THE THREE-story clapboard house with the spiderweb-like cracks running across every peeling, painted surface sat at the end of a dead-end street in Portsmouth, looking abandoned. The homemade wreath on the front door was the only clue that inside the house, two children still held hope that Santa would find their door.
Santa doesn’t have this address; neither does the Joy Fund, or Head Start. The only reason my family had the address was because I’d caught the message among the throngs of postings on a local site called Freecycle, where people normally offer used items they no longer need or post requests for items. This request was simple: “Wanted Christmas gifts for 7 yr old girl and 8 yr old boy.”
As the mother of an 8-yearold boy, I gave the message a second look. And the girl tugged at me, too, because, as the mother of four boys, I have never shopped in the pink aisle. My husband had asked me to find a way for our sons to do something for others this holiday season that was “real and tangible.”
It’s delicate work sticking your nose into somebody else’s business, even when they open the door a crack and call out for help. So when I wrote to the poster and asked for some details, I was afraid of insulting him. He replied, “I can’t come pick-up because I have no mode of transportation at all and live far from public transportation.
My girl likes baby dolls, strollers, and my son likes learning toys like speak and learn etc. must make noise and he must be able to hear it. Let me know. And if you can spare a tree that would be great.” Now we have the mental image of two children, one who seems to have some disability and needs to be able to hear a learning toy. And there’s no tree, either.
I have previously written about how difficult it is to make ends meet with four sons, so not much Christmas was coming to Portsmouth if I had to do it on my own. But that’s what Facebook friends are for. My friend Terry and her mother supplied an artificial tree and all the trimmings, plus some amazing toys. My friend Peggy, who is writing a children’s novel series about Santa, also rushed into the gap with us.
There was quite a tidy haul, including some plastic candy canes filled with Hershey’s kisses, real candy canes, too, and giant chocolate coins. I worried and worried we might be giving dessert to children who’d had no supper. We do all we can and hope for the best. The kids and I wrapped everything and tagged it all “From Santa.”
My husband drove the whole tribe to bring Christmas to Portsmouth. I would love to have this happily end with a dose of Bing Crosby singing, but this is the real world where children don’t get holidays from poverty, hunger and cold. Like Santa, I never met the children, but our whole family, plus my son’s girlfriend, filed into the cold, narrow doorway and helped the dad stash the gifts up a dilapidated staircase that led to an upper unit that is unfinished and unrented by their landlord. “This is where I always have my Santa stash,” he said. The stairwell was completely empty. He was a nice man. Friendly.
After the kids and my spouse were back in the van, I ran back to the door and knocked again. I had to know if the children had food. I asked if they were in the free breakfast and lunch programs. No. “I’m waiting on Social Services for that and any other help I can get,” he explained. I learned they are actually a family of eight (the others are “too old for Santa”) and no, they did not have food.
When I asked what he did for a living, he told me he has a master’s degree in information technology. “Real CSI-type stuff, too,” he said, but he’s been unemployed for more than 18 months. He is doing tattoos at home to make money. He can do construction, too. His wife, he said, is unable to work.
I did not pry further because the gifts that keep on giving are privacy and dignity. He also has absolutely no teeth, which is not helping the job hunt at all. Holidays come and go, be it with a manger and a man in a red suit or with candles (nine or seven, depending on Hanukkah or Kwanzaa).
Our hearts fill, even as our pockets empty. My friend Kevin, hearing that this Portsmouth family had no food, bought and delivered sacks of groceries to their house. It’s true, one person can’t save the world. But anyone who thinks one little thing doesn’t make any difference has never been in bed with a mosquito.
My hope is that in the new year, if someone asks for even a little bit of help, you will start a buzz among friends and stick your nose in where it will make a difference.
Guest columnist Lisa Suhay is a children’s book author and runs the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence.