It was the morning of Christmas eve. There were only a few hours left before our bus left to go out of town to stay with my boyfriend's grandparents. We were running out of time, but I had already bought the remote control car requested in the letter, ("Bueno biejito pasquero, queria pedirte hargo muy especial para mi y mi familia...") Despite the rush, and the fact that that the phone number listed in the letter had been disconnected, it was not yet time to give up.
By that point, the letter was all crumpled up from being lugged around in various bags and pockets to ferias, shops, and other households during my Christmas spree, but it started out on crisp graph paper pulled from a home-made envalope with real colorful flowers fastened to the outside. Along the bottom, a crayon doodle of a young boy slept happily in his bed, alongside a fancy decorated Christmas tree, while four yellow reindeer pulled Santa and his large blue sack of presents through a floating dream bubble over his head.
My boyfriend doesn't have a lot of patience when things go wrong, so I was nervous to point out that I actually hadn't been able to contact the family, nor did I know quite exactly where they lived. I pretended everything would go smoothly as we bought veggies and meat for dinner for a family of 6. I pretended not to be confused or surprised as the "streets" on my sketch from google maps turned out to be small alleys and staircases. Carefully watching the numbers, I suddenly announced "We're here, I think." Then we just stood there. The house number didn't exist.
I was sure we were in the wrong place, as the houses didn't look like they would hold the family in the complicated situation described in the letter. But then a mailman emerged from a staircase that dipped behind and below the houses at street level. He said he wasn't aware of the people we were looking for, but to check it out ourselves. Down below was a dirt path lined with stay animals and 5 doors, including one with the number we were looking for. But the door was ancient and cracked, sealed with months or years of dirt on all sides. For some reason we knocked, as if someone was going to be inside to open the door after all this time. Of course nothing happened; no wonder the phone was disconnected. We just stood there, wondering what to do with the bags of food. As a last ditch effort, we knocked on the next door, to ask if they knew where we could find the family. The door opened a crack, and a skinny 11-year-old asked who we were. My boyfriend said we were looking for the family of the young boy who used to live next door because we received his letter to Viejito Pascuero. He said to hold on while he went to get his mother, and shut the door again. As soon as the door shut, we heard a small voice "caballero, caballero, down here!! I'm down here!!" My boyfriend crouched down to knee level, where one eyeball peered through a finger-sized hole in the door. The door opened again, and we stood back up and explained the story again to the mother. Before she responded, she told the boys to put some clothes on, the younger one was now hiding behind her in his underwear. "That was my son. Come in." It was the boy in the peep hole who had written the letter after all.
As the door opened and we took a few steps inside, I was reminded of the Laura Ingles Wilder dugout house which I had visited many times as a kid. Their house showed a level of poverty I've never really seen with my own eyes. I felt strange, wanting to observe every detail yet not wanting to be caught doing so, and worried they would feel uncomfortable having me there. I immediately regretted not having brought more to give than we had. It was dark inside, but the walls were made of dirt with cardboard stapled to them. A small kitchen sat off to one side, with appliances so old I had never seen similar models. There was a small fake Christmas tree sitting on a shelf. It had a couple decorations and a string of lights, which the mother pointed out had been broken by the children. To the side was what appeared to be a closet, but we were told that the father was there resting, as he had spent the night in the hospital. The older boys weren't home.
Right behind the door was a filthy and lumpy bed where it was apparent many people sleep. The younger boy jumped back up on it, still in nothing more than whitie tighties, and shouted "I bet that bag is full of our presents!!! Isn't it?" Before waiting for an answer, he set off on a mission to prove to he'd been good this year. We were presented with report cards, craft projects, and notebooks filled with handwriting drills.
My boyfriend started asking what the kids like to do for fun. The older one liked soccer, and the younger one said he liked Playstation. My boyfriend said that its good to have some hobbies that are more active than playing Playstation. The little one paused to think about this, then responded "Like Nintendo!" The boy was only 6 years old, but he had the personality and street smarts of someone three times his age. From a shelf near the floor he pulled out a towel, taller than himself, and announced he was going to sell it at the street market for $1,000 pesos, so he could buy a Playstation. The older brother laughed, but nobody had the heart to mention he might come up short.
The mom was very humble, seemingly very happy we had brought some things for Christmas. There weren't any other presents sitting around. She let the boys indulge in their excitement to show off to the visitors, occasionally looking a little embarrassed of the things they came up with. My boyfriend showed them a few tricks he does, and I have never seen anything so adorable as the eagerness with which the boys wanted to learn the special handshake used by Tuga the mime; they were so proud to be in on something.
The younger boy asked if we had read his letter. I said yes, and asked if he really wrote it or if one of his older brothers helped. He said he decided what to write, but the dad had written the letter. Learning this, I felt bad, because one of the reasons that letter stood out to me was because of the all the misspelled words and poor grammar. He asked proudly if I liked the flowers, which were his idea.
Although we claimed we were just helping out Santa with the delivery, the boy said he already knew Santa isn't real. "Last week el Viejito Pascuero came to my school, but I told my whole class he wasn't real, because it was my uncle in the red suit!!"
"...He ruined it for the whole class," added the mom.
We handed over all the food to the mother, and gave the boy his car, though it was wrapped up and he was told not to open it til midnight. The letter hadn't mentioned any other gift ideas, nor the ages or gender of the siblings, but we felt especially compelled to do something else for the family, so we ended up giving away some of the gifts in my bag which were designated for other people. I knew the mom would love the thick flower patterned beach towel I was tempted to keep for myself, and when we handed him a light, round, present covered in colorful wrapping paper, the older brother gave us a content, knowing wink as my boyfriend said "you'll have to wait til midnight to find out what this one is!"
Suddenly my heart sank, as I realized I had forgotten one of the batteries needed for the remote control car, and even if the family had the money to buy one (which I highly doubted), there wouldn't be any place open at the hour they unwrap the gifts. Its only expected that a kid must try out a new toy immediately!
We said our goodbyes and left the house, now extremely behind schedule for our trip. But I couldn't shake the feeling of disappointment of having screwed up about the battery. We checked all the neighborhood stores, but nobody had the right one. On the way home, we passed a supermarket that would have the battery and I impulsively decided we had to get it and head back. It cost about $2,500 pesos! After we climbed back up the hill and dropped it off with the older boy, I felt much better.
I kind of hope we see them again.
Since then I have questioned a lot the balance between doing good for helping others, and doing good to make yourself feel good. I know that both elements come into play, and I think thats fine. It will always be that way, and it doesn't have to be a negative aspect of doing good deeds. My feelings were affirmed when I saw the Friends rerun where Joey challenges Phoebe to find a single selfless good deed, and I decided to again write again about my experience, even if its slightly exploitative in nature, because I do feel that this is something I want to remember and share.