27: Not Alone

27: Not Alone

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

Not Alone

Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.

~Mother Teresa

Christmas had always been a big deal in my family. Somewhere deep inside, I believed that I would never spend Christmas away from my loved ones. All through college and a couple of years post-college, I always made it home, even if I arrived, like Santa, on Christmas Eve.

Then came the year I was twenty-four. My family home was in Colorado, but I was working as a waitress in Indiana. I assumed that I would get time off to go home for Christmas. Didn’t everyone get a Christmas break? Imagine my horror when the schedule was posted, and being the most recent hire, everyone else’s holiday requests trumped mine. I was scheduled to work until closing at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve and be back to open at 10 a.m. on the 26th. There was no way I was going home.

I tried consoling myself. It was just another day. No big deal. I would be fine spending Christmas alone in my one-bedroom apartment. But my heart was breaking. I went to work the next morning with a heavy sadness engulfing me. I slumped down at the bar with another waitress, telling her about my plight, paying little to no attention to the eighteen-year-old busboy setting up tables behind us. I didn’t even know his name.

“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation,” he said walking over to where we sat. “I just started here four weeks ago and got the same lousy schedule that you did.”

“I’m sorry.” I replied with sympathy in my voice.

“It’s not so bad for me, I’m from a little town in southern Michigan, only a two-hour drive from here, I will just head up there as soon as we close on Christmas Eve. You could come with me.”

“Thanks,” I said, and laughed, not taking him seriously. “I will be fine at my apartment.”

The following morning, December 23rd, the boy ran over to me as soon as I walked through the door to the restaurant.

“I talked to my mom,” he said enthusiastically. “She agrees you should not spend Christmas alone. She is getting the guest room made up for you. It will be fun.”

I didn’t know what to say. Did I really want to spend Christmas with total strangers? I thought about my tiny apartment and the prospect of eating a turkey TV dinner, alone, and I decided what the heck! “Okay, if you’re sure I won’t be an intrusion.”

He beamed at me. “Not at all. My family is great. Just bring your clothes with you to work tomorrow and we can leave from here as soon as our shift ends.”

As he walked away, I asked, “Just one question. What is your name?”

“It’s Robert, but my friends call me Robbie.”

Christmas Eve found the two us heading north in Robbie’s ancient car. As the miles sped by, I learned he had moved down to the city to attend community college in the fall, and he missed his small hometown where he believed he was related to most of the 1,000 residents.

We pulled into a tiny town around seven that evening, with several inches of snow on the ground and a light snow still falling. I felt like we had entered a Currier and Ives Christmas card. First stop was the VFW hall. His extended family, nearly 100 people of all ages, was gathered there to celebrate Christmas Eve. I was warmly greeted by so many nice people that the names and faces became a blur.

After partaking in the huge potluck spread, consisting of every holiday food imaginable, everyone lined the room with folding chairs for their annual White Elephant gift exchange. Robbie’s mom had purchased gifts for her son and myself so we could participate. The next hour was spent laughing and joking and stealing the best presents from the others in the room. I had so much fun that I forgot I was not a member of the family.

Later we headed to his family’s old farmhouse, and I settled into their quaint guest room for the night. I woke Christmas morning to the excited squeals of his two younger sisters and made my way down to their living room to watch the family open presents. Another twinge of sadness stabbed me. I was an outsider. How I longed to be home opening presents with my family. Much to my surprise, there was a stack of six presents with my name on them.

“Everyone needs presents on Christmas,” his mom explained. “I didn’t know what you needed, so I hope you will like them.”

Tears welled up in my eyes at her kindness. I was truly delighted by the small kitchen items and homemade presents she had assembled for me. When all the presents were unwrapped, Robbie’s mom asked if I would like to use their telephone to call my family.

“I would love to,” I exclaimed. “But are you sure it’s not too expensive?” In those days it was not cheap to make long distance calls, and we all did it sparingly.

“It’s Christmas. Of course you should call them.”

The conversation with my mom was interesting as I tried to explain where I was and who I was with. Soon Robbie’s grandparents arrived and we all enjoyed a huge turkey dinner, followed by many laughter-filled rounds of card and board games.

We turned in early that night, knowing that we had to get up at the crack of dawn and head back to the city to work. Leaving in the morning, there were hugs all around. I truly felt that in a few short hours, I had become part of their family. I was urged to come back and visit anytime and I promised that I would. Even then I sadly doubted it would ever happen.

The next few days flew by and I didn’t see my new friend. About a week later, Robbie walked into the bar at the beginning of my shift.

“I have news,” he said. “I’ve decided to move back home and start school nearby this semester. This is my last shift here.”

“Good luck. I really enjoyed your family. Let’s keep in touch.”

Had there been e-mail or Facebook in those days it might have happened, but the truth is I never heard from him again. Later that year, I too left Indiana, moving back home to Colorado.

That was the only Christmas I ever spent away from my family. Since then, so many wonderful Christmases have been celebrated with my parents, and later with my children, and now, my grandchildren. All of them were filled with precious memories. And yet, whenever I am asked the question, “What is your favorite Christmas memory?” my mind always goes back to that long ago Christmas and the kindness of strangers.

~Jill Haymaker

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