Monday, December 31, 2018

Season's Greetings

I regretted coming into the store, just to pick up a few essentials. If I was smart, I would've gone shopping the minute the store opened at six in the morning, avoiding the evening crowd and the long lines at the checkout. Christmas Eve shopping is always a dreadful experience.

But I had spent the previous night celebrating a well earned victory with my friends, first place with a large cash prize. We partied til the bar closed, then we continued celebrating at a friend's place. I got home just before dawn, slept a few hours and cursed my alarm for waking me up in too short and an agonizing a time later. Thank goodness I splurged (and saved during the sales) on a new coffeemaker. I hadn't had one in years. I was afraid I was developing a coffee addiction. But those four cups I had for breakfast gave me the energy I needed to start the day.

Now I was stuck in line, having made the poor decision to shop for a few items on my way home from work. And I was too stubborn to give up my place in line after standing there for so long.

I hate shopping during the peak of the Holidays. There are too many people crowding the stores, fighting over too few deals and being generally rude to each other. The spirit of the season has been lost, giving way to greed and selfishness.

Behind me stood an elderly lady with a cart full of toys and other household items. In front of me was a woman holding a baby girl, her preteen son pushing a cart with a small boy sitting in it. There were just a few items in the basket, and my heart ached for the small boy, who was being comforted by his older brother. The little boy wanted some Legos on display, but his mother said no. And I had a feeling it was because they couldn't afford it.

Suddenly, I had a flashback to a most painful time in my childhood. My father had just passed away, and times were uncertain and hard for my mother, left with raising three young boys. Our older siblings had all ready left the farm, with our next sibling finishing up in college.

In a way, they had it easier, with Dad around, their college was paid for. And if they'd rather work than go to school, Dad would get them good jobs, through his connections at work and the contacts he'd made during his lifetime. The lifestyle my older siblings had is very different to the one my two brothers and I lived. There is a huge difference in how we view and do things to this very day. Essentials and necessities mean very different things to our older siblings and us.

My two closet brothers and I had to learn to be independent, that if we wanted something, we had to work for it. And we had to rely on each other to get through the hard times. That made us closer to each other and our mother than to any of our older siblings. We still share a strong bond to each other to this day. Don't get me wrong, I love my older siblings, but I trust and rely more on my two brothers than any of the others.

We hardly had any new clothes. And we pretty much lived in hand me downs. And that was okay, because they were always clean and in good condition. If Mom made any new clothes, it was usually for church or for school uniforms. We may have not had a lot, but we were happy and safe and well loved.

Three small boys were not enough to run a farm. But my mother figured out a way for us to survive. People, even other family members, pressured her to sell the farm, but she refused. This was the home she and our Dad had worked hard to obtain. And she wasn't going to give it up. It was the only thing of value left that could be passed on to her youngest children, who no longer had a father to help them in life.

We worked hard on the farm, selling fruits and vegetables. The sale of our goats and pigs helped keep us afloat. The fruits or vegetables in season and eggs from our chickens formed the majority of our meals.

On weekends, at low tide, we'd go digging for clams and oysters. I didn't like eating clams and oysters, but I loved hunting for them. I usually caught more than my two brothers combined. And I liked watching the two of them and Mom enjoy the clams and oysters.

Friday after school, we'd set out the crab traps, and have crabs for Saturday and Sunday meals. I loved eating crabs, still do to this day. And I've finally learned to love eating clams and oysters and mussels!

We were very lucky we didn't starve. The farm and nature provided us with food. But still, there were some things we just couldn't afford to get on a daily basis. Sodas and ice cream and candy were for special occasions. If we wanted something sweet to drink, it was either coconut water or pineapple juice, and we had to husk and pierce that coconut shell or skin off the thorns on those pineapples.

I didn't even try pizza until I was 12. I was invited to a friend's birthday party. He had invited my brothers, too, but they had a little league game that day. I wasn't in the league, so I was free to go.

