A Gift of Memories

After thinking that all of her memories were lost, Elizabeth gets a surprising Christmas gift.

Elizabeth Schmincke has no Christmas tree. Not one light or decoration. No presents. Not even a lousy candy cane.

"We're not going to have Christmas," she said Friday in her Fishtown apartment. "I'm just not in the mood."

Schmincke, 39, and her children were evicted from their home last July.

The family split up: Her daughter went to live with an uncle; her son moved in with his older brother; Schmincke went to live with her husband, from whom she had separated, in his rooming house. She had to hide because women weren't allowed.

Schmincke stashed all her possessions - her wedding dress, her photo albums, her grandmother's bureau, the arts and crafts her children made in school - in public storage for $270 a month.

Last fall, she got a job working from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. at UPS, scrounged together money for rent, and moved the family into their current place. But she's already behind on rent, and has never paid the storage bill.

On Tuesday, her possessions were auctioned off.

The high bidder was an elf.

Officially, the bidder was the "lead elf on the Philadelphia Schmincke project," dispatched by the "Chief Elf" in Kansas City, Mo.

Until yesterday, Christmas Eve, Elizabeth Schmincke did not believe in elves.

She also thought her most cherished possessions were gone forever.

Until the elves arrived.

And the moving van.

Let's start at the beginning.

Schmincke's life has been a tale of woe. She has suffered from back pain for years, unable to work. Because she can't work, she has been evicted from apartments three times.

Her mother recently died. Her husband, Francis, with whom she has now reconciled, was also out of work for months because of a hernia operation, though he is now working a warehouse job in Tacony.

On Dec. 10, desperate for help, she saw on television a story about a "Secret Santa" in Kansas City who had helped so many but who was now dying. She e-mailed the Kansas City Star, which had covered the story, hoping it would forward her e-mail to Santa.

"You are our last hope before we lose ALL our belongings," she wrote. "... I have no idea where else to turn."

Santa was sick, out of action.

But for the last 17 years, a group of elves in and around Kansas City have been doing good deeds - anonymously - for people in need over the holidays. A reporter for the Kansas City Star contacted the "Chief Elf" - who leads an elf patrol of hundreds, including many who were recipients of kindness in years past.

One of the Kansas City elves does work with Comcast, and recruited a Comcast employee he knows in West Chester.

"I was put on speaker phone with two other elves and one said, 'How would you like to become an elf?' " the local Comcast employee said.

He became lead elf locally, took a day off work to drive to Public Storage at Aramingo Avenue and Wheatsheaf Lane in Philadelphia, and bought the Schmincke possessions at auction.

"It is probably one of the most satisfying, rewarding things I've ever done," said the local elf who, like all elves, will remain nameless. "It gave me the opportunity to take a step back and look at my life, and how I've always viewed Christmas - 'We've got to hurry to the mall and buy the latest and greatest toys for our kids.' That's not what Christmas is about."

Another Kansas City elf contacted someone with United Van Lines in Missouri, who suggested the elves contact his friend Bob Hughes, who runs Hughes Relocation Services in King of Prussia.

The Chief Elf e-mailed Hughes, explained the situation, and wrote: "If you can help, it would be greatly appreciated. Santa's sleigh is overloaded right now."

Hughes is not officially an elf, so he can be identified. He agreed to have his company make the surprise delivery.

The Schminckes, of course, had no idea any of this was happening. Elizabeth Schmincke has been weeping every night. Her husband called the auctioneer three times, begging for a delay.

The deed gets even better.

Unbeknown to the Schminckes, their new landlord had filed to evict them because they had fallen behind on rent again. But the elves passed their pointy hats and raised money for rent.

The Schminckes learned about the elves - and their good deeds - at 10 a.m. yesterday when three little kids in elf hats knocked on their door.

"Are you sure you got the right house?" asked Francis Schmincke.

The pixies didn't say a word. They handed him an envelope and darted off.

Inside the envelope was a one-sentence letter: "Please read your e-mail now!!"

Puzzled, Elizabeth Schmincke turned on her computer. There, sure enough, was an e-mail from the Chief Elf himself.

"Dearest Elizabeth," the message began, "we read with great interest your recent e-mails, which were forwarded to us, concerning your troubles. We were greatly moved by them. In this season of hope and joy our hearts were heavy with sadness, and we knew that we must act."

The elf goes on to explain that the family's owed rent for November and December is now paid in full.

"Oh, wow, they paid the rent," she said.

"Who did?" asked her husband.

"The elves. That's all it says."

The e-mail included a postscript: "You might check out front. Your memories are arriving."

Just then, a moving van rumbled up the street.

The Schminckes hurried outside.

"We've got some stuff for you," said Hughes, of Relocation Services.

Then elves of a different sort - the kind in heavy brown boots and blue work pants - hopped out of the van, the sides of which were papered with Christmas gift wrap.

Box by box, they unloaded a lifetime of cherished family keepsakes, heirlooms and home comforts. A purple bicycle was first off the truck.

Elizabeth Schmincke cried joyfully.

"I'm shocked. My stomach is all in knots," said her husband. "Whoever was behind this I'd like to know, because nobody does stuff like this for other people anymore."

MICHAEL VITEZ/ WENDY RUDERMAN, The Philadelphia Inquirer