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For many years, I went out of my way to feel embittered and surly at Christmas, refusing to live in the moment, opting instead to wallow in memories of lonely Christmases past. Looking back, though, I’ve never actually been alone. The memories I wallow in are false.  They’re little stories, truncated and manipulated versions of reality, created by me.  They make it easier to share my past experiences with others and to convey a version of myself that best fits into—maybe not how I saw myself at the time, but how I want people to understand my past.

For a long time, I held tightly to the memory of the Christmas sixteen years ago when I was nineteen, pregnant with a baby I was going to put up for adoption, and homeless. Truth be told, I’ve never spent a night outdoors except when camping. I’ve never spent a night starving. I’ve never really been homeless. This fact, however, doesn’t fit into the story I’ve told about me.  It serves to make my bitterness justified—yet it no longer feels authentic or serves the new narrative I’d rather tell.  I realized recently that I’ve built an identity around myself that no longer fits into my current understanding of who I am.  It’s not who I want to be anymore.

Truth be told, that Christmas I had a warm, comfortable bed on my friends’ couch in a cardboard house. Cara and Charles took me in unquestioningly, providing me space of my own in their home, a home built in the 1920s by the Short Lady of the Circus. The labyrinthine structure was about two feet shorter than a normal house and had long since been reinforced with wood and concrete, but the original interior was intact. The peephole on the front door was located around sternum-height. The home had been passed down from one artist to another in its seventy-plus years, and each room was painted with a different mural, most of them jungle-themed. I guess it can be said I did live in a cardboard house that holiday, but what a wonder it was.

It was a lean Christmas for all of us. Cara and Charles were both college students living on student loans and grants, and I didn’t have a job until Christmas day, when I walked into a local Sonic Drive-In and told them I needed work and could start right away. They handed me an apron and a tray, and I took my protruding belly outside and immediately began serving burgers in a snowstorm to people sitting comfortably in their cars. I made fifty dollars in tips that day and bought dinner for my host family. Cara surprised me with a pen and ink set she’d bought in the student bookstore with her grant funds, as well as a knitted blanket she’d made for me. “Because I know you’re not going to have a baby shower,” she said.

For years I regarded that Christmas as the saddest of them all. But looking back on it now, I see that it was overflowing with love.  For years I held the story about being homeless and broke so closely that I never made space for the truth: that it was one of my favorite Christmases ever. I’ve built castles of sand around that story—or, rather, houses of cardboard, reinforced over many years through repetition, but they never provided a solid foundation. By referring to myself as homeless, I constructed a quick way to make people understand how financially bereft I was because it was easier than the longer explanation.  This adjustment carried with it a variety of unintended consequences.  It evoked, for example, images of me begging on the sidewalk (though, truth be told, I loved the drama of this image), but it didn’t honor the fact that I had a safe place to stay with caring people who were nothing short of angels.

At 8:30 in the morning on Christmas Day this past year, my nine-year-old sons were opening gifts at their dad’s house and my daughter, her son, and her husband were exchanging gifts in their small, new family. I sat alone in my warm living room surrounded by the litter and chaos from the previous day’s Christmas Eve gift-giving I had shared with the boys. My house was quiet, save for the hum of my desktop computer and the occasional mewing of a cat expressing his boredom.

Admittedly, there was a pang of loneliness, a warm surge that shot from my gut to my heart when I thought about being without my children and family. For many of us, people who share DNA gathered around the tree with mugs of steaming liquid is a Norman Rockwell ideal that doesn’t always correlate with real life.  Instead of being with family, I shared the day with a friend with whom I drank whiskey, watched The Bourne Identity, and went to a nearby park to watch strangers play bike polo. I received invitations from many people this holiday, all of them generously willing to share their day with me in any number of ways. Even though I wanted to be with my children or much of my other family who live thousands of miles away, I took heart that I wasn’t alone.  I felt a sense of peace as well—a fondness for the way the universe provides me with love if I’m willing to shift my thinking and embrace life on its terms. Alone may not always be a choice, but I’m grateful to finally learn that loneliness often is.

 

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Gloria Harrison GLORIA HARRISON is a writer whose work has been featured on The Nervous Breakdown, Fictionaut, and This American Life. Gloria was the lead editor for The Portland Red Guide: Sites & Stories of Our Radical Past by Michael Munk, which was published through Ooligan Press in 2007. She was also a contributing editor to Pete Anthony's book, Immaculate, for which she received a high five and a ten dollar gift card to Stumptown Coffee. Gloria graduated from Portland State University with her B.A. in English in 2006 and now focuses on her own writing. She had a work of flash fiction published in The Bear Deluxe Magazine (No. 26). You can follow her on Twitter here.

