Toys for Tots

My father was a poor kid. Born in the 30’s, he grew up in the rough part of town and lived through the Great Depression and WWII. My grandmother was a single mom with four children for much of my father’s childhood, a time when there was a lot of shame, condemnation, and little support for that circumstance.

The local newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star, ran a toy drive during the Christmas season during those years. It was a charity of gently used toys collected then given new homes, distributed to disadvantage children. My father was a recipient of those toys.

Later in life he was a college educated professional, a mechanical engineer by trade, but he never forgot where he came from. My mother likes to tell the story of coming down the basement stairs to discover dad and my brother Billy sorting through the toy box. My father encouraged my brother to pick out some toys to give to the poorer kids for Christmas.

The largest modern iteration of this type of program is the United States Marine Corps mission, Toys for Tots. The deadline for donating to their 2018 campaign is fast approaching, ending December 16. Toys for Tots collects new unwrapped toys for children ages 0-15, often with a shortage of toys for infants or teenagers. Toys for Tots has been running since 1947 and has distributed some 548 million toys to 251 million children

For years, I delighted in buying toys for my nieces and nephews, but they are all grown up now. I choose to place Toys for Tots on my Christmas list every year. I am paying forward the life that my father provided me. I was the youngest child born at the height of his career. I never had a lack of toys to choose from. Unfortunately, he died when I was 12 years old, but I will never forget what he taught me.

What I understand is this: it’s not just about the joy that is offered- but the dignity.

It is hard for some to imagine that after paying for rent, food, bills, etc. that there really is no money left. Maybe you’ve got $20 in the bank for the next two weeks. Early on in my adult years, I lived that reality too. There were no gifts, no real celebration. I could not afford the gasoline to go home for Christmas or if I did, my presence was the present. But I had no children. I only had to look out for my own ego, my own feelings.

Christmas is a luxury. I cannot imagine what it is like for children who do not have a toy to open on Christmas morning. If the bounty of my professional career can provide someone with some small measure of community, belonging, dignity, and joy- what sweeter fruits of my labor are there? Is that not exactly what Christmas is all about?

 

Please donate to your local Toys for Tots. For more information, please visit their website: https://www.toysfortots.org/

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, December 2018

Christmas Cards

I celebrate Christmas and annually travel to Illinois to spend the holiday with my family. In the weeks leading up to it, I don’t do much besides shop for gifts to take home with me. As a single professional, what is the point of decorating a Christmas tree besides to serve as an extra-large cat toy? I hang a wreath instead.

I don’t go to Christmas shows or events because I do not have anyone to go with. I have attended events alone for years, so that’s not the problem. It just gets old. And lonely. And if you attend family events alone, people look at you with suspicion like you are there to snatch their husband or baby or purse. It’s a terrible world we live in.

Christmas cards are one of the few holiday activities I participate in.

I have collected many friends and acquaintances over the years. As much as social media might want us to believe it has brought us closer together, I mostly see disconnection. I sometimes find myself searching through the newsfeed for help and come back with emptiness. If I have learned one thing living in a highly commercialized society, it is that you will not find real connection in marketing- whether it’s for an actual product or by an ordinary person presenting an image, trying to brand themselves.

I don’t see everyone, every year. Some I haven’t seen in decades. And I may not see some people ever again. My former boss Margaret comes to mind. When I first started out in my career 20 years ago, she taught me what it meant to be a smart, hard-working, professional woman. She set an example for me that I carried through my work to this day. We remained friends after I left the job and I delighted in terrorizing her around Halloween about just how many days were left until Christmas. I sent her a Christmas card every year until now. Cancer took her September 13, 2018. I have to cross her name off my list…

All I ever get in the mail these days are bills, advertisements, or junk. The art of the hand-written letter is all but dead. Do you remember what that was like? How exciting it was to get an envelope addressed to you in a familiar hand. That was replaced with the excitement of getting an email in the mid-90’s. Now email seems to just suck the life out of you. Letters haven’t returned. So, I mail Christmas cards that are funny or beautiful. I hand write messages of good will in each to simply let people know I am thinking about them.

I know some people think cards are stupid and don’t bother. I know others who play a yuletide version of ‘chicken’ in which they watch the mailbox for Christmas cards, then only send out cards in response to those they’ve received. I have also watched people open my card looking for money and when they only found my message, toss it aside in disappointment. Here is the truth folks: Love is spelled T.I.M.E. not M.O.N.E.Y.

I still have Christmas cards sent to me from my grandmothers who have both been dead for over 20 years. As I age, I have come to recognize that the time people spent writing out cards and letters was the love they were sending me. Christmas cards return me to a simpler time. They remind me of the days of anticipation for Christmas day. When I fill out my cards, I walk down memory lane, think about the people and the time we have spent together. I suppose I do it as much for me as for them.

“Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you”
– Jim Croce

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, December 2018

Wayfarers Thanksgiving

In 2010, I was faced with a terrible realization: I had nowhere to spend Thanksgiving. My hometown and family were 400 miles away in Illinois. Old friendships from school were dormant and scattered across the country. I had been in a long-term relationship that ended in 2009 and the people in my life outside of that relationship consisted mostly of coworkers. I did not have a strong connection to my community. I did not have the friendships, colleagues, or writing contemporaries that I have today.

I can’t recall now how it happened, but friends of another friend got wind that I was without a place to share Thanksgiving dinner. They generously opened their family table to me. I spent that Thanksgiving among near strangers, watching a family dynamic not my own, and having a wonderful holiday. I spent Thanksgiving 2011 with them as well.

My niece moved to Minnesota in 2012. Suddenly, I had family in town and when Thanksgiving came around, I knew that I wanted to celebrate the holiday together. But it seemed silly to cook a feast for two of us. I remembered that terrible feeling of exclusion, that feeling of isolation and disappointment from two years before. Surely there were others in this same predicament- new residents, recently single, travelers, or folks just isolated for whatever reason.

It was then I decided to start hosting Wayfarers Thanksgiving.

Wayfarers Thanksgiving 2012

Wayfarers Thanksgiving is for ‘lonely travelers’. It is an extension of my table, an extra seat, a sharing of the bounty and blessings that life has heaped upon me. It is about creating community where there wasn’t one, breaking bread with people you would otherwise not meet. It is often a mixed bag- some family, some old friends, and new friends I’ve just met as they walk through my door. They vary in age and background, but we come together over the feast and wine, to break our isolation and loneliness.

I once stood in line with my grocery cart full of canned goods and a frozen turkey in preparation of the feast. A woman behind me complained loudly to the two men that were with her, family members, that Thanksgiving was just a waste of time and money and there was no way she was going to cook. She repeated this over and over, exasperated and looking for an argument. Her family members’ faces said it all: shame, exclusion, not worthy. They were hurt but stoic, their lips pressed in silence. I can not know their story- she may have lost a job or a family member or had very bad memories of previous holidays.

But for all the headache that Thanksgiving can bring, there is something important and special about the way we celebrate it. It ties our past to our future. I cook recipes from my long dead great-aunt for my niece and friends. It is a time to pause and think about the harvest. The bounty we have reaped once meant our very survival during the coming winter and still does in many parts of the world. There is no pressure of gift giving. Only feasting and imbibing and with any luck, ignoring our troubles and our differences for at least one day.

I have deep gratitude for my ability to host the Thanksgiving table. But there will come a time many, many years from now when I will no longer be able. My hope is that all those who have and will celebrate with me over the years, will look back in fondness, pay that generosity forward, add an extra chair to their own table, and offer a smile and a welcome to a fellow wayfarer.

Wayfarers Thanksgiving Queen

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018