As a boy, John Dorroh never knew where his mother slipped off for a few hours on Christmas Eve each year.
She’d grab her car keys, mutter something about running errands and scurry out the back door.
After Sue died in 1990, John received a letter from a man named Robert who had worked with her at a toilet-seat factory in Columbus, Miss.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if you know what your mom did for us,’ and I thought, ‘No, I just knew that she left,’” John said. “And he said, ‘She was playing (Mrs. Santa Claus) for my kids.’”
Robert apparently had a house full of children and not much money. Sue would bring them shoes, shirts, jeans, toys and candy.
“I just wanted you to know how much my family and I appreciate what your mother has done for us all these years,” the man’s letter stated.
Earlier this year, John, 63, of Highland, submitted the story of his mother’s kindness to the company that publishes the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. It got accepted for an edition called “The Joy of Christmas,” released in October.
John received 20 complimentary copies and a $200 check, which was icing on the cake for the freelance writer and retired teacher.
“I loved his story,” said Amy Newmark, “Chicken Soup” publisher and editor-in-chief. “I loved the fact that his mother went out to help this other family every Christmas Eve for years and never even told her own family what she was doing.”
John taught high-school science for 30 years in Mississippi, Georgia and briefly in England. He moved to Highland six years ago.
John now works as a consultant for the Gateway Writing Project, based at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He travels around to schools and helps teachers with reading and writing projects.
In 2012, John self-published a micro-fiction book called “99 Words” with 99 stories that are 99 words each. He calls it “a lesson in word economy.”
Some of John’s biggest fans are fellow members of Carlinville Writers Guild, including facilitator Robyn Bouillon, 63, of Carlinville.
“He’s a very humorous man,” she said. “He manages to find humor in just about everything, and he’s got a great imagination.
“He came up with some hilarious stories (for ‘99 Words’). Some of them are just absurd, but some of them are really poignant. We love him, and we’re all really proud of him.”
John also wrote two years for a former metro-east arts and entertainment publication called STR8-UP Magazine. His story in “The Joy of Christmas” is called “Mom’s Secret Mission.”
“I’ve always been a writer,” John said. “I would take my mom on trips in the summer, and she would tell me stories. I tried to record them, but the minute I pulled out a recorder, she’d clam up.”
Much like she had done when he asked questions about her Christmas Eve disappearances as a boy.
In his “Chicken Soup” story, John recalls being particularly suspicious when Sue left the house the first year, knowing she still had things to do to prepare for Christmas dinner with company.
His father speculated that she may have forgotten to get someone a gift, but that didn’t add up.
“Mom never failed to start her shopping in August and was finished with her list by Thanksgiving,” John wrote.
Sue continued her secret Christmas Eve activities until she died. It’s unknown whether she visited other families.
John had sent several stories to “Chicken Soup” before being invited to submit a Christmas-themed story earlier this year.
The company receives thousands of submissions for its “Chicken Soup” series each year. Staff members whittle that down to several hundred, and Amy picks 101 stories for each book.
“It’s a big deal to get in,” Amy said. “It’s an important part of a freelance writer’s resume. We know dozens of writers who have gotten book contracts because they have written for ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul.’ It gives them credentials.”
‘Mom’s Secret Mission’ excerpt
Since we had company coming for Christmas dinner the next day, there were still things to do. I asked my dad if Mom had left us a to-do list, and he said no. We both knew that something was up.
“Maybe she forgot to get someone a gift,” he said.
“You know how she despises going out on Christmas Eve,” I reminded him. Mom never failed to start her shopping in August and was finished with her list by Thanksgiving.
Her temporary absence was indeed a mystery.
She was back at the house a few hours later, just as she had promised, and I asked if she got her errands done.
“Yes” was all that she would say, and I didn’t feel like pressing. Maybe she had gone out to get the telescope I wanted.
“Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas” is available at Barnes & Noble in Fairview Heights, as well as online.