The door slammed behind me. The sleigh bells attached sounded with their holiday cheer. My goal was simple; find cold weather gear for the homeless shelter. I look around me at the small shop, racks of clothing and shelves of unorganized décor and home goods filled the space. The air was thick with the smell of second-hand goods, Christmas music whined from old speakers at the back of the room.
My stomach tingled with excitement; Christmas was my favorite time of the year.
My mother and father had been well off, growing up with a silver spoon in my mouth my parents believed that we should be humble; giving back when we can. From this idea a family tradition began.
Each year we would pile into the family car and find ourselves a second-hand store. My sisters and I would scatter around the room collecting jackets, gloves, hats and scarves for our assigned demographic. Then we would gather our treasures, wash them and take them with us to the soup kitchen. There was something magical about the warmth of a soup kitchen. The way those in need would line up and wait patiently for their turn. How they would smile and graciously thank each person when they picked up a garment from the tables. The bittersweet feeling at the end when you wish you could do more but are thankful for the opportunity to help at all. It was unparalleled.
Even now as adults we would share in this tradition. Though we were all separated, we would plan to go on the same day and give back to our own communities. This year, my assigned demographic was “adult men”.
Scanning the room I made my way to the clothing rack with the word “Men’s Jackets” hanging above it and began my search. It had been a cold winter and there was slim to nothing left, I grabbed a few of each size that were good quality and made my way to the accessories.
I carefully found matching sets of hats, scarves and gloves to go with each jacket. Taking silent inventory of the goods I had discovered.
Once I was satisfied, I found my way back to the front counter. The bored teen behind the desk could not be bothered to fake customer service skills as he haphazardly placed the sets of clothing into bags. I wished him a “Merry Christmas” and made my way to the car.
The wind was bitter cold, cutting straight through my layers of sweaters. The door of my car nearly smashed my leg as a gust of wind slammed it shut behind me. Phase one was complete.
I’m thankful for attached garages.
When I made it back to my house, I was able to take my time gathering the bags from the back seat without fighting for my life against the weather. My heart ached as I realized just how blessed I truly was to have a life like mine. I tried to shake it away, but I couldn’t. Even my silly attempt to reach out to the homeless community did not begin to fix the problems they were faced with; I wished I could do more.
“Girls, the most important step in the donation process is to wash all of the goods you intend to donate.” My mothers’ words echoed in my head as I separated the clothing. Once I made my way to the jackets, I made sure to check every pocket, even the ones hidden on the inside of the lining. I had always joked about finding a stashed wad of cash in these jackets, instead we usually found loose change, receipts and lint.
“Last one!” I smiled triumphantly grabbing the green flannelled coat. “Tell me, what kind of life did you live?” I found my way to the left pocket, a quarter and a button were pushed from their hiding spot. I placed them in the bowl next to me and continued on. The right pocket was barren and just as I was checking the final breast pocket, I felt paper against my fingers. “Jackpot!”
I assumed it was another receipt to be tossed but the moment I saw it my heart skipped.
It was folded up into a small square and I could see worn out writing on the white paper. I unfolded it and my heart sank; it was a photo. A man and boy, sitting together on a riverbank, smiling proudly at the camera. The shared complexion and green eyes hinted at a family connection, but it was the writing on the back that confirmed my belief.
Cole, my son, my pride and joy – 1989
Suddenly this old jacket didn’t feel the same in my hands. Within an instant it had taken on the weight of an entire life, what had been a piece of clothing before was now a possession. I felt nauseas.
Out there in the world was a man who was missing this picture. He had held it closely to his heart for over 30 years and now it was lost. I jumped up from the couch, grabbing my car keys and coat. I had to return this photo to its rightful owner, now.
My heart was still racing. I stared down at the happy faces on the picture and felt the fold lines with my thumbs. Such a beautiful moment these two had shared; and lost.
The cashier at the second-hand store was on the phone with the manager, his annoyance prevalent on his face. A lock of his hair fell into his eyes, in a swift move he brushed it away and turned his back to me.
