Home Is Where The Heart Is

“Mommy, I want that one and that one and that one,” Little Lisa said, pointing one after another to a succession of Barbie’s lined up among what seemed like hundreds of other dolls on display in the toy section of Target.

God, thought Megan, Little Lisa’s mom, I really should have thought this through a little better.

She’d come in with her daughter to warm up, not buy anything. But here it was nearly Christmas and the store was packed with shoppers, all vying for the latest and greatest gifts for Johnny and Susie, and the most perfect present in the world for whomever and it was becoming overwhelming. Man… All she’d wanted to do was to kill a little time and shake off some of that bone-chilling Minnesota cold, but her little girl had pleaded and pleaded to look at toys and, against her better judgment, Megan had given in thinking that maybe just a little peak wouldn’t hurt. Yeah, right, she was now thinking, watching Little Lisa gently caress one plastic package after another. Chalk that up to one more major league bad decision. They say you live and learn, she thought, and if that’s the case, I should be a genius.

Megan took off her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes. Then she put them back on, knelt down and turned her daughter to face her. “No, honey,” she said softly but firmly, and could actually hear the strain of trying to sound patient in her voice, “Not right now, Ok?” Little Lisa gazed at her mom with big almond colored eyes, silently pleading, but too well behaved to complain out loud. Megan felt a tug in her heart and forced herself to push past her exhaustion, wishing things didn’t have to be the way they were. Then she had a thought, “Maybe you’ll get one for Christmas,” she said and forced a tired smile for her daughter who immediately responded by clapping her hands and jumping up and down, causing a few shoppers to glance in their direction and frown. “If you’re good that is,” she added, trying to appear cheerful and positive, but it was hard. She didn’t believe in filling her child’s head with any of that crap about Santa Claus and elves and red-nosed reindeer that flew around the world delivering presents, and all those other fantasies most people fed their children at this time of year. What good could it possibly do? Life was hard enough as it was, so why make it worse by encouraging her daughter with false hope? But, in the same breath, it was difficult for her, as a mother, to be cold hearted and not feel for her little five year old. After all, Little Lisa was all she had and it wasn’t her fault they lived in an old car and money was tight.

“We’ll talk more about it when we get home.”

That stopped her little girl right there. All around them holiday shoppers were rushing past, most with kids yelling and pointing and pleading, some even on the verge of tears. Parents, their tolerance meter red-lining, were doing their best not to lose control and freak out right there in aisle seventeen, the one packed with stacks of Star Wars Lego’s, Doc McStuffins characters, Peanuts figures, Barbie dolls and every other kind of kids toy and game you could possibly imagine for the under ten crowd. Megan loosened her scarf and unbuttoned her worn wool coat. For the first time in what seemed like days she was hot. She was getting dizzy, too, probably from lack of food. But she wasn’t in bad enough shape not to have heard her little girl say with her eyes wide open, “Home, Mommy. Really? We’re going to go home?”

Megan cursed herself for her slip up. Damn. This wasn’t the time nor the place to shatter her daughter’s world. It was the Christmas season, for god’s sake. “No, not tonight, Sweetheart, but maybe someday.” she said, giving the little girl a hug. But no, they weren’t going home. That was a given. They had no home to go to.

Like water rolling off her back, Little Lisa shrugged her tiny shoulders, said, “Ok,” and turned back to the massive display of toys, lost in her fantasy world of Barbie’s and Kens.

Happy to have dodged that bullet, Megan stood up, keeping a watchful eye on her daughter. Little Lisa was transfixed by the lure and enticement of the never ending rows of Barbie’s dressed this way and that: getting ready to ride a motorcycle or a skateboard, or go to a prom, or go shopping, or simply to hang out dressed to the nine’s just to have a luncheon with other Barbie’s that looked exactly the same. She couldn’t believe that her daughter loved those stupid dolls. Especially that Barbie Rainbow Mermaid, which was just what it’s name implied – a long haired, blond (of course) Barbie with a mermaid tail, and a body of colorful bright rainbow hues of pink, lavender, yellow, orange and red. It even had glitter on it. How her daughter could be attracted to something like that Megan had no clue. Little Lisa was olive skinned with dark, almost black, straight hair that Megan cut in a modified page-boy, just to make it easier to clean and care for.

