“Look, Hope,” she said, “This is our door!”
“Look at this, Hope, this our very own bathroom! And this is our toilet! We don’t have to share it with anyone!”
“Look, Hope! This is where your bed is going to be! And mine will be right here next to yours!”
“Look, Hope! We have a fridge! Soon it will have our own food in it, that no one else will eat!”
They had no furniture, so at first mother and daughter slept on the floor, Hope’s head nestled snuggly on Sissy’s shoulder. Gradually they began to accumulate a broken chair here, a table with a wobbly leg there, a mattress someone had thrown out but still looked to be in decent shape. Sissy kept her eyes open on her way to work every morning, looking for things tossed in the dumpster or left out by the street with a “FREE” sign posted on it. She was building a new life for them, and it made Sissy feel proud when she walked in her door at night to a place that was all hers.
It was the beginning of fall when Sissy saw the pretty doll in the toy store window. She was a checker at the small grocery store just up the street from her apartment. The toy store was on the way to work, so she passed by the window display every day. She wanted so badly to be able to give the beautiful doll to Hope for Christmas. Her heart sunk, however, when she saw the $25 price tag. She knew that there were other dolls that she could find for much less, but there was something special about this one. This was going to be their first Christmas in their own place and she wanted it to be special for Hope.
Sissy began reserving a dollar or two from each of her paychecks, tucking them inside an empty mayonnaise jar she kept high up in her cupboard. It was difficult to even save those few dollars. She could barely pay for her rent, and then adding the cost of food and a babysitter for Hope, money was very tight. But Sissy was determined. She frequently went without dinner so that she could reserve that food for Hope to eat the next day and stretch out her meager grocery budget as much as she could.
A few weeks before Christmas, Sissy was excited that she almost had enough money saved to purchase the doll for Hope. She wished they could have a Christmas tree, though. Sissy had never had one in her entire life. They had moved too much while she was growing up, and her mother didn’t care much about anything which didn’t feed her drug habit.
On her way home one night she came across several evergreen branches someone had trimmed from their Christmas tree and discarded by the side of the road. Excited, she gathered them up and hurried home.
Sissy and Hope spent a fun evening binding the branches together to create a makeshift tree, then decorating it with paper chains, stars and snowflakes cut out of newspaper. When the tree was complete, Sissy pulled the lamp out from their bedroom and tucked it behind the branches, making the tree look like it was glowing. The smell of the evergreen branches filled the room and Sissy didn’t think she could ever be any happier than she was at that moment, watching her daughter dance in front of the tree, her eyes glowing with excitement.
At last it was Christmas Eve. Sissy got home from work and tucked her last few dollars into her mayonnaise jar. She had exactly $25, just the right amount to get the doll for Hope. She was fantasizing about how excited her little girl was going to be Christmas morning when she saw the doll’s glossy brown curls and bright brown eyes, when there was an insistent knocking at her door. No one ever came to her door, so the sound startled her. She looked through the peep hole and saw a short, balding man with a large nose. It was her landlord.
She opened the door.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Bernard?” she asked him, opening the door only part way. “I already paid rent for this month, and next month’s isn’t due until the fifth.”
“Yes, yes,” Mr. Bernard said gruffly, and he shoved the door fully open so he could walk into the tiny front room that served as living room, kitchen, and dining room all in one. He seemed to look around the apartment for a bit, grunting when he saw the humble Christmas tree covered in paper decorations.
“Miss Madsen,” he finally said. “I’m sorry to tell you that I will need to be raising your rent $25 per month. The extra payment is due immediately.”
Sissy let out an involuntary gasp.
“Mr. Bernard, I can barely afford the rent as it is,” she cried. “Please, I know $25 doesn’t sound like a lot to you, but it is too much for me!”
Mr. Bernard shook his head irritably. “Look Miss Madsen, the rent for this apartment has been the same for the last five years, even though prices have gone up everywhere else. The cost of the building utilities and management is simply too much. Everyone’s rent is going up.”
“But what if I can’t pay you the $25?” she asked, her voice beginning to waver.
“Then I will have to kick you out and place a tenant here who is willing to pay the full rental amount!” he bellowed in response.
A single tear began to well up in Sissy’s eye until a blink released it, sending it on a winding course down her cheek.
Mr. Bernard seemed to consider her for a moment, and then took a few steps toward Sissy. Not liking the way he was looking at her, she backed up until she was leaning against the wall. The stocky man placed his wide hand on the wall next to Sissy’s ear and leaned in closer.
“Of course,” he said quietly, “I can think of an alternate way for you to make payments to me, if you can’t come up with the extra money.” He stroked the length of his mustache, tracing around his mouth. Sissy’s stomach turned.
Suddenly there was a whimper which came from the doorway to the only bedroom. It was Hope, standing there with a scared look on her face. Sissy had almost forgotten that she was not alone with this man. She couldn’t allow Hope to see anything so ugly, so she plucked up her courage to shove him away. The motion seemed to fire up her instincts. She looked at the man with disgust.
“I will get you your money, Mr. Bernard,” she said coldly, and felt the strength of steel resonate in her voice. She turned toward the cupboard where she had the hidden mayonnaise jar.
Handing Mr. Bernard the wad of bills she said, “Here’s your money. Now get out of my apartment.”
Mr. Bernard grunted and swiped the money from her hands. He turned and left, closing the door with a solid bang.
The strength that Sissy felt previously seemed to evaporate away, leaving her feeling weak and tiny. She slumped to the floor and let the tears begin to fall.
Hope padded over to her mother and touched her softly on her cheek.
“Mamma sad?” she asked in her lilting toddler voice.
“No honey,” Sissy said as she drew her daughter close to her and gave her a squeeze. “Mamma’s not sad anymore. It’s Christmas tomorrow, and that means everything will be alright.”
Sissy turned on the lamp behind their little tree and pulled Hope onto her lap. She sang Christmas carols softly in her ear until finally the girl drifted off to sleep. It was only then that Sissy allowed herself to let her tears flow freely. She cried for the loss of her Christmas dream for Hope, knowing that her little girl would wake to no presents under the tree. She cried for this new predicament she found herself in, and knew she would have to uproot her daughter again to find a new home. And finally she cried for the loss of innocence spent in a lifetime of trauma and fear, wondering if she could ever make things right for Hope. She felt like such a failure.
Suddenly Sissy’s eyes rose up to the star which sat on top of their tree. Sissy had spent the most time on that ornament, wanting it to be perfect as the tree’s crowning glory. She had folded and cut the paper until it had eight crisp points reaching to the heavens. The light shining from behind seemed to make the thin paper glow with a light of its own.
Softly Sissy began to sing the words to the familiar Christmas song:
“Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
‘Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”
When Sissy got to the third verse she was flooded with so much emotion that her voice faltered, but she continued on.
“Silent night, holy night.
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace.
Jesus, Lord at thy birth. Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”
Although Sissy was not raised with any religion in particular, she felt with certainty there was a God. She was sure she had felt His love in her life, guiding her when she was lost and unsure where to turn next.
If there was any time she needed the hand of the Lord in her life, it was now, she thought.