Gloria lives in Portland, Oregon with her school-age twin boys. She is currently working on both a memoir and her first novel. You can contact Gloria via her Facebook page.

43 Responses to “A Christmas Story in Retrospect”

  1. Carol Mackintosh Hiller says:

    Pregnant and homeless, anyone could claim; pregnant and carhopping in the snow, living large in a home built for little people, well, my dear, that takes talent.

  2. ama says:

    Um, yeah. I love you!
    Brilliant self-discovery and exposition, my friend. I appreciate being on a journey of honesty and assessment with you, and find courage via reading about yours.

    • Gloria says:

      Thanks, Ama. It’s funny, because it didn’t feel brave at all. It felt like I’d finally just run out of the steam needed to keep up the charade (not to mix metaphors or anything.)

  3. James D. Irwin says:

    Well, you already know what I think of this…

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Wait! That sounds dismissive, sarcastic, and almost like something a weary teacher might say to a pupil.

      You know what I mean though, of course. This is a wonderful piece of writing.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    Best Christmas-past piece I’ve read in years.

    I’ll be thinking about that short-lady cardboard house for a while.

    • Gloria says:

      Kind words, Don. Thank you, sir. (and I’m trying to procure pictures of this house. I’ll email them if I can get them.)

  5. I love an essay where the author sloughs off a layer of their personal bullshit, and makes it clear how easy it is to do. Of course you don’t need that version of that story any more, Gloria. You probably never really did. I have so many of those “dramatic moments” that comprise my historical quilt, most of which need a reality filter. Or to be expunged entirely. Getting older is cool. So much matters less, except the much smaller subset that matters so much more. Thanks for the honesty.

    • Gloria says:

      So much matters less, except the much smaller subset that matters so much more. Yeah, that’s about it, isn’t it? Thanks for taking the time to read, Sean. I appreciate your sweet words.

  6. Matt says:

    Alone may not always be a choice, but I’m grateful to finally learn that loneliness often is.

    YES.

    I’ve repeatedly tried to express this sentiment to coworkers who give me that “I pity you” expression when I explain to them that I usually spend Thanksgiving/Christmas/etc. alone due to my current family situation. I’d rather be alone and enjoying myself than surrounded by a bunch of people faking sincerity, thank you!

    I wish there were photos of that cardboard house. I’d love to see it.

    • Gloria says:

      Yeah, it’s the whole Norman Rockwell thing, isn’t it? Like if you’re not gathered around a tree with family, you need to be put on suicide watch or something. That seems pretty extreme. And if some is telling you to your face that they’re fine with being alone, why be so audacious as to inform them they’re lying? (Unless, of course, you have a valid reason to worry about their well-being, but even then what are you suppose to do? Invite them home? I’ve spent too many Christmases with friends – or even strangers – and their families and feeling like the Holiday Third Wheel is way worse than being alone and watching Jason Bourne movies.)

      I’m totally trying to find pics of the house, by the way.

  7. Mary says:

    I love you Gloria. That was beautiful.

  8. zoe zolbrod says:

    Wonderful piece. I love the way you identify recounted memoiries as both vehicles to convey something about yourself to others as well as to convey something about yourself to yourself.

  9. I am completely fascinated by the short-lady-from-the-circus cardboard house, and I LOVE the analogy of the cardboard house with reinforcements and art. I wanna see it!

    • Gloria says:

      To be fair, that analogy was handed to me by Ms. Tawni Freeland, who threw the idea out when we were discussing this story and I just ran with it. She’s nothing if not brilliant. And, like I said above, I’m totally trying to get pics of the cardboard house. It was a site to behold. Completely impractical, yet lovely and warm and comfortable.

  10. Dana says:

    This is excellent, Gloria. Your honesty feels like a deep exhalation. And what a nice tribute to your friends too. I too would love to see the pictures of the cardboard house. I wonder if anyone associated with “Being John Malkovich” has ever toured the place?

    GREAT finishing line!

    • Gloria says:

      What a great way of putting it, Dana – a deep exhalation. Yes. And thanks for the sweet words about my finishing line.

      Hi, Dana!

  11. Beautiful, and I’m not just saying that because my first instinct was to buy the full-on heartache, despite being warned. It’s mostly just that your words are wise.

    I find too that lean holidays are the clearest in my memory. They’re often the ones that leave space for real gratitude.

    Thanks for sharing these Christmases of yours, Gloria.