In fact, everything Megan did was centered around making life as easy for them as possible. Living in a car wasn’t the most desirable of living conditions, that was for sure, but it was all they had, so they had to make the best of things. The thirty one year old Ford Hatchback had been their home since June; ever since she had left that idiot, violent boyfriend of the last ten months for her own safety as well as that of her daughter. Best move she’d ever made.

She was briefly congratulating herself on taking that drastic, but oh so necessary action, when she had an idea.”Little Lisa, come with me,” Megan said with a burst of energy and enthusiasm, gently tugging her daughter away from the display.

“No, Momma,” Little Lisa’s quiet pleading (rare for her) caused some of the other mothers to look quickly at the two of them and then, just as quickly, look away.

Megan saw it. Maybe one or two were possibly sympathetic, but most, she could tell, were happy to see the two of them leave. Megan got it. She knew what they looked like and she hated the term, but there it was: street people. Bums. Homeless. Whatever. Maybe they all applied, but that didn’t mean Megan had to accept it. She was trying her best. She really was.

She had a job, for one thing, working at MacDonald’s on Lake Street in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. And she had a place to sleep at night, even if it was in their old car parked in a big box store parking lot out in Minnetonka. There were gas station restrooms all over the Minneapolis metro area that she used to sponge the two of them off, brush their teeth and wash their hair. When all else failed, there was always one of the shelters in downtown Minneapolis where she could spend the night and get a meal. It wasn’t the best world, but they were out of the horror of Darren’s escalating drug use, temper tantrums and physical assaults and that was the main thing. They might be poor, but they were safe. At least for today. Tonight she worked. Tomorrow would take care of itself.

Her heart warmed and suddenly went out to her little girl. “Come on, kiddo,” she said gently, kneeling down and giving her a hug. Then she stood to leave, but before they did she had one thing left to do. She quickly looked both ways. All the other shoppers had turned away trying to ignore them, probably in embarrassment for them, and for a brief moment no one was watching. With practiced stealth she picked one of the Barbie Mermaids and stuck it in her oversized shoulder bag. It took a second at most. Little Lisa didn’t even catch it – Megan was that good and that fast. Done and done, she smiled to herself. My little girl deserves something special.

“Let’s go look at Christmas lights,” she said cheerfully and took her daughter by the hand as they made their way into one of the extra wide aisles which was even more packed and crowded than the toy aisle. Megan congratulated herself at the idea she’d had, “Come along now, Sweetie, we’ve got some decorating to do.”

“For our new home, Mommy?” Little Lisa asked, Barbie’s now forgotten, clapping her hands and actually skipping as she walked next to her mother.

Megan ignored the question, but could no longer contain her smile, “It’s a surprise, Honey,” she said, affectionately, bending to hug her daughter with one arm as they walked, “You’ll see.”

“Oh, goodie, goodie,” Little Lisa giggled, and she took hold of her mother’s hand tightly, barely able to contain her excitement.

Off they went then, winding their way through the ever growing crush of the crowds of holiday shoppers and eventually all the way to the other side of the store – the side where it seemed like every possible Christmas decoration in the world was on display, ready to adorn festive homes with the joy of the holidays and the spirit of the season. For those who could afford it, at least.

Donny Eisenberg was with security and had been watching the young woman and her little girl ever since they’d entered the store. He’d seen her slip the doll into her purse and almost grabbed her then, but held back. He’d been a Floor Walker for eight years now, ever since he’d retired as a bus driver for Metro Transit, and after all these years he could just tell.

Like he recently told Helen, his wife of fifty one years, “They just have a look about them. You know. Trouble.”

To which Helen slapped down her newspaper and stared at him , “All of them Donny? Every single one of them?” She glared at him, frowning.”You know they’re people, don’t you, not things? Each one is a person. A living breathing human being who just might be down on their luck. Can’t you sometimes give them the benefit of the doubt? Cut them a little slack?”

