39: Right On Time

39: Right On Time

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Right On Time

Even when you do not feel big hearted, you can give yourself permission to act that way.

~Lama Willa Miller

I still remember the autumn our YWCA special events committee volunteers spent months soliciting gifts for the residents at our WomenShelter, a refuge for victims of domestic violence. We gathered to wrap and label them a few days before Christmas.

We marveled over the candy canes, chocolate-covered cherries, and popular toys. Then, as we affixed bows to the foil-wrapped toiletries, legwarmers and scarves, we realized that we lacked one thing to make Christmas morning magical: Santa.

“We really need Santa. We can’t take the children from the shelter to the mall to see him. I heard them wondering if he can find them so far away from their homes.”

“I can be Santa’s helper,” I volunteered. I was a psychiatric social worker at the Los Angeles County residence for abused kids, and I had agreed to work the holiday, but I didn’t have to be there until shortly before noon. I’d be free Christmas morning.

“Look,” I told the group, “Let me ask my friend, John. He’s tall, has a deep voice, and I know he’ll be in town.”

John and I had started to date soon after he graduated from an inpatient alcohol rehab program. I knew he was meeting some of his former group on Christmas at an Alano club, a center for AA members and families. “We’ll be sharing our experiences, strength and hope,” he had said, “and with any luck, a decent turkey dinner.” He claimed it would be his first sober Christmas since his teens.

I headed toward the office phone. John listened while I explained what we needed. “It won’t take more than a couple of hours. You just have to help me carry in the presents, talk to the kids, hand everybody a candy cane and be jolly. Will you do it? Be our Santa?”

“One thing I’ve learned in AA,” he said, “is to grab every opportunity to make amends. Some Christmases I wasn’t there for my own kids. This would be a chance to make Christmas merrier for other kids. Just one caveat… don’t call me Santa. I’ve lost twenty pounds, I’m not particularly jolly, and when I did take my kids to see Santa, sometimes he’d have booze on his breath.”

I frowned. “But I’d counted on being Santa’s elf. I have a red angora sweater and white pants and a Santa cap with bells.”

“You’ll just have to be Kringle Bells.”

“Kris Kringle will do. And thanks.” I hung up the phone and rejoined the group.

“He’ll do it!” Everybody sighed with relief.

“I’ve never really understood why you want to be such a do-gooder,” he’d said when he learned I spent many Saturdays volunteering for the shelter.

“Why is that hard to understand?” I’d asked.

“You could have fun on your days off. You could go to the movies, listen to your Billy Joel albums or walk on the beach.”

I’d laughed. I couldn’t imagine anything more satisfying than watching these children and their moms opening presents that holiday in a safe house.

Early Christmas morning, John and I piled the bags of gifts into the back of his old Chevy and drove through the fog-cloaked streets to the shelter.

“I’ll go in first and make sure everybody’s dressed and ready,” I said, as we pulled up in front of the duplex the YWCA maintained for the program.

A woman in a faded chenille bathrobe answered my knock, eying me warily. “I’m here with the Christmas gifts,” I announced. “Santa… I mean Kris Kringle is stuffing some presents in his sack. We may have to make several trips.”

“Kris Kringle?”

“Yes,” I said, nodding my head to rattle my bells. “And I’m his faithful elf, Kringle Bells.”

“No Santa? The children will be so disappointed.”

“Well, they won’t know the difference. He’s dressed in a Santa suit, just without a pillow, and he’s promised to say ‘ho, ho, ho.’ Just don’t call him Santa.”

“Oh, whatever,” she said, looking hesitant. But when John stepped up on the porch, her puzzled expression quickly changed. I’d hesitated to tell him so, but even with the twenty-pound weight loss he still looked like Santa Claus.

The children gathered as John began to read the gift tags.

“Thank you, Kris Crinkle,” said one angelic-looking preschooler.

“Thank you, Kris Wrinkle,” echoed an older boy, with a slight smirk.

“Thank you, Kris Tinkle,” lisped a toddler. John ducked his head to hide a grin.

When John drove me home he said he wanted to stop by later that evening. “I have a little present for Ms. Kringle Bells,” he announced.

That night, John handed me a small package wrapped in silver paper. “Before you open this, I want to tell you that last night, Christmas Eve, I really wanted a drink,” he said. “I actually got in the car to drive to a bar. Then I remembered I had to take the presents to the shelter this morning. I drove to an AA meeting instead. You helped me maintain my sobriety… what a gift that was.”

I hugged him and then opened my package. It was Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain.

John and I chatted about how our respective Christmas Days had gone. Then a certain tune started up.

“Listen to this one,” I said, catching my breath. It was my favorite.

The Piano Man started out with the opening phrase of his Christmas song, a huge hit, “She’s Right On Time.” We both hummed along with the chorus.

“Hey, Kringle Bells,” John said, his voice soft, unusual for him. “Thanks. You were right on time.”

“You’re welcome, Kris Tinkle Wrinkle Crinkle.” We burst out laughing.

Our romance didn’t last, but our friendship did. Each time we reconnected before he died a few years later, John, still sober, reminded me of that magical Christmas when Kringle Bells showed up right on time, right where she should be, volunteering on Christmas morning. With a formerly reluctant costumed recruit grinning right beside her.

~Terri Elders

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