In the weeks leading up to Christmas in 1975, my mother made a hard choice: Her marriage was dead and it was time to leave it.
My father had not been physically abusive, but he had also not been kind. He was a drinker and philanderer who had dishonored my mother, an upstanding and conservative woman who never caroused or cavorted.
My mother left with my brothers and me, a gaggle of little boys stretched out over eight years — from the oldest, at 13, to the youngest, me, at 5 years old.
My great-grandfather had recently died, shortly after his wife. Theirs was a love deep and strong. Her death hastened his. How to live in a world when the woman who was your world has moved into memory?
My great-uncle, a man who could neither read nor write, had lived with my great-grandparents his entire life. They had taken care of him. But, with his father’s death, he now needed another caretaker.
My grandmother actually owned the house my great-grandparents and great-uncle lived in, so this collision of unfortunate circumstances created an opportunity to solve two problems with one action: My mother, my brothers and I would move into the house because we needed somewhere to stay, and my mother would become my great-uncle’s caretaker because he needed help.
In the days before Christmas we loaded our meager things onto the flatbed of my grandmother’s husband’s pickup truck and ferried them across town to our new home. On Christmas Eve, as we stood in a nearly empty house, a call came. It was my grandmother calling from our new house.
She said Santa had just stopped there.
My brothers and I ran out of the house into the cold stillness of the night, jumped on our bikes and raced through the town’s streets toward the new house. My mother trailed us in the car, her headlights illuminating the way for us.
That was the last time I was ever in the old house.
We burst into the house, eyes aglow, short of breath, mood electric. Gifts ringed the Christmas tree. Nothing major; we were poor.
My mother had worked at a poultry processing plant, dismembering chickens on an assembly line before getting a job as an office assistant at the high school, taking night courses to finish her degree and eventually landing a job as a teacher.
But that one salary had to finance a family of young boys in school and an old man who couldn’t work.
We struggled. Many of our toys came from foraging rummage sales or picking through heaps of trash at the city dump.
My mother, being a resourceful and industrious woman, planted and gardened and bought some pigs and a calf. We would be poor, but we wouldn’t be hungry. I think part of her determination to make our new life work was also to prove all the folks in town wrong: the one who warned that half-a-man was better than no man, the ones who thought my mother was trying to reach higher than her station.
That is how I grew up: working a garden and chasing runaway hogs that rooted out of their pen. I grew up watching my mother make quilts so that we wouldn’t catch a chill from the winds that whistled through the drafty house. I grew up watching my mother clipping coupons and stretching two bags of groceries over two weeks.
This Christmas, please remember the people like my family: the poor, the people whose lives took a turn, those starting over, the fractured families, those working hard but not quite getting ahead.
It can be tempting in a strong economy like this one with such a low unemployment rate to overlook the poor. It can be easy in the consumer craze of Christmas to forget when we are splurging on gifts that there are people without food or medicine.
Poverty has declined in the U.S., but it has by no means disappeared. According to the Census Bureau, in 2018 there were 38.1 million people living in poverty, including 11.9 million kids under the age of 18.
And in this is a distinct and disturbing racial disparity: 20.8 percent of black people live in poverty, compared to 8.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 10.1 percent of Asians and 17.6 percent of Hispanics.
This is one reason that I was heartened to hear candidates at Thursday’s debate specifically invoking and remembering the poor. As Pete Buttigieg put it, “I know you’re only ever supposed to say middle class and not poor in politics, but we’ve got to talk about poverty in this country.”
Yes we do, and there is no better time to remember the poor than on Christmas.
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