Donny knew she was getting angry but he snorted his answer anyway, “Never.” It seemed they were having this argument more and more often these days and he didn’t know why. “That’s not what they pay me for. The company makes the rules, I enforce them. I’m supposed to stop them if they shop lift, call the head of security and turn them over. That’s my job.”

“So you’re paid not to think, huh?  Is that it? Have no feelings? Well, it sounded like a stupid policy to me when you were hired and it still sounds stupid,” Ellen spat out her words, making her point perfectly clear. Then she stared at him long and hard, waiting for Donny to say something. Anything. Donny stared back at her, his mind suddenly blank.

Finally shook her head in disappointment and stood up, taking her newspaper into another room. Donny watched her walk away, all his arguments suddenly coming back to him. But they were unsatisfying and did nothing to alleviate the fact that he was left with contemplating for what seemed the millionth time in their long marriage, why his wife was always so mad at him. He turned and looked out the window, seeing nothing but Helen’s disappointed frown, and wondered if maybe, in the long run, she really might be right.

Now, as he followed the young woman and little girl through the crowded store, he pictured Helen admonishing him with a flinty gaze and steely eyes boring into him like two overheated drill bits. He knew she’d be disappointed in him (again) but he shrugged it off. To hell with her, he thought. He had a job to do.

It was the day before Christmas Eve and the place was packed, especially today, a Saturday: parents pushing carts full of toys, most of it crap that kids would open and lose interest in before the new year began if not sooner. Harried adults, wound up children, everyone talking twice as loud as normal just to be heard over the incessant Christmas music pouring through the sound system. Most people would be driven nuts, but Donny had learned to tune it all out just to keep his sanity; but he swore if he heard ‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells’ one more time he’d…Well, he didn’t know what he’d do, but he was sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

Up ahead the young woman (he guessed she wasn’t more than twenty one or twenty two) turned into the first of what was probably ten aisles loaded to over flowing with displays of Christmas lights of every type and style and decorations of every shape, size and color. Donny slowed and walked past her to a look at a row of indoor Christmas tree ornaments, keeping a surreptitious eye on the two of them. She had unbuttoned her ragged coat and even though she had on at least one sweater and a turtle neck, he could tell she was thin. Her skin was pale and her non-descript brown hair was cut short and he noticed that in spite of her street worn appearance, she looked clean. What struck him, though, were her eyes. Even from where he stood and even though she wore glasses, he could see they were bright and blue. Attractive, almost.

Definitely not a drug user, he thought to himself, assessing the situation. He knew that for a fact. He’d seen enough of them in the store to know – wild eyed and manic. Not this one, though. She was calm and under control. And pretty good with her little girl, too, he thought, now that he had watched her for what, he glanced at his watch, fifteen minutes or so. Lots better than a good majority of the other shoppers milling around him, some of whom even bumping into him without so much as even a ‘pardon me.’ Rude people.

He kept a casual but watchful eye on the two of them. Were they a mother and daughter? If so, the young woman seemed…what? Conscientious, maybe? Or thoughtful? Something like that. Not rude, anyway, that was for sure, and that might count for something, even though she was a thief. He found himself hoping she wouldn’t take anything more.

Megan visually scanned through what seemed like a hundred different styles of Christmas lights before she found what she’d been looking for. She’d seen them in a catalog once someone left behind at work – battery operated white, twinkle lights. They’d be perfect for what she had in mind. She calmly glanced around and, seeing no one but an old man looking at ornaments, she quickly slipped the small package into her shoulder bag – the bag she had lined with tin foil to get past the electronic security at the exit doors. It was a trick she’d learned from her friend, Alyssa, at work. ‘Yeah, you do that, girlfriend, you’ll be golden.’ And it did work. Megan always felt the slightest twinge of guilt whenever she shoplifted, but managed to push the feeling back down by saying that she’d eventually pay the store back. And she meant it, too. It just wouldn’t be today.

