Different From

 

12/12/11

I should have known when I saw the candy canes. 

I had driven for hours on two lane highway, passing through small towns surrounded by land plowed under for the winter.  The overcast sky, the barren soil and the trees that had been planted a generation ago as snow fence were all grey.  I drove with my lights on at midday. 

It was cold.  I stopped to fill up my car at a gas station and there was a hunter bundled in camouflage who was strapping a dead deer into the back of his old Toyota truck.  We looked at one another cautiously, as one does when coming upon someone unknown and different, before I hurried to get back into my car. 

As the good farm land changed to rugged hills, I turned off the highway onto a lonely dirt road.  I was searching for a trailer somewhere nearby, the home of a family of nine.  My file told me that drugs, violence and health problems had made a young father the sole support for 7 kids and an elderly woman.  The mother of three of the children was in prison.  The mother of the other four children had died.  The 80-year old woman was the grandmother of the young woman who had died.

That is how it was with families that I visited–their stories were complicated.   To the folks I visited, I was the gatekeeper to a community charitable campaign.  They were referred to our organization by any one of a number of human service providers and my visit was to make sure the need was real and to find out how we could help.  In most cases, we had reason to hope that by giving them a “hand up,” we would help them to become or stay self-sufficient.  My visit was to make sure that the money given to us by donors was well spent.

 

Thus I came to be traveling alone on a cold day in early December.  I had not seen another car or a house for twenty minutes when I began a long climb up a narrow driveway lined with tall, overhanging trees.  The trees ended at the top of the hill and I saw the driveway leading the rest of the way to the trailer was lined with more than a hundred 2-foot tall plastic candy canes.  The bright and cheery candy canes stood out against the drab and rundown trailer, with its plastic in the windows and the hay bales insulating the base.  Bicycles were strewn about and an old car parked sidelong on the grass.  I could not imagine why someone would think that spending money on plastic candy canes made sense, given the circumstances. 

I was ready for the worst.  I expected clutter and filth and poor teeth and dirty clothing.  I expected to feel sorry for the children.  I anticipated despair and little hope.  When the grandmother let me in and told me that her grandson-in-law was not home, but should be soon, I wasn’t surprised.  I did not expect punctuality. 

But I began to reconsider my assumptions.  The small space was reasonably neat and clean.  The children there that day were bright and engaged and cheerful and polite. They treated their grandmother gently and with respect.  One of the boys told me, matter-of-factly, that even though his dad had worked very hard at the plant, they would not be getting Christmas presents this year because of the hospital bills.

The oldest daughter told me her dad had spent an entire day arranging the candy canes and fixing the broken ones so they would all light up.  Everyone, even the grandmother, had helped that day.   They had to clean all the candy canes before they could be used and some were broken when the people at the plant had given them to their dad.  He’d asked if he could have them when the plant got new Christmas decorations.  They were going to be thrown away.  He took them home and made them look almost like new.

“The candy canes were as fun as having a Christmas tree,” she said.

 

I heard his truck drive up and as he walked in the door, I saw the hunter I had seen earlier at the gas station.  He shook my hand and smiled, then he greeted the kids and they ran outside to view the dead deer that they would be eating that winter.  As we talked while they played outside, he was shy and did not offer much on his own.  But he answered all of my questions deliberately.

When I got up to leave, he stood and shook my hand again.  He said to me:  “My kids mean the world to me and they deserve more.  I have made mistakes that I do not want them to pay for and am working hard to better things and give them a decent shot in life.”  His eyes filled with tears and he stopped talking for a moment.  Then he looked me in the eye and said,  “Thank you for giving me a chance.”

On the drive back home,  I remembered that when I saw him at the gas station, I had the same thought I often had during home visits.  We are different, you and I.  Maybe that is far too simple,  maybe we are more alike than not. 

Most parents want to give their kids a better chance in life.  It’s the approach that differs.  Some struggle to keep their kids fed and clothed.  Others struggle to keep their kids clothed and supplied with the best that money can buy.  Most parents fall somewhere between the two.  But whichever, when the kids are grown and raised, I bet a lot of parents would say they would do it differently, if they had the chance.  They would spend more time with their kids and less time making money.  They would not get caught up in the never-ending cycle of buying more and more things.  They’d tone down the Christmas extravaganza and they might even consider second-hand candy canes. 

The hunter and his family got the gift of a strong hand up that Christmas.  The kids each had a couple of presents under a tree and he got help with the lingering medical bills from his second wife’s last days.   The last I knew, the family was doing okay. 

