Sophy, my six-year-old, had never had a proper Christmas – not the way I remembered it from my childhood anyway.
Her first Christmas we had been moving home when her father was on brief leave from the Navy; her second, we were bleary-eyed with sleepless nights caused by her new brother; the third, her father was in hospital after a car accident and she ran a temperature of 105F on Christmas Eve; her fourth, her father had left the Navy and we moved house again. Her fifth, her grandfather died.
Since then, in one bewildering year, Sophy had acquired a baby sister and moved schools and home twice. Her father had lost his job; she had lost her home and friends.
We were now settled again, with a new home and a new school. Sophy was still at the stage where she was the odd one out at school; she was the one never chosen for games, the one left out of parties. And by the most appalling bad luck, her teacher did not like her. It seemed as if Sophy's independent nature was an irritant.
Sophy had learned to be adult the hard way. From the day when she was just under three and the ‘phone rang with the news of her father’s accident. I had to leave her alone in the house, guarding baby William, while I ran next door to ask a neighbour to stay with them while I went to the hospital.
When I returned home, after hours spent waiting outside the operating theatre, it was Sophy who brought me a tray she had set and tucked me into bed.
Sophy, with her independence, did not appeal to an old-fashioned British teacher who liked children to be seen and not heard. When she developed nightmares, I consulted other parents and heard this was not a new problem. Several children had been taken away from the school because of this teacher's bullying.
So I made up my mind. This Christmas would be for Sophy. We would make it memorable for her.
She only asked for one present, a hand-made rag doll with long floppy legs, which we gave her for her birthday four days before Christmas. The doll was beautiful – and more than a doll to Sophy. She was all the friends Sophy had lost, and all the new friends she had tried to make.
On Christmas Eve, we all walked through the narrow streets to the special children’s service at the cathedral. The rich winter sun glowed on old bricks. Sophy ran ahead, Jemima bumping along beside her.
Inside the cathedral, we sat quietly. Sophy carefully propped Jemima where she could see.
By the altar, Mary bent over the manger. The muted sun touched her blue robe as she sang the Rocking Carol. Sophy was entranced. She watched the Shepherds and the Wise Men.
We sang “O little town of Bethlehem”, and then the children were called up to the altar.
Sophy rose at once, and took William’s hand. The aisle was thronged with children. To my horror, I saw that every one of them was carrying a parcel. It was a collection for the local children’s home.
I slipped some money into Sophy's hand. “Give them that, poppet.”
Sophy and Wiliam were at the back of the throng. Very slowly the children moved up, knelt and handed over their gifts.
At last Sophy was at the front.
I watched her, small and blonde, alone on the steps. Then very slowly she put down her doll, Jemima, at the foot of the crib.
She walked rigidly down the long red carpet of the nave, it was such a long walk…… Halfway down her self-control broke. Sobbing fearfully, she finally reached our pew.
We bought her another doll. It was attractive, but Sophy never really took to it.
Sometimes she would say to me “I expect some little girl was very happy on Christmas Day when she got Jemima.”
I prayed that Jemima did indeed go to some lonely child, and not to a tomboy who would play with her for a day, then leave her neglected on the floor.
For Sophy had indeed given from her heart.
Sophy immigrated to Ontario aged 9 in 1975. After graduating from McGill, like so many students, she travelled. The poverty and lack of hope under Apartheid in South Africa deeply distressed her. On her return to Canada she raised enough money to build a school in a black homeland. She earned her fare and went back to build the school.
She marched shoulder to shoulder with black women in the Peace March against Apartheid. And proudly took the black farm workers to vote for the first time in the post-Apartheid elections.
She’s now settled in South Africa with her farmer husband and two sons. She’s active against Aids, still very involved with education and children and is a director of a private educational trust to educate young black South African women. Many Kingstonians have given generously to the Trust and the Seeley’s Bay United Church Sunday School has sent books and materials to help her local school.