The Giving Tree (Life Lessons Abound) . . .

When Billy Joel and I wore a younger man's clothes, I grew up in a Catholic household (the shivers run up the spine just typing it (smile)). There were LOTS of things I liked about the Catholic Church, and, more specifically, about the parish I was a member of - CHIEFLY was how engaged in the community we were as a parish.

One of the many traditions of the church, which my parents helped organize, was The Giving Tree. Not to be confused with the Seussian classic, this was more of a "Secret Santa" thing where my father (who was the elementary school principal in town) would provide a list of children in need in the town (just gender, ages, sizes, and approximated wants/needs) and then those children (some of whom were classmates for Patrick, Ryan, and me) were given numbers and put on a tree for families to take to give a gift to. NOT the most original/unique idea in the world but a damned nice gesture during the Advent Season.

My parents would, themselves, take three children from the tree and my brothers and I would each give up a few gifts that might otherwise be ours each year to approximately donate by proxy (we basically got 99,999 gifts each instead of a cool 100k). This was fine and well and was part of the annual tradition in our home. But one year - ONE YEAR - the whole thing took on a whole new meaning.

One year there was a family in particular need and my parents decided that we would gift the entire family and that the three of us would deliver the gifts to their home. We all pinched our Christmas stuff and we made a special trip to Wegmans and on Christmas Eve we loaded up the car with probably thirty gifts, ten bags of groceries, a hot meal that was ready to be served, some books, and a few other random things (I think my Mother gave a Bible - solver of allllll the problems that family had, for sure) in my mother's sweet-assed Dodge Grand Caravan (which was red, in her defense) and we headed out in to the night.

What happened next was sort of amazing for the three of us. We pulled up in front of a house that didn't look like our home. There was stuff in the lawn (to clarify - Upstate winters are REAL winters where 99.9% of Christmases are white and about 40% of Mother's Days are white), the porch littered with trash, the door ajar, no curtains on the windows, etc. We went in, carrying all we could and we were greeted with less than enthusiastic energy (they knew we were coming and we had their permission to give them things). I looked around the house at stuff that seemed broken or on its way to being broken. The house smelled faintly of onions, and what I presume was liver. There was a TV BLARING in the back room. The temperature inside was barely warmer than the outside and in the entire house I saw one light on. The tree was a real one with paper ornaments and no lights upon it. This was NOT the was Christmas Eve looked, smelled, felt, or rolled out.

I can honestly stay this was the first time I'd ever really understood that not everyone had Christmas like we did. I had friends who maybe didn't have all the clothes and crap my brothers and I did and maybe their homes were not as nice or comfortable but I guess I just presumed that, right around December 22nd, everyone's house magically transformed in to a friggin' Hallmark card and the gifts multiplied and Santa had all he could handle to find room to stash his crap among the trappings of the season. I did not feel "sadness" for the family. They seemed to love each other and seemed content and comfortable (the house was not filthy, there seemed to be no real suffering, etc.). I did not feel "pity" (only asshole 16 year old kids express pity to strangers). I simply felt an appreciation for the fact that my family could help this family out. For at least the next few weeks they'd have food in the pantry/fridge. They had new clothes, some books, some toys, and some household items (I think we gave them a toaster - which I remember thinking was odd until I realized they may not have had one). They were going to start 1993 better than they spent most of 1992 (and not ONLY because "I Will Always Love You" was just hitting its stride).

We gave over the packages. We wished the family a "Merry Christmas." We backed out the front door, returned to the minivan and rode silently back to our own house where cookies were being baked, the thermostat was at 72 degrees, the fireplace crackled, the tree glowed and every, EVERY light in the house was certainly turned on.

We took of our coats, told our mother of the house and the family (not critically - but from concern) and my mother (my dear, sweet, overpoweringly wonderful mother), realizing that the moral/lesson had already landed on us simply smiled and said "Go get ready for mass. We'll eat when we get home." And eat we did.