In the cesspool of money, bling, and consumerism that is, for the most part, the New York Times Style Section, Stephen Elliott's Christmas essay was a little diamond this past Sunday.
His sad, wonderful essay is about being a runaway, homeless kid having Christmas at his foster home and feeling a little less loved than the other kids. The essay is not just about Christmas but also memory and how our idea of ourselves shapes it, especially among those of us that chronically indulge in feeling a little less loved.
Merry Christmas Stephen Elliott, and everybody else.
No Home I’d Call My Own
By STEPHEN ELLIOTT
Published: December 18, 2009
CHRISTMAS has always been my existential holiday.
I left home when I was 13, after my mother died. I lived on the streets of Chicago for a year, sleeping on rooftops and in broom closets and breaking into boiler rooms when it became too cold.
I was 14 when I was arrested sleeping in a hallway. By then my father had moved, and I didn’t know where he lived, so the state took custody. I spent the next four years in a series of group homes and state-financed institutions.
In the group homes, holidays weren’t so bad because we teenagers were all in the same parentless boat. Depending on the home, we would be given presents and there would be a nice meal. Volunteers would take us ice skating or bowling or something like that.
It was when I became a nominal adult, a student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, that I began to understand my predicament.
Winter break would come; the students scattered; the dorms closed. And I had to figure out where to go.
One year I hitchhiked west, hoping to make it to Los Angeles but only getting as far as Tucson before running out of time and catching a Greyhound bus back to the university.
Another year I went to Mexico, traveling by bus with a student pass, staying in boarding homes and sneaking into the fancy hotels and lying next to the pool. On the road I didn’t have to explain myself, or why I thought I didn’t have anywhere to go. It’s lonely traveling on Christmas, but nobody sees it.
There were also times when I returned to Chicago to spend Christmas with the Bell family, whom I lived with before starting college. The Bells were poor. They owned a house — a two-story frame house built in the 1930s, bought with a $5,000 inheritance used as a down payment and a G.I. loan. But that was it.
The mom, Maria, whom everybody called Ma Bell, raised three children in that house virtually by herself while working as an administrative assistant at the Catholic Charities. Her youngest son, Jason, and I were friends, and she didn’t seem to mind when, just after turning 18, I left the group home and showed up with a bag of possessions and moved into the basement. I stayed eight months, pitching in sometimes with money from a part-time job and helping a little around the house, but not much. It was a generous family, and I took more than I gave.
My first Christmas with the Bells was during my first or second year of college. I told Ma I was coming, and she said, “You’re always welcome.” That year I saw the pattern. All the children would get presents: a bakeware set for Chrissy, the oldest daughter; a drill for Benny, the oldest son; a toolbox for Jason. I would get a T-shirt or socks. It was simple commerce; my presents didn’t cost as much. The difference in price was the clearest reminder that I was an outsider who had been taken in.
Now I’m 38 and Christmas is about the babies, and I don’t notice the price tags on my presents. The Bells’ house has been sold and Ma lives in the far north suburbs, still struggling financially. I tell her that I’m writing about our old Christmases, that I have mixed feelings about them. I tell her it made me a little sad that my presents didn’t cost as much. She tells me it was complicated for her as well.
“I never knew if you were coming,” she says. “You would never commit to anything. The day before you might tell me you were coming home. But I was so happy when you were there.”
She made me a stocking, which she did for all her children, and hung it over the mantelpiece. It was there whether I arrived or not. And it was true, what she said. I had a foot out the door. I got used to running away at an early age. I don’t know how to commit.
This was my Christmas lie. I preferred to think I didn’t have a home, that I wasn’t part of a family. But it wasn’t true. At least not completely.
“Did I ever bring you presents?” I ask her.
“I don’t know,” she says. “It doesn’t matter.”
To help me remember, she brings me pictures from 18, 20 years ago. There’s Jason in long underwear, shirtless, an eagle and a skull with wings tattooed on his shoulder, holding his freshly unwrapped fishing rod. There’s Benny holding what looks like a handheld video game device. There’s Ma in her moccasin boots with all the food spread out on the table. Chrissy, the only child to have already left home, her face poking above a new purple sweater.
And there I am in the chair by the front window. Why didn’t somebody tell me to get a haircut and wear clothes that fit? There’s a picture of Jason and me leaning over the couch, Chrissy and Michelle, Benny’s girlfriend, sitting next to Benny, all of us looking at the photo album open on Benny’s lap. In the next picture I’m face down on the couch. Chrissy and I are both asleep, the cat impassively between us, the coffee table covered in candy wrappers.
There are so many pictures. Here, we’re passing a pie. There, we’re slicing a ham. Everybody seems to be smiling.
“One year we had a Goodwill Christmas,” Ma says. “Everybody’s presents were from Goodwill. There was never any money. I worked so hard and I was exhausted but I didn’t want anybody to go. I would sit on the couch and you would all tell stories, one after another. And you would all laugh and laugh, and that was my reward. I would sit on the couch and close my eyes and listen to you all laughing. It made me so happy because life was hard. Nobody helped. My first husband didn’t help. My second husband was a junkie.”
I tell her I remember. I remember the laughing. The laughs seemed endless, even though Jason and Chrissy were in recovery and Ma’s boyfriend was stuck in a series of difficult low-paying jobs. Maybe it was Benny doing voices: the Indian storeowner, the used-car salesman.
Here is a picture. Just a Christmas tree in front of the staircase, covered in tinsel, an angel on top. Beneath the tree are presents, carefully wrapped in blue, green and red. To the right, on the wall, is a picture of an Indian and a buffalo. On the floor, against the TV stand, an Elvis record. It’s almost a cliché, all the symbols meaning exactly what you think they mean.
“What was the joke?” I ask. “What were the stories we were telling?”
“I don’t know,” Ma says. “I remember the laughing, but I can’t remember what was so funny.”
Stephen Elliott is the author of “The Adderall Diaries,” a memoir.