Yesterday, as I drove my 16-year-old exchange student, Denmark (as she’s known here), to run some errands, she said something that many of us do about this time of year: ”People always say that this is a happy time of year; that we should all be in the Christmas spirit; but it seems like everyone is totally stressed out, rushing around and just buying things like crazy… no one seems all that happy.” Wow. I was struck by how familiar that was, but how mournful it sounded coming from my usually über cheerful Danish daughter. “I think people just lose sight of so much this time each year, myself included. Some year I think we should all agree not to buy a single gift for each other, and only give to others who need them.” I replied. “However, I can’t deny that I would miss my presents!” I added. We laughed, but I felt a twinge of that same guilt I often feel when I think of all the good fortune our family enjoys.
We had set out on our mission, to mostly do good. My Mom, who many of you know is in Hospice, had told me that she was sad that she couldn’t buy cards as she always has. I am not really a card person, they rarely say what I really want to say and I tend to get caught up on some silly turn of a phrase or wording that doesn’t exactly match my thoughts. My mother however has always loved giving cards. This past week has been especially hard for her. She has beenraging against her death, she has been sad and withdrawn about the holidays. I visit her every single day, usually for about 4+ hours, but when I have to leave it’s awful. She feels lonely when I’m not there and often becomes angry and withdrawn as I prepare to leave. It’s been very difficult… and especially over the holidays. This will be the first year that she will not be with us, when she is just two miles away, because it’s just too challenging to bring her home. Of course we’ll visit her on Christmas, but it won’t be the same when she isn’t there to open gift with us.
So, Goal one: I had challenged myself to go buy cards for her and really think about whatshe would pick out. Goal two came from a friend. My buddy Melissa K, had posted an amazing idea on her Facebook page about helping the homeless and less fortunate in our community. She bagged up simple supplies and treats and then handed them out randomly to folks on the street (the folks standing with signs at the end of exits and at stop lights) who needed them. I was so touched by the idea, I thought it would be a really cool thing to do with my kids this year. The entire U.N. will be in session by Monday night, and we could go out and hand them out the week of Christmas and Hanukkah (we are Double Dippers, to borrow a friend’s term). I bought 10 simple bags and stickers to decorate the bags. For each bag, Denmark and I bought mittens, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, granola bars, some chocolates, and gift cards to Starbucks. We plan to put some cookies in there too. I took her to the Dollar store in town, to make the most of our money and be able to get some extra things.
We also did plenty of shopping for our own family and friends, but the main goal was to take care of these two do good missions. By the time we left the last store, where we’d done mostly our own shopping, we were both fried and were dying to get home and just plop down on the sofa. However on the way, I got a text from Middle Man, who just arrived home the day before, letting me know we are out of cream cheese and could I please pick some up. Ugh. As we exited the highway, I saw the big sign at The Market at Fairhaven, which has been in the process of closing for weeks. Each day the signs had become bigger and more dramatic: ”5 Days left!! up to 70% off”. They had people on every conceivable corner in town, dancing with their signs. You know the ones: They have earplugs in, are holding some big ass sign about a sale and doing a crazy dance? Every corner. I had been vowing to drop in for weeks. Yesterday however the sign said “1 Day Left!! up to 90% OFF”. I was dying of curiosity. What could they possibly have left? Could we possibly score some cereal and detergent for 90% off and get the cream cheese too?
What a shocking sight. The store was almost empty… a huge warehouse of empty. How strange it was to see a Market that I have enjoyed and used, so barren. Denmark and I walked each aisle anyway, determined to see what was there. We bought polenta in aisle three, just because it was in Italian and only $1.50. We ran into another friend, K, in the next aisle, just as I said: “Looks like Paula Deen can’t be given away.” On naked shelves, there was a lot of Paul Deen. My friend and I confided that we felt like vultures… picking the bones of a business we felt badly for. The owners are good people and the circumstances of the closing were a bummer. It did feel odd. Toward the end of the store, I scored three boxes of Frosted Flakes. I never buy them, but Little Man loves them. They were under a dollar, how could I say no?
Then on the third to last aisle, we found something very strange. Shelves and shelves of baby food. K and I joked that if the diapers were bigger, we might be able to use them in a few years. We wondered aloud what would happen with so much baby food? Would they donate it? Would it be worth buying some and donating it. At the 70% mark down it was at, it would still be pretty pricey. We parted ways, at baby food and met up at the register. She had to pick up her son and I still didn’t have cream cheese. We were both tired, and I dreaded going to the other store I now had to hit. I asked the check out gal, “Gus,” what they would do with all that baby food, but she was evasive. “They will sell every bit of it.” She told us this with absolute certainty.”There is no way,” I argued. “There are tons of it there and you close in less than an hour.” She was certain. She told me that it would all be gone.
