Mumble lost his job while we tried to send Char to prison. After Less’s abuse became public, our entire house geared up for war. The strain on everything and everyone was crippling. It was never far from the surface. It was in our conversations, in the school we went to, and it waited for us as we tucked ourselves into bed. The impending court case. The quiet whispers. The lawyers and the statements. All of it came at us when I was ten and Less was twelve. It was a hell we were unprepared for. And amongst the flurry and the fury, my stepdad lost his focus. He was fired from his job at the convenience store where he had always worked.
I remember the day it happened. My stepfather showed up at our house at four in the evening drunk, his briefcase dangling from grasping fingers. He dropped it all in the living room, his empty go coffee mug, his briefcase, his coat. He hit his knees and sobbed.
I remember the pure panic that ran through me, hard and strong, as I looked at him unmanned. My mother burst into action. She sent me upstairs and slapped the television set off. I remember casting an eye back and seeing her on her knees, her arms wrapped around him as she wept in fear.
As I sit here 33 years later, I can still see the image of my parents breaking. It is the very picture of desolation to me. The sole image of defeat and horror I summon up when I am imagining my failure of my craft. That moment is forever burned in my mind as the breakdown of our family and the beginning of the end for us.
He was unemployed for months. We learned new words around our house. Unemployment check. Government cheese. Dry milk. Handouts. We heard the term welfare more than once, but my stepfather refused.
He could not stand the idea of going on welfare. He would not take food stamps. Could not let his wife go to the store with that small book of bills. He could not stand the shame of it. So we went without. Our meals became scant. Our portions became smaller, our belts tighter. The man refused help and, because of that, we suffered.
They got a few credit cards to get through the worst of it. Had to cut down to one pack a day instead of two.
This is not a story about how horrible my stepfather was. This is a story about love. This is a story about generosity. This is a story about the family who made us forget we were dirt poor for a night. The family who made us believe in God for a few moments.
With the winter in Wisconsin came the chill, merciless and bitter. It was as if the weather hated us. It was a horrid winter, long and filled with snow. My stepfather wasn’t doing anything, so shoveling duty fell to me. The drifts were taller than me, the snow wet and heavy.
But this is not a poor-me story about shoveling snow. I did what was asked of me because it was my job. I knew my stepfather was down. He had taken a hit. He was on the ground. I knew my responsibilities would increase until he could get to his feet, and it was not a problem.
Sure, I hold it against him that he was too proud to take assistance. When I think about it as a man with a family, I am shocked he let his own pride stand in the way of feeding us, but this is not a hate letter to a man who was down on hard times. I shoveled that snow because I had his back. I did his chores while he recovered. I talked to him when he would let me. Got up and made him coffee before I went to school. I did everything I could to help him because, as his stepson, that was my job.
But this is not a story about snow shoveling and my personal sacrifices.
What my mother never told my stepfather was that she signed us up on a list of some sort around Christmas. Poor. Needy. I don’t know what the exact wording was on the list, but she signed us up. And when the tree was up and the stockings hung, when the cookies had been baked, and the breads, we were told to go to our rooms and dress up.
I don’t remember what I wore. It had to be stuffy. All kids’ dress clothes were back then. It was as if clothing designers were enraged by the idea of kids possibly getting their clothes dirty, and in their vengeance sought to craft the ugliest, most uncomfortable and humiliating clothing possible. Whatever I wore that day was tight. It was comprised of wool, and I can guarantee the shoes were a nightmare. But I dressed up. I kept looking at the window at the snow that drifted in fat flakes to the ground. The lights across the street, on the house with the old man who hated balls being hit into his yard, were flashing. The streetlights shone in a haze of winter weather and, I don’t know why, but I felt magic in the air.
Ever since I was a kid, I could sense it. I could, all my life, feel when the breath of beauty or the sigh of the divine was about to blow in. I looked into the winter snow from my small window in my attic room and knew this was not a normal night. I knew, though I had no idea what my mother had planned, I was going to remember that night as long as I lived.
When I got downstairs, my mother was loveliness defined. I remember a flowing satin blouse, a string of fake pearls, makeup, hair perfect. And that smile. I can tell you there was nothing wrong with that woman’s smile. It was the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. Sadly, that smile is dead. My mother is so bent by the tribulations of her life that the pure joy has been sapped from her smile. Her smile now is an abomination. Her smile now breaks my heart.
I hugged her that day. “Why are we getting dressed up?” I asked.
She shook her head and guided me to the bathroom mirror. She wrapped an arm across my shoulders and looked at our reflection.
“Things have been hard, haven’t they, Jesse?”
“It’s okay, Mom. It will get better.” I didn’t believe it, but I said it. I knew she needed to hear it. Even at the age of ten, I knew how to soothe my mother.
“Tonight will be a good night,” she said. “The first good night for a long time.” She kissed my head. “First of many. Oh dear,” she said rubbing my hair. “You’re all poked up like a porcupine.” She grabbed a comb, wet it, and smoothed down my hair. When I was perfect, we went to the living room.
My mother looked at the clock then looked out the window. A car had pulled up to the house. “Right on time.”
“What is this?” Mumble said. He wore a velour shirt, his hair perfect, his glasses off, contacts in.
“You just hush your mouth, Mumble. We need this,” Mother said.
“We need what?”
I could not take my eyes off the family coming up the walk. They had stepped out of a long, white Cadillac. The man was tall and stately. The woman was like someone you might see on the news at night. Perfectly put together, beautiful, professional looking. There were three kids: two younger boys and an older sister. They carried grocery bags, they carried presents. They carried love.
When I close my eyes, I can see his face, the boy who came to talk to me. He held a present in his hands, small, maybe a foot by eight inches by six inches. It was wrapped in thick wrapping paper and held closed by a long, thick ribbon looped into a perfect bow.
“This is for you,” the boy said. “You’re Jesse, right?”
I could not stop looking at him. He was taller than me. Older. Light brown hair combed over to one side. He wore a dress shirt under a sweater. He had a kind smile and braces. “Will you open it?” he asked. “I want to see your face when you see it.”
I did open it. It was a small wooden box. It had a book in it. It was a journal, with a fancy pen. I had never written a thing in my life. I looked at it, asked him why he had gotten it for me, and he shrugged. He said he had prayed about it. His mother had told him he could get me anything, anything he wanted to get me. “God told me to get you this.”
I reached in to grab the book and look at it, but he held my hand back for a minute and looked around to make sure no one was watching. When he saw his mother was talking to my mother, his dad my dad, his older sister to mine and the younger brothers were eating cookies, he looked back at me and nodded.
“Okay, go ahead and look,” he said. I can still see the mischief in his eyes when he nodded to me. I cast an eye around real quick before I lifted the journal just a bit and peered under at a pocket knife. It was a wooden folder capped with brass on each side. It might have been a Buck folder. Time has erased the memory.
It was not the first pocket knife I had ever been given. Dangerous people had given me knives for many dark reasons. But this was the first knife given to me out of love.
“Don’t cut yourself,” he whispered.
I looked back up at him and smiled. “I won’t. I promise.”
“Don’t tell my mother. She would get mad. But my dad knows. He said it was okay,” the boy said.
I looked up to see his dad looking at me. The man winked.
I remember no names. I do remember my mother had everything she needed to make us a Christmas dinner. I remember my sister was not happy with the gift she had been given, and after they left, she stomped to her room and slammed the door. If my stepfather was mad about the visit, I never heard about it or witnessed the blow out.
It was a hard year. But it was a good Christmas.