A few days after Christmas, I got a perspective slap. If you’ve ever had one, you know what I’m talking about. They come out of nowhere, smack you out of your “woe is me” state, and leave you a more humble and grateful person. I got mine, strangely enough, in the parking lot of a Big Lots store.
I was there to see what was on clearance, and was looking specifically for a set of snowman ornaments that I had seen before Christmas, but had told myself I could wait to buy until they were half off after the holidays. I had left a messy house full of grumpy kids in a post-Christmas funk, and was relieved to get out for a few hours, albeit it was an unexciting trip to a discount store, but still, I was out!
I strolled slowly down the aisles, shocked at how ravaged they looked, and disappointed when I realized I was too late in my efforts, and would not find what I came here for. Well, I thought, I suppose next Christmas my house won’t look as holiday perfect as (insert any of my friend’s names here) house. I grumbled on the inside, and then went about the business of doing no fun maintenance shopping; toilet paper, dish soap, laundry detergent, floor cleaner, furniture polish. All of it needed, none of it “fun,” and as the contents of my cart reminded me of what events the rest of my day would hold, I grumbled on the inside. More cleaning of the damn house.
As I left the store and headed out to parking lot, I noticed a large white van parked right next to my car. Large white vans, the suspicious kind with no windows and oversized loading type doors in the pack, trigger a tingle in my spine. Too many after school specials in the 80s about female abduction, and one too many Dateline episodes had put me on edge. Closer to my car, I picked up my pace, and then paused when I saw the van back door swing open, and a man and young boy spill out. Father and son it appeared, and they were cheerily talking as the dad grabbed a reusable shopping bag from the back of the van and started to fill it. I got into my car, shut the door, and sat for a few minutes, curious as to what was taking place.
I watched as the dad carefully removed from the back of the van two changes of clothes and two towels, folded them neatly, added a hairbrush, and stuffed it all into the bag.
They happily headed into the same store I had just left, and the boy, around age 10, was skipping in and making conversation with the man.
It hit me quickly what was going on.
They lived in that van, and they were headed into that store to bathe and put on clean clothes.
And here I was upset that I didn’t get the snowman ornaments I wanted.
I watched them walk inside, and the man approached the service desk up front to talk to the woman behind it. She nodded, then raised her hand and pointed to the back store. Yes, that is exactly where the bathrooms are, I thought.
I sat in my warm car for a few minutes, trying to process the scene I just witnessed. I am not naive to the fact there is a huge problem with homelessness in this country. I am aware of the sobering statistic that 2.5 million children a year, at some point, are homeless. Years ago while working in a downtown urban library, I spent many days watching the homeless spend their days in the warmth of the shelves, coming first thing in the morning, and leaving when we closed.
It is all around us, yet it had become invisible to me, or was invisible, until today.
There was little I could do at that moment. There are bigger things I can do, and have done, to help the homeless in my town, but right now? What was there to do?
I opened my wallet and pulled out a $50 Wal-Mart gift card I had. It was the last of some gift cards my husband had earned from his traveling rewards points program. I sat disgusted for a second with that thought, him traveling in airplanes for work, and being rewarded with shopping cards, while this family is living in a van. It filled me with sadness and embarrassment.
I grabbed a notepad out of my purse, wrote “Merry Christmas” on it, folded the gift card in the paper, then shoved it in the drivers’s side window of the place they called home.
Then I drove home.
As I walked into my front door of my house, to the lingering smell of sugar cookies and pine candles burning, to the hum of voices on the TV and children laughing, I inhaled heavily to brace myself for the perspective slap about to hit me. And it did. Hard.
This is YOUR home, it slapped. The place you couldn’t wait to escape from just an hour earlier. This is where you bathe in a tub filled with steaming hot water and foaming bubbles. This is where you have the pleasure of puling warm clean towels out of a quietly spinning dryer, where your children gather around a kitchen island flooded with baked goods and bubbling casseroles that YOUR oven delivers. These are YOUR floors you mop, your closet overflowing with clothes you complain is in disarray, and your coffee table where you kick up your feet at night, covered in a blanket and surrounded by the people who make your life magical. These four walls. They are yours. Don’t ever, ever, take them for granted again.
And then the slap left me as quick as it came.
In the days that have followed, I have thought about the white van and the family in it, and I have prayed for them, and I have prayed for me to have the strength to flex my gratitude muscle with more dedication and fortitude than I ever have before. Even now as I sit here in my house and look around at the mess, at the garbage disposal that broke this morning and vomited last night’s taco meat all over my kitchen floor, I will not succumb to feeling disenchanted or annoyed with this place.
For no matter what is in it, or what condition it may be in, it is home. Period.
It is my family’s home.
And for that, my gratefulness is on a scale that cannot be measured.
It simply it too heavy of a blessing to weigh.
Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.