One of the best holiday presents I ever received didn’t arrive in a box. It wasn’t wrapped. It certainly didn’t come from a fancy store. It was a little scuffed and worn-out, and the person who gave it to me didn’t pay a nickel for it.
And yet it made my heart swell with love and gratitude.
The story of that special gift began in 1986, when I met an 11-year-old homeless panhandler named Maurice on the corner of 56th Street & Broadway in New York City. Maurice, I later learned, hadn’t eaten in two full days.
“Excuse me lady, do you have any spare change?” Maurice asked me as I passed him. “I am hungry.”
I lowered my head and kept walking—but then, halfway across Broadway, Maurice’s words finally registered. “I am hungry.” I turned around and went back and offered to take him to lunch. We went to McDonalds and each had a Big Mac, fries and chocolate shake. It was just one meal, one tiny act of kindness, but that lunch turned into a life-changing ritual—I wound up meeting with Maurice every Monday for the next four years, and hundreds of times after that.
Our first year together, Maurice and I spent Christmas at my sister’s house on Long Island. Today, I am thrilled to be able to share the events of that holiday in a new children’s book, An Invisible Thread Christmas Story. It’s the story of a young boy who before I met him had never experienced the holidays. A boy who had only been given two presents his whole life—a tiny toy truck, and, when he was six, a marijuana cigarette.
Incredibly, that Christmas in 1986 was also the first time Maurice ever sat at a dining room table to share a meal with others.
And while my family and I gave Maurice many presents, unwrapping his new toys and clothes were not what he enjoyed most about the holiday.
No—what Maurice loved most was sitting around my sister’s big dinner table, laughing and joking and sharing as a family.
“Someday,” Maurice told me, “I’m going to have a big dinner table like that.”
It was the first time I ever heard Maurice talk about his future. Before then, he was sure he’d end up like all the men in his family ended up—on drugs, in jail, or dead.
Today, nearly 30 years later, Maurice is a loving and proud husband to his beautiful wife Michelle, and they have seven of the most remarkable kids. All of his children have their own dreams now—which they like to talk about around the giant dinner table Maurice has in his apartment.
Maurice has broken a generations-long cycle of drugs and violence, and his children will never know what it felt like not to eat for two days.
Which brings me back to the most special gift I received that holiday.
That Christmas in 1986, Maurice left something for me beneath the tree in my apartment. I didn’t see him do it; I only found the gift later. There was no box, no bow, no tag. But as soon as I saw it, I felt a burst of joy.
Maurice gave me the only thing he had in the world to give—a little white teddy bear with a tiny red heart, which he had picked out of a Salvation Army bin the Christmas before.
He also scribbled a small note and left it with the bear. The note thanked me for being his friend.
Maurice’s small gesture of kindness, and the relationship we forged over the next few years, completely changed the way I lived my life. What Maurice gave me that holiday, besides the white bear with a red heart, was the great gift of being able to appreciate the blessings in my life. He showed me that unless we open our eyes and our hearts to them, we may miss out on these wonderful blessings.
And he showed me that one simple act of kindness is like a tiny pebble tossed into a lake, rippling outward through years and generations, affecting not just one life but several, changing not just a future but changing the world.
This holiday, I am wishing for a tidal wave of kindness.
Love. Compassion. Forgiveness. Charity. Kindness. The very best things we can give others do not come in boxes. Like Maurice’s little teddy bear, they are delivered directly from one heart to another.
Laura Schroff is the author of the New York Times #1 Bestseller “An Invisible Thread” and newly released “An Invisible Thread Christmas Story” for children.
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