A toy for a tot

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Last week, I started to lose it.

The incessant Santa talk, the constant chatter about gifts and lists, the wracking my brain to divine the perfect presents for friends and family. The heavier-than-normal holiday traffic, the busy end-of-year days at work, the looong to-do lists of holiday activities…

The true meaning of the season was slipping away.

And if it was slipping away for me, it was long gone for my daughter.

So, in my continued quest for holiday balance, I concocted a plan.

On Tuesday afternoon, I knelt in front of her so that we were eye-to-eye.

“We’re going to go to the mall to buy a toy for a tot. There are some kids who don’t have all of the things that we have. They don’t have toys to play with. And so we are going to go buy a toy for those tots who don’t have toys. You can pick it out but remember, we’re going to give it away to someone who needs it more.”

Ok, it didn’t come out quite that smoothly. In fact, I stumbled over this quite a bit. How do you explain to a little human just how blessed she truly is?

As I drove us to the mall, I tried to play out all of the possible scenarios in my head. She’ll pick a huge, expensive toy and I’ll have to tell her to pick something else. Tantrum will ensue. She’ll refuse to pick anything, so I’ll pick something for her. Tantrum will ensue. And, the most likely scenario of all, she’ll want to keep whatever toy she picks and I won’t be able to convince her to give it away. And tantrum will ensue.

But I kept going. Walking down a path towards certain tantrum.

At the mall, I strove to buy some goodwill make it a memorable experience.  She was hungry so we got her a snack. She was drawn to the larger-than-life mall Christmas tree so we paused to gaze at its twinkling lights and sparkly ornaments. This time, I decided, is as much about being with each other as it is about giving back.

In the toy store, she took the job of picking out a toy very seriously. She browsed carefully and took her time. She picked out a few things that I did have to put back (a sippy cup with the name ‘Sidney’ in pink letters displayed across it isn’t really Toys for Tots material). I tried to suggest some possible selections.

“What toy do you want to buy for a tot? How about this penguin?”

“Ummm. No.

“Remember, we’re going to pick a toy and then we’re going to give it away, ok?”

“Ooookaaaayyy! Look! A dinosaur!”

“Yes! A dinosaur! Do you want to give that to the tot?”

“Ummm. No.”

I avoided eye contact with fellow shoppers. I knew I sounded crazy without seeing it reflected in their faces.

Finally I deduced that, perhaps, a full toy store presented too many choices. So I led her to a display of coloring books.

“Pick one of these. Any one you want to give away! And we’ll buy it.”

It worked! She picked one! …a princess one. Exactly what she’d select for herself. And visions of tantrums danced in my head.

But we kept going. We picked out some crayons to go with it, paid, and left.

She held the gifts tightly all the way to the Starbucks that is our closest toy drop off location.

toddler holding toy

And when we got there, she hopped easily out of the stroller and carefully dropped both coloring book and box of crayons into the box.

Pride. Relief. Holiday magic. My heart soared.

We lingered there for a bit. We drank milk (her) and chai (me) and shared a cookie. We chatted and giggled and watched night fall outside. Then we bundled back up for the short walk back home.

In a word, it was perfect.

I know that this year’s experience will likely go unremembered by her. I know she still doesn’t really grasp how blessed we are. And I am not sure how much I want her to know, just yet, about the realities of life. That some people have nothing and some have even less. There will be time for that.

But I also know that these memories – the mall, the toy store, the box, the shared snack and chat – they are all tucked safely in my heart. I know that, together, we’ll continue to do good and give of our time, and our hearts, to those less fortunate.

And I know that this will certainly become a holiday tradition. I can see us each year, sneaking away for an afternoon, finding a way to give back and spread cheer, enjoying some sacred time together. And I’ll remind her of this day she won’t remember. I’ll remind her that it all started the year she gave a toy to a tot.

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