It’s no secret that I love buying Christmas presents for Children. As our children have gotten older and harder to buy for, we’ve substituted cash for the gifts. It isn’t as personal, no. but for some reason, when the envelopes are opened, not once have I heard someone threaten to return it!
This year, our lives have been rather involved in the those of the three kids that go to Sunday School with us. So I began to think about Christmas months ago, and over the last while, I’ve been astounded to find little buys here and there that were “perfect” for them. I would tuck these little finds into a secret hiding place upstairs in the guest room, thinking that we would fill stockings with the little items. I had specific plans for the “bigger” gifts. I wanted a Bible, a special toy, and a warm, colorful throw for each child. I was so incredibly blessed on every hand. There were stockings, filled with fruit ropes, candy, chapstick, socks, small toy items like paints, yo-yos, puzzles, as well as incredible buys on the toys, throws and even the Bibles. It felt like God put things into my way over and over again.
The kids knew that we were going to get them some presents. They were almost out of control in their excitement. The three of them have not been in school since before Thanksgiving, and the lack of structure has to be wearing for their poor mother. Diagnosed with Thyroid cancer, she had surgery the Monday after Thanksgiving, and it just isn’t a good situation. Even so, I can’t understand how she has money to do her hair and nails, but no money for the things these kids need.
“They can’t go to school,” she said in her lifeless sort of way. “The school district says they can’t come until they have uniforms. They have to have Khaki pants and a maroon, white or gold shirt. I can’t afford any of it.” She pursed her lips and swallowed like she had a bad taste in her mouth.
“Doesn’t the school have some provision for them?” I asked. “Did they tell you where you could get some things for them? Have you checked at Salvation Army or some of the thrift stores? I’m almost sure they can have other colored pants, at least, because the neighbor child wears other colors and he goes to Milford.”
“Nah, they have to have Khaki pants.” she said again, “and I just ain’t got the money for that.” I should have known that she was looking for someone to give her school clothes, but I was too troubled by the fact that these children haven’t been to school. I shopped unsuccessfully for school clothes for the three of them, and when it came to khaki, especially, there was absolutely nothing. I finally went on line to check what the restrictions were and found that she had been seriously lying to me. Not only were the kids allowed to wear other things, (Black, navy, and Khaki pants, and Navy, black, white, gold, maroon shirts) but they were given at least a week after enrolling, to come into compliance with a (very) long suffering dress code. I knew it was all excuses.
I had promised the children an excursion to Chuck-E-Cheese’s for good behavior and had said that I hoped to take them sometime before Christmas. With Christmas bearing down on us, and the church going caroling, I thought the last week would be a good week to squeeze some things in. I tried and tried to call her but her phone was off and the voice mail box “hadn’t been set up yet” (as in NEVER BEEN SET UP in the last couple of months), It was the Wednesday before Christmas, and it was a blustery, rainy day. I had printed out the guidelines for the dress code and had called and called with no success. I finally got into my car and drove the eight and a half miles to their place and knocked on the door. L.J. pulled aside the curtain, and looked out. Back went the curtain.
“It’s Ms. Mary Ann,” I heard him hiss. Then complete silence. I stood on the stoop for a long time, thinking someone would come any minute. Finally, I knocked again. He must have been standing right inside the door because he opened it immediately.
“Hey, there, L.J.. Is your Mama here?”
“Um, Yeah.” He let me in, but went over to the kitchen table where he had some breakfast waffles on a plate, and began working with them. He ignored me.
“L.J. I need to talk to your Mama. Can you get her for me?”
He left the table, and went back into the back of the house. Standing in the kitchen, it is impossible to see beyond the doorway of the living room and everything is beyond that. So I stood in the kitchen and waited. And waited. And waited.
