Helen Otten, my mom, died April 3 at the age of almost 93. I’m posting this in her memory. I’m also reminded of the importance of family.
The twelfth day of Christmas is Jan. 6th–Little Christmas, The Feast of the Magi.
Actually, it’s all the Magi’s fault. They are the ones credited with giving the first gifts.
Based on the number of people in line at the return desks last week, I’d say many people had problems with their gifts. (Actually I could see Mary and Joseph thinking the gold was useful, they could buy a wagon or better donkey, but what were they supposed to do with Frankincense and Myrrh. Myrrh–really????)
I know it is supposed to be the “thought that counts,” but it really is much more. Gifts are a whole cultural phenomenon.
My mother is 89.
Recently she’s had hip replacement surgery and has trouble shopping for herself.
Two months before Christmas she told me she wanted slippers. Slippers it is. I don’t have to guess her gift. And this is great…EXCEPT
Every day for the next month she would call me on the phone (usually at 6 AM because that is when she wakes up and is thinking about slippers) and define what kind of slippers. They had to have rubber soles so she could wear them outside if she wanted. And this is great…EXCEPT
She couldn’t tell me her size. It seems some Large slippers are size 8-9, some Larges are size 9-10. And the manufacture, design, model, production all make a difference.
I went to three different stores and brought her “Pair number one” on Thanksgiving. She didn’t even try them on. Which actually made it easier to exchange them, which is great…EXCEPT
She really wanted black. But none of the stores made black slippers. So, I picked out some navy size 8’s and 9’s and 10’s, and some pink (everything she owns is pink) in a size 8-9, and 9-10. And I figured I’d give her a choice. Which was great…EXCEPT
She decided she wanted slippers that weren’t slip-ons. “Only the devil would make slippers with open backs” and she has had slippers that covered her whole foot, well–her whole life. And, she thinks she has ugly toes, so–none of those slippers with toe cut-outs. So, I boxed up and returned the slippers. And it was great…EXCEPT
The next three stores didn’t have black or whole foot slippers. But they did have navy.
You know where this is going, right?
Yep, I rebought her the same slippers (that she wouldn’t even try on) from the first round. She opened them on Christmas and said they were perfect.
So, it makes you wonder.
Was the gift really about slippers at all?
Grandma and the Thong
The picture above is from a previous Christmas. My sister Martha worked in a lingerie store and gave each of the girl cousins a pair of thongs. They thought they were nice. Certainly something practical they could use. EXCEPT
She also gave one to Grandma.
The gift became an urban legend in our family. It brought down the house.
Even though mom didn’t even recognize the thong as underwear—it was the shared experience with her grandkids that made it the perfect gift.
Which again makes me wonder about gifts.
Aaron’s Christmas Gift and Charity
This Christmas Aaron went to a Christmas Party sponsored by a local non-profit. These are kind folks. Many of the people with severe disabilities are the poorest people in the county and don’t even have family members who can give them gifts. So, this is not only a nice gesture, it is an opportunity for these poor souls to get a little something extra.
This year the non-profit got items donated by local businesses to give as gifts. Over 150 adults with disabilities came to the Christmas Party and Dance.
There are so few recreation opportunities, many of the people put on their best clothes and showed up early. Many more wanted to come, but there was little transportation and they depend on staff–who didn’t want to bother.
At the party, even though they arrived early, there were only chairs for 100 people. So Aaron and Jack, his roommate, had to stand and hold their coats.
Since Aaron has balance problems, and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t sit down (people were guarding their chairs) he started biting his hand and pinching others. Not good behavior at a party.
Their staff person made the sensible decision to leave (even more people were coming in the already over-crowded room). Aaron and Jack were each given a “gift bag” at the exit. Which was nice… EXCEPT
The gift bag had a pair of donated slippers. Yea! I would be laughing too, slippers… EXCEPT
The slippers were size 11.
Aaron wears a size 9.
Now, no one with balance issues is safe wearing a pair of slippers two sizes too big. And, unlike my mother, these slippers were charity—donated. So there was no gift card or receipt, most people had no dutiful daughter, family or staff who cared to make an exchange.
And, Aaron couldn’t understand why anyone would give him slippers he couldn’t use. So he just carried the slippers around the house—making me crazy that good, kind people could be so dumb. After all who is the “intellectually challenged” person here? Did they think they wouldn’t notice the slippers didn’t fit? Or all people wear size 11?
Is “Just getting something to open” the point? Even if they can’t use it?
What is Charity?
If you plan a charitable event and are giving gifts:
Don’t just arbitrarily pass out slippers, or coats, or T-shirts with misspelled words.
Don’t give radios with no batteries—because they want to use the radio that minute and staff often won’t be bothered with batteries.
Don’t give them things you couldn’t sell or are broken.
Don’t make your interaction a one-time-event.
Do have a party with chairs and refreshments for everyone.
