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.