I arrived at my new home on January 10, four days after my 10th birthday. I had just spent my first Christmas in the Los Angeles juvenile protective custody system. My family of origin did not celebrate Christmas, so every part of the tradition was new to me.
My new mom and dad were school teachers who quickly introduced me to the library where I taught myself to read. I hadn’t been in school for three years, and I felt driven to learn to read before my new parents figured out I couldn’t. I didn’t want them to send me away as damaged goods.
At first, my favorite books were about Christmas. I was determined to learn everything I could about the bright lights, the blessed mother and baby, and the pretty presents! I devoured the luscious pictures of table settings, decorations, and homemade gifts. I stretched my mind to figure out how it was all done, and the words I was reading began to make sense to me.
It turned out, my new dad also had a rough beginning. Perhaps that was why he opened his home and heart to me. He was born in the Oklahoma oil fields and moved to California with his mother and grandmother at the start of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. His mother went to work in a factory, and his grandma bought a small home that became a boarding house and campground for men leaving Oklahoma to find work.
As a youngster, my dad was nicknamed “Stormy” because of his fiery mop of red hair. He worked to help his grandma feed and take care of the boarding house tenants. For entertainment, the men paid him dimes to stomp out their cigarettes with his tough bare feet. He saved enough dimes to buy his first pair of shoes, which he wore when he entered school at the age of 8. At Christmas, they would celebrate with a bountiful feast around the boarding house table.
It wasn’t long after I came to live with my folks that I was itchy to make some of the Christmas decorations I had read about. My new mom encouraged me by offering up her button box, scissors, glue, toilet paper tubes, and all types of wonderful scraps. She entered my bedroom one day in June to discover what she called “Santa’s workshop.” That pleased me to no end!
As our first Christmas approached, I was ready to decorate, but my dad seemed sadder by the day. I asked my mom when we would get a tree. She shared that Dad had what she called “the holiday blues.” I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to celebrate Christmas when they could!
She gently explained to me that his grandma, whom he had loved so dearly, died the day before Christmas, and every year, he was reminded that she was gone, which made him angry and sad. She had hoped, with me in the family, this year would be different.
“Can I put out my Christmas decorations?” I asked. “Of course,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”
So I did. Gently, day by day I began to set up my displays of foil-covered tube candles and paper wreaths. Yet my dad made no mention as he walked past them.
One day I created a brightly decorated Christmas tree from paper egg cartons, which my mother and I suspended over the credenza that separated the living room from the family room. I knew he would have to say something! My mom gave me lights, which I draped on this festive central display. Then she produced the first few presents to go under the tree!
As she and I stood back and admired our Christmas decorating, my dad opened the door and gasped. “Oh, my!” he said. “It must be Christmas!” It was like he woke up. His eyes sparkled, and he hugged us.
From that day forward, my mom would say that when she brought me home, she brought home Christmas.