"Where are we going, Mommy?

The little girl held tightly to her mother's hand as they walked briskly through the mall. Many of the stores were now empty. The larger stores had moved out of the inner city to the rapidly expanding suburban area ten miles outside of town. All that now remained were phone shops, hair boutiques and cheap clothing stores. Rumors in the neighborhood were that the mall was scheduled to close after the first of the year and demolition would begin in the spring.

Ten years earlier, on the day before Christmas, the mall would have been packed with frantic shoppers bustling around for a last minute gift for someone who had been inadvertently left off a long list. There is always the aunt who appears on the doorstep unannounced with a bag of gifts.

With only hours left, a few lonely people strolled through the mall, occasionally to look at bargains in the window that had been discounted for weeks. Two days later, they would be discounted even more.

As Thelma Martin dragged her little five-year-old daughter down the dimly lit aisles, she wondered where she would go in a few months to shop. She couldn't afford a car to drive to where the larger malls were now located. City buses had recently raised their fares, so she had to be selective where she traveled. The mall was only twenty minutes away, fifteen blocks. She knew because she had counted them over the years.

She had grown up in the neighborhood. She had also watched it deteriorate. Even though she was only twenty-two, she had witnessed the collapse around her. More and more houses were being boarded up as people moved out. Most were in too need of repair to be inhabited again. People left, and with them they took the last vestiges of hope. All that remained was poverty and despair.

Thelma gripped her daughter's hand tighter. Tears filled her eyes as she pulled her toward their destination. As she looked around at the deteriorating building with cracked tiles, boarded up windows, unpainted benches and decaying interior walls.

"This is the world that Destiny has to grow up in," she cried to herself as she quickly wiped tears from her eyes before her daughter would look up and notice them.

"Why are you crying, Mommy?" was a question she was asked often.

Thelma would smile into the face of the little brown-eyed girl and replied, "Nothing, Honey. Mommy just has a cold is all." She would then grab a brush and run it through the little girl's hair as she hummed a melancholy song.

Suddenly, Destiny pointed and shouted out, "Look, Mommy! It's Santa Claus!"

Destiny had been begging her for weeks to take her to see Santa. She just hoped she wasn't making a mistake by bringing her to the mall.

In a desolate corner sat Santa. His costume was soiled, and his beard looked as if it had been worn for many years. It was gray and matted, and half his moustache was missing. He sat upon an old folding chair, nothing like the elaborate sleighs that Destiny had seen on television commercials. One large cardboard reindeer nearby gave any semblance that he was indeed Santa Claus.

He smiled when he saw the enthusiasm in Destiny's eyes, but it quickly disappeared when he looked up at Thelma. He knew the tortured looked in a mother's eyes at Christmas. The look that said that the next morning would be a disappointment. There may be a gift or two under a small, sparsely adorned Christmas tree. There wouldn't be the much anticipated doll or special toy she had eagerly awaited all year. There would be tears of sadness when she realized that a year's worth of being good meant nothing at all. Happiness would be replaced with tears of sadness. There would be no joy in a mother's heart as she watched her child look up with a disappointed frown after realizing that all they would receive would be the packet of socks or a slightly used sweater from the corner thrift store.

Destiny stopped and gave her mother a puzzled look. She looked back at Santa and replied softly, "He's white, Mommy."

Thelma didn't know how to respond. Since this was her daughter's first visit to see Santa, it had never occurred to her that Destiny would notice the color of Santa's skin. Surely, she thought, she had noticed all the Santa's on television.

Destiny motioned for her mother to lean down so she could whisper into his ear, "Why's he white? White people don't live here."

Thelma glanced quickly over at the rotund man sitting on the folding chair. He had a puzzled look on his face. He wondered why the cheerful little girl hadn't approached and sat on his lap.

Thelma pulled Destiny a few feet away and then leaned down and looked into her daughter's eyes. She attempted a smile as she tried to answer the little girl's question.

"Well, Honey," she said. "He doesn't live here. He's from the North Pole."

"Are all the people from the North Pole white?"

"I guess," replied her nervous mother. At five, she felt that Destiny was too young to discuss the issue of race. It was something she would learn soon enough.

Destiny looked into her mother's eyes and asked, "Isn't there Santa Clauses that looks like us?"

Thelma attempted to avoid the question by replying, "There is only one Santa Claus. He lives at the North Pole."

Destiny frowned and insisted, "I've seen a lot of Santa Clauses on television, and they all look different." She glanced back toward the nearby Santa and asked, "Why are they always white?"

Thelma stood and took Destiny by the hand. She realized that this was not the time or place to have such a discussion. Like with her mother, there would be many such discussions in the future.

"I'm sure there are black Santa Clauses," she assured her daughter. "But this one today is white." She released the girl's tiny hand and pushed her towards the man dressed in the tattered Santa suit.

She said sadly, "Go tell Santa what you want for Christmas."

"Okay, Mommy," replied the little girl as she skipped away and jumped onto Santa's lap. Thelma turned and wiped away her tears. She knew that she was only setting her child up for disappointment. The black doll she had gleefully screamed that she wanted in the store window they passed earlier would not appear under the tree in the morning. Neither would the colorful bracelet or pink sneakers she had admired on another girl at school.

