And so, this is Christmas. This will be my third consecutive unemployed holiday season.
I’m not Scroogey or Grinchy because of the holidays. I’m Scroogey and Grinchy because I’m depressed and frustrated and scared. And embarrassed. I’m depressed and frustrated and scared because I’ve been unemployed for over two years and my home is in foreclosure. I’m embarrassed because I don’t have money to help those less fortunate.
It’s not like what’s portrayed on made for television movies. The people who write and produce those movies/holiday specials are the same people who write and produce trite, intelligence-insulting platitude-filled greeting cards and “…for the Soul” books.
There is no up-side to this. There are no (or very few) tender moments of “what really matters” and “true meaning of Christmas.”
I know there is no “shame” in poverty, but for me it runs a lot deeper than “just” losing my home and everything I own because no one will hire me.
I grew up in suburban Detroit. So I know a thing or two about hard times and poverty. My parents, my family, weren’t hit by unemployment, but there were a lot of people in our town and neighboring communities who were.
Every year culminated in charity-drives. My parents worked tirelessly collecting donations, buying food and household items for less fortunate families. I cannot remember a Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve that wasn’t dedicated to packing up the family car and delivering boxes of food, clothing and necessary household goods to those families.
I know about the true meaning of Christmas, I experienced it firsthand every year. My dad, an immigrant child of the depression and WWII, spent many of his childhood Christmases without much in the way of presents. Consequently, he was a big softee when it came to toys. He was also a former Marine. He viewed Toys for Tots his assigned life-long duty. He attacked his bell-ringing duty and toy donation drops with General Patton-esque focus and dedication.
There were lists of needy families given to charities – churches, scouts, schools – no names, just members of the family with the ages and gender of the children noted for each family. But because my parents were part of the delivery team they were privy to the addresses and last minute changes/additions to the list as well as some of the pertinent extenuating circumstances of the family. A sample handout list looked like this:
Daughter 1: 9
Daughter 2: 4
However that same list was updated, less abbreviated and more poignant when it arrived to the delivery crew.
8329 Hollyvine Road
Father: 37, injured vet,
Daughter # 1: age 9, leukemia
Son: age 7
Daughter # 2: age 4
Dire need for mittens, hats, scarves and socks, 9 year old daughter needs a very warm coat size 10 and girls' size medium underwear, son needs snow boots size 5.
My dad always made sure there were a couple age/gender appropriate toys for each child in every family. The day before the deliveries, he went over the list of kids and which donated items were allocated to those kids. Without fail there were always a few kids he felt didn’t get the “right” donations. Especially if it was a lean donation year. After reviewing the list of children and the toys allocated to them, a trip to the local toy store ensued to supplement the toy donations. He personally made sure every child in every family had at least one “good” present, something coveted by kids and advertised on television. He took my brother and me along on that shopping trip to act as a toy focus group. Our job was to advise on the appropriateness and popularity of toys for the kids on the lists.
“What about this Barbie, Trill?”
“Meh, she’s okay, but this Malibu PJ with tan lines is better. She comes with sunglasses.”
“Tan lines and sunglasses, eh? What’ll they think of next? Malibu PJ it is.” In went a Malibu PJ with tanlines and sunglasses for an unnamed 6-year-old girl on the needy list.
“Heh heh, woooeee, look at those new Hot Wheels!” my dad would exclaim, clearly coveting a few for himself.
He and my brother would have a long conversation about the pros and cons of Hot Wheels v. Match Box and which ones an 8 year old boy would like.
Typically we left the store with at least one toy for every kid on the delivery list, even the ones who already had a decent toy allocated by the charity toy drive. And candy. My mother and other mothers made dozens and dozens of cookies and procured countless candy canes to include in the charity boxes. But my dad had a sweet tooth and always loaded up on LifeSavers and bubble gum to add to the charity boxes. Which always struck me as more than a little odd because my dad hated gum and us kids weren’t allowed to chew it inside the house. Or in the car. Or on the boat. Or at school. Or in church. Or at a movie. Or at camp. Or… Some kids sneak out back behind the garage to smoke cigarettes. My brother and I sneaked out back to chew gum and blow bubbles. But those needy kids, they always received bubble gum for Christmas thanks to my dad.
