Growing up, it was pretty much just Mom and me. We sort of grew up together because, as Mom put it, she was “just a kid with a kid.” She married at age twenty, gave birth to me a year later, and she and my father divorced when I was three-and-a-half years old.
Mom received child support each month. But because she never attended college and had no special skills, she could only get retail and manual labor jobs. So she never had much money. It was a fact I was just vaguely aware of as a child, only when my pleas for some new plaything or the other received occasional responses of, “We can’t afford that right now,” “I’ll see after I get paid again,” or “Maybe for your birthday or Christmas.” And those responses were very occasional. What little money Mom did have, she always scraped and saved to make sure I got almost every toy I wanted, and that my clothes were just as nice as the ones the “rich kids” at school wore. As far as material things went, I was the stereotypical spoiled only child, even though my pampered lifestyle was far more than Mom could really afford.
Mom always worked hard to make Christmases extra special for me because they had been extra special for her as a child. She often talked about those Christmas, describing how her father would awaken hours before she and her sister, then shake them from their slumbers and proclaim with delight, “It’s Christmas morning! Come look and see what all Santa Clause has left under the tree for you!” And they would rush to the living room and find packages piled high under the Christmas tree, spilling from all sides onto the surrounding radius of the floor.
Of course, Mom’s parents had never separated, and my grandfather alone had more money than she and my father put together. But that never deterred her. Every Christmas, I, too, would awaken to find package after colorfully-wrapped package containing every single goody that I had thought to ask for, and then some things that I hadn’t. A few of the “from” tags were marked “Mom,” but most were marked “Santa.” And I would laugh in glee and thank Mom, and then ask her to thank Santa, too, for the many gifts he had given me.
The year of my seventh Christmas, Mom had left a stable-yet-low-paying job in a shoe outlet to work in a plush jewelry store at the local mall. Her new job paid a higher hourly wage, plus commission on any jewelry sold. As Mom was a terrific salesperson, she earned more money at that job than she ever had. So she was certain she would be able to give me the best Christmas ever.
Then, less than two months before Christmas, the store manager, Curtis, called all of the employees in for a meeting.
“Someone has been stealing jewelry from our store,” Curtis said.
Shocked, Mom and her coworkers began murmuring exclamations among themselves, all talking at once, until Curtis held up his hand and called everyone back to attention. Then he continued, “We’ve had this investigated and determined that it’s not an outside job. That means the thief is among you.”
More exclamations and murmurs.
“If I don’t find out who it is right now,” Curtis went on, “we will have no choice but to let everyone in the store go. I’m giving the thief an opportunity to come forward. Whoever you are, you will be fired, even if you don’t confess. Now, it’s Christmastime. Why not do the right thing, save your fellow coworkers’ jobs, and come forward?”
He waited. And waited. And waited. Everyone remained silent.
Curtis sighed. “I’m sorry to have to do this, especially during the holidays. But the thief has given me no choice. All of you are fired.”
From that moment on, all Mom could think about was that she had bills to pay, and Christmas was right around the corner. How could she afford her daily expenses yet keep my Christmas from being ruined?
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