It is fitting that I opened my home to people I didn’t know just a few weeks before Christmas, a time when we remember and celebrate a well-known family that was in need of shelter and compassion.
It was 7 a.m. on a Friday. I was barely out of the shower when someone started knocking on our front door and ringing the doorbell. I hurried to dry off, throw on clothes, and answer it, thinking one of our older neighbors needed help. Instead, standing on our doorstep was an unfamiliar woman with a girl around 10 years old at her side.
The woman spoke quickly and explained that her daughter attends my oldest grade-school-aged daughter’s school. My daughter, Megan, came walking out of her bedroom still in her pajamas, bewildered by the commotion at our front door.
“Do you know her?” I asked Megan, gesturing to the girl who was a few grades ahead of her. Megan shook her head no.
The mom said her daughter’s daycare was unexpectedly closed, she had knocked on the doors of some of her daughter’s friends but no one had answered, but she had seen me walking with my girls every day and would I please let her daughter walk to school with us? She looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t know you, but I trust you.”
My first thought as I stood there, my hair still a wet tangled mess from my shower, was that I wished I hadn’t answered the door.
I had never met this family, knew nothing about them, and we had an hour and a half before we would leave for school, so this girl would be hanging out at our house for quite a while if I let her in. Also, I’m an introvert, living in a house full of introverts, and these situations make all of us uncomfortable. My family’s home is our sanctuary, not Grand Central Station for everyone in the neighborhood. I’ve never been the mom who lets all the neighborhood kids from who-knows-where play at our house all day every day. I’m not even good at consistently inviting kids we know and like over for play dates, let alone comfortable with strangers invading my living room.
I asked some questions to buy time while I thought about what to do: “What daycare? What are your names? How old is your daughter? Is your daycare closed permanently or just for today? Do you know why?”
The mom eventually admitted the daycare posted a sign saying it was closed for “staff development.” If the daycare really was closed, my guess is the mom was informed much earlier by the daycare but forgot and now was desperate.
Regardless of how it happened or whether the mom was telling the truth, I couldn’t think of a way to say no without looking like a complete jerk, so I let the girl in, got the mom’s name and phone number in case anything happened, and firmly told the mom she needed a backup plan in case daycare was closed in the future. The mom agreed, apologized, remarked how awkward she felt, and sped off to work.
I turned on some cartoons for the girl, showed her where she could set down her coat and backpack, and told her she could have a seat in the living room. My own two daughters never get to watch cartoons on school mornings, and they got dressed and made their beds in record time so they could join our guest in front of the screen.
The girl perched on the edge of a rocking chair in my living room and hardly moved. She was quiet, polite, and looked embarrassed about being thrust upon strangers, like she wished to just get through the morning so she could get on with life. When I asked if she’d eaten breakfast, she said no so softly I had to ask her to repeat herself. “Do you usually eat at daycare?” I asked. She nodded yes. “Do you like scrambled eggs?” Another nod yes. I threw two extra eggs on the skillet when I made breakfast for the rest of us.
We sat together at the table, said our usual breakfast prayer, and started eating. I usually read a story from our large illustrated children’s Bible every morning. I thought about skipping it that morning, but my younger daughter, Abby, said, “What about our Bible story?” I wasn’t sure if the girl’s family was Christian, but I figured if the child was in my house I might as well evangelize her, and if her mother didn’t like it, that’s what she got for leaving her daughter with a stranger.
My daughters and I had been deep in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but to make it less bloody, I flipped back to the Christmas story about Jesus’ birth. While reading, I mentally noted the similarities between Jesus’ family and the girl sitting at my dining room table, both families in need of shelter, compassion, and help. I am not one to be superstitious or overly mystical about my faith, and I don’t like to risk reading too much into a situation, but I wondered if God had directed this mom and daughter to our doorstep for a reason this morning. Maybe we all needed to hear the Christmas story, with its message of humility and hope.
I also decided that since the girl was in my house, I was at liberty to be nosy. I asked about her family and discovered they have moved around the district some, are currently living in an apartment with relatives, and mom works a blue-collar job. I got a clearer picture of the daily stresses the family faced. I let the girl use our bathroom before we left the house, and then we walked together to school. I told Megan and our guest to have a good day, and that was that.
It’s been a few weeks since then, and no one has frantically rung my doorbell again. I know the girl’s teacher and quietly let her know what happened. I have seen the girl climb out of her daycare van a few mornings at school. She doesn’t acknowledge my daughters and me, either because she’s busy and doesn’t see us, or maybe she’s trying to put that morning when her mom didn’t have her act together behind her.
I’m still unsure if the mom was entirely truthful about why she was leaving her daughter with me. Maybe she was behind on daycare payments but didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she was hopeful they’d have moved out of their relatives’ apartment and would be in their own home in another school district by Christmas and hadn’t re-upped registration at her daughter’s daycare. I have thought about what to do if they show up unannounced on my doorstep again, because it’s not helpful for anyone involved if I make a habit of bailing the mom out.
Still, there was a need and I was able to meet it. We all find ourselves in hard places sometimes, needing help, or a Christmas story from the Bible, or simply a chair in a quiet corner of the living room. It cost me little to let that girl sit on my couch, watch cartoons in a safe place, and eat a few eggs.
In our increasingly polarized society, on the heels of a truly horrid election season, when our country is divided and quick to judge others based on income levels, skin colors, zip codes, politics, and religion, I would rather err on the side of offering mercy. I hope the lesson my daughters learned from watching our morning unfold is to be kind and to help however they can. At Christmas time and year round, mercy is good, and kindness costs very little.
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