Not even a week until Christmas and still no sign of snow. But that was the least of my worries. My mom and dad had separated, and divorce was looming in the wings. I suspected they would announce it as soon as the tinsel was put away so as not to put a damper on the holidays.
And now my mom had informed me that I would have to make some heavy revisions to my Christmas wish list. My brothers and sister and I would get only a few presents.
I was sulking over my list when Mrs. Rollins [names have been changed] and her four children appeared on our doorstep. Why were they standing on our porch? They were in our ward but had never been to church. We were mere acquaintances.
The oldest boy, Gary, and I were in the same grade, but I carefully avoided him and his tough-guy buddies. He didn’t look so tough now as he stared at his shoelaces. Brett and Allison, both in elementary school, didn’t make eye contact with me either. But Robbie, four, looked straight at me with wide, clear eyes.
“We ran away,” he said.
I ushered them in, and the suspense and drama unfolded right in my living room. Mrs. Rollins had snatched up her kids and left her husband, vowing she’d never let him lay a hand on them again. Her firm jaw testified of her resolve, though her eyes brimmed with tears.
By this time, my mom and brothers and sister were standing at attention in the living room. Mrs. Rollins told my mom that she didn’t know where else to go and didn’t think her husband would find her and the children at our house. She pleaded with my mom to let her stay for a few days until she could figure something out, but her pleading was unnecessary because already we were caught up in something much bigger than ourselves.
While we played games and ate popcorn with the kids, my mom made some phone calls. She contacted the bishop and the Relief Society president. Meals were brought in, and a deposit and first month’s rent were paid on a small rental house in our ward boundaries. The only catch was that the house needed some work.
“Some work!” I gasped, when I saw the house a few days later with my brothers. The whole place was grimy and filthy. For three days my mom loaded us up with cleansers, disinfectants, and scrubbing brushes. Together with Mrs. Rollins’s four children, we scrubbed toilets, floors, windows, and walls. But we also laughed as we worked. And we marveled as ward members poured in bearing food and secondhand furniture and clothing.
On December 23, we were just finishing our cleaning when we heard screams of delight from the living room. We all rushed in to find Allison’s nose pressed against the living room window. Outside three men were lifting a Christmas tree from the back of a truck. Their wives followed them into the house with decorations for the tree.
“I didn’t think we were going to get a Christmas tree this year,” Allison beamed.
Back at our house that night we spread sleeping bags and pillows all around the lighted Christmas tree in the family room. For our last night together, we watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Mrs. Rollins’s family had never seen it.
Mrs. Rollins kept thanking my mom for all we had done and saying the Lord must have sent her to us. I remember thinking that we hadn’t done much. It was the whole ward who had given of their time and money and belongings. And then I thought of what Mrs. Rollins and her children had given all of us. A purpose. A sense of unity and usefulness. They had helped us forget our own problems and focus outside ourselves. Maybe the Lord had sent them to us.
Before we dropped off to sleep, my mom gathered us together and asked if we would be willing to give up half our Christmas money so Mrs. Rollins and her children would have gifts to open on Christmas morning. None of us had to think twice. We gave Mom our re-revised lists and set out shopping with her the next day. My mom wandered off looking for our gifts, while my siblings and I scattered throughout the store to find just the right presents for our new friends. It was amazing to witness my younger brothers and sister hunting down gifts and comparing prices, asking each other for opinions. How had this happened? Weren’t we supposed to be complaining and moping about how unfortunate we were?
That night was Christmas Eve. With our ward, we filled small paper bags with sand and lighted candles and placed them along the sidewalks of our neighborhood, illuminating the dark, nippy night with a toasty glow. To me that Christmas was outlined with that same warm glow. It should have been impossible. My parents were on the verge of divorce, and I received so few gifts. And yet it didn’t bother me at all when I returned to school after Christmas vacation wearing the same old clothes. I’ll always remember what I received for Christmas that year. It’s something I now put on my Christmas wish list every year—the spirit of Christmas.