She had her left leg on one of those little scooters people use when they’ve broken an ankle. She’d asked the clerk at St. Vincent de Paul to take a drip coffee maker out of the box. It was new, still in the wrapping, and cost about $2.00, maybe $3.00. Everything’s sold as is and all sales are final. Many who shop there have to watch their money so carefully they inspect a cheap coffee maker still in the wrapping to make sure it’s got all the pieces. She’d lost her left leg a few inches below the knee and carefully sewed the ends of her pants together.
Looking for something to use as a bed for our eldest child’s aging dog, I’d noticed some machine-embroidered runners and thought they’d be good to put on the table for Christmas dinner. Pretty, and at $1.99 each expendable, when someone spilled something on them, as they would do.
On the way to check out, I flipped through the chinos. The men’s shirts and pants recently went up from $1.99 or $2.99 to $5.29. SVDP does great work and gives a lot of money away, and of course they sometimes have to raise their prices. For me this meant a tiny increase in my clothing budget, but it would be a significant cost for others.
“Sir,” a woman called from about ten feet down the aisle. “Sir,” she said, “are those table runners?” I said I thought so, and that I thought there were some more, and pointed to the back corner of the store where I’d found them.
She’d been talking to another woman, apparently someone she’d just met. She’d told her how she’d put all her things into her car getting ready to move and someone stole her car in the middle of the night. When she went to the Y for a shower, someone stole her hoodie. “I had to come here with just the clothes on my back,” she said, and started to cry. I have talked with many people over the years who lied about their hard times to get something. She was telling the truth.
Not wanting to disappoint her, I went back to the corner and found I had been wrong. The store had no more runners. After buying them, I looped back into the store and around the corner, where the woman was still talking to the other woman. She was short, dark brown-skinned, in a tank-top, as cold as it was, with tattoos on her arms that had lost most of their color. She was leaning on something, and only then did I realize she was the woman missing part of her left leg.
“Excuse me,” I said, and handed her the bag. “Merry Christmas.”
“Oh my, oh my GOD,” she said, taking the bag, and starting to cry. Crying loudly, her shoulders shaking. The woman with her said “Awwww,” though she had been the one spending the last ten or fifteen minutes listening to a stranger tell her story. I smiled at her, and then looked the woman in the eyes, and smiled, and left.
As I walked to the car, I wondered if I should have stayed, and talked or at least said “Merry Christmas” again. But I didn’t want to be thanked, or hugged, especially not hugged, and when she started crying, the situation became one in which I was going to be maximally awkward. Other people handle these things well, but I don’t. Then as I drove away I wished I’d asked the clerk if they sold gift cards and got her one to help with her shopping, because my mind thinks of the good things to do only after I can actually do them.
It was not praiseworthy. My family doesn’t have much, compared to most people in our circles, but we are Just. So. Amazingly. Rich. Rich beyond the dreams of avarice, rich in ways some people can never hope to be.
The gift cost me only $4.28, about half what I’d spent just on the discount store’s smoked salmon as a treat for Christmas day, and giving it only required giving up two things I didn’t want all that much. But it meant a lot to one woman. She wasn’t speaking coherently as I walked out the store. “He . . . This . . . I can’t believe,” she was saying, still crying. God bless her, and keep her.
David Mills is the Senior Editor US of The Catholic Herald.