  12. jmblaine says:

    Short Lady Circus Houses
    Pregnant Carhops
    Christmas.
    this has everything I love.
    I love this.
    Thank you for waiting
    until after Christmas.

    The gentleman above said it right:
    Those kinda sad,
    little bit lonely
    Christmas seasons
    showed us what was real
    & honest and true.

    Love love love.

    • Gloria says:

      You have a magical way of distilling things down, J.M. Blaine. I should’ve made my lede Short Lady Circus Houses, Pregnant Carhops, and Christmas. And, yes, you and Nat are both right that kinda sad and little bit lonely Christmases can be just the thing. Nice to see you here. Thank you so much.

  13. D.R. Haney says:

    As I began reading this, I had the sense, almost, that I was sitting by a fire with a mug of hot chocolate in hand. Then again, that’s a feeling I always want at this time of year, and it’s increasingly hard to come by. My Christmas, unlike yours, was warm only in the sense that it was spent in a warm climate. I had perfectly gruesome phone conversations with relatives back east — I can’t and won’t get into the details — which are par for the course at Christmas, I’m afraid, so I was only too glad to be alone, all the better to nurse my ulcers. I had no ulcers when I woke on Christmas, and I’m happy that you had none at all, going by what you’ve written here.

    • Gloria says:

      I would love to share a cup of cocoa at Christmas with you sometime Duke. Or anytime, really. Sorry to hear your last Christmas sucked balls. I hope things have improved dramatically since then. xo

  14. Irene Zion says:

    This is a magical story, Gloria. Perfect for this time of year!
    I would love to see and read more about the short lady of the circus cardboard house.
    Funny how we don’t always know how lucky we’ve been until years have passed and we take a good honest look back.
    This was brave of you.

    • Gloria says:

      Thanks, Irene. I mentioned it above, but I am currently trying to acquire some pictures of that house. Writing this story was a brilliant opportunity for me to reconnect with Cara and Charles, which I’ve done on the Facebooks. Which has been really great.

      Here’s hoping your holidays were wonderful, Irene. <3

  15. Richard Cox says:

    It’s interesting the way we judge certain experiences and then protect that judgment for years, even though with new insight and introspection, we can often see those situations in a different light. It happens for so-called good memories as well as bad. It’s a rare gift, I think, when someone can reach different conclusions about their past by being honest with themselves.

    Good for you.

  16. pixy says:

    gloria:

    i’m slightly skeeved at how similar our christmases were this year. i drank whiskey, egg nog and watched all 3 bourne flicks. matt damon is just so huggable in that series.

    i have too many other things to say about christmases and this piece to do it all here.

    p

    • Gloria says:

      Honest to God, Pixy – my goal was to watch all three Jason Bourne movies, but I could only get one of them in time. And whiskey, too? Was it Maker’s Mark? I love that we had the same thought. :)

      • pixy says:

        alas, i am a jameson girl myself. it’s just so darn tasty!
        for real now… how do we live in the same town, but we haven’t had beverages together?
        is it because i live on the wrong side of the tracks/river and don’t have a car? that’s what i’m going to tell myself. :)

  17. New Orleans Lady says:

    I loved this one, Gloria.
    It must be extremely freeing to see things from your past from a new perspective. Do you feel lighter? I’m impressed with your degree of honesty with this piece. I hold myself back from being this open and honest with people around me. My biggest fear is not that people will hear my story but that they won’t care. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, I’m happy that you told Norman Rockwell to shove it in your own little way.

    As for me, I’m always sad and lonely during the holidays. I have family around but still…alone in crowded rooms…
    I keep thinking, NEXT YEAR. Next year will be perfect.

    Keep growing, Mama. This was beautiful.

  18. Art Edwards says:

    “I’ve never really been homeless. This fact, however, doesn’t fit into the story I’ve told about me. It serves to make my bitterness justified—yet it no longer feels authentic or serves the new narrative I’d rather tell.” What a strong, hard-earned statement that is.

    It’s ironic how we tell ourselves these stories that are little white lies, but when we peel the onion back and get at what was really going on, that story is actually more interesting and compelling. I love writing for this reason.

    Thanks for the peek, G.

    Art

  19. Meg Worden says:

    Brill, brave and anything but bereft. Love the way you have storied the reframing of your story. And I think you’ve made everyone properly jealous they can’t spend a Christmas on a sofa in a cardboard circus house. Thanks for this, G.

  20. holidays says:

    holidays…

    [...]Gloria Harrison | A Christmas Story | The Nervous Breakdown[...]…

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