It's the week before Christmas 1963 and I have just finished waiting tables at the airport Holiday Inn. It has been a long day. Snow has been falling steadily since I came to work 10 hours ago. Flights were canceled, people were grumpy, tips were scant.
In the ladies room I dump the quarter tips from my apron pocket. Even making 50 cents an hour, it won't be enough. I cup my hands under the faucet to splash cold water on my burning face. My reflection looks back at me: brown hair, green eyes and a red rash. What is this?
The cold wind from Lake Erie blows through me as I trudge through the snow to my car. Shivering, I scrape the ice from my windshield. The old Pontiac is warmed up by the time I pick up the kids at my friend Sally's house. "Don't fall asleep," I tell them as I drive. "We'll be home in a few minutes."
The two boys scurry up the stairs to the second floor and one by one I carry up the other three, already bathed and in their pajamas. I tuck them into bed.
Slipping off my white uniform, I dress for my temp job at the post office for the night shift, 11 to 7. The rash on my face has spread to my chest and belly. Rummaging through the vanity drawer, I grab an old tube of summer makeup, dark enough, I hope, to hide the angry red spots.
"Hi Kathy, everyone is sleeping," I tell the babysitter as she arrives, handing her a list of instructions. I peek into the back bedroom at the three boys, two in bunk beds, one in the crib, tucking covers in. In the middle bedroom I kiss the blond curls peeking out of the blanket on the twin bed and pat my 3-month-old baby girl in the bassinet.
I pull into the post office lot next to my dad's car and lay my head on the steering wheel as if I am commanding the energy to return to my 26-year-old body. I'm shivering and burning.
Inside, my timecard punched, I look for my dad. "Hi Sweetie," he says, kissing me. He has worked here for 30 years and his fellow workers raise eyebrows about the young woman he now greets every night.
Good. I hope they do think he is my main man and then won't hit on me. Life is tough enough trying to support five kids, to supplement my welfare check with two jobs. Even though my welfare check is reduced for each dollar I earn, it leaves just enough to pay our rent and utilities with a little left to buy gas for the car. Being on "the dole" isn't the first seismic shift I've caused in my family; I'm also the first to be divorced.
I need to make my own way. I've got to earn enough to buy a small tree and a Christmas gift for each of the kids. How could I possibly explain why Santa skipped our home this year?
Sorting the Christmas mail, I faint. I don't remember getting home, but I lie in bed for the next three days, delirious.
At one point when I come out of my fog, Bobby, 7, tells me, "Sally called and told me what to do for the kids."
Yes, he'd fed his baby sister a bottle and pablum and changed her diapers, yes he'd made rolled oats for the kids for breakfast, being careful to fish out all the weevils as he'd seen his mother do. But the bags of surplus sugar and salt looked alike to him and he'd put salt into the first batch of oats and had to throw it out because no one would eat it.
Sally calls every few hours and tells Bobby what a good job he is doing, and that she'll bring supper over as soon as her husband gets home. She'll leave it in the hall outside the apartment. She can't come in because she hasn't had the German measles, nor have any of her five children.
I am in and out of my delirium. I hear Bobby reading Uncle Wiggily to the kids. Then all is quiet as darkness falls. The next two days float by. I hear a sharp rap at the door and try to stand but fall back onto the bed. I hear men's voices and am afraid for my children. I pull myself back up and at the door see three men with baskets filled with a turkey and all the fixings for Christmas dinner and a wrapped gift for each of the kids. By now the kids are all standing behind me, still in pajamas, faces not quite clean and hair tangled. I can't speak and tears streak my cheeks as they place the baskets on the kitchen table. Later, back at the Elks Club, I'm told, they too shed tears as they tell the story of the young woman and her children.
I think it was the next night, Christmas Eve, when I hear boom, boom, boom at the door, bringing me again out of my delirium. I make my way to the door and open it to a beautiful sight. Standing at the threshold are three Marines from Toys For Tots in their crisp uniforms, arms full with three toys for each child. I see three wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to my babes.
Jan Golden, 72, is a freelance writer who lives in Largo. She facilitates a women's writing group, OWL, the Older Women's Legacy project, which is affiliated with the national Story Circle Network (storycircle.org). The group meets once a month at the Safety Harbor Library. For information, call Golden at (737) 535-7816.