A dozen years ago, when her girls were young, Karen Kiefer would take them into the basement laundry room with her as she washed, dried, and folded, the better to keep an eye on them. Occasionally, a sock would disappear, leaving behind its match. Before long, there was a pile of misfit socks collecting dust in the Kiefers’ Framingham laundry room: knee socks, men’s dress socks, athletic socks, kids’ socks, baby socks.
The girls wondered where the missing socks went. But they were especially concerned about those left behind. “Do you think these socks are sad because they lost their match?’’ Kiefer remembers them asking her.
“I promised them that we would find a way to make them feel loved again,’’ says Kiefer, who now lives in Wayland with her husband Sam and their daughters, McKenna, 17; Madison, 15; Emma, 14; and Rosie, 10.
It was that long-ago promise - and a family crisis - that recently led Kiefer to write a holiday tale for children about the misfit socks, with a message of celebrating the differences among us.
That earlier Christmas season, Kiefer dumped all the odd socks on the dining room table, and put out glitter, felt, beads, pipe cleaners, and jingle bells. She had a supply of “gratitude goodies’’ to fill the stockings: oatmeal and carrots for the reindeer and candy and nuts for the humans.
Early on that Christmas Eve morning, the family donned elf hats and with ribbons they tied the filled socks onto the doorknobs of neighbors, with a poem explaining the old socks’ new purpose. “I really do believe that Advent, and Christmas, is a time of transformation, something old into something new, something lost into something found. You really do go from misfit to magnificent,’’ says Kiefer.
When they moved to Wayland in 2000, they continued the tradition. “It was so cool,’’ says McKenna, now 17. “As Christmas approached, we knew we got to make these socks. We totally got into it.’’
Once the neighborhood was taken care of, they began taking the project into the girls’ classrooms so that the students could do a sock of their own. The misfit sock tradition lasted until Christmas 2008. Then a family crisis resulted in the death of the project - the same family crisis that recently revived it.
That winter, McKenna, who had just turned 14, fell ill with head and stomach aches, fatigue and chronic pain. Pale and scrawny, she lost 20 pounds, dropping to 79. Extensive tests were negative; she was in and out of hospitals and missed much of school that year.
The symptoms continued throughout the ninth grade and the anxiety level in the Kiefer household was high. “I know McKenna felt very lost,’’ says her mother. “She felt that no one was listening to her, that she wasn’t getting better. I think the other three girls felt lost, too, with Sam’s and my attention focused on McKenna.’’
Worry kept Kiefer awake. Late one night, she began thinking about the misfit socks again. And she began writing. The result is a colorful book, “The Misfit Sock,’’ that Kiefer has published. It is a story about love and loss, labeling and loneliness. But, as befits the season, there’s a happy ending when the sock is rescued by the spirit of Christmas and finds a new purpose. The book comes with a pretty knee sock - hardly your recycled misfit - and wish cards for kids to tuck inside, either for Santa, or for their parents, or simply a prayer.
“Honestly, I think that God knew that I needed to stay busy, and that’s when the misfits returned,’’ says Kiefer, who is associate director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. “I just started writing.’’
In August 2010, after McKenna finished the ninth grade, her father took her to the Mayo Clinic, where she was finally diagnosed: autonomic dysfunction, a virus that attacks the central nervous system. There was no treatment for the virus, it just had to play itself out, and it did. In the fall of her sophomore year of high school, she finally started to feel better. “I was just thankful it wasn’t cancer,’’ says McKenna, now a junior at Wayland High.
Meanwhile, her writing finished, Karen Kiefer found an illustrator online. “She drew amazing things on her blog,’’ says Kiefer. She wrote the woman - “I know this sounds crazy,’’ she began - and was surprised to hear back. The artist, Kathy De Wit, responded that she would illustrate the book, for free. (“I had nothing to offer her,’’ says Kiefer). As it turns out, De Wit is an art teacher in Belgium.
With each page, Kiefer sought her daughters’ input: What should the sock look like? Which colors would work? Like their mom, the girls are creative. After 9/11, Kiefer, a friend, and their children began baking loaves of bread for firefighters and police officers. Ten years later, Spread the Bread, now an online nonprofit with scout troops and others baking around the world, has delivered hundreds of thousands of loaves of all flavors, shapes and sizes to soldiers, veterans, the ill and elderly, the grief-stricken, each with a child’s message attached.
The message Kiefer hopes to impart to her children through both “The Misfit Sock’’ and Spread the Bread is that simple acts can make a difference.
A year ago she spent a few thousand dollars printing 500 copies of “The Misfit Sock,’’ which she gave to friends or sold word-of-mouth. This season, she’s selling it through Amazon.com and TheMisfitSock.com. (For those in need, she’s donating copies.) All proceeds, she says, will go back into the project.
On the website, there’s also Misfit University, an anti-bullying curriculum for schools and parents that Kiefer put together with help from her sister, a special education and curriculum specialist in Cambridge.
“People feel marginalized, and I feel this story speaks to them, too,’’ she says. “We have to learn to not only discover what our true treasures are but to celebrate them.’’
In October, on National Make a Difference Day, Kiefer sent the word out via Facebook that people should wear mismatched socks for the Million Misfit Sock March, a virtual march in which the “misfits’’ celebrated their differences.
During December, on the site, there’s 25 days of “Merry Misfit Christmas,’’ each day featuring an anti-bullying group, message, or activity.
A woman in California recently wrote Kiefer that the story reminds her of her father, who runs a nonprofit for severely disabled young people. One day, her dad couldn’t find a matching pair of socks to wear to work. So he wore a mismatched pair, hoping no one would notice.
Someone did. One of the residents, who couldn’t speak, laughed hysterically at the socks, which sent the dad into a fit of laughter. For the past 15 years, her father has worn mismatched socks every day to work. His message to his daughters: “Don’t try to be perfect. You’re perfect in love.’’
Kiefer hopes her project will start holiday conversations in families beyond the usual - What am I going to get, or give?
“It’s about finding light during challenging times,’’ Kiefer says. “Our daughter is finally pain-free and just turned 17 years old. It’s been a long three years, filled with worry - and wonder.’’