A holiday story that proves children are our most precious resource.
My mother was right; she almost always was. She told me that while that pair of leather hiking boots was important to me, she was having a difficult time making ends meet for me and my two siblings. Absent all the generous social programs available today, for five days a week, mom was caring for the children of a few nearby working mothers, making, and repairing dresses and clothing and cooking meals and pastries for a number of families of working parents. I was 13-years old; my father had passed away several months earlier and his last wish was that I would help mom by becoming the head of the household. I was feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders because I was not living up to my father’s expectations.
I knew deep down in my heart that we could not afford those boots, but I was selfish and jealous because two of my classmates had a pair they used on our hiking and camping jaunts while I wore a pair of sneakers with very little tread on the soles. A few days later my mother took me aside and explained the dire straits of our financial situation. She promised to put aside a dollar a week and suggested I save the small change I collected from errands and odd jobs which I usually shared with my siblings and occasionally made small-scale household purchases with until we came up with the necessary amount. I was completely ashamed with myself after that conversation.
I never did get those boots, and I survived quite well, but that conversation and the boot incident helped set the tone for my life’s attitude towards understanding the difference between wanting and needing. The fact is, we were one of the many families of the have-nots and that type of existence permitted us to have a much deeper sense of appreciation for what we had. Dad always said if you think your situation is bad, just look around and you will find others living in tougher conditions. I recall the words of Sister Mary James, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” A pair of new boots or a new reel would have been nice, but I became more appreciative of the worn rubber boots, sneakers, and the handline I was fishing with at that time. Life’s lessons are always there to be reflected on if we are perceptive enough to discern them.
From that time forward I have considered myself to be very fortunate for what I had and what I have been able to acquire and to share. That situation was brought to light in a much more convincing manner many years ago when I was the New England organizer of a trip sponsored by The Fisherman Magazine’s Send a Kid Fishing Program. Our late editorial director, Fred Golofaro, was the inspiration behind that initiative, and it became an instant hit with Fisherman readers who donated to it. The unspoken position behind this was to cater to underprivileged children, those who might never step onto a boat or catch a fish or enjoy a day on the water.
The trip I am alluding to was the day we hosted a group of children from what was once called an orphan’s home and was now a group home for children without a stable parent or a caring relative in their life. In my conversations with the director of that home during the planning stages for that outing, I learned those children were either abandoned, abused, or so troubled that the home might be their last stop before they were transferred to a juvenile detention center. That disclosure alarmed me, and I was apprehensive until the day of the trip. The morning of that outing dawned bright and calm with just a slight southwesterly breeze to ripple the surface of the water.
That was when a selfish genetic trait, which I have usually managed to suppress, began to surface. For the two days prior to the children’s outing I had been into some outstanding striper fishing that had produced numerous fish from 25 to almost 40 pounds. Because I am a flawed individual, I could not stifle that urge to lament my future obligations denying me those indulgences, until a little girl in that group changed all that, causing me to remorsefully dispel those selfish thoughts.
She couldn’t have been more than 12 but she carried herself like a little lady. On deck were coolers full of plain, coffee and chocolate milk, orange juice, lemonade, iced tea and bottled water. Soft drinks were not an option. She caught my eye as I watched her staring at the cooler before walking over to one of the counselors. After a brief conversation she walked over to me with a big smile and a question. “Mr. Soares, how much orange juice can we have?” I sensed that little woman was going to be a heartbreaker. I told her she could have as many as she could drink as long as it was okay with the staff that were in charge of their well-being, which included their diets. She thanked me and walked over to the cooler and removed two containers of OJ, one to drink and one to secure in her backpack. A counselor informed me that these children were well fed with quality food, but only at meal and snack time and they were limited to one container of milk and a single glass of juice daily.
Our group of 16 generous volunteers ensured that those children all caught fish, which on that day included four legal species. The captain of that Newport party boat and his son declined their usual charter fee and donated the boat, rods and all the bait. I was overwhelmed at the outpouring of support from all those generous individuals and firms. I bit my tongue, to hold back tears as I said goodbye to those jubilant children as they departed to their vans, laden with fish and the remainder of the food and drinks.
As I walked to my truck I recalled a time when I also considered orange juice, which we seldom enjoyed in my childhood home, an exceptional treat. I shared the story of my experience with my wife who suggested that we might purchase some clothing, books, and treats for that special little girl, unaware of one major premise. We were told that, although our intentions were commendable, they could not accept gifts for an individual child and that all gifts had to be shared with the children in her dormitory. We realized that our intentions, although sincere, might only serve to cause friction. We visited a candy wholesaler and bought enough candy for the little lady and all of her friends and dropped them off at the home.
A few days after that fishing trip my thoughts drifted back to a bare bones Christmas my family had the first year after our father passed away. There was very little in the way of gifts, but we had love, a warm apartment, clean clothing, and enough wholesome food to keep us healthy. We were a family; grateful to have each other. As the oldest of her three children, my mother occasionally shared her worries and concerns. Her most important concern on those sparse Christmas’ was that she had a few toys for each of the two younger children.
On an afternoon when my mentors at the boat house held their Christmas party they had taken up a collection for me which included a fresh turkey and a crisp two dollar bill as appreciation for their errand boy. Most of those men had little of their own to spare and I knew of at least two of those widowers who would be spending Christmas Day alone. I continued to window shop that pair of boots but those high tops with the Camp King knife in the display window of Girard’s Shoe Store might just as well have been a new Cadillac convertible.
A few days before Christmas my sister suggested I write out a list and ask Santa for the boots which she knew I had my heart set on. I unwittingly broke her heart when I told her there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I immediately bit my tongue as she began to sob and call me a liar. Mother was working on her Singer sewing machine nearby restored harmony, and I apologized profusely.
Our Christmas tree was a scrubby fir I cut along edge of the state right of way, but my siblings were thrilled with it and its fresh evergreen scent, and right up until Christmas Eve they were still finding and making items to decorate it. During that time we employed extra-large wool hunting stockings hung over our bed posts where Santa left candy, gum, and trinkets for good children. My little brother woke me well before dawn and dragged me out to our tree where mom and my sister were opening my gifts of Fanny Farmer candy bars, Christmas wrapped by the kindly woman who tended their candy counter.
My brother went back into the bedroom and returned with our Christmas stockings. Their stocking were filled with apples, oranges and gum with candy bars poking out the top. My sock was bulging, but without any sign of fruit or candy. I picked it up and felt jagged lumps of what turned out to be coal, real coal, from our almost empty bin in the cellar. They looked at me for a response because it was obvious mom and Paul were not in on the caper as they were as surprised as I was. My sister wore an anxious grin on that pretty little face as she awaited the consequences of her actions. Some of you may recall the holiday threat that naughty boys got a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. Well I had never seen or believed that until that morning, but it’s fair to say I received exactly what I deserved.
With tears in her eyes she disappeared into a closet and returned with a paper bag containing my apples, gum, candy bars, baseball trading cards along with a new Silva compass mom had miraculously acquired. We hugged through tears of joy and to this day I can still feel my sister’s damp cheeks and her arms wrapped tightly around my neck. Perhaps that’s why the little girl from the group home stole my heart. Thanks to those meager childhood Christmas holidays, today ours are filled with guilty and satisfying pleasures that promote sharing. I know full well that a generous and giving person has the blessings of a happy heart.