Back in those days, the biggest and most successful mall in Birmingham was called Century Plaza. If you happened to have your kid’s picture taken with Santa at Century Plaza that year, chances are one-in-four that it was me behind the red suit and fake white beard. (There were four of us who worked in shifts.)
Getting to be Santa Claus was a memorable experience for many reasons. I’ve always loved children and enjoyed working with them even then. Still, it was a harder job than I thought it would be. It’s hot inside the costume, and you’re constantly performing for hours at a time — and children are a very demanding audience. But there was one night on that job that I’ll always remember, and it had nothing to do with anything fun.
As Christmas got closer, more and more people waited in longer and longer lines to see Santa. One Saturday night very close to Christmas, I’d worked my regular four-hour shift and was scheduled to go feed my reindeer — translation: change places with the next guy — at about 6 p.m. The replacement didn’t show up, though, and I had to work the rest of the night.
Around 7:30 or so, I noticed a woman standing beyond the line all by herself. She looked alternately happy and despondent, almost like what you’d expect from someone who’s a manic depressive cycling through quick ups and downs. I didn’t think anything of it, but I was surprised to find about half an hour later that she had waited in line all by herself to see Santa Claus.
It was finally her turn and she walked toward me. The clothes she wore were tattered and kind of dirty. Her overall appearance made me suspect she was poor. She was probably in her mid to late 40s. But the thing I noticed the most was the look of loneliness and desperation in her eyes.
She sat down in my lap and I just didn’t know what do do. She put her arm around me and I could tell she was shaking. Then I noticed that there were tears running down her cheeks in slow, even streams.
She told me she wasn’t crazy and that she didn’t really know why she had come to talk to me. She said she was just lonely and scared — and didn’t have anyone else to talk to.
Somehow, she looked like a Rosie to me, and that’s what I’ve always called her in my mind. Rosie told me a little bit about herself. She told me that her husband had recently died and that she hadn’t gotten over it. She also told me that her son had been injured in a car accident the previous day and lay in a local hospital slowly dying. I don’t remember exactly why, but for some reason she blamed herself for the accident.
I don’t remember exactly what else we said. I talked to her as best I could and tried to help her. We talked about her fears and her feelings of guilt and I don’t remember what else. I just know that she cried and held onto me tightly. Then we prayed for a couple of minutes — about her and about her son. I didn’t know what else to do, so I gave her the name of a minister I knew she could call.
Then she got down and walked away. I had to shift emotional gears and go back to being happy Santa for children.
I wished after she left that I had gotten her phone number so I could make sure she got some kind of help, but I hadn’t thought of it in time.
Rosie has stayed on my mind ever since then, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I don’t know what happened to her, but she’ll always serve as a symbol to me of the people around us who need help. Rosie reached the point of such desperation that she had to turn to a stranger for help.
This is a happy time of the year. Some of us celebrate the birth of Jesus. For others, it’s simply about family and giving. Either way, it’s a time of great joy. But Rosie always reminds me that it’s not a time of joy for everyone. While many of us enjoy comfortable and happy lives, there are many people who are hurting and in need. Sometimes the needs are material, but even more often, the needs are emotional and spiritual. Many people need to know that someone understands them. More importantly, they need to know that someone honestly cares about them.
As you prepare for whatever it is that you do to celebrate this time of year, keep your eyes open for people who need help — who need love and understanding. I can’t tell you how you can help. I certainly can’t tell you what you might be willing to do for others. That’s purely up to you. I’m just asking you to think about it.
And as you consider the question, think about Rosie and all the other potential “Rosies” all around you. Someone needs to show some love to them. Maybe they need you.