I left my first husband shortly after losing my mother to breast cancer and I was young. I was only twenty-two years old with no job skills and not a clue as to how I was going to support myself and my four year old son when I left. I had gone back to school and taken a job as a waitress seven days a week.
We, my son and I, were living in a tiny, three-room, third floor apartment. There was barely enough money to pay my bills and put food on the table let alone luxuries like a Christmas tree or presents. My boyfriend, who later became my husband, had offered to help me out but I refused. I needed to stand on my own two feet, to find my self worth and I was determined to never be dependent on anyone again. So, I saved my pennies and found another part time job on Friday and Saturday nights, while my son was at his father's house, working at a local fast food place. There still wasn't much money coming in but there was a little bit extra so that I could give my son a “real” Christmas. Then the brakes went on my car. I had to take $290 of the $350 I had saved towards buying him a tree and gifts and put it into fixing my car.
The Saturday before Christmas my neighbor gave me a small, four foot artificial, pre-lit tree that she was going to get rid of anyway because she had gotten a new, larger one. On Sunday when my son came home we went to the state park and picked up pine cones off the ground. When we got home we spent the afternoon making decorations for our tree. We dabbed the cones with glue and rolled them in glitter. I attached ribbons to them and we hung them on our tree. We cut snowflakes from paper and also painted those with glitter and I hung dozens of them on different lenghts of thread from the ceiling of our tiny family room. Then we plugged in our little tree and turned off the lights. With wide eyes my son looked at me and said, “Mommy, it looks like a magical Christmas forest just like on TV.”
On Christmas Eve, after my son had gone to his father's house and after I got out of work at the diner I took my tips and the small bit of cash I had saved and went shopping for my little boy. I was able to buy him a few action figures that I knew he'd like and a couple other small toys. Over the summer I had picked up a toy train set at a tag sale. When I got home I moved the tree and set up the train track in a circle around the tree. I wrapped the small amount of gifts and placed them inside the train track circle, spreading them out to try to make it look like there was more. I hung his little stocking and filled it with two matchbox cars, a bag of chocolate coins and five one dollar bills folded together in the shape of a star. Then I sat on my lumpy, second hand sofa looking at the little tree with it's pathetic ornaments and the meager amount of gifts I would be offering my son the following morning and cried. I wondered if I had done and was doing the right thing.
The next morning I heard my ex-husband pull up so I went out to greet my son. He came leaping out of his fathers truck and into my arms, “Merry Christmas, Mommy!” He shouted as he wrapped his arms around my neck. As we walked up the two flights of stairs to our apartment he started telling me all about Christmas Eve at his father's house. He had gotten so many new toys and games and had so much fun playing with his cousins. My heart sunk as I listened to him.
When we got to the top of the stairs, before we went in the house I stopped and crouched down to be at his height, “Honey, you know Mommy doesn't have a lot of money. I'm sorry that our tree doesn't look so pretty and that I wasn't able to get you a lot of really nice toys for Christmas. I wish I could have gotten you more but when you get inside I don't want you to be disappointed.”
“Mommy, it's okay.”
We walked inside and I watched the expression on his face as he entered the living room. He watched the train racing in a circle around the tree and gifts. His eyes got really large and a big smile lit his face. “Mom! You lied to me! Look at all those presents! Oh my God! A train! It's so cool!!!”
He didn't run to the toys like so many children would have done. He turned and held his arms up to me for a hug. He wrapped his arms around me and gave me a big sloppy kiss on my cheek. “I love you, Mom. Even if you hadn't tried to trick me and you didn't give me any presents it wouldn't matter because we're together so we could have played a game or something and that would have been just as fun as presents.”
Tears fell from my eyes as I watched my little boy open his gifts that year. They were tears of happiness. He had reminded me of the true meaning of the season. It isn't toys or decorations. It isn't everything the media tries to sell us. He made me remember that the best things in life aren't things. It is being with family and friends. It is love and happiness and a fuzzy, warm feeling in your tummy. It's creating beautiful memories like turning the living room of a shabby, third-floor walk-up into a magical Christmas forest.