Friday, December 19, 2014

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

Early in December my husband and I received a letter that read, "I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." (John 15:5,8). Enclosed with this letter was a $100 bill.

No signature or return address. No post mark, but it had to have come through the mail because we have apartment mailboxes (you can't just slip letters in there). Everything was typed, so no opportunity for handwriting analysis. We considered having it dusted for prints but decided against it.

So, Secret Santa, if you're out there lurking, here's what happened to the awesome gift you sent us.

As far as we were concerned, our Secret Santa's intent was clear. This was an opportunity to do something cool for someone else, an opportunity we actually have every day but don't always think about. We spent a couple of weeks debating our options. Do we donate it to an organization, like Toys for Tots or Ephraim Orphan Project? Or buy a few grocery store gift cards to distribute to the homeless near our neighborhood? In the end, we decided we wanted to keep the money intact. One gift for one person. We thought it would be cool to give someone that same SHOCK value that we got when we first opened it.

So that was settled. But who?

As my husband said, "The only wrong answer is to not give it to anyone."

We moved to downtown Chicago less than a year ago and are still growing accustomed to the workings of our neighborhood. It's a fascinating neighborhood with a rich and complicated history. We're on the Near North Side of the city. We tell people it's the Old Town neighborhood (because we aren't sure what else to call it), but technically we're just outside of the border, the area that 100 years ago was known as "Little Hell" and more recently Cabrini Green. Cabrini Green was a collection of public housing buildings, row houses and high rises. When we moved here earlier this year, we knew all of this, but we didn't realize just how recently things had changed (the last of the Cabrini Green high rises was torn down in 2011).

This area was dangerous and violent on and off for more than 100 years, but we've never felt unsafe. We've felt warmly welcomed by everyone we've met. But still, if you watch, you can see the signs that this area is still shifting. There's a police presence, but in a friendly way (some of the local officers live in our apartment building, and others whistle when they stroll into the shiny new Starbucks). There are security patrols, especially in parking lots. There's an organized community watch, especially near the elementary school by our building (the school dates back at least 100 years and has seen all of the neighborhood's best and worst).

We'd taken extra notice of these community watch people lately. They stay at their posts for hours at a time, bundled to the teeth against the weather, with big thick parkas under high visibility vests and scarves wrapped around their faces. They watch the kids (and adults too) as they're crossing the streets and generally keep an eye on things during work/school hours. These men and women are like everyone else I've met around here, warm and inviting. This neighborhood is much improved because it's clear the people living here want it to improve. Whenever we tell someone we're new here, they beam with pride and can't wait to tell us how far this area has come in the last few years.

So we handed our Christmas card, complete with our Secret Santa's bill, to a woman in the community watch who stands in the cold and keeps an eye on our building and the school. I don't know her name, and I didn't introduce myself; we didn't want her to know us well enough to thank us (I mean, the gift isn't even really from us). But I knew we'd found the right recipient when I handed her the card. She looked surprised and legitimately pleased to be receiving a card (regardless of what was inside). She said thank you with so much warmth in her voice. I smiled and disappeared into the night (because I apparently think I'm Batman or something). I was about a block away when I thought I heard her squeal, but I didn't look. Another community watch person noticed me smiling and said, "You seem awfully cheerful today!" I responded with a Merry Christmas and wished I had a second card.

That's the story of the best Christmas gift I ever received. It started with a little anonymous Christmas magic, and I think it ended with some, too. Thank you, Secret Santa; please never, ever confess your true identity.