It seemed like a such a good idea at the time.
So why was I standing in the aisle at Target, a genuinely clenched knot in my stomach, on the verge of panic? This was a terrible, terrible mistake. I must be an idiot. How can I get out of here without nuclear disaster?
The signal for potentially impending doom came from my 5-year-old grandson, Buddy, who had dropped to his knees in front of a wide shelf of beguiling trinkets at the entrance to the toy aisles, two weeks before Christmas. Presented as potential stocking stuffers, I’m sure, this array included temptations like shark hand-puppets, small footballs with lights inside, miniature Slinkys, and the like. Buddy perused the selection with excruciating longing. Head drooping forward slightly like Charlie Brown in despair, he grasped the shark puppet and said sadly, “I think he would really like one of these.” Then, in painful but brave acknowledgement of the objectives and terms of our outing, he says without rancor, “I know we are not getting things for me, but I would like a slinky, some day.”
This last bit underscored his mother’s success at the promised coaching in advance of this expedition. It was the annual opportunity to shop for a needy child identified by our office’s Angel Tree. My hope, which now stared back at me like the Oscar Winner of Dumb Grandmother Ideas, was to make the most of it by bringing Buddy along. First, he could serve as peer consultant, helping select things that a boy his age would truly like; I had selected a tree tag showing the name and clothing sizes of another five-year-old. Second, I hoped to share with Buddy, even at his tender age, the genuine joy of giving back during the holiday season.
Watching this acute desire and Charlie Brown head droop in the face of this massive pile of commercial temptation, I was furious with myself. This was too much to ask, he’s too young. He’s not going to understand, it’s not fair to ask him, he might have a tantrum, and who could blame him? He says he gets it, but his expression says otherwise.
What to do? Bolt now, before it gets worse? Fib a reason to get out of there, like a stomachache on my part, which at this point is not a fib? Before I seize one of these cowardly solutions, Buddy rises to his feet and proceeds deeper into Childhood Nirvana, forward in our shared mission. Deeply unsure of what to do now, as I so often seem to be with these children, I watch, and wait.
And, it immediately does get worse. I follow him to a row of robots, caged in their boxes, eyes bright and forward, just waiting for a small boy to set them free to do whatever small robots do. He stares for a few long seconds, then sorrowfully snares one box, turns, and reaches up to hand it over, admitting, “I KNOW he would really like one of these.” He is not tearful, but I sense he is close.
I’m not sure I can take more of this, but reality intervenes. That’s really cool, I say of the $89 item, but that’s out of our price range, Sweetheart. Remember, we already got him a coat and some clothes. Let’s find some other good things, instead.
Perhaps this practicality is liberating—at least he will not have to watch me put it in the car and ponder another child receiving this mesmerizing item—or maybe the heart of a five-year-old runs so much deeper than grown-ups can possibly imagine. Either way, Buddy rallies now. He finishes his selections with careful study and efficiency, but no discernible angst. A large set of Hot Wheels with tracks and a smaller set of Legos (with some super-hero theme) are shoved into the cart, and we start toward checkout. Hugely relieved, ashamed for doubting him, and generally being a doting G-ma, I tell him how proud I am. He has done a great job, and has been a huge help. In appreciation for those things, I suggest he select one item for himself and one for his sister from the stocking-stuffer section, and throw the miniature slinky in for good measure. This accomplished with great excitement, we are off to the car.
Chatting as we head homeward, I decide to affirm the reality of the day with one more fact. He has been learning numbers in kindergarten, has begun to ask questions about money and cost, so I share sums of today’s outlay: $139. “Whooooaaaaah,” he answers in amazement. “Evie, do you have a lot of money?” I don’t, I answer quickly, but I am very fortunate to have steady work, and a nice place to live like your mom and dad have worked hard to have for you and Sis, and enough to eat. And if we are lucky enough to have all those things, we must remember to share with others who don’t have everything we have, especially this time of year.
A quick glance in the rear-view mirror reveals he is nodding understanding. And then comes the best proof of how profoundly easy it can be to under-estimate children. And how compassion is native to the human spirit, beginning so early inside little hearts and bodies.
“When I grow up, I hope I have a lot of money,” he begins, “and then I could buy them…” He pauses, and I wait for it: The robot? More Hot Wheels? Pokémon? A motorized bike? And I nearly veer the car off the road when he concludes, “I would buy them a home.”
And a little child shall lead them. * Peace on Earth to all.
*Isaiah 11:6: The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatted calf together; and a little child shall lead them.