Then he came back and went back to his waffle without saying anything to me. Muffie appeared on the scene. So I talked to the two of them about caroling that night and about whether or not they should go. Muffie said she had been to the doctor and had an ear infection. Jerry said that he had one to. I said, “Well, Kids, I really need to talk to your mama, so I can decide what we are doing about caroling tonight and Chuck-E-Cheese’s tomorrow.”
“She’s not feeling good,” said Muffie.
“Well, then, maybe we should just plan that you aren’t going tonight,” I said. L.J. hopped off his chair and disappeared. I was feeling more than a little frustrated by this time, and didn’t know if they would go the next day, either. (Especially not if I had any say!)
He came back. “We ARE going tonight,” he said.
“No, you are NOT going tonight,” I said.
“Why not?” He asked plaintively.
“Because it is cold and wet and Muffie said that she had an ear infection, and you said you had one, too, and I am just not taking you out in this weather.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“I don’t know about that, either. I NEED to talk to your Mama to make some arrangements, but if she won’t talk to me, how can I know what I’m doing?”
About this time, Muffie had had enough. She went flying back to the back of the house and came out and said, “Mom said she was going to call you.”
“That may be, Muffie, but I need to know some things NOW. Wait a minute. Do you have a pen? I can write her a note on the back of these guidelines.”
She disappeared again, then came back out. “Mom said she is going to call you.”
“That’s fine, but do you have a pen? I am going to write her a note so she knows what I need to talk to her about.”
She went again, and came back with a pen. I sat down at the kitchen table and began a rather direct note to the mom. Stating that I felt that she had had enough time to get the kids in school, and that if she didn’t do something about it, I was going to report her.
About the time I got three sentences down, I heard her male friend, tromping through the house. (He is probably 6’6 and weighs about 300 pounds at least). “Where is she?” he asked the kids in the living room.
“She’s out there in the kitchen,” I heard someone say. “She’s writing a note.”
“What’s she think she doin’?” He asked. “What’s goin’ on. What she doin’?”
He came around the corner, and maybe I should have been scared, but I was so MAD that I couldn’t see straight. I had been in the house almost 20 minutes, and I had had just about enough.
“Whas’ goin’ on, Ms. Mary Ann?” he asked, not very friendly-like at all.
“Well, S—- it’s like this. I went on line to check on the clothing requirements for the kids, and the truth is, the dress code is very lenient. What you guys are doing here is illegal. These kids haven’t been in school since before Thanksgiving, and I hate to do this, but unless you do something to get them into school, I am going to report you!”
Wrong thing to say. (Duh!) All kinds of exclamations broke forth concerning the fact that she had called, and she had tried, blah, blah, blah!”
I finally interrupted long enough to say, “Listen, S—–, it isn’t good for these children to be out of school. Muffie already told me that her last report card was bad, and they NEED to be in school. I would think you would want them to be in school.”
“Wait, wait, wait —-” He disappeared into the back of the house again, and this time, finally, the mom put in an appearance. She looked at me through sleepy, thick-lidded eyes, while Big S—– hovered angrily behind her.
“Listen, D—, I am not here to cause trouble, but you guys could be in really big trouble here. The kids haven’t been in school since before Thanksgiving, and that’s against the law!”
“Well, I called them and they haven’t called me back.” She was defensive and angry.
“Well, they’ve probably tried. It’s impossible to get a hold of you. I can try and try and try, and your phone is turned off. And you have it set up so that no one can leave a message. I can’t tell you how often I’ve tried to get up with you and there is no answer. That is why I am down here now. I told you about caroling tonight and that I might want to take the kids tomorrow, but I need to discuss things with you, but you never answer your phone.”
“Well, they can go tonight . . .”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. Muffie said she has an ear infection, and L.J. said he does, too.”
“Muffie did have one, but it wasn’t bad and she’s been on her medicine, and L.J. doesn’t have an ear infection.”
Big S—– turned his wrath on poor L.J. “L.J., why you say you got an ear infection? You ain’t got no ear infection.”
“Yes, I do. I mean I DID. I mean–. No. I don’t.”