Do think about transportation and staff and family members
Do consider that the shared experience, like Grandma getting the Thong, may be the best gift ever—no excepts.
Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,
Okay, best/worst gift stories? Am I just being an ungrateful jerk? What is the role of charity? Is it appropriate to give broken, torn things to Goodwill/charity? Only 258 shopping days until Christmas????
“Toyland, Toyland, magical girl and boy land. Once you cross its borders, you can never return again.” (Babes in Toyland)
There’s No Santa
Aaron and Tommy got off the school bus and our world changed.
Tommy walked in the front door, threw his backpack in the corner, and announced “There’s no Santa Claus.” Apparently, Billy and Josh minced no words on the bus ride home. And, they were third graders who knew these things.
Aaron, my son with the label of autism, went straight to the fridge.
But what is a mother to do?
I got Aaron settled with a snack and his music and then sat next to Tommy on the couch. We both were facing the Christmas tree and feeling pretty glum when he crawled into my lap. That action alone choked me with tears. Tommy was seven years old and seldom let me hold him on my lap anymore–yet another reminder my baby was growing up.
His happy world was just turned upside-down.
Like all parents, I knew this moment would come. And, I wanted to send coal to Billy and Josh for ruining the fun.
I knew this was one of those rite-of-passages, a transformational moment in his young life–but darn. It seemed just yesterday he was three and running down the steps on Christmas morning, diving into the presents from Santa–darn, darn.
For a long time, we watched the reflection of the lights on the tree ornaments and didn’t say anything.
It was a treasured moment but I was desperately trying to think of how to keep the magic. How could I patch up the hole of a Santa that no longer was real?
Tommy finally started talking and asked some questions. He said he had suspicions because the whole Santa-goes-around-the-world-in-one-night is a little hard to believe. But, but, but.
There were the things he said: “So there’s no Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy…?” “Was God real?”
And the things he didn’t say: “Did all adults lie, trick kids, and play games with them?” “Who could he now trust?”
I tried to put myself into his world and think of ways he might understand. My explanation was that Santa was a make-believe superhero bombed. Later, I could talk about Jesus and the gifts of the Magi, but that seemed abstract for the current moment.
I’m not sure what inspired me, but as Tommy sat in my arms with his chin on his chest, I suggested Santa was a tradition about giving.
“The Santa tradition” was a fun way for everyone to be an actor in a giant real-life magic play. It didn’t matter your age, it was about finding someone who needed cheering up, or needed help and giving it to them.
I told him little kids didn’t understand this, but big kids like him now got to be part of the fun by becoming Secret Santa to others. This seemed to make sense to Tommy.
Okay, who could we surprise? Who needed some Christmas cheer?
Tommy’s grandparents had just separated after a long and unhappy marriage. Grandpa had moved into a basement apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood and told the family, “This year I’m keeping it simple and not putting up a Christmas tree.”
So that minute, Tommy started to plan a Christmas makeover for Grandpa’s apartment. Tommy decided to become a Secret Santa.
For the next few days, Tommy spent every minute making decorations, planning how to sneak into Grandpa’s apartment, and going shopping for supplies and a small tree…
He decided we needed cookies and put me and Aaron to work.
Aaron was nine years old. If Tommy (two years younger) no longer believed in Santa, then it was no longer age-appropriate for Aaron to believe in Santa either. Tommy was always my measure of “normalization”for Aaron.
I know some parents who, when they are told their child has severe intellectual disabilities or Down syndrome or…console themselves, “Well, at least they will always believe in Santa Claus.”
I know parents, special needs charity groups, care providers, and teachers who take adults with disabilities to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall. In groups. UGH!
I know some adults with disabilities who have flat-out refused to go saying it embarrassed them. I know others who do it just to please others. I know some adults with disabilities who just haven’t had the guidance to know better.
The RULE for age-appropriate and normalization is: “Would a person without a disability do this?” “Will this activity add or subtract to a person’s positive image in the community?”
In this case, an adult with a disability sitting on Santa’s lap in the mall makes them seem like an “eternal child” not an adult who will live and work as a contributing member of the community.
This is a difficult concept for a lot of people. But this was the right move for Aaron and our family.
On Christmas Eve Tommy, Aaron, Tom, and I got the key to Grandpa’s apartment and put on our red Santa hats. In under an hour, we decorated the tree, put holiday towels in the bathroom and kitchen, added colorful plants and pillows to his living room, and his favorite snacks in the fridge. Tommy posted his drawings all over the apartment with a note next to a plate of sugar cookies:
I heard you were a good boy this year.
Babes in Toyland
Tommy glowed as he locked Grandpa’s door. As we got into the sleigh (er, car) we giggled, reviewed our Christmas caper, sang carols, and drove out of sight.
When we stopped for burgers and fries (even Secret Santas have to eat) Tommy decided to continue wearing his Santa hat. Aaron–not so much. But my babes had transformed.
There was still Santa and giving and Christmas. But they were no longer the “Babes in Toyland.”
