Embraced by a Stranger on Christmas Eve

Everything was done… All the gifts that needed to be sent had been shipped to everyone dear in my life. Everything that needed to be under my tree for the rest of my loved ones were purchased, boxed, and under the tree. I had completely cleaned my house for Christmas day. The wonderful man that I share my life with and I had just watched Evan Almighty, which was this side of funny, and that side of ridiculous (a good spacing out movie). And, I was getting hungry as dinner time approached.

Earlier in the day, Jose and I went to the grocery store to purchase what would become Christmas dinner. That, also, was done… Christmas Eve was upon us. Life was in the right zone.

The only thing not right was that we forgot to get food for dinner, and I was getting hungry. Normally, if I said, we forgot to get fill-in-the-blank, Jose would be out the door before I could blink… And he was ready to go this time, but I said, “No, I’ll go. You look comfortable. I’ll do this.”

I only had one thing to get… I was craving chicken wings. Back to Raley’s I went.

I got my wings, and then decided to travel through the store just one more time to make sure tomorrow was totally set; when, what to my wondering ears did I hear but the shrieking of a child… I mean r-e-a-l-l-y shrieking. My first thought was, “What is that?” And my second thought was, “This is Christmas Eve? How can any child sound like this at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve?”

My curiosity got the best of me. I had to find this scene so I could make sense of it.

I headed toward the shrieking, and didn’t have any trouble finding it, because there was no stopping it. Just before I got within eye-shot, I passed a woman in a wheel chair. We look at each other in horror. She shot at me, “They have no business bringing children shopping?”

I simply said, “This is so sad.”

Then I spotted the scene. A mom, who looked like life was really beating her up right now, had a seven to eight year old in a shopping cart. He was sprawled out like one would in the back seat of a car, and they were communicating about how many toys he could have. He wanted two, she could only afford one.

“My God,” I thought, “This is Christmas Eve! How could this be happening?” Then, I remembered being a single mom, and regardless of whether or not this was a single mom, she was alone on Christmas Eve with a son who wasn’t filled with hope and excitement, but acting out a very sad frustration… All on Christmas Eve.

For me, it wasn’t a child acting badly. It was a despondent child in desperation. The rest of the world was busy and happy (except for the woman in the wheelchair, who was also lonely). This wasn’t about “Naughty or Nice.” This was about a very sad Christmas Eve.

The mother had said, “Okay, we’ll go back and you decide which toy you want, but you can only have one.” I followed them. They went down one aisle, I went down a parallel one. When they got to the toys, I was able to come up from the other side and just walk past them. The boy had to put back a $1.99 racing car, giving it up for a toy gun with replaceable parts, just about the same price.

I circled around, and when I came back up the aisle, they were gone.

I ran back to where there were holiday boxes, then raced back to the toy aisle, knowing what it was that was driving him to hysterical indecision. These cars were the same cars that I had shipped to my grandsons, and I know how much they love them. These small cars give my boys hours of imaginative play. I hastily took four of them off the rack, putting them into the box. I raced to the check out stand to purchase this gift (and my chicken wings). I was driven by the Santa in my head, telling me that this child – regardless of his current behavior – deserved to have hope restored.

I told the clerk that she’d soon see a mother and a young son coming to the check out with this box, and to not question whether or not it had been purchased. She said, “Let’s just put it in a bag.” (I wasn’t even thinking straight. I didn’t want them to leave the store before I could give her son his toys.)

And his mother… What could be done for his mother? (I had been a single mom once before… I knew the answer to that one.)

I went into my wallet, took out what remained of the cash that I had left over from my earlier shopping for my own family, put it into the box, and raced back into the supermarket, looking up and down the aisles.

“Was she gone? Did she already check out? Is she still shopping?” I was systematically racing from one end of the store to the other. About midway she was now racing parallel to me, in the opposite direction. Aha!

I turned my cart around, heading in her direction, and when she made that right hand turn, I made a left so we’d meet each other. By now, the young boy had quieted down and was looking at the one toy he was allowed to buy.

As she approached, I put myself in her way of flow, and said, “Excuse me. Can I talk to you for a minute?” She said, “Yes.” (I don’t talk to other people’s children without the parent’s permission, because children really do need to know they can’t just talk to strangers, as hard as that is for me. I love children so much… Rules are rules, and they need to be respected.)

So, I looked at the child and said, “Santa asked me to give this to you,” as I moved the box toward him. Not knowing what to do, he handed the box to his mother. She handed it back to him. (Good move by a good mom.) She said, “This is for you.” He took it, then began to tell me about his new toy, but not in a sensible way that had any direction.

I said to him, “Listen, listen, listen.” I had to break into his head gibberish. I caught his eye, and said, “Santa wants you to have this gift, and you can open it now.”

He took the top off the box, grabbed the dollar bills and handed them to his mother. “Look mom, it’s bucks!” He actually said the right amount, needing to know the difference between 10s and 20s in order to say what it specifically was. He did really quick math, and stunned me that he was that good at math. Good boy!

She took the money and said, “Oh, no. I can’t take this. Really? I can’t take this.”

I said, “Yes you can. You have to. It’s from Santa.” I had a really hard time even saying it, my voice quivering.

The young mother said, “This is making me cry. Can I hug you?”

Oh, my God. I didn’t even know that I’d be getting a gift, too… The gift of love… The gift of a hug from a perfect stranger. We embraced each other, and it was a really good hug. That hug will live in my heart forever.

Welcome to Christmas in Wine Country!

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