Devon wasn’t known for his patience. His mother would laugh really hard at that because it’s such an understatement. But we’ll start there.
When he was very small and buckled in his car seat during stop-and-go city traffic, he would flail in displays of unrestrained frustration at being restrained. He’d yell with all his might, “Go faster, mama!” It was during this era that Devon’s mother mastered the art of deep breathing.
At school, Devon struggled to wait–for recess, his turn, or in line. Whenever he tried to help get things moving, he’d see annoyed faces glaring back at him.
Getting bundled up to go out in the snow was always an unpleasant ordeal. He was “done” long before he was ready. Devon hated the loud, rough fabrics and the staying still. He got so antsy, he’d try to up and leave mid-snowpants-pull. Of course, escape attempts made it all the harder to button, snap, zip, and cinch. For his mother, it was–another opportunity to hone deep breathing techniques.
Being stuck in one place, when every fiber of his being told him that the snow was out there waiting for him–it was downright painful. He wondered, “What if the snow is starting to melt? Will everyone be done playing by the time I get out there?” Desperate to be released, he’d cry, “I don’t need a hat!” In most situations, however, he was the one being shouted at.
His teacher would say, “Please stay on task, Devon!”
His coach would say, “Devon! Stop playing around on the bench.”
His mother would say, “I need you to be patient and pay attention, Devon!”
Even his classmates would say, “Calm down!” or in the case of one socially savvy girl, “Can’t you see that now is not the time?” They were supposed to be his friends, so these barbs hurt the most.
He felt powerless to defend against constant daggers of criticism. Sometimes, he tuned out and faded away, retreating into a muted and murky gray area in his head. That way, he wasn’t really present. He was an astronaut floating in space, loosely tethered but not connected to other people. It was lonely. He’d lose touch with what was happening and miss what was said, but he could avoid being scolded.
Devon was at his best and happiest when playing, running around, or doing just about anything outside. Especially when there was snow, which cushioned every surface and opened up new possibilities to explore, go fast, leap, and land where he may.
One December day, after an agonizing preparatory saga, he burst outside in the aftermath of a generous snowstorm. Kids were digging forts in snowbanks, building snowpeople, sledding down whatever slopes they could find, making and stockpiling snowballs for upcoming battles, and generally making merry. His favorite kind of day.
Devon piled and packed snow to build up the modest hill of his front yard, and did run after run. While charging back up with his sled, he glimpsed a vibrant flash of green on the snow alongside their white house. He convinced himself it was nothing.
On the next ascent, he saw the curious green protrusion again before it vanished. The shape resembled a very pointy shoe. “Not possible,” he thought. But Devon was inquisitive and had to go look. Upon approach, he saw tiny footprints and a trail of brown crumbs. Devon followed them to the large holly bush by the backyard gate. His coat and gloves made it easier to push aside the spiky leaves and take a peek.
Devon could not believe his eyes, brain, or luck. On the lowest branch sat a ginger-haired elf, in a vivid green suit with silver curlicues along the cuffs and collar. Her pointy green hat was twisted like soft serve ice cream, and her green boots swung just above the ground as she snacked on a gingersnap the size of her head.
“Aw, gee, I knew you were going to find me out!” said the elf. She didn’t seem too bothered, though. “I’m Ginger, obviously. Sorry to eat in front of you, but you know, that’s dinner on the road for you!”
Devon could only stare, slack-jawed. She went on, “Aren’t you going to ask me? Whenever I meet a kid, the first thing they do is ask.”
A bug-eyed Devon replied, “W-w-what do they ask you?”
“They ask what list they’re on, of course,” said Ginger. “Don’t you want to know if you’re naughty or nice? This is highly sought after intel, D!”
“Oh, right! Yes, I do want to know. Which list am I on?” asked Devon, who now needed an answer immediately.
Ginger’s laugh sounded vaguely like a jingle bell. “I knew it, Dev!” Taking a more serious tone she said, “Listen, here’s the thing. You’re on the nice list, but you’ve been deemed ‘at risk’ for naughty classification. You’re on the edge, kid.” She finished the last of the gingersnap. “I come south to investigate these cases so Santa can make the final call before the big haul.”
Devon’s heart warmed–because he was on the nice list, which he certainly wasn’t banking on–then immediately sank at the news of his perilous position. Anxiety started to creep up from his stomach to his chest. He felt slightly ill. “Why am I ‘at risk’? I always try my best to do the right thing, I swear!”
“I believe you, Dev-O” Ginger said, “It’s just that a few instances of–how shall I put this–waiting intolerance have been flagged in your file. I’m not saying they’re accurate. I’m just saying that’s what some reports have merely suggested.”
Noting his defeated expression, she added, “Oh, Devi-Boy. Don’t worry! We’ll get it straightened out. I’ve been keeping my eye on you and you seem like a good kid. Have a little faith in yourself, ay?”
