Saturday was my birthday. Outside it was very cold and snow fell all day. Inside we were cozy warm, watching the snowfall, while my daughter prepared a delicious meal. Friends and family called or stopped by or sent cards. I thought of celebrations past – birthdays, Christmases, graduations, weddings, family reunions – with gratitude, some sadness, many smiles.
One very treasured memory is set just before Christmas when I was 11 years old. In St. Louis, the downtown Lutheran Mission provided after school care, food and clothing for inner city children. My parents were regular contributors and Dad often stopped by to visit with the children and Anna, the very old and sweet director of the program. This particular year, Dad was to be gone on a business trip for a week. A few weeks before he left, Dad had gotten from Anna, the first names and ages of every child enrolled at the Mission, and had sworn Anna to secrecy. Mom and Dad bought gloves for the older children, mittens for the little ones. We spread them all out on our dining room table. While Dad was away my brothers and I made gift cards that we thought each child would like, from old greeting cards. We cut out shapes of trees and stars and angels and put each name on a card. We wrapped every pair of gloves and mittens, attached the cards. We were filled with wondering about each child. What would they look like, would they be like, where did they live, who else was in their family?
By the time Dad got back home, we were ready. Every gift was wrapped and labeled and overflowing a large box. On the appointed night we piled into the car and headed for the riverfront section of town. With crumbling warehouses and tenements, empty buildings, small grocery stores, streetcars and buses, it was a scary place. Here was the Mission. A single wooden door led into a small darkened room lighted only by a tall fragrant tree covered with decorations and tinsel. The children stood in front of the tree, waiting. Anna welcomed us and told us that the children had prepared a surprise for us. And then they began. Every child sang softly, angelically. An older boy read the story of the birth of Jesus. Together we all sang more beautiful Christmas hymns and secular songs. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and the room seemed magically warm and bright and lovely. They had baked cookies for us and brought out tall pitchers of milk. I was overcome with so many feelings – connection and oneness, joy, humbleness. Our gift was greeted with so much love which seemed a far greater gift than a pair of mittens. I was immensely touched. Years later I understood the enormity of the gift my parents gave to my brothers and me. From the idea to its conclusion Mom and Dad were teaching us how to see. How to meet another being right where he or she is. Not only how to give but how to be equal. How to be given to from a generous heart, how to receive from a grateful one. For me, I think this was the best Christmas ever.
The birthday project is my way of remembering. Long before the day of my birth and long after I’m gone, there was and there will be, someone else having a birthday. Someone will be happy, someone will grieve. Someone will have a cozy home and family, someone will be alone. Someone will be hungry. Someone will be lost. Someone will have a great need. Someone will be afraid. When I remember how to see, how to be equal, how to be one, I will know how to respond. Today I'm seeing with gratitude. I’m thankful for my Mom and Dad who gave me life and taught me to see. I’m grateful for another day to practice the birthday project.
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