“What do you want for Christmas this year?” Karla Hadley nudges and winks as her best friend Samatha Owen, who just turned 12 last week. How lame to have a birthday so close to Christmas Karla thinks to her self as walks beside her friend.
“Uhhm, I haven’t exactly thought about it actually.” She shrugged, looking down at her feet as they walk down the streets of South Carolina. The traffic buzzed past them, the air was chilly and snow was beginning to fall. It didn’t typically begin snowing until mid February – but this was a special year.
“You haven’t thought about it? How is that possible? I have a list already made, hanging on my fridge!” She began to skip on the frost that had gathered on the sidewalk. “This year I am asking for that pink bike we saw in the store last month as well as the newest iPod. Only because half the kids at school are either getting it or have it already. Last year, I got almost everything that I asked for, so I bet this year will be the same.”
Samatha smiled at her friend. Must be nice. If only she had the luxuries that Karla did. Karla’s parents bought her anything she wanted, and she bragged about it all the time. Sam thought to herself, “is there anything I really want this year?”
The answer was yes. One thing. One thing that she knew it would be unlikely she would get it.
“Well.. my house is that way, see you later Sam! Maybe I can come to your place tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow isn’t a good day. Maybe another time.”
They waved goodbye and Sam watched as Karla took off running towards her two story home, with the beautiful white picket fence. She stood for a moment admiring it. What a perfect life! She headed to her own home, four blocks down. As she approached she noticed the overgrown weeds in the front lawn, the shattered front window caused by the last fight her dad had with her mother. He had drank a little too much and threw a beer bottle, breaking the glass. Mother had tried to patch it up the best she could, but it was still noticeable from a mile away.
She walked in, smelling the aroma of freshly baked bread. The same as yesterday. Her mother greeted her with a warm smile and a hug. “Did you have fun with your friend?”
“I did. Even though all she did was talk about how spoiled she is. Her parents must spend a fortune of money on her. She said she gets everything on her list every Christmas.”
Her mother raised her eyebrow, “Mrs. Hadley is a busy woman, she spends most her days in her office working to make that much money.”
Samatha thought of this. It was true, Karla mentioned before her mother was rarely home, and her father wasn’t much better. Karla spent most of her time at her big house alone. Samatha looked at her mom, who was pulling a loaf out of the oven. Her shirt came up, revealing a large purple bruise on her side. Samatha looked away, pretending she didn’t notice. She was used to pretending things.
“Can we put up a Christmas tree this year, mom?” Samantha pleaded with her.
“You know your father will not allow it. I’m sorry honey.” she turned and began setting their small wooden dinner table with three plates and napkins. Dad would be home soon. Her mother always did everything she could to make sure things were in order when he got home from work, so that way he wouldn’t be in a bad mood.
Samantha stared at Karla who was yawning for the 56th time since they met up at the park. “What is the matter with you?” she questioned her zombie of a friend.
“Oh, I am so tired. I hardly got any sleep last night. My parents were out late at that one place… where you play on those games and win money. Anyways… I was alone trying to fall asleep. Let’s just say, big houses make scary noises.”
Samatha was grateful that her mother was home most the time with her. “Last night my mom and I did a puzzle. It is our favorite thing to do together…” She twirled her hair. …other than learning new ways to braid each other’s hair.”
Karla looked at her funny. “Really? Do you always just braid it? Why not curl it all fancy sometime?”
“Well… I don’t own a curling iron.”
“Oh! They have them at almost every store. Just have your parents buy you one. I’ll teach you how to use it!”
Samantha knew her mother had no money to buy her even a curling iron, and father didn’t believe in presents anyways. She ignored her friend’s recommendation, brushing it off with a “thanks for the heads up!” look.
Later that evening, Samatha sat in her small room, staring at herself in the mirror propped up on her nightstand. She played with her hair, rolling it up her fingers and putting pins in it to hold it. She would leave it that way for 10 minutes and see if maybe it would curl a little bit. She heard the loud voice of her father, cursing and spitting harsh words at her mother. She was accustomed to tuning it out. But she cringed every time she heard a loud noise or a thud somewhere in her house. If her dad didn’t stop drinking, they wouldn’t have much of a home left. A few minutes passed and her father’s voice quieted, he must have gotten tired. He normally wouldn’t target her if she remained out of sight. Her mother always made sure she was the one to take all of his verbal and physical abuse, so he would not target Samantha. The house went completely quiet, almost too quiet and still. So still that the lack of noise caused a slight ringing in her ears. Dad must have passed out.
