When I was a kid in Catholic school, every year in late fall we were recruited to sell Christmas Seals to raise funds for the poor. As an incentive, there were trinkets we could win for certain levels of sales. The books of stickers each sold for a dollar. One year, the award for selling 5 books of seals was a beautiful plaque of Mary, holding the baby Jesus. This plaque was made of plastic, but It looked to me as if it were carved from a beautiful, dark piece of wood. Mary’s expression captivated me. Her head was tilted sideways and she was demurely looking at the baby she held in her arms. She looked simply ethereal to me. I felt the love of a mother for her child, emanating from that simple plastic object. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I had to give this to my mother for Christmas.
Now, selling five dollars worth of Christmas seals in today’s world, I know, seems quite achievable. Nowadays, parents bring children’s fundraisers to work, and kids have family members to sell to. But, this was the year 1971, and the world was much different then, especially where I lived, in rural Upstate New York. We were the only non-farm family on a road where the nearest neighbor was a mile away in either direction. Our next door neighbors were literally, cows, hay and cornfields. I went to school in the town of Little Falls, a 45 minute bus ride from home. The city kids in class could go door-to-door a couple blocks and meet their quota. My options for sales were limited. But I simply burned with the desire to achieve this, and took my share of the books with great hope in my tender, 10-year-old heart.
After school, while it was still light outside, I asked my Mom if I could go down to the neighboring farm and try to sell some Christmas Seals. I think at first she kind of hesitated. I imagine she didn’t want her daughter pestering the neighbors for money. I think our conversation probably went something like this.
Me: “Mom? Can I go down to Helmers and sell some Christmas Seals?”
Mom: “Oh, I don’t know…”
Me:“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE?!!”
Mom: “Let’s wait until your father gets home and ask him”
Me: (knowing my father was no pushover) “But, it will be dark by then, and I won’t be able to go!”
Me: “Mom! It’s to help starving poor children!”
Mom: “Well… I guess so…”
Me: “Thanks, bye! I’ll be back before supper!” (Door slamming behind me)
(I have to take a minute here and thank my Mom for giving me some freedom at a crucial time in my life, and for putting up with my energetic “persistence” (pestering!) for all of my childhood, and beyond. Also, I haven’t changed much in in 48 years!)
I hit the road with high hopes and a fistful of stickers.
The Helmers had three children, all of whom attended the public schools, and so, I would have no competition for sales. Eddie was the eldest. He and I had a tenuous friendship, almost like a sibling rivalry at times. We once played a game of “My father could beat up your father” one hot summer day, when we were bored, and sitting on the concrete step outside my kitchen door. The game ended when he claimed his father, and their whole herd of cows could beat up my father, our dog, her six puppies and me, and I replied my father armed with our lawn mower would scare all the cows away and run down his father with said lawn mower. Things got pretty ugly and he wound up going home. Luckily for me, Eddie was helping his dad milk cows, and so I got to sit down in Sarah Helmer’s kitchen enjoying some cookies and milk and pitching my Christmas Seals. Believe it or not, I was a very shy child who loved disappearing into books, hated getting called on in school, and blushed red as a beet when the spotlight landed on me. But, I liked Sarah. She had a gentle manner and a very kind smile that crinkled the corners of her blue eyes. I put my glass of milk down, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and got down to business.
“For just one dollar a book, you can help starving children all over the world,” I explained. “You can put these pretty stamps on your Christmas Cards to decorate the envelopes and show your support at the same time!”
Mrs. Helmer stood up and walked to a flour canister on the kitchen counter. She opened it and removed a bill, then came back to the table. “How many books do you have to sell?”
“Five, ma’am.” I thought to myself, great, one down and just four to go!
Sarah smiled and placed a five dollar bill on the table in front of me. I realized, I didn’t have any change. Now what would I do?
“I’ll take them all.” I could not believe my ears. A whole five dollars!
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Helmer!” I handed her all five booklets, and clutched the bill. I couldn’t wait to get back to school with all my books sold at once!
