Monday, July 26, 2010

All About Christmas - Finally

Moving this to my new home here, originally posted on my blog on 01/23/2010. Earlier posts telling about events leading up to this Christmas project can be found here 'Tis The Season For Me To Lose My Mind, here Make A Charity Christmas Feel Like Home, and here Almost The Big Day... Almost Ready... So Tired!
So I have wanted to tell all about my Christmas “project”, and now here it is almost the end of January. I haven’t been able to sit down and write this until now, because just after Christmas it was as if an enormous metaphysical dump truck backed itself up (beeep… beeep… beeep…) and unloaded a big, stinking pile of family crises on my doorstep. I believe most of that has passed now, though, and the dust is beginning to settle. So, “better late than never”, and here goes…

I won’t waste a lot of space talking about what the “Christmas project” was all about, since I’ve talked that matter pretty much to death. So if you don’t know, you’ll have to refer to my previous blog posts. This is for those of you who have asked how it went, and I soooo want to tell you!

It was awesome. Amazing. Fantastic. Everything went smoothly and everyone had a great time. There were no problems, no conflicts, and no disasters. This came as quite a surprise to me, since that is not normal even for a regular day in my life (LOL), let alone a day when I’m clearly in over my head trying to pull something off.

The days leading up to Christmas, however, were anything but awesome and amazing and fantastic. Not that they weren’t rewarding, but they were exhausting. In the three days before Christmas, I managed to get a total of 7 hours and 45 minutes of sleep. But who’s counting?

It was really, really important to me that this feel like a “real” Christmas in a home, and not like some sort of charity function. Thus, I worked hard to convert the cold, sterile hall we were using into something as close to “homey” as I could get. I perused Craigslist and hounded friends and family for free stuff that could be used, and I drove all over the Phoenix area gathering up carpet scraps, decorations, furniture, paper plates, and so on. I would get my truck filled, then run to the church to unload so I could re-fill. It just so happened that I was always alone for these unloading sessions (no one’s fault, just that I always managed to fill up when everyone else was at work or something). That meant that I had the very special honor of lifting, hoisting, dragging, tugging, pulling, pushing and kicking a number of items, from small and manageable to ridiculously heavy and awkward, out of my truck and into the building all by myself. The grunting and occasional swearing involved was rather undignified, but no one needs to know about that. Ha ha.

Two days before the big event, with the proverbial clock ticking ever more loudly in my mind, I realized I couldn’t pull this off all alone and finally reached out for help. I put an ad on Craigslist (gotta love Craiglist) titled “Mrs. Claus Needs Some Elves”, and I got a lot of really wonderful responses. Ultimately, not everyone who offered to help came through, as is to be expected, but the ones who did were truly special people whom I feel privileged to have met. Some brought gifts, some brought food (a LOT of food, actually), some came over to the church at all hours of the night to help me decorate and move furniture and various heavy things around, and to contribute great ideas. All helped me keep things going smoothly throughout the actual “event”, and I am eternally grateful for that, since I rarely made it out of the kitchen on that day.

As all of these preparations were going on, things took some unexpected turns, and this project evolved into something slightly different from what I’d originally had in mind.

First of all, while I was getting a lot of responses to my plea for “helpers”, I was receiving surprisingly few responses to my “guest” invitations. I’d placed flyers at several locations that provide services to homeless teens, I’d spoken to several social workers who’d agreed to fax my invitations to other social workers in the field, and I'd placed ads on my beloved Craigslist. Still, the reaction was underwhelming, and I was starting to worry that I would have more helpers than guests! I decided to take a more direct, one-on-one approach, and I planted myself on the front porch of the Tumbleweed Drop-In Center (an old house in downtown Phoenix that serves basically as a daytime shelter where street youth can use facilities, do laundry, shower, etc.) for the afternoon on Christmas Eve.

For several hours, I hung out in front of the center and nagged the kids as they came and went. I had seen that my flyers were sitting on the desk in the front room of the house, so I grabbed a few and thrust them in the faces of young people, saying, “Hey! Do you have plans for Christmas Day or what? No? Then why don’t you come with us? Come on! I will pick you up and give you a ride! You’ve got nothing better to do, right? And the food will be awesome!”

