As we approached the holidays in 1989, our daughter was 5 and our son was barely 2. We were living in Austell, GA, a suburb of Atlanta in Cobb County. It was the holiday season of 1989, the poorest Christmas I ever spent, but in many ways, it was also the richest. This time of year, I always recall the story and count my many blessings.
At that time, my husband and I were barely making ends meet with both of us working, because day care took a large chunk of our take home pay. I was going to night school to try and get a degree, which I hoped would get us ahead in life. My husband had left the Marines the year before and was working in a warehouse, moving product in and out of cold storage. He took other odd jobs as he could find them, such as playing Frankenstein in a local haunted house. I was working as an accounts payable clerk at a home health agency.
On a Thanksgiving trip to Ohio, we drove a hunter green VW Scirocco we had purchased from a neighbor for $650. My brother had had a yellow Scirocco in the 70s, and I always envied him. So when the For Sale sign went into this car’s window, I knew it was the car for us. Maybe not so practical with two children, but they were young and didn’t take up much room.
The car needed a starter, water pump, a couple of tires, and a tune up. We had to do a thing at a time, because money was incredibly tight. Because we had to wait for a starter, I had had to learn how to pop the clutch to start it on an incline, and I learned where to park so that I could throw it into neutral and get that running start. We lovingly called it the Rocket Sled, because once you got it going, it was fast. I was using the car at night to go to and from Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta. Between school and work, I was going non-stop from 6:00 am to nearly midnight every day. I felt like I never saw the kids. Paul worked all night at a Circle K convenience store, where he was the manager. I was still working for a home healthcare agency in the accounts payable department, a place from which my husband had quit in spectacular fashion several months before. We rarely got to spend time together.
To say we were poor would be a gross understatement, and it was about to get even worse.
My father-in-law died two days after Thanksgiving in 1987, just after he met his first grandson, my son Sean. It was sudden and devastating. But by Thanksgiving, 1989, my mother-in-law was remarried and living in Lima, OH. She wired us the money for the trip to see her for the holidays, including money for the new starter (which we installed ourselves). My husband was still dealing with the stress and anxiety (and misplaced guilt) he felt over the death of his father at age 46. We felt the need to be with family, however, because it was now a holiday filled with mourning for his father.
We packed the kids in the Rocket Sled with pillows, blankets, and books and left on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving. It was cold in Atlanta, but the weather was dry. We anticipated an uneventful trip, though we always worried about something breaking down on the car. I prayed silently for a safe journey and willed the tires to retain their tread for the round trip.
Unlike today, there were no DVD players (or DVDs for that matter) in the car. We entertained the kids by telling stories and singing songs. Between naps, they played with toys and picture books as we rode. Stephanie was in kindergarten, but she already knew how to read and write. I had taught her, as my sister had taught me. She would read to her brother but was frustrated when he wouldn’t listen, or when he cried.
As we neared my mother-in-law’s house, a gentle snow began to fall. The lawns and trees were already coated from an earlier snow, but the roads were well treated and were slushy rather than icy. In that weird ritual of trying to concentrate harder on finding a location, we ejected the cassette tape we’d been listening to (“Voices Carry” by Til Tuesday) and turned off the radio. We were looking at street signs and trying to find our way to his mother’s house. She had given us directions over the phone, which I had jotted in my notebook. Remember, there were no GPS systems or smartphones, and we didn’t have a map of the town. As was typical for us, I was the navigator, and my husband drove. In the Marines, he had driven a Jeep for a colonel and had many hours of training in defensive and evasive driving. He was also much better at driving the speed limit than I.
As we approached an intersection, the light turned green so he continued on. Just a few more streets, and we would be there, which is what I was telling the kids. Then — KABAMM! The car spun one way and KABAMM! it spun the other way. It came to a stop in the middle of the intersection. I was wedged in because my door and wheel well were caved in. The kids were crying in the back seat and the cassette tape, which had been slammed back into the tape deck by the impact, was playing, “Hush, hush … voices carry…“
I began to shout, “Are the kids okay? Are they okay?” My husband turned in his seat.
All I could think about were the kids, but I couldn’t turn to look. My legs were hemmed in by the collapsed wheel well. Steam poured from the Scirocco’s hood and the horn was blaring. An emerald green Chevy sedan had hit us on the passenger side. When we spun, the rear of our car was also hit. Half of the hood had disappeared where the Chevy had hit at full impact. I knew if we’d been hit a few seconds later, it would have either been me or Stephanie crumpled like the hood of our car. Paul assured me that both kids were okay, and that he didn’t see anyone bleeding.
“We’re okay,” he said.
Sirens were calling out in the distance and grew nearer as the EMTs came to our aid. Because my daughter was complaining of a headache and I was in horrible pain with my legs, we were both taken by ambulance on backboards.
I don’t remember much about anything until the ambulance arrived and took me and then Stephanie from the car. I was lying on a stretcher, covered in a warm blanket, feeling the snow falling on my face. Stephanie was on a different stretcher and was being loaded into another ambulance.
“Go with her,” I yelled to my husband. “Don’t let her be alone!”
He and Sean were allowed into the back of the ambulance with Stephanie, and away we all went. Our car still had most of our belongings in it, along with a couple of inexpensive gifts we had gotten for his mother and her new husband. A tow truck was pulling the car onto a flatbed, because the tires on the right side had been flattened. My head spun with anxiety and disbelief. How will we get home? I wondered. How will we manage without a car–because we only had one.
