What’s your favorite holiday memory? Is it the food, the parties, or the music that you look forward to most each year?
I’m only just beginning to enjoy the traditions. For years, the sound of Christmas music was as welcoming as splashing acid into my eyeballs. It punctuated what I believed I didn’t have.
If you’re alone this holiday season, look around you. There are soup kitchens looking for volunteers, gatherings at faith communities that welcome strangers, and a host of other people around you who may be sheepishly hiding their own discomfort about the holidays. https://lameredith.com/2012/12/holiday-hater-make-grinch-return-your.html
I’ll be serving up food at the homeless shelter this year, paying it forward for the time that strangers sponsored my daughters and me for gifts when we had nothing. I wrote the story below which will be available for free on Kindle for five days. If you’d like to read it in it’s entirety but don’t have a Kindle, email me and I’ll send it to you after Kindle’s exclusive promo period.
Thanks always for stopping by. Connecting with you, even online, is a perfect reminder that we’re never really alone.
“This is the message of Christmas: We are never alone.”
Christmas can be a mean holiday for so many people.
People who are single. People becoming single again. People who’ve lost a loved one. People who are broke. People whose families are in all states of disrepair.
In the family I grew up in, holidays were punctuated by flying plates and the arrival of law enforcement. The single wrapped present under the Christmas tree was no surprise; I would always recognize the giant Hershey Bar with almonds immediately.
The only holiday tradition I’ve stuck to as an adult is falling into an annual fog of depression around the end of October, which begins to lift the second day of January. So when an unexpected knock at the door came a few weeks before Christmas of 1991, I opened it with a sense of dread.
In addition to it being the holiday season, I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, where the combined effect of the darkness and cold in December can flatten the bubbliest of personalities. I wasn’t feeling bubbly; I was in the middle of a divorce and custody battle. In my youth, I traded in my controlling mother for an even more controlling husband: Grigorios- Gregory for short-an older Greek immigrant who made my mom look like Mother Teresa. Had I known a year earlier that nothing good would come of leaving him, I would have stayed put. But the final strangulation in front of our two year-old daughter forced me to roll the dice. I left.
In doing so, I apparently bruised his larger- than- life- ego beyond repair. I embraced the homelessness, the food stamps, the restraining orders as necessary losses that would secure a safer future for my girls and me. I was the twenty-seven year-old mother of two pre-school aged toddlers; with any luck there would be time for love and happiness later on. But there was so much I couldn’t have predicted. And so much of the unpredictability seemed to appear at my front door.
Who could it be this time? There had been so many visits in the past.
Once I opened the door to a female police officer. Gregory was peering around from behind her, grinning like a Chesire cat. She served me with paperwork, saying she needed to remove my two sleeping daughters because their father complained he had been denied visiting them-allowed by court order-for several weeks. Had he bothered to tell the officer that he hadn’t shown up at the appointed visitation times, or called to announce his unavailability?
Then there was the day I opened the door to a public assistance worker. “We’ve got word that you’re working and not reporting your income. And you’re living with a man, and haven’t reported that on your monthly report…Can I have a look around?”
Before I could answer him, he was in my crappy apartment, looking around at my crappy life. Opening drawers. Rifling through closets. “Do you have Swiss bank accounts? Are you working and not reporting the income? …Well whose ski boots are those?” After he compared my large boots to my large feet, he was gone.
Another knock. What did he forget? I wondered.
But it was a different man altogether, and a social worker, no less. “I’m John Lovering,” he offered, kindly handing me his business card. “I work at the Division of Family and Youth Services. There have been reports that you’re abusing your children. I can’t tell you who’s been making the calls, but it’s the same person. I’ll need to take a look at them…can you remove their shirts, please?”
I was pretty sure I knew who that same person was who kept calling the reports in. No matter. Time-limited stress, I told myself. Soon, I would put this mess behind me. Finish college. Get off food stamps before my oldest started grade school. Rent a nice home with a yard for the girls and me.
So whose knock was this, anyhow? Stop with the panic response. I inhaled deeply and opened the door.
Before me stood a tall older man with long white hair and a long white beard. His cheeks were rosy, and his large round belly threatened to pop the buttons of his tight red and black flannel checkered shirt. He was holding a saucer of sugar cookies, which he pushed in my direction.
“I’m your new neighbor,” he said, smiling. “My name’s Chuck. I’ve got the two bedrooms right next door.”
Taking the plate of cookies, I looked down and saw his bare feet. Temperatures hovered around 10 degrees above zero that week. His toes were red and swollen, and he had long yellowed toenails. He put his cigarette out when I invited him inside for a cup of coffee.
“Who have we here?” he said, smiling at the girls.
My oldest daughter Marianthi smiled sweetly back at him. Her light brown hair and blue-grey eyes were complimented by her turquoise dress. Slight in stature and build, she still looked like a porcelain doll at the age of four.
“Hello, nice to meet you,” she said in her munchkin voice.
Meredith was another story entirely. At two and a half, she was in the thick of her Terrible Two’s. Her dark brown hair formed angry ringlets around her plump cheeks, and her near-black eyes stared at our visitor accusingly.
If he noticed little Meredith’s reaction to him, our visitor didn’t let on.
His name was Chuck Emplit. He had worked as a cook, but medically retired a decade earlier. Cooking and baking were still his passion. He said he had never married, had no children, and had no living relatives. “I’m not lonely, though,” he said, probably noticing my concern. “I’m playing cards with Victor and the guys on Saturday nights. Great group around here.”
Victor, my Mexican landlord, was the single father of a teenaged girl. He doubled as the cruise director for a number of the lonely old men who lived in our low income apartments.
Chuck said he would be moving from his two-bedroom apartment next door to a studio apartment in the same complex as soon as one became available in order to save money. But until then, he assured me, he was available if we ever needed anything. “Don’t forget, Girls,” he said before leaving, “I’d like for you to call me Santa.”
Both girls lit up. I never believed in Santa as a child myself, but I wasn’t ready to burst their bubble.
Every day afterwards, when I returned home from classes, I had to pass by Santa’s living room window to get to my own apartment. And every day, approximately five minutes later, he was at my door- holding some special dish he cooked up for the girls and me- waiting expectantly for me to invite him in for coffee. I always obliged, silently stewing at times, coaching myself to be thankful for the company and food. The girls were always delighted to see him, and by our second cup of coffee, I was too. We certainly ate better meals with him than we had since I had become my family’s primary cook, and the diversion from my meal-in-can was a welcome break. And it was obvious by his smiles and laughter that the visits meant a lot to him.
When Christmas came a few weeks after we met, Santa brought a wrapped present.
“Me and the guys were talking at cards the other night,” he explained. “We wondered why you haven’t remarried yet. “She’s not ugly,’ one of them said.’ She doesn’t seem too unpleasant. Anybody would love those girls of hers.’”
Santa thrust the package in my hands, which I unwrapped. A Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.
“I think this’ll help,” he said, clearly proud of himself.
If only it were that simple.