Most of them eyed me suspiciously at first, seeming to wonder what might be in this for me, and why this was so important to me. They shrugged and gave non-committal responses. But after a few minutes, a young man named Don turned around, having overheard some of this talk that was going on behind his back, and said, “Wait… What is this all about?” I handed him a flyer, talked to him for a moment, explaining that this was “for real” and that nothing would be asked of them or preached at them or expected of them. I just wanted them to come and join us and relax for a day, have a good time, forget their troubles for a while and “kick back” with all the good food they wanted. He said, “I want to come. Can I bring someone?” Of course he could bring someone, I told him.

The “someone”, it turned out, was his wife, who was also present there in the house. Don, just in his early twenties, is married to a 19-year-old young lady, Carrie. Carrie is pregnant, in a wheelchair (I did not ask why), and lives in a women’s shelter apart from her husband. Unable to find beds in the same shelter, they sleep apart at night and see each other during the day at the Drop-In Center. There are many reasons for their predicament, some of which are the expected results of their own poor choices in their youth, and some being circumstances beyond their control, but I will go into that another day. For now, suffice it to say that Don proved tremendously helpful to me that day in convincing other young people that they should join us for Christmas. We sat out on that front porch and talked for much of the afternoon, and as I had to practically grab kids by the collar to get them to talk to me, Don would help “close the deal”.

I learned a lot that afternoon about why needy and homeless young people don’t respond as enthusiastically as one might expect to invitations such as mine. For one thing, they are somewhat suspicious of someone wanting to offer them something for nothing. More significantly, though, I learned that the idea of them having a nice Christmas was much more important to me than it was to them. These are young people who are struggling, often without the benefit of a solid upbringing that provides the tools and life skills necessary to avoid life’s most serious pitfalls, just to survive. In their minds, Christmas is just another day, and a nice meal with a few little gifts from some better-off do-gooders is not going to make any difference by the time they have to return to the shelter or the street that night. They have more important things on their minds, and they’re not losing any sleep over whether Santa brings them a stuffed stocking or whether they get any pumpkin pie. The singing of carols and the decorating of trees and the trimmings of the holiday are all just so much distraction and nonsense to them as they try to figure out where they will sleep, and how much more repair can stretch out the life of their worn-out shoes.

In the end, I think (and hope) that some of them saw things differently by the end of Christmas Day. While no one was so condescending as to act as if this event would change anyone’s life or circumstances, I do believe that some of these youth came away with the understanding that sometimes it’s good – when the opportunity presents itself – to let themselves relax and feel “normal” for a while. To spend some time just being able to set aside their worries for a bit and not feel like a charity case amongst people, but rather to feel like just another one of the people. If that makes sense. But I digress… I should get back to the story of how it all went down.

By the day of Christmas Eve, the donations of gifts were rolling in. A great percentage of the donated gifts, however, were toys for young children. Getting teenager-suitable gifts was quite a challenge. As a matter of fact, if there was any one disappointment I felt, it was that a lot of the gifts that were given to the teens and young adults were – frankly – kind of lame. At least there was something for everyone, though, and a few really good gifts among the mediocre; it was just something I learned from and decided to work on for next time. I was willing to accept the children’s toys because I knew that some of these young people had children of their own. What I’d never expected was that there would be quite so many toys, however, so that led to another last-minute decision that changed the course of things a bit. I decided to open the celebration up to needy families with children, and I placed another Craigslist ad.

Naturally, the phone rang off the hook. Unfortunately, I can’t afford a cell phone, so keeping up with the calls on my home phone along with incoming e-mails, all while running around with the aforementioned flurry of preparations, was yet another challenge. I had two kids (actually twenty-year-olds) at my house fielding calls, and I was checking my e-mail each time I stopped at home and also each time I went to the church. The church folks don’t know that I know the password to their computer – LOL – but it was lucky I did. Keeping up with it all was madness.

Several families called and e-mailed asking to come spend Christmas with us, and I had to start a note-taking system to make sure everyone had directions and a ride. One more thing to keep track of! I’ll admit I was starting to feel quite overwhelmed, but at this point I was running on adrenaline and had no time to even feel stress, which was actually kind of funny. LOL.

