Over the years, I’ve made friends with people from places near and far, many of whom struggled beyond imagination to find a better, safer, more comfortable life here in America.
I don’t have big solutions to all that seems wrong in our world, but I offer these three Decembers as glimpses of friendship, wonder, joy, and the comforts of home. The homes and families and friends we may sometimes take for granted.
The first: December 1989.
During my senior year, a boy emigrated to my hometown from Vietnam. (For privacy I’ve changed everyone’s names.) In addition to attending high school, Tam worked full-time as a dishwasher at the same restaurant where my best friend waitressed part-time. At first we were envious when we figured out he lived alone—we just knew all of our teenage problems would end when we could live apart from our parents too. But then the holidays approached and we considered how he had no social life or family to enjoy. Tam just went to school and worked all the time.
For all of my talk of leaving home the second I turned 18, I wasn’t sure deep down if I could handle life in another country with all new customs, a second language, school pressures, and a crappy job. And the thought of doing all of that thousands of miles apart from anyone familiar seemed impossible. My best friend agreed.
So, we threw him a three person holiday party. Well, four, if you count the landlady.
When we knew Tam was at work, we begged his landlady to let us into his apartment and we decorated it for his first Christmas in Michigan. I can still remember when he walked in the door in his dirty restaurant apron. His tired face filled with confused wonder and then, he laughed.
It must have been a shock to say the least. Two giggling American girls, a Christmas tree with all the tacky trimmings and blinking lights, a personalized stocking stuffed to the top, Christmas cookies, gifts under the tree, “Frosty the Snowman” blaring on the cassette player, and one dumbfounded landlady.
My favorite part of that December is the laughter. We drank cocoa and ate cookies. We danced and acted out the many verses to “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and we laughed the entire time. It was one of the most joy-filled nights of my life.
When winter break was over, one of my favorite teachers pulled me aside with a tear in his eye and told me how inspired he was when Tam excitedly told him what we had done. It sounds kind of strange to say, but I hadn’t really thought about it being some grand gesture of kindness or selflessness. It had just been spontaneous, lighthearted teenage fun. I don’t even know if our parents knew what we did. But it was nice to hear from a respected adult that we had done something good.
The second: December 1991.
I had my first apartment with two roommates and we could barely afford our rent, but we had managed to put up a modest Yule tree. It was a whole thing where all the roommates had to be home. We invited friends, played music, baked cookies, and celebrated our first holiday on our own.
At the time, I was working as a nanny for some very wealthy people. The Millers had three children, ages 9, 4, and 1. I tended to the children and did light cooking. Someone else did the housekeeping and a third person did the landscaping and seasonal upkeep. A few days after my roommates and I had our tree decorating celebration, I was given instructions that the Miller’s tree would be delivered in the afternoon. I had just put the baby down for her nap when the doorbell rang. I crossed the spacious entryway to the grand front door. I expected a couple of delivery guys to be standing there with a giant tree that would fit with the Miller’s expensive furniture and vaulted ceilings.
My mouth could have caught falling snow in it.
“Hi. We’re here to decorate the house for Christmas,” a red lipped woman with a clipboard smiled at me. There were about a dozen people behind her, and four delivery vehicles in the driveway.
Ms. Miller had actually hired a team of people to put up the tree, hang the stockings, string the outdoor lights, place wreaths on the doors, and deep clean the guest rooms for out-of-town relatives. The woman with the clipboard directed the team all over the house. Poinsettia floral arrangements, fresh garland, and candle groupings were placed just so. Two women baked dozens of cookies and decorated them. A third woman pushed whole cloves into star-shaped orange slices to float in wassail. Yes, I said wassail. They tied red bows and greenery on the lamps along the driveway. Two men strategically used a small snow blower to even out the distribution of snow on the outdoor evergreens and one person even made a snowman in the front yard! When they were finished it was magazine perfect, and not one person who lived there had anything to do with it. It was strange and impersonal, but the children were still amazed and thrilled. They screeched and giggled and jumped for joy at all the sparkle.
Later that evening, my roommates and I debated the whole thing over ramen noodles and leftover pizza. Maybe they hired decorators because they worked so much and they didn’t have time before the visiting relatives arrived. Maybe an actual magazine was going to shoot photos there. Maybe they were really spies, not high-powered corporate attorneys, and it was all part of their cover. The one thing we agreed upon was it would be nice to be that rich, but we’d probably never want someone else to hang the stockings, build a snowman, or bake the cookies.
(Now that I have a family of my own, I’m thinking it would be nice to hire a team to un-decorate and clean up after the holidays are over. Am I right?)
The third: December 2007.
I was in college in my mid-thirties. I made friends with a young student named Ashley who’d recently moved back home to attend school closer to her family. There was something about her that I instantly liked. Eventually she became a trusted babysitter and family friend. We were both struggling back then. I was in my first semester and feeling guilty for being away from kids. Ashley had just come out to her family as bisexual, and although they were loving and affirming, she wasn’t sure how her extended family would receive the news.
Ashley found a listening ear with me, maybe saw me as an older confident, but I found her to be equally wise and kind. I think I was the first person outside her immediate family that she trusted to tell her personal story. I could tell she was nervous that I might reject her, but I hugged her and told her how much I respected her. I told her I had a secret too. She had no idea how insecure I felt about being in college in my thirties. I was the same age as many of the professors. As I confessed my feelings, she reassured me that everyone feels insecure in college. We had a good laugh when I reminded her that half the people I sat in class with were born after I graduated high school.
“You were all born after the wall came down. You were in diapers when I was listening to Nirvana!” I laughed.
Then Ashley invited me to bring my children over to her parents house the week of Christmas for a traditional German tree lighting involving real candles. Words can barely describe the utter magic of that evening. The candles burned quickly on special holders that keep the tree from catching fire. Everyone sang carols and then we gazed at the beauty of the tree. My children remained perfectly still, marveling at the brilliance of all of the white candles. As I was leaving, Ashley’s mother tearfully thanked me for being a friend to Ashley. I hugged her and told her how I needed the friendship too. I said I hoped someone would do the same for my kids someday if they ever needed a friend. Mother-to-mother, it was a moment I will never forget. It was one of the loveliest Christmas invitations I’ve ever accepted.
Full Circle Gratitude
Ashley finished college and pursued her dream career. Last I spoke with her, she was really happy. I don’t know what happened to the Millers. They weren’t the kind of people who stayed in touch once you moved on from their world. However, the best part is what happened to the boy from Vietnam.
A couple of years ago I was visiting my hometown with my kids. We were eating lunch out when a man approached our table. It was Tam.
He still had the same sunny smile and kind demeanor. After high school, he worked his way up from dishwasher to owner. He eventually bought a second location, the one where we were dining. I introduced him to my boys and told him that my husband is a sommelier at a restaurant so I understood how hard he had to work for his success. Tam proudly showed me photos of his beautiful wife and children. It was wonderful to see his life had turned out happily. He was the epitome of the middle class American dream.
Then he reminded me of that crazy night all those years ago, which I had long forgotten. We all laughed at my “Midwestern friendliness”—my kids couldn’t believe my best friend and I had barged into someone’s apartment like that. We laughed at Tam’s perspective of the goofy blinking colorful lights and the way too sweet treats. And we really cracked up at that poor, frazzled landlady.
It took me twenty years, but I finally understood what it had meant to Tam. When I got the bill for our meal, there was no charge. It simply said, “Thank you for my first American Christmas.”
Let there be Peace on earth, and let it begin with me.