Ginger Roots

Four years ago this Christmas, I was at one of my lowest points. But my son reminded me that turning lemons into lemonade and gingerbread men into stars, is the only way to survive.

We huddled in one bed, the three of us, because it was the only way to keep warm.

My 12-year-old daughter, 14-year-old son, and I were hard-pressed to fit into one queen size bed, but we did it out of necessity. Our gas had been shut off and we were freezing. Shared body heat was our best hope.

It was the Winter of 2007 and we’d moved to Richmond in February of that same year. I had dragged us east because the man with whom I was in love (a relationship that consisted of three years, as many breakups, and me swearing each time to never go back) was moving here, and I was desperate to be near him. Plus, I needed a change. I was sinking deeper and deeper into debt trying to support the three of us in my hometown of San Diego, which, while beautiful, comes with a steep cost of living. So, the fear of both drowning in poverty and dying alone (a fear that drove me to make many, many poor life choices) lead me to sell nearly all of my possessions and bring my little family to the River City.

But the man I followed here almost immediately followed his heart/boner to another city–which came as a surprise to absolutely no one but me–leaving the three of us up a creek. We knew nobody in this town; we had no furniture save a mattress gifted to us out of pity by the man’s mother; we had no car. I knew things would go from bad to worse pretty quickly if I didn’t figure something out.

So, I found a job I could walk to and, one piece at a time, worked on buying us places to sleep, then sit. Through spring, summer, and fall I trudged to work on foot, come rain or shine. If one of the kids missed the bus, I would walk the four miles to meet them, then turn around and walk us the four miles back. We had nothing and no one, but our heads were above water, so I figured things could always get worse. And then they did.

I fell behind on our bills because the job I took paid very little. Sure I could walk there, but I couldn’t make a living. One by one, the utilities notices turned blue then red.

As Christmas approached, things looked bleak. The first snow of the season fell and, just days later, I marched home through the dirty slush to find a cold house. Ice cold. The gas was off. I called the Department of Public Utilities to plead my case, but I owed too much to get it reconnected. No heat, no stove, no hot water.

So, we made do.

We heated water in the microwave for baths, we heated food in the microwave to eat, and we huddled together in the largest of our beds–each of us layered in our warmest clothing, hats, and gloves.

I put on a brave face. Of course the kids knew things were bad, but I refused to let on just how desperate I felt. I’d say things like “It’s just like camping! Inside!” but they weren’t babies, and they had brave faces too.

I’d brought our small artificial Christmas tree with us from California because it had been a gift. I’d also packed a few of our more meaningful ornaments. Even though there would be very few gifts to put under it, I knew I had to pull some kind of Christmas out of somewhere.

We decorated the tree, dressed in our finest outerwear, while our breath made fog in front of our faces. My daughter, who has never not noticed anything in her life (her 3rd grade teacher called told me she was driving him nuts with her “attention to detail”), said “Mom, where’s our star?” We looked everywhere, but the star that had been handed down to me years ago by my parents had somehow been left behind.

My son, who’d had just about enough of the melancholy and the cold and the whole darn thing, dug back in the Christmas box and pulled out a stuffed gingerbread man that the kids had nicknamed Gingy, after the Shrek character.

“Gingy’s our star, now,” he said, poking his finger into a hole in the bottom seam, widening it.

He stuck Gingy on top of the tree where he sat with the top branch up his bum hole, the bulb at the end of that branch lighting right where his gingerbread heart would be. We all smiled: my son because he was proud of his ingenuity and my daughter and I because the sight of Gingy’s glowing heart was exactly what we needed at a time like that. We sat silently near the tree, sipping our microwaved hot chocolate.

Now, it’s Christmas four years later. It’s been a slow recovery from near total destruction, but we’ve made it. We’re still poor, but we have heat, beds, and a car to get us where we need to go. We also have fancier ornaments than before, but the same little tree with Gingy on top. He reminds us of where we’ve been and how much we’ve overcome, as a family. Including my bad decisions and other people’s boners–cross my gingerbread heart.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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