I was alone at the church and going over a list of last-minute grocery items that were needed in the late afternoon when the church phone rang. Assuming it was probably my kids trying to find me, I answered it. On the other end was a tearful young lady who asked for me, and when I identified myself, she blurted out, “I know you’re really, really busy and I am so sorry to bother you because I know you have a lot to do and you’re really busy, but do you think you could take, like, two minutes to talk to me?” I told her that of course I could, and I sat down. She told me that she’d called my house, and my kids (who later told me she’d been very emotional and so they’d told her the best place to try and track me down) had given her the number to the church and said I was probably there. She explained that she was 20 years old and single mother, unemployed, and was just devastated that she had absolutely nothing for her five-year-old son this Christmas. No gifts, no tree, no dinner, and no explanation to offer him that he would understand. He believed in Santa Claus, after all, and what could she say to him? She cried throughout the conversation and asked if she could please come with us for Christmas, and while repeatedly telling me how much she hated to beg, she wondered if we could provide a gift for her son. I calmed her down and told her that of course she could join us, that that was the whole purpose of what we were doing, and that we’d pick her up at home since she did not have a car. And I would make absolutely sure that her son got Christmas gifts. I hung up and added her name and situation to my notes, which were becoming a thick stack of paper.

As the hour was approaching when the stores would close, I had to leave the unfinished tasks I was working on and embark on the totally relaxing (not!) adventure of navigating the grocery aisles. I had a menu and a list of who was making what, but there were items needed to finish several of the planned dishes. I made it through my shopping just in time, checking out just as the lights were dimming with the hint that they’d like us all to leave so they could get home to their own families. Grocery stores are rarely subtle about these things, although I can’t say I blame them. After taking a few moments to help an elderly woman who spoke little English understand why hot cocoa mix would not work as a substitute for cocoa powder in baking a cake (lol), I was off and running again, heading home to my children who had not seen me all day. We had an obligation to be at my brother’s house at 6 p.m. (my little brother has always been a pain in my backside, and naturally had to be born on Christmas, so as to further inconvenience me every year for the rest of my life – LOL), and it was already past that. Ah, well. I had no time to sweat the small stuff. He’d tormented me as a kid, anyway, so if he complained that I was late for his birthday, I figured I would just threaten to put him back in the dryer.

We hopped in the car when I got home and made it – late – to my brother’s house. I had not brought him a gift, and told him I’d been busy and he was 38 years old now, so get over it. We spent the obligatory few hours there, with me spending most of my time running back to his computer to check my e-mails. They were still coming in, and all needed answering so that no one would be left out.

I arrived home around 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, only to turn right back around and run out. There was a woman who would not be able to make it to our celebration the next day, but her 8-year-old son still believed in Santa and she had no gifts. She was heartbroken at the idea of him waking up to nothing under the tree. My daughter and I put gifts together and delivered them to her home at midnight. The lady met me outside her house at my car, and she hugged me as she handed me a tiny wrapped package.

I unwrapped the package on the drive home. Inside was a lovely thank-you letter and a watch. It was not new, just a used watch, but a nice one and clearly something she’d given me of her own as her best gesture of gratitude. It was very sweet, and I am sure she will never know that it was she who made my Christmas, probably more so than the other way around. I get Christmas gifts every year, but it is not every year that I get to know that on Christmas morning there is a little boy who might have had nothing, but now gets to believe in Santa for another year. That’s priceless.

By the time I got home it was after 1:00 a.m. There was still much to do, and my house looked like a hurricane had struck it. Bags of donated items were piled all over the living room, the table was piled high with groceries, notes and to-do lists were scattered here and there and everywhere, and my kitchen was nearly impossible to find at all beneath the piles of rubble. I cleared some space and began washing, rinsing, chopping, slicing, and doing as much ahead-of-time food preparation as I could. I loaded pots and pans and cookie sheets and serving utensils into boxes and into the truck. I checked and double-checked lists, and loaded and loaded and loaded that truck. Somewhere around 4 a.m. I fell asleep. I don’t even remember where. Maybe it was the couch, maybe a chair, but certainly not my bed. I know I didn’t make it that far. LOL.

Somewhere around 6 a.m. on Christmas day I dragged myself up from wherever it was I’d crashed, and I stumbled around in a fog seeking coffee. I don’t remember if I ever found any. I do remember cursing the fast-food gods for not letting McDonald’s be open when I needed it most. I was temporarily determined to wrap my kids’ gifts, which I had not done yet. That idea lasted about 10 minutes, until I finally decided that I had too much else to do and it was a good thing I’d raised my kids to have a sense of humor. They woke up and my parents came over, as they always do on Christmas morning, and I tossed things at them as I rushed around still preparing for the rest of the day. “Here – I got you this. It’s not wrapped. Too bad. Hope you like it.” Ha ha. Since I am normally a crazy-perfect-Christmas-morning freak, my kids were pretty shocked, and they actually found the whole thing pretty amusing. Look at Mom – she’s lost her mind and doesn’t even care. LOL.

