rockinlibrarian: (christmas)
It all started with a gift.

Round abouts my birthday, my mom said, “We’re going to do your kitchen cabinets for you.” Now, I had pull-out cabinet organizers on my wishlist, specifically inspired by the ones my parents had in their kitchen, so I figured that was what she was talking about. But as I met them in Ikea and we looked around the kitchen center, it became clear that wasn’t what she’d been talking about: they were completely replacing our kitchen cabinets, including countertop. This is a HUGE gift and it’s beautiful and I love it, let’s make that clear before we go on here. Now, my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s this year, so they had enough on their plates to deal with, so I wasn’t sure whether it would actually happen or not; but Ikea was having a kitchen sale this fall that would end on November 11, so November 8 we placed the order and all of a sudden it was official.

And then we realized what we’d gotten into.

The new cabinets would not fit exactly where the old cabinets were, so the walls would have to be repainted. I figured I could just retouch, because the kitchen walls were sponge-painted and were close in color to the new living room paint, which we still had leftover, but after we took the cabinets out and I tested a bit on a definitely-will-have-cabinet section, it was clear our leftover paint was NOT close enough, so I had to buy all new paint, and ended up refreshing what was already there, anyway. But that was nothing compared to the floor. It turned out the floor only went so far under the old cabinets, and would ALSO have to be replaced before the new cabinets could be installed. We went through several iterations of what the new floor could be— first thought, self-stick tiles right over the old floor, easy-peasy and only $130. But the old floor was too uneven. Then Jason was like, hey, there’s hardwood under here, we just have to pull up all this other crap, including a layer that is most likely asbestos, rent a sander, stain and seal it… and I was like, I do not want a hardwood floor in my kitchen, but I’ll take it if it’s the cheapest and easiest option, which it was CLEARLY NOT, and finally Jason had to admit that, with the amount of staples the subsequent layers of flooring had used, the hardwood would be in no shape to refinish after all; so we had to relevel certain sections of the floor (Jason mixed the first batch of releveler wrong and we had to buy a second batch), and then install a “floating” lock-tile laminate floor over top.

On the whole we ended up spending at least $800 out of pocket unexpectedly just to get the kitchen in shape for the new cabinets— and we had $1,600 due in real estate taxes by November 30. That’s a tax that normally people get escrowed into their monthly mortgage payment, but when we’d refinanced a few years ago, we’d taken that out of the mortgage so we had more usable money each month— at the time I was still writing One Book, and I got paid a lump sum of about that amount about that time of year, so it made sense at the time. NOW, not so much. Especially this year. I worked out that we had to pay the real estate tax exactly on the due date, which happened to be payday for both Jason and I; I paid the December mortgage; I worked out the timing of bills and paydays and figured out which bills could possibly be pushed off; and we were Broke. Flat broke. Could barely afford groceries, let alone extras… it just happened that THIS month was the one month of the year we most WANTED (needed, even) to buy extras.

Sam had been bugging us to buy something at the time, and it took a bit to explain to him that NO, we have NO MONEY NOTHING ZIP, even if he wanted to sacrifice eating for his game upgrade (I think it was). And of course we his parents were still conversing quietly and seriously about which parts of the budget we could squeeze here or there, and he couldn’t help overhearing, and he’s an anxious kid by nature. Our worries became his worries and magnified. Thankfully he’s in an emotional support program at school, which includes weekly counseling sessions. He poured out all these worries to his counselor, who then, quickly, emailed me.

She could help us get into the free-or-reduced lunch program, medical assistance, help Sam deal with changes if we would have to move suddenly…. Oh no! I responded. I’d tried to be clear to him that we were NOT in danger of losing the house, and this would only be a problem for the next month or so (if only it wasn’t THIS month of all months). We can still help, she responded: her agency was supplying grocery gift cards “for Christmas dinner,” and she’d put our kids on a few Angel Trees; and she gave us the numbers from some Toy Banks and a Shop with a Cop program and I was still like No no we don’t need THAT much, but here’s a few of their wish list items and their clothing sizes, a little help from an Angel Tree is more than enough….

Since both Jason and I had to replace computers this year, we have a line of credit open with Dell, and when Dell had Black Friday sales we had decided if we got the kids their own Devices, that would be a Christmas gift that would blow them away that we wouldn’t actually have to pay for in the next month. I also put a few items on Jenny Lawson’s James Garfield Christmas Miracle exchange list, which I have often purchased from in past years so I guess it couldn’t hurt to be on the receiving end this year. And when my dad transferred the money for the last installment of the kitchen payment, he rounded it up, giving me enough on hand to make a trip to Jo-Ann’s for handmade gift materials and to Five Below for awesome stocking stuffers and cheap gifts. We’d make Christmas work.

Then Sam’s counselor wrote me again a week before Christmas, the psychiatrist would be in Wednesday to refill prescriptions and also by the way the gifts for the kids were in, if I wanted to come pick them up sometime this week.

I arrived at the school coincidentally just as said counselor was checking in, and the school nurse—who administers Sammy’s meds so has grown quite fond of him as well— was poking out from her office to the general office as well, and when I told the secretary why I was there and she asked, “Last name?” the counselor and nurse kind of winked at each other and said “we got this,” and disappeared into the back.

