Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I was in the Giant supermarket for a carton of milk, when I saw a local character – I’ll call him Charles – leaning on his zimmer frame walker, in the next but one check out line. I wasn’t in the mood for Charles, and I was in a hurry. I wanted to get back home to the house that has recently filled up with family. I’ve been acquainted with Charles for maybe fifteen years. I often stop to talk to him – or else he stops me. Sometimes I drive him back to his apartment, because he relies on the kindness of people like me to get where he is going. He is old and fairly immobile. Sometimes he asks or hints at his limited means, and I give him a little money. But I was in a rush, so at first I didn’t acknowledge him, thinking perhaps he might not see me. Since it is Christmas I felt well and truly ashamed, as I carried my provisions past where he was standing.

Then he noticed me.

“Hey!” he called.

“Oh hi Charles,” I said. “How are you doing?”

Turns out, he was hoping to buy some new corduroy trousers and needed two hundred dollars – he needed three pairs of trousers and they were expensive, “and I never seem to have any money.”

“It sounds very hard,” I said.

“It is,” he said. He was waiting for somebody else, there at the supermarket, somebody who had promised they might be able to help him.

Outside the Salvation Army guy was ringing his bell – and wearing an apron emblazoned with the words I am a bell ringer. “I would have thought that much was obvious,” Rozzie had observed.

“Charles,” I said, remembering the Christmas spirit. “I might be able to give you some money. But I don’t want the Giant employees to see us here and think that you are panhandling.”

“I don’t want that either,” Charles said in his shaky voice.

So I gave him what I had and we chatted a minute or two longer. He told me he was celebrating Christmas with people from the church. “Oh that sounds good,” I said. We parted on our usual friendly terms. And yet I felt ashamed. I wondered if I had given him the money to make myself feel less guilty. Or if I was doing what I could – or if I was doing something less than I could- because all Charles needs is human kindness, dignity and the ability to cope with his needs. That's what we all need, so why should I patronize. But there again, I could do better than I do.

The following day, Rozzie, Elliot and I along with my good friend Helen went to Old Town Alexandria to see one of my students in a production of A Christmas Carol. Before the show we wandered around King Street and did a little shopping. Rozzie found a spectacular blue parrot studded with beads and feathers to decorate our tree, and feeling very happy with the purchase, Helen said she’d treat us all to cupcakes. At the coffee counter in a little buzzing establishment off the main drag, Rozzie tried to get the waitress' attention, and gasped. “Jane?”

The girl behind the counter startled. “Roz!” she cried.

What a strange coincidence! It was an old friend from college who she hadn’t seen for several years. They exchanged pleasantries and decided that since Rozzie is back for the next few weeks, they must certainly get in touch. Yes, they absolutely must. Rozzie took Jane’s number, we said goodbye and left with our coffees.

Then as we were heading to the theatre, Roz remembered. Jane might have unfriended her on Facebook a few months back, although she couldn’t be sure. And wasn’t it a little strange, I put in, that Jane didn’t remember having met me, since she was our house guest in Rome for a week several years ago? Maybe Jane was feeling awkward. After all, she was at work. Or perhaps she was down on her luck. What did Roz and Jane have in common any more, we wondered. Was it a good idea to get back in touch?

Today Ben, Alex and Elliot moved a tall shelving unit from Elliot’s room, back to the basement, which Ben and Alex have recently remodeled. They moved a chest of drawers into Elliot’s bedroom, and a small table out of it, then a drafting table out of Alex’s room and into the basement – and a desk from the basement into Alex’s room, and a bedside table from the basement into Elliot’s room and a drum kit out of Elliot’s and into the basement.

At the end everyone felt irritable and uncomfortable. Elliot became a bit stroppy. He didn’t like it. Rozzie hugged him. “What’s the problem,” Ben asked. “We moved the stuff into your room as a temporary measure when we were redoing the basement.”

It turned out that it was just that Elliot’s room was getting further away from being his room. He’s been away at college and is understandably less invested in it than he was before. He sees now that the house and he are moving in different directions.

I know how he feels. Rozzie knows and so do Alex and Ben. That’s what happens when you move forward with life.

The Christmas holiday requires you to step back into a person you might have outgrown, or you might not feel like being just now. Sometimes you aren’t sure you want to reconnect. Sometimes you’re sure you do, but how can you do it, when you are a different person? You struggle to be charitable because that’s the Christmas spirit.

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