As last requests go, Marie Trott’s seemed pretty straightforward.
“Promise you’ll keep the Christmas Party going,” Marie, 69, begged her vast extended family just before she died last year of complications from diabetes. “I don’t care if you do anything else, just make sure the Christmas Party continues.”
She was talking about the Munjoy Hill Mothers Club’s annual Christmas Party, a tradition that Trott started way back in 1977 to ensure that no needy kid on Portland’s Munjoy Hill goes through the holiday season without getting at least one brightly wrapped present from Santa Claus.
A tradition that now hangs by a thread.
“We’re desperately trying to keep it going,” said Linda York, one of Marie’s nine children, during a short break Thursday morning from her job at Express Copy on Fore Street. “But I’m a little disappointed in myself. I’m beginning to lose my faith.”
Her faith? In what?
“In the Christmas spirit,” York replied.
Call it a sign of these ever-so-tight times.
Or blame it on the thief who walked into the 7-Eleven store on Washington Avenue last month, grabbed the official Munjoy Hill Mothers Club Christmas Party collection jar and walked out.
Or perhaps, just like Marie, even the best of deeds can’t last forever.
Whatever the reason, 100 or more of Portland’s poorest kids are expected to show up Saturday afternoon at The Root Cellar on Washington Avenue, each expecting a gift from the guy who’s supposed to have something for everyone. And barring an overnight miracle, Santa will be lucky if he’s got a present for half of them.
“There’s still plenty of time — trust me,” promised York. “Even if people drop something off Saturday, we can still run out and get more stuff, because the party doesn’t start until two o’clock.”
More on how you can help in a minute. First, a little about the woman whose dream you’ll be keeping alive.
Marie Trott lived all her life on Munjoy Hill. The second of seven children, she knew all too well what it was like to go through Christmas seeing but not touching, wishing for but not receiving, imagining but never experiencing the holiday bounty that so many take for granted at this time of year.
One year when Marie was a child, she went to a Christmas Party put on for needy kids by the Portland Police Department.
“She was praying that she’d get this beautiful doll that was one of the presents,” said her daughter, who grew up hearing the story. “All she wanted was that doll.”
“Another girl got it,” York replied.
Talk about a teachable moment. Marie grew up resolving that, at Christmas, no kid should go without — and that the joy of giving, when it’s all said and done, lasts infinitely longer than the thrill of receiving.
Thus when Marie went to work as a nurse at the Jewish Home for the Aged, she often brought elderly residents home to watch a Red Sox game on television, have dinner with the Trott family and whoever else squeezed in around the table, or just enjoy the change of scenery.
When she went to work at what was then the Maine Youth Center in South Portland, Marie became a surrogate mother to countless kids who’d never experienced such unconditional love. (She organized a Christmas party there, too.)
And when she saw in the late 1970s that too many kids on Munjoy Hill were having the same kind of Christmas she once had, she scrounged up enough coloring books and crayons for 25 children, cajoled a couple of friends into dressing up as Santa and Frosty the Snowman, and even dressed her own brood as elves.
And with that, the Munjoy Hill Mothers Club — headquartered in the heart of Marie Trott — was born.
Truth be told, the Christmas Party wasn’t easy for Marie in her final years. With her eyesight all but gone, she’d slowly patrol the aisles at Walmart, squinting at the price tags as she stretched her donated dollars into so many toys.
“We wrap them and tag each one with the age and ‘Boy’ or ‘Girl,’ ” said York. “Then, when the kids come in and register, we take off that tag and put on the child’s name.”
Last year’s party, fueled in large part by lingering grief just six months after Marie’s death, attracted 129 kids from all over Munjoy Hill.
This year, the party planning started off well enough: The Trott family held a bake sale the week before Thanksgiving and raised $90 of the $125 fee to rent the hall. (They dug into their pockets for the rest.)
They also lined up Santa and Mrs. Claus. (Another $25, for a gift card to show the family’s appreciation).
And they sent out 125 invitations to the East End Community School and one or two day care centers in the neighborhood — as part of the tradition, the teachers and staffs discreetly hand out invites to the kids most in need.
The problem is the gifts.
The goal was to raise $1,000, but by Thursday donations totaled just over $500. At $10 to $15 per gift, that translates into 50 or more kids who, perish the thought, might go home empty-handed.
York could blame it all on the 7-Eleven thief, but she’s not going there.
“Apparently someone needed that jar more than us,” she said. “That’s what my mom would have said.”
Instead, even as she tries mightily to channel Marie’s undying faith that things always have a way of working out, York hopes enough people will read this and come to the rescue.
Want to help?
Call York, right now, at 518-3169. Or call her brother, Stephen Trott, at 653-2341. Or you can drop off a donation or gift at York’s home atop Munjoy Hill — 17 Merrill St., Apartment 2.
Or, if all else fails, stop by The Root Cellar at 94 Washington Ave. any time after 1 p.m. Saturday. A modestly priced toy, a $10 or $20 bill, it’s your call.
Just tell them Marie sent you.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: