I arrived home to find the tail end of the Christmas Daddies telethon on TV. I’m a big fan of this fund raiser as there was a time in my life when I relied on its generosity to provide a Christmas for my own family. Back thirty years ago, dead beat dads weren’t called on the carpet to support their children. If they refused to pay up they usually got away with it. Now they track you down and garnish your wages, so there’s no escaping your responsibility. Divorce from a spouse doesn’t mean a severance from your children, thankfully the laws have changed. My ex was more of the cut-the-nose-off to spite-the-face mentality and he didn’t think about his children; he was more concerned that I do without. He made it impossible for me to stay then hated me for leaving, blamed me for everything and wanted me to pay. He stopped working, defaulted on the mortgage so we would eventually loose our house and vehicle just so I wouldn’t get any kind of compensation in the divorce. The old "can’t get blood out of a turnip" was his mantra all the way to bankruptcy. In his warped need for revenge, I don’t think he ever considered his children might be collateral damage and go to bed hungry, but then again, maybe he didn’t care. Diagnosed a sociopath, his main concern was how the world revolved around him so he didn’t play fair.
I’ll never forget the day my son opened the fridge and the only item filling the empty cavernous space was the bright light and half jar of peanut butter. In a panicked little voice that shattered my heart he asked. “When are you going to buy groceries mommy?” He never saw my tears but it left a memory that never went away. The experience scarred me and I blame that lean period on my overeating today, harkening back to that feeling of going to bed hungry, never having enough. We are all products of our past, good or bad and I believe that’s why I cry like a baby when I see the homeless, especially young people pan handling on the streets for survival. My family only had to brave having nothing for a few months, some people make a lifetime of it.
I can’t describe the feeling of hearing my children’s little bellies grumbling protest not having enough to eat. Waiting on social assistance was a long and tedious process and in the meantime we existed on handouts from kind neighbours, who risked their own welfare to help us. My husband went on the warpath and smashed picture windows and car windows of those who got involved, offering rides us to town or giving us food. I felt so guilty for bringing the plague down on them for their kindness.
I'd become more afraid to stay than to leave and although I had no expectations of a future, leaving was worth pursuing even if it turned out badly. It was a dark and terrible time, wrought with fear and worry. I lived on the edge, hardly sleeping, waiting for the attack that might end my life and there were moments when I almost caved and went back just to end the tirade of his wrath. For years I’d lived on the wrong side of the fence, a grassless, hopeless place to be, but we took it one day at a time and somehow we survived.
Although I appreciated the financial help, there was a part of me that wasn’t happy receiving assistance. I wanted to be independent, stand on my own feet, pave my own way, so I accepted the cheques while I went to school to improve our lives and situation. I graduated with a Clerk Typist certificate so I could get a better job and started out in an accounting office. Ironically, the job actually paid less than what I received on social assistance after all the deductions were taken off, but I was on my way to a new life and never looked back. I can’t say it was easy, I was a single mom and life was filled with hurtles but I had my self-respect, a roof over our heads and enough to eat, that was all we could ask for.
I’m not a fan of commercial Christmas and in our home we don’t participate in presents and shopping. Christmas belongs in the dreams of children, especially ones who struggle from broken homes or lower incomes. They need a bit of brightness and Christmas Daddies provides smiles from those generous donations. I remember having nightmares before the holidays of not having money to buy a present for my children. It was always Christmas eve and I would be wondering the streets, going from store to store to find something, anything, to buy. The stores were always empty, the walls looked like the houses after the Grinch stole Christmas, bare wires hanging and paper on the floor, nothing on the shelves except broken toys and dust where the good ones had been. I’d wake up in a sweat, panicked that Christmas morning would arrive and my children would be disappointed.
The year I left my husband, well, actually escaped with my life, I held up at Bryony House in Halifax, the home for abused women, to get custody of my kids and start divorce proceedings while under their protective eye. Once those wheels were in motion I came back home and was awarded custody of our matrimonial home until it was sold and we lived there without money to pay the bills or buy food. It takes months to receive provincial social assistance; they give you bare minimum for the first months through a municipal stipend until you're established in the system. The oil in the drum was rationed so we’d wrap ourselves in duvets to stay warm and used the heat sparingly, turning it off after a cycle and then back on before we saw our breath. I watched the fuel gauge constantly, hoping the heat would last until the next cheque arrived. In hindsight, I should have left sooner; in the summer months when heat wasn’t a problem.
Until that first allotment arrived we relied on the handouts of caring people. The first cheques are very lean, with barely enough to survive on so that meant nothing for Christmas that loomed ahead. I was devastated that my boys would suffer the harsh realities of life when they deserved better. I wanted them to believe in Santa for as long as possible but how would I explain the empty stockings and lack of presents?
And then a miracle occurred. A week or so before Christmas a cheque arrived in the mail for $150.00. It was like winning the lottery. To a person with pennies in their pocket it was a fortune. I was able to fill their stockings, and Santa left toys they’d longed for from the Sears Wishbook. If not for Christmas Daddies, there would have been nothing.
A couple of days before the holidays I was in the grocery store wondering what I would make for Christmas dinner when the owner called me aside to say that someone in town had donated a turkey to my family. I had tears in my eyes as I went to claim the bird, wondering who would have done such a thing. My tumultuous marriage was fodder for town gossip so everyone knew the rough life we’d been living. I never found out who helped us, but I looked at people differently always wondering who the kind soul was. We cut down a tree from the backyard, a Charlie Brown variety that wouldn’t have won any prize, but it was the most beautiful tree we’ve ever had. The generosity of others provided us with a happy and almost normal Christmas. Not only did we dine on a fantastic Christmas feast but it provided hot meals for the next couple of weeks.
I believe in giving back. My life is so blessed. I generously donate to Christmas Daddies knowing that there are families out there that will feel what I felt when that miracle cheque arrives before Christmas.