In my early twenties I would go to the shelter where my mom worked to interview clients for their annual Christmas Wishlist. The list was in fact a website (now called Homeless Partners) where people could go and donate a personalized gift to one of the hundreds of men and women who would be waking up in a shelter on Christmas morning. My job was to collect a little information about the clients and ask what they were wishing for that season.
The first year I took part, I gathered in the shelter office with all the other volunteers and was given a list of questions to ask the clients. On the back of the sheet was a list of acceptable items they could request: Work boots, calling cards, transit passes, jackets. The program coordinator cautioned us to divert wishes away from gift certificates and expensive electronics which could easily become gifts for dealers instead of clients.
I admit, I was hesitant about the interview process. Worried I’d come across as condescending. That the interviewees would take one look at my Aritzia jacket and Sorel boots and tell me and the Christmas Spirit to go f*ck ourselves.
The Christmas trees of my youth had always been overflowing with more packages than my sister and I knew what to do with. Though I know my parents often struggled to keep up financially, each Christmas they would exclaim that now was the time to ask for what we really wanted. The year they divorced two weeks before Christmas, they softened the blow with the assurance that two Christmases would be better than one. As step-parents and new siblings entered the mix, Christmas shopping became even more extravagant. The price for our acceptance when we weren’t willing to give it on our own accord. Who were my sister and I to complain if the shiny things made them all feel better about wrecking our family?
But now in my twenties, Christmas just made me feel sick to my stomach. Requests for my Christmas list had become a reminder of how I’d wasted countless holiday seasons demanding love via presents. How I’d only ever received with judgement, and given out of obligation. If there were gifts to be had now, I didn’t deserve them.
So when the first interviewee pulled up their chair to mine on that first day at the shelter, I wasn’t expecting the next two hours to be an unravelling of the giant knot I’d tied around all my complicated holiday feelings.
My first interview is with Donna*, a blonde woman in her forties. She smiles, tentatively, as I begin to go through the questions. What are some of the reasons you’re on the street? How long have you been homeless? What do you want for Christmas?
Donna tells me of the relationship that ended five years ago. How she’d been left with nothing. She speaks about her teenage daughter. How she doesn’t like her coming down to the shelter – it’s too dangerous. Her daughter will call and leave a message at the shelter office. Sometimes Donna doesn’t get them. She tells me about how it hurts that she can’t be there for the girl whose name is tattooed across her shoulders.
Her Christmas wish? That someday her daughter will be able to visit her in a place all of her own.
A young man sits down next. He’s a year younger than me. He’s lost contact with his family. Made some poor decisions. I ask him what would lift his spirits? “A gift from somebody…anybody,” his eyes cast toward the floor.
More men sit down. One with a black eye and a sad smile who wishes for nothing more than to see his kids. They’re in New Brunswick though. Too far to go this year. I want to add plane tickets to the list of acceptable items. But the man tells me a new pair of work boots might help him see his kids next Christmas.
There is another man who won’t see his kids during the holidays. “They’re ashamed that I’m in this place,” he says. We talk for a while and as he pulls back his chair to leave, he takes a crumpled twenty dollar bill out of his pocket and hands it to me: “Can you make sure someone else on the list gets this?”
An older gentleman pulls up a chair. I ask his birthdate. His face is weathered and cracked from the twelve years he’s been on the streets since he lost much of his sight – and his job. He tells me stories from Christmases past. When I ask him what he wants for Christmas this year, his voice cracks and tears well up in his eyes. He speaks so softly I have to lean in to hear him. “Peace on earth and goodwill amongst men,” he says, his voice cracking.
I ask if I can give him a hug. I’m not sure if it’s in the rules, but as he holds his hand across his heart and nods a silent yes, it doesn’t matter. We embrace for a few moments and when he pulls away, we are both wiping tears from our eyes. “Hey,” he smiles, “if that peace on earth thing is too much, an am/fm radio would be alright.”
Almost ten years later I still think of that first night at the shelter whenever the holiday season rolls around. I think of the men and women who entrusted me with their stories, and their hopes for the holidays. And how they taught me that the most valuable gifts are the ones you cannot wrap or tie a bow around.
Guest blog by Alexis Maledy
Alexis Maledy is a Vancouver-based writer and professional communicator. Her website is currently under construction, but you can follow her on Instagram…if she remembers to post stuff.
You can also check out her work at My Modern Closet.