*Disclaimer: “The Christmas List” is a work of fiction and does not represent any real people or charitable organizations.
It was four weeks before Christmas and I still hadn’t finished writing my Christmas list. Mom wanted it on her desk by morning so she could start her Christmas shopping over Black Friday weekend. December was always so busy with family gatherings, work Christmas parties, school plays, dance recitals and church events, so she wanted to get her shopping done as soon as possible. If I didn’t have my list on her desk by morning, she said I’d only get socks and pajamas for Christmas, which would be the worst Christmas ever!
So on the Thursday before Black Friday I hunched over my desk after school, frantically writing things on a sheet of paper that I wanted for Christmas. My hands flew down the page as I scribbled words without much thought, hurrying because my best friend’s mom would be arriving any minute to drive us to church for a youth outing that evening. Amy hadn’t told me where we would be going, saying it was a surprise. I really hoped we’d be going to the new adventure park that recently opened up in the city. I’d been wanting to go forever, but Mom and Dad wouldn’t take me because they were afraid I’d get hurt.
I finally paused to review the three pages I had written so far. I had written down all the latest books and movies that I wanted, the latest iPad and iPhone (or an iPod Touch in case my parents still didn’t think I was old enough to have a cell phone) and an iTunes card. I wanted a camera with a tripod, headphones, an Apple watch like all my friends had, an Apple charging station and radio. I asked for a new purse, makeup, bath bombs and a manicure and pedicure spa kit. There were a few board games I wanted to play with my friends, so I listed those, too. I also asked for new skates and a new bike in case Santa was feeling generous this year.
I chewed on the pen cap as I pondered a little more and decided to add a jumbo teddy bear, a friendship bracelet maker, and chocolate. As I finished writing, I heard a horn beep outside and Mom shouted from the kitchen that my ride had arrived. I threw down my pen and raced down the stairs. I would have some time to add a few more things when I got home later that night.
Mom waited for me by the door with my winter jacket, mittens, scarf and boots, and she made me put them on as I protested that it wasn’t that cold outside.
“Remember to put your list on my desk by morning,” she reminded me.
“I know, Mom! I’m still working on it!”
She smiled and kissed me on the forehead, and I raced outside to get away from her smothering love.
“So, where are we going?” I asked Amy for the thousandth time as I bounced in the seat beside her on the school bus. By now Amy had stopped answering me with evasive responses and merely pursed her lips as the corners of her mouth curled up into a smile. She had incredible patience; I would have spilled the beans long ago.
When the bus finally rolled out of the church parking lot and began bumping along the road, the youth pastor stood up in the aisle and shouted, “Listen up! There are a few rules we need to review before we arrive at the soup kitchen and I want you all to pay close attention…”
I looked at Amy in disbelief. “Soup kitchen?” I repeated. “Did he say soup kitchen?”
Amy smiled and nodded.
Amy chuckled. “I never lied. I just excluded some minor details because I knew you’d say no.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and slouched back against the seat. “You’re right. I would’ve said no.”
Amy shoved me playfully. “Oh, don’t make that face, Jo. It’ll be fun!”
“If you can call serving yucky food to stinky people fun, then sure, it’ll be fun.”
Amy just rolled her eyes and laughed as she turned back to listen to Pastor Thomas review the soup kitchen’s rules. I stared out the window at the darkening prairie sky, wishing I had stayed home to finish my Christmas list.
The soup kitchen stank like stale food and unwashed bodies as I had predicted it would and I started gagging as soon as I walked in the front door. After a brief tour of the facility, we ended up in the kitchen donning hairnets, aprons and vinyl gloves. I wanted to stay in the kitchen to wash dishes, but Amy nominated both of us to serve food onto plates where we could see and interact with the soup kitchen’s “guests.” I seriously considered sending her a Facebook message later that night to rescind our friendship for the crime of dragging me into situations that I was uncomfortable with.
The body odour smell was particularly foul behind the counter where I was assigned to ladle soup into bowls. I breathed through my mouth and focused on the ladle and each bowl, afraid to look up and meet the faces belonging to the eager hands taking away the bowls as fast as I could fill them, each pair of hands different from the pair before. Some hands had dirt caked beneath their fingernails while a few were surprisingly clean. Some hands had long jagged fingernails and others had short nails chewed right down to the skin. Some hands were hairy, some hairless, some large, some small. There were dark hands and pale hands, hands with blue veins visible like a road map beneath the skin and hands with protruding tendons. Some hands were covered in fingerless gloves or bandages and others in tattoos or scars. A few hands had missing joints or fingers while others had no hands at all but only stumps where their hands should have been.
