This all started back in the summer with a letter from a 12-year-old girl named Sharon. She was proud of her mother and wanted everyone to know it.
Her mother was a small, wiry woman named Linda. She drove a truck to support Sharon and her little brother, Kenny. Linda made about $9 an hour, enough to afford a small apartment with two bedrooms in Essex. When they moved in, it was as if all three of them had started a new life. Linda slept on the couch so Sharon and Kenny could have their own rooms. Sharon is a bright kid; she knows that small sacrifice tells a lot about her mother.
Yesterday afternoon, Sharon was in good cheer, playing with one of her friends, the two of them singing a peppy version of "Deck The Halls." It was late afternoon. Linda was sitting at the dinette. Her blue uniform shirt hung over a chair. She had just finished another day's work. It was time for supper but I didn't smell anything cooking in the apartment.
Another letter had brought me to this modest household, but this time it wasn't from Sharon.
This time, it was from Linda. It was a scream. Not so much a plea for help. Just a scream. A cry in the shadow of Christmas. I'm going to let Linda have her say here because I get the impression that, until now, no one has been paying much attention to her.
It starts with the job. Linda lost it. Her boss wasn't happy with her performance as a truck driver. He let her go in early November. Now Linda drives a truck for a messenger service. She's making $6 an hour. The rent on the apartment is $375 a month. She keeps making payments on a compact car. She's thinking of selling her refrigerator and taking one from her landlord.
"Sell your refrigerator?" I asked.
"Yeah," Linda said. "Just finished making all the payments on it, too. We're going to be evicted. I bring home $180 a week. We're going to lose all the furniture I worked so hard for. The new job doesn't pay what my last job did. I can't pay the rent and my other bills.
"Now, I realize there are so many families in this world who don't have anything and I have no right to whine and complain, but I can't help it. All my life I've had nothing but bad breaks. My father was an alcoholic and physically abusive. Two of my male cousins sexually abused me from the age of 6 or 7 until I was about 13. I dropped out of school at 16 because I was sick and tired of being picked on and ridiculed by all the other kids. I went on a date on New Year's Eve 1984 and ended up having my jaw broken in two places . . . I spent the following eight weeks with my jaw wired shut. The guy gets out of jail this month. He may be out now, for all I know.
"For the last eight months, things were finally going good for me. I had a good-paying job. I moved my children into a bigger and nicer apartment. I had my own car [still have the car] and I got nice, new furniture and established good credit. But now everything is going to be gone. I'm finished. It breaks my heart in a trillion pieces to know that now I can't provide for my kids. I even can't give them a Christmas.
"I am dealing with so much right now. My mind and my nerves just cannot take any more. I keep asking myself, 'Why me? What have I done to deserve this rotten life?' I love my children more than anything in this whole screwed up world and I don't ever want to leave them. They are my whole life.
"I'm not crazy or insane. I'm just sick and tired of getting the shaft. Everyone tells me to quit this low-paying job and go on welfare and get a job that pays under the table. But I won't do that. I was on welfare once before and it was so damned degrading. I refuse to go on welfare. I refuse to sit around and live off the government. I am able to work and until I am unable to work I will refuse to be a part of welfare. Believe me, it is extremely tempting, but I cannot bring myself to go that way.
"I do not like what is happening to me and my children but I will continue to struggle. I am a survivor and I have my pride. I will keep my pride and I will keep on being a survivor until I am dead.
"There is more I want to tell you, but I won't bore you any more. Thank you for letting me dump my problems on you.
"You know something? I have never asked for anything to be handed to me on a silver platter, but I wonder what it would be like. I am sure there are disadvantages to being well-to-do, but there are so many more disadvantages to being not so well-to-do.
"Thanks again, and have a Merry Christmas. Hopefully, I'll see some light in 1991. I won't be holding my breath, though."