When I was young I didn’t think about the money involved in the holiday charities. I knew money had to be raised, but I didn’t fully grasp how “it all worked.” But when I was 11 I realized those extra, supplemental gifts for needy kids my dad shopped for were purchased with my parents’ money – and it’s not as if my parents were wealthy.
My parents never told me they were purchasing the extra toys with their money. But that year, prior to leaving for the last minute toy shopping trip, I caught a glimpse of my mother giving my dad cash from her “expense” envelope she kept secured in a secret spot. (known simply but intriguingly as The Envelope) If she had any money leftover from her weekly grocery shopping trip it was put in The Envelope. That envelope was only brought out only for dire needs like school field trips, Girl Scout cookies, orthodontist appointments, emergency home repairs and emergency room visits.
That’s when I figured out that they were paying for the extra toys themselves. I called them on it. I’m ashamed to admit this, but, here goes: I was resentful they were spending “all that” money on other kids and instead of on me. I knew it was wrong to feel that way, and truly, I didn’t mind that they spent some money on needy kids, but, I really wanted new skates and a Walkman that year. I was getting older and my holiday wish list was getting more expensive. I saw those needy kids’ extra toys as eating into my Walkman budget. It was an ugly conversation that boiled into our first bratty pre-teenaged daughter argument that landed me grounded for the entire holiday vacation. I annually received more holiday booty than any kid should be given, a toy bacchanal – verging on gluttonous absurdity – so it’s particularly painful for me to admit that year’s lapse into Veruca Salt-type behavior. I chalk it up to pre-teen hormones. Apart from that one blemish on my holiday charity record I embraced my parents’ holiday charity work. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Until I was well into my high-school years I thought every family did all the same charity stuff we did, at least the families that weren’t on the needy list. When we trekked to the store for the last minute donation shopping I thought the crowds at the store were doing the same thing we were: Buying gifts for kids who came up short in the toy donation drive. I also thought other families spent their Thanksgiving and Christmas Eves driving around the county delivering boxes of food, clothing and toys to needy families.
Every year I was sat down and given the same talk delivered in my parents’ strictest, “I mean it” tone of voice. “You are not to tell anyone about this, about where we go, who you see or what we give them. We are doing this to help people. They might be embarrassed about needing charity. We do not want to embarrass them. And we are not doing this to feel good about ourselves. We are doing this solely to help others. We do not brag about charitable deeds. We do not embarrass others. You. Do. Not. Breathe. One. Word. Of. This. To. Anyone. Understood, young lady?” Yes. They pulled out the big gun, the “young lady.” When either of my parents called me “young lady” it was either because I was already in serious trouble, or, to forewarn me that if I didn’t do as they instructed I would be in serious trouble.
So I never mentioned any of our Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve activities to anyone. Sometime in my later years of high school I added up a few facts, overheard tales of how other kids spent their Thanksgiving and Christmas Eves and realized that not too many of my schoolmates’ families were helping less fortunate families.
That was when I realized my parents were, you know, decent human beings.
And apart from the lapse into selfishness when I was 11, I followed their lead. I always contributed to all the donation drives at every job I held. I helped sort, organize and deliver the donations. I tried to find ways to quietly help anyone I figured could use a little extra help during the holidays. I continued to help my parents with their holiday charity activities, including the last minute supplemental toy buying trip with my dad. Once I started earning money, the supplemental toy buying trip became an even more exciting event because I had my own money to help buy the “good toys.” No girl on our watch was going to get a knock-off imposter Barbie or lame no-name baby doll.
And my dad started sharing the details of the needy family lists with me. The details were even more awful and heartbreaking than I ever imagined. And I had a much deeper understanding of why my dad made it his personal mission to make sure the children in those families had “good” toys.
I shouldn’t tell anyone any of this, but my parents are anonymous, here, so I’ll break the rules laid out in their stern “what charity means” speeches. I learned that in many cases my parents assessed the living situation at the home of a delivery and “helped out” with an unpaid utility or medical bill. I am certain no one but my parents and the recipients of their assistance know about this. (And now you.)