It was strange and exciting being in the pizza place. I was eager to try pizza. Honestly, my first bite, I didn't like pizza. It tasted terrible. It was a supreme pizza, with all the fixings, including olives. I hate olives. Olives are terrible. And they ruin pizza.

I was trying not to make a face, but my friend caught on that I didn't like the pizza. He gave me a root beer float to wash down that awful taste. He told me that pepperoni pizza was better. I took a bite. He was right. Pepperoni was better. But for the rest of the party, I stuck to root beer floats until it was time for cake.

When he invited me, he specifically told me not to bring a present. He just wanted me there. Part of me knew that he meant it. He just wanted me there. But a part of me knew that other kids would bring presents, and my Mom knew this, too. She gave me ten dollars, which was a lot of money to spend on a gift. We didn't have a lot of free cash just lying around.

I thought very hard and carefully on what I should buy. And finally, I settled on some Legos. It was my fave (and only) toy from Christmas, just two months before. It was the kind of building blocks that you could build several different things using the same blocks. I loved playing with them, making new things and shapes.

At the party, my friend's mother was there. We exchanged pleasantries, before my friend dragged me away. She was always dressed in designer clothes, and I knew that she and her husband had money. My friend's father was into politics, a lawyer, and his mother was a nurse. They lived in a big two story house, a grand building in the new rich part of town, with a professionally designed landscape and huge gates guarding the entrance to the upper class neighborhood.

I always felt intimidated going over to my friend's house. I was afraid that I might break something. So he came over the to the farm a lot, where we'd play games and climbed trees. He loved the farm animals and playing with our dogs and cats. He didn't have any pets.

He had two siblings, two older sisters, who were at college at the time. He may as well have been an only child. He liked coming over to play and hang out with my brothers and me after school. I think he liked spending time with us, and he wished he had a brother he could hang out with. I imagine he was lonely at his house. Sometimes, he'd stay for dinner and sleepovers. He always had a good time.

We had just started middle school when I met him. There were so many kids from many different places. He all ready had a crew from his old school and old neighborhood, rich kids who hung out together. None of them would've given me the time of day, which didn't bother me at all. I had no need to hang out with any snobs. I had my own friends from my hood.

But that first day of class, we ended up being partners on a school project. And within five minutes of meeting each other, we started laughing and joking and having a good time. It only takes one person to make a change. One act of kindness can make things better.

At lunch, he made sure to invite me and my friends to his table, much to the alarm of his snooty friends. But soon enough, we formed a core group, a mix of some of his friends, some of mine, and some new kids we made friends with as the year went by.

And most of those kids were at the pizza place where my friend was having his party. Plus, few more of the snobby kids his mother had invited to the party. I'd never been to the pizza place. It was fairly new. My brothers and I were curious, especially when we heard there were arcade games there. But the games cost a quarter, which we didn't have a lot of. So we had no reason (nor any money) to go there.

I didn't have any quarters with me, so I figured that I'd just watch the other kids play. But imagine my surprise when my friend suddenly gave me six dollars worth of quarters. He snuck them in my hands, winked at me, then ran over to where his other friends were, taking his turn at a game.

I was stunned by my friend's generosity. It was his birthday, but he wanted me there, and he went out of his way to make sure I wouldn't feel left out. He knew I didn't have any quarters, but he wanted me to play the games, just like the other kids there. So he made sure I'd have some quarters to play the games, and he gave them to me secretly, so no one else would know. That was one of nicest things anyone had ever done for me.

I stood there, unsure of what to next. Then I decided to play a game. But first, I'd observe and watch the other kids closely, so I'd learn how to play. I watched for almost an hour before I was brave enough to play. By then, I had memorized the combo moves and figured out which character to play.

The first quarter let me get a feel of the controls. The second quarter made me play better as I got the hang of the game. The third quarter made me play smarter, and I played it for over half an hour. I had a blast, so did my friend, cheering me on as I played that game. Video games are fun. And I didn't realize it then, but it was the beginning of what would later become my gaming addiction. I stopped playing when it was time for the birthday cake.

