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Playing Santa Claus at the Grace Shelter

December 2007
Playing Santa Claus at the Grace Shelter

Thanks to MapQuest it is possible to find our way to the Grace Shelter. We are here to help sort and wrap Christmas presents for the shelter clientele. I am not familiar with this part of town and as we get closer to our destination, the road gets bumpier and the picture gloomier. I am grateful that my husband has decided to come with me. Once we turn into Maple Street we recognize the building immediately. Women and children are framing the entrance door. Groups of them are standing outside with big black garbage bags filled with stuff, probably their belongings (I think).

As we make our way through the thick crowd, I stare back at women with missing teeth, some with missing patches of hair. Faces that have changed, hardened, and imprinted with scars of a life that must not have been kind. So different from the ones I am used to seeing in my everyday world where I work, live, and play. All of a sudden I feel disoriented. I thought I had left these faces behind in the poverty-hit slums of Pakistan a lifetime ago, but here they are. These women and children might look different, their hair and clothes are different, but I know their souls so well. The distance between their pain and me is as sheer and as thin as my silk chunri. I am home again.

We are led to another room and introduced to Mr. Smith, who is in charge of the gifts. The walls in this room are lined with open shelves, holding stacks of an assortment of clothes. I see no gift warps, ribbons, or bows here. Mr. Smith wastes no time in putting us to work. He pushes at me a huge industrial strength black garbage bag and hands me a sheet of paper. I am told that this is a wish list that I am in charge of taking care of. He gestures towards the open shelves and says, “This is what we got here. You read the list, see what you can find here, and do your best.” My body and soul feel a shock—something doesn’t seem right—but the immigrant in me who has gone through so many adjustments takes over and auto-responds “Okay.”

The list in my hand is for a 35-year-old woman, Tasha Jackson. This is so different than any wish list I have seen or made. It tells me that Tasha wears size 18 clothes, size 12 underpants, and 42D bra (I am a little embarrassed as I read this personal information). I feel disoriented, as I peel a label off the thick pad sitting on the table, write down Tahsa’s name with a broad-tipped marker, and stick it on the garbage bag. This bag now belongs to Tasha and is going to hold her Christmas presents. “Why can’t we wrap her presents properly?” I ask myself?as my inside protests at this particular adjustment. For some reason, this seems to violate something much bigger than the zillion things I have adjusted to in my 20 years of living in the U.S.

I walk over to Mr. Smith, with a heavy heart. In no way does this feel like someone’s Christmas present. Mr. Smith knots the bag and throws it in the cart in the hallway with other trash bags. I complete the paperwork indicating that a bag was prepared for Ms. Tasha Jackson. He hands me another wish list: “This Kelly woman has been here all day with her kids, please hurry!” and I begin to prepare yet another Christmas delivery. I must be the worst Santa in this world. This is the first time I have seen Christmas presents or any presents without the red, green, and gold wrapping paper, without a bow, without a little pretty label saying who it is from. Before I know it, I am using the permanent marker to draw flowers on Kelly's black bag, and it does begin to look a little festive. When filling the bag for Kelly, I break rules: I sneak in extra stuff, and when that is not enough I risk getting thrown out of there. I reach in my handbag and pull out the cash I had gotten at the ATM machine and hide that in Kelly’s bag before I tie it and deliver it?not that it will make much difference in Kelly’s life. This pathetic act of kindness is not meant for Kelly but to comfort my own barely alive consciousness.

The few hours I spent at this shelter have forced me to peer into a world I never knew existed. This afternoon has broken my paradigm. Over the loudspeaker, I hear Tasha Jackson’s name being called out. I imagine her picking up the bag and carrying it wherever she is staying tonight and hopefully on Christmas day. I imagine her thinking it would be nice to have a new set of clothes, to own a nice working bra and maybe a pair of underwear. Little does she know that I have let her down, we have let her down.

I try to imagine Tasha opening her presents, but I can’t imagine her disappointment when she finds her underwear to be too big, or too small, and finds that she did not get a bra. She had asked for so little and Santa brought her even less. I wonder if she will put on her red nail polish, if she will light the scented candle to chase away the clouds of misery. I wonder if she will smile or cry. I wonder if those yellow socks will bring any warmth or glow to her day.

All of a sudden I am looking in the mirror and I am so ashamed to see who I have become. I have spent most of my blessed life here in the U.S. feeling envious of others because our house is smaller and older than my friends’ “starter castles.” I have quietly suffered because my husband refuses to buy us the usual Mercedez or a BMW. I worry about what our friends must think of us since we don’t have the token possessions. How and when did I get swept away in this materialistic race? I was given the chance to have lived a totally different and fulfilled life of giving, sharing, and enjoying what I was given, but I chose the path?.that led to unfulfillment and emptiness.

I think of my childhood home, where to our annoyance, every evening before we could sit down to eat, we had to run all over the neighborhood delivering plates of food to Daada who lived alone, Khala who was sick, or Bhabi who was pregnant and might be craving something different. My parents were poor but they knew the meaning of sharing and giving. Compared to them we have so much more but I have strayed off the path they started me on. Is this because my heart has changed or because I live a sheltered life?

There is such a disconnect here. We have become hoarders, burdened with stuff we don’t use, need, or even want. Every day someone out there has to make do without the things that are piled up in our homes waiting for that “just in case” event. They are taking up room and making our homes smaller and smaller. Let’s de-clutter our overstocked pantries, garages, workshops, closets, dressers, and homes and replace the clutter with the kind of JOY that can only come from sharing. Let's be proactive in sharing our blessings! We have so much to give.

By Qaiser Mukhtar

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