(Sorry, I know this one is long… but, it is what it is…)
One year when I was separated from my now ex-husband, I was staying with my older sister for a few months. I had previously been staying with my parents after suffering a nervous breakdown and leaving my job at the local community college. The year had been a difficult one, nervous breakdown, walking away from my four-year job, bitter feud with my parents, eventually becoming a virtual squatter on my sister’s couch.
However, the month before Christmas, things started to improve; I landed a job as a manager at a local family owned business. Still, I was having a difficult time as my out of control spending habits from my untreated illnesses started to creep into my real life. Whenever I felt unhappy or alone, as I did on most days, I simply went shopping for things I did not want, did not need, and could ill afford; a classic symptom of borderline personality disorder.
I had cut up my credit cards months before the holiday approached, but I knew I could not afford to spend $10 on either one of the girls I loved so dearly. Each day I watched as the stack of presents grew underneath my sister’s Christmas tree. The presents were neatly wrapped in glittery paper, tied with ribbons and adorned with bows, all carefully marked with the name of her son, daughter or husband.
I was happy to have a place to live, but my heart ached at feeling so out-of-place at Christmas time. My sister and I were not very close, and she made it clear I was in her way daily when she would sigh loudly every time she had to move something of mine that was in her way. I felt terrible, even though she would profess, “Oh, knock it off, if it was a big deal, I wouldn’t have invited you to stay with us.” Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been a pawn in the big feud between her and our parents.
At night, when everybody would sleep, I would sometimes cry, as silently as I could so I would not disturb them; I would wonder what part I had played in the feud. My dad was not speaking to my sister over some letter he had written and had given each of us kids a copy of; I am not even certain if I read it. In turn, we all had to take sides. I needed a place to live, so I guess I chose hers. The family became divided in a dispute that lasted until the day he was shot; me and my older sister on one half of a canyon, my mom, dad, brother, and younger sister on the other.
So this is Christmas, I thought, wondering what I could do for my girls as I looked at the presents under the tree. Well, absolutely nothing.
My girls were coming out and spending Christmas Eve and Christmas day with me, their father did not really care about celebrations and we had maintained a civil separation. I drove the 45 miles into town and picked them up, happy to see them, but sad that I did not even have the money to give them their traditional Christmas Eve pajamas.
They were excited to come, “Oh, Mommy,” they exclaimed, “We don’t care about presents. We’re just happy we get to spend the holiday with you.” I was so warmed to hear those words; but, still, I wanted to give them so much. I knew their cousins were getting lots of toys; the tree was already buried, and Santa would be bringing even more.
When we arrived at the house, the girls didn’t seem very interested in sticking around and visiting with me; instead, they wanted to go outside with their cousins. I agreed, wanting desperately for them to enjoy themselves and have a good time. They disappeared outside in the cold for hours. I looked outside and didn’t see them. “Where are they?” I asked my sister as she started cooking their Christmas Eve dinner.
“Oh, I think they are in the trailer,” she said as she looked outside noticing a swinging door open on the tractor-trailer door. Their yard is reminiscent of a car graveyard, old vehicles lined up, rusting away in the sun; my brother-in-law used to own his own trucking company, so they have two of the box type trailers as well. The kids would often play in there to get out of the wind and cold.
When they came in late in the afternoon, their cousins settling in for Christmas Eve dinner, I assumed we would be eating as well, “No, Mommy,” they urged, “Put your coat on and come with us.” I followed them as they led me outside to the trailer.
As soon as I stepped foot inside, my eyes filled with tears; they had transformed the inside of the trailer into a festive Christmas hall, complete with a paper Christmas tree. There were paper chains, ornaments made of Popsicle sticks, tinsel from the Dollar Store, candles, candy, and presents sitting on floor underneath the construction paper tree. They had even constructed a fireplace and had hung three stockings over the make-believe fire.
“How did you do this,” I asked them, not believing my eyes, “where did you get the money?”
They explained that their dad had taken them shopping at The Dollar Store and had chipped in some of his own money, wanting us to have a nice day; and their cousins had spent the afternoon helping them set it all up. I hugged them tighter than I ever had in my life.
They had stacks of sleeping bags, apparently we were to spend the night outside as well; just as well, I thought, I did not want to wake up in the house full of gifts my children couldn’t have.
We spread the sleeping bags out and sat down to a feast of Dollar Store snacks and junk. Later on that evening as we were singing Christmas songs and telling funny stories, my niece and nephew came out and begged to stay the night with us, claiming it was more fun out there than in their boring house. They were allowed to stay about an hour until my sister came out and demanded their return.
Christmas morning we awoke to stockings filled with lotion, soap, body spray and candy, Santa had been good to us. We opened presents they had bought for us and each other; I have never been more delighted with things purchased for under a dollar.
I am teary eyed as I think of that year and the love I know my girls had for me then, and I for them. I couldn’t give them anything, but I wanted to give them the world. I can only imagine when they saw how much their cousins had, and how they received nothing, they must have known how much I screwed up. Yet, I wondered who taught them to love that way…