When it was time for presents, he got mostly video games and a few radio controlled cars. He beamed a big smile at those. Those things were way out of my price range. And I felt a bit unsure. Those gifts were were three to four times more costly than mine.

And when he finally got to the last gift, he expressed surprise that it was from me. He gave me a smile that I returned. I was nervous. But when he opened his present and saw the Legos, he gasped and said, "I love it!", and that made me feel happy to know that he genuinely loved his gift.

Half an hour later, I used a fourth quarter and played an hour, beating out the other kids, stopping only when it was time for me to go home. I still had five dollars worth of quarters. The next day, I split the quarters equally between my brothers. I took them to the arcade, showed them the combos, then let them play til we used up all the quarters. It was a fun day.

As for my friend, he spent the weekend building different things with the Legos. He told me that no one had ever given him Legos before, and it was the most fun toy he's ever had. And for every birthday after, I got him Legos til he moved away just before high school.

His father had gotten a better offer to live in another town far away, so in the middle of summer, they moved. We had just enough time for a few more sleepovers, hanging out at the beach, and a week of camping in the hills overlooking the town. Then it was time for him to leave.

It is always hard saying good bye to a good friend. It is always hard to say good bye to someone you care about. I was sad to see him go. We all were. He was a good friend, and I knew that where ever he went next, he was going to make new friends, and I wished him well.

We wouldn't see each other until a few years later. It was the third year of high school. I was crashing a rival school's Homecoming Dance. My friends and I were dressed up, having been invited to the dance by some girls we just met earlier in the day at the football game. Our schools were playing each other, and we tied!

The dance was lovely and our dates were fun. My friends and I enjoyed ourselves. Then someone bumped into me on the dance floor. I turned around and was stunned to see my old friend. He was just as surprised to see me.

We spent the rest of the night catching up and laughing. After the dance, we all hung out at the beach and talked til dawn. When I asked him what his plans were for after high school, he said to me, "I'm going to be an engineer! Those Legos you got me inspired me to want to build things!"

I was surprised and taken aback that he remembered the Legos, and even more stunned that he found what he wanted to do with his life, just from playing with the toys I had gotten him.

We hung out again for the next two years. I'd take the bus to downtown or he'd drive down in his truck to meet me. We'd do homework then hangout at the beach, swimming and playing and flirting with the locals there. We spent weekends camping out with friends at the beach, having cook outs, bonfires, and plenty of fun. That summer was a blast--surfing, hiking, dancing, partying with new friends and old, watching stars and talking and laughing and singing long into the night.

When we graduated, he came to mine first. Our graduation was the first in the region. I was happy to see him. He spent a few days hanging out with us, celebrating and feasting and having good time. Then he went home for his graduation, which was at the end of the week. My family, my friends, and I went to see him graduate. I got there first. I wanted to get there early enough to greet him before the ceremony.

We laughed like always, took pictures, then he went to get in line. I was going to get a seat for the ceremony. But before I went in, his mother suddenly wanted to talk to me.

Honestly, I've never said anything more than a courteous greeting and well wishes to both his parents when I saw them briefly before hanging out with their son. I was surprised she wanted to talk to me, and nervous that her husband was with her, holding me in place with his gaze, his arm around his wife.

She said, "You've been a good friend to my son," so far so good. Then she said, "I've always thought that my son was a good person for being friends with someone like you...someone who doesn't have a lot of the opportunities and prosperity he has," she paused, looking as if she had said something distasteful.

I didn't know how to respond to a bombshell like that. I was flabbergasted! She thinks I'm a charity case her son took under his wing! That he was friends with me because I was poor, and he felt sorry for me. I didn't liked the direction this conversation was going and was thinking about making a quick escape.

But she continued, "I was proud that he was being a good person by being friends with someone like you. But the truth is, he's become a better person because you are a friend to him. You see him for who he is, not what he has, and you've brought out the best in him. Instead of feeling sorry for you, I should have admired you for making the best of a difficult situation. I apologize for having thought less of you. And I thank you and am very grateful to you for being a good friend to my son."