“You are quite welcome. Would you like another cookie? You can take it with you.” Clearly she could see my eagerness to run home with the loot.
I could not believe my luck. In one fell swoop, my goal of getting the perfect Christmas gift for my mother was achieved.
Now that I didn’t need to worry about making other sales, I pocketed the money and decided to take the long way home, through the fields and woods, instead of the road. I jumped over the ditch and took to the November cornfields, skipping past the dried chopped- off stalks, kicking clods of dirt with the toes of my sneakers as I went, watching the clods explode in dust clouds, left and right. I ducked under the barbed-wire fence bordering the cow pasture and cut through ancient apple trees to the other side, which bordered yet another cornfield, then, the edge of our property. I burst through the kitchen door, and my mother looked up from a crossword she was working at the kitchen table. “What took you so long? I was about to phone the Helmers to ask about you!”
“I had cookies and milk.” I waited for her to ask the big question.
“I hope you didn’t overstay your welcome.”
“Nope! She wanted me to stay!” I was bursting with excitement.
Mom looked up and smiled. “So? How’d you do?”
“Mrs. Helmer bought them ALL!” I reached into my pocket to show Mom the five dollar bill. My joy turned to alarm. It wasn’t in my pocket!
“Mom! I lost it!”
“How’d you lose it?”
“I don’t know!” I wailed.
“Well, you have to retrace your steps, it must be on the side of the road. You can find it!”
My heart sank, as I recalled that fateful decision to take the long way home, through the acres of pasture. All the skipping, and zig-zagging I did. I would never find it.
“Don’t worry, if you don’t find it, you can explain it to the nuns,” my mother said.
I thought of the shame of telling Sister Regina, I lost the money for all of my Christmas Seals. And then, the heartbreak of losing out on the best Christmas gift for mom on top of it all. I couldn’t even tell her that. I felt tears burn the corners of my eyes, and a huge lump rose in my throat.
“Mom, I have to go look for the money.” I was running out of daylight and the prospect of my father getting home from work and having to explain it all to him, and live the nightmare all over again. Even thought I knew he would understand, I still felt so ashamed to have been so careless and irresponsible with so much money.
“Okay, but do not stay out after dark.” My mom didn’t sound very hopeful. I put on my lucky coat, the one that looked like the color of fall leaves, my favorite, but also the one I tore open on the back, ducking under a barbed wire fence. I only got to wear it for playing now. I was convinced it camouflaged me when I tried to sneak up on animals. I needed all the help I could get to find this money.
There wasn’t much joy in retracing my steps to the Helmers. The sun was getting low, a cold wind came up, and my eyes hurt from trying to discern a bill from the tall grasses. Occasionally, I thought I could detect my footprints in the dirt next to the cornfield, but my hope was fading as quickly as the afternoon, by the time I approached the spot next to Helmer’s where I hopped over the ditch. Nothing. I walked the edge of the road to the Helmer’s driveway and realized, I was going to have to admit defeat and turn to go home. I didn’t want to run into Eddie or any of the Helmers who would wonder what I was doing hanging around the farm so late in the day. I turned around to go home, straight up the road this time. I ruefully looked at the ditch wishing I hadn’t made such a stupid decision to go home that way, and that is when I saw it. Stuck in the tall grass at the top of the ditch, fluttering in a gentle breeze, was a five dollar bill! Could it be my eyes playing tricks on me? No! It was real as real could be as I snatched it lest the wind steal it from me. This time I kept the bill in my hand, and headed straight home up the road, flooded with relief and happiness.
To this day, I wonder how on Earth I managed to find that five dollar bill. It was a tough lesson in persistence and personal accountability that I will never forget. I am grateful my mother allowed me the space to try to find the money, rather than swoop in to give me the money and fix the problem, which would have taught me nothing. The memory of my mother opening her gift that year is one of my most precious, even 48 years later. I’m sure my mother put two and two together, when she realized I earned the gift by selling Christmas seals. I’m sure that is one reason the plaque still hangs in my parents’ house in Maine, all these years later.