Winning Submission of the 2018 Civic Engagement Creative Writing Contest
A Can of Soup or a Sanitary Pad
By: Sarah Law
I wrote this piece because I wanted to explore the phenomenon of motivating people to volunteer by offering rewards.
Food insecurity affects women in specific ways, and so I also wanted to address how living in poverty intersects with stigma surrounding women’s bodies and hygiene products. Additionally, I wanted to spread awareness about the lack of nutritional food collected in “food drives.”
While civic engagement takes many different forms, I believe the act of donating to a cause is not enough; people must become educated about how they can best serve their communities to foster real change.
I just drank a glass of eggnog without realizing it expired, my cat is chewing the Christmas tree, and my five-year-old, Ellis, just shoved a candy cane up his nose.
Happy fucking holidays.
I always thought that when I had children, Christmas would be so much better. They’d have two parents to take them to the Santa Claus parade, build gingerbread houses with them, fill their stockings on Christmas Eve. Their folks wouldn’t have to make the choice between buying them a dollhouse or paying next month’s bills.
Minus the husband, I think I’m doing pretty good. I’ve got the lights up and presents hidden. But still, it’s not how I pictured it. I had no idea kids misbehave even more when they’re used to a certain standard of living.
Growing up, I was lucky if I got a clementine in my stocking, or maybe some underwear or pyjamas. This year, my nine-year-old daughter asked me for an iPad. Hell, that would’ve been like me asking my father for a golden carriage complete with a talking horse and fairy godmother. Good luck. Of course, I’d rather it be this way, but still, I never imagined getting so flustered over wrapping paper that isn’t see-through, bows that the cat can’t choke on, and toys that are educational while still making me a “cool mom.”
Not that the kids know I’m the one who buys the presents — that I’m a teleporting fat man in disguise. Somehow, though, cool still counts. Maybe just to me.
But when my daughter came home and asked me if I’d volunteer at the school food drive, I felt a little better about giving her that iPad.
Then I checked my schedule, saw I had meetings at ten, twelve, two and four on the same day.
“Maybe Auntie Jo can help out, Zoey,” I said.
Zoey crossed her arms over her chest. “But isn’t a food drive more important than making money?”
“I . . . Well, volunteering is important Zoey, but not everyone can take time off work. I’ll buy some food that you can take to school.”
Zoey ran up to her room and slammed the door, refusing to eat dinner “until all the hungry children are fed.” Ellis was ready for bed and a story, so I carried him up.
Is it wrong to call in sick to work so you can volunteer at your kids’ school?
*** The halls were covered in slush-trodden boot prints and puddles of dirt and water. Kindergartners dressed like marshmallows waddled in their snowsuits to their classrooms, snot on their chubby red faces, hair matted with sweat. When I waved at Ellis, he gasped, fell over and then scrambled to his feet, rejoining the line of kids without looking back. I felt betrayed. Can a five-year-old be humiliated by their mother?
After recess, Zoey and her friends went from classroom to classroom gathering the boxes of donated food, counting the items and keeping a tally. We overly-involved parents brought them to the school lobby and double-checked to make sure the donations were non-perishable and in good condition — not past their expiry dates. Some of the boxes were almost empty. I didn’t understand.
“Didn’t we get the email about this weeks ago?”
A man sporting a Blue Jays cap turned to me. “Yeah. It’s a shame, really. But I guess it’s better than nothin’.”
There were a dozen parent volunteers, but most of the boxes had fewer than a dozen items in them: peanut butter, Kraft Dinner, Spaghetti-O’s. Some cans of soup. Not exactly a Christmas feast. But then again, I hadn’t exactly donated the fixings for fine dining, either.
Zoey and her friends were hyped up on sugar and last-day-of-school-before-Christmas adrenaline, chasing each other around the festooned tree outside the Principal’s Office. They didn’t seem to notice how little had been collected.
“Is this it?” I asked the woman pushing things around in a box next to me. She was wearing an obnoxiously festive Christmas sweater, bells and all. “Any toiletries? How about feminine products?”
She frowned. “Wouldn’t that be inappropriate to ask children to bring to school?” We loaded the embarrassingly empty truck from the food bank with our embarrassingly empty boxes.
All of the parent volunteers were given a five-dollar Tim Horton’s gift card. There were twelve of us volunteering. That was sixty dollars that could’ve gone towards the food drive. Instead, it was paying for our morning coffees.
The class that collected the most food donations won a Pizza Party. They announced the winner at the end of the day. It was Zoey’s class. She jumped up and down with her friends and they started singing, “We Are the Champions.” Lord, please don’t tell me this is why she wanted me to help.
I felt too awkward to say anything about it in front of the other parents, but when I got Ellis and Zoey into the car, we didn’t go straight home.
“Where are we going, Mommy?” my son asked, sucking on his (third? fourth?) lollipop and kicking his feet with anticipation. I prayed for a tantrum-free sugar crash before bedtime.
“We’re going to the drug store.”
“I need to show you something.”
Despite what the woman at the school had said, I believe parents need to explain “inappropriate” things to their children so that they stop being inappropriate. I haven’t had “the talk” with my kids yet, but sometimes kids don’t need to understand the what before they understand the why.
“There are women in this city, women who go to the food bank or who live on the street, who need things from the drug store that . . . umm, people don’t donate very often. Things women need so they can stay healthy and comfortable.”
Zoey asked me why people don’t donate what the women need, and I told her it’s because people don’t understand. She asked me what they don’t understand about it, and I told her they don’t like to think about unpleasant things.
She may not have understood everything, but she knew we were going to help, and that was enough. She’ll never have to know what it’s like to lack the things she needs. And I’m glad.
The cashier smirked as Zoey, Ellis and I built a tower of tampon boxes, sanitary pads, wipes and tissues on the counter at the drug store.
“Preparing for a flood?” he muttered as he scanned each item.
I scoffed. “More like the Red Sea.”
I planned to pat myself on the back later that night. Supermom: One. Snarky teenager: Zero.
The drug store cashier was right: the line of people standing outside the shelter was like a flood — a flood of misery, of shivering, of free wills flickering as the waves of poverty swept over them. I was taken aback by the paradoxical sight: red and green lights and ribboned wreaths were strung from snowy lamp posts. Across the street, people were praying. For a piece of bread. For a dry place to sleep. For a can of soup or a sanitary pad.
Ellis and Zoey both squeezed my hands as we made our way to the door where volunteers were waiting to take our donation. The woman at the desk was surprised by the size of the bags.
“Well, we don’t get donations like these too often!” She smiled at the kids. “You two are lucky to have such a cool mom.” Zoey nodded. Ellis was too busy staring at the jar of candy canes beside the telephone to care.
“Can I have one, please?” he asked.
Well, of course I can’t expect him to understand the inherent flaws of capitalism and how society pushes consumerist values in order to enforce the stratification of social classes for the benefit of the affluent. He is only five. When the woman handed him the treat, he ran outside without saying “thank you.” I darted after him, pulling Zoey along.
Outside, there was a boy in the line who was roughly his age. The boy’s boots had holes in the toes and his jacket zipper was broken. Ellis walked up to him, said “hi,” and gave him the candy cane.
“Merry Christmas,” he chirruped before running back to Zoey and me.
I tried not to cry because I didn’t want to ruin my street cred as a “cool mom,” but sometimes you can’t help it.