I didn't know I was poor until December, 2005. I was 8 years old, and as an only daughter, I was showered with enough love and attention that I barely noticed the absence of possessions.
That Christmas Eve, though, I learned a few things. That year, they held a “Toys for Tots” styled event at the local video store. Customers were encouraged to drop a toy into a cardboard box to earn points toward a free rental. I'd seen the box before, and even asked my mom if we should donate something 'for a poor kid'. That's how oblivious I was.
That day, my parents brought me to the store to return Prisoner of Azkaban. When I saw Santa seated on a throne in the middle of the room, I immediately knew I was really there to see him. I was ecstatic as we waited, and I could barely keep from breaking into nervous tears as I got up into his lap.
The man looked weathered and weary, with a notable wart at the corner of his eye. He wasn't what I'd been expecting, but I'd visited grandparents before so I wasn't put off by his rough, reddish-yellow complexion. What really caught my notice was the smell. It wasn't overwhelming, but he smelled like my friend's baby brother. Like a musty diaper. I shifted uncomfortably as I felt the crackle of plastic in his lap.
“Ho ho ho!” he exclaimed, dispelling any misgivings. “What would you like for Christmas?” I told him everything I wanted, though I hadn't had any prep time. I asked for a job for my dad, which must have seemed thoughtless. After my parents took pictures, I was off Santa's lap and on solid ground.
“Go over and pick out a present!” Santa boomed, giving me a guiding hand to a small, folding card table. That's when it hit me. A cold feeling hit the pit of my stomach. He wanted me to pick out a toy for a poor kid.
I looked to my parents, sure they'd gesture for me to leave the table and come back to them. Instead they nodded and smiled, completely unaware of the mental crisis I'd stumbled into. I reached for a box in blue paper.
“No!” Santa boomed again, a sudden harsher tone wrapping his voice in thorns. It softened again as he continued, “Blue is for good little boys. Pink is for sweet little girls.” I obediently selected a pink box before scurrying back to my mom in a miniature panic.
I couldn't open that present on Christmas morning. I thought it'd be a broken, dirty doll someone dropped into the donation box instead of throwing it away. I'd never been selfish like that, but being surprised with the idea that I needed charity played havoc with my young, fragile outlook on life.
Dad ended up opening it for me, assuming I was too humble to accept it. I didn't correct him as he pulled out a new, pristine-looking white teddy bear. I instantly fell in love, naming him Snowy Bear. I learned a lot that year, and I don't mean that we weren't rich. I learned what it meant to appreciate the kindness of others, and that our finances didn't make us lesser as people.
Many years later, while unpacking in my new apartment, I pulled the shedding, bedraggled Snowy out of a forgotten box. Feeling nostalgic, I hugged the old bear tightly. So tightly, in fact, that the wireless camera fell free from his eye socket.