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ASHLEY RAMBO SHAW: I Hope You Found a Way Out

columnistJason was my best friend in the third grade, and he was hopelessly poor. He was what I call “Appalachian poor” – a destitution without the web of resources available in an urban area.
As I remember it, his father had abandoned him, his mother and three brothers, leaving them all in a ramshackle house buried in the foothills of Virginia.

Jason was born into a cruel catch-22. If you live out in the sticks, you need a car to get to a job, but you need a job to have a car first. You need both an income and a car to get out of a bad life. Other than the school bus, I don’t know how Jason’s family got around. I don’t recall ever seeing a car.

The stop for his house came well before mine. I could see where he lived, and my imagination ran wild. His dark, forbidding house was the stuff of horror movies. The white paint had mostly peeled away from the clapboard siding. A few faded black shutters hung on precariously at odd angles. I thought for sure it was haunted.

Nothing green seemed to grow near the house. The trees were always barren and his yard was a bleak moonscape. I can still see his thin little figure walking up the rutted dirt driveway, staring down at his feet the whole way.

He was always dirty. Dirt crusted his fingernails. You could see the grime smeared on his face in our class picture. His coal black hair was an unruly, dusty mop. One day at lunch, he moved his arm, and his sleeve ripped away from his threadbare flannel shirt. We all laughed. We were too young to realize poverty was supposed to be shameful.

I loved Jason. It was uncomplicated and pure. He was my friend, my boyfriend. We were so sweet to each other.

In my life Christmas was a time to make obscenely long lists for Santa. It was a time of hope – my selfish hope to find mounds of wrapped toys under the tree, trussed in curled metallic ribbon. But eventually a thought edged into my small mind: What about Jason? I thought of his house, his clothes. He never proudly displayed a new toy at school.

Maybe I could give him one of mine. No, he would know I was giving him an old toy. Instead, I asked my mother “Can I get Jason something for Christmas?” She said “We’ll see” which I knew was never a good sign. She said it thoughtfully, but in a way that signaled impending disappointment.

My intuition was correct. She made me give that poor, sweet boy tube socks. When she handed me the three-pack of calf-length striped socks I cried. This was not the something I had in mind. What could be worse than getting clothes for Christmas, especially something as insulting as socks. She wouldn’t budge. She saw the dirt. The rotting clothes. The poverty.

Those socks looked beautiful wrapped. With arms folded, I appraised the shiny papered box. There could be anything in that box. It was so full of potential. It could hold all the sparkling Christmas dreams of an eight year old boy.

I waited for the bus ride home to give him his gift. I withdrew the present from my book bag. His eyes widened with my every move. His dirty little hands shook as he reached out. My heart plunged to my feet.

He paused for a moment, fingers caressing the cool, smooth paper. There could be anything in that box. His breath came in short gasps, as he tried to contain his excitement.

A Christmas present. Had he ever received one before? He couldn’t wait. He tore into the shiny paper. Exhilarated, he popped the box open. The tube socks sprang out like a grotesque Christmas jack in the box, betraying his hope. The briefly rich child became poor again in one gut-wrenching lurch. He snapped the box shut, muttered a thanks, and stared out the window, watching the snow-covered landscape. I stared at the bus floor.

We never looked at each other again with the same eyes.

It has been over thirty years now. Why did I give him those socks? It was because I wanted to give him something, and mom was right that he did need socks – the thought of Jason with freezing feet horrified me.

But so much was left unsaid that day. I wanted to tell him the socks were my mother’s idea. I should have told him how much I cared, and that I couldn’t give him what I wanted him to have, not only for that moment, but for the rest of his life. Jason needed hope. The hope found in the promise of better days. He needed something to say your life will not always be so bad.

I wanted to give you a toy, Jason.

Angel trees always get to me. I read all the tags. They say things like “Boy, 7 years old, needs sweatpants and socks”, or, “Girl, 5, needs a blanket.” My heart drops to my feet again. Children need hope, not a reminder of how poor they are. I give to charity for many reasons, but in my mind, I’m trying to make it up to Jason. It’s all an apology for one day, so long ago.

I’m sorry for giving you those socks Jason. I can still see the anguish in your eyes. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you what you were dreaming of before it was ruined by the contents of that box. Life is already too hard to have being poor shoved into your face at Christmas time.

I can only hope you found a way out.

Forgive me for not telling you all of this.

Forgive me for being eight.

– Ashley Rambo Shaw

Ashley Grew up in Goodview and this story took place 33 years ago

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