Every Christmas morning when I was a child, there came a moment when my father would pause what he was doing and take my hand. Together, we listened to the annual replaying of John Henry Faulk's Christmas Story on National Public Radio - a story of how Christmas to blindingly poor families in rural Texas one year, washing away divisions of color in a wave of "stripety candy," hand-plucked chickens, and strangers' generosity.
Our youngest child came from a county like that. From a town where dusty dirt roads criss-cross a food desert, ending at a modest grocery where there is no gluten-free aisle, no top-8-free cookies. A grocery that probably sees more food stamps than cash - food stamps that rarely make it all the way to the end of the month and don't come extra for Christmas.
And yet, if some mysterious force hadn't brought our little one together with us, that grocery would have been his store. That town, his town. Those dirt roads, his only path to food, or later, to even the hope of freedom from the wrenching realities of being desperately poor in America. Living close enough to our America to be inundated with the notion that Christmas is expensive toys in shiny bows - yet far enough from our America as to be out of mind as we give those toys to our own children on Christmas morning.
As I write this, my little one is contentedly doing puzzles on my phone. He sits confidently, looks solid, speaks well. Skin is not quite clear but it isn't overrun in the storms of mast cell hyper-activity tonight either. It's a good day.
And yet he didn't start out this way. In the beginning he was in desperate pain, hungry all the time, his stomach lining coming out in his diaper and his skin flushed like a display of the aurora borealis across his face, every day. How hard I worked to eek out one more ounce, to bring him up onto the growth curve as I removed more and more foods from my own diet, hoping to find the magic formula that would stop my nursing baby's rashes and screaming and let him grow.
It would take twenty months, a parade of doctors and a dietary quest that left far more foods out than in, but grow he did. By putting him on a diet that was excruciatingly restricted and equally excruciatingly consistent (just a handful of primarily single-ingredient foods and never veering from brand or flavor), in just nine months we watched our little seed soar from a frail 4th percentile in weight to a healthy 29th. Not through the "wholesome" foods we put in so much as through the "nutritious" ones we took out.
But this wouldn't have been possible if he were still on that dusty dirt road. If Christmas for him, as for the child in John Henry Faulk's story, was a donated orange from Santa Claus, with two chickens so all the children could have a taste. If dinner at the beginning of the month was what you could afford, and dinner at the end of the month was what you could scrounge at the local food pantry.
My husband and I catch our breath often, imagining our little one if those unseeable forces hadn't pulled him to us. It isn't hypothetical to us whether food restrictions - even complicated ones that require the very best of doctors practicing at the very cutting edge of immunological research to figure them out - are somehow a product of the upper-middle class imagination. You don't escape the need for top-8-free foods just because you are too poor to dream of buying them. Our little boy was destined to have his body - wherever he was raised.
But as he races his brother down the stairs this Christmas morning, eager to see what Santa Claus has brought, I know I will see echoes of the little boy in John Henry Faulk's story, clutching an orange from Santa Claus as he walked down a dirt road to tell his cousins of the Christmas that came to the poor side of town. As much as that vision grips at my heart, in a way I hope I will never lose it. It humbles me, and it inspires me to push always for more. More for him, and for the millions born like him but who cannot so easily escape the double vices of having food restrictions and being desperately poor.
It is a perhaps-new spin on an undeniably old tale. Because all our children need a hand, a manger to lie in, an orange from Santa Claus to bring the promise of Christmas. It is just sheer luck that I get the honor of giving him mine.
And that is a Christmas blessing indeed.