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How a Purple Tote Inspired Hope During the Holidays

She was feeling lonely and forgotten until an unexpected gift reminded her that it is better to give than to receive.
An illustration of two women on a bus; Illustration by Ricardo Bessa

Pity party for one! I should have been enjoying the Christmas season, especially while living in New York City, filled with lights and elaborate decorations along the avenues. Instead, I was feeling sorry for myself. Sitting by myself in a café, sipping my overly sweetened coffee and munching on a bagel, I couldn’t remember ever feeling lonelier.

I’d taken the bus downtown to do some shopping. With temperatures continuing to drop, I needed a new winter coat. But a day out on my own wasn’t much fun. Why couldn’t my niece have come with me? I loved our outings, but since she’d become a busy young adult our time together was limited. When I’d called her up to chat and casually mentioned I was doing some Christmas shopping today, I wanted so badly for her to ask, “Can I come too, Auntie?” My ears were not blessed with those words. She had better things to do.

Having finished my lunch, I gathered my things and left the café, pausing to pull my old coat tighter around me. I hadn’t been able to find a new one. Just another reason to mope on my walk to the bus stop.

Waiting there gave me more time to focus on the negative. I haven’t seen my godsons in ages, I thought. About a year ago, I’d asked them to remove some carpet from my living room floor. They said they would…but never did. They just forgot all about me and the help I needed. I cringed when their mother mentioned later that they’d recently helped someone move into a new apartment—someone they didn’t even like. Imagine that! A person they didn’t even like got better treatment than me, their godmother. That hurt.

I looked down the street. The approaching bus did nothing to dispel my thoughts. In fact, the memory of that carpet set me thinking about my godsons’ mother, my best friend. Recently she’d proudly showed me the Christmas gifts she’d bought for her daughter in-law, husband, sons, even herself. When I realized I hadn’t been on her shopping list, it stung. We didn’t usually exchange presents between the two of us, but still…

What was my problem? Being self-centered? Not counting my blessings? Forgetting the reason for the season? Perhaps all three. But it wasn’t material things that I was seeking; I just wanted to know that someone cared. Some sign that I meant something to others. That they appreciated having me in their life. Until I saw evidence of that, the pity party would continue. And no one was invited.

The bus arrived. I climbed on and paid my fare, glad that I had a long ride home. It gave me more time to wallow.

Being childless and unmarried had never bothered me before. I’d always been surrounded by my friends and family. But this Christmas, everyone seemed to be too busy for me. I felt unappreciated, rejected.

Even by my own sister, I thought, frowning out the bus window. I’d recently suggested moving in together. “We can split expenses,” I told her. Plus, I could help out with her two teenage children. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. It felt like a slap in the face, especially after I’d treated her to vacations with me during her summer breaks from high school.

I continued to stew as the bus rattled on, adding up all the things I’d done for others and comparing it to what I got in return. It wasn’t fair. I could use a little appreciation here, God, I thought. Maybe you could gently remind everyone about the importance of giving.

I barely glanced up when we stopped to pick up a nicely dressed middle-aged lady. I might not have noticed her at all if it wasn’t for the canvas tote bag she carried under her arm. The bag was large and purple. When she took the seat across the aisle from me, I couldn’t resist asking where she’d gotten it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t recall the name of the store.”

“Thank you, anyway,” I said. I turned away toward the window.

At the next stop some people next to me got up. Next thing I knew, the woman had moved to sit beside me. She didn’t say a word, just slowly emptied the purple tote bag. One by one she transferred the items in it into her handbag.

Is she…? I thought in disbelief.

“Oh, no!” I said. “I can’t take your lovely bag!”

“You’re not taking it, I’m giving it to you,” she said. “I give things away all the time. I want you to have it.”

She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I meekly accepted the bag, holding it in my lap. The woman and I chatted for the rest of the ride. The conversation quickly shifted from handbags to faith. She told me the name of the church she attended.

“I may come and visit one Sunday,” I said.

“We’d be glad to have you.”

When her stop came, I watched her exit the bus. Why would a complete stranger give me a gift for no reason, expecting nothing in return? I remembered that imaginary ledger I’d been making when the woman got on the bus. You could learn from her, I thought.

I did eventually visit her church, though I didn’t see her there. I’ve kept that bag for 18 years and took it with me when I moved from New York to North Carolina. Whenever I use it, I remember that it’s better to give than to receive. That’s what Christmas is all about.

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