really wanted for anything.
And then I think about that little girl back on the campus. I won’t get to see her open her gifts. I won’t get to watch her write in her diary or open the watch or wear her shoes or practice drawing with that new drawing set she’ll get to open in a couple of days. But I gave her something that she wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. The money I would have spent going home to have a couple of days with my family was used to give someone else a real Christmas. Someone who needs it much more than I do, much more than I ever will. And I feel good about it. After all, isn’t giving to others what Christmas really is all about?