I was stunned. How do you reply to something like that? All these emotions that have been welling up since this conversation started threatened to overwhelm me.

I have never had such an honest, heartfelt confession from an adult, acknowledging that they were wrong, that I was a better person than they thought. For too long, I had to ignore what adults had to say. In my experience, adults are stupid idiots who say thoughtless things and take hurtful actions. They've been feeling sorry for me and treating me like a charity case since the day my father died so long ago. They've always underestimated me, thought me less for being poor, and sometimes treated me like I was damaged goods, like I was nothing, that I could never be anything more.

To hear an honest apology and praise from an adult, one held in high esteem, was a startling and unsettling experience. I didn't know how to control my emotions, and before the tears threatened to fall from my eyes, I said, "Your son is a good person. He's a great friend, and my life has been made richer and better with his friendship. You've raised a wonderful and kind human being and an amazing friend."

I turned and left before they could see the tears well up in my eyes and hoped they didn't notice my voice shaking at the end. I got a seat high up where I could see the the procession and see my friend. Some place far away from his parents, because I hadn't composed myself enough to sit in their presence, and far away from my Mom and family and friends. My mother would've realized that something had happened, and I wasn't ready to talk about it. I was still processing what had occurred.

Afterwards, my friend had a huge celebration at the country club, rented out by his parents for the occasion. Lots of people were there. Friends, family, and many who wished my friend well. There were lots of high ranking government officials and well known rich people there.

A lot of people were invited. Even my mother got dragged into the celebration. My friend's parents insisted she come and join them at their table. When the sun got low, my friend and I left to join a big party at his log cabin by the lake. No adults, just teens having a good time. It was an epic party.

Two days later, I finally made it home. I was surprised my Mom wanted to talk. I didn't think I was in trouble, and her tone wasn't angry. Instead, she told me a most surprising tale. After we left the country club, my friend's parents talked with my Mom.

They offered to pay for my college. That stunned me (and my mother). They had heard from their son that I was turning down college. I had applied to some great out of state universities. And I had full scholarship offers from them. In fact, I had the more scholarship offers than any other graduate that year and since. Truth is, I applied to a lot of colleges, and I honestly explained that I couldn't afford the application fee. They waived it! If you don't ask, you'll never know what you can get.

Anyway, I was surprised to get two athletic scholarships, but most of them were academic scholarships. I was a track and field athlete and also a huge nerd and proud of it. I studied hard because I liked it, and I loved learning new things. Where I'm from, being smart is something to be praised, a highly valued trait. No one brags about being stupid.

And for a short time, I reveled in the possibilities, what my life could be in those big and reputable universities. I allowed myself to daydream of life in the big cities, of being at those exalted institutions of higher learning. I imagined how exciting and adventurous college life would be, making new friends, having amazing experiences. Ah, such wonderful dreams.

But dreams are not reality. And though I would love to have taken off and go after those dreams, my heart wasn't in it. I had other things to consider. My mother was getting older. She had a job in the factory. I didn't want her to work. I wanted to take good care of her, just as she had taken good care of us when we were small children.

I planned on getting a job, one that would allow me to be independent and have enough to support her. I didn't want her to work anymore. Not even part time. I just wanted her to relax.

It would be many years before I finally understood that my mother enjoyed work. Her friends were there, and she liked feeling productive, and she enjoyed earning her own money. She'd been working her whole life, and she felt she had a purpose, and work gave her an outlet to socialize and contribute.

I would not learn this lesson until she passed away. Up until her death, she was still working, selling our fruits and vegetables at the market, a tradition she and my father started long before I was born. And I hope my nieces and nephews keep selling our fruits and vegetables at the market long after I am gone.

When my friends parents offered to pay for my college, my mother politely thanked them and turned them down. She explained to them that the decision was mine. And though she had encouraged me to go and seize these opportunities, my mind was made up. This is what I wanted to do. And she'd raised me to make up my own mind and make my own choices.

My friend's mother broke down and cried. She told my mother, "Your son is sacrificing his future just so he could take better care of you. You are so blessed to have a son give up the world for you, that he puts your happiness above his."