After the meal was served and the guests had eaten, Amy and I were sent out into the dining room to clear the tables and bring the dishes to the kitchen for washing. Many guests had already left, but a few continued to linger at the tables, drinking coffee and socializing. As I approached one of the tables and started stacking the dishes into a bus bin, a haggard-looking girl sitting alone looked up at me and smiled.
“Can I help?” she asked.
When I didn’t answer, the girl got up and began stacking dirty dishes, bringing them to me and setting them down in the bus bin.
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” I mumbled, not looking at her.
“Clean up. You are a… guest,” I said, choosing the word used by the soup kitchen’s director.
The girl shrugged. “I want to help.” Then she walked off again and began stacking plates at the next table. When she returned, she said, “I’m Emily, by the way.”
“Jody,” I replied and finally looked at her. She was wearing a black sweater that sagged off her small frame and hung down to her knees like a dress. Her brown hair was braided in a messy braid down the middle of her back. While she wasn’t dirty like some of the other guests had been, she had holes in her clothes and her toes peeked through her shoes. Although dark patches shadowed beneath her sunken eyes and her skin looked waxy and pale, she didn’t look like she was much older than I was.
“What grade are you in?” I asked.
Emily paused with a stack of dishes in her hands and shrugged her shoulders. “If I was in school right now, I’d be in grade eleven.”
That would make her sixteen, a year older than me. I wondered why she wasn’t in school, but I thought it would be rude to ask, so I continued stacking the dishes on the table.
After a while, Emily said, “I noticed you when you were serving soup. I thought you looked kind of sad.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t really want to come because I have to finish writing my Christmas list by morning so my mom can go shopping, otherwise I’ll only get socks and pajamas for Christmas.”
“That sounds nice, especially if they’re warm and fuzzy,” Emily said dreamily.
“Sure, I suppose, but they’re boring presents.” I proceeded to tell her what I had written on my list before coming to the soup kitchen. Emily nodded in interest and asked a few questions. She even gave me some ideas to add to my list, which I stored in my memory for later.
By the time I finished reciting my list, we had filled the bus bin to overflowing and had to carry it together, awkwardly shuffling sideways towards the kitchen.
“What do you want for Christmas?” I asked Emily.
“A warm winter coat and boots,” she replied.
I waited for her to add more, but when she didn’t, I blurted out, “That’s all?”
“But don’t you want something else, like a cell phone or some music or movies?” When Emily shook her head, I asked, “But why?”
“Because a winter coat and boots are what I need the most.”
I fell silent as I thought about what she had said.
In the kitchen, we gratefully unloaded our heavy burden on the counter near where a few of my classmates were loading the dishwasher and stacking the clean dishes. When the soup kitchen’s director saw Emily, she called out her name and hugged her.
“How’s your mama doing?”
“The same,” Emily replied.
“That’s good news, then. No change means it hasn’t gotten worse,” the director said cheerfully, wrapping her arm around Emily’s shoulders. “I have some soup for you to bring home to your mama and a little something for you…”
The rest of their conversation was drowned out by the noise from the dishwasher and the sound of Amy’s voice as she screamed playfully in my ear and wrapped her arms around me, picking me up and swinging me around in circles.
After the dishes were done and the dining room was put back in order for the next meal, the youth group congregated around the lobby door of the soup kitchen to wait for the school bus to pick us up. I stood off to the side, quietly watching the group talking excitedly about the events of the night and the upcoming Christmas holidays. I was so lost in thought that I didn’t notice the director stand beside me until she spoke to me.
“Thank you for your help today, Jody,” she said.
I smiled at her and shrugged as if it was no big deal. I wondered if she could tell that I hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place.
“I noticed you talking to Emily earlier.”
“She’s one of our regular guests, but she always stays to clean up after dinner. She’s been such a brave girl since her mother got sick.”
“Is that why she’s not in school?” I asked.
The director nodded sadly. “She had to get a job to support her mother and herself. It’s been a tough time for her.”
