Letting the Stranger In: A Christmas Reflection


Last Christmas Eve, my wife and I arrived at the family holiday gathering to learn that one of my sisters-in-law had a new foster son that was joining us for the celebration. As we unloaded the colorfully wrapped presents we had brought for everyone else and laid them under the tree, I realized that no one had brought anything for this new family member. This was no surprise—we hadn’t known he would be joining us. Then a happy thought hit me, and I beckoned to my wife.

After a few quick whispers in the hall, we discovered that we had an extra gift with us—all we needed to do was find a box and wrap it. I’m not sure why I happened to have extra vouchers for movie tickets with me that night, and I don’t in anyway believe that small gesture made a big difference for a 16-year-old foster kid. What struck me that evening was the tradition from which that spontaneous gift came. You see, my family has often scurried into the hall to discuss a present for an unexpected guest arriving on Christmas. Mom always kept a few gifts tucked away in a closet “just in case”—not out of a sense of obligation but out of a sense of compassion, a willingness to fully accept the unexpected stranger on any day—especially a holy holiday like Christmas.

This year, my new nephew will be joining me and my in-laws once again on Christmas Eve, and everyone will have gifts for him. He’s a part of the family now, no longer a stranger. The following day, my family will convene at my home, and we’ll be exchanging gifts as usual. That day, we will have another guest—not a stranger, but someone whom none of us have seen for a long time, a dear friend of mine, elderly, single, from across the country and with no family to enjoy on Christmas this year. We will be his family.

Of course, I checked with my mom and sister to make sure they were open to adding my elderly friend to this year’s holiday gathering. They are happy to make room for one more and eager to make sure no one we know gets left out on Christmas. Speaking to my Mom today, I thanked her for being so open, and I also thanked her for teaching me by example how to care for others in this way. That’s when I learned something I didn’t know.

“It’s something I learned from my mom,” Mom replied to my offering of thanks. I hadn’t known. You see, Grandma and Grandpa never had much to share. It seemed like money was always tight for them, and I know Grandpa often worked two jobs or took on double shifts in order to raise my mom and her two sisters. But today I learned that Grandma always found a way to care for the strangers who came to her door.

The specific story Mom told me today was about Easter, not Christmas, but the same rules applied. One year, a cousin of Mom’s came to stay with them on the Saturday before Easter, and Mom remembers clearly seeing Grandma leave the house at 9:00p.m. on Holy Saturday, in a time before an all-night big-box store could be found in Salina, Kansas. And the next morning, Mom, her two sisters and the cousin all had Easter baskets. Grandma knew the importance of inclusion, and the inconvenience of finding a gift late on a Saturday night didn’t keep her from including a young niece or nephew who needed more than a safe place to stay the night before Easter.

Today, I learned more about my heritage, and I am proud. I am proud to be the daughter and granddaughter and great-granddaughter of women who have always welcomed the stranger. I’m proud to come from a tradition of giving, and no matter the size of my Christmas dinner or my December paycheck, I promise to always make room for those who need a family on a holy day. I hope that some of you who read this will be inspired to do so as well. If my great-grandma, who managed a farm during the Great Depression, and my grandma, who struggled to support her own family, and my mom, who always thought more for others than herself during the holidays, could be forever inviting, forever inclusive of others, so can we all.

Author’s Note on Once Again Upon a Time

For this week’s Friday Fictioneers prompt, I wrote a spin off the classic fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood.” Within hours, the compliments from my wonderful readers (some of whom are happy to let me know when I miss the mark) began pouring in, both on my blog directly and in other places where I have shared links to the story.