At the hospital, I watched helplessly as my little girl was wheeled past me on the stretcher, her neck held steady with a neck brace. They were going to take her to radiology to see if her neck was injured in the accident. She was saying, “Mommy? Where are you, Mommy?”
“Right here, sweetheart. Mommy’s here,” I said.
I began to feel tightness in my chest. Asthma was rearing its head from the stress of the accident and the frigid air outside. I was strapped to a backboard and could barely breathe. The doctor listened to my lungs and said that I needed a breathing treatment. Before I was taken to radiology, I breathed albuterol and oxygen through a clear face mask. My left knee was throbbing and felt like it was swollen to twice its size, though I couldn’t see it because I was still on the backboard.
In the end, we were alright. I had second-degree sprains of both knees and would spend a couple of months on crutches. Our Scirocco, however, was totaled. Since we only had liability insurance, there would be no new car for us. We were stranded in Ohio.
Many things happened between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I borrowed $400 from my mother and bus far to Atlanta from Paul’s mother. We found and purchased a used LTD from a car lot in Atlanta. My mother-in-law kept the kids for us. It was the first time we had been away from them since they were born, and it was hellish. We hooked a U-Haul trailer to the LTD and took what we could carry of our things from the apartment in Atlanta to my husband’s stepfather’s rental home in Ohio. Everything else was left behind, as well as unpaid rent and a broken lease. We had no choice. It was a very hard time for us.
Paul’s new stepfather had a small house he had lived in with his late wife. Occasionally, his son, who was a drug addict, lived there. He offered to let us stay there and pay him rent. We moved in, and we both found jobs through a temporary agency. I was sent to work at a forensic hospital to cover for an accounts payable clerk who was on maternity leave. (Remember, I was on crutches!) My husband was assigned to the Honda plant in Marysville, where he pulled flywheels from the furnace. He had basically gone from working in an extremely cold environment in the warehouse to working in an extremely hot one in the Honda plant. The rental house was in a bad neighborhood. Every morning we had to check if there were any needles or other drug paraphernalia in the backyard near the fence. I suspect the son and his friends would get high out there at night. Again, Paul and I were working opposite shifts. We didn’t have to pay for day care for the kids. Grandma helped get the kids some winter coats and snow pants, because we had no cold weather gear at all. We had gone from a mild winter climate to feet of snow on the ground and sub-freezing temperatures.
As Christmas approached, despite having work, we worried that we would have nothing for the kids. It had taken a couple of weeks to find work, so we were expecting our first paychecks just before Christmas. The jobs we had would barely keep the roof over our heads and gas in the car, so we were eating very cheaply. Swallowing my pride, I went to the food stamp office and got us some assistance. Talk about the working poor! We were working all the time, but we couldn’t feed our family. Our budget for Christmas was maybe $25.
The food stamps came in about 2 days before Christmas. We felt such gratitude! We went to the grocery store and stocked up on meat, vegetables, and lots of soup. We had to pay for paper goods out of our meager earnings. I know I cried in the store, because I had no idea what to get for the kids. Things had never been as bleak.
I had the idea to get a box of Christmas cookies from the grocery store bakery. They were festive and happy-looking. (I had little to no bakeware to make the cookies at home.) I also got a small package of candy canes. At the dollar store, we found an off-brand Barbie doll for our daughter and an off-brand Tonka truck for our son. I got a cheap roll of Christmas paper and tape. No bows.
We had a little artificial tree that we put up in the living room. We had no living room furniture and no television, so we would sit around the tree, talking and laughing, reading books. Paul and I tried to make the best of it, but we were afraid the kids would be disappointed in what Santa would bring that year. Oh sure, his mother was going to give them some things – clothes, a toy, a meal – but Santa was supposed to be a little more flush with cash. And at their ages, they still believed.
We worked on Christmas Eve, but we had dinner with Paul’s mother. The kids opened their presents from Grandma. I think Paul and I got sweaters, which we desperately needed. His stepfather felt that he had already given us enough. He was a very grumpy and tightfisted man (and he was part of the family for only a few short years).
After the kids were tucked into bed at home, Paul and I put the candy canes we had bought onto the tree. We wrapped the two presents and placed them under the tree. I put the box of Christmas cookies with a note from Santa under the tree where the kids would see them first. Instead of us leaving out cookies for Santa, Santa left cookies for us.
The next morning, the kids came running into our room to tell us that Santa had come. They were so excited about the candy canes and Christmas cookies! You would think Santa had left them gold! Remember that we were in very lean times, so sweets weren’t offered every day. It was a real treat.
Paul and I sat back in wonder, amazed at our beautiful children and their beautiful spirits. Despite us having lost almost everything that year, we had each other and we had Santa.
The next year, we began to turn things around, and eventually we were able to buy homes, spend too much money at Christmas, and live a lot more expansively. Life also brought us sorrow, with the passing of our girl in 2009. But I have never forgotten that Christmas or the warmth I felt in my heart when I saw the happiness on our kids’ faces. I know that whatever life brought us, we were a family. We loved each other. And I have such gratitude for that.
Merry Christmas, everyone. No matter your circumstance, keep happy thoughts this holiday season and hug your loved ones. Money and things don’t amount to much. Love is what matters.