“Where’s her dad?”
The director shrugged and shook her head. “He’s not a part of her life.”
A moment later, the bus parked outside the lobby doors and everyone began filing out to board the bus. The director smiled and patted my shoulder.
“Have a Merry Christmas, Jody! Thanks again for your help today.”
I nodded and followed my classmates out to the bus. As I stood in line waiting to board, I looked back and noticed Emily emerge from the soup kitchen wearing nothing overtop of her ripped jeans and oversized sweater. She smiled and waved when she saw me, and I waved back before looking ahead as the line moved forward. Amy was already on board the bus waving to me from the window.
I looked back at Emily. She stood on the sidewalk with her hands stuffed inside her kangaroo pocket, rocking on her feet as she shivered from the cold. She waved again and I noticed her bare hands were red from the cold and her cheeks were flushed scarlet. She wasn’t wearing a toque or a scarf, and yet she stood there waiting to see us off before going on her way.
I looked ahead as the kids in front of me stomped up the bus steps and then it was my turn to climb on board. The bus driver waved at me to come, but I looked back at Emily still smiling and waving her bare hands as I stood out in the cold bundled up in my winter coat, scarf, and mittens. I thought about her mother at home sick in bed and her father who wasn’t there, and then I thought about how she gave up school so she could work to support her mother.
Pastor Thomas poked his head out the door of the bus and asked if everything was alright. Hot tears began to spill from my eyes, leaving freezing trails of ice down my cheeks. How could everything be alright when there were people like Emily suffering in this world, especially in a first world country like Canada where so many people had things in abundance? Who would give Emily a Christmas present on Christmas Day? Who would give her the winter coat she needed to stay warm throughout the winter?
Pastor Thomas stepped off the bus to talk to me, but I turned and ran towards Emily, calling her name as I pulled off my mittens and unzipped my jacket. I took off my jacket when I reached her and wrapped it around her shoulders as her mouth dropped open in surprise.
“I want you to have this.” I pushed my mittens into her hands. “And these.” I wrapped my scarf around her neck and tugged my toque down onto her head. “And these.” Then I looked down at her worn-out shoes with her toes peeking out and sat down on the freezing pavement, unzipping my faux fur-lined boots. “And these.” I held them up to her.
“I can’t take these,” Emily started to protest.
“Yes, you can, and you will,” I replied.
Emily sat down next to me and started to cry. “But… but… why would you do this for me?”
The words spilled from my mouth as I explained, “Because I can help. I may not be able to change your situation, but at least I can give you what you want for Christmas.” I shrugged and smiled. “So… Merry Christmas, Emily.”
Emily pulled me into a hug. “You are an angel, you know that?” she whispered in my ear as we hugged and cried in each other’s arms.
My parents were drinking coffee in the kitchen when I arrived at home and Mom gasped when she saw me come in without my winter clothes. “Jo, why are you barefoot? Where’s your jacket?” She looked at me in shock as I stepped into the kitchen, shivering and smiling, and she wrapped her arms around me. “Honey, you’re ice cold.” She ushered me onto the couch in the living room and Dad wrapped me in a blanket and began rubbing my cold feet.
“What happened?” they both asked.
“Promise you won’t get mad,” I pleaded and sniffled as I remembered that Emily didn’t have a dad to wrap her in a blanket and rub the warmth back into her cold feet.
My parents exchanged the look parents do when they wonder what shenanigans their kids have gotten into. Then they smiled reassuringly despite the look of worry etched on their faces. I proceeded to tell them about Emily and what I did to make her Christmas wish come true. At first they were upset, but by the end of the conversation, they both hugged me and told me that they were proud of me.
I sat at my desk later that night and reread my Christmas list. I thought about how Emily’s Christmas list consisted of things that she needed the most but couldn’t afford, rather than things she wanted that she didn’t need. After some deliberating, I ripped up my list, tossed it in the recycling bin and took out a new sheet of paper. Then I began writing a new Christmas list, asking for gently used jackets, sweaters, scarves, gloves, toques, boots, new socks and underwear, toiletries and food that could be donated to the soup kitchen and homeless shelter so that I could help make more Christmas wishes come true.
Copyright 2018, Small-Town Girl at Heart, All Rights Reserved
You are not alone.
You. Are. Loved.
I hope you find love, hope and peace in these words.