“An’ Muffie, what you runnin’ yo mouf fo? You say you got a bad report card. You ain’t got no bad report card. What you mean by runnin’ yo’ mouf like dat, saying you got a bad report card?”
Muffie was nonchalantly eating her waffle. She paused long enough to put both hands up in an expression of uncaring indifference. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t know what “S” meant.”
He paused in his tirade against the kids and started in on me. “Ain’t none of dese kids got a bad report card. Dese kids is all honor roll kids. Ever’ one of dem. What you tryin’ to cause trouble for? She doin’ da bes’ she can. Da’ school jus’ ain’t callin’ her back!”
D— said to me, “Muffie didn’t get a bad report card. She got all “S’s. And the other kids did fine, too. Milford School District is just slow. It took three weeks for my kids to get on a bus when we moved from Harrington to Milford.”
I said, “D—, I am not saying that it doesn’t take time, but I just talked to a friend today who told me that she was taking her kid out of one school and putting her into Milford. She made one call, and within two days it was a done thing. Finished. You need to be on this, you need to be pushing to get them enrolled. It is something YOU need to do, you can’t wait on them.”
“Well, I signed the papers at (the old school) and so it is up to them to transfer the paperwork. They said I need their shot records and stuff, and a copy of their birth certificates, and the old school just ain’t released them. Besides, my kids were in school since Thanksgiving.”
“No, D—. they were not.”
“Yes, they was. They went to school the week of Thanksgiving.”
“Yes, they went to school the week of Thanksgiving, but they had off Thanksgiving day, and then the day after. Then you moved. Then you had surgery, and they have not been back since.”
She hung her head and looked at the floor.
“D—, listen to me. I am not here to cause trouble. I am here to help. You could be arrested for keeping your children out of school. This could really go against you. It’s illegal to keep your kids out of school, and it will go against you as a parent. Do you want this on your record as a parent?”
She looked uncomfortable and said in a very small voice, “No.”
I said, “Listen to me, Girlie. I want to do all I can to help. I think that you cannot doubt that. But D—, there needs to be some mutuality in our relationship. You and I need to be able to talk, to dialog about the kids. I feel like I’m only good for when you need diapers or gas or food or something for the kids. I would like some friendship, a sense of respect between us. If I am going to do anything for your kids of lasting importance, we need to have a relationship. And putting your kids into school would be good for you. You are still recovering from surgery. If the kids were in school you would have some time to rest, some time to yourself. It would be in their best interest and in yours.”
She continued to look at the floor, and I decided to weigh my options. “I am not going to take the kids caroling tonight. It is wet and rainy and I think it is in their best interest not to go. However, would you be able to go in to the school tomorrow and see about getting them enrolled?”
“Well, yes, I could do that. I guess I will just have to up there to the superintendent’s office in person after two and a half weeks and see if I can sign them up.” (This is where I had to exercise great resolve to not tear my hair out. What she was saying again was that the kids hadn’t been out of school nearly as long as they really were. It was actually FOUR WEEKS that afternoon that they were out of school — and that business of going up to the superintendent’s office in person? Well, duh! What did she think she was supposed to do??? But I decided to let it slide.)
“Do you need the kids for that?”
“Um, no. I have the paperwork. I can go do it.”
“Okay. Then I am going to pick up the kids around 9:30 tomorrow morning and we are going to Chuck-E-Cheese’s. I can’t keep them all day because I have a lot of things going on. But I will try to get them home around 1:30 or so. Will that give you enough time?”
“Yeah, that will be enough time.”
“Do you want me to take Little S—— with me, too? Would that be helpful?”
“No, I can make it okay with him. Big S—— will be with me, and he will help me.”
“Alright! Kids — I’ll see you in the morning.”
