This is the second “Reader’s Guide to Updates” on the women of Can’t Catch a Break. (Click here for the previous update.) Not all of the conversations, observations and anecdotes that I’ve posted here are profound, but I post them to help all of us (my readers as well as myself) remember that these women are real, multi-faceted people who, like us, face challenges both trivial and great, and who, like us, respond to those challenges in a variety of (often inconsistent) ways.
This post centers on their experiences around the Christmas 2014 holiday season. For many Americans, holidays present economic and interpersonal challenges. For poor, marginalized, ill, criminalized and homeless Americans those challenges are magnified. How can one afford to buy gifts when living on a monthly $700 SSI check? How can one put on the kind of family Christmas celebrations that television and movies show (incessantly!) when one doesn’t even have a home, or when one has lost custody of her children, or even worse – when one is sitting in jail or in a closed rehab facility?
But it’s not all bad news. The holidays can also bring out the best in people. Several women of Can’t Catch a Break received donations of toys to give their children — toys donated by generous strangers. One woman celebrated with her children for the first time in a decade. And one woman cooked her first Christmas dinner ever with a group of new friends.
Early in December Andrea began calling me to ask if I’d be giving out gift cards for Christmas. I told her that I didn’t know if I’d have the resources this year and that I’d let her know. She called back everyday for the next two weeks. Over the years Andrea has learned that the squeaky wheel often does get attention!
She was particularly anxious about the gift cards this year because her son (a young man in his twenties) had reappeared in her life after many years and was staying with her for at least a few months. He and his girlfriend had been living with the girlfriend’s family, but when her parents died they could not keep the house. While she was happy to be re-united, she also was feeling the stress of living with an adult man in her studio apartment. And she certainly remembered how she had lost her apartment a decade earlier when a relative staying with her was arrested for dealing drugs out of the apartment.
A few days before Christmas I went to visit her at the store where she is employed handing out coupons several hours each week. She told me that she was planning on spending “a quiet Christmas by myself. I have no Christmas plans because my people [the grandparents who raised her] are gone.”
A lot has changed in Ashley’s life. She is joyfully, gloriously pregnant. She and her boyfriend are thrilled and posted pictures of their Christmas tree with a stocking for “Baby.”
I went to visit Carly a few days before Christmas. She had called to tell me that the gift card I’d mailed her had been stolen out of the envelope. Her apartment was decorated with a small Christmas tree, and strewn with various Christian tracts and CDs.
Delighted to have an apartment after five years on the streets, she’s struggled to find a roommate who actually pays rent. We talked about how “my problem is that I’m too nice to people.” That is, she lets them live with her even though they are getting a free ride on her expense. In many ways her life seems to be at a standstill: she still has not found a job; she still has not started community college; and her church still does not allow her to sing in the choir “because I smoke weed.”
Carly has been the most religiously-engaged woman of the project. Other women go to church occasionally or pray when they have a problem, but she is the only one to be an active member of a church community and to post Christian aphorisms on Facebook, etc. But over the past few months her ideas about being Christian have shifted.
For the first time in years, she did not go to church on Christmas. She explained that she believes in one God who created us all but religion separates and Christians say if you’re not Christian you’re not saved and Muslims say if you’re not Muslim you’re not saved. This makes her feel distanced from her church. “Why,” Carly asked me, “if Jesus was born a Jew in Bethlehem he is always painted white in pictures?” Concluding that this is because of “the racism in our country. I’ve finally had my blindfolds taken off.”
Born into a white family, Carly had spent some of her formative years living with a Jamaican foster family. She still feels close to this family and was disappointed when they went home to Jamaica for Christmas. She wanted to go with them but her passport application was denied (for an unknown reason.) Making the best of things, she invited over a few friends — young adults from other countries who have no family locally. These friends are a mixed bunch religiously: Muslim, Catholic, and Christian (like Carly.) They “went all out” cooking a festive meal of ham, chicken, mac and cheese, and collard greens.
Elizabeth did not get to celebrate Christmas this year. In November she was beaten to death, on her own living room couch, by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order. As I got ready to send a Christmas card to her mother I looked back over my files and saw that in one of our very first meetings I’d asked Elizabeth what her goals were for the next three months. She answered, “My Christmas wish – a small tree in my own home.” Oh Elizabeth, with all of my heart I pray that you finally have a tree in your own home in Heaven.
