In 1959, my family rented a home past the Five Mile House in Corralitos on the shore of what local residents called Chandler Lake. Ironically, that body of water later acquired a border of chain-link fence and a sign renaming it Lake Freedom.
Later, 1961 had all the makings of a thoroughly miserable year. My parents divorced, with my dad going to parts unknown and the rest of us becoming unnaturalized citizens of the welfare state. Though welfare still isn’t a pleasant state to live in, back before L.B.J.’s Great Society programs it seemed almost Dickensian in its bleakness.
The first victim was our fairly new 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. It and its payments were exchanged for a round-rumped 1949 Plymouth. Its most prominent features were oxidized blue paint, threadbare gray upholstery and a perpetually musty aroma. It was also a stick shift, something outside my mother’s driving experience. That made our initial trips harrowing journeys, punctuated by stalls, grinding gears and muttered maternal epithets.
Next to go was our television and whatever other articles the finance company considered worth taking. My younger sister Lisa and I sat on our sofa, watching the passing parade of belongings. I was 14, but my sister was just a toddler, and we weren’t asked to give up the sofa. Even repo men have hearts.
My mother finally found work at Sterling’s cannery, though mostly on call at first. That left her making just enough to lose public assistance — so child care and other work expenses actually left things even tighter for us.
Summer brought some relief, for then I could baby-sit my sister and pick berries for a farmer on Amesti Road whenever possible. But when I went to Watsonville High that fall, things got tough again. Food became an inconsistent visitor to our home. Veggies would sometimes be spirited home by my mom from the cannery, and we had a small backyard garden. I relied most heavily, however, on lunches at the high school cafeteria … especially an entree consisting of a huge scoop of steamed rice with a ladle of chicken a la king for only a quarter. Of course, I had to complain of how terrible the food was with other students, but it was secretly a blessed feast.
Our cousins on Green Valley Road went to El Centro following the crops, and gave us what was left in their pantry and freezer — some homemade jam, stewing chickens, and packages of hamburger buns. Just before Christmas break, I checked the fridge while waiting for the school bus. All that was left was the homemade jam and a hamburger bun. I decided to leave it so there might be something that night, because hunger pains are harder to ignore in bed.
Things weren’t much improved on Christmas Eve. There was an empty corner in the living room where our Christmas tree usually stood, and that emptiness seemed to spread all through the house. When we went to bed that night, I doubt a single sugarplum was dancing anywhere.
I awoke early the next day and went to the living room with undue haste. The corner was still empty, and I chided myself for thinking it might not be. Then I happened to glance out the window, and saw a large cardboard box sitting on our porch. I went outside, opened the box, and inside I found Christmas.
It was filled with food, mostly canned, and some small toys. There was even a plastic model car kit — a personal favorite at the time. We made a grand Christmas dinner, the main course being a large can of pork and beans. With a little care, that piece of pork fat can be carved into several servings.
We never knew who brought that box. It was possibly a charitable group or a concerned neighbor. Or maybe our landlady, a saintly woman named Hazel Brooks who was always so patient about the rent. Who brought it wasn’t nearly important as the fact that someone cared enough to do so. That act of giving turned what seemed destined to be the darkest day of my life into one of my brightest memories.
My purpose in sharing this glimpse of Christmas past rests in Christmas present. Various good groups are collecting food and toys for the needy, and it’s probably not too late for you to help. Contact the Salvation Army, Loaves and Fishes or other organization of your choosing to help them perform their holiday miracles. Give what you can, no matter how simple the food or small the toy. For Christmas doesn’t have to be lavish, you see. Christmas simply has to be.
Steve Bankhead is a self-employed, semi-retired Watsonville resident known for his written observations of politics and life in the Pajaro Valley.