Her door creaked open and Mrs. Owen walked up behind her, placing her gentle hands on her daughter’s shoulder. “Trying something new?” she questioned, a slight smirk on her lips. Her eyes were red and puffy, and Sam knew, although she was not okay, she was here to make sure her daughter was.
Two weeks had passed, Sam didn’t hang out much with Karla anymore. With school being out for Christmas break, she stayed home and helped her mom with odds and ends. It had been 3 days since she her dad had come home and mrs. Owen had been out in town most the days, doing what Sam wasn’t sure. She put the last dried dish in the cupboard and heard the front door open. It was mother. She looked worn, but she smiled brightly at Sam, exchanging a hug. Sam immediately noticed the dirt smears all over her dress.
“where have you been mom?” she brushed the ends of her dress.
Then she saw the sign. Her mother held it behind her back. Grabbing it from behind her she read it, her mouth gaping.
IN NEED OF MONEY. ANYTHING WILL HELP.
Sam stared at the sign in shock. “Mother?”
Grabbing the sign back, she put in the closet and sat on the couch. Defeated.
“Your father is gone. He isn’t coming back. He took the last of the money with him.”
“He’s gone?” a wave of emotions came over her.
Mrs. Owen nodded.
She wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved, or frightened.
Then she understood, her mother had been begging for money to provide for the two of them until she could find work. Father had left them, as he had been threatening to do for months, and now they wouldn’t have a source of income. That explained where she had been the past couple days.
Speechless, she wrapped her hands around her neck. Tears streamed down her face. Her mother felt she had nothing to offer her. Here Sam had been talking about her friend who had a beautiful home and parents who bought her anything she wanted and her own mother was out there begging, in the cold in the middle of December, putting aside her pride so they could eat. Shame flooded her.
She looked at the puzzle that was on the dining room table, the shattered window that had been patched up by her mother’s hands. She saw the sign poking from the closet. She realized then what she failed to before. She may not have a Christmas tree full of presents underneath, the nicest house on the block or all the money in the world, but she had love. Unconditional love. It was all she really needed. She looked at the woman who gave all of herself to love her, and protect her. Her heart flooded with gratitude.
It was Karla. Sam wasn’t in the mood to talk. She put her head down and looked at her feet as she walked.
Catching up to her, Karla tried catching her breath. “Whats wrong?”
“I’m just headed to the store to pick up a few things for mother.”
“I’ll tag along. I’ve missed you. I have been meaning to invite you over!”
Sam fiddled with her sleeve. She noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk, a guitar in his hand and a cup in front of him with the word “Spare change” on it. His clothes were worn and dirty.
Karla noticed him too. “Gross.”
Sam thought of her own mother. Had Karla seen her and said the same thing? Shaking her head, she ignored the thought. She felt drawn to the man. She left Karla’s side and went to him, bending down beside where he sat, picking the strings.
“I just wanted to say Merry Christmas.” she smiled.
“Merry Christmas” he replied, a puzzled look on his face.
“Do you mind if I sit and listen to you play?”
Karla looked humiliated. “Sam?”
“I’ll catch up with you later, Karla.”
She sat, singing “White Christmas” with the man as people passed by. Occasionally, money was dropped in the cup. They both smiled as they sang, spreading the joy of Christmas time.
It was Christmas Day! Sam jumped out of bed and out into the kitchen where mrs. Owen was cooking eggs and biscuits. What a treat! She saw in the corner of the room, a small tree decorated with tinsel. Underneath, was a single gift with Sam’s name on it. She beamed. “How did you..?” she trailed off. It was wrapped in old newspaper. She glanced at her mother, who nodded at her. Unwrapping it carefully, she noticed her hands were almost shaking with excitement. She hadn’t expected anything. However, her mother had found the money to buy her… she held the gift in her hand. Her eyes filled, and her lips trembled.
A curling iron.
It was more than she could handle. Just a couple weeks ago, she had been ashamed of the life she lived, the home she had, and a lack of materialistic things. But in reality, she had what money could not buy. She had love. It wasn’t about what was underneath the tree, it was about who was gathered around it. Her mother taught her to be kind, to make sacrifices, and to endure. This was a Christmas she would never forget. She would spend not just every Christmas, but every day showing her future children what it meant to be loved, and to show love where love has been lacked. Maybe later today, she would invite Karla over.
“Thank you, momma.” she whispered. Feeling happier than she ever had before.
Dedicated to my mother, Regina.
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