Donny went back to his pretend browsing, glancing over every now and then before moving a few steps. He was disappointed to see her slip a small strand of some kind of lights into her purse. Too bad. Now she’d have to suffer the consequences. He made a mental note: she’s got the doll and the lights. He started to get himself ready. One more item and he’ll blow the whistle on her. Just one more.

“Mommy, can we get this, please?” Little Lisa asked, interrupting Megan’s thoughts and tugging excitedly on her sleeve.

She looked at the object that held her daughter’s interest and tried to hide her grin. “Not right now, Sweetheart, but maybe some other time.”

“Please, please, please.” It was unlike her to beg like she was doing.

Little Lisa had selected a baseball sized snow globe with a picturesque scene of a quaint cottage and a decorated pine tree next to it. A little red bird (a cardinal? she thought) sat on a branch. You shook it up and the snow exploded inside, hanging suspended momentarily before drifting to the ground, covering the objects in sparkling white. Megan had always wanted one when she was growing up, but times were tough in her family with just her mother and Megan’s little sister and brother – no father and not much money (and, of course, no snow globe), the story of her life. Now her daughter wanted one, just like she had. Funny how things like that worked out.

“I’m sorry, Honey, but we can’t afford it, now,” Megan told her firmly, “We’ll have to wait.”

“Aw,” Little Lisa said, frowning. Then an idea clicked inside her and, not wanting to give up just yet, she smiled coyly at her mom and asked, “How about…maybe…tomorrow?”

Megan couldn’t help but let her heart go out to her daughter. Pretending to give the matter some hard thought she finally said, “Well…maybe, Honey. Maybe,” she said, smiling at her daughter’s persistence, thinking to herself, what does it hurt to have something for a little girl to look forward to? Then she said, “Now, give me the globe please.”

Happy that at least her mother didn’t say ‘No,’ Little Lisa lovingly handed it to her and then turned away to gaze wishfully at a display of candy canes. Megan took the globe from her, but instead of setting it on the shelf, she slipped it into her bag while Little Lisa’s eyes were averted and then said, “Come on, kiddo, we need to get going. Mommy’s got to get to work pretty soon.”

Little Lisa sighed, “Ok, Mommy,” she said, and took a last long look at the display of pretty snow globes (now, minus one) before she turned away, taking her mother’s hand uncomplainingly and, for at least the tenth time that day, left Megan to wonder what she had done to deserve such a sweet natured, agreeable child.

Donny watched as they made their way through the frantic crowds jamming the aisles, the little girl holding her mother’s hand tightly. He was the tiniest bit heavyhearted she’d taken the snow globe and that he’d have to bust them, but there you were. It was his job and he was good at his job. He decided to wait until they left the store to make his move. Maybe other shoppers would see him nab them and it would set an example not to mess around shoplifting in this store. At least not while Donny Eisenberg was on duty anyway.

He followed discretely fifteen feet behind, eyes roving side to side watching what seemed like hundreds of people at a time, all the while zeroed in on the young mother and her little girl. They were making their way past the long checkout lines (without paying, of course) and heading for the exit. Once they went through the doors and were outside, he’d grab them. He’d get them for the doll, the lights, and now the snow globe. Steal on my watch, Donny thought, not a chance.

He was watching carefully, moving step by step toward them when, just a few feet before the exit doors, the little girl stumbled on one of the big thick floor mats meant to soak up water and slush from outside. Donny made a quick mental note to get on the damn maintenance crew. They should be cleaning and changing those mats out every half hour. Then he re-focused on woman. The young mother was only a few feet from the doors. He started to move toward them.

“Mommy, I’m so sorry,” Little Lisa said, tears welling up. Megan had grabbed her to keep her from falling and getting wet, and fought to hold her up by the hand, trying to keep her off the soaking, soggy mat. “I tripped.”

Megan struggled for a moment before finally getting the little girl straightened out and her feet firmly planted on the floor, “That’s alright kiddo. I’ve got you, but just try to be more careful next time.”

Little Lisa snuffled, “I’ll try Mommy. I’m sorry.”

