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  • (Written a few days before Christmas, then almost forgotten about in the midst of the holiday rush.)

    Today begins at 10 am in the parking lot of my Church, which is drenched by rainfall as per usual. I hang half-in, half-out of the door, hiding underneath the awning until a car pulls into the loading zone and a hand flashes toward me from the window. Darting through the raindrops, I climb into the backseat of the minivan and the car takes off for unknown territory. In the driver’s seat is Gloria, prison ministry volunteer and Angel Tree coordinator for a large expanse of our state. In the passenger’s seat is Marissa, experienced Spanish translator and literacy advocate. And then there’s me, writer and educator-to-be. I get together with these women from my Church once a year in order to deliver Angel Tree gifts to the children of prison inmates in our state. Because some families don’t have access to transportation, we deliver the gifts directly to their homes.

    Each of us has our roles in this process, and in our combined efforts we somehow manage to pull it off yet again. During the long drive on the freeway, we catch up and tell stories while the rain tears past us outside. When we draw near to the first town on our master list of deliveries, our duties begin. Gloria drives and organizes everything and interrupts herself frequently to tell funny stories as we bounce along. Marissa mans the GPS, figuring out where we are and where we need to go; a job I couldn’t do if my life depended on it. In the backseat, I do a little bit of everything; calling families to tell them we’re coming, cross-referencing addresses and children’s ages, digging through the pile of wrapped gifts beside me, waving apologetically to other drivers when we make sudden turns or slow down to stare at street signs. Marissa says we ought to have a winged sign on the back of the car: “Angel Tree deliveries- please excuse our erratic driving.” Gloria laughs and says she’ll get on it for next year.

    We drive from place to place, from large industrial towns that almost qualify as cities to tiny one-lane collections of houses surrounded by pastoral, wet landscapes. We go to houses and factory houses and apartments and trailers. Gloria and I approach the residences as a team, me with the gifts and she with the information sheet. Many of the kids are living with single mothers. Some are being cared for by grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends. Some people simply accept the gifts and close the door, but the ones I remember invite us inside and call for the children. I love seeing the kids receive presents from their incarcerated parents, even if it is a painful kind of joy. It’s always a little disturbing to witness how listless the teenagers seem, obviously accustomed to their parent(s) missing the holidays and sending red-coated strangers in their place. There is a kind of sinking energy in these teens, like they are becoming resignedly fixed to this kind of life. We have to work hard to get a smile out of them. The younger children are much easier. One little girl holds her present up like a shining trophy and dashes through her narrow house, shouting, “It’s from Daddy! It’s from Daddy!” At another house where both the parents are behind bars, the grandparents gather the children and dole the gifts out into a tossing sea of little hands and excited faces. After a bit of conversation, the grandfather presents Gloria and I with little Christmas ornaments made out of wire, delicately tweaked and twisted into images of shepherds and angels. I’ve never seen anything like them before. Their simple profoundness startles me, and on the inside I am just as pleased with his gift as his grandkids are with theirs.

    Our journey continues down winding roads and through confusing loops of streets. At one house where no one speaks English, we arrive with a present for one child and discover five younger siblings who also need Christmas gifts. Luckily, Gloria has extra toys stashed in the trunk. Inside the slanted hall of an apartment building, a strange man opens up the door and becomes very incensed when we explain that we’ve brought a present from the father of the child who lives there. This time, I’m not fazed- this sort of thing happens at least once every year. At another house, we speak for a long time with a mother while her teenage daughter hovers in between the living room and kitchen, holding her present against her belly like a heavy stone. We learn that the man who sent it is a chronic and abusive alcoholic who is due to be released soon. After years of living in a trailer due to debts he’d gotten them into, the mother-daughter duo finally moved into their spacious new house during his last incarceration, and are now wavering in uncertainty over whether to let him back into their lives. My advice is to wait and see how he behaves after his release, whether he takes responsibility for his past or not. It’s easy for a man to talk the talk when he’s behind bars and all he can do is talk. Whether he can walk the walk when he confronts the temptations of the free world again is a different story; the one which will write his future. Gloria’s advice is to write down the name of a book she teaches in the solitary confinement unit of the women’s prison, The Lies Women Believe And The Truth That Sets Them Free. When it is time for us to leave, the teenage daughter looks like she might cry. I feel a burning kind of awareness as my fingers fold around their white doorframe on our way out. I tell them God bless and mean it with every living fiber in my heart.

