Be­fore-bed read

As a young girl, Alanna Parke Kvale helped her mother gather food and gifts for a fam­ily in need— and it be­came her most cher­ished Christ­mas ever

First For Women - - Contents -

“She stopped at the side, put her hands up to her face and be­gan weep­ing”

My fa­ther was in the Air Force, and we were sta­tioned in Louisiana. We had been shop­ping for the enor­mous Christ­mas feast Mother al­ways made and had just fin­ished bring­ing in the gro­ceries. We were sit­ting at the kitchen ta­ble hav­ing milk and cook­ies when she first men­tioned Mrs. Neuwirth and her chil­dren.

“We re­ally must do some­thing for the poor woman. Five chil­dren to feed, and it looks like they’ll be hav­ing no Christ­mas at all.” I was 12 years old, and I couldn’t imag­ine any­thing as terrible as hav­ing no Christ­mas.

Mother snapped her fin­gers, stood up sud­denly and be­gan to pace across the floor. “I’ve got it! We’ll give them their own Christ­mas, right down to the tree, stock­ings for the chil­dren and din­ner!”

It sounded like a great idea, but be­fore I could ask how we were to ac­com­plish this mir­a­cle—for we weren’t rich our­selves—Mother was on the phone talking to some of our neigh­bors and ar­rang­ing a get-to­gether to dis­cuss the prob­lem.

One of the neigh­bors sug­gested we in­vite them to Christ­mas din­ner or just show up with food for the fam­ily. My mother re­minded her of how em­bar­rass­ing that would be for the poor woman, and that we should al­low her a lit­tle dig­nity.

“How about if we give them Christ­mas anony­mously, and I mean ev­ery­thing, right down to the tree and gifts, and even wrap­ping pa­per with bows?” Mother sug­gested.

“None of us is rich, my dear. Just how are we sup­posed to give that fam­ily Christ­mas?” This was from Mrs. Smith from down the street at the cor­ner.

“If we all pitch in, it won’t be very much for each of us. All of us can buy ex­tra canned goods; we’ll just pool our re­sources when it comes to the food. It won’t hurt to bake an ex­tra pie or an ex­tra batch of cook­ies. We share with each other, so why not with them?”

But how were they to pro­vide gifts for the chil­dren? Again, Mother had the answer. “Ev­ery­body, look through your at­tic and base­ment. How about all those toys you’ve packed away? They don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be brand-new.”

One lady even vol­un­teered to pro­vide a tree for the fam­ily. The meet­ing broke up soon af­ter­ward, and the ladies scat­tered to do their part. I’ll bet a lot of at­tics and base­ments got cleaned up as women scoured their dwellings for things to share with the Neuwirths. We all had to hurry; Christ­mas was only a week away.

My fa­ther pro­duced an enor­mous box, which sat at the far end of our kitchen. Ev­ery day, a neigh­bor would drop some­thing into it to add to the pile of good­ies in­tended for the Neuwirths. There were canned goods and baked goods, wrap­ping pa­per and bows and stuffed toys and dolls for the younger chil­dren. Mother even found a watch still in its box. It was one my fa­ther hadn’t liked and re­fused to wear. It would be per­fect for Mrs. Neuwirth’s old­est son, who was 13. Soon, the box was full to over­flow­ing with won­drous things, ex­cept a turkey.

Two days be­fore Christ­mas, my mother be­gan to de­spair about not hav­ing a turkey in the box. Even if the whole neigh­bor­hood put the money to­gether, there were no tur­keys left at the com­mis­sary; Mother had checked. She was stand­ing in the kitchen pon­der­ing the prob­lem when Mrs. Smith ap­peared at the back door with a huge bag. Up to this point, Mrs. Smith had only con­trib­uted a few cans of peas and some nap­kins.

Mother opened the bag, and in­side was the big­gest, fat­test turkey ever! Mother’s eyes grew large, but she quickly re­cov­ered and hugged Mrs. Smith.

“Oh, my dear, that was the last item we needed for the box. Thank you so much! Where on earth did you find one? The com­mis­sary was com­pletely out.”

Mrs. Smith turned a star­tling shade of red and seemed at a loss for words. Then she pat­ted her hair straight, coughed and said, “Not at all, not at all. It was no prob­lem what­so­ever. I dis­cov­ered it in the back of my freezer— didn’t even re­al­ize I had it.

I was de­frost­ing the freezer, and there it was.”

And all the while, she was ges­tur­ing with her hands and seemed quite flus­tered. She wasn’t used to be­ing caught mak­ing a gen­er­ous ges­ture, I guess.

Mother just smiled and thanked her again, and the woman beat a hasty re­treat back to her own house.

By Christ­mas Eve, the box was ready and wrapped as a gi­ant present. The neigh­bor who had pro­vided the tree helped my fa­ther cart ev­ery­thing over to the

Neuwirths’ front porch.

They snuck over and be­gan haul­ing that cum­ber­some box up the steps to the front porch, try­ing to be quiet so Mrs. Neuwirth wouldn’t hear and catch them. Fi­nally, ev­ery­thing was ready. They propped the tree against the house. My fa­ther rang the bell, and then sprinted off the porch like a small boy play­ing a prank to join his friend be­hind a bush. The rest of the neigh­bor­hood was watch­ing from their win­dows.

Mrs. Neuwirth opened the door and stared for a mo­ment at the huge box, and then quickly shut the front door. Per­plexed, my fa­ther was about to go up and ring the bell again when the door opened slowly. Mrs. Neuwirth came back out on the porch and walked around the box, no doubt look­ing for some clue as to where it had come from. She peeked in­side, cu­ri­ous about the con­tents, and gasped as she saw all the good­ies so lov­ingly placed in­side.

She stopped at the side, put her hands up to her face and be­gan weep­ing. I knew she had read the note tacked to the box that said: Merry Christ­mas to the Neuwirths, From Santa Claus.

To my knowl­edge, Mrs. Neuwirth never dis­cov­ered who had left that gi­gan­tic pack­age on her doorstep that Christ­mas Eve. But to me, that was the best Christ­mas ever, for I had watched a com­mu­nity come to­gether to show the true spirit of Christ­mas to a fam­ily in need.

—Alanna Parke Kvale

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