Megan moved them over by the wall, off to the side of the flow of the crowd now surging to leave the store, pushing overloaded carts, clutching packages and bags and struggling to get into their coats and jackets. She dabbed the tears from Little Lisa’s eyes talking quietly to her to help get her calmed down. Then she glanced outside and her spirits sank. Flurries were coming down and she could see them already blanketing the ground. The problem was that the snow would make the drive to work slow and she couldn’t afford to be late. It would also make it treacherous. The treads on her tires weren’t the best and she’d have to be extra cautious to stay in her lane and not slip into another vehicle. Megan shook her head – it seemed like there was always something to contend with.

She knelt on a dry spot to the left of the exit, zipped up her daughter’s coat, tightened her scarf and put on her knit stocking hat and mittens. Then, in one quick movement, she folded a strip of foil over the top of the inside of her bag, the final step in making sure she didn’t set off the security alarm. Now she was all set.

She was just standing up, buttoning up her own coat when, through the maze of people she heard, then saw, a Salvation Army bell ringer. He was on the sidewalk outside the door; a stocky black man dressed in heavy boots, an insulated jacket, tan Carhart overalls and a purple Minnesota Vikings stocking hat. He was also wearing a cheerful smile in spite of the cold and snow.

Little Lisa had finally calmed down and was back to being in a good mood.  She saw him too. “Mommy, can we give him some money? Please? Please? Please?”

Megan didn’t have to think twice. She knew there were people out there in much worse shape that she and her daughter. After all, the two of them at least had a car to live in. “Sure Sweetie,” she said, reaching into her shoulder bag for her pocketbook and taking out a wrinkled dollar bill. “Here, give this to the nice man.”

“Goody, goody.” Little Lisa took the dollar bill, held it tightly between her mittened hands and ran through the door right up to the guy. “Here, mister,” she said, giving the money to the man who helped her put the dollar in the bucket.

“Why, thank you very much, and happy holidays to you, young lady,” he said kindly, giving her a big grin and pretending to tip his hat but never once stopping the rhythmic ringing of his bell.

Megan took a quick look around, noticing only the relentless crush of the crowd and, for some reason, that old guy who looked like the old guy she’d seen earlier. But her attention was drawn back through the doors outside to Little Lisa, who was now happily standing next to the bell ringer, chatting away like they were old friends. Megan wrapped her scarf tightly around her neck, put on her own stocking cap and mittens, and walked through the doors, momentarily holding her breath, waiting for the alarm to go off. But it didn’t and she sighed with relief.

She walked over to her daughter, took her by the hand and smiled a polite smile to the volunteer, wishing him a happy holiday. She had bought clothes from Salvation Army before and she was happy to give something back, even though it was only a dollar. Then they made their way through the slippery, slushy snow to her car. Little Lisa got into her car seat in the back and buckled herself in while Megan used a brush to clear the snow off. Then she got inside and started the old Ford. She let it warm up a few minutes before putting it in drive and slowly making her way through the snowy parking lot out to the street and then to the highway where she settled into the long drive to work, the snow falling ever faster.

Back in the store Donny had been waiting, watching their every move and he’d seen the young mother give her little girl the dollar for the donation. It made him hesitate. It was a gesture from her he hadn’t expected and it touched him in a way he wasn’t prepared for. He stood in place, oblivious to the crowd pushing past him and the dirty looks some people were giving him. He was thinking about the young mother and her little girl, seeing Helen’s face in his mind watching him, almost willing him to think for himself for a change. He weighed the pros and cons for a few moments and surprised himself by coming to his decision rather quickly. What the hell? Maybe it was his good deed for the season. Maybe it was the disarming vision of Helen in his brain. Whatever…sure he was breaking the rules but big deal. There was something about the young mother and her daughter. They seemed alright to him- not career criminals, that was for sure. Maybe they were just down on their luck. Maybe it was the little girl. She seemed so well behaved and the way she was with the Salvation Army guy was…well, kind of cute. Whatever the case, he decided to let them go and, he had to admit, immediately felt pretty good about his decision. He wondered if he should bother to tell Helen about what he’d done when he got home. He thought about it as he watched the mother and daughter trudge through the snowy parking lot out to their car, surprised to find he was holding his breath until they made it safely. Then he turned back to the store, thinking that maybe he would tell her. And, if he did, and she took the time to listen to him, maybe, for once, she wouldn’t be so damn mad at him. It was worth a try. Stranger things could happen.

