A Cara Mia Delgatto Short Story
By Joanna Campbell Slan
Christmas in Florida is more of a purposeful decision than a tangible season. Without cold weather, we are forced to whip up our own special holiday cheer. That’s why I closed The Treasure Chest, my store in Stuart, Florida, early on December 15, 2015, so my staff and I could have a pre-holiday holiday party. Of course, “closed early” is a matter of opinion. In this case, it meant that I flipped the sign to CLOSED at 8:45 p.m. rather than waiting until 9 to lock the front door. But that didn’t matter. Fifteen minutes early was still a boon, because usually our customers linger until half past ten over our stunning selection of recycled, upcycled, and repurposed goods.
Although the entire sales staff—Skye Blue, MJ Austin, and Honora MacAfee—had put in a long day, we were energized by the task ahead. A week ago, we’d agreed to do our part in making the holidays happier for those less fortunate. A local charity—the Treasure Coast Gift of Hope or TCGH–had emailed me one family’s “Wish List,” things they’d love to have for Christmas. I carefully cut the list into four pieces, folded the slips of paper, and tossed them into a Ball jar. The plan was for each of us to draw an item, purchase and wrap it. Then we’d go as a group to the TCGH holiday party on Christmas Eve and place our presents under the tree. With luck, we’d get to see them opened by our “adopted family.”
To sweeten the act of giving to strangers, I’d baked a batch of Snickerdoodles. Honora, the oldest of my employees, had thrown together a mix of apple cider and spices in our store’s slow cooker. All day long, the sweet fragrances had enticed my staff. We were more than ready to put up our feet and enjoy the treats. While sipping the cinnamon brew from a mug, I watched as Skye dipped her fingers into the wide-mouthed jar and plucked out a folded paper. “Sunglasses for a woman. Any style. A case would be nice, too. ”
A smile curled the corners of her lips, while a dreamy look came over her face. Clasping the slice of paper to her chest, she said, “I love Christmas. I can just imagine someone opening my gift and loving the sunglasses I’ll get her. This will be such fun!”
“I’m sure she’ll be delighted, dear.” Honora patted Skye on the shoulder. “I love buying for others. Especially those who are less fortunate. It’s the perfect time of year to help people in need, isn’t it?”
“It sure is,” I agreed. “Back in St. Louis, my father always served holiday meals to anyone who showed up at the back door of our restaurant. No one ever went away hungry, especially during the holidays.”
MJ grimaced. These sentiments were new to her. She’d agreed to participate in this Christmas activity after having an epiphany, and it was taking her a while to get with the program. Until recently, she hadn’t celebrated holidays. Partially because she’d grown up in a religion that didn’t celebrate, and partially because she’d lived alone and adopted a negative attitude toward merriment. But last year, she came to the realization that she was missing out on a lot of fun. As a consequence, she had decided to change her ways. But even though she’d made that decision intellectually, following through had proved to be a challenge.
Everything connected with our preparations felt awkward to her. And MJ didn’t “do” awkward. She liked feeling in charge. That left her acting more like Scrooge than Santa.
“Feeding the hungry is one thing, but buying them sunglasses? Sheesh. I’ve worn the same pair for two years.” MJ crossed her arms over her chest and frowned.
“But MJ,” said Skye, “the point is that you have a pair, and you can easily buy another. This person is probably doing without. Imagine! Going without sunglasses here in Florida? You could wind up blind! It isn’t safe.”
Sensing that Skye’s exuberance would only make MJ more grouchy, I shook the jar and pushed it toward Honora. “Your turn.”
“A Barbie doll. Any outfit would be nice,” she read from the paper in her hand. With a click, she tucked the slip into her purse. “EveLynn can whip up a dozen pieces of clothing in no time. My daughter has always enjoyed sewing doll clothes.”
MJ rolled her eyes. I could almost hear her thinking that given EveLynn’s total lack of style and Honora’s dowdy wardrobe, this Barbie gift was bound to disappoint. But Honora patted her patent leather pocketbook with great satisfaction, so I kept my mouth shut.
“You and I are the only two left. Do you want to go first? Or shall I?” I offered MJ the jar.
“You do it.”
