In Belfast, in Northern Ireland, I had two roommates—girls of another faith whom I had met through a mutual friend. None of us had any extra money. Carol and Anne were both midwifery students, and I was saving for a postgraduate nursing course.
Our apartment was rather unpleasant, but it was all we could afford.
Nevertheless, Carol and Anne decided to call the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and offer to give a Christmas party for twelve needy children. Of course, I agreed to help with the work and the financing as did Carol’s sister, Marian.
I had seen some of the miseries of the slums. The most poignant thing I remembered was a little girl in a torn summer dress sitting on the cold, windy sidewalk molding a lump of filthy clay because she had no other toy. I could not now find and help that child, but I could try to help some others.
Our Christmas tree was sixty centimeters high, decorated with nine small glass balls, strips of tinfoil, and a star we had made from the wrapping foil inside a cereal box. For decoration, we had strips of colored paper hanging from the ceiling, and some balloons. The food was simple—fried potatoes and sausages, grilled tomatoes, cookies, and an orange drink. The twelve gifts were small and inexpensive: a string of plastic beads, a doll’s feeding set, a young child’s picture book, small toys and games. And, remembering the girl on the sidewalk, I bought a package of modeling clay.
The children arrived looking as clean as they could, and wearing the best clothes they had, most of it well-worn and ragged. Mentally I counted, eleven, twelve, thirteen! One of the girls had come with her tiny sister, who had refused to stay home. That presented us with a problem.
In those days my annual project for the Relief Society bazaar was making clothes for little plastic dolls for girls to play with. Several of the dolls were in my room. I quickly wrapped one of them in the last scrap of tissue paper for our extra guest and hurriedly put it by the Christmas tree.
Most of the children stood in a group at the door, but one determined boy about eight years old examined all the gifts through the thin wrapping paper.
“If you don’t mind, Miss,” he declared “I’ll have this game of table soccer for me and my friends.”
Carol smiled but was firm.
“We’re giving out the presents at the end of the party. Right now we’re going to play some games.”
We played their games; they played our games. We told stories; they related past experiences. We sang songs, although we adults grew tired of singing some of their favorites over and over again.
“Last year,” announced the oldest girl, trying hard to be sophisticated in an ill-fitting dress and high-heeled shoes much too large for her twelve-year-old body, “I was to a party in a big hall. Hundreds of us there was, and a Christmas tree that touched the ceiling.”
“Was it good?” asked a slightly envious voice.
“It wasn’t. No one had time to talk with us like these good ladies are doing.”
We served the simple food, which first brought forth cries of delight and then the silence of serious eating.
“You’ve left some food on your plate,” objected one boy to his neighbor.
“I can’t eat it,” she replied. “I’ve never had so much food on my plate at one time.”
“Give it to me, then, for it’s a shame to waste good food.”
He ate the leftovers on some of the other children’s plates, too, but finally was too full to eat any more.
We gave him the table soccer game. We gave the twelve-year-old girl the plastic beads. We gave the doll’s feeding set to a seven-year-old girl.
But, “It’s no use to me, Miss,” she said. “I don’t have a doll.”
So I got out another of the Relief Society’s plastic dolls. This time it was wrapped in writing paper, and we pretended it had fallen behind the tree.
“It’s the best party I was ever at,” someone announced with satisfaction. “I felt right at home.”
“Indeed it was grand, Miss,” seconded another voice, “For whenever any of us wanted something, one of you ladies was near to help.”
I thought then that I had learned something about giving, but I was shortly to learn more. The twelve-year-old, I noticed, had traded her beads for the clay, the clay for the toy car, the toy car for the baby’s picture book.
“It will be all right,” she said, trying to rewrap it, although the used wrapping tape wouldn’t stick too well any more.
“Would you have a piece of string, Miss? And a pencil, please?”
I gave her the string and the pencil, wondering what she wanted them for. She tied the parcel awkwardly, and in large uneven letters she printed on it “TOMMY.”
She saw me looking and she explained: “It’s for my little brother, Miss. Nobody invited him to a party, and we can’t afford a present for him.”
The beauty and love of that little girl’s spirit shone through the ill-fitting clothes and continues to shine through the years as an example to me.