Christmas Eve, Present Day
Children are God’s apostles, day by day
Sent forth to preach of love, and hope, and peace.
t’s snowing this afternoon. According to the forecasters we weren’t supposed to have any snow on Christmas Eve, but the puffy white flakes that have been falling since morning have proven them wrong and it looks like we’ll have a white Christmas after all. A snowplow makes its way through the center of town blowing huge white piles onto the side of the street. I pull out onto the road and drive in front of it, waving at the driver as I pass. I glance in my rearview mirror and see that two-year-old Mia is happy as she bounces a small Elmo doll up and down on the car seat. I turn up the radio and listen as Mel Torme sings “The Christmas Song.” Mia is squealing at Elmo. She has no idea what tomorrow is but she’ll find out soon enough when her mom and dad take her out of her crib and show her the tree that will be swimming with gifts for her and her sister. I smile and turn the radio up louder. I drive through the town square and slow down as I pass three beautiful fir trees decorated with enormous green, red, and gold ornaments and magenta ribbon. Large, dazzling stars are perched on the top of the trees and they glitter in the sun. For as long as I can remember Norma Holt has decorated the trees. It started when she was a young woman in her twenties. She just took it upon herself to dress the trees each year when Christmas rolled around. That was long before there were formal city council meetings so no one opposed someone decorating city property. Somehow, over the years, no one ever objected as Norma worked her magic on the southwest corner of the city square. I never actually spoke with Norma, few people did. She was reclusive and chose to do her work alone but I would always pass, honk the horn, and she’d look up and wave. When Norma began her work it always seemed that the Christmas season had finally begun.
When I was a child it felt as if it took years for Christmas to arrive. The last few weeks would crawl by as I awaited the time to decorate the tree, bake cookies with my mom, and write out a detailed list for Santa. When the tree finally went up inside our family room and the lights on the outside of the house were hung I could barely contain the anticipation swelling inside me. Christmas was almost here! It was during those two to three weeks before Christmas that my brother, Richard, and I would draw a line in the sand and put all grievances aside. We couldn’t run the risk of being found on Santa’s naughty list. There were just too many gifts at stake. It seemed our home pulsed with happiness and joy during the time leading up to Christmas and I never wanted those feelings to end. No one could have told me then that those feelings would diminish as I got older or that Christmas would come around again in the blink of an eye or that I’d say things like, “It sure doesn’t feel like Christmas this year.” Somehow I got old and the wonder was lost.
I turn off the radio so I can hear Mia sing. She’s attempting “Jingle Bells” but with the exception of “jingle” and “bells” I can’t make out any other words. Her performance takes on a burlesque dimension as she grabs hold of her foot, raises her tiny leg, and belts out another chorus. “Where we going?” Mia asks when she catches me looking at her. She attempts to rise up out of the car seat to get a better look at where I’m driving. Mia has been in two foster homes in the past year. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard little voices ask me questions from that backseat in my seventeen years as a social worker. How many times did I drop a child off at a foster family’s home a few days before Christmas because his mother was arrested or put back into rehab? How many times have I taken a child back to his biological parent because his father met the goal set by the state and found a job and a place to live or his mother has a clean bill of health from the substance-abuse program she’d been in for the last four months? I’ve traveled these roads many times with tiny passengers just like Mia in my backseat asking where we were going.
I drive beneath a banner stretched across the street that reads Peace on Earth. There was a time, not so long ago that I could not imagine peace in my heart, let alone on earth. My joy was gone, happiness was a memory, and there was no reason to celebrate Christmas because there was no hope. At least that’s what I thought. It wasn’t always that way, though. Despite what happened, I had a happy childhood.
I was seven years old and my brother, Richard, was four when my father left. I saw hope drain from my mother. She was left with two small children and nowhere to live and no way to support them. I’d see her hunched over past-due bills on the kitchen table and tears would fill her eyes. There was no way to pay them. If there was a God it seemed He wasn’t aware of my mother or her circumstances. “We’ll just keep the faith,” she’d tell me, repeating words she’d heard once in an old movie. But my problem was I didn’t know what faith was so I had no idea how to keep something I didn’t know about in the first place.
