The year was 1980. I was recently divorced. I had been through a few rough years. I sold everything I owned and moved myself and my children from Chicago back to Harlem to make a fresh start.
Ben was 2, Esther 4 and Dee 13. I rented a tiny house in town, furnished it with items scoured from friends’ basements, attics and barns. A one-pound Folgers can propped one corner of the broad-armed mohair sofa. Dee and I each slept on lumpy rollaway beds. The babies had bunks. A friend sold me, for $50, a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville, the size of an ocean liner, which I quickly dubbed the “Queen Mary.” Of all the things I have let go in my life, I wish I still had that sofa and the Queen Mary.
For Christmas I had just enough money to buy one special gift for each child and a turkey for our dinner. I wrapped the gifts and hid them in my closet high on the shelf. I would not start work at my new job in Chinook until after the holidays. We would have to do without a tree, I figured. Our lights and ornaments were among the things we sold so we could move back to Montana.
On Christmas Eve we went to church. When we returned home, a huge tree was propped against the front door. We eased it inside. I borrowed a stand from the neighbors and we set the tree in front of the living room window. The pungent evergreen smell permeated the house. Dee had begun popping corn to string when we heard a knock on the door. On the steps stood Blue Bear, her arms piled high with boxes of lights and ornaments. “I bought all new Christmas decorations this year,” she said. “I thought you might be able to use these.”
I thanked her profusely and explained that without her gifts, popcorn was the only thing we had to put on this beautiful tree that some anonymous person had generously given us. I told her that I had been unable to buy Christmas decorations this year because my new job would not start until January. The kids and I hung bulbs, icicles, strings of lights and popcorn on our new tree. I still have ornaments that Blue gave me that long-ago night.
Later that evening, I opened the back door to check the turkey thawing on the porch and walked smack into the branches of another tree. This is too bizarre, I thought. I dragged the second tree into the house. We hacked off the branches with an old butcher knife I found in the basement, decorated each room with pine boughs and formed a wreath for the front door.
Christmas morning, our gifts were piled under the tree. Santa had left for Ben, the baby, a set of giant Lego blocks and a plastic tool set, for Esther, a play kitchen just her size and for Dee, a longed-for radio/cassette player. My friend Gail had mailed each of us an entire outfit of clothing, including shoes and coats for the children. She explained that when her mother was struggling to raise five children alone, a friend had done the same for her.
While the turkey roasted in the oven, Esther made “dinner” with her play kitchen. Dee and I prepared the rest of the Christmas feast while we listened to music on her boom box. I looked around to see what Ben was up to. He had quietly crawled beneath the Formica table and, with the plastic screwdriver from his tool kit, removed every screw from the legs. It is a wonder the heavy table top did not fall and squash him flatter than a bug.
Dee and I had just finished screwing the legs back on the table when we heard a knock on the door. It was Blue Bear once more. She balanced a tall stack of clothing in her arms. “You said you are starting your new job soon, so I wondered if you could use some clothes for work. These are just some old things I don’t wear anymore.”
When I invited her for dinner she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t stay. My family is coming over.” And off she went. Later, when I looked through the clothing she had brought me, I saw that everything was in perfect condition.
When my children and I sat down to eat turkey and all the trimmings that Christmas Day, we bowed our heads in full gratitude for the gifts we had received. Our festive little home was truly blessed. I never did find out who gave us the two Christmas trees. Must have been Santa. I suspect he had too much eggnog that night and came around twice.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)