She did what she could, and it was a lot

The Examiner

Each year I look forward to writing my annual Christmas column, and this year, it's a bit more personal than past essays.

I've interviewed Santa Claus, ridden on his holiday bus, visiting children in Grain Valley, seen the miracles provided by Secret Santa and last year, realized that I had a guardian angel looking over me as I experienced a blowout on Interstate 70 and soon had an off-duty tow truck operator, Highway Patrol officer and MoDOT worker at my side moments after the incident happened.

Bill Althaus

My column this holiday season is about an 88-year-old woman who is legally blind. She uses a wheelchair, and her best friend is Peanut, her loveable mutt of a dog who never leaves her side.

She is my mother, Joyce Althaus. But many of her friends and family members simply call her "Grandma Bubbles," and after spending a moment or two with her, you will realize the nickname comes from our love of life and bubbly personality.

Joyce Althaus, the mother of longtime Examiner staff member Bill Althaus, looks over the 30 gift bags she created for delivery to the Community Services League office in Independence.

She recently read one of my stories about the Community Services Leagues and how donations would be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic this holiday season. 

"I actually started to cry when I read your story," she said, in one of our daily telephone conversations. "I want to do something to help, but what can I do?"

What can she do, indeed. She rarely leaves her Blue Springs home and has not been able to drive for several years.

But that was not going to stop Grandma Bubbles. 

She called one of her friends and arranged for a shopping trip. That's right, a shopping trip, to a local store where every item is one dollar.

Joyce Althaus, who is called 'Grandma Bubbles' by her family and friends, and Community Services League President and CEO Doug Cowan look at the 30 gift bags she delivered to the Independence office so they could be distributed to local children this holiday season.

She took all the money she had saved for this Christmas, and carefully selected eight items to fill 30 gift bags. Each item was suited to the age of the boy or girl she was buying the items for, and she spent hours taking each toy, coloring book, puzzle or ball out of its packaging and placing it in one of her colorful Christmas bags.

The bags had blue handles for boys and red handles for girls. To top off each bag, she placed a perfectly matched pair of gloves and stocking hat that she and my brother Rick had selected on a second shopping trip.

The floor of her Blue Springs home looked like Santa's workshop Midwest, as her packages covered the entire living room.

She and Peanut would carefully go over each package, making sure no child was shortchanged. She then wrote out a note with the age of each package – 2 to 5, 6 to 9 and 10 to 12 – and whether it should be delivered to a boy or girl.

It was hard writing the notes and taking the toys out of their packaging as her hands are ravaged by arthritis and she has very little feeling in her right hand – but nothing was going to stop her from her appointed Christmas rounds.

She wanted to make this her own special project, and asked me to call the CSL to see when we could turn my car into a sleigh and make our delivery.

I placed her wheelchair in the back of my car, then carefully – and by carefully, I mean CAREFULLY – as she watched each package sit atop her only real means of transportation. Soon, all 30 packages were aboard, and we headed to the CSL offices.

"I only wish I could do 3,000 gift bags instead of just 30," she said. "And you know me. If I had the money I would do it."

And I can promise you, she would.

When we arrived at the CSL, my mom and I were greeted by Community Services League President and CEO Doug Cowan, whose smile matched that of Grandma Bubbles.

"What have we got here?" he asked, as he helped my mom get out of the car, and we placed the gift bags on a cart to be taken into the storage area for the annual Christmas Store event.

Grandma Bubbles told him about her shopping trip, took out a few boys gifts, and a few girls gifts, and said, "There aren't any computers in there, just fun stuff for the children on Christmas Day."

He nodded, and took a hold of her hand.

"Will you come work for us?" he asked. "This is just wonderful. I can tell how much time and work you put into this ..."

My mom gently interrupted him and said, "A lot of time, but no work. This was a labor of love."

That brought a tear or two from CSL staff members who were checking out the Grandma Bubbles gift mobile.

Cowan asked if he could get a photo with my mom, they chatted about their families and hugged.

When my mom got back in my car, the smile on her face would have warmed the Grinch's heart.

"I don't think I've ever felt so good about Christmas," she said. "I'm going to do this every year! I'm going to start saving money today for next year's gift bags."

We found a radio station that played Christmas tunes, and sang them all the way back home. 

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. 

She's an 88-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair. She is consumed by the Christmas spirit, and she is my mom.