Then my dad died. And I was laid off. And the holidays are a bitter reminder of both those losses.
I’m not divulging this now to prove how charitable my parents were, or how charitable I am (was), or to garner poignant sympathy.
I’m sharing this because I know I’m not the only unemployed person who finds the inability to support charities one of the most difficult aspects of unemployment. It’s painful and heartbreaking to suddenly not have the means to help others, especially when charities have counted on your support for many years. I do not have the means to help those less fortunate…because I now am "the less fortunate." I volunteer my time and efforts, but what people really need is food, clothes, toys, and yes, money. And I don’t have money. So I can’t really help, not significantly. And that hurts. Every holiday season of my entire life has been spent helping “those less fortunate.” It’s at my family’s (and my) fundamental core. It’s what my family believes, it’s what we do. It’s who we are. It’s what I do, it’s who I am.
Or, who I was.
I never thought of myself as being one of those people whose identity is tied in a knot with their career or profession. “I like my profession, I’m appropriately passionate about it, but my career doesn’t define me,” I’d say. “There’s so much more to me than my career.”
But in my years (cripes, years, plural) of unemployment I now realize that my career plays a much bigger role in my identity than I once thought. I used to stand on solid ground about what I did for a living, how I spent my days, and where I focused my cognitive resources and energy. I earned a modest living doing something I was good at doing - and that I also happened to enjoy. And when I wasn’t at work I lived life “on my terms.” Terms that included a lot of charity work and donations.
And without a paying job I don’t have the money to help with charities. And it hits home that my career defined more of me than I realized.
Without extra money all I can donate is my time and skills. And even those are in low demand.
When I was laid off one of the first thoughts I had was, “Okay, well, until I find a new job I can devote more time to volunteering.” Lemons = Lemonade.
I told all my charities that since I had more time to devote to the causes I’d report for duty early in the morning and stay late. Without exception I was told some version of this speech, “Gee, Trill, sorry to hear about your lay-off, and thanks for your generous offer, but, really, we have lots of people helping, lots of other people are laid-off, too, and they’ve been helping, and right now we’re kind of tripping over each other. We have a long list of laid-off people who want to volunteer if we need more help. What we really need is money. We’ll call you if we need you. Thanks for offering, though. We know we can always count on you.”
I was even abruptly elbowed out of volunteering for a charity event that I’ve worked on for 10 years. I was squeezed out by several dozen other unemployed people wanting to help…and network.
“Hi [charity I’ve volunteered marketing help with for the past 10 years], just checking on when the first planning meeting is, I have lots of ideas for this year’s event, and, more time to dedicate to it! I can’t wait!”
“Ahem, um, gosh, Trill, um, this is awkward. I thought Liz talked to you. We’ve always appreciated your marketing expertise, Trill, but John and Michelle already took care of it for us this year.”
“But we haven’t even had the first planning meeting, yet!”
“Yeah, I know, but they took it upon themselves to handle the marketing, and they have the whole plan and schedule worked out and, you know, [their former employer] is such a big contributor and they wanted to continue to help us even though they no longer work there…”
“Right. That’s nice of them. They’re good, they have great experience and good ideas, that’s great. It’s great that you’re so far ahead of schedule this year.”
“Yeah, it is. But you know, we always need donations. I know it’ll be difficult for you this year, but we can always count on you to spread the word…”
“Yeah, I’ll talk it up.”
I did what I could, where I could, but as the years (gadzooks, years, plural) pass, and more people are unemployed, and more people are in need of charity, it’s obvious that what charities need most is money.
And I don’t have money. And I feel really lost during the holidays. My holidays have always been filled with charity work. I always saw myself as continuing my parents’ efforts to help those in need. It’s who we are, it’s what we do. But because I don’t have a job, and consequently money to donate, and my time and skills are not needed with volunteer groups, I’m utterly lost during the holidays.
Yes, part of it is that I’m still grieving for my dad. I’ve never met anyone who truly loved the holidays as much as my dad. And he loved them for all the right reasons. So all the holiday monikers are sad reminders that my dad isn’t here to enjoy them. So of course it’s a difficult time for me. But without a job, and money, I can’t carry on his spirit of charity and giving and helping other people.
