Every year, as Christmas draws near, I am taken back in time to my youth...back to high school, back to 1973. I was a junior that year, with two younger sisters, being raised by a single mother. Mom worked nights as a bartender at a respectable lounge, and I babysat every night. That's just the way it was. And so when my friend Mark asked me over to his house for a little get together the day after Thanksgiving, I told him I'd come. As long as I was home by 5:30 p.m. so Mom could leave for work on time, everything was cool.
I showed up at Mark's around 11:00 a.m. and he offered me a cola, which I accepted. That day I had several cola's, for some reason they just tasted really good. What I didn't know was that Mark was spiking my cola with 191 proof alcohol, because, he would later explain, he thought I should have some fun. Even though earlier, I made it clear to him that I had to babysit that night and therefore couldn't drink, Mark took it upon himself to help me out.
By 3:00 p.m. I was toast. In fact, I was praying to the porcelain god at that point. A half an hour later Mark and another friend, Steve, are desperately trying to get me to sober up. I've got to be home in two hours to care for my sisters, and the only thing I'm fully capable of doing at the moment is sitting on the floor, singing to the toilet bowl. So Mark and Steve come up with Plan B (Plan A was to get me drunk). First they will feed me lots of hot coffee, and then walk me outside in the fresh, cold air for a while. That outta sober me right up. What they didn't count on was my lack of cooperation. Did they honestly think I was accepting any more liquids from either of them? Get that away from me, and I am now wearing the hot coffee. Time for a change of clothes before taking me outside to walk it off. Mark's sister Jodi helps me into one of her shirts, and a pair of Mark's jeans. The shirt fits fine, the jeans however are a bit too big in the waist and I have to keep pulling them up so as not to trip over the flared legs. And now it is time for my walk.
Mark has me on one side, Steve on the other. I remember being very happy about something as they took me outside. Short sleeves, no coat, no shoes, it's maybe 30 degrees outside and I don't feel a thing. Neither do either of my feet because they are not working. Mark and Steve remind me how to walk, and forty-five minutes later I can manage the right...left....right...left thing without verbal cues or other assistance. Time is running out, but I'm still very drunk, and barely able to keep my eyes open.
At 5:00 p.m. Mark decided it was time to face the music and take me home. He and Steve get me in my car, and Mark gets behind the wheel. Problem is, Mark has never driven a clutch before, and my car is not an automatic. But we made it to my house, just barely in time at 5:25, and minus a clutch (Mark's house is 5 minutes from mine...maybe we could have walked faster). Mom knew the minute I stumbled in the kitchen and announced that I was home that I was stinkin' drunk, and she was hacked. I remember Mark kept apologizing, and taking the blame for my condition, telling her he spiked my cola.
But Mom was not buying his story. She told him, point blank, "Dona knew she had to babysit tonight. She knew better than to get drunk."
"But Mrs. Lannon, it's not her fault. She didn't know. I put just enough in so she couldn't taste it." Mark pleaded and begged for my mother's understanding, but his words fell on deaf ears. I was put to bed to sleep it off, while Mark agreed to watch over my sisters, and Mom left for work.
Somehow, while I slept in the basement, Mark's party got moved to my house. I woke up around midnight to loud music and a hell of a hangover. After I figured out I was home, and added everything up, I knew I was in big trouble if there was a party going on upstairs. And what about my sisters? Their room was up stairs where the party was. Who was taking care of them? By the time I reached the kitchen, I was ready to blow. I walked into the dining room, found Mark and asked him what the hell was going on. The party was getting out of hand, he didn't know half the people there, and he was getting scared. So I put a stop to it. Stop to the music, stop to the party, stop to everything. As every one finally left, I checked on my sisters. They were awake, but okay. I kissed them good-night, then helped Mark clean up the mess. Mark went home, and I went back to bed, exhausted.
I was awakened the next morning by my mother's angry voice and forceful hands as she shook me out of bed. "Get up! Get up right now!" she yelled. My eyes were barely open when she announced, "You get your ass out of bed and get on the phone. I know you had a party here last night. Call everyone who was here! I want them in this house in an hour!" Then she stormed out of my room. Could it get any worse? I was up shit creek without a paddle. I called Mark on the phone.
An hour later, everyone Mark knew was once again sitting in my living room. They had no idea what was about to happen, and I felt sorry for them. More embarrassed for myself though, because I knew what was about to happen. At least, I thought I did. I knew this was about the party, and I was half-right; but there was more. Mom stood in the middle of the living room, looking everyone in the eye as she spoke. And when she mentioned the $500 cash missing from her room, I felt a part of me die inside. That's why she was so angry at me this morning. In Mom's eyes, I had betrayed her confidence and crossed an invisible line; the line of trust.
Mom could lay on a guilt trip better than anyone. "You have not just stolen money, you have stolen Christmas from two little girls," she said, pointing to my sisters who sat at the dining room table, looking especially forlorn over their breakfast cereal. Mom went on, "For an entire year, I've been saving money so we could have a nice Christmas this year. Now, because of someone in this room, there won't be any presents, there won't be a Christmas tree, no dinner, no visit from Santa...you have taken everything. Everything I had planned, you have stolen from my family."
I glanced at Mark, who was sitting next to me on the couch. He was in shock. Mom set the terms, if the thief would fess up in private, she wouldn't press charges. Everyone left, except Mark. He was now green around the gills, and repeatedly apologized for creating the mess I now found myself in. Again he pleaded my innocence to my mother,and while she was touched and admired his devotion to me, she made it clear she didn't believe him. She knew he was just sticking up for me, because that's what teenagers do for each other. His words changed nothing in her mind.
Mark and I both knew who took the money. The following weeks at school it became obvious to us. The person flaunted it under our noses, all the while denying it to our faces. We knew who the thief was, we just couldn't prove it.
And while mom refused to accept my innocence in the matter, something happened that December to my family. In the days that followed the theft, word got out about our misfortune. Within a week, we received three boxes of food, with a ten pound turkey from Mom's best friend, Shirley. We traveled to the mountains to select and cut down a Christmas tree, which none of us had ever experienced before. I remember sitting in the cab of the pick up, bundled up in layers of clothing, drinking hot cocoa with my sisters, Mom and Mom's friend who drove us to the snow covered mountains. People came to our house, delivering good wishes, gifts, food, cash, clothing, decorations, anything and everything. I never saw anything like it before. The times I mentioned to Mom how wonderful it was to see the Christmas spirit bestowed upon our family, she quickly reminded me whose fault it was to begin with. I had given up defending my innocence; she was just too disappointed in me to believe anything but the worse.
But that year in December, I learned something new about Christmas. I learned that Christmas isn't about opening gifts, or eating a huge dinner. It isn't about the stories, or the music, or the lights, or the decorations. Christmas is caring for your neighbor. Christmas is sharing with others. Christmas is loving those who need it most. But above all else, I learned the Christmas Spirit lives and thrives in the hearts of ordinary people.
And although my mother never found it in her heart to see and accept my innocence, to believe Mark's word as the truth, that's okay; because I know the truth.