I was this close to leaving: __ <— That close. Then a person of authority came out to make another loud, “Last chance” announcement and I went over to speak with him. “What do you plan to do with all the baby food that’s left?” I asked. He looked puzzled. “Will you donate it?” No. They would not. There seemed to be some glitch, donation was not possible. “What if I want to buy it to donate, what kind of deal will you give me?” ”Well, if you come back in 45 minutes, we’ll probably have a fill your cart deal.” I slumped. There was NO way I was leaving and coming back. I was exhausted. Denmark was exhausted; and we still had to buy cream cheese. “Come on,” I pleaded, “It’s for a good cause. Do I look like I have babies at home? Can’t you give me the deal right now?” The fact that he agreed makes him a very nice man and confirms that I looked tired and old… and unable to have babies! Did he not consider that I might have grandchildren? I digress…
“We inventoried the baby food last night and there is nearly $800 worth left, with the discount” he informed us. “Sure, but in an hour it’s worth nothing. I want to donate it; I don’t want to come back because I’m exhausted and I still have to make dinner for four teenagers, cut me a break pleeeease.” I was this close: _ <– (shorter than previous) of throwing in the Mother in Hospice detail, to seal the deal. I wanted that baby food bad. ”Ok, put what you can in ONE cart and I’ll give it to you for $25. Don’t tell anyone else right now.” he relented. “That does not include the Pedialyte or formula. That stuff is worth a lot more!” Now, let me tell you something: I am a die hard bargain shopper. I am crazy as a loon in general and if you challenge me to almost anything, I am going to beat you at your own game. Period. I do not pass on a dare. There’s a friend out there that still owes me a mud wrestle.
We closed up the seat on the cart to make more room in the actual grocery section of the cart; we stared at the three full shelves of baby food and we methodically began to pile it like a baby food Tetris challenge. Boxes of Rice cereal between jars and plastic cups of Peaches, Fresh Peas; we were determined to get every single item we could into that cart. An employee who didn’t know what was happening watched us with amusement. Then, he brought a second cart and asked what we were up to. We’d promised not to anyone about our deal, so we told him in giggles that we were donating it all, but couldn’t say anymore. He put his hands on our pile and said: “I want to touch this for Karma sake. Wow.” I can not possibly express here the excitement we both felt. I felt like we were on one of those game shows where you get ten minutes to fill a cart with the best things you can buy… only all we wanted was baby food… and as much as we could possibly get.
I actually started to feel a little guilty: they store was closing, not for reasons that anyone wanted. They were being kind to let me do this and here we were piling things precariously high, to get the most out of $25. It would have been a deal with the first layer of food we piled in there… I then I also started to think about all that Pedialyte and Formula. Wouldn’t that be very helpful too? I looked at what was left on the shelves and resolved to get the rest. Well… all except the Gerber Meat Sticks. Excuse me while I rant here: Ick! Yuck! Gross! AND, aren’t hot dogs a major choking hazard anyway? Let alone packaged as little “sticks” that babies can hold and shove in their wind pipes? I’m sorry, but good cause or not, I could not bring myself to take the Meat Sticks, even free. We left about ten jars of Meat Sticks on the now empty shelf.
Denmark ran to get another cart and I went up to talk to the Big Man again about another deal. I told him that it was even closer to closing and that all that Pedialyte and Formula would help an awful lot of babies. Hungry Babies. Is there anything more guilt inducing? (Besides a dying mother? I clearly had a Royal Flush) They reminded me that the formula was “$16.99 before the discount, that there was at least $400 of inventory left, after the discount.” I offered them $100 for both carts and everyone looked happy. For the record, the first manager was willing to part with the second cart for $25 also, but I felt a little too much like screwing one guy to help another. However you slice it, we had thousands of dollars worth of baby food (real market value) for $100. The two-packs that we got hundreds of sell for $6.99 each usually. It would be very difficult to really tally the value, but discounted it all would have sold for approximately $1400, at the 70% off. I’d say this goes down as the biggest score ever of my illustrious discount buying career. Oh if only I could have photographed the faces of the other people in the check out line, as we walked out with our ginormous baby food carts.