And so I went down there in the morning, and knocked on the door. Finally L.J. came out and said that Mya had to do Muffie’s hair. She’d be out soon. He came on out and we waited and waited. Then Muffie came, and eventually Mya. They were in great spirits, and we had a wonderful day. I had coupons for Chuck-E-Cheese’s and got a wonderful deal. They were happy, co-operative and their eyes were shining. They told me about the presents that they were getting from their parents. It was a fun, fun, day. They traipsed along with me to pick up a few things at Sam’s Club and then we stopped at Kohl’s. I had a 30% off EVERYTHING coupon there, plus there were wonderful sales going on. We picked up a few things for their parents, and a nice toy for their little brother. They discussed with me whether they should take the items home to wrap but they were pretty united in the fact that I should take them home and wrap them and bring them on Sunday. We stopped for ice cream at the Dairy Queen on the way home because I had promised them that they could have ice cream if they were on their best behavior. And we got home to their house around 2:30.
I was concerned about things at home. I had started trying to call D— around 1:30, but there was no answer. I was relieved as I pulled into the driveway to see that her vehicle was there, so I knew someone was home. The kids tried and tried and tried to get in, but the door was locked. I finally said, “They may open up sooner if I’m not here. I’m going to go on home, and I am sure that they will let you in. Mr. Daniel and I will be here on Sunday morning a little later than usual because church doesn’t start until 10:30. I really need to get home, now, though.” They all insisted that they were fine, and that I should go.
So I aimed my trusty mini-van towards home, and prayed for the kids and the whole sordid situation. I found out later that she didn’t go — but she got a letter that day that gave her a number to call and she DID call it — but it was the last day before Christmas break, so she says they said she has to wait until after Christmas. We shall see how this turns out! I am serious about not letting it go anymore.
Middle Daughter wrapped and wrapped and wrapped on Saturday until all the presents were ready. Certain Man and I discussed and discussed about how we should handle things. I thought maybe the kids should just come here to open their presents, because I really wanted to watch them open them. But then I thought that maybe we should just take them down there and leave them, and not even worry about taking the kids along to church. There was no Sunday School, and I knew they were going to be keyed up. That didn’t feel right to me, either. Just before we left for church, I decided that I was going to take the presents along to church, give them each their Bible before Church and then take them home after church and leave the rest of their presents there in the keeping of their mom. I packed their stockings and the smaller items in a big wash basket and began to carry things out to the van.
Certain Man looked at me in surprise. “What made you decide to take them down there?”
I was ashamed of myself, but I decided to be honest. “Because I’m a selfish old coot!” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I just don’t feel like having the hubbub, mess and noise at our house this afternoon. Our kids are going to be home, and I just don’t feel like dealing with it.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said, making relieved tears spring into my eyes. “I think this is much better.” He carried the packages out and wondered aloud at the amount of them, but didn’t complain overly much.
We drove down to pick up the children. Again, they straggled out, tired and groggy, but soon left it all behind in their excitement over their new Bibles. They were so pleased with their names on the front, and the fact that they were almost alike, yet all different. They exclaimed and paged and chattered things among themselves that bespoke of such a dearth of knowledge of things Biblical that Certain Man and I were amazed.
Making conversation on the way to church, I turned around in my seat and said, “Well, how did things go at your house this morning. Did you open presents?
L.J. looked like someone had hit him. I couldn’t see Mya, but both Muffie and L.J. turned their heads to look at their oldest sister with stricken looks.
“Um. . .” she fumbled around with her words, then said, “Um, yeah. We opened our presents this morning.”
I KNEW something was terribly wrong, and I pretended that I hadn’t really heard what she said, and I said, “. . . or are you waiting until you get home from church to open the presents from your mom and dad?”
“Yeah, that’s what we decided to do.” she said, sounding relieved. “Wait until we get home from church.”
“Yeah,” said the others. “Wait until we get home from church.” I had a sudden sick feeling somewhere in the pit of my stomach. I felt certain that there had been no Christmas at that house that morning. At all.