My mother later told me, "I don't want you to give up this opportunity for a better life. I don't want you to worry about me. I just want you to live your life the way you want and be happy."

I told her, "Mom, I am living my life the way I want, and I am happy, because this is what I want to do."

And that was the last time my mother tried to convince me to go to college. For many years after, my mother would tell this story to my younger nieces and nephews, of how a high born and wealthy lady had cried over the sacrifice of a son for his mother.

I was a difficult and hard headed child, and growing up, people considered me trouble and damaged. But in the end, I grew up to be a smart kid, a tough kid, and one that in the end, put his mother (and his family) above his own dreams. I grew up to be a better human being.

Years later, I did go to college. And my working experiences did make me a better person, a stronger person, a wiser person. I had life experiences and life long friends that made me better. And through it all, I was able to take care of my mother and let her live life on her own terms.

As for my friend, he did become a civil engineer. When we met up for a vacation years later, he took me to his favorite amusement park: Legoland in California. Later, he sent me a picture of him at Legoland in Denmark. I smiled at that picture, because it's hard to believe that one small toy set the course for his life.

It humbles me, because out of all the expensive and fancy toys he got for his birthday, my simple, least expensive one was the one that inspired him and set his path for the future. One person can make a great change. One act of kindness can change the world.

His kindness to me, giving me quarters to play videogames, made me feel like I was worthy to be there with all these other rich kids. I wasn't less. I was someone who was just as important as the rest. And to hear his mother tell me that I was a good person and a good influence on her son, that I was respected, made me feel like an adult, like I mattered. That changed my outlook on the world.

For many years, I ignored what others had to say about me, because most of it was negative. But hearing praise and acknowledgement that I am a good person, someone to be respected made me feel stronger and proud.

It only takes one of act of kindness to make the world a little bit better. So I was now back in that long line at the cash register, behind a mother holding a baby; with a preteen son pushing a nearly empty shopping cart, comforting his small brother who was crying, because he couldn't get the small Legos toy he wanted. They most likely couldn't afford it.

I reached into my wallet for twenty dollars that I could give the small boy, so he could buy his Legos and spend the rest on his family. But as I pulled out my wallet, a store staff person in a yellow vest suddenly came up to the mother.

I had seen this yellow vested clerk earlier, being rude to the old lady standing behind me in line. When the old lady asked her about an item, she told the old lady, "That's not my department," then walked away, leaving the poor old lady looking lost and stunned.

Now that piece of work stomped up to the mother and loudly said, "Ma'am, your son is wearing the shoes from the store aisle. Are you going to pay for them?"

She seemed so smug and vicious, adding, "If you can't pay for them, you need to return them."

Hearing that bullying tone pissed me off.

The mother looked surprised. Her preteen son seemed to shrink and look down. I noticed his shoes did look new. I heard him whisper to his mother, "Mama, my feet hurt. My old shoes had holes on the bottom."

I suddenly realized that the poor kid had switched his old hole filled shoes with a new pair. The mother looked stunned. But before she could say anything, I took out all the cash I had in my wallet, my large prize winnings from earlier. I tapped the mother on her shoulder and said, "Ma'am, you dropped this."

She looked confused but I put the money in her hands. The yellow vested clerk went from looking smug to confused. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. Meanwhile, the stunned mother just looked at me, so I told her, "Just go ahead and pay for your items and the shoes. Merry Christmas!"

She nodded her head, eyes watering up, mouthing silently, "Thank you."

She paid for the items and the shoes and left with her kids. Behind me, I heard the murmur of customers, talking about what I had done. I paid for my shaving gel and at the last moment, picked up two Legos toys on display, plus a Disney Princess doll, and paid with my card.

As I picked up my bags, that annoying yellow vested clerk suddenly said to me, "You shouldn't have done that."

So I snapped, "And you need to mind your own damn business!"

She looked shocked, "What?"

