I was thinking about Gloria from Day 13 today, how she said you never know what gifts or burdens other people are carrying. That seems especially true this time of year. Yesterday’s story about Secret Santas in Charlotte, NC really tickled me. 100 people got surprised with $100!

And a lot of people who appear to be happy – or feel like they should be – simply aren’t. As a Jew, I have always been baffled by the whole Santa Claus concept. So, I am certainly no expert. But it seems like all that jolliness must be exhausting. Not to mention all the shopping, decorating, and entertaining. Oy.

I got out for a walk today and was thinking about some of the comments I’ve gotten on the blog. I was thinking about what it means to connect with others and what makes it so difficult. And what it means to make the world better and how that happens. All kinds of heady stuff. I wanted to see if Carrie was at her post near the Goodwill. I wanted to check on her and, at the same time, it was very cold out and I knew it would break my heart to see her sitting on the corner wrapped in her dirty blanket.

Carrie wasn’t there. Goodwill was hopping, though. Every aisle was crowded with shoppers. Two women were browsing through the blouses, holding up one after the other. “This is CUTE. You should try this on. Wait, Lauren Golf? Is this for golf?” A man looking at the kitchenware got a call on his cellphone. “Hi. Oh, I don’t know. I usually hold it up there for, like, five seconds. Four or five.” I pretended to look at the mugs for sale; I really wanted to know what he was talking about but he ended the call and I got no more clues.

I caught sight of a large woman in a tattered orange windbreaker and a colorful headscarf. She was carrying a plastic shopping bag through which I could see a 4-pack of toilet paper. She was heading out and we ended up almost bumping into each other on our way through the door. There was a kind of stoic resolve in the way she set off down the street that pulled at my heart, and I found myself walking beside her.

“How you doing today?” I asked her. “Oh, I’m alright,” she said, somewhat wearily. We made some more small talk and then I took the plunge. I don’t really know why, but I told her I was practicing to be a secret Santa! And that I was Jewish. “Well, that’s a little strange,” she said. But she gave me an encouraging smile so I carried on. I handed her the folded up bill and she took it gratefully, avoiding looking at it. “Oh, thank you so much!”

I said how it seems most everyone can use a little help these days. She had just moved back after being away for a few years and said she needed some stuff for her place, pots and pans and things. I encouraged her to look at the bill and she took a little peek. “Oh, praise the Lord!” she cried out. I said maybe she would do something nice for herself, at least with some of the money.

“The way I do it,” she said, “is I make a list. Of all that I need. That’s how I do it.” I asked what was on her list and she said “Oh, I need a new coat. And some boots. I have layers on here. See this? This coat isn’t warm at all.” I said that sounded like a good idea. “Do you know where I can get a coat?” she asked me. “I’ve only been to, like, the Dollar Store and the grocery store. And the Goodwill.” We were a few blocks from the shopping mall and could see Marshall’s from where we were standing.

“Well, you could go to the mall,” I suggested. “Maybe someplace like Sears.” “I should go there right now,” she said. “While I still have the money.” I asked if I could walk with her a ways and she said she was happy for the company. She wasn’t in a rush to get back to her apartment. Why? I asked. Well, if she’s alone at home all she wants to do is eat. She’s trying to be healthier, walk more and eat less snacks. I asked her name and she said she’s called Thelma.

She seemed somehow uncertain and I asked if she would like me to help her find a coat. She said she would really like that, since she didn’t know too much about shopping at the mall. On the way she told me about her four kids and 17 grandkids, and how she’s on disability for arthritis and fibromyalgia. She volunteers three days a week at a school helping third graders with their reading.

Finding a coat took a while. The first three stores we went to didn’t have anything in Thelma’s size. A couple of times she suggested “you just pick one out for me.” I could feel her flagging a bit, and the crowds were getting to both of us. I hoped we could find something at Macy’s but knew it would probably bust her budget.

There was one rack of plus-size coats at Macy’s, including some nice warm hooded ones like she said she wanted. She tried on a red one and then the same thing in purple. “You pick. Which one should I get?” I said I liked the red one on her. She looked at the price tag. It was $99.98, more than she had ever spent on any item of clothing. “Well, that’ll be my whole… well, that’s okay. I’m so happy to have it!” I snatched the coat from her hands and started for the register. “I want you to keep that money. I’ll get this.”

She was so appreciative. She asked me what I do –  “you know, when you’re not out following people!” I told her I was a doctor and we talked for a while more. We were getting ready to say goodbye and I told her I was hoping to see her out walking in her warm coat. “No excuse now!” I joked. She gave me a big Thelma hug. “Oh, you’ll see me sometime,” she said with a smile. Then, “I’m not going to call you Santa Claus. You know what you are? You’re a blessing.”

My closet is full of coats for every season