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Barbara Sparks is a retired principal who relishes the diversity of cultures in California. In this piece she describes how her life, and many Christmases, was enriched by her son's generous heart and wide circle of friends. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
Boys like to collect things. Some collect baseball cards. Some collect bugs or stray animals. My son Phillip's collection was a little different.
I should have realized that he liked collecting people when he was about two years old, because when we went on walks to the neighborhood donut shop, I noticed that he would invite several of the children who lived on our street to join us.
Did he ask me for permission to invite them? Of course not! In his mind it was only natural to invite others. After all, Mother would love to supply donuts for everyone. I felt like the Pied Piper with my band of happy children following their generous leader's mother.
After one event when he was in kindergarten, I decided it wasn't wise to tell him ahead of time when we were taking him some place special.
His grandmother had decided to take him to the San Diego Zoo one Saturday. That morning, shortly after his grandmother had arrived, a family arrived with their son who was in Phillip's kindergarten class. Phillip had not only invited the young boy, but he had also given him our address. How could my mother and I tell the boy's parents anything except, "Hello, we are glad you came. You can pick your son up at 7 PM."
This collecting of people continued as he grew older. When he was a junior in high school, he met a young man during the Los Angeles Junior Statesman's Symposium, and later they spent a summer as roommates taking classes at Stanford University as part of this program. Though they attended different schools, they continued to stay in touch.
During one winter break, Phillip invited him to spend a day with us. I always looked forward to having a restful two weeks away from work during that time, but I thought one day would be okay. Phillip pleaded with me to let Eric spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with us because he wouldn't have a Christmas if he stayed at home.
His mother was not alive, his father was a drug addict, and his older sister who was raising him didn't celebrate Christmas. I agreed that would be okay. Two days, after all, wasn't that long and it still gave me time to enjoy my vacation.
To my surprise, on Friday, the beginning of my winter break, Eric appeared at our door with his suitcase, looking like a new arrival to a homeless shelter. He had taken the bus from Los Angeles to our house. His suitcase was battered, the sweater he was wearing had a very noticeable hole, but what left a lasting memory was the biggest smile that adorned his face. He was prepared to stay the entire winter break with us. How could I turn away someone who was doing so much to better his life against all odds?
Throughout college, if someone couldn't go home for the holidays, they ended up staying with me. If they were kicked out of the dorms for inappropriate behavior, Phillip would tell them, "My mom will let you stay with us until you get new housing."
There were always surprise arrivals for Christmas Breakfast. His collection of people (I should call them friends now) got to enjoy his grandmother's special waffles. If someone wanted to experience a traditional African American New Year's Day Meal, they were quickly invited for the event. Grandmother, of course, would cook the meal just for them.
The family who lived down the street from us was among my favorite of Phillip's invitees for Christmas. They were Hindu and from India. Varun, the oldest child, has been a friend of Phillip's for years. They had never celebrated Christmas.
Varun wanted to give Phillip a Christmas present and he felt he needed a Christmas tree to put it under. His family would not buy a tree, but they said that he could put the gift by the fireplace.
The whole family joined us one night. We spent the time talking, eating cookies, and looking at the Christmas tree with its beautiful lights blinking on and off. Varun was allowed to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with us at our home.
When Varun left on Christmas Day he said, "Mrs. Sparks, this is the best Christmas I've ever had." I said, "But, Varun, this is the only Christmas you've ever had."
I've really enjoyed getting to meet my son's collection of friends. I am blessed that he feels that his friends are all welcomed in his home. I've been a part of their stimulating conversations. I've seen them all grow up and become husbands and fathers. I actually feel like their other mother. I am so proud of all of them.
My son has been blessed to live in a culturally rich environment. He learned about the people of many cultures who are part of our country, and he learned in the best way, by going to school with them, playing with them, eating with them, and by being so open to experiencing their cultures.
My life has been enriched by my son's "collection" of people. Many have become long time friends.
Published: Dec. 26, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 37