I love fairytales and mythology, so readers will find several of these “twice told” tales on my blog. This particular story, however, is being received better than any other, which caused me to ask myself, “Why? What is different about Little Red?” The question seemed especially urgent since, while I was composing it, it seemed to be a far-too-familiar, almost cliché response to this week’s photo prompt. Then the answer presented itself in the story’s familiarity. I am Little Red. I am Ruby from my story. This story was easy for me to write because it is my own, and it rings true to my readers who may not be familiar with the layers of history behind the “Little Red Riding Hood” myth because they are not Ruby.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

“Little Red Riding Hood” has frightened me and intrigued me from my earliest memories. When I was still preschool aged, my Grandma Stratford gave me a “Little Red Riding Hood” doll made of soft cloth and accessorized with a scarlet hood and a basket of baked goods to carry to Grandmother’s house. When Grandma held the doll upside down, it became the grandmother, complete with a calico nightgown and nightcap. But horror of horrors, when that nightcap was flipped up, the grandmother was transformed into the big bad wolf. Ingenious and terrifying—especially to little Marie.

A Much Worse Place to Start

As it happened, my doll and Grandma’s colorful telling of “Little Red Riding Hood” are not the reasons I was plagued with nightmares of wolves and other snarling beasts into my 30s. Before Grandma gave me that doll and before I ever heard the original fairytale, I was treated for club feet by an abusive orthopedic surgeon who just happened to be a man with a beard. (At this point, I feel compelled to tell my readers that not all men with beards and not all orthopedic surgeons are abusive, just as not all wolves are big and bad.)

When I was born, the toes on each of my feet were turned in to touch my calves. At six weeks old, my doctors began the treatment, which involves repeated breaking and resetting of the bones in the legs and ankles. Rather than give me proper sedatives or even providing safe pain medications commonly used at the time for babies and young children, the orthopedic surgeon conducted these procedures over the course of several months without the use of any medication or calming implements. Instead, he insisted that my father, a young man in his mid-20s, hold his screaming little baby girl down while my mother, a frightened first-time mother, was asked to force-feed me a bottle as the doctor carried out the procedure.

As if this were not bad enough, while removing the casts each week, the doctor or his staff, regularly managed to cut my legs with the plaster saw. When I learned that by flexing my leg muscles during the procedure I could easily kick the casts off my legs, the doctor decided to glue the plaster directly to my sensitive skin.

When I was two years old, months after the experiences related here, another event shed clear light on the malicious nature of that particular orthopedic surgeon, and my regular pediatrician was able to help my parents find good, nurturing medical treatment for me. My body healed, and my legs became more useful than anyone ever expected. In my 20s, I even began performing as an interpretive dancer, and I later became a dance instructor. The emotional scars, however, remained.

When Memories Begin

Naturally, I don’t remember everything as I have related it here. For me, the images of scary predatory animals and nightmares that almost always ended in my waking with cramps in my legs and fear in my heart were the only traces of these early traumas that remained in my conscious mind. The psychological scarring went deeper. By age 10, the emotional scars from that trauma began causing what we now understand to have been pseudo seizures. Although this type of issue is common in trauma survivors, it would be more than 20 years before a medical professional would finally recognize these “spells” for what they were.

As with many survivors of childhood trauma, my PTSD symptoms seldom emerged before I turned 30. Occasionally, I would experience a panic attack or an extended crying jag. The nightmares happened fairly often, but all of this was manageable. Until upheaval in my adult life accompanied by the death of my paternal grandfather dealt a blow that sent me spinning into darkness.

Ray, a Drop of Golden Hope

Someday I hope to share more about my healing process—how I emerged from a quivering pile of pain and tears into the hopeful, happy and somewhat successful writer and business owner I am today. This particular sunny February Wednesday is not that day. Just writing this portion of my story has left me feeling vulnerable and a bit weepy. But there is hope.

To all those Little Red Riding Hoods and Snow Whites and Cinderellas, to all the Beauties tormented by Beasts—I promise you there is hope beyond your nightmares (and far beyond Stockholm Syndrome—don’t make Belle your role model). Someday, you too will be able to close your eyes without fearing the nightmares. It won’t happen without professional help, and it won’t happen without faith in a Power much greater than yourself. But most important, it won’t happen without faith in yourself—the true you, the you that is still inside and untainted by anything any abuser has tried to put on you, the you that the Divine Being dreamed before time began.

