Before the Thanksgiving turkey even got cold at our house, talk had turned to Christmas.
"So what do you want?" I asked my 12-year-old son.
"One of those things at the mall," he said. "... Oh, I can't think of what you call it."
"OK, something at the mall," I said. "Well, that doesn't narrow it down much, kiddo. Can you use your big brain and give me a better hint?"
"You know, one of those Christmas tree things where you buy gifts for a kid," he said. "That's what I want to do with some of the money I've saved."
For several days he had been musing about buying gifts for disadvantaged kids. At 12, he has sort of outgrown toys. Video games have lost their luster, too.
Eager not to let this charitable impulse pass, I promised to take him the next day to the Angel Tree at Northgate Mall. Ultimately, his aunt (my sister) would tag along, too.
So, it came to pass, we set out for Northgate Mall last Saturday night and made our way to the Salvation Army table. After circling the Angel Tree for a few minutes, I noticed the boy drifting toward another option.
Alone at the end of the Salvation Army table was a solitary blue backpack, still in its plastic wrapping. It represented a companion humanitarian effort called "Fill a Backpack" designed by the Salvation Army to give a provisions-filled bags to individual homeless people.
As my son lingered over the backpack, touching the plastic package with his fingers. I could see the gears turning in his mind.
"I've decided I'd rather give to a homeless person," he announced. "Somebody will always take care of the kids."
I couldn't quarrel with the logic, so we checked out a backpack and promised to fill it with useful goods and bring it back within 10 days. I had recently written a piece about a Brainerd man who has made filling backpacks for the homeless a minor crusade, so I had done some fresh thinking on the topic.
The Salvation Army provided a gender-specific list of "gift suggestions." The three of us took a picture of the list so we could divide and conquer at Target. We decided to buy items for a man.
Our first stop was the toiletries aisle where we sifted through bins of travel-size, personal-care items: wet naps, toothpaste, shaving cream and the like. We decided to go "full-size" deodorant and even doubled up on the portion.
"We also need a 'mania-cure' kit," my son announced, reading from his phone.
"Manicure," I corrected. "We'll keep looking."
Next, we detoured down the food aisle to pick up some tuna-salad kits.
"I hear homeless folks really like these," I said, realizing immediately how condescending that sounded. If you are hungry enough, you "like" anything.
"What is Spam?" my son asked, inspecting a canister of spiced ham.
"Oh, they wouldn't want that," I said, ignoring the plain truth that I grew up eating, and loving, fried Spam.
Next we visited the menswear department and picked up an eight-pack of crew socks, a knit cap, a pair of gloves and set of insulated underwear. We went back and forth on size and ended up buying "large" underwear ... just because. In the candy section, we bought Tootsie Rolls and Life Savers.
Then we headed for the stationery aisle and picked out a notebook and a three-pack of ballpoint pens. We also found a flashlight with AA batteries. We scooped up a good raincoat, and I promised to donate an umbrella I won in a raffle at work.
"I think that's it," I said.
"What about the 'mania-cure' set," my son insisted.
We searched again and found a matching set of fingernail and toenail clippers. We tossed them in the buggy, and the boy looked pleased.
When we got back to the car, he instantly started unpackaging the items and tucking them into the pack.
"Pack it like rocks," my sister said. "Big rocks at the bottom. Little rocks at the top."
"I'm all done," he said a few minutes later.
But he's not, really. The beauty of this project is the mental images it plants. Unless I miss my guess, he will think about the contents of this backpack — and the recipient — often this winter.
Wondering: Is my homeless man cold? Is he hungry? Will those long-johns fit?
Twenty years from now, it will likely be his only lasting memory from Christmas 2018, an ornament on the tree of childhood. I'd say that was an evening well spent.
Thank you, Salvation Army. Thank you, son.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-645-8937.