The three of them suddenly started looking for stuff in their Bibles. I suggested that they look up the Christmas story of how Jesus was born. Mya asked where it was found, and then somehow found Luke 2, and read us the Christmas story on the way to church. I sat there, listening to the timeless words coming out of the mouth of this child who is so old beyond her years, who has learned to lie and cheat and steal to protect her family’s secrets as well as to save her neck and I could have wept.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The car was quiet after she finished. Once again, I had to wonder what difference all this would make. I kept thinking about the Savior, who is Christ the LORD, the Messiah, and prayed again that somehow, some way, some where, some day, the truth of this would soften their hearts and they would BELIEVE.
Just before church started, I took Muffie into a hug. “There weren’t any presents at your house this morning, were there, sweetie?” I whispered into her ear.
She looked at me, her brown eyes sad and wary. “No,” she said. “None.” I hugged her again, and let her go. Suddenly I was so glad for that big pile of presents behind the back seat of our mini-van.
We had a wonderful service on Christmas Sunday Morning at Laws Mennonite Church. Music and Scripture the annual candy bars and oranges for everyone. Three little kids on our bench wriggled and laughed and caressed their bibles and helped to sing. It was finally time to go home. Certain Man and I got everyone loaded and their gifts from their Sunday School Teachers that excited them beyond words, and we were finally on our way.
We pulled into the driveway, and things looked dead as a tomb at their house. Mya went running in and got the door open. Someone had made sure she had a key. The other kids wanted to stay behind and help carry gifts, but we finally convinced them to go on in. Both of us expected one of the adults to come out and tell us where to put things, or to help carry or something, but we didn’t see hide nor hair of anyone.
“She’s resting,” one of the kids said. Certain Man and I stood in the kitchen holding the wash basket full of presents, and the stack of things that wouldn’t fit in.
“Can we just bring them on into the living room?” I asked. “Mr. Daniel and I can set them around the tree, if you want us to.”
Muffie didn’t wait for anyone’s permission. “YES,” she said her little chin sticking out defiantly. “You CAN bring them in.” We didn’t wait for anyone to stop us. We walked right on it — a first for both of us. The Christmas tree stood there in nice array — but not one single gift anywhere. Nothing to be seen. Certain Man and I separated things out with the help of the children. There was sweet camaraderie, conversation and companionship with the excitement of little people, almost unable to contain their joy at the sight of the growing pile of things that was each of theirs.
And then, the basket was empty. The presents all given out and into the piles and Certain Man and I looked at each other and wondered what to do next. “Well, Kids, I guess we’ll be going,” we finally said. They only had eyes for their presents as they lovingly arranged and rearranged and adjusted. They didn’t ask to open anything. They didn’t shake or rattle a single thing. They just looked and gently touched and in hushed tones, discussed.
Certain Man picked up the basket and we let ourselves out, leaving them there in the living room, shutting the kitchen door behind us.
“Well,” said Certain Man. “You would have thought their parents would have at least came out!”
“You would think so, yes,” I said, half to myself. We got into the Mini van and came on home. Home to our house that was full of warmth and light and love and the adult children we love so much. And once again, I had to wonder about how God chose me to go to Mark and Alene Yoder’s house that long ago day when He was making that decision. I wondered at the Grace that has caused the lines to fall in such pleasant places. I am so grateful for parents who taught me about this Good News — a Savior, which is Christ the LORD.
And I’m more aware than ever that “from those who have been given much, much will be required.” I refuse to entertain thoughts of “deserving” because I know that if I got what I deserved, I would NEVER get Heaven. And so, when it seems like what we do is but a drop in the bucket against the tide of headlong destruction, I want to believe that the end of this story will only be told in Heaven. In the meantime, I pray for grace to be faithful to the calling. And, once again, someday when we are THERE, if even one of these kids makes it safely home, it will be MORE than worth it.
Ah, LORD Jesus. May it be so!