They were simple gifts. However, her minimum wage job as a store clerk barely paid for food and rent. There was never money left over to buy the simplest of pleasures for a small child.

She stood from afar and watched as her daughter talked animatedly to the jolly old man wearing the tattered red suit. Destiny would whisper something into his ear, and he would sit back and roar with laughter.

Before getting off Santa's lap, the old man pulled the little girl toward him and whispered something in her ear. Destiny listened carefully and then she leaned back and opened her hands. Santa appeared to place something into them.  She smiled,
put her fisted hand into her pocket and jumped from his lap. Before leaving, she stood on her tiptoes and gave Santa a big hug.

The little girl was smiling cheerfully as she skipped back to her awaiting mother. Thelma's heart felt like it was going to shatter into a million pieces. She was sure that the jolly old Santa had filled her daughter with hope of receiving the black doll, colorful bracelet and pink shoes she so desperately wanted.

Thelma knelt down and asked Destiny, "Did you have a nice visit with Santa Claus?"

"Yes, Mommy," replied her daughter and she leaned forward and hugged her mother. "Santa was a nice man."

Thelma couldn't help but grin and ask, "Even if he was white?"

Destiny replied, "Santa said that Santa Clauses come in all different colors because there are all different colors of children in the world."

Thelma took Destiny's hand and began to lead her away. She glanced back at Santa to see him hold out his hands and open them up at her daughter. Destiny giggled, nodded her head and skipped happily beside her mother as they strolled back through the mall. She was careful to avoid the store with the black doll in the window.

That night, Thelma sat beside Destiny in her bed as she read the Christmas tale, 'The Night Before Christmas,' to the small child. After reading it, she kissed Destiny on her forehead and tucked her gently into bed. She then retreated downstairs.

She went to the hallway closet, reached up onto the top shelf and pulled down a couple of bags. She grabbed the Christmas wrapping paper and headed into the living room where a small tree was dimly lighting up the room with its single strand of lights.

She sighed deeply, sat down and began wrapping the three gifts she had gotten her daughter for Christmas. One was a worn black doll that a neighbor upstairs had given her. She said her daughter was now twelve, and she had outgrown any interest in it. She had also bought her two coloring books and a new pack of crayons. The third gift was a children's book she had picked up at a dollar store. She would read it to her on Christmas night before she went to sleep.

When she was finished, she placed the gifts under the tree. "It's not much," she said tearfully, "but at least it's something." She turned out the lights and made her way silently upstairs to her bedroom.

She was awakened early in the morning when Destiny came bursting into her room. She jumped on the bed and announced cheerfully, "It's Christmas, Mommy!" She moaned when the small child grabbed her hand and attempted to pull her from the bed.

"Wait a minute," laughed Thelma as her daughter struggled to pull her. Her laughter was soon replaced with sorrow. She knew that in a few minutes she would have to comfort a crying child who didn't get what she wanted for Christmas.

She rose from bed, put on her blue bathrobe and followed the bouncing girl down the stairs. She walked over and turned on the single strand of lights in an attempt to make the morning more cheerful.

She sat on the sofa and watched as her little daughter sat down and began to unwrap the gifts that Santa had brought her. To her surprise, Destiny didn't appear upset. She clutched the old worn doll and immediately named it Clara. Clara was an old woman who had lived across the street. Several months ago, her family had placed her in a nursing home when they could no longer take care of her. Destiny
had often sat in her lap on the porch at night to keep her company.

She squealed with delight when she tore open the wrapping to the coloring book and crayons. She opened one and pointed at a little girl swinging in a playground. She said happily, "I'm going to color this one first because it looks like fun." Thelma smiled and nodded.

After opening the gift with the book, she ran over and jumped into her mother's lap. She pleaded, "Can you read this to me?"

Thelma took the book and brushed back her daughter's black hair. "Why don't we wait until tonight before you do to bed?"

Destiny smiled and asked, "Promise?"

"I promise," assured her mother with a kiss to the forehead.

Suddenly, Destiny jumped from the sofa and said, "I forgot your present." Thelma watched as her daughter scurried up the stairs. She assumed that she had drawn another picture that she could tape to the refrigerator door.

A minute later, Destiny returned and jumped into her mother's lap. She put her hand in her pocket, grinned and said mischievously, "I got you something."

Thelma giggled and tried to spy into her daughter's pocket to see what she was hiding. "What do you have?"

"This," said her daughter as she handed her a small stone. On it was etched one simple word: HOPE.

Thelma turned it over in her hands and examined it. "Where did you get this?"

Destiny giggled and replied, "Santa gave it to me yesterday." She dug into her pocket and pulled out another. "Look," she said cheerfully, "He gave me one too."

Destiny looked into her mother's eyes and asked, "Do you like it?"

She gave Destiny a hug. "Of course, I like it."

Destiny kissed her mother on the cheek and rested her head on her shoulder. "Santa said it is the best gift anyone can get at Christmas."

She leaned back and looked at her mother. "Is that true?" She opened her mother's hand and stared at the stone. "He said if I gave you this, then it might make you

Tears began to stream down Thelma's cheeks as she pulled her into a comforting hug. "Yes, Baby," she whispered softly to her daughter. "This is the best gift you could ever give me. Besides you, it is the only thing I have."


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