I was too young to remember the welfare checks or meals bought with food stamps, when my mother struggled as a young single parent. All I have are third-person accounts of what my life was like. “Public assistance,” she called it. “Going into those offices and waiting in those lines—I hated it. It was embarrassing, but it was a means to an end. Who knows what would have happened to us had help not been available?”
These thoughts consumed me as I stared out the window of my stepdad’s gray Kia Sorento. The sun shone through the trees, tangerine rays staining the snow-covered branches. We had exited the highway near the old airport, on the outskirts of Indianapolis. According to the GPS, the route from Zionsville, where my family lived, to Collier Street was 23.4 miles. The closer we were to the world of Amy, whose family we had adopted for Christmas, the farther away, I felt, we were from our own—a comfortable life that my mother and stepfather had worked hard since my early childhood to create.
We were treading into unfamiliar territory, a rundown part of the city where even the most beautiful of white snow couldn’t disguise the gloom and desolation of the abandoned buildings. Houses with shutters falling from their hinges disappeared past the car’s window frame.
A conversation with Amy from three days earlier replayed in my head. “It’s the essentials, just the basics,” she had told me. “Um, clothes, shoes, underwear, socks. Lots of socks.”
“Socks?” I asked. “Like, just plain socks or dress socks?”
“Um, no, just plain socks,” she replied. I wrote “socks” on the notepad in my lap. I was sitting in my car at Walmart. “Well, Amy, besides the basics, is there anything special you all want?”
A long pause. “I guess Kelly and I like bath soap,” she said softly. “That would be good.”
Bath soap. I jotted down the request. “When would you like us to bring the presents by?”
“Um, well, I work the night shift six days a week, so anytime in the late afternoon would be okay. I’m usually sleeping from 9 to 5.” She explained that she was a cashier at a Flying J gas station.
“My family and I are extremely excited about doing this,” I said. “We’ve never adopted a family before.” She said they were excited, too.
The jolt of the car brakes brought me back to the present. My mom, my stepdad, and I pulled up to Amy’s house with all 53 gifts onboard. Toys were scattered across the yard. My eyes fell on a red tricycle covered in snow, its back-left wheel missing. It reminded me of the tricycle I had when I was a little girl. An older-looking woman stood in the doorway. According to the documents we had received from United Christmas Service, Amy was only 37, with five children. But the Flying J emblem on the woman’s shirt confirmed that it was her. Suddenly it hit me that the circumstances of her life had physically aged her beyond her years.
We exited the car, and I approached Amy, careful not to slip on the ice. At the bottom step, I looked up, and Amy greeted me with a warm smile. I smiled back. She held out her arms for a hug, and I leaned in to embrace her, this stranger. “Who knows what would have happened had help not been available?” my mom had asked. Now, we were this family’s help.
Later, on Christmas morning, I stuffed the used wrapping paper from our gift exchange at my parents’ house into a trash bag, hoisted it over my shoulder, and carried it to the garage. I thought about what Amy’s house must have looked like: six people crowded in the living room of their one-bedroom home, the same green-and-white wrapping paper all over the floor. It made me smile. I tossed the bag and walked out to the driveway, and closed my eyes as a cold breeze blew on my cheeks.
23.4 miles. I used to think that was a world away.
United Christmas Service, United Way of Central Indiana, 317-923-1466, uwci.org.