Tuesday, December 09, 2008

My Best Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Cheer
By Jill Roberts

The holidays are heading my way this year with the usual frenetic rush. There’s so much to celebrate that I can’t help pausing every now and then and pinching myself to make sure it’s all real.

I’ve been promoted in my job at a Portland, Oregon, apartment complex. My twin daughters, Deirdre and Caitlin, both have happy memories and challenging careers. And Caitlin and her husband, Matt, have settled close to my home, which is a joy. Combine this with the recent arrival of my first grandchild, and it’s going to be an especially blissful Christmas.

Yet no matter how wonderful our holiday is, there’s no way it can possibly top my best Christmas ever. Paradoxically, that came during the worst year of my life—a year that taught me some profound lessons about giving and receiving and realizing what I already had.

It happened when I was struggling through the financial and emotional morass that follows a very difficult divorce. I had the girls, thank goodness. But I also had a car that wouldn’t run, a house that was in danger of being repossessed, and a marginal job that wasn’t keeping up with the bills. Because of the house and the car and my job, I was told I was ineligible for food stamps. We were in serious trouble.

By December, we didn’t have much money left, and the power company was threatening to shut off service. I had nothing to spend on the girls for the holidays. I do have a flair for handcrafting things, so I made a few whimsical gifts from scraps we had around the house. But there would be no new clothes or bicycles or any of the popular toys my children had seen advertised on TV appearing under our tree. There would certainly be no special treats, no holiday feast with all the trimmings. I found myself staring at the worst Christmas of our lives.

My large extended family had helped a little—and could have helped a lot more, if they’d known the extent of our plight. But the divorce had left me feeling like a failure, and I was too humiliated to let anyone know just how desperate things had become.

Soon, my bank account and credit completely dried up. With no food and no money, I swallowed my pride and asked the girls’ elementary school principal for help. The kindly woman put Deirdre and Caitlin, then ten years old and in fourth grade, on the government-subsidized lunch program. She even arranged it so the children could go to the school’s office each day to pick up their lunch tickets, which looked just like everyone else’s. My daughters never knew.

I thought things couldn’t get any worse, but about a week before Christmas, my employer, a painting contractor, stunned me by shutting down operations for the holidays and telling me I was laid off. The girls left for school, and I stayed home to battle my despair in the private gloom of a dark, snowy day.

That afternoon, a car pulled into the driveway. It was the school principal—the same woman who had helped me put Deirdre and Caitlin on the lunch program. In the car, she had a giant foil-wrapped gift box for us. She was so respectful of my feelings. “Now, Jill, I want you to know that every person who signs up for the lunch program automatically gets one of these around the holidays,” she said. “It’s just something the school district does.”

As soon as she left, I set the box on my dining room table and discovered that it contained all we needed for a fine holiday meal. There were also two bright pink boxes, each containing a Barbie doll.

I was hiding the dolls in a closet when Deirdre and Caitlin came home from school. Through the window, they saw the big box on the table and came racing in the door squealing gleefully and jumping up and down.

Together, the excited girls went through the box, admiring everything. There was fresh fruit, canned vegetables, candies, nuts, cookies, chocolates, a large canned ham and much more. I felt so elated, as if all my burdens had been lifted—or at least the stress over how we were going to make it through the holidays had been. Then Deirdre asked where the box had come from.

As I gently explained that it had come from the school district, Deirdre’s whole demeanor quickly changed. She stepped back and looked down. “Oh, Mom,” she finally said after a prolonged silence. “This is so nice, but they’ve made a terrible mistake. They meant to give this to a poor family.”

Rather awkwardly, I tried to tell her that the three of us, at least temporarily, were indeed poor. But Caitlin chimed in with Deirdre. “No, they must have meant this for someone who really needs it. Someone needy.”

A sinking feeling swept over me as the girls began to ponder the dilemma of whom to give the box to. I didn’t stand in their way, but a touch of despair came creeping back. Selfishly, I thought, what am I going to do? I have almost nothing to give them for Christmas.

The girls finally settled on giving the box to an elderly neighbor named Juanita, who worked in a nearby laundry and lived alone in a dilapidated old house down the street. Its wood-burning stove—her only source of heat—had broken down, and Juanita had been ill lately. Even her dog was sick.

Deirdre and Caitlin repacked the gift box and hefted it out to the garage. There, beside the broken-down Volvo, they put the cargo on Deirdre’s red wagon.

I watched through the kitchen window as my two girls, clad in coats and scarves and smiles from earmuff to earmuff, pulled the heavy wagon toward Juanita’s house. Suddenly, the snowy street began to sparkle, and a little sunlight broke through that dark sky. I stood there with goosebumps and began to realize the beauty and meaning of what was happening, and it changed everything.

I began to feel joy. Today, fifteen Christmases later, I still treasure the warm blessing the girls and I received in a note from Juanita. And now, as Deirdre and Caitlin—two college-educated, successful, grown women—start families of their own, I finally feel ready to share my story and tell them some things they didn’t know about that year of the big gift box.

The truth is, it was a great Christmas. Thanks to them, it was the best of my life.

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