My fingers clutched a slip with one end sticking up. The schoolchild print read: LEGOS. I laughed and shared the wish with my friends. “My son Tommy used to play with LEGOS for hours on end. He loved them. It’ll be fun to go buy them again.”
I held my breath as MJ took the last paper. The expression on her face changed from reluctance to repugnance as she scanned the message. She snorted and tossed the paper onto the table top. “Forget it. This is ridiculous!”
As she got to her feet and stomped over to the coffee maker, I read the Christmas wish out loud. “Jack Rogers sandals, size eight, gold.”
“Oh, my.” Skye’s blue eyes widened. “Those are expensive, aren’t they?”
“They sure are. I own one pair,” said MJ, “and I only wear them rarely, to make them last. No way am I going to buy them for somebody else. A cheap knock-off pair, okay, but I’m not shelling out good money to give Jack Rogers sandals to a charity case. In fact, the very idea that someone would ask for them is outrageous!”
With that, she poured the coffee with such violence, it splashed over the sides of the cup. I started to say I’d trade with her, but Honora beat me to it.
“I’ll buy the sandals. You can buy the Barbie. You’ll probably enjoy finding a nice outfit for the doll, won’t you, MJ?” Honora opened her purse and put her slip next to the one that MJ had thrown down. “Is that all right?”
MJ scowled. “Fine.”
“Honora, I can do that. I don’t mind,” I said.
“I’m happy to buy the sandals,” said Honora. “I have a friend who works at a shoe store. I’m sure she’ll give me a discount when she hears what’s up.”
So it was decided.
Given MJ’s bad mood, the party broke up quickly. That night I stared up at the stars that twinkled over the rolling surf on Jupiter Island. My upper deck had proved to be my “happy spot,” the place I visited whenever I felt troubled. Had I done the right thing in suggesting my co-workers play Santa? Or had I pushed them into spending money that they couldn’t afford? I wondered. My goal had been to plump up everyone’s holiday spirits. I had thought that by giving to others, we’d feel good about ourselves.
But maybe I’d been wrong.
The next twelve days flew by. The store was busier than ever, and my cash register rang merrily. I barely had a chance to run out and buy those LEGOS, but when I did, a big grin crept over my face as I remembered how much fun Tommy used to have with his plastic blocks.
Christmas Eve was a complete panic. Customers snapped up merchandise off the shelves as fast as we could set it out. At five o’clock, I wondered if we’d be able to close our doors and make it to the TCGH event on time. As it was, we piled into MJ’s pink Cadillac at five thirty, which meant we arrived just as the costumed Santa began handing out the gifts.
A woman identified herself as one of the coordinators and ushered us to reserved spots at a table full of sponsors. With a nod of her head, she indicated, “That’s your family over there. Of course, they don’t know you’re their benefactors.”
She took our offerings and slipped them under the tree, as Santa continued to hand out packages. A sweet little girl with pigtails sidled up to our table. She offered us our choice of coffee, water, or tea. All three of us chose tea.
After a while, Santa called on our family. The mother and three children gathered by the tree. We watched eagerly as they carried their wrapped packages back to a table. The mother sat in a wheelchair that was pushed by the oldest girl, who was fourteen. The youngest girl was ten, but large for her age. There was also a seven-year-old boy. Their ages had been on a background sheet the TCGH had given me.
“I’m glad they don’t know who the donors are,” whispered Skye.
“It’s better that way,” I said. “My friend Kiki Lowenstein told me it’s called tzedakah in Hebrew. It’s the highest form of a good deed.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said MJ, who listened in. “I still want to see which one of those girls asked for those sandals. You have to admit, it was a pretty greedy thing to do. Taking advantage of the situation. Those shoes must have cost you a mint, Honora! Even with a discount.”
“That’s not your concern,” said Honora.
“And that’s not the Christmas spirit, MJ!” Skye said. Her angry response caused heads to turn our way—and that motion gave us all a clear view of what happened next.
As we watched, the fourteen-year-old girl opened the box that Honora had wrapped in bright red paper. After checking to see that the sandals were inside, she walked over to her mother and knelt down.
“Here, Mom. These are for you,” the girl said, as she eased the golden sandals onto the swollen feet.
~ The End ~
Copyright 2015 by Joanna Campbell Slan. All right reserved.