This morning we delivered Christmas boxes for St. Vincent de Paul Society at our church. Our church hall, which is the basement of the church, was packed this morning with amazingly organized boxes and packages—I didn’t count the top numbered family section, but I know it went past the 90s. It’s a lot of people, considering that this count is by family, not by individual. Our church does a giving tree during Advent and what we purchase and wrap goes directly to these assembled packages. That plus a large assortment of food for Christmas—some years we’ve done frozen turkeys and some years we give Shop N Save gift cards (that also give our school money back through the Together We’re Better program, I mean, we’re no dummies) to help round out the donated items. It’s kind of overwhelming.
But it’s also a social time—the kids play, we find our family’s boxes, help each other out to our cars, and disperse into the neighborhood. I think, but am uncertain, that we limit to our parish boundaries. I at least have never had to travel further than Gravois Park or Tower Grove East. We try to take two or three loads—deliver, come back and see if there’s more, deliver those.
Some years, the folks invite us in and we chat for a minute. Oftentimes, the people we’ve delivered to are not living in abject poverty, just comparative, you know? Many older folks on fixed incomes who would break the budget if they shopped for a bunch of presents for the grandkids, but who normally do not require that helping hand. Some are parishioners. Some are school families. These are people we know, or might recognize. And other times, well, it’s irritating, but we can’t know what the situation is—the big screen TV might be rent-to-own and they might be ear-deep in consumer debt. We don’t stand there and measure folks up and decide if this box goes to their house. I assume St. Vincent de Paul Society does some of that—they know the scam artists in the area, for instance, by name—and I’m sure some of it is taken on faith that folks who need us will find us and that we’ll have enough to go around.
This year was the first year I encountered something I haven’t seen since I worked at Henry, the city school downtown where I taught right out of college. Not just relative poverty, but something deeper. The second box we delivered, one of the kids answered the door half-dressed (hmm, kind of like Maeve) and I was practically knocked down by the smell. It’s something I have only experienced at Henry, in fact, never before or after. I don’t know what it is—it’s not cigarettes, it’s not mold, it’s something I can only call poverty. Some of my kids in that first grade class would come to school and have that smell on their clothes. That look on their faces. We delivered the box of food and the packages and went back to the van. You drive down this street, you have no idea what’s inside. How we can live in the same zip code and have this street and this house and good jobs and friendly neighbors is jarring to my sense of fairness. I know I sound naïve and silly, and I’m not—my year at Henry, I saw things that would make your hair literally curl—but I guess in the supervening years, I put it out of my mind? What else did I let go so permanently?
We drove in relative silence to Quik Trip, listening to KEZK’s sugary Christmas music. Mike pumped gas, and I went in and got him a diet Dr. Pepper from the soda machine/fountain. I was up at the cashier’s and the total came to 83 cents. I realized suddenly I didn’t have a dollar, only a ten (what a problem to have), and I hunted in my change purse for the change. The guy next to me plunked down three quarters and a dime he’d just gotten for change and said, “oh, I hate change,” leaving before I could protest or thank him. I took the two pennies in change and went out to the car.
I’m just not that cute. I think it’s Christmas.