Since the last posting Francesca got engaged to “the love of my life” and then broke off the engagement when he began drinking heavily. She has moved into a one room apartment (“It’s mine. I’m on the lease!”) but spends a great deal of time at Joey’s apartment.
Christmas has always been important to Francesca. One of my earliest and most vivid memories of spending time with Francesca was Christmas the first year we’d met. Together with my colleague Maureen I’d organized a small Christmas party for the project women. We held it at the drop-in center for poor and homeless women. Francesca took the train out to my town to meet me and drive in with me in order to help me carry the decorations and food for the party. At the time I still thought of her as a super tough cookie. But in the car she told me that this was the first time in her life that she’d been invited to a Christmas party. Her family treated her “like the black sheep addict” and she’s never really had a circle of friends to invite her. “I’m nervous and excited,” she told me. “I could barely sleep last night.”
Over the next few years Christmas brought fear, sadness and anxiety to Francesca — but most of all feelings of guilt that she couldn’t provide her children with the gifts they wanted.
Two years ago things had changed. She had moved in with Joey and her son had joined them. When I visited on Christmas day her small granddaughter was running around wildly with all of her new toys in a living room otherwise empty of furniture (she and Joey couldn’t afford furniture.) They had a big and sumptuously decorated Christmas tree. Her son – by now in his early twenties — woke up while I was there and went straight to the stockings that were hanging by the window and peeked into his stocking. She’s bought him cigarettes, lottery tickets and a few other stocking stuffers. They were thrilled! As I left she proudly handed me the present she had chosen especially for me – a box of Chanuka cookies!
This year things were a bit different. She spent Christmas with Joey but her children went to other family members’ homes. But all in all Christmas was “Awesome. Joey bought me a flat screen t.v.” Instead of a big tree, this year she picked out a small pink tree with a leopard skirt (that is so like Francesca!) which they put in the window.
Daisy had the best Christmas of her fifty year life! Her children are now full-fledged, independent adults, and finally are in positions in which they can help out their often-confused mother. On Christmas day her daughter (now a social worker!) drove her mother to the home of Daisy’s son and his new wife (whose family has warmly welcomed Daisy into the family fold).
Ginger’s had a difficult few months. She moved out of state to live with her brother, his wife and their child, but she felt lonely without her trans community and without her boyfriend. “I love my brother but I’m a trans woman. I can’t live with my brother and his family. I need my own life. I can’t live his life.”
Christmas was no fun for her this year. Back home in Boston the holidays were an excuse to dress up in her best drag and spend time with “my trans sisters” doing up hair and make-up. She couldn’t even muster up excitement for gift giving: She simply chipped in with her brother on a gift for his son.
Gloria has disappeared.
Joy has disappeared.
Her little girls have started school, which they love. Enrique has been coming through as a husband and a Dad. Christmas was “okay, but on New Years I blacked out.” Kahtia’s health problems are becoming more worrisome. She does not yet have a definitive diagnosis but given her history of cancer there is reason to be concerned. She has blacked out several times and complains that she is losing her short-term memory.
She and Enrique were able to scrape together money for Christmas for their children, but their daughter’s birthday is this week and they are completely broke. Kahtia is devastated at not being able to buy a gift for her child.
Tonya celebrated New Years by kicking out the boyfriend who’d been living with her rent-free and generally taking advantage of her generosity. She launched a crowd-sourcing website (on GoFundMe) to raise money to “start over” and replace the decrepit beds and couch in her apartment.
A few weeks before Christmas Vanessa moved into what is called a “sober house.” “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she explained. And she had problems in the place she was living. “Some people there were hating on me and called the police on me. So I decided to make a change.”
As she does every year, she spent Christmas at her mother’s house. The only gifts she received were the gift card from me and a watch and money from a man with whom she has an ongoing friendly relationship. But she gave her mother and her two young adult children $100 each. “I didn’t want anything from them. They always looked out for me when I was using those drugs. I wanted to give them something. All I wanted was a home cooked meal.”