A few weeks before Thanksgiving, in preparation for the holiday gift-giving frenzy ahead, my mom crouched in the spare room we called “the office,” code for “the place we store all the junk we don’t need but haven’t thrown away yet.” She tossed toys into a black plastic trash bag as my brother and I, aged five and eight respectively, looked on.
“Mom! Not that dinosaur! I like that dinosaur!” my brother whined, pulling on her arm.
“Timothy,” she admonished. “You haven’t played with him in ages. Some needy child will give him all the love he needs.”
The use of Timmy’s full name showed she meant business, and he knew it. Sulking, he skulked off to his own room, but not before tossing one last caution over his shoulder.
“Okay, but nothing good. The needy kids don’t need the good stuff. They won’t know the difference.”
Mom just shook her head and smiled, filling bag after bag with toys we no longer wanted. She dropped them off at our church the next day, a small pile of treasures we'd never miss.
The week after Thanksgiving, every year since I could remember, our family piled into our old Astro minivan, the one with the powder blue hubcaps that matched the stripes down the side, and drove into the city for what my dad called “perspective.” All I knew was that perspective always happened in the poor neighborhoods where we had to lock our doors driving down the street after a scary-looking man with frizzled hair and broken black teeth once tried to get into the car, the streets where little kids like me played outside without coats in December. The streets we saw on the news every week, because gangs fought like dogs there. The streets where the refugees lived, spending every dime on food, who wouldn’t have a Christmas tree unless we brought one for them.
This particular year, we were dropping off a tree and decorations on Niagara Street, at a towering, decrepit apartment building the color of terra cotta with once-ornate molding around the eaves that peeled and dropped on pedestrians below, regardless of the twisted chain-link fence around its perimeter. Mom and dad hoisted the tree off the car and wrestled it up the sidewalk. Timmy was allowed to ring the buzzer and a thickly-accented voice told us to come in. My nostrils were assaulted with the scent of too many meals as soon as the door swung open. There wasn’t a light in the hallway, and the staircase creaked as we struggled up with the tree.
“Come in,” said a thin, kind-looking man with the darkest skin I’d ever seen. He smiled broadly as he held the door open, welcoming a quartet of white strangers into his home.
The floor was bare, but so spotless it shone. A mattress in the corner with a sheet balled up on it was the only furniture, three shy-looking children crouched on it, staring at the newcomers. One looked to be about my age, the other two indiscriminately younger. A bare bulb swung from the ceiling, and the light seemed inexplicably dim, until I noticed plastic duct-taped over the windows.
“Hi,” said Timmy, wandering over to the trio of children. “I’m Timmy.” None of them spoke, but the small girl grinned, a little light. A peace offering. I was more wary, watching my parents set up the tree in a stand by the window. The two other adults watched with equal trepidation, their arms folded, faces concerned as the tree waffled and swayed. My dad cranked the tree stand into place and let go, all of us holding our breath. The great tree waved slightly, then stood tall and everyone smiled with relief. It smelled like Christmas.
“Please,” the man said, gesturing toward a door I hadn’t noticed before. “Come, sit down. Have a snack.” His accent was smooth, his words strung together fluidly, buttery like the yellow linen shirt he wore. He ushered us into a sitting room, and I sat on the edge of a tattered couch, uneasy in my strange surroundings.
“Sit, sit!” he said to my parents, who joined my brother and me as his wife crept in behind him with a box of store-bought Christmas cookies and four cans of Sprite. Timmy grabbed one immediately, popped it open and slurped loudly. “Thank you!” he said to her, grinning wide with real gratitude. She returned his smile, her shy face softening as she sat on a hard kitchen chair across the room. One leg wobbled, but she balanced expertly. She hadn’t brought soda for herself or her husband. Those were just for us, the guests.
“Please,” she said softly, pointing to the cans and then to my parents and me. “For you.”
We each took one and nodded our thanks, although my stomach twisted in conflict. It would be rude to refuse, but it also seemed wrong to take from someone who obviously had so little. And what about those little faces on the mattress? Would they get some sprite and cookies too? Something about it felt unfair, in the schoolyard sense of the word I knew, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. Not right then and there.
As we ate and drank self-consciously, dad asked some careful questions about life in the Sudan, the war-torn country the family had come from just a few months before. What it was like there, how the trip had been for them, what they were doing now.
The man answered in stilted, although perfect English. “I was an accountant there,” he said slowly. “But it was not safe for me, for my family. We were threatened, because we are Christians. They were going to send us to the camps. So we came here. Much better.” He smiled broadly. “There, my home country, we had big house, garage, fancy car. But here, we are safe. God is good to us.”
“And here? Did you find work?” my dad asked, his brow furrowed in brotherly concern. I noticed he had taken a soda, and my dad never drank Sprite, not that I knew of.
The man nodded, smiling still. “I did. I work at meat-packing plant. On the line. It is good work,” he said, looking my dad straight in the eye. “And my family is happy here.”
Just then, the smallest girl wandered in, her thumb in her mouth. Her other arm was around the neck of a stuffed dinosaur. Timmy’s stuffed dinosaur.
“Hey, that’s—“ Dad put his hand on Timmy’s knee and gave him the sort of look that stops a kid in his tracks. “Timmy, why don’t you go show the kids how to put the ornaments on the tree?”
The ride home was silent for most of the way, each of us sobered by the difference between the home we had just seen and the one to which we’d be returning. We weren’t rich by any means, but our middle class colonial seemed like a palace after Niagara Street.
“Dad,” Timmy said suddenly, just before we turned onto our street.
“That was my dinosaur. That the little girl had.”
“Yes it was.”
“And did you see? They didn’t have any other toys at all, hardly. Each kid had just one or two. And she didn’t put that dinosaur down the whole time we were there. She loved it.”
“Well Tim, kids who don’t have any toys appreciate them more than kids who have lots.”
“I’m glad she got the dinosaur,” he said with finality. “Those kids deserve the good stuff.”
“I’m happy you think so, Tim,” dad said as we pulled into our driveway. In the gathering dusk, our house looked like a Norman Rockwell painting, our own tree winking merrily from the inside. “I’m glad we all think so.”