“That’s what I told her, but she insisted I call to make sure. Sorry for wasting your time.” He hung up the phone and placed it on the receiver. “No ma’am, the only thing we get are bags of donations. We do not track who they come from and only keep what is re-useable.”
My hopes sank and I sighed “well, thank you for checking. Have a happy holiday.”
Leaving the shop filled me with remorse. My journey had begun and ended so quickly; it felt wrong. The only thing that made me feel better was knowing that I had bought a replacement coat for the donation. Although my initial search came up empty, I was not ready to throw in the towel completely.
I called my mother and filled her in on my adventure on the drive home. I was hoping that she would give me some advice, but she had never experienced anything like this before.
“What a bizarre but wonderful gift you’ve experienced. I think you have done the right thing by holding onto it; you’ll figure something out.”, she cooed.
“I’m not sure mom. I’ve never felt this way about anything before. I feel so attached to this family, but I’ve never even met them.” I sigh “Maybe I am just wasting my time.”
“Nonsense!” she declared “You have a strong instinct telling you to follow it. You cannot just ignore that call from inside of you, listen to it and see where it leads. Worst case? You donate the jacket and make someone warm at the end of it all.”
“Okay, okay!” I laughed “there’s no need to go all spirit guide on me! Anyway, I have to get home and finish this up before my shift at the soup kitchen tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow” I paused, the smiles flashing in my head “and mom? I love you.” I could hear her smile through the phone.
“I love you too Anna, you make me so proud.”
That evening I began my shift at 6 o’clock. The hustle and bustle of the kitchen made me feel warm inside, the aromas of the menu sweeping the air making my mouth water. I should have eaten dinner first; rookie mistake. I found the manager, Aaron pretty quickly and he escorted me to my station.
“Yes, I get to be in charge of the gravy train-woo woo!” I pumped my arm in the air and laughed but Aaron was not amused.
“Just make sure to ask first, here is your ladle. Change gloves every 30 minutes and each time you leave your station. Always wash your hands too- we are serving food, not illnesses.”
“Understood.” I took the ladle from his hand and stirred the pot of gravy. It smelled perfect and I could just picture the way it would cascade down mashed potatoes and pieces of turkey. Seriously Anna, you should’ve eaten. I scolded myself internally; this was serious business.
They opened the doors at 6:30 and the line of hungry faces waited patiently for their turn. I smiled and offered a ladle full (or two) to each of them, many spoke about how excited they were for their meals; the bittersweet tingle returned. My mind and heart were torn in two. Volunteering and donating were supposed to make me feel good, but they only made me feel guilty; it will never be enough.
Once everyone had a full plate the volunteers were welcomed to visit and socialize with those who had come to eat. I found a way to a table with an open seat and listened in on the stories. Many of the homeless men were veterans, they had served their time and failed to acclimate to life after they got home. Some of the volunteers shared their stories as well, telling tales of how they came to be drawn to helping homeless communities.
A few of the volunteers claimed to have been called by their religious groups to serve the community, a couple others just decided to embrace the spirit of giving. When my turn came I tried to make my story short and sweet.
“It’s a family tradition. My parents always wanted us to take care of others, so each season we donate goods and volunteer in our communities. My sisters are out in Houston tonight doing the same thing!” Everyone at the table smiled at me, I looked to the guy on my left as it was his turn to share.
His curly blond hair had been groomed properly and his brown eyes glowed as he spoke.
