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A Laughing Matter?

Assuaging My Conscience

by MISSY BEATTIE

Prior to Diana Wagman’s participation in Operation Santa 2013, she anticipated letters written by children, asking for toys. Later, overwhelmed to read “pleas from parents”, Wagman wrote a moving op-ed about her expectations and the clash with reality. Here are some examples:

A mother out of work said her family would eat, but there wouldn’t be any presents. A dad wrote that his kids needed school supplies. Parents with two kids, three kids, maybe more, were hoping for help with what they couldn’t provide. A dad just out of prison wanted to make Christmas special for the kids he hadn’t seen for so long. A disabled grandmother asked for a church dress for her granddaughter.

Wagman was stunned that so many, even children, asked for groceries, clothing, shampoo. “One wrote, ’Please bring my mommy some food. She’s been good this year.’”

I think of rising income inequality, the growing poverty that’s become a global crisis. That 1.2 million U.S. public school students are homeless. That the U.S. median household income has fallen for five years in a row. That 40 per cent of all U.S. workers make less than $20,000 a year.

And I stare at the excesses of my life.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I dressed the Christmas tree with ornaments I made years ago. I move my eyes from the computer screen to look at those baubles, think about the approaching holiday, and feel guilty for being prosperous. And I flash to memories.

Like these:

Loading the van with Santa STUFF, concealed from the children. Plus the STUFF for family. And that drive from Baltimore to Kentucky.

Then, the Nashville years when Mother, Daddy, Laura, and Erma came to our house. One Christmas, I announced we’d spend time at a homeless shelter, preparing the meal and serving. Son J, home from college, protested, and not because he lacked compassion. He thought this was a token gesture—you know, as if a few hours handing out food absolved us from any responsibility the remaining 364 days. We went anyway.

Son H always wanted to select names from the Angel Tree at the mall and insisted we choose a boy and a girl to gift. One year we discovered a wish list from an elderly woman in her eighties. We bought the warm blanket and soft bed slippers she requested.

Now:

Charles, Mother, and Daddy are ashes in urns. We’ve blended and scattered them, yet there’s more to release. The containers are heavy—or maybe it’s that the recollections are.

Everything changes. This Christmas, J’s going to Texas. H will be in NYC. Laura and Erma feel as I do. That it’s just a day. Still, I put up that tree, and just a few days ago, a new friend came with a festive red poinsettia.

I read another heart-twisting article this week, brilliant journalism by Andrea Elliott, about an eleven-year-old girl who lives in a Brooklyn homeless shelter. The opening paragraph of “Invisible Child” introduces Dasani’s morning:

She wakes to the sound of breathing. The smaller children lie tangled beside her, their chests rising and falling under winter coats and wool blankets. A few feet away, their mother and father sleep near the mop bucket they use as a toilet. Two other children share a mattress by the rotting wall where the mice live, opposite the baby, whose crib is warmed by a hair dryer perched on a milk crate.

Dasani and children like her stumble through my mind as I look around at my STUFF. I think of other children, those who endure even worse, whose normalcy forever has been changed by war or some other cataclysmic disaster.

I survey a lifestyle I tell son H I’d like to shed, that I have this urge, a need to do something meaningful before I can’t. The other day, he said, “Mom, you talk about detaching, going somewhere, doing something to live a more meaningful life, but you can’t even detach from hand sanitizer.” I had to laugh. But it really isn’t funny.
So I open my checkbook, donate—similar to going to that shelter years ago, assuaging my conscience. I’ve said this before: It’s the very least I can do.

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: missybeat@gmail.com.