"You mean, we're not even going to have a tree?"
"No, I'm sorry. I can't afford one. Your Mamaw has a tree. You can spend the night there Christmas Eve if you want."
"Why does it matter? I know there's no such thing as Santa now, anyway."
I sat pouting at the kitchen table in the tiny, 3-room apartment. I could barely stand to eat my dinner, even though it was one of my favorites and one of my mom's most simple creations: Campbell's chicken noodle soup with a can of cream of chicken mixed in. That soup always felt like a hug from the inside.
I stirred the soup and blew my too-long bangs out of my eyes and tried to keep Mom from seeing that I was almost going to cry. Pouting was one thing; crying, when Mom was having such a hard time, too, didn't seem fair.
Nothing about the current situation seemed fair. I had gotten exactly what I thought I wanted, and we had moved to Barbourville. I wanted to get away from my dad, away from the drinking and the yelling and the cruelty he could display on a good bender. But I was 9 and I didn't know how hard it was going to be to be on our own.
Mom found an apartment she could afford, owned by a family member who gave us a great deal, but it was in a run-down building and didn't even have its own bathroom. We hated sharing the one cramped little bathroom with two other families on the floor; I've never felt poorer in my entire life than when I had to wait in line with my neighbors to relieve myself and brush my teeth before bed.
The apartment was a five-minute walk away from my grandma's, and more often than not I put on my coat and walked to the trailer when nature called. That's also where my mom and I bathed; no way was Mom letting me spend any time in a bathtub that was cleaned solely on the honor system.
I was three hours away from my friends and my sister and new brother-in-law and missed them all so much it made my stomach hurt when I thought about it too much. I didn't fit in at my new school; all the kids in my class had known each other forever and didn't want to make friends with the skinny new girl who dressed and talked differently from them.
To top it all off, Mom had just told me the truth about Santa. It wasn't a surprise, but I so badly needed to believe in something that year, something bigger and more magical than a crummy apartment a long way away from the only place I'd ever known as home.
"Well, I'm sorry," Mom said, triple-checking the burner beneath the soup pot. The pilot light was always going out, and she had me scared to death that the apartment was going to fill with gas and blow us and the dirty bathroom next door to kingdom come. "I thought you knew Santa wasn't real. You're too old to believe in that, anyway, and I can't afford to play along. We're just going to have to make do. Now finish your soup. I have some ladies coming over to get their hair done."
Mom was working two part-time beautician jobs, one at a shop and one at the nursing home. Most nights, her family and friends would come to the apartment and have my mom do their hair in the kitchen, giving her a little extra money. She appreciated that, and the money did help. But it meant dinner was often rushed, and I would be shooed from the only spot in the apartment that was bright and cheerful. And I often went to sleep with the sweet smell of perm solution in my nose.
"If Santa isn't real," I asked, "how did I get that bike the year Dad was on strike? You all couldn't afford it."
"Your sister bought almost everything that year," she said. And for the first time since we moved, I thought my mom was going to cry. "Your uncle John bought a few things, but your sister bought the bike and used every bit of money she had saved to give you a good Christmas. Lord, I miss her this year."
And suddenly I missed her so much I thought my heart would break.
We became quiet. We both missed home. We both missed the simple joy of using our own bathroom and taking a bath whenever we wanted without trecking to a trailer five minutes down the road. We missed our Christmas tree and the lights the neighbor put up on his house and shopping and eating out and all the things we used to do at Christmas. We missed my sister, without whom we just didn't feel like a family. Dad had made last Christmas miserable for us (my bedtime story on Christmas Eve was a horrifying tale about an abortion he allegedly witnessed in Vietnam), and Mom didn't want us to have to go through that again. But at that moment, we would have gone back to our house in Erlanger and put up with the drinking, the verbal abuse, whatever just to not be in this sad little tree-less apartment three hours away from all we held dear.
There was a knock on the door. It was one of Mom's cousins, right on time for her shampoo-and-set. But she didn't come alone.
"Here," she said, shoving a big paper shopping bag into my hands. "Randy's coming with the rest of it."
"The rest of what?"
"Oh, just an old tree and some decorations I found. It's small enough to fit on the end table, I think."
Another knock, and my cousin Randy came in with a box holding a perfect little table-top tree. Before we could protest, he started setting it up while Mom's cousin tested lights.
Then another knock on the door. One of Mom's friends came with an extension cord and candy canes. A few minutes later, another knock, and yet another friend with a box full of presents.
"You have to have something to put under the tree," she said, and winked at me.
Over the course of the next hour, Mom's usual clientele of family and friends paraded in bearing beautifully wrapped presents, food, and decorations. We set out the food, decorated the tree and the walls of the little apartment, and laughed together. Someone even brought us a tape player and some Christmas music.
Some of the people who brought presents wanted us to open them right then and there, so for me that little surprise Christmas party was my Christmas morning. Santa DID come that year, and he brought me my very own diary with a lock and key, a set of paper dolls with magnetc clothing that stuck to them like magic, a plastic candy cane full of M & Ms, and Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. He brought my mom clothes, cologne, and envelopes of cash ("tips", her friends and family told her) that she tried in vain to get people to take back because she felt it was too much, but that people threatened to hide in my pockets if she didn't take it. Santa brought a tree, and decorations, and food and friends and laughter. He brought Christmas to us when we couldn't bring it to ourselves.
The next summer we would leave Barbourville and come back home to the house, the family, and the friends we left. We were happy to go home.
But we would never, ever have a Christmas quite like the Barbourville Christmas again. A Christmas where we saw just how good people can be to each other. A Christmas where we quite literally "didn't have a pot to piss in" (my mom's favorite little colloquialism for poverty) but for one night were as rich as kings because of all the love people showed us.
The year that I found out for sure that there was no such thing as Santa was the same year that I found out there's a little Santa in everyone who goes out of their way to make Christmas for others.