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Personal Essay: The Gift
By Leah Mueller
Christmas, 2001. I was a recently single mom with two kids and a dilapidated house in Tacoma, Washington. The once shabby town had undergone rapid gentrification. Now, the handwriting on its wall read, “We’re going to force your impoverished ass out as soon as we can.”
My ex lived down the road in a furniture-less studio apartment he’d hastily rented after I threw him out. His drinking had accelerated now that he no longer had anyone to monitor his behavior. The useless jerk spent a lot of time lying on his floor. Needless to say, he hadn’t paid a dime of child support.
Each day, I sank further into poverty and despair. I stopped opening bills, and they piled up in a corner of my kitchen table. As Christmas approached, my kids wrote exhaustive lists of the toys they wanted. Plastic shit they’d seen on TV. They left the lists on the kitchen table beside the bill envelopes.
I fell several months behind on the mortgage. My tarot/astrology business and my side gig at a Seattle daycare center didn’t provide enough money for the needs of one person, let alone three. Seventy miles round-trip was a long way to drive for eight dollars an hour, even if I could bring my kids along.
One evening, when we arrived home, my son complained, “Mom, the lights are off again.” I called the power company, and they sent a guy over to turn on the electricity. It cost me fifty bucks extra to be poor enough to merit special after hours treatment. I gave the nice man a check and hoped my paycheck would make it to the bank before he did.
I needed cash. Lots of it, and fast. I sat down at my kitchen table, opened the bills, and calculated how much money I needed to keep the family from drowning. My final tally was even higher than I’d thought. $10,000 would just about cover our expenses.
$10,000. Almost half of what I earned in an entire year. The last time I’d possessed that much cash was when I received a small inheritance and used it as a down payment on my house. Happier times. My ex had gainful employment then, and our daughter was still an infant. We were card-carrying members of the lower middle-class.
I wracked my brains for a solution. I didn’t know anyone who could loan me that much money, and I refused to ask my friends for help, anyway. My mother had recently died, alone and almost penniless. Vultures from the student loan agency phoned her every day, until the end. She’d made the mistake of going back to college in her 50s, then dropped out without obtaining a degree.
I’d made a few mistakes of my own. The sins of the mothers, or something like that. I thought harder. Illegal activities were out of the question. I didn’t own anything worth selling. Certainly nothing that could net me 10K.
Maybe Jack could help. He wasn’t really my father, but Mom didn’t tell me that truth until I turned 18. She’d gotten pregnant by another man, who’d left her shortly before I was born. Jack pretended he was my biological dad, so she wouldn’t get an illegal abortion.
Jack and Mom split after I turned four. I couldn’t blame him. The man was a saint. He loved my mother so much that he agreed to raise me even though I wasn’t his kid. After the big reveal, he continued to play a paternal role in my life, both out of habit and a guilty sort of love.
Jack still lived in Chicago. He had given me money before, but never such a hefty sum. Also, I usually had to ask. But I refused to ask him now. I was forty-two years old, for heaven’s sake, and my children were my own responsibility. A woman my age shouldn’t need to beg her pseudo-dad for help.
Finally, exhausted, I collapsed into bed. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I’d figure out what to do in the morning. The sun always rose, offering fresh promise. But my arduous responsibilities never stopped, and those bills kept arriving right on schedule.
The following afternoon, my phone jangled. I picked up the receiver without checking the caller ID. Most of my calls came from bill collectors. I usually hung up on them after they asked if I was home.
To my surprise, I heard Jack’s familiar voice. “Hi, how are you doing? It’s almost Christmas. I thought I’d check in. I know you’re having a difficult time.”
I gulped back a wave of tears. “Yeah, you might say that. It’s tough, all right. But we’re hanging in there.”
“Well, that’s why I’m calling. I want to help out, since I know how hard you work. I’m going to send you a check for $10,000. No strings attached. You don’t need to pay it back.”
I removed the receiver from my ear, held it at a distance, and stared. “Seriously? That would help a lot. It’s so kind of you. I don’t know what to say.”
“You probably need it right away. Christmas is next week. I’ll go to the post office now and overnight it.”
My head swirled with disbelief. How could he possibly have intuited my needs? Jack didn’t even believe in telepathy. As an atheist, he remained convinced that astrology and tarot were nothing but superstition. “Well, I’m glad people are willing to pay you,” he once said. “You’re a good listener. They probably need it.”
None of that mattered, of course. My kids and I would celebrate Christmas in style. First, I would take up my friend Caren on her offer to spend the night at her family’s farmhouse near Washougal. She had invited me to make beeswax candles and cornhusk dolls. I’d been too broke and depressed to accept.
Three days later, kids in the back seat, I headed south to Caren’s place. Though it was only 5:30, the sky was already pitch-black. A couple of stray snowflakes skittered across my windshield and blew into the road.
I twisted the radio dial until I found some carols. The music sounded old, from the previous century. Sacred, even. Not the usual schmaltz. I glanced in the rearview mirror and noticed that my kids were asleep. A sense of calm flooded my body for the first time in weeks.
Jack had saved both Christmas and my foolish ass. The man didn’t even believe in miracles. But I did, at least for now.
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