For years and years I too hated Christmas…too much brouhaha in my books…then I had a Christmas epiphany…no small feat for a non-Christian…but here goes
I always put huge store in Christmas…because I was raised in a huge family and I had believed all my life that “family” is what Christmas was about…My Father’s birthday is the twenty-third and my uncle’s is the twenty-fifth and as a child we always did the big Christmas/birthday celebration…but as time goes on things change and you discover that family are people too…and they have foibles…they mess up…and things never quite live up to your expectations.
In the early ‘90’s my Mother moved to BC leaving me to live in the old family home in Thunder Bay. My brother was newly married to woman that put the “C” in control. (and another word that I won’t use here!) She didn’t like cooking when I was around and for many years I thought it was cos she was intimidated by the fact that I have my chef’s papers…turns out she’s just lazy, opinionated and lazy…but that’s another story.
So Mom moves to BC, Dad and my sister are in Toronto and I am faced with the prospect of cooking the whole Christmas shebang at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. My sister-in-law has invited her whole family so I am cooking a 27lb turkey and all the trimmings. Two kinds of stuffing (one for each end) 3 kinds of salad and 4 vegetables, mashed spuds, gravy, pickles etc etc and top it all off with Figgie Pudding…(I’m from a go big er go home kinda family)
Five days before Christmas my sister-in-law calls me and informs me that I am “allowed” to come to her house for an hour between 6 and 7 AM to stuff the bird and put it in the oven…but then I need to leave for the day so she can have some “quality” time with her family.
Can you guess where I told her to put her bird? ~ahem~
So the Christmas dawns and I am alone. I am not answering the phone…and I am depressed….as my Grampy used to say, “I am lower than whale shit and that is on the bottom of the ocean! We are having a good old North Western Ontario blizzard and as I listen to the radio I am overcome both with the concept that I can’t get away from Christmas (it’s just freakin everywhere) and that I am alone. So I jump in my truck and head out to the local truck stop for breakfast. Somewhere where there’s people and noise.
On my way to the truck stop I drive past the Greyhound Bus Depot and while it is closed I spot and elderly man in a summer weight suit huddled in the doorway.
I drive by…then go around the block and drive by again. Something about this situation tweaks my conscience and I cannot get the picture of this man out of my head.
On my third pass I pull into the parking lot and lean out my window. “Are you ok?” I ask. This tiny elderly fellow looks up at me and with tears running down his face says, “I’ll do.”
“Well no…he won’t do.” I think as I watch him shiver and shudder. So I offer to let him in my truck. I’m thinking that if it turns out he’s got a gun…I certainly won’t feel any worse off than I already do this Christmas.
At first he refuses. But then with some cajoling and conversation he eventually climbs in and I take him to the truck stop to warm him up and maybe get him some food. He refuses to eat but allows as I could buy him a “cup of cocoa”.
As he thaws out he tells me his story. He tells me his name is Sheldon Shepherd. He left Vancouver 3 days ago on his way to London ON to spend Christmas with his family. He was traveling by Greyhound. In the bathroom in the Thunder Bay bus terminal he is mugged…robbed…and knocked out. Because he is old school and won’t ask for help when he comes to… he doesn’t tell anyone, his grandkid’s Christmas presents are gone, as is his coat and wallet. He finds himself outside of the depot, the depot closed, in a blizzard with a lump on his head the size of Santa. Areas of his story seem lacking to me…but he’s got this lump and no coat and no money…so…
I am filled with righteous indignation and I insist that he allow me to call the police. They come and after all is said and done I find out that they can get him another bus ticket to London but they have to find a judge to authorize the funds and besides there is no bus running thru till the twenty-sixth. One of the police officers suggests that this sad soul go to the local homeless shelter. I’ve never been there but I know where it is so I agree to drive him there.
Sheldon is quiet on his way to the shelter. He confides in me as we are pulling into the parking lot that he’s never had to accept charity before and not comfortable with it now. I fully understand. I have never been able to look a homeless person in the eye. I have always been consumed with guilt and the thought that there but for the grace of all the gods go I.
In we go. My first impression was that we were entering a jail. We walked in thru the front door to be confronted with locked double doors and a “security guard”. Sheldon is pulling back so I tell the guard his story and the guard opens the locked doors to allow us into the shelter telling us to “find Rick”.
As we enter I am assaulted by a cacophony of sounds and smells….lots of them not pleasant. There is a riot of color and furniture and bodies everywhere…there are people sleeping standing up against walls and on the stairs and tired used old blankets clutched in dirty little children’s fingers.
Slowly as I become accustomed to the “ambiance” I begin to see Christmas in this room. There are bits of tinsel hanging from dirty stocking caps set jauntily over dirty faces. There’s what can only be called a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the corner and there are new socks and new gloves on many hands and feet…and lots of the people that are awake are smiling. I don’t understand.
Across the room is the big serving window to the kitchen but I see no one on the other side…as I start across the room I hear the unmistakable sound of dishes smashing to the floor and a resounding “Damn it!” from behind the wall. I peek around a see a harried fellow, in half a Santa suit picking up broken dishes and muttering.
“Rick?” I ask. This frantic man turns to me and blesses me with the biggest gap tooth smile and says…”yup…hiya! What can I do for you?”
I explain Sheldon’s story and Rick tells me no problem he can stay here over night. He then turns to Sheldon and says,”I don’t suppose you can cook?”
“Why?” says Sheldon and I at once. Turns out that the volunteer church group that was to cook the shelter’s Christmas dinner won’t be coming because of the storm. Rick says that Christmas is always a banner time for the shelter food wise…”people assuage their guilt by giving at Christmas”. The end result is that he has tons of food and no cooks.
“Hmmmmmm,” says I, “maybe I can help”
Long story short…we have Christmas dinner for close to 200. Sheldon isn’t a cook but he’s a mean dishwasher and clean up kinda guy…and we recruit a couple of people from the shelter and we are off… We have beef and turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing made in pans instead of in the bird and spaghetti with sauce and chocolate pudding.
We have Christmas Carols and laughter and hugs and tears and handclasps from dirty little fingers. By 10 PM I am completely and totally physically exhausted, sweaty and hot, hot, hot… but as I turn to survey the room I have an epiphany.
Christmas is not about receiving the love from my family that I believe is my due. It truly is about the giving. In any way shape or form.
Sheldon passed away in 1996 but I still hear from his daughter Janice…once a year at Christmas. In the many years since this event occurred in my life, I’ve sent this story out to online friends far and wide…and as a result there are “Christmas with Sheldon” parties all over North America designed by people who have been affected by Sheldon’s story to assist people that have “less than” we do. Not people we believe are less than us because we don’t get to judge. But people that have less than us for whatever reason…and they don’t just happen at Christmas.
And here I am all these years later understanding that Sheldon’s plight could have occurred to anyone of us at any time in our lives. Sheldon coming into my life was a true blessing and a life changing moment and my telling of Sheldon’s story to others is not my right but my responsibility.
It is truly the best that I can do