It is Christmas morning; after we open stockings, we zip our girls into their matching Hanna Anderson snow jackets and get our car out of the garage. We head to a church on the West Side of Manhattan, our Meals on Wheels pick up, to get our assignment. Because we have a car—not that common in NYC—we can deliver to a fairly broad range of addresses. We have done deliveries to shut-ins for several Christmases, hoping that our young daughters, Miranda and Cordelia, will internalize what it means to reach beyond oneself, even in small ways. They attend Merricats Castle, a nursery school that includes children with physical disabilities, children with other needs, and neighborhood children like them. The school has helped us do a lot of the heavy lifting in teaching empathy, in teaching our girls that there will always be people who have less and have more, in teaching them about kindness. We are not yet raising the girls with formal religion as their father is Jewish and I am Christian, but we want to instill in the girls a generosity of spirit that transcends the loot under the tree.
A chorus of “Merry Christmases” greet us in the big kitchen. Kind competent people have arrived early to cook. We load the packaged meals into the back of our station wagon and start out our trek. Single Room Occupancy buildings are grim places every day, but sparse tinsel garlands and dispirited poinsettias in dim lobbies accentuate the scent of those forgotten by families or friends—cleanser and a faint hint of rotting garbage mix with loneliness. The linoleum is cracked in most of the hallways. Fluorescent bulbs make my rosy-cheeked daughters look jaundiced. I have them by the hands, two little girls sporting red and green bows in their neatly combed dark hair. Cordelia, three, wears sparkly Dorothy ruby red slippers, her choice every day. Miranda, five, wears shiny Mary Janes.
We ring the bell, announce ourselves as “Meals on Wheels delivery” and listen for feet to approach the door. Sometimes, we hear a quavering, “Coming,” or “Be right there.” We wait for the door to open. Occasionally, there is a bag on the doorknob. At those places, we are simply to leave the meal without knocking. The girls feel sad not to be able to offer holiday greetings. Those to whom we deliver are older, but not necessarily elderly. In one apartment, a woman insists we come in and sit with her; she offers the girls bananas, which they respectfully decline. We visit with her for a few minutes. I can see her delight in my daughters, the pleasure she takes from having children with her, even briefly. Her grown up children are coming later, she assures us. In other apartments, people crack open the doors, take the food quickly, mutter hasty thanks and close their doors. The girls are curious, interested. It is only I who seem afflicted by the loneliness seeping through the corridors.
We drive to another building, checking the address against the printed sheet we took with us in those pre-GPS years. This time, Cordelia stays in her car seat with her dad, and Miranda comes along with me. We ring the bell, are admitted to the building, take the elevator up, find the right apartment at the end of a hall. We knock. The door swings open, and an older man greets us with a smile. He is wearing an undershirt with a long sleeve shirt open over it. His face is unshaved, but he is delighted to see us, invites us in. Miranda squeezes my hand tightly. I demur, claiming other deliveries. He thanks us, cheery, and closes the door.
“Mama,” Miranda looks up at me as we head toward the elevator.
“Yes, sweetie,” I answer.
“That man seems to have forgotten to put on any pants.”
“I think you’re right about that,” I say. “It was good you didn’t mention that, Pie,” I add, using her baby name.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to embarrass him, Mama. Maybe he just forgot.”
“Maybe he did.”
“I was a little scared, Mama. I’m glad we didn’t go inside.”
“I know, honey. It was a little unexpected.”
“Were you scared?”
“Not scared, just surprised.”
In the car, Miranda reports our encounter to her dad and little sister.
“He wasn’t wearing any pants?” Seth asks, puzzled.
“Not even underpants,” Miranda announces.
Seth looks at me. “Not even underpants,” I concur.
We continue with our deliveries and maintain the ritual for several years. Sometimes, waiting at the door, Miranda and I grin at each other, remembering the kind and pant-less man who greeted us.
Years later, this is a story in our family lexicon. Do we tell it because it makes us laugh? Do we tell it because it was a moment we want to remember—our cozy family unit so privileged and protected in our station wagon, a living room waiting for us in our lovely apartment with presents shimmering under a tree decorated and lit with love? Is it a cautionary tale? This is what happens when you are alone? You are in danger of forgetting your pants? Of being without those who love you? Do we tell it to remind ourselves to take care, to squabble less, to find the moments of joy?
I am proud of our socially conscious children, our son joining his sisters a number of years after this episode. All three stand up for those with fewer rights or privileges. All three rarely back down. I’d like to believe we sowed the seeds of social justice in those chilly Christmas outings, that we watered them with help from teachers and friends and schools and experiences that inspired them to do what is right rather than what is easy, to use their gifts for good. We tell the story of our man and laugh, but he is a caution, too. I wish we had gone back to see him, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be equal to a visit if he were without his pants. I worried that it would freak out our girls. I suspect he is gone now. I know for sure I wouldn’t know how to find him. The New York City chapter of the girls’ childhood feels a long time ago. Still, we remember that Christmas morning, that man.
We haven’t done Meals on Wheels for many years. I think it’s time to try it again.
Ann Klotz’s essays have appeared in Mothers Always Write, Literary Mama, The Manifest Station, The Grief Diaries, Mamalode, the Brevity Blog and on The Huffington Post. A chapter of hers about becoming a teacher was included in the recently published anthology, What I Didn’t Know, published by Creative Nonfiction. You can read more of her writing on my website: annvklotz.com or by following her on Twitter: @AnnKlotz