Thanks so much for stopping by. I like to share this post every Christmas. It remains one of my sweetest memories.
CHRISTMAS MORNING 1966: 2:00 AM.
The Christmas season is the harshest of all when you live on the streets.
On ANY streets. In ANY town. In any Climate.
A miracle happened in our small dark world that hot and steamy Christmas morning all those long years ago. I’d not yet turned twelve years old. Yet I felt older than time.
It was not a ‘miracle’ of biblical proportions. Yet for the fifteen of us that lived in the damaged shipping container, it was a miracle that we would hold in our memories forever, to be taken out and looked at whenever life grew harsher.
I am sharing it with you here.
I hope that it makes you nod in understanding. I hope that it reminds you of what joy your smile and a simple hello can mean to the lost and the lonely.
I am smiling through my tears as I remember…..
Christmas was barely a week or so away, and the mood in ‘the palace’ wasn’t good. That’s what we’d named our rusty old shipping container. ‘The Palace’ was exactly that to us. We constructed our own safety barriers, dodging between smart-mouthed bravado and silent despair.
Christmas out here meant different things to each of us I guess.
My memories of Christmas’s past were all bad. Even last year when I’d been on the streets alone for barely a month had bad stuff attached to it, yet it hadn’t been nearly as bad as the ones I had lived with back in the home I called ‘hell central’.
I asked ‘Baby Jenny’ our youngest member to come for a walk with me down to see Big Mike. The guy was built like a mountain and I never did learn his last name. He was the go-to man for everything here on the Sydney docks. I wanted to ask him if he could scrounge up some left over decorations to put up in the palace to lighten the mood a little.
He gave me a thoughtful nod, and said he’d “see what he could do.”
He bent down and spoke to Jenny, “I swear you get prettier every day, Jenny. Don’t let Sassy here teach you any bad habits.”
Jenny grinned at him too afraid to respond.
I kept my mouth shut for a change, except for a “Gee thanks, Big Mike.”
He smiled and wandered off, and we headed back up to the palace. We spent a lot of time outdoors during the heat of the summer. The cooler breezes drifting in from the water gave us a little welcome respite. The heat inside our metal home was dreadful. It was difficult to breathe in the late afternoons. We complained to each other long and loud. But I had to shrug and smile at our bitching. Winter was far worse.
We figured Big Mike had forgotten when a week passed with no contact. It was disappointing, but the man didn’t owe us anything. He’d already rushed one of us to the hospital and probably saved her life and the life of the baby that she’d been giving birth to. So we didn’t really expect the decorations, we just hoped for them.
Jenny was extra quiet. I wondered if she would ever be able to talk about why she was here. I didn’t ask her. I hadn’t discussed my background with any of them, even Jamie. So I understood that it was not open for general discussion. These streets were harsh and difficult regardless of why you found yourself here.
Christmas Eve dawned fiery red. It was going to be a very, very, hot day according to the radio forecasts, with a cool southerly change expected later in the evening.
We all headed up to Hyde Park very early and took a Christmas bath in our favorite fountain. At least the palace wouldn’t stink quite so badly for Christmas day.
It was tempting to just jump into the ocean so close to the Palace, but Big Mike had warned us all about the sharks, so we didn’t dare. We planned on heading down to the Botanical Gardens for a dip in the lake that evening. We figured there wouldn’t be many people around at that time because it was Christmas Eve and they’d be home with their families. It was a sad thought until we reminded each other that we too were a family.
The sky began to darken and the thunder rolled in early in the afternoon. The southerly buster was heading up the coast rapidly. We were all unusually quiet and sitting around outside in the shade of the container when we heard the sound of vehicles heading toward the palace.
We headed around the front to see who had arrived and watched in stunned amazement as Big Mike and two of the other guys whose names I can’t recall, began unloading boxes of stuff from their cars and placing it in the shaded opening of our tin home.
Big Mike looked uncomfortable, if possible, he was even gruffer than usual. “You lot need feeding up, so we brought you some stuff.”
We were all too stunned to say much at all, these hard men were all smiling and a little red-faced. I swear if they could have, that they would have scuffed their shoes in the dirt like little kids with embarrassment.
Big Mike shook Jamie’s hand and accepted the ‘thank you’ from him.
I was speechless which wasn’t a common occurrence. I just grinned at them all. and gave the guys a hurried “Thanks.”
