You strengthened my soul.
I picked your name today in the high school office from a large board full of Christmas wishes that want to be fulfilled; Emily H. age 5, Wish: jacket and warm clothes. I do not know you Emily, but you have touched me and I am instantly propelled back to 1964 when I was 5 years old.
My family immigrated to the United States on February 20th, 1961. Like many immigrant families they came to America to build a better life for me. And also like many immigrant families my parents did not have a lot of money but came with a strong work ethic and pride that they had entered this country of many opportunities.
The first years were very hard and we moved 22 times in less than 2 ½ years. My guess is that we had to keep ahead of the rent that was due. My mother sold her beautiful dresses and jewelry and took in ironing from the neighbors so that she could pay for nursing school in the US to recertify her RN degree she had received in Europe. My father was working as an electrician in the city during the week and in the mountains on the weekends. We did not see dad very much because he was working so hard but we did see him on Friday night before he went out with the guys to relax.
In the summer of 64 my family finally moved into a permanent home, a trailer just off of Federal Boulevard a few miles away from the school I would be attending. My mother was still studying at the nursing school and now was cleaning houses around the neighborhood during the daytime to bring in money. In the beginning I went with her on the bus with all of her cleaning supplies to the beautiful homes she cleaned. Eventually she got her Colorado drivers license and a green Ford Fairlane that she was very proud to drive to client’s homes. My father was working steadily with a local electrical company and did not have to work as many weekends but we still shopped for clothes at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. We ate food subsidized by the government which meant we had white bread, Velveeta cheese, spam, and powered milk. My dad often brought home fresh rabbit meat by hunting in the field behind the trailer we lived in. This routine stayed the same for years with mom being the primary caretaker of me and the home while studying her nursing books at night. Dad came home exhausted every night after work and went out with the guys on Friday’s to unwind. We were poor and my parents continued to struggle to make a better life for me.
It was the beginning of December 1964 around the time of my dad’s birthday. I remember getting out of my bed because my mom was crying. She was always in the kitchen at night studying but tonight she was at the table crying. She told me she missed her family and she was tired of struggling so hard to make a home and get back her RN degree. My mother could read and write English beautifully but she was shy when speaking because she thought her accent was so thick that no one could understand her. She felt that the school was treating her unfairly because she could not speak English well and with out being able to speak properly she would never get a job in a hospital again. She was always determined and strong but that night I could see she had somehow been defeated but I was not sure exactly why.
That weekend there was a lot of fighting going on between my mom and dad and I was sent outside or to my room but I could still hear them yelling at each other. They were fighting about the lack of money and my mom was mad at my dad for loosing more money betting on the dogs. Dad had been struggling with a gambling problem for years and on his birthday took his entire paycheck and thought he would double it up to buy special food and Christmas presents. Mom yelled at him because she had just enough money for rent and there would be no special meal for Christmas or anything else. This fight lasted for days. Dad yelled all the time about how stupid they were to come to America and mom mostly cried. I cried too but I did not know why.
The next weekend dad decorated the house with strings of lights and got our Christmas tree and nativity scene out from under skirting of the trailer. The nativity scene came from Europe and was one of the items that was somehow not sold over the years when money was needed. Mom and Dad said we needed to pray. We needed to pray for healing, peace, and for our family back home that they missed so much. I can not tell a lie, I prayed that night too. I prayed for toys and something yummy to eat.
It was Christmas Eve and we went to church. We prayed. Mom cried. Dad cried. I do not know why but I cried too. It was a freezing and windy Colorado night. Minutes after we got home there was a knock at the door. It was Mr. Pappas and Mr. Cahill. Mr. Pappas had sold my parents the trailer that we were living in and Mr. Cahill was the manager of the trailer park. I had fallen in love with Mr. Pappas when we had moved in. He was a big Greek man who laughed all the time and told me I was smart and beautiful. He had a big family and owned the trailer sales lot and the trailer park we lived in. Mr. Cahill and his wife were an older couple who managed the trailer park for him and they were like grandparents to me. Mom let them in and offered coffee. I am not sure how they knew what was going on between my parents and the money problems they were having but they brought us paper bags full of gifts. They brought a bag of potatoes, cans of green beans and corn, the biggest chicken I had ever seen, real milk, and a big box of chocolates (my mother loves chocolates). How did they know? They sat down and while Mr. Pappas was having his coffee he said he had one more gift and it was for me. I was so excited. I knew there was a reason I loved him. From yet another paper bag on the floor next to him he took out a doll with bright yellow braided hair. She had on a green and blue plaid skirt and a white button down shirt. She was beautiful! She was my first new doll I had received in America.
I will never forget that night and the look of surprise and appreciation in my parents faces. I felt that our family was loved and welcomed by these men and their families. Even better there was happiness and hope because the Pappas and Cahill families took a little of their time, money, and hearts to care about us, the family that was struggling to make ends meet.
As I look once more at 5 year old Emily’s wish I know why she has a special place in my heart. I will probably never meet her. But once, I was her. For more than 30 years in good times as well as bad my family and I have supported struggling families in our own neighborhoods as well as adopting a family outside of the area or country during the holidays. I hope that you will choose to do the same. You too may never know the families your gifts are going to. But please know it could be a gift that will never be forgotten and please remember if you choose to adopt a family, add one more thing to their wish list, a box of chocolates for everyone to enjoy.