    The gift tags attached to each present are a different sort of window into the lives of people in pain. A few of the imprisoned parents have simply written “Merry Christmas,” but most have filled up the short few lines on the tag with as many words as they can squeeze in, English or Spanish. I have to peruse all of them to find the children’s names and ages for the list. Each one reads like a little pinprick of emotion, practically dripping with the desire for love. Declarations of affection: “To my favorite princess….” “Daddy loves you sooooo much.” “Merry Christmas, beautiful baby, here’s a special gift just for you.” Hope: “I’ll be home soon….” Apologies: “I’m sorry I’m not there this year….” “I’ll make this Christmas up to you….” “Please forgive me.” Pain: “I’m so sorry, son. Please write me or come visit, I want to talk to you again.” Little reminders that these inmates are really people like us, trying to muddle through complex lives with little guidance and too many burdens. Their words are like arms reaching out through a miasma of bars, hoping to find someone on the other side to take their hand. Angel Tree is part of that process; we amplify the reach, but we cannot force the connection. We simply make the offer in hopes of strengthening family bonds. Sometimes the hand is accepted, gripped strongly by another; other times it is left hanging. We don’t know all of these families’ stories. We do not judge the decisions they make, the doors they choose to open or close. We have our own families back home. We do this because we understand how blessed we are.

    After we deliver the last package, we stop in a Subway for some much-needed lunch and talk about our year. Gloria’s husband is having health problems, but her grandson just got a job at a nearby tea packaging store and is doing well. Marissa is about to get married to a man she met in Peru while on one of her literacy missions. I cannot help but think that she seems stable, confident, ready to move forward with this new part of her life. I wonder if I’ll someday become a bride like that, before I roll my eyes and have a giggle at my rare girlish fantasizing. I’m in no hurry. I’m only 22, and lately I’ve pretty much been married to my college coursework and Herculean attempts to write a novel. It’s a mostly wholesome relationship, although we do have our marital spats on occasion. The task complete, our small group of women drives back to the Church and parts ways in the parking lot. We’ll be back again in two days for the Christmas Eve service.

    When I arrive home after a fulfilling day of gift-delivering, I find an adorable brown package with my name on it sitting at the table. I’ve always had a very cat-like attitude when it comes to boxes and letters; when I see them, I just have to know what’s inside. I tear off the packing tape and discover that the family that runs the local Operation Christmas Child drop-off center has sent me an ornament and a bag full of candy. I’ve been bringing present-filled shoeboxes to their drop-off center every year since I was twelve and had to have my Mom drive me. My yearly arrival has become somewhat of an icon, and we’ve developed a mutual appreciation for each other. The note inside the package lets me know my shoebox has been shipped to Peru, and that I’ll be expected at their home again next year. I hurry over to our tree and gladly hang up my new Christmas ornaments.

    I just want to capture this moment, right here. I feel perfectly loved, tangibly cared for, immeasurably content. I feel that I’ve reached out to others and connected right to the heart, meshed my life with theirs like the clasping of two hands made in the same size. I feel that in some small way, I have been able to help ease and brighten the lives of others. I feel like I am right where God wants me to be, a feeling that can be hard to come by in this world of all-too-frequent confusion and rage. I can sense the advent of Christmas as it draws near on snow-slippered feet, bared to the pains and joys of the world. Within this sensation is a surprising glimpse of a universe beautifully woven through me, images made in metal and glass that inspire me to look into the holy soul just behind them. Christmas is almost here, and tonight I welcome its arrival with a fully embellished tree and a thankful, hopeful heart.
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