Monday, December 24, 2012

True Christmas Story: A Home for Christmas

The Christmas I was eight we were almost homeless and I didn't get any presents. It's one of my happiest memories.

My parents had been unemployed for a long time, and it didn't look like that was going to change any time soon, so my father decided to go back to school. We were in New Hampshire and Wheaton College was in Illinois, so we packed the van and headed west. We'd stay with friends until we found an apartment.

The drive out there was three days of fun. We took turns reading a book aloud (probably from either The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings), worked puzzle books, ate yummy snacks we never got at home, and watched my cat explore the packed van. My parents had a homemade mattress in the back, on a plywood platform with our household stuff underneath. They slept on that at night and took turns driving during the day. I guess my brother and I must have slept in the seats, but I don't remember. We were both small for our ages, and he was twelve. The van broke down once, and we sat in the breakdown lane for a while, but of course somebody got it going again.

Finding jobs and an apartment took a lot longer than my parents had anticipated, and with Christmas approaching they were starting to feel very much in the way in our friends' house. I was shocked when one of our hosts replied to my mother's 'thank you' with "It's the least we can do." I had thought these were generous people and close friends of my parents, and now it turned out they were only doing the least they could.

My mother did manage to find a job, and my brother and I went out every day with my father to look for a place to live. And that's how we met Preston.

Preston was cheerful and southern and he showed us around the apartment like we were old friends. He was the handyman, not the landlord, but he didn't see any sense in keeping us waiting while his boss was on her way over.

When "Mizz Norris" did arrive, she told my father that someone else was coming to see the apartment, and she had to give him priority because he had applied first.

"Don't make no difference nohow," Preston objected, looking at my father. "I rented it to him."

Preston got his way and Mrs. Norris produced a rental agreement, with the printed ban on cats crossed out before we could even bring up the subject.

We moved in on Christmas Eve. My brother and I got our own rooms, even though mine was small and didn't really have a proper door, and my parents put their homemade mattress in the living room.

We'd brought a plywood storage box, five feet long and two and a half feet long and lined with wallpaper samples, and that first day it was sitting on its end in the living room. To me it was magic just waiting to happen. I put a festive tablecloth in the bottom, a small lamp in the back and a scrap of red plexiglass in front of the lamp, and in front of that, the little porcelain nativity scene my mother had gotten from her mother.

That night we turned the rest of the lights off and sat in the festive red glow. My father read the Christmas story from his Bible with a flashlight and we sang carols.

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