Of course no one wants to say that out loud. No one wants to admit that the holidays, even the charitable “good” aspects, or the spirit of joy and peace, are tied into money. But. They are.
No, money can’t buy genuine good will. But it does buy joy, peace and happiness…or at least food, shelter and clothing. Go to any Christmas Eve church service and I guarantee you that a collection plate will be passed up and down every pew. I triple dog dare you to try to volunteer at a local charity – I’m betting you’ll be met with, “Gee, thanks, but, we have a lot of volunteers…but here’s our donation envelope whichc lists our 501(c) status for your tax records.”
I’m not Grinchy or Scroogey over this. I get it. I understand. Thanks to high unemployment rates there is a surplus of ready, willing and able volunteers. And even longer lists of people in need. What charities need is money.
But that has left me feeling increasingly empty and forlorn during the holidays. I’m not aimless, but, unemployment has been really, really hard on me. It’s taken an emotional toll that I never could have imagined even existed. And because I can’t contribute to holiday charities - on organized or personal ad hoc levels - I’m feeling even more empty and depressed about the holidays.
Oh sure, the joy and wonder in children’s eyes, the festive lights, the spirit of good will and blah blah blah. That’s all great. And I do enjoy it. But. Along with the omnipresent stress and fear of not having a job, the omnipotent spirit of the holidays - and my inability to boost that spirit - is overwhelming.
It's been one long string of disappointments - rejection and disappointments - for me. And consequently, I've disappointed a lot of people. People who trust and rely on me to be reliable, dependable, independent. My family and friends don't think of me as "needy." They used to not have worry about me. I was not a source of concern or stress in their lives.
My friends and women in my family who are stay-at-home mothers use me as an anecdotal example to their daughters, the antidote to the pervasive over-princessing of young girls. "You can grow up and have a career and not be dependent on anyone other than yourself! Get good grades! Go to college! Have a career! Buy your own home! All on your own! Just like Aunt Trillian! Or, well, just like Aunt Trillian used to be..." Disappointment: Check.
My mother, of course, worries about me because she's my mother and that's what mothers do, but first the failed engagement, then no kids and then a lost job...and two years of unemployment...and now foreclosure...I'm not exactly every parents' dream personified. Disapointment: Check.
My neighbors relied on me to be a mortgage and tax-paying member of the community, taking care of my home and doing my part to uphold the value of homes in my neighborhood. Unemployment...no money...foreclosure. I'm adding to the plummeting home value in my neighborhood. Disappointment: Check.
And then there are all the people and animals who heretofore benefited from my charity. Now I don't have money to donate to their plights/cause. Disappointment: Check.
Of course my family and friends care about me, and most of them don't see me as a disappointment. A failure, maybe, not probably not a disappointment. And most of them would be upset to learn that I think I've disappointed them. But. I have let down a lot of people, known and unknown, who relied on me. And that is yet another other deflating facet of unemployment. At least, it's a deflating facet for me - someone who has been, if nothing else, responsible.
I’m spending Christmas with my mother who is recovering from surgery and cannot travel to spend the holidays with my siblings. It’ll be nice. Just the two of us some movies and tea and cookies. Quiet. Reflective. That’s what it’s “really” all about and we both know that.
We’re enduring. She’s enduring life without my dad, I’m enduring unemployment. We’re enduring the holidays. Not ideal, certainly not how we want it, but we have each other and we’re thankful for that lone gift. And that’s what really matters during the holiday and every other day. It’s the whole, “Christmas day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp. Christmas day will always be just so long as we have we” thing.
Neither one of us needed to learn that lesson, neither one of us needed to go through struggle and anguish to build character. We’ve both been through a lot. We both have a lot of character. As my dad used to say, we’ve “earned our stripes.” So I can’t tie it all up in a neat little “heartwarming moral of the story” lesson like on made for television holiday movies. Unless the moral of the story is, “‘It’ can happen to anyone, even these nice people. Even responsible people.”