During that Christmas after my father left, my mother took Richard and me to church and we sat in the back row. “Hope came down dressed as a child,” the minister said. “That Hope is the greatest gift the world has ever known.”
I stood in my seat trying to see the child in the manger. How could a child come dressed as Hope?
“This child taught us how to love and forgive.”
I strained to see the squirming baby. How in the world could a child teach anybody how to love and forgive?
“God can use anybody or anything,” the minister said. “Don’t ever underestimate who or what He’ll use to get something done. But the choice to believe that is always yours to make.”
I didn’t understand what he meant about choosing to believe at the time but I would eventually and so would my own child. Years later, however, after my son was grown I would no longer believe. It was too painful. So I walked away.
For some reason I had always assumed that when God wanted our attention He would do something big that would rouse us from our sleep to bring us back to Him but I was wrong. God is always speaking. We are the ones who are hard of hearing. God is always patient, waiting for us to believe. We are the impatient ones, demanding to be convinced. We want something real, something we can touch and see to help us believe. The mountains, oceans, and skies aren’t enough. Our babies who smile and laugh and reach for us aren’t enough. We need more. And we have it, all around us, every day. If we would just take the time to listen and see we would walk toward God and believe, or at least some of us will. Some like me.
Although this is my story, it may be similar to yours. I still haven’t filled in all the gaps. Perhaps I never will. But I have met many people along the way who have helped me put the pieces together; people who helped me to believe and hope again. At one time I said there was no hope but now I know that Hope is alive.
It just took me a few years to believe that.
One Year Earlier
If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.
jolted awake when I heard the snowplow outside my bedroom window. It snowed on December 17 and four days later it still hadn’t taken a break. City workers were getting lots of overtime trying to get the roads passable for each workday. I looked at my clock: three-thirty. I’d probably never get back to sleep now. For years I could always sleep through the night but it had been close to four years since I had a full night’s rest; if I awakened at three or four in the morning I was up for the rest of the day.
I threw my arm over my head and concentrated on falling back to sleep. I heard my husband, Mark, turn the shower on in the bathroom down the hall. He’d leave the house at four-thirty and be gone for the rest of the day. Our dog, Girl, pressed her nose to the bottom of the door; she wanted to be out with Mark but I was too tired to get up and open the door. After watching the closed door for several minutes she walked across the room and lay down on her pillow. At 4:00 A.M. I heard Mark walk down the stairs into the kitchen. He grabbed a bagel and poured a cup of coffee into an insulated mug before leaving the house. He didn’t open the bedroom door to see if I might be awake or leave a note; he never did. I knew his schedule; he’d be home tomorrow morning after his flight. He’d had the same overnight flight for years. When I got up at four-thirty the kitchen was spotless; no signs of bagel crumbs or a knife crusted with cream cheese. It’s the way I liked things. If his towel hadn’t been wet in the bathroom I never would have known that Mark had even been in the house.
I turned the shower on and stepped inside, turning my face into the water. Four days until Christmas. I put my hands on my face and let the water wash over them. Why was the holiday season so long? I shook my head and washed my hair. After leaving work today I would have the next ten days off for Christmas. What in the world would I do with all that time? I sprayed the shower walls with cleaner and used a squeegee to remove the water from the glass doors before reaching for my towel.
By 5:30 A.M. I was dressed and ready for the day. The phone rang and I sighed. I knew who it was. “Hello.”
“Good morning,” my mother said.
“Mom, why do you call so early in the morning?”
“I knew you’d be up.”
“But I could have been sleeping.”
“Were you sleeping?”
“See. I knew you’d be up.”
It was no use. I could always count on at least three or four early-morning calls a week. For years I had tried to break her from calling so early, with no success.
“Just wanted to let you know that I’m going Christmas shopping with Miriam today. What do you and Mark want for Christmas?”
I opened e-mail on my computer and half listened to her as I read through them.
“Do you need anything for the house?”
“We don’t need anything, Mom.”
“You may not need anything but you might want something! Do you want anything fun?” Every year she tried so hard.
“I can’t think of anything.”
She was quiet for a moment before sounding upbeat again. “Okay, well, if you think of anything you just let me know. I’ll be out shopping on other days, too, and I can pick up whatever. You just let me—”
I cut her off and told her I’d call after I got home from work, and hung up.
