December 2009: After a year of freelancing and stretching the unemployment benefits for as long as possible, I had to break it to my 13-year-old son again (in case it wasn’t obvious to him already), that our holidays would again be very small. Although I don’t have family in my state or even in my region, my sister, parents, and friends have been extremely generous in sending us more money than they can spare now and then, and presents to put under the tree for the holidays. (Our Christmas tree was a used artificial one I found at a yard sale that August for $10…the lights don’t all work, but with its best side forward it was still a great find!) However, it’s more than a little heartbreaking for my son and I to not be able to give something special back to our family members and friends in return, and to each other.
This particular year was feeling very grim financially. We had cut back on every expense possible–deep austerity measures were in full effect. The freelance work was hard to find and didn’t cover my basic expenses. I was deep into borrowing from my home equity line of credit, which at least had a low 4% interest rate, but borrowing when you can’t pay it back is a slippery slope. My credit cards, in contrast, were all high-interest rate cards, and using them felt akin to pouring gas on a simmering fire.
This was the month that I broke down and found my local food pantry. I had always told my son that we are not cutting back on expenses by going without food. When he hesitated to ask for something he wanted in the supermarket, I would tell him, “Don’t worry. Food is important. You can get it–we have to eat.” Still, I felt that dark winter closing in on me right along with the inability to pay my bills. The holiday school vacation was coming and I didn’t have the money to buy groceries, much less gifts, so I ignored my embarrassment, marked the day on my calendar, and drove to the food pantry located in a local church annex (a church! And here I should mention that many atheists celebrate Christmas, yule, winter solstice, or “Festivus” but it’s an American cultural thing for me, a habit formed by family tradition
to still call it Christmas). I knocked on the designated door at the back of the church, only to find out they weren’t open that day. The woman peeking out from inside the gate said they were closed the fourth week of every month (it was Dec. 23rd). “Is it an emergency?” she asked. I didn’t know what to say. (“My whole life is an emergency” came to mind.) One look at my face and she opened the door wide. I sniffled and swiped away tears as she took my driver’s license, registered me as a family of two, and led me through the aisles.
As I was leaving with my three bags full of supplies, I passed another lady on her way in, carrying an enormous cardboard shipping box. A moment later, she also discovered the food pantry was closed, and turned around and ran after me. “Excuse me,” she called, hoisting the box, “The lady inside said to give this to you!” She came to my car and as she placed it in my hatch, I could see the shipping box contained a giant, pricey gift basket of holiday goodies–cheeses, cookies, nuts, candy, coffee and too many other goodies to list featuring festive holiday packaging. I burst into tears. The basket, still wrapped in cellophane, was topped off with a gigantic red and gold plaid bow neatly tied around the handle. I couldn’t believe it: it was the kind of gift basket I used to see in the office when I had a job, that vendors would send to our staff. “We don’t need it,” she said, “And we thought someone else might appreciate it much more.” I know she could see from the tears flowing from my eyes that it was certainly going to be appreciated. I hugged her and thanked her again and again. It was a while before I could see well enough to drive home.
Thank you again, ladies, wherever you are. Along with the goodness shown to us from family and friends, you should both know that our holidays were very special after all.