And then they brought out two large boxes and three garbage bags of presents.

I was gobsmacked. This looked like a bigger pile than they got, total, on years with plenty. We didn’t need all this! This had come from Angel Trees?! Weren’t there needier kids in the school who could have used more of this stuff?

I took the pile home and sorted through it. Surely some of this stuff could be given to others. The presents were wrapped, but I peeked in each. There were a few things that were not quite perfect matches for my kids, and I started a pile— but most of the toys were exactly what they had asked for, and most of the gifts, period, were actually clothes—and clothes that were just my picky dressers’ styles (neither of them can stand pants with zippers, for example— these were ALL elastic banded). The kids had both hit growth spurts and all their clothes were too short for them, and they both basically needed entire new wardrobes. So… they DID need all this. But it seemed so silly. We should have been able to get them new clothes ourselves. We weren’t poor, we were just poor time-and-money managers who hadn’t had the chance to get them to the store for new things. We weren’t needy, we were A-deeaichdy. We didn’t deserve all this, did we?

I had culled the pile down by one bag. But I did have that one bag to pass on to someone needier than us, and wondered who would take it at this point in the season. It was too late for Angel Trees and Toys for Tots and most of those programs. I asked online and got suggestions for shelters and hospitals, but one person suggested asking a pastor or teacher or the like if there were any specific families they knew of who were “quietly struggling,” and this felt most right to me. This bag of random things my kids wouldn’t use didn’t seem so appropriate to give to a bigger organization after all. I’m a crappy religious practitioner, so I don’t remember to pray all that frequently, but I prayed on this: I opened my mind and heart quietly for the right answer to where this bag should go, and suddenly the answer was so obvious it felt like cheating. I didn’t even have to go out of my way.

The next morning I had an outreach storytime at the Headstart in the local housing project. I’d done outreaches for the housing project itself before so I knew there was an office where everyone went to to pay their bills and whatnot— surely the lady in the office would be aware if someone there was struggling more than usual this month. And indeed, when I showed up at that office before heading to the Headstart and explained why I was there, I hadn’t even finished speaking before her face lit up and she said, “Yes, I know exactly who could use that, thank you!”

I was gobsmacked again. This felt magical, like I had actually answered someone else’s actual prayer. Instead of feeling self-righteous, though, I just felt guilty and undeserving some more. My kids were STILL getting a completely ridiculous Christmas bounty, and maybe these cast-offs of ours were all this other family or families were getting. I should be giving more. But the truth was, my kids DID need a completely new wardrobe, and someone else was seizing the Spirit by giving to US.

I had written about the importance of Santa Claus before, and it hit me again now, hard. “Santa is not concerned that you reciprocate with a gift of your own of approximately equal monetary value. Santa does not demand your gratitude. Santa doesn’t even particularly care if you don’t have any cookies to leave. Santa just gives because it’s the giving that is so nice….What you get has nothing to do with what you’ve done. Santa, after all, is about giving out of grace, not because the beneficiary earned it. … grace, to get slightly religious on you for a moment, is given to the undeserving in the hopes that they will come to deserve it. In other words, having more doesn’t make you better, it just gives you more responsibility to help those who have less (or in geekier terms, with Great Power comes Great Responsibility).”

Santa is frickin’ real, y’all. I’ve been Santa in the past. And this year, others were being Santa for me. Some stranger, somewhere in the world, had purchased our James Garfield Christmas Miracle gifts, and they arrived that same day. Anonymously. From someone who would never hear Maddie’s shriek of joy when she opened that Squirrel Girl doll Christmas morning. That really is a Christmas miracle! Think of all that GRACE being traded back and forth over the internet each year!

And as for the huge pile from school, I quickly realized it had not all come from Angel Tree donations. The toys that had been on the kids’ wish lists didn’t just happen to be on those wish lists, but they’d been purchased directly OFF their Amazon wish lists, which means whoever purchased them had the actual links to those wish lists, which I’d sent to Sam’s counselor. And she hadn’t done it alone. I saw hallmarks of Sam’s classroom aide in some of the clothing purchases. The principal had said something to Sam indicating he knew the sort of things on his wishlist. The look on the nurse’s face when she helped bring the gifts out that day made it pretty clear she was in on it, too. Sam’s entire Emotional Support Team at school had gotten together to give Sam and his sister this amazing gift, just because, as Jason put it when I emailed him to tell him what had happened that day, "I think people really like Sam. Or they just think we're terrible parents. Probably both."

I read A Christmas Carol to the kids this past weekend, and I was really struck by the Ghost of Christmas Present passing though all sorts of little vignettes, sprinkling the Christmas Spirit into each one, bewildering Scrooge who couldn’t figure out why poor people could ever be so happy. But that’s what it is, isn’t it? Little bits here and there—someone giving some little thing out of grace, someone next door doing something else out of the same—there’s no need for anyone to do anything more than they’re able to do, but when everyone gives just a little, Christmas Miracles happen.

So pass it on.

This may be a little belated this year, but it's still only the third day of Christmas, so here it is again:

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