I think of that family every year at this time and am reminded that assumptions are not always true.  And I recall how I found connection, dignity and hope in the words and actions of a shy young man and the family who lived in the small trailer in the clearing of the woods. 

 

 

74 thoughts on “Different From

  1. After hearing constant bickering about “happy holidays” vs. “merry Christmas” and non-stop complaints about shopping, crowds, and the hustle/bustle of the holidays, your article renewed my Christmas spirit and made me feel extremely blessed. Just as you said, we all are different in many ways, but very much alike in the most important ways. Thank you so much for sharing!!!!

    • I think that is exactly why I always think of that story…..just about the time when I am hearing complaints and bickering, I remember the way he looked when he thanked me and it puts it all in perspective. I am glad you liked this post. Thanks for your comment.

  2. As so often happens when I read your blog, I end up with a lump in my throat. So many of us are insulated from families like this. It is good to remember what is important in life. Family and love.

  3. Oh that really touches my heart. We all need to remember there are other people who have very little. May we all take the opportunity to make some contribution to families such as these.
    I commend you for the work you do with these families.

  4. What a touching story, thanks for sharing it!

    Growing up I watched as people made assumptions and judgments about my family. People who meet me now are often quite surprised to hear I was raised in poverty, in a violent and abusive home. I was once the child with no Christmas presents other the gifts I received from strangers who had picked my name off a Christmas tree at the mall.

    Economic discrimination is as prevalent in our society as racism, though it not often spoken about. I am grateful you have encouraged your readers not just to give at the holidays, but to look for ways that we are all alike instead of drawing lines between us.

    I truly believe no one chooses to live in poverty or abuse. Those who do only lack information, skills, empowerment, education, emotional intelligence and other tools that are the difference between surviving and living. We are all so similar, and we all deserve respect, kindness, compassion and hope.

    Chrysta

    • Thank you, Chrysta, for sharing some of your story. I can not tell you how much I admire your strength and courage. I agree with your premise that no one chooses to live in poverty or abuse and that economic discrimination is rampant. I think it may at some level be due to fear of the unknown and the fact that we tend to shut out the things that we are unsure about. Thank you, thank you for your thoughtful and passionate comment.

      1. The last I heard the oldest kids were in high school and all were doing pretty well–one was applying for college even. He was still working at the plant, which was a very good thing given the current economy. Thank you for reading–always glad when you stop in.
  5. how tough things really are right now for so many families…it’s good to know courtesy and compassion run hand in hand… You can simply tell you have an amazing heart…I love looking at your pics…love reading and listening to the story unfurl in front of me like an old friend telling me about her day…

    Your words are always touching…easy on the eyes…appreciated..that’s what you are…

    T.

  6. What a touching story! There is no reason to be ashamed of being poor if you are diligent and kind, as that man was. It sounds like he was ashamed of his situation, but he is an inspiration! Those children will do so much better than many others who are rich and spoiled or poor and neglected.

    • You are right. I think he was ashamed of his past but he was very proud of his kids. And having kids you are proud of goes a long way with a parent. Thank you for your wise words.

  7. A really heart touching & inspiring story. I always believe that, “circumstances can change our style of living but it can never change us as persons. Good time and bad time can never determine if we are good or bad as human beings.” And this one will increase my belief in these words. Thanks for these words.
    I just want to thank you for one more reason, which is- “you are really doing great job by being part of those very few people, who are giving a person a chance to make his life better, if he has the good intention and determination; You are not not like many of those people just as me, who only talk and write about these things rather than doing something. “

  8. See now…this is Christmas. Maybe the problem with my whining about putting up decorations is that I have decorations to put up. Thanks for the whack to the back of the head. this is a perfect post.. Now…I have Christmas spirit.

  9. Wow- how touching and beautifully written. There are tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat as I imagine the connection made by you with this family. May the blessings of Christmas be with you and them this season.

  10. So many people are struggling, really struggling. Thank you for your story telling us about this family and your work. Your story and the comment left by Chrysta make us mindful of this economic discrimination. This is why I read blogs rather than watch the news. You literally have traveled and made inroads to touch this family and others I’m sure.

  11. I was raised in a town, and a time, where you were doing good if you each had one present under the tree. We didn’t call it poverty because poverty was the starving people in Africa. It was okay to be relatively poor, because we understood, better than most, all the things that make life rich.
    Thanks for telling the story of people who really will be better equipped to deal with life than some of their ‘wealthier’ neighbours.