Your happily ever after awaits. It won’t be free of trouble or of the cares of this life, but it is waiting there for you, there on the other side of your nightmares. And you can find it. If today that happy ending seems too far away for comfort, take a deep breath and say a prayer of thanksgiving—thanksgiving for your inner strength and thanks for the strength of others who will be there to support you when your own strength gives out.

Pinocchio on a Vent

Pinocchio on the vent

Copyright Conja Summerlin. Used by permission.

Pinocchio on a Vent

My Grandpa Roy died too young and left me clinging to a few mementoes and a handful of memories—scarcely enough to last a lifetime and not nearly enough to show those who didn’t know him the true magnitude of the man he was. As near as family can calculate, there were between 1,500 and 2,000 people at his funeral, which was held at the small Free Methodist church in Salina, KS. The sanctuary and overflow seating where completely full an hour before the service began. Visitors stood in the foyer, gathered in the fellowship hall, collected on the stairs and finally piled six-deep outdoors, peering in through the stained-glass windows to pay their respects to one of the city’s best-loved men.

These are the concrete details that prove the worth of my grandfather, Roy David McCall. As his oldest grandchild, I don’t need the approval of a town or the testimony of strangers to validate my recollections. Memories of the time I spent with him are testimony enough. Nothing came easy for this man, but he grabbed life with gusto anyway. And he loved me—loved me unconditionally, as dotingly as any grandparent ever adored a grandchild.

Grandpa Roy often showed his love through his sense of humor. Many of his jokes have become the stuff of family legend. “I never had a degree,” he would announce in a voice touched lightly with a Kansas drawl, “but I have had a temperature sometimes.” His sense of humor carried into his personal life too. Whenever his wife, Grandma Nori, got hot under the collar over one thing or another, he would comment to observers, “Isn’t my wife cute when she’s upset?” Although he died when I was only 13, Grandpa Roy was the one who taught me how to avoid taking life too seriously. No lesson from him has stuck with me more than the lesson about flexibility that came the year he started a family Christmas tradition.

Grandma and Grandpa loved getting bargains in the after-Christmas sales each year. One year, Grandpa found enough matching Christmas ornaments in a bargain bin for each of his grandchildren. He purchased them and put them aside for the following year, and thus began the tradition of giving a Christmas ornament to each grandchild very Christmas.

I must have been about 10 years old the first time Grandpa gave all of us Christmas ornaments. That year, each grandchild received a colorfully painted Pinocchio ornament in addition to our other gifts. My younger sister and I had just finished collaborating on a decorating project in the room we shared, and I was appalled that evening when I found that our beautiful, blue rose bedroom now featured an out-of-place Pinocchio, cheerily hung from a vent on the wall. My Pinocchio was carefully packed away with the family Christmas ornaments, and I pleaded with my sister to put hers where it belonged. The way she saw it, he already was where he belonged, and since the vent was on her side of the room, all I could do was try to ignore what I considered her lack of design sense.

After that Christmas, Grandpa made a habit of getting each grandchild an ornament for Christmas. He would purchase them on sale on the 26th of December, and I soon began looking forward to unwrapping these treasures. My sister, a few of my cousins and I still have our Pinocchios, a pair of hand-painted wooden mice, and a festive sleigh, all lovingly chosen for us by Grandpa Roy.  After he died, we learned that he had planned ahead, and for another two years, we continued to receive ornaments that Grandpa had selected.

Being the oldest of 10 cousins, I am one of few who remember Grandpa well. In fact, my youngest cousin hadn’t yet been born when he passed away. Grandma Nori kept up the tradition of giving Christmas ornaments to each of us every year. As the grandchildren married, she added ornaments for each spouse as well. Her selections were specific to the recipient. As precious as all these gifts were, Grandpa’s Pinocchio held the most precious place in my heart.

