December 14, 2021
People often ask me why I’m so passionate about never walking alone; about asking for help, and creating community. The answer is multi-faceted. Here’s but one reason from Christmas 1977. (Note: be sure to read the postscript).
I loved autumn as a kid.
I loved to inhale the sugary smell of the fallen oak leaves outside my window as I read Judy Blume’s books.
I also loved walking around on Halloween in dress-up collecting free candy (who knew boys in dresses could get Snickers?), and generally getting ready for Christmas.
Then, when I was 10 years old in October of 1976, my father slammed the door three times, and my mother gave me a job: “You are the man of the house now. You need to take care of me and your sister.”
She said this to me from the living room couch the morning after my dad left – with an empty bottle of vodka on the floor next to her.
Keep in mind that up to this point my understanding of the world did not extend much beyond my first baseman’s mitt, which I sometimes wore ready to catch anything that might come my way.
The only things I had caught thus far were baseballs and ear infections.
So, taking over for my dad was a big catch.
And I wasn’t worried.
I figured my dad would be back home in a few days – he was my dad and it was his job to be the dad – and in the meantime I’d get to prove I was a big boy.
So, I marched around the living room wearing — in my imagination — my father’s suits (or, confusingly, my mother’s dresses). I puffed my chest out as best as I could.
A year later, after we sold the house, moved neighborhoods, and my parents finalized the divorce, I started to realize things had changed in a more permanent way.
Still I loved the autumn.
That fall of 1977 I read novels and savored the smells of the rainbowed leaves.
I fathered my sister the best I could, and listened to my mom talk about the disco men and their greasy fingers as she drank her nightly half-bottle of Stoli.
And when I wasn’t with her or my sister or my books that autumn, I was making my Christmas lists. I made sure I knew what both me and my sister wanted that year. And I told my mom.
On Christmas Eve day, however, when I checked the closet, I discovered that my mother had not gotten anything.
My sister had really wanted a pair of roller skates with pink ribbons on them. She told me every day about those roller skates and how she believed and hoped Santa Claus was going to get them for her.
Well, she was not only not going to get those skates, she was not going to get *anything.*
So, I walked over to the Sav-on drugstore, went to the roller skates aisle, took off my shoes, put those pink skates on, and rolled home.
Once that was done, I returned to fill my pockets, backpack, and fists with everything I could carry.
I remember vividly the lady behind the counter.
I asked her for help choosing earrings, lipstick, and perfume for my sister and mom. Are these too dangly? Is this a good scent? Is this a good color?
She was so enchanted by an 11 year old boy putting such care into Christmas gifts for his mother and sister, that she didn’t notice me steal every single thing she recommended (or, this now occurs to me decades later, maybe she did?)
Next, I went to Ralph’s, the grocery store, and filled my backpack with bottles of wine and vodka and gin. Oh, some wrapping paper, candy canes, and a sprig of mistletoe too.
On the way home, I picked up McDonald’s.
My sister and I ate our Big Macs and cheeseburgers, watched the Grinch Who Stole Christmas (I see the irony now), and I put her to bed.
I wrapped everything, including the alcohol (except the bottle I was now drinking), and placed it all under the tree.
I then decided to go to sleep and let the wrapped gifts be my surprise for my mom when she came home from the clubs.
She will see I had taken responsibility – that I had been there to catch Christmas.
So with excitement, I shook her awake the next morning and we opened presents.
After the last gift was opened, my sister laced up those pink skates and rolled out.
I assumed my mother would now turn and say, “atta boy”, or “good boy,” or “great job.”
I couldn’t wait to hear her praise.
Instead, she looked at me for a moment, stood up, paused, and wobbled back to the bars.
You may wonder what happened to that 11-year old boy after his mom left the house that Christmas morning?
My mom, who in 1977 was obviously struggling, had fortunately already modeled asking for help. She had started her first council before I was born and she was a great friend to many. And, before the divorce, she had constantly told me to ask for help.
So, once she left, I went and found my friends – a group of about 20 troubled kids who had come together about a year earlier. They were my first council.
In other words, I did not walk alone that Christmas of 1977.
Even though we didn’t talk about what happened to me (or to them that Christmas), their mere presence and the sense of community we had (as temporary and fragile and effed up as it was) made all the difference.
So, if you are having a tough holiday, believe me I understand (and there is no hierarchy of pain – whatever it is you’re going through, if it’s hard, it’s hard).
The single thing to remember: do not walk alone through the holidays, or through *anything* in life.
And know this: the miraculous thing about we humans is that when you put us together, even if we are all sad, insecure, or scared, then together we create hope, motivation, and a belief in the future.
I imagine this was a tough story to read. Thanks for reading it.
I very much hope you have a MERRY holiday.