In Belfast, in quieter times, 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 dismal, faded, and hard to bear, but we could find no other place within our means.
Nevertheless, Carol and Anne decided to call the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and offer to give a Christmas party for 12 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 appalling 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 two feet high, decorated with nine small glass balls, one package of tinfoil icicles, and a star we had made from the foil inside a cracker box. The room was decorated with a few streamers and a dozen balloons. The food was simple—fried potatoes and sausages, grilled tomatoes, cookies, and orangeade. Fancy food is almost unknown to ghetto children, and we were afraid they would not eat anything unfamiliar. Besides, we couldn’t afford it. The 12 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 clay.
The children arrived semiclean and in their best rags. Eleven, twelve, thirteen! One of the girls had come with her toddler sister, who had refused to stay at home. That presented a problem.
In those days my annual project for the Relief Society bazaar was dressing little plastic dolls in sturdy clothes for girls to play with. Several such 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 under the 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 paper.
“If you don’t mind, Missus,” he declared, “I’ll have this game of blow football for me and me mates.”
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 and grew decidedly tired of the children’s favorite, “Jingle Bells.”
“Last year,” announced the oldest girl, trying hard to be sophisticated in an ill-fitting sheath and high heels much too large, “I was to a party in the Linen Makers’ Hall. Hundreds of us there was, and a tree 30 feet high.”
“Was it grand, but?” asked a slightly envious voice.
“It wasn’t, for 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.
“Ye’ve left food on your plate,” objected our blow football elf to his neighbor.
“I can’t eat it, but,” she replied, “for I’ve never had this much food on me plate at once.”
“Give it here, then, for ’tis a shame to waste good food.”
He ate several children’s leavings and then conceded defeat. He could not prevent a few scraps from going to waste.
We gave him the blow football game. We gave the 12-year-old, would-be sophisticate the plastic beads.
We gave the doll’s feeding set to a seven-year-old Raggedy Ann.
“It’s no use to me, Missus. I ain’t got a doll.”
So the Relief Society lost another plastic doll. This time it was wrapped in writing paper, and we pretended it had fallen behind the tree.
“Tis the best party I was ever at,” someone announced with satisfaction. “I felt right to home.”
“Indeed it was grand, Missus,” seconded another voice. “For whenever we’uns wanted something, one of you ladies was near.”
I thought then that I had learned something about giving, but I was shortly to learn more. The sophisticate, I noticed, had traded her beads for the clay, the clay for a toy car, the toy car for the baby’s picture book.
“Sure it’ll do,” she said, trying to rewrap it. The used cellophane tape wouldn’t stick.
“And would you have a bit of string, Missus? And a pencil, please?”
I produced them, wondering. She tied the parcel awkwardly, and in large uneven letters she printed on it “TOMMY.”
She saw me looking and she explained: “’Tis me wee brother, Missus. Nobody invited him to a party, and we can’t afford him no present.”
Ragged, messy little girl in your run-over, outsized high heels, I seem to remember that you are beautiful.