The back of my son’s Subaru, packed to the gills
As we piled the final items in our carts, it occurred to me that there was no conceivable way of fitting it all in my car, which was already filled with shopping bags. I called Middle Man, just home from college, and asked if he could come over and help out. His Subaru was packed: trunk and backseat. I told him that it might be a real plus to girls, if he drove around with the stuff for a few days and told them he was taking it to Women’s Shelters… Ok, tasteless, but I was having so much fun with all this that I was truly giddy. Punch drunk. Dancing in the parking lot giddy. Denmark and I were just out of our minds with Hanukka-Santa good cheer.
In this year of particularly hard times, this all feels better than usual. My family is blessed with more than we need and a lot of good fortune. While this has been a particularly hard year emotionally, I dont worry about food; my home is always warm; and we enjoy many opportunities that others do not. I have always believed in Pay It Forward. I got my Masters in Social Work for a reason. The fact that raising three wonderful kids stopped me from working did not top me from believing in the ideals that I always aspired to. I think so many of us want to do the best we can to help those who don’t have the same blessings. We do it in different ways, but the bottom line is that I ultimately believe in Community. I believe that it does in fact Take a Village. Yesterday, I felt so overwhelmed with joy, knowing that I wasn’t going home with piles of stuff that I bought just to fill the package quota under the tree, or to make each night of Hanukkah a big bang for my own kids. Let’s be real here: my kids will still have a wonderful holiday season. But, for the first time ever, I really believe that enough is enough. I don’t feel compelled to make it over the top. Quality vs quantity means something this year.
This will be my last Christmas with a mother. That fact, as hard as it is to type, colors everything I do and think right now. It has put so many things in perspective; so many things that I already knew and believed, but now I want to really follow through on. Being with her, sharing her daily fears and grief is truly humbling. There was a time (true story) when my mother could not afford to buy my brother, sister and I any gifts one Christmas. We had a small fake tree and no real gifts to speak of. I got an ugly crocheted beret, but seriously, that was it. We went to a bowling alley for burgers Christmas Eve. While I had many over the top Christmases later, and my grandmother spoiled us year after year, I have always remembered that one Christmas when we went without. I hope that this year, there are a few families that at least have baby food; a few kids who get their angel wishes filled; and that my Mom finally finds peace. I filled a few wishes for her too and I know that there will be some powerful moments in our home this holiday season.
For the past few years Christmas has been a hard time for me. The Christmas’ of my past come back to haunt me and I tend to feel a little blue. Over the years, the family I thought I had as a child, when we all spent every holiday together, vacations and endless good times, no longer exists. It is not because we live far apart, but because we are not the people I thought we were. Family rifts and foolish things came between us all and we have not really been there for each other. While I miss what I believed my family was, I have come to accept what really is and not what I wish for. My mother’s impending death has made that even clearer. For all the good she did in her life, she is dying alone with only my sister and I beside her and a few good wishes on Facebook. She’s been alone for the past several years as she slid downhill. No cards, no flowers, no real connection to much outside the room where she lays now. It may be selfish, but part of what drives me this year is to fill the void with good. To reclaim Christmas for myself. I have celebrated Hanukkah with my children and made Christmas a shadow of what it once was. This is my effort to reclaim some magic. Perhaps each year now, we can move further from what we want and toward giving back, and celebrating the magic that Denmark said was missing. Oh my… I’m sure I sound a tad maudlin here, but I hope that despite the sadness that permeates so much right now in my life, this joy will carry me and those I love. This is what it should be about.
So, today the goods are still sitting in the car. All of us are afraid to even open that trunk. I’ve made some calls and will try to figure out the best place for it all to go. We’ll put together our Gift bags for the homeless tonight and pass them out next week, when Principessa is home too. Finally, each year, for as long as I can remember, I go to the mall and take a bunch of those angels down from the tree outside our local Target. They’re there in every mall: a tree full of paper angels with wish lists. For years, the kids and I picked angels the same age as they are, but now I look for younger kids or ones that seem to need clothes. We go shopping for our angels and then bring it all back to the Salvation Army desk and turn it all in. I am feeling like Santa today, go ahead call me a Ho: Ho, Ho Ho! I dare you.
What are you doing for the holidays? What brings you joy and what are your traditions? Give it some thought, go out there and do something kind. Pay it forward, and see how good you feel. Happy Holidays!
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