December 8, 2001
Repaying The Debt

In December 1986, I was a young welfare mom with three children under age five, including a six-month-old infant.

Temporarily single -- my husband and I had separated earlier in the year, and at that point it looked like we were headed down The D-I-V-O-R-C-E Road -- the kids and I werechristmas 1986 living alone in a crappy little apartment with mildew on the ceilings and crack dealers working the parking lot at night.

That winter, I unexpectedly found myself the sole breadwinner for the family ... although "breadwinner" might be overstating things somewhat. I was receiving roughly $500 a month in welfare payments, plus another $188 in food stamps. I had recently started doing a little bit of under-the-table babysitting for some of my neighbors within the apartment complex -- eventually this would blossom into the fulltime home daycare business that helped keep our family afloat financially, for the next seven or eight years -- but in December 1986 it barely kept us in Enfamil and Kool-Aid.. The monthly rent on our apartment alone was $375. You do the math.

Jaymi, who was five years old that Christmas, and Kacie, my spunky three-year-old, fervently believed in Santa Claus, and in his ability to make all of their Barbie-and-bicycle dreams come true.

Privately, their Mommy wasn't quite so sure.

That year I managed to scrape together enough money for a Christmas tree ... but then I didn't have enough left over to decorate it. (Although the handmade ornaments I cobbled together that year, out of old Christmas cards and glitter, still make an appearance on the family Christmas tree every year.) I could afford cheap dime-store stockings for The Tots, which we hung from the broken stereo cabinet ... but I couldn't afford to fill them. A neighbor gave the girls a "Frosty The Snowman" video ... but we had no VCR to play it in.

In retrospect it all sounds very O. Henry, doesn't it? At the time, though, it just seemed like so much O. Shit.

The funny thing is that we weren't unhappy. In fact, I remember it (now) as being one of the more joyous Christmas seasons we ever had as a family, perhaps because The Tots were young and filled with holiday spirit, or because I was in charge of our combined destiny for the first time in my life, or because being the Mommy gave me a chance to recreate some of my own happy childhood Christmas memories for my children. We were short on cash, but long on sentiment.

Still, my heart ached when I thought about all the material things I couldn't provide for my children that Christmas. I wondered if it was always going to be this way.

One chilly afternoon, three or four days before Christmas, the doorbell rang. What happened next is the stuff of  icky made-for-TV movies starring Markie Post. When I opened the door, a stranger was standing on my doorstep, asking me if this was the So-and-So residence. When I reluctantly said yes, figuring I was about to be handed another disconnection notice, the stranger said "Merry Christmas" .... and handed me a twenty-pound frozen turkey instead.

It took the Food Bank volunteers almost an hour to trundle in all the bounty.

Groceries enough to last for weeks: canned goods, frozen vegetables, cereal, bread, cheese, eggs, powdered milk, plus all the fixings for an elaborate Christmas dinner. There were toys for all three of The Tots -- gender/age-specific toys, obviously chosen with care by someone who knew something about our family -- Barbies and storybooks for the girls, blocks and pull-toys for the baby. There were more practical gifts, too: knitted hats and mittens for the girls, a fire-engine red sleeper for their baby brother. There was even a gift for "Mommy," a beautiful turquoise sweatshirt that I wore to pieces, for years afterward, and a gift for the temporarily M.I.A. "Daddy" of the family (a volume of "Far Side" cartoons).

That was the first year that The Food Bank came to our rescue at Christmas. It wouldn't be the last.

When the girls asked, eyes round as dinner plates, why these total strangers were filling up our refrigerator/our cupboards/the empty space beneath our Christmas tree, it took me a minute to craft the proper response. How do you explain charity to a five-year-old and a three-year-old? Finally, I said that it was because it "made them happy to help other people." I also told them that someday, when we were in a position to return the favor, that it would be our turn to help.

I've thought about that first Food Bank Christmas a lot, over the years, waiting for the proper time to return the favor.  I planned to wait until all of the conditions were right: when I was doing well financially, when my family was flourishing, when I was feeling gifted with an abundance of time and energy and holiday spirit. That's when I would reach deep down into my heart -- and into my wallet -- and begin repaying this particular karmic debt.

I've rarely felt less Christmasey than I do this year. I'm working harder than I've ever worked in my life -- and making better money than I've ever made in my life -- and yet it feels like we're not making any tangible progress, financially. I don't have the time to grocery shop, let alone go out and custom shop for a family of strangers. Emotionally, I am squeezed dry: this has been a year of both overwhelming joy and overwhelming devastation, and it feels like most of my important *emotion molecules* have been spent already. I will be spending Christmas with my husband for the very first time ever -- and I would be lying if I said that doesn't mean a lot to me -- but I will also be spending it 600 miles away from my children, my parents, and most of the other people I love. David and I have agreed to more or less bypass Christmas this year. We're not even going to exchange gifts with each other.

Basically I would just like December to be OVER already.

But I'm beginning to realize that if I wait for all of the conditions to be 'perfect' for me to repay my debt, I'm going to be waiting forever. Which is why I'm sitting here in front of the computer on a Saturday morning with my finger poised over the "Enter" key, preparing to make good on that promise I made to The Tots ... and to the universe.

I just hope that Karma takes MasterCard.

tell 'em secra sent you

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