Grandpa Roy died suddenly of a heart attack two weeks after Christmas. The funeral service for his mother, my great grandmother had been held on Christmas Eve that year. Afterward, I received one of the greatest gifts of my life—Grandma Nori and Grandpa Roy came home with us and spent Christmas Day at our home. Nearly 30 years later, I’ve forgotten most of the details. Other family members tell me that Grandma was sick with gall bladder issues and they left early as a result. I remember hanging out in the living room telling jokes with Grandpa. I remember unwrapping his primary gift to me that year—an NIV Bible with a green leather cover and my name in gold lettering on the front. I remember his hugs, his ready smile and his gorgeous, ice-blue eyes. I remember the face that has haunted my dreams ever since because I didn’t know that was the last time I would ever see him alive.

In the years to come, Grandpa’s spirit stayed with me. His orneriness seemed to have been specifically inherited by my sister more than any of the other grandchildren. When we moved to a bigger house and each had our own rooms, I shook my head in disbelief at the quirky decorating choices Joy made in hers. The Pinocchios had found their way back to the box of Christmas decorations, but other dangly knickknacks could be seen hanging from vents, curtain rods and other unexpected places in her room. The more these things annoyed me, the more they delighted Joy. Up in heaven, I’m sure Grandpa Roy chuckled along with her. I can hear him even now, “Isn’t my granddaughter cute when she’s upset?”

I grew up, went away to college, then moved into my first apartment in Kansas City. With me came my box of Christmas treasures, featuring the still-growing collection of ornaments from my grandparents. During my first Christmas season after college, my sister came to help me decorate the apartment. As often happens with young adults on their own for the first time, we made do with what I had. We trimmed the tiny fake tree that I brought with me from college and used the rest of my ornaments to adorn a large philodendron. A fight nearly broke out when I looked up from decorating the tree to see that Joy had hung my Pinocchio from a vent high on a wall opposite the other Christmas decorations. She insisted that it belonged there, and for some reason, I relented. Truthfully, the wood ornament was too large for the limbs of my tiny fake tree anyway.

Somehow, this incident began a Christmas tradition. Although Joy had her own apartment and her own Pinocchio that always managed to be hung on a proper tree, she came to my home each year to help decorate for Christmas. Each year, that silly wooden puppet would be hung on a vent somewhere in my home. For her, the game was threefold. Annoying me with the puppet’s antics had its own reward, but even more fun for her was seeing how long it would take me to find the vent where she had hung Pinocchio that year. After Christmas, the game continued as she would come to visit in order to learn whether or not I had managed to find Pinocchio and put him away with the other Christmas things. Half the time, Pinocchio remained on the vent throughout the year.

Time marched on like a line of toy soldiers. My sister married and had children who helped put her Pinocchio and the other ornaments on her tree each year. I married too, and shortly after the first Christmas in our new home, my spouse and I wound up homeless. Pinocchio and all the other ornaments were lovingly packed away and kept in storage as we couch surfed through the homes of hospitable friends until we could get back on our feet.

The week before Thanksgiving of the following year, my spouse and I moved into an apartment of our own only a few blocks away from where my sister and her family live. They came over after Thanksgiving to help us unpack and assist with decorating for Christmas. Joy spotted Pinocchio, grabbed him, and immediately hung him on a wall vent near the ceiling. I laughed, relieved that my life was returning to normal.

Since then, the tradition has continued. Every year, someone hangs Pinocchio on a vent. About half the time, I forget to put him up after New Year’s Day, and he cheerfully stays out all year long. A popular children’s book called “The Elf on the Shelf” has garnered attention in recent years. The concept of placing a stuffed elf in various places around the home to be found seems strange to me—just as strange as hanging a wooden ornament from a wall vent seemed on that first Christmas over 30 years ago. But it wouldn’t be Christmas without my little wooden puppet. Who needs an elf on the shelf when I have my Pinocchio on a vent?