Over the next years, more innocence would be lost. There would be new lessons and transformations–but that is all part of growing and learning. It is all part of the magic of being a child. Being a parent. And, all part of the Santa Tradition.
Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best wishes. Ho-HO-HO. Have some fun this holiday and we’ll see you next year.
Share your Santa story:
How did you find out about Santa Claus? What are some of the ways you continue the tradition of giving? Any Secret Santa stories? Any thoughts on normalization and age-appropriate?
To avert our St. Nick kindergarten disaster, the next day I brought in the ingredients for our Building Community Mix.
With other groups, I’ve made stone soup in a crock pot or adapted the activity in a couple different ways. One time, I had everyone bring in a piece of fruit and we made a community fruit salad. But the biggest success was always making Community Building Mix.
Each of the children participated and added their ingredient into our community pot–which was a large empty popcorn tin. Each student took a turn stirring and then rolling the tin to “cook” the ingredients. We shared our “Soup” and filled an extra baggie to give to a stranger, a child they didn’t know that attended our school.
The actual recipe is just a takeoff of ole Trail Mix.
It becomes a community building activity when each person in the group brings in one ingredient for a shared experience of working together.
I have used this activity with all age groups: pre-schoolers, special education students, Boy Scouts, university students, teachers, senior citizens…. A friend even used it with her Ladies’ Church Group as their culminating activity of friendship and sharing after a month long Bible Study.
It has also worked well for many holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Birthdays, Summer Camp…
Great Holiday Gift Idea
It also works great as a homemade gift.
Aaron, my son who has the label of autism and intellectual disabilities, gave this as his annual teacher gift (one to each of his teachers, school secretaries, bus drivers, job coaches, therapists….). Since we wanted to include and thank as many people as possible, and have the gift be something that would enhance Aaron’s status as a person with skills and talents, this was perfect.
Twenty years later, his high school teacher still talks about “the mix.” It was a great way of thanking all the people in Aaron’s school or work community. And he got to be an active part of making it.
Aaron would “partially participate” by picking out the items at the grocery (his favorite were M&Ms), dumping the ingredients into the large popcorn tin. (Tape the lid on the tin.) He would roll the tin around to mix it up. Aaron would also help put the sticker: Aaron’s Holiday Mix on the top of the small holiday tin containers, snack bag, paper cups or plastic containers.
Tommy would also help pick out the ingredients in the store (he favored Skittles). His job was to help stop Mom and Aaron from eating the M&Ms, as well as scooping the mix with a large ladle into the containers.
Since Aaron had fine motor issues and Tommy had great fine motor skills this worked out well. Each of the boys got to use their skills to make the mix.
Building Community Snack Mix
Box of Granola
Package of Mixed Dried Fruit Bits (found near the raisins in the grocery)
Can of nuts
M & M’s, chocolate chips, or Skittles
Other ingredients could be marshmallows, coconut, peanut butter chips, white chocolate, popcorn, cheese fish or crackers….
Invite your friends over and ask each to bring one ingredient.
Get out your biggest bowl, or put in a large popcorn tin (tape it shut). Combine all ingredients by shaking or stirring. Ladle into paper cups, plastic baggies, or in bowls. This is a great recipe for lunch snacks, parties, and teacher’s gifts. The mixed dried fruit bits are the magic ingredient.
Add Your Comments:
Have you used any similar experiences to build friendships, share gifts? Have you used “partial participation” to include others with various levels of skills? Is this an activity you can use?
On Thanksgiving, I wanted to thank each of you for being part of our Climbing Every Mountain community.
It’s been an exciting experience to meet new friends and connect with people who care about people with disabilities.
Now, there are over one hundred and twenty articles or posts, hundreds of comments, and visitors from over ten countries. Inch by inch…. I’ve been reposting some of the “evergreen content” but hope to have new articles for the new year.
So NOW: I want to ask each of you to concentrate on TODAY and the people who bring you joy.
Right Now! Just for today, we accept that everything is just the way it is supposed to be.
Sure, we can begin the climb up the mountain again tomorrow, but for today we can feel good about who we are and the people we love.
This might be considered heresy for an advocate: But there are many wonderful things we don’t need to change.
I am so thankful for my husband Tom, who even though he thinks there are only space aliens on the web– he still loves me. After 51 years he is still my best friend.
I also want to thank my wonderful children and family: Aaron, Tommy, Ana, Isabella, and Vivian–I hope I haven’t embarrassed you too much. You do give me amazing memories and stories and teach me what life is all about.
Gift: A Song about Autism
It is hard to always look at “the silver lining,” see “the sunny side” or “the glass half full.” So, on this Thanksgiving Day, give yourself a gift and “listen to the music.”
Through My Eyes is a song about what it feels like to have autism. I thought this was beautiful and hope you will too. “Imagine seeing the world through my eyes.” Enjoy!
Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best, Mary