When my father left, he told my mom he was going to the store to buy a newspaper and never came home. My mother had never known about the gambling; he was good at hiding things. He left right before the bottom dropped out. The police showed up on our doorstep before my mother had a chance to report him missing. He had taken thousands of dollars from the company he worked for and they had come to collect and throw him in jail (or in the case of his absence, take my mother to jail to question her or, as she said, scare the daylights out of her). I don’t think the police believed her when she said she didn’t know where my father was but they let her go.
We were evicted from our apartment, our belongings were seized, and the Dodge Dart was repossessed. We stayed in a motel for three nights, but then what little money my mother had ran out. We had been to church on occasion up to that point and on the morning we left the motel my mother packed our clothes in a paper bag and stuck it under her arm. She took hold of Richard’s hand and instructed me to hold on to his as we made our way down the street. After walking several blocks Richard declared he was too tired to go any farther and my mother lifted him onto her hip and pulled me close to her side. “Stay right here beside me,” she said, adjusting Richard and the paper bag.
“Where we going?” Richard asked over and over again. I never said a word. Somehow I knew not to say anything.
“We’re going to see some people,” my mother said. We walked across town and I could see the church in the distance. My mother hoisted Richard onto her other hip and handed me the paper bag to carry the rest of the way.
“It’s too heavy,” I said, regretting the words as soon as I said them. Mom took the bag from me and lugged it on her other side. When we got to the sidewalk leading up to the front door of the church my mother set Richard down and straightened his clothes.
“We going to church, Mommy?” Richard asked. “It’s not Sunday.”
My mother opened the door and looked around.
“What you looking for, Mommy?” Richard asked.
I rolled my eyes and wished he would be quiet for once.
“You looking for the church?”
“We’re in the church,” I said, hoping to ease the pressure off my mother. A woman in a pale pink dress peeked her head around the corner.
“Hi,” she said, stepping toward us. “I thought I heard voices. Can I help you?” I looked up at my mother but she couldn’t speak. Nothing was coming out. I noticed her eyes were filling with tears and the woman in pink noticed, too. She leaned down to Richard and me. “We’ve got a plateful of peanut butter cookies back in the kitchen that I made for a luncheon today.” She leaned close and whispered. “Would you like some with a great big glass of milk?” We nodded and she took our hands. “I’m going to let your mother sit down here in the office while you two eat some cookies and play with all the toys we’ve got back there.”
Another woman behind a desk with glasses looked up and smiled at us. “Mrs. Burke,” the woman in pink said. “These children are hungry for cookies. Maybe you and Pastor Burke might like to visit with their mother.”
Mrs. Burke saw the tears in my mother’s eyes and got up from her desk. “Just take your time,” Mrs. Burke said to the woman in pink. “I’ve even got some chicken salad back there in the refrigerator if you want some of that.” The thought of eating chicken salad at ten o’clock in the morning was less than appealing to me but Richard cheered with excitement.
I’m not sure how many cookies we ate but when Mom walked into the kitchen the plate was nearly empty. “Thank you,” my mother said, looking at the woman in pink. “Thank you very much.”
We walked outside and a woman driving a station wagon was in the driveway waving at us. “I’m Geraldine Culberson,” she said, looking at my mother. “Just hop on in.” Mom ushered us inside the car and Geraldine drove us to her home. “We’ve got a bed and a couch down here,” she said, leading us into the basement. “You can put your clothes in here,” she said, resting her hand on a small chest of drawers, “and the bathroom is right at the top of the stairs.” She turned to leave. “I’ll have lunch ready in about an hour, so you just get settled in and come on up whenever you’re ready.”
My mother sat on the edge of the bed. She didn’t say anything; she just pulled Richard and me close to her and cried.
We lived in Geraldine and George’s basement for six months until someone else in the church had a small apartment we could rent. Before long, church members dropped off a small black-and-white TV set, a full-size refrigerator, sofa, beds, toys, and clothes. Mom found a part-time job answering phones and doing the books for a small dress shop while Geraldine watched Richard. When I got out of school I walked to the Culbersons’ house and when Mom was finished working we all walked home to our apartment together. At night I would watch my mother go through the bills my father had left and I always saw the same look on her face. There was no way out.
