I woke up this morning to the sounds of Naomi cooing sweetly and the tap tap tap of her little hands on my cheek. I opened my eyes and stared into her smiling wide eyed face. She thinks she’s hot stuff now that she is on all fours and can pull herself to the side of her co-sleeper and reach me. “Morning Mama!” Jenna said softly, snuggled in my other arm-her Elmo quilt spread across us both. I kissed my girls and relished in the gift of one precious extra hour of sleep given to me by my husband.
No matter the struggles we have been going through I am blessed to have a roof over my head, food on the table, and my husband and girls by my side. How rich I am on this Christmas Eve! As I lay there warm and soft in my daughter’s twin bed I thought of how many out there are sacrificing and doing without this holiday season. It made me think of a story I told to my students each year. One that I’d like to share with you now…
It was an unusually cold night that December 21st 1989. Catechism had ended early and the children were frenzied with joyful anticipation of Christmas and too much sugar consumed at the class party. A little girl sporting a blond pony tail and scraped knees raced through the church grounds daring over her shoulder for her friend to try to tag her, “Na-Na-girls rule, boys drool!” The boy sprinted after her but soon bent over to catch his breath and nurse the cramp in his side.
“You’re too fast for me!” “Besides my dad’s here!” the boy called. Disappointed, the little girl slowed down and watched her friend run to the parked car, “See you next week, Ann!”“Bye, Patrick!” She yelled, “Merry Christmas!” Her wave became less and less enthusiastic as he drove away. Bummer! She was the only kid who wasn’t going home right away. You see her parents both sang in the choir so she still had an hour to kill before their weekly practice was over. “Everyone else is probably watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer right now or Frosty and I’m stuck here…”
The little girl looked around her, the empty parking lot, the dew filled grass, the frogs croaking in the tiny pond behind the parsonage. Its windows were lined with battery operated candles and a soft glow shown from each one. Just one light was on in the house. “I wonder what Father Joe is doing right now?” the little girl wondered, shivering partly from the cold and excitement. She zipped up her jacket and made her way across the pathway, through the grass, and in front of the pariage. All the while an impish smile of a child brainstorming spread across her face. She squatted down and moved like a tiger, a secret agent mission formulated in her mind. Just as she pushed the flower bushes aside a high voice rang out just behind her.
“Um, excuse me little Miss? But what do you think you are doing in the Father’s bushes so late at night?”
“Oh! Hello Mrs. Stein.” “I’m just…” the little girl crawled out of the hibiscus plants, and stood up casually brushing a red flower bud and a snail from her hair, “just wondering if Father Joe is home.” “Is he?”
“Don’t be bothering Father right now, you should be inside with your parents!” “Not gallivanting all over who knows where!” “I’ll stand here and watch until you as you cross the sidewalk go back inside.”
“Oh, alright...” Reluctantly the little girl headed across the crosswalk and slowly walked toward the church hall, taking her time.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she grumbled under her breath. “It’s not like there’s anything out here that can hurt me!”
“March young lady!” Mrs. Stine ordered.
Ann kicked at a dandilion puff, picked up her steps a little faster, spun three spins around a flag pole and then skipped to the church entrance. She opened the door and music and warm light from inside illuminated the side entryway.
“Merry Christmas!” She heard Mrs. Stein call as she watched her climb into her car. The little girl stopped and turned to reply with a "Merry Christmas" as well but something in the corner, just behind a large flower pot caught her eye. She couldn’t quite make it out but it was silent and motionless. Just then Mrs. Stein’s car drove past and her headlights lit the large object for just a moment. But in that split second the little girl’s eyes grew wide.
Huddled in the corner was an old man. A mess of gray curls and an unshaven beard upon his sun burnt and wrinkled face. His pants and shirt were well worn and caked with stains of dirt and a small backpack lay at his side. Just then the wind blew carrying with it the smell of urine and grime.
“I wonder when he last had a bubble bath.” The little girl wondered silently to herself, when all of a sudden the man opened his eyes. Talks of stranger danger instantly flooded the little girls mind-stories of children who didn’t listen to their mother’s warning to come straight inside after dark and now had gone “missing”. Terror spread across the little girls face and without a breath she bolted inside the open door.
The heavy wood door slammed behind her as she raced across the church to the pews by the choir. There they were singing away. Ann's mom motioned for her to come sit beside her but the little girl stayed put. Typically she would have busied herself in the church storage closet playing dress up with the variety show costumes, or sit in the confessional pretending she was a priest assigning 100 Hail Mary's to all her arch enemies at school. But tonight she was different. Tonight she just wanted to sit. A million thoughts ran through her mind. “Who was that man anyway?” “What’s he doing out there?” “Why isn't he inside where it is warm?”
15 minutes later, the Christmas hymns were perfect and practice was over. The little girl’s mother made her way over and sat beside her daughter. “Where were you, Ann?” “Why didn’t you come right here when the party was over like I told you?” “I had to send Mrs. Stein to go after you,” her mother questioned.
“There’s a man outsid,” Ann interrupted. “He looks like he’s camping but I don't think he is mommy.”