“Well, it all started with my dad.” he paused “you see, he was just like a lot of you. He served in the war after being drafted into an infantry unit. I can only imagine what he saw while he was overseas because when he came home, he was wounded. Everyone was so proud of him, a purple heart recipient who made it back to my mom in one piece. Everything was good for a while; my parents had my sister then a few years later they had me.” Pain pinged in his eyes “but then the nightmares started. He would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, and at some point he decided he just couldn’t take it anymore. My dad turned to the bottle pretty hard and my mom couldn’t sit by and watch him kill himself; so, we left. He spiraled and lost everything, eventually he became homeless. My mom grew to hate him, in her eyes she believed he was intentionally destroying her life. After a while she convinced my sister and they cut off all contact with him; but I couldn’t do that. You see, my dad was my best friend. We had such an amazing bond and just because his demons were haunting him…” he gulped, visibly holding back tears “I tracked him down and tried to take him in but he wouldn’t let his pride go. So instead we agreed to meet at this soup kitchen each year and have dinner. I made it my goal to donate things in hopes they would make it to him, and he always showed up for those meals. Until two years ago, anyway. Unfortunately, I don’t know why he stopped coming… or if he is even ali” his voice trailed off, collecting himself he continued “but I still come, hoping he will walk through the doors.”
The table was silent. The air in the room had thickened it was almost impossible to breathe.
A few moments passed before the volunteer spoke up again, trying to perk back up the conversation “so! What did everyone think of the stuffing I worked so hard to make?” everyone jumped on the opportunity to change the subject and I watched as they spoke.
Something was peculiar about this guy, but I couldn’t put my finger on it-
Until he smiled.
My heart leapt into my throat and all the air escaped from my lungs.
I had to be sure, though. I had to find a way to bring up his name into casual conversation without sounding like a total weirdo. Then I realized how ridiculous I was being; its socially acceptable to introduce yourself to someone.
I waited for a break in the conversation and turned to face him fully, extending out my arm.
“Hi, I am Anna by the way. I don’t believe we were introduced.” I could feel my face burning red as I tried to keep my composure.
“Oh, hi” he grinned and gripped my hand “I’m Cole Anderson. I thought you looked familiar but it’s probably from us volunteering here”
“Took the words right out of my mouth, well it’s nice to officially meet you Cole.” My smile faded into my lap as I glanced down at the folded-up paper I had pulled from my purse.
“Anna? Is everything alright?” I looked up into his dark eyes and tried to find the words to say.
“Well, Cole… I think I have something that should belong to you but I am not sure of any other way to do this.” I quickly explained how I had come to possess some winter coats and the process my mother taught us to follow “So, short story long… I was clearing out the pockets in the coats when I happened upon, well this…” I handed him the photo.
Time stood still. I watched as his facial expression shifted from confusion, to understanding, and finally mourning. The tears he had fought so hard to hold back earlier were now streaking his cheeks, I put my hand on his.
“I am so very sorry.” My eyes burned, welling with sorrow; I felt so connected to them from the beginning and now I knew why.
After a few minutes of silent sobs Cole managed compose himself. Finding my eyes again he asked, “do you happen to have the coat you found this in?” I led him out into the parking lot to my car. He sat in the front seat as I handed him the coat. He grabbed it brought it close to him, examining the details of the last possession his father ever had. He hugged it tightly to his chest with one hand and stared at the photo in the other
“I can’t believe it” he whispered.
“What is it?” I asked
“You see this jacket?” he unfolded it in his hands revealing a tag on the inner waistline, there in silver ink next to the washing directions were the initials C.A. “every year I would donate coats I had purchased, like you. Except this one, I had used it for a winter and donated it the following year. That’s why my initials are here.” He smiled again “I had always wanted to help him, but now I know that I did; And he cherished this photo even after everything that happened.”
“Cole, I don’t know what to say” I sputtered.
“Anna, thank you. Part of me always knew what had happened to him, and I am still in mourning knowing the truth now. But you’ve given me the best gift tonight, thank you.” He pulled me into a hug before hopping out of the car.
I was frozen. Nothing could have prepared me for the night I had just experienced. I tried to process each thing as it replayed in my head. A knock on my window scared me back to life; it was Cole. I rolled down the window.
“Is everything alright?” I asked
“Never better. Listen, I know this is going to sound insane after everything that has happened tonight, but I’ve been wanting to ask you something all evening.” He moved side to side to keep warm and clutched the coat in his hands.
“Sure, anything.” I laughed
“Would you like to get dinner sometime?”