More mad prepping of dishes ensued, and I finally got loaded up for the last time and arrived at the church by around 11:00. I got straight to work in the kitchen, along with my father (who is a fabulous cook, although irritating while in the process), and I sent my mother to pick up the kids from the Drop-In Center.

Helpers began to arrive and put finishing touches on some things. The kids from the Drop-In Center arrived and I put them straight to work decorating the one Christmas tree that we still hadn’t gotten to. More and more people began to show up, some called needing rides, and helpers were sent to pick them up. A table was filled with snack items to keep people munching while we were still cooking. My son played the piano, and soon he was teaching another young girl how to play. The five-year-old son of the single mom who’d called me crying was playing with a toy basketball and shooting at the tiny hoop that someone mounted atop the door. Eventually a young man of about 21 began to play along with him, and they were having quite the good time goofing off together.

Folks were chatting all around me in the kitchen as they smashed the boiled potatoes for me and greased casserole dishes. Others disappeared into the gym behind the kitchen, arranging and sorting gifts. Some just circulated amongst the growing crowd and made people feel at home. My foster son played old records on the record player he’d brought and set up, and someone else fiddled with the TV and got a Christmas movie playing. There was a steady hum of noise – the chatting of people getting to know each other, the clanging of dishes, the laughter of children, the background sounds of music and TV. The older boys and young men found a basketball and went outside to play a game on the court in the church parking lot. My father snapped at my mother once, and I snapped at him to cut it out, and that the earth would not stop turning on its axis if the baked beans didn’t come out right. In other words… It felt just like any Christmas in any home with any family. I loved it.

I spent the entire day in the kitchen, really, so I had very little opportunity to actually see first-hand what was happening “out there”. I was busily cranking out dishes and then busily cranking out desserts, and it seemed that everything was getting eaten about as fast as I could get it out there. The only people I really got to talk to very much were those who came into the kitchen to chat, but that was okay since almost everyone did that from time to time. I got updates from my daughter on what was happening, who was flirting with whom (lol), who was wolfing down the corn casserole like it was their new favorite thing in the world, how the ball game was going, etc. The day flew by. I really mean that – I lost total track of time. My feet started to hurt and I got tired, but things were moving quickly and there was no time to slow down. I think I slipped away once to go to the bathroom, but even getting to do that was no small task.

By the time I got to leave the kitchen and sit down to eat some dinner myself, it was around 7 p.m. Everyone else was pretty much finished, but there were a few who nibbled and kept me company at the table for the few minutes I managed to stay there. I’d eaten a little less than half my dinner before I was called away and needed again. There was a mom who had asked if she could take home some leftovers since they had no food at home, and I helped pack up a box (we had plenty). There were people who wanted to say goodbye, and I politely chatted with them while my stomach growled and I ignored it (lol). There were a few who needed a ride back to the shelter in time to check in, lest they lose their bed for the night. I arranged for someone to drive them. By the time I got back to my plate, it was cold. That was okay, though. More than okay. I didn’t mind a bit.

There was some clean-up done that night, but a lot would have to be put off until the next day. When everyone had finally cleared out and I found myself alone, the exhaustion really hit. I took care of the most important stuff – covering and putting away food that needed to be refrigerated, rinsing dishes and piling them in the sink, taking out some of the trash. Then I sat down on the sofa and just enjoyed the peace and quiet and the flickering of the Christmas tree lights. I fell asleep on the sofa there for twelve hours.

In the end, I believe the head count for Christmas was around 50, with about (I’m guessing) 10 to 15 being helpers. Having worried about too many helpers for the number of guests turned out to be something I was all wrong about. The ratio being what it was contributed to making everything so nice. There were so many people, all strangers to each other, that one could not really tell who was there to help and who was there because they were needy. Thus, it just felt like one big get-together, and not a charity function. Exactly what I was aiming for.

I did not get very many photos, unfortunately, since I didn’t get out of the kitchen much, and I hadn’t planned ahead to assign someone the task of taking pictures. Another thing learned for next time. The few pics I did get are posted here. And since I’ve practically written a book in this post, I will just leave it at that.

So, that, folks, is how it went down. And to all a good night.

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