Posted by: Kate | December 13, 2009

Shopping List

‘Tis the season, and all that… I don’t do very much Christmas shopping, I think. It feels like plenty to me, and Willem’s constant grumblings gentle murmurings about the robustness of our bank account reinforce that there’s certainly no reason to try to increase the spending. But compared to years past – when we’ve tried to buy at least a small something-or-other for every child in the family, no matter how rarely we see them, or when we’ve had in-laws for whom we had to try and purchase something despite the knowledge that I am genetically incapable of coming up with any ideas that would appeal to that particular group – my shopping list is practically svelte.

It was with a profound mix of pride and surprise, then, that Willem came home last week with news that was going to significantly increase our Christmas buying this year. Someone from work had sent out an email looking for faculty willing to “host” families who are currently staying at a homeless shelter in Boston; not physically, there are no planned meetings or interactions, but to put together a package for a family that wouldn’t be able to do so on its own. Willem signed us up on the same day, and came home with a short description of the interests and wishes of a mother and her three daughters, ages 14, 6 and 2.

It’s a big deal to me, on several levels, that he chose to do this. It proves what I already knew: for all his worries about money, Willem does have a clear perspective on the fact that we’re actually quite well off, bigger-picture, and we have enough to be able to look outside our own walls. And, more importantly, his heart is open and giving, even without an audience… there’s just always something a little cooler when you catch someone doing the right thing without expecting acknowledgment or reward.

It has also been a really good learning opportunity for the kids, because it’s one thing to cart in cans of vegetables or boxes of pasta to put into some big, anonymous bin at school, and it’s something else entirely to envision a specific family, with kids their age, and put a more personal spin on the concepts of needs and wants, fairness, stability, home, and so on. I think it had a particular impact on Emily that the kids all asked for shoes and hats and mittens, not Bakugans and books and dolls, because that’s what they want most… that the mother asked for blankets and towels, because kitchen gadgets or home decorations would be useless to her at the moment.

The only real challenge here is trying to imagine what these total strangers would like. Standing in IKEA on Thursday, I was faced with 15 color choices for towels… I ended up with a strong turquoise blue, on the theory that it’s pretty and very non-institutional, not the white-so-you-can-bleach-it stuff you see in hospitals and motels. And blankets, what size? What color? How many? I won’t even try to guess, on shoes; we’ll stop by Payless tonight and get a gift card instead. I was willing to go out on a limb, knitting-wise, and have thrown together a hat for each family member… I figured, off-white and charcoal gray, with a bit of metallic sparkle in spots, was a safe bet.

But those are just details. The bigger picture consists of the more obvious stuff: the gratitude I have that we’re in a position to participate in something like this. And, too, there’s the vicarious pride and awe at the bravery of this single mother and her daughters. It’s one thing to hit a point in your life where you need to move into a shelter with your kids… that’s about need, and desperation, and life throwing too much all at once. But can you imagine the bravery it must take for this woman to sign herself and her kids up, to list their clothing sizes and wishes, to admit that they need extra help? I’ve had to ask for help before, to make sure we had enough food on the table, but I’ve never been in that position for so long, without extended family or other support, to have to really think about what would be under the tree on Christmas morning. I know that if I were to try and express it directly to her, I would come across as condescending or smug, when I’m honestly just humbled by the whole scene.

So, quick, then, you readers, you creative types, quick… I need gift ideas. What would a 14-year-old girl want, since she left her “hobbies and activities” section blank on the form? I’m leaning toward a journal/sketchpad and a nice set of markers or pencils, but if there’s something that teenage girls are more into these days, please clue me in. For the 2-year-old, should I err on the side of more wrapped things, to prolong the fun of opening presents, or fewer-but-more-costly items? Is the 6-year-old too big for a stuffed animal? Help!!

As an update… thanks so much for the ideas, they were definitely helpful as I wandered up and down the aisles.

I think we’re good… hope so, because I really don’t want to go back out in the rain tonight.

For the 2-year-old, a neat set of “finger crayons” (think finger puppets), a microphone that lets her amplify her singing (the form said she likes “musical toys” and I didn’t know if she was 25 months old or 35 months, so some of the more instrument things might be too young) and also blows bubbles, very karaoke. And a handknit hat.

For the 6-year-old, a box of bicolored markers and stencils, and a little backpack with a design from the new Disney movie coming out this month. And a handknit hat.