Her mother looked startled, “Where?”
“Out the side door.” The little girl pointed.
“Stay here.” her mother said firmly. Ann watched her mother walk over to her father packing up the microphone wires. Their conversation was inaudible but she knew what it was about. Her mom and dad made their way to the side door and opened it. The little girl sat silently in the pew, fearfully watching them from afar. But the compassion on their faces as her mother knelt down and her parents spoke quietly with the man outside, melted away the possibility of danger. Before she knew it the Ann was listening near the doorway.
“I’m sorry I frightened your little girl.” She overheard the man say.
He did not want the money they offered and insisted that the little girl’s parents not call anyone to find him a place to stay.
“I’m fine, really.” “I don’t want anyone to go to any trouble.” “I’m just resting here for a bit and then I’m heading on.”
Perhaps it was because of the warmth of the music or the peace of being on the doorstep of God’s house that had drawn him there. Ann marveled at the idea and thought in her innocence that if she was allowed to bring her sleeping bag to church, that’s exactly where she’d want to sleep.
“Are you sure, there isn’t anyone we can call for you, or anything we can get you?” the little girls’ father asked.
“I’m fine.” “I just want to rest.” The man replied, “But thank you.”
The little girl could tell the conversation was drawing to a close so she sprinted to the spot her mother had told her to stay and waited for them to return.
“We can’t force him to go to a shelter.” She heard her mother say, “And he won’t take money or food.” “I just wish there was something we could do for him.”
“Who is that man?” the little girl asked. Her father looked at the little girl’s mother, gave a sad smile, and then returned to packing up the musical equipment. The girl’s mother lifted her onto her lap and explained in as gentle a way as possible some of the realities of the world.
“That man has no family honey.” “He’s not lucky like us to have a place to take a shower and to sleep at night.” “He has no home.” “That’s what being homeless is and that is why he is sleeping outside.”
Ann did her best to wrap her mind around the idea of not having any place to call home. Things were tight in their house but they always had food to eat and a roof over their head, yet this man had just the clothes he was wearing and a few items in a backpack.
Walking to the car the little girl’s heart ached for the man. “Outside, all alone in the dark, and on such a cold night too,” she thought to herself as she jumped in the car, buckled her seat belt, and pulled her quilt over her lap. It was a favorite of hers since she was small, one she took with her on each Brownie camp out, or beach trip. Orange, red, and bright, fringed here and there from wear but still fantastically soft and warm.
Santa had brought her a new one last Christmas but she hadn't been able to part with her old one. It was special. She planned to keep that blanket till the day she died, but as she sat there wrapped in its comfort she thought of the huddled man in the corner. That’s when the little girl noticed her mother staring at her from the front passenger seat.
“You know, it’s an awfully cold night.” Her mom offered.
“Yep.” The little girl answered trying not to make eye contact with her mother.
“That poor man is out there with no jacket.” “I bet he is real cold.” Her mother continued.
“Hmm.” Ann looked at her quilt in her hands. She thought of all the happy times she had making tents with it, how when she was wrapped in it had the magic to make monsters...
“Can’t we go home and get him a blanket?” she asked.
“We could try, but he might not be here by the time we get back and he is really cold right now.” Her mother smiled softly.
Ann knew what her heart was telling her but she was torn. Mrs. Stein’s words from one of her Catechism class suddenly reared up their head in her mind, “Just ask yourself, what would God want me to do?”
“God loves children and he would want me to be happy.” The little girl tried to reason in her mind, “If I keep my blanket that will make me happy.” “God will take care of the man outside.” But when she waited for the reassurance of peace, it never came. She knew what God would want her to do and suddenly she started to sniffle.
“Honey, it’s your blanket and your decision.” The little girl’s mother said trying to comfort her daughter.
“I know.” The little girl sniffed. She tried to force the overwhelming urge to give the man her blanket beneath her desire to keep it for herself, until finally she couldn’t fight it any longer.
Ann gathered up the quilt in her arms and with her mother and father made her way to the man in the corner. She stretched out her small arm and handed the blanket to the man. She tried to do it bravely, but wiped tears from her eyes as she said, “Here, you go.”
The man looked up and there was kindness and gratitude in his eyes. His voice was hoarse and weak as he spoke, “Thank you.”
He carefully wrapped the quilt around himself. She would have said “You’re welcome” but all she could muster was a silent nod. In that moment the freezing wind started to blow and the sadness in Ann's heart slowly began to lift. She turned to walk away with her parents; “God bless you!!!” the man called after her. The little girl smiled over her shoulder and waved back at the man now covered in the warmth of orange and red.
As the little family drove away in their blue station wagon Ann knew she had made the right decision. She may not have been completely happy about it at first but she had done it anyway. She thought of Jesus and how he had been frightened in the Garden before he was captured and died on the Cross for all of our sins. He must have been scared too but he did it anyway. In that moment the eight year old girl had an epiphany. Sometimes doing the right thing can be the hardest thing. The cold air howled outside the car window and her father offered to turn on the heat. “That’s Ok, Daddy.” “I’m good.” She said. And it was true. She had never felt warmer.