It was hard to have much confidence, given all the negative feedback he’d been getting lately. But Devon took a deep breath, the way his mother often did, and said, “Okay. But how will you decide?”
Ginger brushed crumbs off the front of her coat as she explained, “Here’s the deal, Devster. You’re going to go about your day, all la-de-da and fa-la-la-la-la, and at some point you will face–oh, let’s call it a ‘challenging situation.’ I can’t say what, how, or when. But it will happen, and it will reveal essential truths about your character. No big deal.”
“Sounds like a pretty big deal,” said Devon, his brow furrowed.
Ginger said, “Nah. You do you. Just be yourself, and I’m sure it will all work out fine, D-Money.”
Devon was not reassured.
She turned away, then swiveled back around. “Also you’re not supposed to know about this or me so none of this ever happened–got it?”
“Got it!” said Devon, eager to please. He walked back to the front yard, wondering if this encounter had really happened and if so, what crazy challenge lay ahead, and whether he was up to it. He was quite worried, and when he was worried, he knew the best way to feel better was to get moving. So he threw himself into the business of snowman making.
All was rolling along nicely until the girl next door complained that he was taking too much snow from her yard. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to!” he cried, reversing course. The ball was now up to his waist in height, dwarfing all other snowman bases in the vicinity, but he wasn’t satisfied. Devon used his body weight to nudge the lopsided sphere down the skinny side yard.
Suddenly, from the bend in the street just a few houses down came the furious whirring of wheels spinning on ice. A car was stuck on the small slope that preceded the turn onto their stretch of road. Instantly alert, Devon swiveled his head and instinctively headed in the direction of the noise.
Meanwhile, little Aubrey had just sledded down her driveway. Unlike the previous times where she bailed out early, this time she tried to go as far as she could and landed in the middle of the street. Right in the path of that car.
The kids all froze. But Devon didn’t hesitate, not for a millisecond. He sprinted toward Aubrey and pushed the sled back toward the driveway with his foot before smoothly continuing along the side of the road at full tilt. Waving his arms frantically to catch the driver’s attention, he ran around the bend and disappeared from view.
The whirring stopped. “Yeah, Devon!” The kids cheered.
Sweating in his heavy gear as he trudged up the hill, Devon re-appeared and saw his mom out on the front steps, looking concerned. “Mom! We need some sand for this car!” He knew what to do, because his mother’s car had been in the same spot more than once. She put a bag of sand in a sled and together they went to help the driver.
Aubrey’s mother had come out from her house and got the full run-down from the kids. When Devon returned, she told him, “You’re amazing, Devon! You really jumped into action. Thank you for looking out for Aubrey!”
Aubrey gave him a hug. Devon beamed. He did not feel adrift or unsure. He felt grounded.
After all the excitement, it was time for a break. Devon’s mom made peppermint cocoa with marshmallows. She sat watching him, thoughtfully, as he slurped spoonfuls.
Devon had been so engrossed in what was unfolding in the street that he’d forgotten about the elf and the challenge. The realization hit him like a lightning bolt. He shouted, “That was it!” Devon sprang from his chair and went to throw on his boots. “I forgot something! I’ll be right back, Mom!”
No sooner did he turn the corner of the house, when he found Ginger sitting on the gate. She munched on a gingerbread man as big as her torso.
“Well, this situation is pretty cut and dry,” Ginger said, taking another bite. Devon held his breath.
“You’re on the nice list, Mr. D. All the way. In fact, you don’t belong anywhere near the naughty list. This is a classic case of a get-up-and-go boy living in a sit-down-and-stay world. I see it all the time,” she said. “You always do your best, I know.”
“Yes!” Devon jumped up and down. “Thank you, Ginger!” As thrilled as he was about his nice list status, he was just as overjoyed to know that, finally, someone understood. “Thank you so much! I can’t wait for Christmas!”
“That’s what it’s all about, D-Train,” she said. “My work here is done.”
Ginger climbed down from the gate and paused. “You know it’s a shame–you’d make a great elf.” And with that, she was gone, presumably off to her next “at-risk” investigation.
A couple weeks later, on Christmas morning, Devon found many of his wishes wrapped up under the tree. The tag on the last gift simply read, “Merry Christmas! XOXO, Mom.”
Devon shook the present, hearing no sound, before tearing the silver wrapping paper. With barely a hint of irritation, he ripped the stubborn tape that sealed the box, and pulled away layers of red tissue paper.
There lay a new snowsuit. With soft, smooth fabric, a hood, a single, sleek zipper, and gloves attached to the ends of the sleeves.
To most kids, this toyless surprise might seem like a useful yet disappointing gift. Not to Devon.
His mother explained, “You love the snow, and I think this will make it so much easier to get out there! Also, I’ve been thinking, why don’t we have a run break in the middle of getting ready?”
He turned to his mother, eyes bright and arms open. “I was waiting for you to understand. Thank you Mom!”
“I just had to be patient and pay attention,” she said.
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day from 12/13 through 12/24.)