He started to walk back into the store, taking out his two-way radio and making the call to maintenance about changing out the entry mats. Then he saw another person he might have to keep an eye on. A black woman and a bunch of kids all under the age of ten. Suddenly, though, the thought of trailing them through the store seemed pointless. Sure, if they didn’t have money and couldn’t pay for their stupid toys and crap, they shouldn’t be in the store in the first place. But, what the hell, maybe Helen had been right – who was he to be playing god? All of a sudden it just didn’t seem that important anymore. Maybe it was that young mother and her daughter. Maybe it was the image in his mind of Helen’s ongoing disappointment in him. Who knew? But he decided to let the black woman her kid go past him without bothering to follow. Instead, he took out his two-way again and made a call, “I’m going on break.” He walked to the back of the store and through a door that said, ‘Employees Only.’ He sat down and stared into space, suddenly very tired. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and then it’s over, Donny thought. Thank god.

Megan’s shift at MacDonald’s ended at eleven. The night manager, Kevin, a skinny white guy around thirty with a bad complexion and a pleasant disposition had a philosophy that Megan liked: he didn’t mind if Little Lisa stayed while she worked. ‘I don’t mind at all,’ he told Megan four months earlier when she’d been hired, ‘Just don’t let her bother the customers.’ And Little Lisa never did. In fact, she kind of grew on all the employees, especially Kevin.

One thing the little girl was good at, and that was entertaining herself. Tonight she colored an old ‘My Little Pony’ coloring book someone had left next to the trash bin using some crayons Kevin had bought and kept for her back in his office. When Megan found the book and brought it to Little Lisa (along with Kevin’s crayons) it was like someone had given both of them a fancy present, reminding Megan for the millionth time that when you didn’t have much, every little thing was important, seen almost as a gift, and nothing, not even someone else’s trash, was ever taken for granted.

When her shift was over, Megan and Little Lisa were bundling up, getting ready to head outside when Kevin ran up and stopped them. “Hey you two, don’t forget your dinner.” He handed a sack to Megan. After every shift Kevin gave them each a free Full Meal Deal. He knelt down so he was eye level with Little Lisa, “And I’ve got yours all special for you, just the way you like it: six chicken nuggets with no sauce, small fries, apple slices and chocolate milk.”

He really was a nice guy.

“Thank you, Kevin,” Little Lisa said politely, holding her meal tightly to her chest.

“See you tomorrow,” Kev, Megan said.

“Yep,” he mock saluted, “Until then…stay warm and don’t take any wooden nickels.” Megan rolled her eyes at him, appreciating his attempt at humor. Then he turned and went back behind the counter to check on the remaining two helpers. They stayed open until 2am and he had a long three hours ahead of him.

“What did he mean by that, Mommy?” Little Lisa asked as they made their way to their car. The snow had quit falling, but there was maybe three inches on the ground and on her car.

“He was just kidding, Sweetie,” she said, getting the little girl settled in her car seat before setting to work sweeping off her car. It took her about five minutes. She was diligent and careful to get it all removed so she could see clearly. When she was finished she got in, buckled up and started the car. They chatted together for a few minutes, eating their dinners while the car warmed up. When they were finished they dumped their leftover paper and wrappers in a trash can and then pulled out of the parking lot, sliding a little where the snow had compacted. At times like these Megan was conscious of every move she made – from making sure not to fall down and injure herself when walking on icy snow, to being watchful and careful with her driving – everything she could to be conscientious and safe and not do anything that might jeopardize the tenuous hold she had on her life with her daughter. A stay in the hospital or medical bills was something they could ill afford.