My mother lost her smile after my father left. I was too young to fully realize what was wrong but knew it had to have something to do with the mess my father had left us in. Creditors were threatening her on every side but she had nothing left for them to take. She’d write a check for five or ten dollars and stick it in an envelope hoping that her attempts to pay off the debts would prove something to the creditors. For some it did but for most it didn’t. It was a few weeks before Christmas when my mother broke down at the kitchen table. She held on to several letters and wept. I ran down the street for Mrs. Culberson. She read through a letter and patted my mother’s shoulder. “Nobody’s going to take your kids away from you, Charlotte,” she said. “Don’t you worry about that!”
Several days later Pastor and Mrs. Burke knocked on the apartment door. My mother invited them in and put a pot of coffee on to brew. When she finished her coffee Mrs. Burke opened her purse and pulled out an envelope. She pushed it across the table to my mother. Mom opened it and gasped. “I can’t take this,” she whispered.
“You take it and pay off every single bill,” Pastor Burke said.
“But there’s more here than what we owe.” My mother moved the envelope back across the table but Mrs. Burke stopped her. “I can’t take it.” Mrs. Burke put the envelope in Mom’s hand.
“I can’t go back to all these people and tell them that what God laid on their heart was wrong. God wanted them to help and that’s what they’ve done.”
Mom sat clutching the fat envelope. “But I don’t know who gave this,” she whispered. “How can I ever thank them?”
“They didn’t do it for the thanks, Charlotte,” Mrs. Burke said. “But God knows who they are. He’ll thank them.”
Mom shook her head and used a towel sitting on the table to wipe her face. Mrs. Burke leaned toward Mom and squeezed her hand. “Sometimes we’re not supposed to be in on every single part of God’s plan. Sometimes we just need to take the blessing and run.”
We would never know who gave us the money. When adults would speak to my mother at church I’d listen for some clue they might give to help us clear up the puzzle. But no one ever acted as if they knew anything. Tears ran down my mother’s face as she wrapped her arms around Mrs. Burke’s neck. The Burkes quietly left and I watched from the hallway as my mother cried, clutching the envelope. That was the end of the creditors, the letters, and the threats … and the return of my mother’s smile.
For several Christmases leading up to that one I would, under the guise of “cleaning,” rummage through my mother’s closet or beneath her bed in an attempt to find even the smallest gift. “Patricia, Christmas isn’t all about you,” Mom said one day, ushering me out of her room. “It’s not about what you can get. It’s about what you can give.” At the time that notion seemed crazy to me but after my mother received the envelope full of money from a church full of strangers I knew exactly what she meant.
I poured what coffee there was left in my cup down the sink, cleaned and polished the coffeepot, turned it on an angle so it sat just so on the counter, and opened the garage door. I wanted to beat the traffic that would be traveling across town so I left an hour early for my first appointment. It took me forty minutes and when I pulled into the drive I noticed that the Lymans had decorated the outside of their house and trees with lights. Santa and his sleigh were perched on top of the roof close to the chimney and Frosty or some snowman that looked like him greeted visitors at the front door. I opened my trunk and waited for Justin. Claire Lyman opened the door and waved, placing her hand on Justin’s shoulder as they walked down the front steps. “How are you, Patricia?” Claire asked.
“I’m great,” I said. “How’s everybody in the Lyman family?”
She gave me a big okay sign and I reached for Justin’s suitcase. “How are you, Justin?” He shrugged his shoulders. Justin placed his plain brown suitcase inside the trunk. “The house looks great, Claire.”
Claire put her arm around Justin. “Justin helped us. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
“Wow Justin! This place looks awesome.”
He looked at the ground and Claire caught my eye. She wrapped her arms around Justin’s small shoulders and kissed his face. “Thanks for staying with us, Justin.”
He nodded but didn’t take his eyes off the ground. He didn’t want to leave. “Can I ever come back?” His voice was quiet.
Claire kept her arm around him and looked at me. She turned him toward her and made him look at her. “You and your mother can come by anytime,” she said. It wasn’t what Justin wanted to hear.