The Anonymous Benefactor
by Susan Easton Black
She was a single mother who didn’t have the money to do Christmas this year.
With a Cadillac, a maid, and a gardener, my family always had a Christmas with the best gifts from Santa’s sleigh. The days my parents struggled to survive the Great Depression were only whispers of yesteryear when I was born. Mink had replaced wool and the country club societal whirl had captured my parents’ fancy. In the 1950’s they had become the American dream, and Christmas was merely an excuse to lavish each child with a fairyland of unrestrained wants.
My anticipation of opening gifts on Christmas day was boundless, for I knew my mother was an uncontrolled shopper when it came to my whims. Being the only girl in a family of boys, I fared better than any at Christmas. My want list seemed to be surpassed only by my presents. After opening one gift after another, I toted my new acquisitions up and down the street so all the neighbors would know that Santa loved me best and that my parents were spoiling me to my complete satisfaction.
From such a worldly background of material prosperity, it seemed only natural for me to fantasize that when I had children of my own the established tradition of wealth and abundant giving at Christmas would continue-and that it would be even more lavish. If that had been the case, I would not have had one memorable Christmas-just more of the same. Stuffed animals may have been bigger and clothes fancier and gadgets more sophisticated, but ho-hum can be found even in the abundant life.
It was 1977, almost twenty-seven years ago, that my Christmas took a strange twist. Circumstances had changed. I was no longer the little girl awaiting the parental handout, but was an adult attempting to make my own way in life. I was a graduate student in 1977, completing a doctoral degree and raising three small sons alone. Like several other graduate students, I had obtained university employment as a research writer for a professor; and like most of the students, I was struggling to meet my financial obligations.
Having more “month than money” had become my norm, but never more so than in December 1977. Five days before Christmas, I realized that my mismanagement of funds would prevent any ostentation in gift buying for my children. In fact, it seemed to prevent much gift buying of any kind. It seemed unbearable to me-a young mother who knew all too well how to selfishly flaunt Christmas treasure before less fortunate neighbors, but not how to graciously be one of the less fortunate.
Cuddling my sons, I reluctantly explained my abhorrence of debt and the specter of our economic plight. My emotions surfaced as the children attempted to comfort me by nodding assuredly, “Don’t worry! Santa Claus will give us gifts.”
Cautiously I explained, “I think Santa Claus is also having a bad year.”
With certainty my firstborn son, Brian, announced, “But on television his sleigh is still filled with toys. With five days left till Christmas, he’ll have plenty for us.” His younger brother Todd interjected, “Besides, Santa won’t forget us. We’ve been good this year.”
As all three nodded in agreement, I did too. My sons had been good. They had found happiness and friendship in our family; we all were unusally close. Perhaps it was our circumstance. Yet, despite their goodness, they would soon be disappointed because neither Santa nor mother would bring the desired presents on Christmas Day.
That night I cried and pled with the Lord for relief, for a glimmer of hope that Christmas in our home would be better than I anticipated. My verbal prayers awakened the children. They seemed to intuitively know what was causing my unhappiness. “Don’t worry about presents. It doesn’t matter,” said Brian. I knew it didn’t matter on December 20th, but I knew it would be all-important on December 25th.
The next morning I could not hide the despair and self-pity that had marred my face through the night. “What is wrong?” I was asked again and again at the university. My trite reply was “Nothing.” Unconvinced friends pried and seemed in their own way to make matters worse. I snapped at the extended hand of friendship and grimaced at their undue interest in my personal life.
Arriving home, I methodically pulled the mail from the mailbox as I entered the house. A curious, unstamped envelope caught my attention. “To a very, very, very, very, very special lady” was typewritten on the envelope. I gazed at the envelope and wondered if it were meant for me. Hoping it was, I tore it open. To my surprise I found several dollars inside, but not a note of explanation.
“Come quickly,” I beckoned my children. Together we counted the money, examined the envelope, and expressed wonder at the anonymous gift. This was a direct answer to my prayer. There was enough money in the envelope to buy an extra gift for each child. I was stunned and amazed, and my joy and excitement of Christmas had returned. It was going to be a great Christmas Day after all. It wouldn’t be as lavish as those of my childhood, but it would be good enough.
I was curious. Where had the money come from? Could it be from a neighbor, a friend, a classmate, or the bishop? Logical deduction led me first to near neighbors. Visiting from house to house in our neighborhood proved embarrassing. As I attempted to thank neighbors, each stammered and then confessed, “It wasn’t me.” Calling friends and thanking them elicited clever expressions. “If you find out who is giving away money, tell them to send some my way.” Classmates rendered similar comments.
It must be the bishop, I decided. He knew what I paid in tithing and would be aware that a less than exciting Christmas would be awaiting my family. The children and I walked to his house and knocked on the door. Enthusiastically, we thanked him for his generosity. However, he denied being our benefactor and assured us that he did not know who had been so kind.
Curiosity mounted as nightfall approached. I read the envelope again: “To a very, very, very, very, very special lady.” This time I noticed that the “e” and “l” were misshapen letters produced by an old typewriter ribbon. I also observed that each dollar bill had been folded and unfolded many times, as if each one had been of infinite worth. My desire to discover the identity of the anonymous donor grew. Soon that desire was coupled with the gnawing resolve to return the money. The misshapen letters and folded dollar bills evidenced that the generous donor also had financial difficulties.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Again and again I asked myself, “Who was it?” I had the clues of the old typewriter ribbon and the folded money, but not the answer. I can’t really describe how I finally knew who the benefactor was, but about two o’clock in the morning, I knew. I knew who had a broken typewriter and who needed to replace their ribbon, and who carefully folded and unfolded money, checking each dollar bill. It was my three sons.
With tears of love, I awoke the donors. Blurry-eyed they asked, “What’s wrong?” I replied, “Nothing’s wrong; everything is right! You gave me the money. You gave me all the money you possess!” Opening the bedroom closet door, I pulled out three empty jars that once had contained their treasured fortune. They sat silent for several moments until my nine-year-old Brian turned to his younger brother Todd and punched him. “You told!” he exclaimed. Attempting to fend off further blows, Todd yelled, “It wasn’t me, it must have been John.” Their five-year-old brother immediately said, “It wasn’t me,” as both boys landed on him. In unison they asked, “How did you know?”
I had searched outside my home for the answer-the answer was within. I had seen generosity in all those around me, but had failed to recognize the generous hearts of my children. And now I more clearly knew why the Savior had said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of [heaven]. (Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). My house, with all of its material flaws was my heaven on earth, and my sons were my greatest treasure. Christmas l977 was indeed a merry Christmas worth remembering.
This essay appeared in Keeping Christmas, Stories from the Heart published by Deseret Book Company.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.