I think I was ten-years-old. It was Christmas Eve and the only thing in the mind of a child is the promise of gifts from some jolly old plump guy with an affinity for cookies. My parents, as was always their practice had sent us to sleep early with the familiar threat that if we didn’t go to sleep as soon as possible, Santa Claus would skip over our house because we were being naughty.
So away we scampered, drunk with elation at the prospect of getting the presents we had wished for and wondering for the umpteenth time how St. Nick was going to access a home in Suburban Salt Lake City without a chimney.
I’m sure that I was in a deep slumber that night when suddenly I heard the slamming of car doors followed by a chorus of laughter, the shuffling of feet and I sat bolt upright. Was that him? Had he arrived in a station wagon instead of his sleigh? Had he brought his elves to help him unload gifts for the Samoan family of eight kids, two overworked parents, a cranky grandfather and the clutch of uncles, aunts and cousins who had come here for Christmas holiday?
My heart raced and I leaned over to rouse my brother from sleep when I realized that he too was already awake and staring at the heavy drapes over our basement room window.
“Is it him?” I asked.
“Probably,’ was his wide-eyed reply followed by, ‘go look.”
I stood at the foot of my bed and was about to lift a corner of the drapes to steal a glance when I heard the strumming of a guitar and voices stir in unison….”Manuia le Kerisimasi!”
I jumped back from the window and burrowed under the heavy blankets wondering if they had seen me and if I had lost my only chance at getting that BMX bike that I had been begging my parents for since last Christmas. And then it dawned on me – Santa and his elves speak Samoan?
“It’s those silly Samoans again,” my brother must have said with much disappointment as we both sighed and listened to the boisterous and unruly singing that we came to know as “’Aisiga”, the Samoan tradition of visiting homes to entertain its occupants in the hopes that their humorous and engaging performance would compel their listeners to part with a few coins.
Over the years ‘aisiga became a common occurrence in our home; one that we received with great pleasure as our parents explained to us the true meaning of giving through their actions more often than they expounded in words. Money was always tight in our home, but even when they had no spare change to offer, my parents always welcomed them into our home for a hearty meal and a prayer of gratitude for friendship and a plead for good fortune in the future.
The antics resumed when we moved to Samoa but there was another element that was introduced to the slightly misanthropic mind of an American teen who oftentimes viewed life with a rose-colored tint. I found myself in a strange predicament; something that I had never encountered while attending school back in the United States – someone asking me to share my lunch because they did not have lunch.
Him: Can I have some of your German Bun?
Me: Stunned, confused and speechless thinking ‘I don’t even know this kid’.
Him: Staring at me
Me: ‘Sure’ – I break off a piece and hand it over to him
Him: ‘Faafetai lava’ before devouring the German Bun
The exchange was brief but it left enough of an impression on my mind that it was the first thing I asked my mother about when I arrived home from school that day and it was a topic of discussion between my brother and I on the walk home.
That was so many years ago and I can hardly remember anything that was said that day but my mother’s life not her words reminded me often that no matter what your situation is in life, someone can always use a helping hand. There is always someone in desperate need. There is always someone in need of comfort.
I’m a selfish person. It is a part of me that does not conform to the life that my parents taught us to live but I’m trying daily to be better. When I see panhandlers on the road, when I hear of people asking others for help, my first reaction is always ‘Why don’t you help yourself?’ and then I realize much too late the entirety in which my hypocrisy has consumed my jaded mind because I’ve been in that situation. I have been down on my luck. I have lived paycheck-to-paycheck and I know the sound of my children crying because they are hungry.
A plea for help comes in many forms. I hope I recognize it before you have to ask.