Marianne Hill feared the worst last week when she was summoned from her office to the lobby of MEND, a Pacoima charity crowded with families in line to sign up for the Christmas boxes the group gives out each year.
Had someone's frustration boiled over? Hill wondered. "Occasionally, we've had a client who was unruly or drunk. This has been such a difficult year," she said. "I didn't know what I'd find when I got downstairs."
What she found was lunch.
Enchiladas, taquitos, beans, macaroni salad, flan. Enough for 25 MEND employees, cooked and delivered by Mirna Gonzalez -- her thank you for the Christmas basket she would receive.
"You take care of everybody all the year," Gonzalez told the staff. "Today, you eat a little . . . let somebody take care of you."
It was a gesture of gratitude so unexpected, it drew tears from MEND's weary crew.
"I cannot remember in 22 years anyone doing anything like this for us," Hill said.
That Gonzalez would feel such a need to thank -- and that Hill would be moved to tears by enchiladas and beans -- spoke volumes to me about this year's strain on both givers and receivers.
I met up with Gonzalez this week when she came to MEND to pick up her Christmas box of donated toys -- three children's books, a ball, a stuffed dog, a pack of Hot Wheels cars -- and a food basket of ham, beans, rice, pasta, fresh fruit and canned vegetables.
She didn't understand why I wanted to write about her gift of lunch. "We didn't do it to be famous. In my family, when somebody gives you something, you find a way to say 'thank you' in your heart."
The meal was the idea of her 12-year-old son, Julio. "We saw the people working so hard . . . trying to make everything perfect while we were waiting in the line," Gonzalez said.
"I told my son, 'They do a lot to help. I wish I could do something for them.' And he said, 'Mommy, you like to cook. Why don't you make a dinner?' "
Watching MEND staffers enjoy her meal eased the sting of neediness for the single mother of three.
"I never think I would be here," she said as we sat on a bench in MEND's lobby, waiting for the giveaways to begin. In the 15 years since she came here from Guatemala, the North Hills resident has been a model of upward mobility.
Widowed when Julio was a toddler, she worked as a housekeeper in Beverly Hills to pay for classes in office administration at Mission College. With her AA degree, she found an office job in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Then she had two more sons -- now 2 years old and 4 months -- and separated from their father. This year, both parents have been out of work. "It is hard even buying diapers," Gonzalez said.
Still, she managed to save for Christmas, plunking the change from every purchase all year in a giant jar. "Three weeks ago I go to the cash machine to turn it in, and I was so surprised. So happy."
The machine spit back $620. Enough to buy clothes, toys, even the iPod that Julio has wanted all year.
But before she could tuck the money away, a man rushed up, shoved her into the wall, snatched it from her hand and took off. Customers waiting in line tried to stop him, she said; one snapped a cellphone photo of the getaway car.
But even if the police could find him, she said, "My money was gone. So I started looking for someplace to go. I never asked for anything before, so I didn't know."
She remembered MEND, which stands for Meet Each Need with Dignity, from the canned food drives that her son's magnet school sponsored. For two hours she waited in line with hundreds of others. "I saw a lot of people," she said. "Some in wheelchairs, some with nice clothes and really good cars outside."
And the workers at MEND "never make anybody feel ashamed," she said.
Gonzalez has a lot of company this year, people humbled by job loss and misfortune, relying on others' goodwill to put gifts under their trees and food in their cupboards.
Requests for help are up 68% this year at MEND, "and the number of first-time clients has skyrocketed," said Hill, MEND's president. "We're seeing lots of people who never thought they'd be in a place to have to ask for help. A lot of them are feeling pretty humiliated right now."
Gonzalez has gotten past her embarrassment. She considers herself lucky.
When she came home and told her son about the robbery, "I was crying, so scared my hands were still shaking. Then he told me, 'It's OK, Mommy. The good thing is he didn't hurt you. You're safe. That is the only thing important.' "
He never mentioned the iPod that his mother can no longer afford. "All the kids have them" at the middle school he attends, she said. "I know how bad he wants it. But he told me to just get something for his little brothers. That we can start again, and save more money."
"I feel like I am rich," she said, crying as she told the story.
Gonzalez and I really aren't so different. Widowed, single mothers of three, with a kid who wants an iPod for Christmas this year.
What really counts isn't under the tree, it's the love of family. It's a cliche, I know, but one that bears repeating as we head into the frenzied homestretch of holiday shopping.
And sitting on that bench, surrounded by hundreds of needy families, gives it renewed meaning.