"Here, here's where it is," he said as the car slowed to a stop in what felt like the middle of the street. I heard the caution lights click as I spun to get out of the car before Kiedis, to make sure he didn't run into traffic. He was on the sidewalk side, but still my mother's instinct is always on hyperdrive with him.
I looked at the brick building before us, a simple metal sign denoting the name of the location. I waited for Kyle to come around the car with Tova, handing both children a frog shaped training seat, freshly sanitized, and told them to go towards the building.
Two nondescript glass doors lead to a small, equally nondescript lobby with a single security person behind a low and narrow reception desk. The click of my high heeled boots on the commercial tile floor made me self conscious as a family appeared from seemingly nowhere while Kyle approached the desk to ask for a cart and the kids set down their respective froggy potties, waving goodbye to them on my prompting.
I watched the smaller children look at me, all purple and blue haired and dressed up for the holiday, then at my children, who took no hesitation in gleefully greeting these new potential friends. They exchanged pleasantries as only little kids can while a young teen girl and two women, one about my age and one a bit older, eyed us all.
"Ya bringin' stuff in?" a young boy I'd guess to be about six asked me, his eyes bright and hopeful.
"Yep," I paused to collect my thoughts, unsure of how much I should or should not say to him.
"Can we help?!" He barely could contain his excitement as he headed towards the doors, towards our car and the backseat and hatch filled to the brim with our extraneous stuff. Two others followed him, a larger boy and a smaller boy, then trailed by the teen girl while the women went outside a step behind us, then to the side to share a cigarette.
I looked to the women, who shrugged and nodded, and so I nodded at him as Kyle followed the security guard to get the cart.
Earlier in the day, Kyle and I stood in the upstairs bathroom after fighting both kids down for a nap. They had been truly awful most of the day -- picking fights with one another over the stupidest things, refusing to share, throwing toys so the other couldn't have it, the whole nine yards.
We took refuge in the bathroom while Kiedis screamed and raged and Tova wailed about the state of her blankets (there is nothing wrong with her blankets, she just gets uber OCD about them at times) and we looked inside the closet where we'd been hiding their Christmas presents, acutely aware of the negative effects of the season already descending upon our children.
They had yelled at us about Santa and presents (things we hadn't discussed with them, so they picked it up somewhere else) and made demands about KISSMISS NOW! and we were already fed up and it was only midday Christmas Eve. We still had three events to attend, knowing they'd be showered with all kinds of toys and cookies and all the trappings of spoilage and basically, rewarded (or at least not penalized) for their behavior.
And that was no longer acceptable.
Maybe it was reading the New York Times piece about a homeless girl and her family one afternoon a few days prior, or my middle class guilt eating away at my working class reality, or just the fact that really, given the ability, I would much rather give than receive though I have been on my humble share of the receiving end in the past few years and I have to pay that forward if I can't pay it back, but I looked in that closet, at the two large bags (one for each child) and the small pile of items too large for the overflowing bags collected for months, from friends' hand-me-downs and generously unprompted purchases to things I'd managed to squirrel away when I could find the extra time and money or had a bonus credit to Zulily or some other flash sale website and it seemed so ... gratuitous.
So we cut it in half. The things other people bought for them or gave us for them remained, as did desperately-needed clothes and carefully-chosen books, but the things I'd slowly been collecting just to have things to give them, they went into a new bag. We also swept the house of toys rarely played with and the toys long since relegated to the basement due to disinterest and put them in the car while the kids finally napped. We pulled the piles of clothes we'd halfheartedly begun to suss out, the outgrown items for the kids -- a year's worth of shoes for each child, plus last year's barely worn snowboots -- and a laundry basket of party dresses and heels and purses I'd considered trying to consign but had never gotten around to doing, and we loaded that up too. The diaper pails, the sippy cups and toddler dishes, everything we weren't immediately using or hadn't in some months went into our little Matrix, leaving only enough room for the four of us to fit around it, and we began to get dressed for the family dinner we knew we'd be late for.
When the kids woke up, we gave them each an Amazon giftwrap bag and told them they had to put any toys from their room they no longer wanted into those bags to leave under the tree so Santa would have presents to take the kids that he didn't know where they lived because maybe they didn't have a home or maybe they have to move a lot but the only way Santa would bring new toys would be if they left him some to find new homes. They roiled at first but quickly began to put things into the bags, then carried them downstairs themselves to put under the tree. We got them dressed in their nicest clothes, and we told them before we could go to my grandparents' house that we had to take Christmas to kids that might not have it any other way.
I watched the children from the women's shelter as they carried our things into the building, as they carefully tried to eyeball what was inside the bags and boxes. I glanced at the teen girl's feet and thought she might fit some of the grown up shoes, if she were allowed to wear heels, and knew of brand-new presents in the bags that would be suitable for each child, but I also knew the policy that it had to be cataloged and put in a special room before they could claim any of it, so there were no first dibs. I watched as my children carried the small things they could -- making sure as much as possible that it was their things they carried, to try and impart the importance of giving and sharing and the true spirit of the season, even for mushed up heathens like us.
And I felt guilty when I told my kids to put back the two small presents that were intended for my family's annual White Elephant gift exchange, knowing that the family right before me could use the two gift cards far more than anyone at our destination, despite the good intentions.
It occurred in the span of ten minutes, and our car was empty and the kids cried that we couldn't stay and play with their new friends and the children from the shelter looked longingly at us, all dressed up and off for Christmas Dinner, and at the pile of things we were leaving behind, the cast offs becoming the possibility of treasure. I made a point to make eye contact with the women smoking outside, wishing them a Happy Christmas and smiling genuinely at them, because kindness and compassion can go so much farther than anything else, especially at times like this.
I hoped that they knew that I saw them and that despite how we may have looked -- as Kyle put it, the benevolent white family swooping down from the suburbs to cast off our unwanteds for a tax credit -- that I know that for the grace of God and Fate it is only why our situations are not reversed, and that we are their neighbors, their friends.
That I am only paying forward the good that has been brought my way in my times of need.
I wanted my kids to see how lucky they are to have so much stuff. I wanted them to see grace and kindness and compassion and empathy and to see that it is better to give than to receive, every single time. They may be a little young to grasp it now but it is my goal to make this not a one-time deal, or even a once-a-year occurrence, but to consistently and dependably illustrate to them the power of empathy, of sharing, of taking care of one another, whether it be your sibling, your neighbor, your classmate, or a stranger.
I fought tears as we drove away, towards the suburbs I grew up in, feeling such an internal lack at not being able to do more, to give more, to help more.
A hand reached over and grasped mine on my knee, the warm softness of it balancing it's size and strength and it squeezed ever so gently as I looked at Kyle, driving in the city streetlights towards the highway. A sideways glance revealed he knew, he knew how I felt and what I was thinking and I was not alone in either. I hung my head and took a deep breath, letting it all in for just a moment before exhaling it out into the world, with true hopes of love and kindness and giving not only for the season, but for the rest of the foreseeable future.