By Tabitha Bozeman
Our daughter Olivia is about to turn 9. Her excitement over this exceeds mine. However, I do love when my children are old enough to decide that they’d like a special birthday outing instead of a party. This year, she decided to visit the Chattanooga Aquarium with a friend. I loaded two girls up Sunday morning and we headed to Tennessee. It was the perfect weather for some lovely photos of them holding hands, skipping through yellow leaves on grey sidewalks and singing songs.
About a block from the aquarium, we passed a man and woman asking for money. The girls stopped and looked up at me, waiting. Cashless, I glanced around, saw a restaurant, and suggested we grab something warm for them. The man and woman seemed familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure why.
During the holidays, it is often wetter and colder than the rest of the year, and for those of us with shelter and full pantries the threat of physical discomfort highlights, the predicament of those who aren’t sure when their next meal will arrive, or if they will sleep indoors – charitable giving is always highest this time of year.
The connection of giving and the holidays is a relatively new phenomenon that can be traced back to the classic story, A Christmas Carol, which is responsible for many ubiquitous Christmas traditions. Scrooge’s nephew describes Christmas as “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time… when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave.” The rest of the year, Charles Dickens knew, it is all too easy to think of those in need as different, far-removed from commonalities.
As we waited, I tried to place the man and woman who has asked us for help. Suddenly, I remembered: three years ago, we brought the girls to Chattanooga for a family outing and ran into this same couple, and shared a meal with them. They shared their stories with us, and I have often wondered about them since – even publishing a poem about the experience.
We took the warm food back over to them. I told them we’d met them before, showing them the poem. The man’s eyes filled with tears, and he joked that “Marines don’t cry, but sometimes their eyes leak.” He’d been diagnosed with cancer in the last three years and would be gone soon, and wanted to tell us his name. The woman told us her name was chosen from a baby’s headstone in the cemetery where her father worked. He’d taken her every Sunday to visit the grave. We listened, hugged them both and told them they were loved.
Soon, the girls were looking at fish, otters and penguins, and I figured they’d forgotten about the homeless couple. That night, when he asked about the best part of her trip, Olivia’s daddy expected a story about a fish or cupcakes. Instead, Olivia told him the best part of her day was feeding the homeless.
Each of us is one tragedy away from needing help. This truth is scary and uncomfortable, so it is easier to ignore the woman in the parking lot or the man at the intersection or the couple on the side of the road. Teaching our children and ourselves to give is important. However, learning how to receive is, too. The two are interlinked. In her book The Reckoning, Brene Brown says “She wasn’t afraid of people in need because she wasn’t afraid of needing others… She didn’t mind extending kindness to others, because she herself relied on the kindness of others.”
None of us make it through life entirely on our own. Creating a support network for ourselves is an important skill to nurture in ourselves and teach our children, and a wonderful Christmas gift to give ourselves.
Tabitha Bozeman lives in Gadsden with her family and teaches English at Gadsden State Community College, where she is the editor-in-chief of the Cardinal Arts Journal. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. Tabitha may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.