Around Thanksgiving, I got a call from one of the organizations saying, "Mrs. Mulligan, this is Mr. Smith from XYZ Family Outreach. We have a turkey for you and some fixings."
I thanked Mr. Smith very much but explained that we would be away with family that year for Thanksgiving.
He paused. Then, "How about Christmas? We do a nice thing for families then." I said sure thing, that would be nice, and he marked me down for the Christmas nice thing. And then I forgot all about the phone call.
A few days before Christmas Mr. Smith from XYZ called me again and said, "Mrs. Mulligan, we will be by on Tuesday to bring you a turkey and a few things to brighten your holiday."
I confess that my holiday was already bright, seeing as how my classes were over for the semester, the children were out of school, and we were all sleeping in late, allowing for peace to reign over the household. But seeing as how that wasn't what Mr. Smith was referring to--seeing as how what he meant was that we were on free lunch and therefore poor and therefore needing brightness in our dim life, I said, "Oh! That will be nice. Thank you!"
On Tuesday I heard a commotion outside my apartment. I looked out the window and saw a firetruck and a pick up truck, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and Santa in full regalia pulling up to the curb. 20 volunteers leaped out of the vehicles and rushed our home. "Ho Ho Ho!!! Merry Christmas!" yelled Santa above the sound of the firetruck. My children looked on in utter fascination. So did my neighbors.
The volunteers brought in a turkey and some fixings. And then they brought in the presents. I hadn't exactly invited them in, but they were hard to keep out. Mr. Smith pulled them back a bit with an exasperated, "Hey! Don't go IN the house!!" I'm sure they were surprised to see that I already had presents under the tree--Free Lunch and Poor does not always mean Without. Not only that, but the house smelled like cookies and pine tree.
They left as they came, leaping into their trucks like Santa and the elves, lights flashing, sirens blazing. This wasn't a township with a lot of poor people, and they were quite pleased they'd found some. the neighbors' curtains twitched closed, a few stood laughing on the sidewalk. My children were pleased but puzzled as to why Santa had shown up 2 days early--and also why he only went to one house. The Oldest reminded me that he'd known for a while about the Santa conspiracy. I hushed him in case his brother was paying attention.
I was, actually, mortified. Not at receiving charity, but at the lights and sirens and 20 volunteers in my home. I think I had imagined that Mr. Smith might pop by in his generic sedan and leave a little bag, but this was a Broadway production. Although none of my neighbors in seminary were wealthy, the turkey donation marked us. I kept my smile and my chuckle going, but I haven't forgotten the neighbors' stares.
A little while later that Tuesday afternoon, there was a knock at the door. My neighbor was just stopping by. With a gi-normous Christmas patterned trash bag full of toys. She said, "The First Lady was just asking me if I knew anyone who needed toys for Christmas. I told her I knew just the family." She winked at me, and I, somewhat confused, nodded and said thank you. She'd been watching the firetruck Santa from her window. I about died inside. She went on her way, and I sat there wondering why Michelle Obama was asking my neighbor about toys.
It was several hours later when it hit me that in many churches the Pastor's wife is called the First Lady, and that I had just received the end result of a church toy drive that never made it to ABC Family Outreach where another Mr. Smith or Ms. Jones might be distributing toys. I picked out a few things and took the bag to LMNOP Family Outreach. It came to them after Christmas, but I imagine they found a use for it.
But then again, everybody all the way back to Mr. Smith at XYZ was figuring I had a use for it too.
It's an odd thing, to pair gratitude with resentment. The next year Mr. Smith called and I said, "No thank you. We're getting a ham this year. God bless." So no turkey, no Santa, no firetruck, no First Lady. But we did have a ham and some fixings and some things under the tree. I won't say I got my dignity back, seeing as how I probably never had it to start.