They were the unlikeliest Angels you would ever see, sweaty and dirty after a long hot day’s work, but the sight of them unloading the Christmas goodies and punching one another in the arm in a gesture common amongst males remains etched starkly in my memory.
Big Mike reached into the front seat of his car and pulled out a parcel that was wrapped in Christmas paper, with bright ribbons attached. He walked over and handed it to Baby Jenny.
She looked confused and wasn’t sure what to do with it.
“The women picked this out for ya, little one.” Big Mike said in a voice strictured by emotion.
Jenny still wasn’t sure what to do.
“Go ahead and open it, Jenny,” Jamie said.
“Um, later. Later. Okay?” she replied looking very unsure of herself.
She looked at the men, and gave them one of her sweet smiles, “Don’t matter what it is. I never had a present before, so, um, yeah. Thanks, thanks a lot.”
The men seemed to understand that she needed to be alone when she opened it.
As for the rest of us, we tore into those presents and boxes like there was no tomorrow, squealing in delighted surprise with everything we found.
There was more food than any of us had ever seen.
There were tinned hams, fresh pineapples, cherries, and plums. Cooked Turkey and Cranberry sauce, with all the trimmings. Fifteen red t-shirts all large sizes. Paper plates, and plastic knives and forks, a can-opener. A Cooler packed with ice, and a new radio with spare batteries. A big crate of beer and bottles of cold Coke rounded out the feast.
That night, we all huddled around the new radio. It was much bigger and put out a better sound than the small transistor we had been using. We sat drinking the beer and singing our version of Christmas carols, none of them repeatable. Trust me.
Jenny sat on her sleeping space of folded layers of newspaper. She was a little tipsy having been allowed one-half of a small bottle of beer. We glanced at her as she picked up her present and watched the look on her face as she unwrapped it.
It was a baby doll, all soft and dressed in bonnet and booties with a pretty pink knitted dress. “Just what we needed, another fuckin’ mouth to feed,” she said. But the smile on her face could have lit up the entire city.
We were fed, content, and a little overwhelmed and unsure at the kindness of these people.
We all wanted to believe that maybe, just maybe, they had done it for no motive other than the wish to make this Christmas a better place for us to be. It was an alien experience to all of us,but a welcome one.
We had only sampled a little of the huge amount of food, deciding to save the rest for Christmas Day
That night we were all tipsy, yet strangely quiet as we bedded down for the night. I think we were all a little overwhelmed by the generosity of these men.
It was around 2.00 am Christmas morning I guess when I felt something was wrong. Whatever the something was, it wouldn’t let me sleep. I couldn’t place it immediately. It was a strange sense of something missing, and it troubled me.
Jamie was on watch. I climbed over the others and hunkered down next to him. Jamie smiled at me and said, “You too hey, Sassy?”
“Yeah, I guess. What is it? Something’s different.”
We sat a while just listening. Then Jamie said, “Oh shit! It’s Jenny, she’s not crying!”
My heart was in my mouth. Jamie grabbed the torch and we played it across the others, several of them were already awake, and wondering what the hell was happening. Jenny had cried herself to sleep every night since she’d come to this place. It was a sound we all tried not to hear. She couldn’t be comforted, we weren’t permitted that close. She’d been here for two years now. Jenny was only around eight-years-old and the sounds of her despair echoed through the palace every night.
We stood looking down at her. Jenny lay on her side, sound asleep, with both arms wrapped around that doll so tight there was no space between them.
That was the first time I had cried in a very, very, long time. I glanced at the others, without exception we were all affected the same way. No one wanted to look at anyone else, shit we were supposed to be the toughest kids on the block! Hell, we were the only kids on the block. That Christmas was the first real day of Jenny’s childhood. From then on, Christmas became Jenny’s birthday.
I’d like to tell you that a miraculous change came over her. That she was instantly transformed. In a make-believe world she’d be outside singing all the hits from ‘The Sound of Music’ and wearing a pretty new dress and shoes. But this is the real world, and the changes took place over time.
Jenny named her doll, Francine.
The greatest change of all, was that, from that night, for all the years that Baby Jenny remained in our world, she never cried herself to sleep again.
Many years have passed since that long ago Christmas Eve. My darling Jenny has gone.
So many of my Christmas Eves over time have been special ones. But the one I recall with tears of happiness on my face, and a smile in my heart, is this one.
Jenny lost her battle with life in September of 2008.
The doll Francine was buried with her.
Thanks so much for stopping by and helping share my memory.
Have a joyous and memorable Christmas Season.