This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children and Julianne Moore. Moore leads the organization's Valentine's Day campaign, through which cards are sold to support the fight against poverty in the U.S. To learn more or to purchase the cards, click here.
I was seven-years-old. I awoke to the sound of my brother sleeping soundly in the bed next to me and the sound of the snow curling off our roof and falling in a thud on the ground. The sun was just kissing the icicles that hung off the gutter.
It was Christmas Eve. The smell of bacon, eggs and cinnamon french toast permeated our home.
My grandmother was downstairs serving food with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She was shooing everyone toward the table.
"Eat, eat, EAT!" as she corralled any stragglers, with a pot of coffee in one hand and a wooden spatula in the other.
We ate, laughed at old stories and drank coffee, milk and juice. We bombarded Santa Claus with last minute requests and tried to trick our parents into telling us what would be under the tree when we woke the next morning.
"Do we have batteries just in case I get my race track? Because no place is open to get batteries on Christmas Day," I reasoned.
"The race track doesn't need batteries," my mother explained.
"Ha! I fooled you; then I am getting a race track because you wouldn't have known it took batteries if you didn't get it already." She was mine.
"You will have to take that up with Santa."
"Bah Humbug, Mom."
My father said he wanted us to remember that there was a lot more to Christmas than getting presents, which is pretty standard fare in any home during this gluttonous time of year.
Then he added: "I have something planned for you guys today. We are going to deliver food and presents to some people who won't have such a great Christmas." That was news to us.
We drove slowly through the mounds of snow that the plows missed or piled up. We were outside town and the homes got farther and farther apart. This was where the dairy farms and vegetable farms once stood before the big supermarket chains opened up.
The houses were old, boxy, three-story affairs that sat off the road on long driveways. They were in disrepair, their porches leaning in screwy ways. Smoke spun from their chimneys in long fading lines. In some homes there was no sign of life at all: no Christmas lights, no Christmas trees, only white blankets of snow, sagging roofs, uneven porches and the erosion of time.
We stopped in front of a smaller version of the same kind of house. The driveway hadn't been plowed but the house sat closer to the road and a thin bead of white drew a line from its chimney to the sky.
"Do we know these people, Dad?"
"No, we heard they needed a little help."
"Who are they?"
"It's a mom and her two kids -- their father died. They spent all their money trying to save him when he was sick. They don't have any family here to help," my mother explained. "We made our way with grocery bags full of food and wrapped presents with tags taped to them simply labeled "boy," "girl," and "mom."
"Merry Christmas!" my father said cheerily. We followed him inside. The house was freezing. We didn't even take off our jackets. The mother began to cry upon seeing us. In the next room, there was a boy and girl, they stood near each other wearing a heavy sweeter and a dress. They looked shy and uncertain.
"Take the kids to see the house," said their mother.
There were several rooms shut off from the house to preserve the heat coming out of the wood burning stove in the kitchen. Upstairs there was one room with a door open and there was a bed on the mattress covered with several blankets. Their clothes were on hangers hanging from a length of cord stretched across the room. There was a broken BB gun and an old Barbie doll for play. There were a few worn children's books.
"This is where we all sleep. It's too cold to play here during the day," the boy said.
My throat was in a knot. How could this be? How could this happen with so many caring and loving people in the world? What do we do? How do we help?
I really liked that boy. I felt so badly for him. He seemed so much older than he was and couldn't be made to smile or really talk.
This was my introduction to poverty. It was very powerful. To go from all that we had. Even in the simplest terms to what little these folks had made a very strong impression on me. Their cupboards were bare. They had no presents, no family, nothing but whatever the government and church groups could give them. The mother was looking for a job but hadn't found one yet.
This was in the seventies. At that time 25.5 million people in the U.S. lived below the poverty line. Today 46.2 million people live below poverty in the U.S. During the past two decades, we have seen a cutback in social programs to help these kinds of people.
Forgo the rhetoric momentarily and imagine what it costs people, their children, their lives.
The one thing I know: when I saw this as a boy, I wanted to help these people. So did my brother and my two sisters. It changed us. It made us much more compassionate to those who had less than us.
Compassion is within us innately as people and as a nation.
So ask yourself: how much more than enough do you need? Whatever that amount is, there is always a little bit more left over for those who don't have even close to enough.
My mother told us when someone suffering asks you for money reach into your right pocket at that moment and give them whatever is there. She meant that literally as well as figuratively. She wanted us to always carry with us that spirit of generosity.
If something is being asked of you then, don't ball up. Be expansive and be part of the human family. Even if what is there is only a small amount, then give a little. Only you know what you need.
What's in your right pocket?