It was Christmas afternoon, and my husband was getting Grinchy.
This was a decade ago, when millions of Americans were losing their jobs in the Great Recession, and Bob and I had informed our children that presents would be scaled back. Still on Christmas morning, there were plenty of packages under our tree in Northern Virginia. We live in a three-generation household, so it’s not as if the grandparents were going to stop buying the kids what they wanted.
After everything was opened, the 7-year-old happily played with his new loot, but Bob heard grumblings of dissatisfaction from the 10-year-old boy and the 9-year-old girl. He scolded them, but he didn’t get upset until he saw the obscenely large pile of empty toy boxes stacked at the end of our driveway. That night, he had a hard time sleeping until he formulated a plan.
Next morning, Bob called his grandfather in Arvada, Colorado. He told Gramps what had happened and asked for help. Harold Elston loved telling stories and making jokes, he adored his great-grandchildren, and he thought Bob’s idea was brilliant — especially if it meant he was going to get extra phone calls that Christmas.
Prepare 10 questions for Gramps
When the children woke up, Bob told the two older ones to bring paper and their cellphones to the kitchen table. He explained why he was disappointed with their attitude and how they could redeem themselves: Prepare 10 questions to ask their great-grandfather about what Christmas was like for him growing up in Iowa during the Great Depression.
That afternoon, while the rest of the family was out, each kid took a turn calling Gramps to interview him, then they wrote up his answers. When we got back, both somberly read us their summaries — how when Gramps was their age, he received a Christmas stocking with an orange at the bottom and it was the only orange he got to eat all year, how he and his brother had to share a single present of a model car. “I hated Christmas,” Gramps told our daughter.
There were no more complaints from our children about presents, but Bob wasn’t done.
We usually pay extra on our utility bills to help needy families, so Bob called the company and spoke to its public affairs department. The director readily put him in touch with a representative who was good talking to kids. Bob then told our children to prepare 10 questions for the utility company, such as how many households in our area couldn’t pay their bills and lost heat and/or electricity. And again, after their phone interviews, both then read their summaries to us. They seemed to have learned the lesson of how lucky they are, but Bob wondered whether all would be forgotten once the holidays were over.
Three months later, Bob got laid off.
When we told our children, the two eldest got it right away. Forget about scaling back presents; we were scaling back on everything. No more going out to eat. No more cleaners coming to the house twice a month. Each Saturday, all the kids helped with vacuuming and bathroom duties. It was a stressful year, but we had it so much better than a lot of people, and the kids knew it.
Christmas in Vietnam, Christmas in America
My children weren’t the only ones who learned a lesson in 2008. I must confess that many of the multitudes of presents under the tree were from me — clicking away and ordering things online that I thought would be both educational and fun, luxuriating in giving my children the typical American Christmas that I didn’t have growing up in Vietnam. My family wasn’t Christian, but our parents would take us to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon to look at the baby Jesus in a manger.
After Saigon fell to communism in 1975, my parents fled here with their five children, ages 4-9, and our refugee family was sponsored by the Mount of Olives Lutheran Church in Phoenix. That first Christmas, church members rang the doorbell one night and brought in Christmas. All of Christmas — a tree they taught my siblings and me to decorate right then, presents to put under it, cookies and eggnog. In the middle of all this, the pastor’s wife suddenly asked where my mom had gone. When we found her, she was in her bedroom crying. It scared me because she never used to cry. She just couldn’t believe that people who looked absolutely nothing like us and who weren’t connected to us by blood could be so kind.
This spirit of Christmas is more of what our multigenerational, multicultural family strives for now. My mother-in-law has even found a new holiday tradition for us: helping distribute toys to low-income families in our community. Every year, at least one of our children would recognize kids they knew from school among those families. And it hits home every time how fortunate we are and how important it is to help others.
Harold Elston passed away in 2015, at the age of 94. Our two eldest are now college students, home for the holidays. Asked about that Christmas a decade ago, the 19-year-old remembered how mad Daddy was. “But Gramps’ orange in the stocking definitely made an impression on me,” she said. The 20-year-old recalled feeling sad hearing Gramps’ stories: “Knowing it wasn’t only him; there were so many people dealing with those circumstances.”
There still are.
Thuan Le Elston is a member of the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Follow her on Twitter: @thuanelston