|Our home looked like the set from Elf.|
I can only imagine what the neighbors must have thought. We were the poor people at the end of the cul-de-sac, and they'd often seen the white coats rush in to whisk Mom away for her semi-regular mental breakdown. On Christmas, they'd stand wide eyed at the doorstep, clutching a fruitcake, and craning their necks at the the spectacle within. Just the abundance of decorations was overwhelming enough, but compared to their blow mold Santas and gilded wreaths, our winter wonderland of recycled paper crafts seemed utterly bizarre. The best part about being kids (and mentally ill, perhaps, too) was that we were oblivious and proud of our motley creations, and we'd joyfully greet our visitors with our eyes sparkling. Unlike their tasteful, store-bought decorations, ours had real magic, brought to life by the imaginations of silly-hearted children.
As the years went by, our home life slowly began to crumble. It's a long story, wrought by a gambling addiction, mental illness, and a string of hard knocks. We went from living in a cul-de-sac in a friendly subdivision, to a cramped dorm at St.Vincent dePaul's Center for Women and Families. We were assigned an apartment on the shelter's campus, a modest two bedroom concrete box, with thin walls and few windows. Our neighbors were ex-prostitutes, recovering addicts, and battered women. They were unlike any people we've ever seen before, and most of their children had never made a paper snowflake, let alone had a Christmas tree.
When Christmas came, our new surroundings did not phase my mother, or at least she didn't let it show. We never needed money to get into the Christmas spirit, we just needed toilet paper rolls and popsicle sticks. Mom scraped together enough food stamps to bake iced oatmeal cookies, and as they were cooling on the counter, we welcomed every kid in the building into our kitchen and handed them a crayon. When we were finished, our neighbors came to our doorstep just like before, only it was their eyes that were sparkling. Mamie, the large and in charge woman down the hall, sang, "Lordy, Lordy!" and kissed us all. The mothers wept, laughed, and smiled through mouthfuls of crumbs, and their children leapt from foot to foot, excited to point out their paper snowflakes.