I was furious, the emotions had been building up since I first saw her try to shame that impoverished family. So I told her off, "You are rotten to the core, trying to bully that poor family and embarrass them. You think that makes you look good by talking down to those people? It only shows what a horrible and hateful person you are! You disgust me! You are ugly on the inside and even uglier on the outside! You are a piece of crap! Go to hell!"

She looked shocked and confused. The sudden applause from the other customers in line finally got her to turn and run, I could see her starting to cry. Good. She was an awful person. I was not nice, and I was definitely harsh, but I didn't care. She brought up unpleasant memories of me being treated awful by others because I was poor. Well, I wasn't a small helpless child anymore. And I sure as hell wasn't going to going to let anyone else bully someone, especially a small child, just because they were poor.

There are more discreet and professional ways to do a job. And if anyone even tries to bully someone else in my presence, I'm going to put a stop to that, and I will get ferocious and annihilate the bully!

So much for the Holiday spirit. But I just did what I thought was right. I always feel better when I speak honestly and take action. I left the store while the rest of the other customers in line cheered me and wished me a Happy Holidays.

I was about to get in my car when I saw that family at the bus stop. I headed over to them. They spotted me, sat straighter, unsure as I approached. I reached into my shopping bag, gave the two boys each a Legos set, handed the doll to the baby girl, wished them a Merry Christmas, then left after they thanked me, big smiles on the kids faces. I felt good knowing they were going to have a good Christmas. If I hadn't found them, those toys would've definitely gone to an organization that helps collect toys for needy children. I've all ready donated twice this season.

Near midnight, I sat in a Catholic church slowly filling up with worshippers. I listened to the Christmas carols and hymns being sung, trying to feel the spirit of peace I seek out this time of year. Christmas and Easter are the two times of the year you'll most likely find me in church. Habit from the old days.

When I was a child, we had church services on Christmas Eve night--a nativity play, followed by a two hour service. I hated that midnight service. The sermon was always too long, too monotonous, too boring.

I spent most of my childhood going to church. Then I stopped in high school. I had an epiphany, after a confrontation with my pastor. Why did I go to church? Did I truly believe or was I just doing it because that's what we did every Sunday? Was it faith or habit? And I spent a glorious time exploring the different faiths of my family and friends. In the end, I stopped going to church all together, having realized that the Divine is everywhere and within me.

Still, there's something comforting about being in church on Christmas and Easter. I'm reminded of my family, all siting down for the Sunday feast, of how we'd spend the day together, laughing, talking, just reconnecting. And for Christmas Eve service, I love the carols and the sense of fellowship that being in a holy place engenders, that we come together in hopes of peace on earth and a better world for everyone.

I was suddenly torn from my reverie by some people settling down beside me. Imagine my surprise when I saw that it was the old lady from the store earlier. She smiled at me.

I nodded. She said, "That was a wonderful thing you did tonight. You gave that family a nice Christmas, " then she laughed, "and you taught that rude creature to mind her manners!"

I chuckled with her. Hearing her tell me that I did something right suddenly made me feel at peace. One act of kindness. One thoughtful word can change everything.

For this New Year, I've decided that I want to be a better person. I want to be a kinder person. I want the world to be a better place. So for this Holiday Season, I hope you experience kindness, and know that one act of kindness can change everything. And wherever you are, know that you have the power to change the world, that kindness matters, and Kindness makes the world better and more wonderful and amazing.

Happy Holidays.

Have a Wonderful and Amazing New Year full of joy, laughter, and love.

P.S. When I left work on Christmas Eve, I held the door open for an older woman who was entering the building. She thanked me, and I said, "Merry Christmas!"

To which she replied, "Oh, dear! I'm Jewish!"

And I immediately answered, "And so is the Baby Jesus! Happy Holidays!"

And we burst out laughing and went on our way.

Today, as I was entering the building, I held the door open as the same woman was leaving. She recognized me, smiled, and said, "Happy New Year!"

To which I replied, "Mazel Tov!", Congratulations and Good Luck, the only Jewish phrase I knew. Once again, we both walked away laughing. I hope the New Year is full of small moments of joy like this.

Happy New Year to all!