Joy at Christmas – Megan Robertson

Mary’s phone rang late on the night of December 22nd. Caller ID displayed a familiar number, but when Mary answered, the sound on the other end of the line was chaotic. A baby was crying, and she could hear a cartoon blaring. Her friend Joy’s voice crackled, “Mary?”

By the time Mary hung up the phone an hour later, her nightgown was wet with tears, and her heart beat fast with new resolve. With Christmas Eve less than two days away, Miss Joy’s drug-addled daughter had dropped off her own three children at their grandmother’s crumbling doorstep and disappeared into the cold night. Miss Joy’s modest Christmas plans had exploded into noise, diaper changes, and the soulsick crying of confused children missing their mother.

The Social Security check had already come for the month of December. There was just enough in Miss Joy’s kitchen cabinets to feed one mouth, much less two young girls and a baby in quick need of formula. Then there was the problem of Santa Claus. All the charity programs had already handed out gifts. December 23rd fell on a Sunday this year, and the secondhand stores would be closed on Christmas Eve; Joy would not even have a chance to pull together Christmas gifts from Goodwill. Already the oldest girl had realized that Santa would not be able to find her and her sisters at their grandmother’s house. The promise of gifts, on which the girls’ Christmas happiness hinged, hung in the balance.

When December 23rd dawned, Mary was ready with a plan. A series of phone calls placed even later than Joy’s call to Mary had resulted in the promise of small donations from a number of the neighborhood ladies, all of whom understood too well the desperate combination of a fixed income, drug-addicted children, and grandbabies. Mary made careful calculations, the kind only a child of the Depression could make, and determined the exact figure she could spend on each of Joy’s three granddaughters. She wrote out a list in arthritic cursive, chuckling when she found herself checking it twice.

Mary spent “Christmas Eve Eve” guiding a shopping cart up and down the aisles of Family Dollar. The shelves were picked over, strewn about with items moved out of place, the remnant of last-minute holiday shoppers come before her. Miraculously, warm pajamas materialized in each of the girls’ sizes, and there were enough baby dolls and teddy bears left to satisfy Mary’s list. Mary’s eyes welled with tears when she saw that there was money left over for formula and diapers, milk and bread, Hamburger Helper, candy canes. Triumphant, Mary wrote her check with a flourish and loaded the trunk of her gold sedan with all the precision and elegance of Santa loading his sleigh.

That night, Mary’s gnarled hands were deft, folding and taping the wrapping paper with youthful ease. The small pile of gifts, wrapped in gleaming silver, belied the miserable circumstances which had necessitated Mary’s involvement. As she waited for Christmas Eve, Mary smiled. It was fun to find oneself unexpectedly in Santa’s employ.

When the oldest granddaughter had cried herself to sleep on Christmas Eve, tortured by the uncertainty of her mother’s wherabouts and a sure conviction that her gifts from Santa were lost forever, Joy called Mary again. She could not keep hopelessness from coloring her voice as she told Mary that she still had nothing to give the girls come Christmas morning. The call suddenly dropped, and there was a knock at Joy’s door. Joy frowned at her phone and rose to answer. She expected carolers, or perhaps the skeletal finger of the ragged ghost of Christmas Future beckoning her. She was surprised to find Mary on the front porch instead, sporting an elfish smile and standing next to a number of gifts and bags of groceries. Joy stood by, mouth open in shock, as Mary carried armloads of gifts into Joy’s tiny living room, arranging them neatly. When she had finished, Mary pressed a box of candy canes into Joy’s hands. “Merry Christmas,” was all she said as she pulled the door gently closed behind her.

Mary’s phone rang early on Christmas morning. Even without looking at the Caller ID, she knew exactly who it was. When she answered, she heard a cacophony of happy chaos.

Children were laughing, and the sound of Christmas carols blared in the background. Joy’s voice sounded younger, more vibrant, as she related the ecstasy of three little girls and one old lady who knew they had not been forgotten on Christmas after all. Mary smiled as she told Joy about the others in the neighborhood who had each given something to make it possible to bring Christmas to Joy’s house that year.

“We wanted to make it okay,” Mary said. “Maybe we’re just some little old ladies on Social Security. Maybe we can’t fix everything for you, Joy, or your daughter, or those little girls who don’t have their mama. But maybe we could make it okay for a little while, for Christmas. Maybe… well. We hoped maybe we could make it merry.”

Joy smiled. She knew what Mary meant.