It was three days before Christmas many years ago when I had what I thought was bad luck. It turned out to be a vivid reminder of what the holiday is really about.
As a child, Christmas had been an enchanted time. As an adult I tried to recapture the magic, but it was never the same. The fairy-tale nature of Christmas steadily retreated until the event became mostly a chore, but I would never have admitted it.
Like many people, I tried to avoid recognizing my disenchantment by being extraordinarily busy and self-indulgent during the Christmas season. Of course, the busyness and indulgence only intensified my disappointment.
Working as a visiting nurse, I had been sent to see a patient who lived just off a main road not far from Pittsburgh. Despite the area's proximity, I had never been on what turned out to be a large, hidden cul-de-sac.
A heavy, wet snow had fallen the day before, leaving lawns and shrubbery frosted white. However, most sidewalks and streets were clear. The access road to the cul-de-sac was also clear at first, but as I came to the end, a fantastic vista spread before me like a beautiful, antique Christmas card.
Houses on low terraces surrounded an expansive platter-like central area, and a blanket of seemingly unbroken snow obscured walkways, stairs, cars, lawns and streets. Nothing moved. It was Brigadoon, the town time forgot.
A road that looked passable arched uphill and around one side of the platter. I drove up it, soon realizing I had made a mistake. When I attempted to turn around, the car fell into a deep ditch that had been hidden by the snow. I proceeded on foot, found the right house, made the visit and called for a tow truck. I had only $25, which the tow-truck driver agreed to accept only after some haggling.
Watching the surly operator trying to extricate my car, I was filled with anxiety. Would my car be drivable? Would I have time to see my other patients? I had last-minute Christmas shopping to do. Would I be able to do it if I had to work late?
A gaggle of young children, fascinated by the driver's struggles to winch my car, had gathered. Among them was a pretty, wan-looking blond girl of about 7.
I noticed she wasn't dressed like the others. She wore tennis shoes, no hat and had on a too-small brown coat. I noticed these things without thinking about it, caught up in my own concerns. She stood beside me, constantly talking, trying hard to get my attention. I didn't hear most of what she said. She annoyed me. I wished she would go away.
My car rose part-way out of its grave, and the tow-truck driver asked if I would help by steering. Getting into the car, I closed the door. The girl was right there, at eye level, looking into the open window, into my face.
"My name's Marie," she said soberly. I looked into her eyes and something connected. I felt her hunger to be recognized -- not to be forgotten. When I took my place by the fence again, Marie stood beside me, still chattering. Now I listened.
Reading between the lines, I guessed Marie was a foster child. Not wishing to interrogate her, I could only imagine why she was taken from her parents, and I knew children weren't put into foster care without serious cause. What was her contact with nurses? Had one been good to her? If so, what might have been the unpleasant circumstance?
Focusing intently upon Marie's words, I felt lifted out of myself. The car, Christmas shopping, working late no longer mattered. My priorities shifted markedly as Marie and I engaged in the elemental human experience of sharing.
Eventually, reluctantly, I said goodbye to the little girl, and she said, "My mother will come get me before Christmas. She'll take me home."
Wishful thinking, I thought. I fantasized about trying to find her again, about taking her a new coat and shoes, a warm hat. Not knowing where she lived or her circumstances, I couldn't, but I have thought about Marie many times and about what she gave me: the gift of perspective; a reminder that the gifts most satisfying to both recipient and giver are those of self.
A little girl showed me the way.
Evelyn Bold of Bellevue, a retired nurse, can be reached at email@example.com . The PG Portfolio welcomes "Holiday Herald" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org ; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255. First Published December 2, 2011 5:00 AM