Walking through the aisles of the department store, his little hand wrapped tightly around mine, I hurriedly look for a Christmas sweater.
We are in our fourth store in an hour; my patience is running thin, and so is his. We dart through departments, dodging shoppers and poorly placed merchandise setups desperately trying to find attire for an upcoming office event.
As Christmas music softly plays, my face hardens with frustration.
“Where are the Christmas sweaters!?”
I wanted something fun and cute, and preferably something that would make me look about five dress sizes smaller than what is actually etched in my pants.
“Mommy, I don’t think they have what you are looking for,” I hear him say in his sweet 3-year old voice.
He’s right, which makes me even more upset that in this vast department store of clothes, I can’t find one appealing option. We head for the exit when it hits me.
“Oh no! We forgot to grab some toys for the toy drive at school tomorrow!”
Stopped in my tracks, I stare into his innocent eyes. I want to enjoy the somber peace of the moment, but my mind is racing. Where do I find toys fast? How much longer can we hold out for dinner? Perhaps I have an excuse to go back to Target and get those adorable pajamas I saw.
Standing in the middle of the exit of the department store, I’m frozen with a sense of overcommitment. He swings my arm back and forth and plays with my wedding ring as I ponder my options. I contemplate re-gifting old birthday presents my kids have never touched. Yes, I went there. Don’t judge.
Sighing, I grab a shopping cart and make my way back to the small toy department. As I push my way through crowds of shoppers, I hear his shuffling feet behind me. I want to make this go fast, and I feel like he is slowing me down. I feel guilty about this.
As we arrive to my son’s favorite part of the store, he already has his eyes set on a Thomas the Train set. He picks up the box that is almost as big as he is and immediately asks for it.
“No,” I say. “We are here to buy toys for other kids.”
Moving along I scour the shelves, however I note that the shuffling feet are not behind me. I turn around to see him pouting and holding the aforementioned train set. He looks dismissed. I feel horrible. Explaining to him that Santa is watching and knows he wants the train set, I feel a little better but still in need of toys..fast.
He picks up one thing after another. A Spiderman walkie talkie. A Hulk figurine. He even picks out a few things his sister might want. I’m looking for two toys, one from him and one from his sister to take to school for the toy drive. Something for a child whose name I don’t know, and face I may never see.
I decide against the Brat dolls, mostly based on judgment and a refusal to support the brand. I pass up Caillou toys because we just don’t need to keep that crazy train in motion.
I finally find two relatively ambiguous gifts that either a boy or girl can play with, and happens to be on clearance. Again, don’t judge.
“Are these toys for me, Mommy?”
Staring into those sweet eyes, my heart softens.
“No baby, these toys are for kids who don’t have a mommy or daddy to give them toys at Christmas time.” He looks at me with horror, as if I just told him the truth about Mr. Claus or how his beloved corndogs are made.
“But Santa will bring them presents, right” he inquires.
Now is when I just want to tell him how corndogs are made.
I wish I could say I handled the whole situation with grace, and knew all the right things to say, but when you’re a parent most of the time you are winging it. It’s these moments of sweet naivety that make you want to shelter your kids from the truth and ugliness of the world. The fact that some kids don’t have Christmas, or loving parents, or much of anything really. But you can’t tell them that without taking away the pure innocence that all children deserve.
“Santa will bring them presents, but we still have to buy them toys.”
Questions are raised, a thousand “but whys” are thrown at me and I come to a place all of us parents eventually find ourselves. Telling them the truth they can handle. Truths about unfortunate kids. The downtrodden. The ugly facts. But in a way a 3-year-old can handle.
He somberly walks back to the Thomas the Train set he had his eye on for his own playroom. He picks it up and sets it in our cart.
“I want one of those kids to have this.”
Fighting back tears, I nod. It’s one of those moments you feel like you’ve actually got this parenting thing down. It’s a moment filled with pride and sadness all at the same time. Pride that your kid cares about others. Pride that maybe you are doing something right. Yet, there is sadness that you can’t keep the innocence you’ve been yearning for yourself for your child. Sadness that this holiday season another child may lose hope when nothing and no one shows up for them.
Checking out at the counter, he insists on handing the cashier our merchandise. The cashier smiles at him and looks at me the way most older women do when I’m shopping with him. Then she says.
“Oh wow! Someone has been good and is getting some nice toys. What a lucky boy you are.”
I have a moment of panic. My mind starts to race again. These toys aren’t for him! Please son remember what we talked about.
“We’re helping Santa,” he replies. “These are for other kids not me.”
Whew! Merry Christmas.