They were handing out Christmas presents this week at the vacant end of an east Macon strip mall where a discount drugstore used to be.
Frozen turkeys and hens.
Boxes of Stove Top stuffing.
Mac and cheese.
To get the stuff you had to be poor and have the paperwork to prove it.
There was a line to get in.
* * *
At the check-in table, a gray-bearded man in his early 80s wearing a crimson sweatshirt and a Santa hat greeted people Tuesday morning. He asked kids and grown-ups alike if they’d been good. Most said they had.
There were a few dozen chairs in the room. Barely a one was empty.
Deborah Cranfill came from over off Houston Avenue where she lives, not far from the Salvation Army office. A lady from that office had knocked on her door one day not long ago and mentioned the gift giveaway. Cranfill, a Savannah native in her late 40s, needed the food.
She’s on disability. She has a bad back to go with her shot hips and knees. She said she’s “lived a man’s life,” rebuilt engines, cut down trees, worked with horses and at Wal-Mart.
“They cut our phone off yesterday,” Cranfill, who lives with a friend, said, “and we’re hoping they don’t cut our gas off tomorrow.”
She looked around the room at more women and children than men.
“A lot of needy people,” Cranfill said of the room where during the course of four days, the Salvation Army would treat about 2,400 locals to Christmas gifts they otherwise could not afford.
Cranfill moved to Macon from Pennsylvania to be closer to Atlanta, where her son, a soldier recently home from the war in Iraq, lives.
“Honey, I don’t want to give you a sad story. Not this holiday,” she said. “I’m walking. I used to be in a wheelchair. I’ve been blessed.”
She recalled her first Christmas memory as a child: “We had a house. It was our house. My mom bought me twin dolls. One cried and the other one laughed.”
While Cranfill told how she had grown up a Navy brat and lived up and down the East Coast, a man from the Salvation Army walked in the room.
“How many of you know ‘Joy to the World’?” Maj. David Cope asked.
Hands went up.
“If I sing, will you sing with me?” he asked, then sang: “Joy to the worrrld ...”
Many of the 50 or so joined in, passing the time as they waited to hear their names called and collect a shopping cart of Christmas cheer.
When the song ended, Cranfill said, “It’s really weird. I don’t know the song. I was just following along.”
Then she said, “I have to say one thing. We’ve all been blessed.”
* * *
Wednesday morning, a woman in red pajama pants and a purple plaid jacket was sitting in the waiting room. She seemed happy, talkative.
“You know what I’m gonna start doing?” she said to no one in particular. “I’m gonna start giving, stop trying to receive all the time.”
She was 39, unemployed. She’d grown up on Macon’s west side, worked in nursing homes and sorted cotton for the USDA. Most Christmases she relies on the Salvation Army.
When they called her number, she headed for the door. Two teenagers pushed a shopping buggy loaded with toys and groceries to the parking lot. The woman led them toward a borrowed Jeep Cherokee with bald tires. She borrowed it because she thought she’d be picking up a bicycle for her 12-year-old son. She said she requested a bike when she registered for the gift giveaway. But here her presents were and ... no bike.
“I got tears in my eyes,” she said, glaring at a clear-plastic sack of toys.
She said her son “don’t like toys. Where his bike? ... You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna give all these gifts to somebody else.”
At the Jeep, she cried. She picked through the gifts, dismissing each one. Action figures. A stuffed-animal weasel. A kiddie digital camera. Walkie-talkies.
“Who he gonna talk to?” she said. “He there (at home) by hisself.”
She stared at a box of rice, frozen chicken.
“You don’t want the food?” one of the teens asked.
“Of course. I want anything that was given,” the woman said.
She bid the teens a merry Christmas and they left.
“Really,” the woman said, “I’m gonna give this to somebody else. I have plenty food. I can go take that to somebody who ain’t got no food.”
Hers was a classic beggars-can’t-be-choosers tale. Still it stung.
“It’s so sad. I didn’t want to be like, ‘My son wants this and this and that.’ The only thing he wanted was a bike and a coat, that’s it,” she said, not letting it go. “You got people coming out of here with bikes. You know, he ain’t want nothing but a bike. And a coat. That’s all he wanted. And he got four, what, five, six, seven toys? I’m thinking I’m coming to get a bicycle. Nooooo. ... He’ll get one, though. Soon as I get my tax money. God is good, baby.”
* * *
The next morning, Michelle Crepeau, a mother of three from south Macon, drove up alone. She wheeled her Chevy Tahoe into a parking space near the door.
“Army Wife” the tag on her front bumper read.
Crepeau’s reservist husband returned from Iraq a few weeks ago. Times are tight. Someone put Crepeau in touch with the Salvation Army.
In the waiting area Thursday, there was a man in a Santa suit. Crepeau, 36, was a little shy about accepting the charity handout. While she waited on a buggy of gifts for her 10-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, she worried about paying bills. She has a job cleaning carpets.
“Pride sucks,” she said. “But you have to knock your pride down for your kids. ... A lot of people expect somebody to give them something for nothing. I don’t believe in that. I pay it forward. My friend’s son needs a bike. I talked to a friend of mine. He had one in his shop. You can’t always just take. You’ve got to give back.”
Crepeau had surgery twice this year. She didn’t say what for, but she had a fresh scar on her neck.
She was raised near Ga. 247, across from the Bibb Skating Rink. Her dad was a firefighter. Christmases were good. When she was 9 or 10 she awoke to a Barbie Dream House.
As a mother, she figures the best gift a child can get is a parent’s time.
“It ain’t about what all they get. It’s making cookies, doing the decorations, going to get their picture taken with Santa Claus,” Crepeau said.
Her 2-year-old, Jacob, marvels at their Christmas tree.
“He don’t care what’s under it,” she said.
The other day, Crepeau’s boss bought her 10-year-old daughter, Lacey, an Elf on the Shelf doll. Crepeau surprised Lacey with it.
Crepeau picked out a greeting card, glued on some glitter to make it sparkle and stuck it in the mailbox.
Inside the card was a letter for Lacey signed, “From Santa.”
On the outside was one word: “Believe.”
When Lacey opened it, she read, “Within seconds of reading this letter you’ll have a gift at the door.”
Sure enough, there on the front steps sat an Elf on the Shelf.
Lacey wondered where the elf had come from.
She told her mom that friends at school said Santa is really just your parents, that they’re the ones who bring the presents.
“Well, once you stop believing, that’s what we have to do,” Crepeau recalled telling Lacey. “Hope you believe ... ’cause we broke.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.