For the 14-year-old, a shoulder bag which is kind of on the border between “grown-up” (plaid pattern, over-the-shoulder model) and “kid-like” (black and magenta colors), an unlined sketch pad and some glitter ink pens, pencils and metallic Sharpies. And… yeah, a handknit hat, though I’ll be up late tonight to get that one done!

For mom, a set of flannel PJ’s and a pair of very warm Thinsulate gloves… nothing handknit because there’s just not time. And 2 blankets, 6 towels from IKEA, per her request.

I’m pleased with it all, and once they’re done goofing off, er, I mean, eating dinner, I’ll have my kids go through their “guy bins” and pick out a stuffed animal or doll for each of the kids.

And then I’ll actually be quite grateful that the deadline came up so suddenly, because it means I have to wrap it all and send it off, instead of second-guessing myself…



  1. I’d definitely do a journal for the 14 year old, but make it with unlined pages in case she wants to draw. I’d be wary of a set of pencils or markers–so easy to lose one, or several in a shelter environment, or have the 2 year old chew on them.

    How about a couple ballpoint pens, maybe one in red, that will be just hers, to go along with the journal?

    I’m too far away from smaller children to have good suggestions, but think a stuffed animal for a 6 year old may be adopted by the 2 year old. It won’t stay his.

    In a shelter, surrounded by lots of people, I’d imagine it’s hard to hold on to your stuff unless it’s in a bag, right on you. How about a small backpack for the 6 year old? With a book inside?

  2. Natalie says books, or a gift card for the book store, to give her a way to “escape” for a few hours for the 14 yo. Kelsey likes the artsy stuff that you listed (and that gives you a clue as to how different my two think). 😉 They both also liked the idea of cute yet warm scarves, mittens, etc.

  3. I would give each child something to cuddle with, something to be entertained with, and something to treasure. You will do great with whatever you purchase. I would imagine it might be great to give the mother something just for her..I would imagine that she doesnt get anything for herself because of their situation. Something to remind her that she is a great mom would be a charm or something. I am sure with their current situation that she is not proud of herself, when she should be because she is putting her kids needs first. Good luck, and good job.

  4. I think the sketch pad with nice pens/markers is perfect for the 14 year old. I wouldn’t go with a stuffed animal for the 6 year old. I admit to having a personal bias against them. But, I would go with a doll. My five year old is into babies right now. For the two year old, I would go with one nice thing, rather than a bunch of smaller things. The mom might appreciate it more, as it’s less to keep track of and might hold up longer than smaller things.

    I’m sure that whatever you come up with will be appreciated.

    (BTW, our community has a Tree of Sharing every year. We take our daughter to pick a tag, which has a gender, age, and wants/needs written on it. It’s the same idea as what Willem signed you up for. Just wanted to let you know about it for the future..I imagine it’s something many communities do.)

  5. Perhaps a nice bag of some sort to in which they could store their precious items?

  6. I love adopt a family. Yay you!

    Our 6 yo niece loves books as does our 13 yo friend. Our 13 yo niece is a big fan of the accessory stores – here there’s “Claire’s” and they sell scarves, earrings. hair accessories, all things pre and early teen and they have gift cards. Our 2 yos are boys and we gave them each a handheld plastic truck to run all over the place with on their b-days, they love them.

    Spa hand lotion for mom or something lovely just for her. A long-distance telephone card might be handy for her as well. Phone cards, grocery gift cards and bus tickets are popular at the shelter here.

    A restaurant gift card to go to a restaurant and be able to sit down as a family like life is “normal”. That would be a wonderful blessing.

  7. Willem is awesome.

    When Brennie(7-10 months old) was home on hospice, Geo had been unemployed for 9 months, the boys were 7 and 4, we were blessed with gifts from our neighbors(incluging handmade ornaments for Brennie who never see another Christmas), my mommys bible study group, the local church, and Hospice of Seattle and Pediatric Home Nurses. My kids got more presents(the 4 and 7 yos) than they had ever seen. While it is difficult to ask for help when you are used to being middle class and helping other, the look on my childrens faces are forever printed on my memory.

    They even supplied gift cards and food for our Christmas dinner.

    You will help this family so much. I am not sure you can comprehend unless you’ve been there.

    God bless you Kate, Willem, Emily, Jacob, and he who is not born yet.

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