Surprise Santa

     I gripped the steering wheel and dragged in a heavy breath.

     Walmart. Christmas Eve. I could do this.

     My wallet sat in the passenger seat, mocking me with its meager contents.

     “You’re the reason I’m here now,” I grumbled at it. “Instead of sitting on my couch wrapping gifts I wanted to get weeks ago.”

     The boys were at home with their daddy, hoping Santa would be bringing their gifts that night. I sniffed as I recalled childhood Christmases watching the pile of presents grow day after day. My children’s Christmas memories were turning out quite different from my own.

     “Well, you can’t change it now, and you can’t change it sitting in the car. So get your pokey butt moving.”

     I grabbed the wallet and stuffed it into my purse. Then I hoisted myself out of the ancient station wagon and trudged across the slushy parking lot, stomping snow off my boots as I entered the store. Michael Bublé crooned “I’ll be Home for Christmas” from the speakers and my heart smiled a little, though not enough to reach my lips.

     My boots squeaked across the linoleum and people glanced my way as I passed. I felt their gazes burning into my back as I tucked my hands under my arms and kept my head up. The judgement I imagined in their eyes was likely projected by my own insecurity, but I speed walked toward the toy section anyway.

     It still took me a while to get through the store though, as I detoured around several sections, loathe to pass by luxuries I couldn’t afford. When I finally reached the toy aisle, a relieved sigh eased past my lips, followed by a grimace.

     The few toys left on the shelves were scattered amidst slightly squashed packaging. As if this trip wasn’t hard enough already. I tried to stay focused on the cheaper toys I could actually afford, but my eyes kept wandering up to the top shelves. Giant Lego sets, fancy Leap Frog gadgets, trikes featuring every billion dollar character every kid could want to be. The lowest price up there was still double the total amount I’d budgeted for all my Christmas shopping. My heart squeezed as I tore my gaze back to the stocking stuffers my kids would be getting as their regular presents.

     I avoided eye contact with the other shoppers as I tallied up various gift combinations, trying to figure out how to get the most for what little I had to spend. The results came down to either a large handful of Hotwheels cars and trains or two larger individual toys, one for each boy. As much as I loved the notion of giving them the illusion of lots of gifts with separately wrapped cars, I didn’t want to repeat my parents’ gifts from last year. And even if I couldn’t get them exactly what they wanted, I was still going to make darn sure they got something special.

     So I slid off the shelf one set of toy instruments for my one year old and a small Lego police set for my four year old. Not quite as special as I had wanted, but it was the best I could afford.

     As I squeaked back through the store again in search of the registers, I held my chin high. The shame and guilt might have been crushing my spirit, but I was determined not to show it.

     The lines were mercifully short and I did my best to smile and look normal. The older man in front of me gave me a smile and a nod. He wore wrinkle free jeans and a sleek grey jacket that made his light grey hair appear lighter than it probably was. Or the hair made the jacket look darker. I couldn’t figure out which.

     “Christmas shopping for your kids?”

     I blinked and refocused on his face.

     “Uh, yeah. Two boys.”

     “Really? How old?”

     “One is about nine months and the other is four.”

     His eyes lit up.

     “My daughter just had our first grandchild.”

     “Oh, congratulations.”

     “Thank you. We’re really excited.”

     I smiled, but couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to reply. He glanced at the toys as they inched closer to the checkstand and I tried not to let the sting show on my face. Then he looked back at me. I pasted on another smile.

     “Would you … Would you let me pay for your gifts?”

     The smile froze and I stared like a deer in headlights. As his words sank in, a spark ignited in my belly and spread to my despairing heart.

     “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

     “Please. It would be my pleasure.”

     I so badly wanted to accept. But my pride poked out its ugly head, holding back my words. It was bad enough that my wallet was forcing me to choose subpar gifts, I didn’t want someone else thinking I needed help paying for them. Then, over the tug of war in my head, my heart reminded me of a sentiment I’d read recently.

     If we don’t receive, we are depriving the giver of the joy found in giving.

     I looked back at that incredibly generous grandfather and shoved my pride back into the depths from which it came.

     “All right. Thank you”

     “You’re very welcome.”

     My eyes started to burn as he finished the transaction with the checker and I tried not to embarrass myself with my gratitude. I eased around him to retrieve the paper bag containing my now free items. When I turned to give him one last heartfelt thank you, he reached out and took my empty hand.

     “Have a nice Christmas.”

     I looked down at our hands and spotted a hundred dollar bill tucked between them. I stared back at him, the withheld tears pooling in my eyes. My jaw fell open, but no words came. He just smiled and gave my hand a squeeze before letting go, leaving the bill in my trembling hand.

     I gave a final whispered thank you, then turned and walked away, clutching the gifts to my middle. All the conflicting emotions swirling inside were making me feel almost nauseated. Gratitude, shame, guilt, giddiness. My body couldn’t seem to process them all.

     Then as I approached the doors, I heard a familiar song over the speakers.

     “The only gift I’ll ever need is the joy of family. Oh why? Cause that’s Christmas to me.”

     My shoulders relaxed and I finally took a full breath as, for the first time in a long time, I found myself looking forward to Christmas.

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