Growing up in middle-class America my family held on to old Christmas traditions: The tree, the decorations, and the soft glow of the lights. The music that just fills your heart with love and the magic of the season. There would be a glistening turkey that was always the centerpiece with family in every chair. One year our neighbors’ house was robbed on Christmas Eve. Our childhood friends had no presents left to open. My brother and I chose three presents each and we took them to our neighbors. In some ways, that was the best Christmas ever. It felt like it meant something more.
Traditions were important in the 1970s when I was growing up. In an an ever-changing world, they were something you could always count on.
Snow on Christmas Eve was always so special. Mom would wake me up to watch it fall, like diamonds falling from the sky. Mom used to tell us that “Santa wouldn’t be to our house until after we went to church.”
The best part was riding home with Daddy every Christmas Day after church. Hearing his dress shoes clacking all the way up the hall to the double doors leading to the parking lot. I remember always having to gently run behind him to keep up.
When I became an adult, life wasn’t so easy. Being a single parent during the holidays or any special occasion was extremely difficult. We didn’t have a lot. A tree with lights was really all we had. It was something. I remember feeling guilty because oftentimes the presents under the tree for my kids was something they needed, instead of something they wanted.
Then the unthinkable happened. Homelessness. During those years I did everything I could simply to get a hotel room and maybe some food. The guilt ate at me knowing I couldn’t give the kids a Christmas like I had. The holidays became something I wanted to hide from. Sitting in a car and looking out the window, watching the rain drip down the windows, was how some holidays were spent. It was devastating.
Today, I live on a fixed income. I’ve been fortunate enough to be approved for a disability which comes with a monthly check I can depend on. It’s not easy. My days are oftentimes filled with anxiety, constantly checking my banking account. Will I have enough food? Is there enough for the bills? Will there be enough food for Faith, my dog?
This Christmas will be my fourth year in affordable housing after being homeless for seven long years. During this time, I’ve done everything in my power to hold onto my housing. I sold the street paper in Nashville, The Contributor, and have tried to get paid writing gigs like this to help supplement my income. When the pandemic hit, I became more involved in advocacy, hoping my story might possibly help others who find themselves struggling on the streets.
I stress, more than I ever have, about what I don’t know. I’m making it and proud to be paying for rent again and have a place to call my own. When the kids come over, I always try to have a fridge full of food they can rifle through. It brings me joy.
We never really know how much time we have left on earth. Being homeless taught me that there are no guarantees. I still find myself bending over to pick up that penny on the streets, but then I stop to think that someone else probably needs it more. Really, the day I learned to appreciate what I had was the day my life started to change for the better.
I tell my story to whomever will listen. I crawled into affordable housing after being broken by the streets. I’ve been on my knees and I’m proud that today, I can stand up. My home is my own. Most importantly, I try to help others every chance I get. Every day, I do my best to make up for the guilt I’ve felt for raising my kids in such turbulence.
This year I’m so happy that we will have a tree with a moderate amount of Christmas gifts. Some will be gifts that the kids need, but others will be ones I feel like they will like. It’s a Christmas I’d always wanted to give them, but never could. I hope it’s not our last Christmas, with what’s left of my family. Regardless, we will make it a festive one. I hope you and your family can do the same.
Courtesy of INSP North America / the International Network of Street Papers.
Vicky Batcher is a writer and housing advocate. She also sells The Contributor, the street newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee.