As I closed the door to my mother’s house for what I expected to be the final time, I suddenly remembered her journal. I hadn’t seen it while packing, and it had to be somewhere . . .
I swung the door back open, ran upstairs, and pulled the long string in Mom’s closet to turn on its light. There was the tattered book, tucked in the back corner on the top shelf. She’d always kept it there, and I’d never read it, though I’d secretly held it in my hands at least a dozen times. Gently, as if it was a bird’s feather, I wiped dust off its leather cover and, swallowing my guilt for doing so, opened the book to a random page. It smelled like the history of our home.
I opened to an entry that read December 27th, 1987. I was nine years old that year. I remembered the sweetness of that age as I read on.
Done. Finally. Though I’m coming down with a cold. Of course my body’s giving out. Just once, I’d like to enjoy Christmas without feeling exhausted before it even arrives. So many hours at work and still not making ends meet. All this time away from Mackenzie. I’m racked with guilt over that choice. She looked so happy. That little stuffed moose hasn’t left her sight. I bounced a check buying it. Of course. That’s my luck. I did the math and it took a full Sunday of selling Christmas trees to pay for the cost of the doll and the overdraft fee.
I’m glad she believes in all of this. It’s still real for her. That’s worth my pain. Freaking Christmas. So much for it being the most wonderful time of the year.
Sun streamed in through a window framed in wood, casting a dusky light across the hardwood floor. I remembered walking across this floor when I was a little girl. I used to climb into mom’s bed and watch her tuck this very book away. Now, I was here, sitting on that same floor, discovering a truth my mom had hidden well.
There had been so much joy in our home. So much love, so much laughter. She was anxious? Sad? Unhappy at Christmas? My heart sank, realizing that I’d been so self-absorbed. How did I miss this? If my mom were here now, she’d take my hand in hers. Relax, she’d say. You were only nine. Still.
I read through a few more entries, and the more I read, the more I understood: my mother hustled constantly to pay our bills, buy our food, and keep our heads above water. She worked even harder to make sure I—her only child—never carried the weight of the uncertainty, stress, and anxiety that plagued her.
Side jobs when she’d fallen behind.
Menial checks from the government and shame from strangers in line at the bank for cashing them.
Relentless phone calls from collection agencies. (I’d thought she was popular.)
Overdraft charges and late fees.
Disconnected electricity and phone lines. (Let’s use candles tonight! she’d say. A fun game for me.)
Those pages held the weight of my mom’s pain. Page after page peppered me with a new awareness of the sacrifices Mom made to spare me worry, to ensure that I had happy memories.
As I closed the book, it hit me: This could have been me. This could have been my struggle and my pain and my reality as a single mother. But it wasn’t—isn’t—because I have options my mother never had. I don’t have to wait two weeks to get paid. I don’t overdraft my account, because I can access my wages as I earn them. I can plan more easily and pay my bills when they’re due, mostly without concern. I don’t have to choose between jobs to pay off mistakes and time with my child. PayActiv—the Earned Wage Access (EWA) benefit offered by my employer—lets me better control my finances, which helps me take better care of my daughter and myself.
Sitting in my mom’s empty bedroom—one last time—with my palms resting on the pages of my mom’s journal, I cried. She was a conqueror. Hard-working, determined, resilient. She chose time and again to overcome, to rise above, to not let her circumstances break her daughter’s heart.
This book I held in my hands was the journal of the strongest woman I might ever know. It was the journal of a woman who’d deserved to enjoy Christmas.
Like I can. Like my daughter can. Shouldn’t we all?
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