  12. Once again I should say, you are such a nice lady, and I read with my heart. Thank you dear Winsomebella. This is so touching and also so meaningful story… Life goes on in different places, in different stories… but we are all same with our happiness and sadness… The spirit of kindful world, and angels without wings be with us always…Blessing and Happiness, with my love, nia

  13. Winsomebella, I could not possibly add to the comments already made. I am left only to echo them about this heartwarming story. Something about the pictures just sets the tone for the richness of this story. That’s what strikes me, the richness amidst the poverty. Thank you.

    • Thanks Al. I gave that some thought when I included those pictures. I should have known that you would pick up on that. There was a contrast to that, wasn’t there? Thank you, always, for reading and commenting.

  14. Thank you for sharing this, I will not forget this story. It is so true, material things give only temporary happiness, it’s the being together that matters. When I remember my past Christmases, it’s only the laughter and fun we had as a family that makes me smile, never any of the gifts. In this tight economy, we need to remember this more than ever.

  15. I don’t think I even want to know what your other comments were. Probably pretty much the same as mine. Just know that this story was deeply affecting. We’ve been looking for ways to donate our time this year because money is tight, so if you have any suggestions, they would be appreciated. How does one contribute time or money to the organization you work for? You are doing great work. It is not necessarily God’s work. It is Our work!

    • Thanks Doc. I would bet there are several organizations in your local community that could use help with their holiday charitable campaigns. Domestic violence and homeless shelters need people to help with holiday dinners and toy drives. Food banks need helpers to sort and organize donations. Meals on Wheels and services like that need substitutes to make deliveries when regular volunteers are away at holiday time. Even ringing the bells for Salvation Army for an hour can make a difference and feels good too. I am glad this post was meaningful to you………..:)

      • We’re still searching but I know something will pop up that we both want to do. A few years ago I was talked into serving dinner at a homeless shelter. Didn’t want to go but I did. It was one of the best Christmases I ever had!

  16. A great deal of us are sheltered from the hardships our neighbors and community members are enduring. I’m reminded every time I walk into a thrift shop, which are more and more crowded these days. Perspective – it has the amazing ability to help us not only see how much better off we are than we think, but it can also spur us to be more charitable. And, we need reminders, like your very thoughtful essay here to keep the less fortunate in the forefront of our minds.

    • Just as in art, perspective can change everything. How much so is up to the individual and can be dependent on our experiences. The experience I wrote about here is one of several that have changed my perspective forever. Thanks SDS.

  17. Very well written and a good reminder not to be quick to judge. There are so many hurting people in the world and a lot of them are trying to do good, trying to get a head, and make a better life. What a privilege to be a part of this family’s life.

  18. Your sensitivity, memory and attention to detail have served you well yet again. This beautiful story is a great reminder for this time of year. Thank you.

    • Good to hear from you wannabemeagain. It was a very memorable experience and as I say in the post, I am reminded of it each year around this time. Thank you for reading, and for your comment 🙂

  19. This is such a sad and joyful reminder to remember others in need, and be thankful for all we have this Christmas season. Thank you for telling the story so well.

  20. Lovely story and a nice nudge to look at priorities and examine what giving and happiness could and should be all about.
    I just opened a piece of mail from our local food bank; it states that a donation of $50 would provide food for 200 meals. How can I not be struck by the contrast when $50 at the store, for me, might cover just a few days. Thank you for sharing an experience that helps us examine our own hearts–regardless of the time of year.

  21. I loved this story (and the photos!)! I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again, everyone time I read one of your posts, i feel like I’ve just stepped into one of my favorite books!

    • You are so nice to ask Barb. A loved one had a serious health emergency last week so have been occupied with that. I hope to get a post or two out this week and I really, really hope to get caught up on my blog reading. Yours is a favorite of mine :-)happy Holidays to you too!

  22. Your story was so inspirational and gets right to the heart of Christmas. Giving is the big secret we all seem to wake up to amid the cornucopia of plenty. And your story, so beautifully told, is one of giving where it is needed most.

  23. Your post gave me goose bumps and some tears. You see, I worked tirelessly, to implement a Domestic Violence Court in the Vermont Judicial system. It went well, considering it was a grass roots initiative.. the State did seek to take the model state wide. The biggest obstacle to family safety is substance abuse, mental illness, and the perpetuity of the cycle of poverty. unless the cycle is severed completely the children continued to suffer, as heartbreaking as this is. Even if one child was spared…I felt a certain twinge of peace and hope. Here’s to hope for 2011!!!!

    jess

    • Thank you for reading and sharing. I have worked in the domestic violence/child abuse field too–as a fundraiser, a grant writer and also a volunteer advocate. It is huge when the tug of that cycle finally begins to break, isn’t it. Glad we have “met”!

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