Thursday, December 09, 2004

Notes From My Knapsack 12-26-04

(Please note that this is posted early, for the Community Booster's Christmas issue! We now return you to regular programming. . .)

Atop our Christmas tree in the living room is a little plastic angel that is my "Zuzu’s petals," my "you’ve had a wonderful life" moment.
She came from the top of a tree in the back room of an abandoned store in a half-empty mall, a tree half-heartedly decorated that was about to be trashed in a pile of frozen turkey boxes, empty tubes of wrapping paper, and the scraps from the largest Angel Tree program I hope ever to be involved in.
1,200 children from some 800 households in a county whose total population was well under 60,000. That’s just how many "applied" to the program through the Salvation Army. Often people would observe that they "knew" there were applicants abusing the system. My response was (and is) "I agree." Based on extensive and up-close experience, I’d allow up to 10% as "users," folks gaming the system to get stuff. 120 out of 1,200 seems like a modest price to pay . . .
. . . even more so, when I factor in what I saw when delivering some of the gift bundles to isolated ridgetop and holler-dweller homes where transportation plans had gone awry. Personally, I’m sure there were more like 2,000 homes and some 3,000 kids who could have qualified. If the families chose not to use assistance for Christmas, that can be an honorable choice, but those numbers left me impatient with those who were unsupportive because of the so-called "undeserving."
Overall community support in our West Virginia county was strong, from individuals, churches, civic groups & businesses. But for all that, we also walked parents (or grandparents, or guardians) through a room where they could get one more toy per child. There was little complaining and many "Thank yous" in that room, but for those of us who were escorts through the big space with the adopt-a-family bundles, the food pantry with the baskets sized per household, and into the "one more toy" room, we knew all too well the sidelong glance, the hesitating hand.
The choices that were made in that room were ones no person who loves a child should have to make.
As escorts, we had some latitude. If the "adoption" bundle looked awfully light, or was obviously just clothing, we could let families take an extra or two. But we also had to watch each other, because the temptation to be generous meant that there might be nothing left for the last families coming through, and some of us had seen that, too.
Some of us, anyhow. The job of escort had a fairly low return rate from year to year, and many just vanished after a few cycles through the rooms as escorts, even when they were signed up for all day. It was sad work, punctuated by moments of sheer joy, with a steady undertone of hopefulness that you could hear if you listened closely with your heart, hard though it was to hear over the chaos of 800 trips through the Angel Tree set-up in that empty grocery store.
Through it all, in the former meat department, this angel looked down calmly upon us all, from the peak of an afterthought piece of d├ęcor.
She was (and is) about to blow a note on a long golden horn, getting ready to call a halt to all our muddled uncertainty and announce a new day. The first few times I looked at her, I saw her as the anticipation of the end of a long day, then as a herald of the possibility that those two days would go by swiftly.
With the weary hours, she began to promise something more, as she patiently watched the parade of humanity pass by: the end of poverty, the close of hopelessness, the conclusion of sorrow. And I began to hope that her trumpet might point to a beginning, a brighter day to come.
When the last packages were gone, and the remaining half-thawed turkeys carried away, we swept and tidied the space better than we had found it when we moved in the previous week (we might want it again next year, after all). The tree in the toy room had been largely stripped of ornaments, and was revealed as the half-barren store reject it was. But the angel still perched on the top.
"I’ll keep her," I said, plucking her off as the last load went to the mall dumpster. She is on our tree today, still ready to play that note of ending, and beginning.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio; if you have a tale to tell of a new year, write him at

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