The drive from Minneapolis out Highway Seven west to Minnetonka took forty-five minutes; nearly twice as long as normal due to the snow clogging up the roads, slowing the late night traffic to a crawl. The big box store they were heading for closed at midnight and they barely made it in time to rush inside and make their way quickly to the women’s room where they washed up and brushed their teeth. Then they bundled up and headed back outside. The temperature was dropping and the cold was settling in. It might even dip into the single digits overnight. Megan shivered and held Little Lisa’s mittened hand tightly.

She had parked the car way off to the side, half way from the store out to the service road that ran along the far end of the parking lot. She was able to spend the night because the store had instituted a policy a few years ago of letting people similar to her situation park their cars overnight as long as they were gone by six in the morning . And also, most importantly, as long as no one caused any trouble they were welcome to come back. For Megan, it was exactly what she needed. In the five months she’d been staying at the lot no one had ever caused her or anybody else any trouble. In fact, it was just the opposite. More than anything, she was finding that homeless people like her mostly just wanted to be left alone. During warm weather there might be up to fifteen cars scattered around, each leaving as much space as possible between themselves and the nearest vehicle. However, with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures, the number of vehicles had dwindled to maybe three a night at the most. Tonight, it looked like Megan’s old Ford would be the only vehicle there.

“Come on, honey,” Megan said, reaching the car and opening the front door, “Let’s get you settled.”

Little Lisa knew the routine well: she climbed into the passenger side while her mom went around and opened the back hatch where the few belongings they owned were stored (mostly clothes stowed in a single Tupperware container). She grabbed their blankets for the night and then went around to the front driver’s side where she climbed in, securing and locking their doors. Then she pulled up the latch that let the seat slide back as far as possible. She had learned through trial and error that sleeping in the front seat was roomier and easier on both of them, especially in the winter, where they could take advantage of the car’s heater if they ever needed to. But running the Ford at night cost money, so they rarely did.

Megan helped Little Lisa get settled in. She took off her snow boots and set them on the floor in the back. Then she pulled an extra thick pair of wool socks over her feet, rubbing her toes and joking with the little girl, making her laugh. Megan always felt it was a good way to go to sleep – with the sound of her daughter’s laugher in the car, drowning out any depressed feelings they might have about their living situation. Then she put her in a snowsuit and a kid’s sized sleeping bag  before finally putting ‘Lambie’ her favorite stocking hat on her head and wrapped a scarf around her neck and face. Then she covered her up with a thick quilt she had bought at a Dollar Store just after Thanksgiving. By morning the temperature in the car would be the same as outside, and although it would be cold, at least wrapped up like she was, Little Lisa would be warm.

When Megan was satisfied her daughter was all set, they did their final bedtime ritual. “Do you want me to read you a story?”

“Yes, Mommy, yes,” Little Lisa exclaimed, her breath showing as she spoke. It was already getting cold in the car. “Can you read me about Elsa and Anna?” Little Lisa was hooked on ‘Frozen’ and anything having to do with their characters would be sure to bring her joy. This book was a favorite.

“Yes I can, Sweetheart,” her mother said, reaching under the seat for the book and taking it out of the large zip-loc she kept it in for protection. The lighting from the parking lot flood lights gave her enough light to read by. She began the story, watching her daughter’s eyes go from excited to heavy almost immediately. It had been a long day. After a few minutes her face relaxed, her breathing deepened and she soon fell into a peaceful sleep, transported by the story to a world of fantasy far away from the one in which she was living.

Satisfied Little Lisa was sleeping comfortably, Megan put the book in the zip-lock and stored it back under the seat. Then she moved her hand around until she felt the envelope in another zip-lock that she kept hidden there. She thought of it as her ‘Special Envelope’ because it contained her savings. She got paid every two weeks, and she put ten dollars of each and every paycheck into the envelope and secured it in the zip-lock. Without fail. And she never touched it either, except for times like now when she permitted herself a moment to feel it’s contents and look toward the future. One day she would have enough saved up for their own apartment. It might take a while, but she was determined. She didn’t plan to spend the rest of her life living like they were. One day she and Little Lisa would have their own place to really call home. A place they could decorate anyway they wanted and it’d have a real bed for each of them and a real kitchen to cook in. And she was committed to making that dream come true, too, no matter how long it took. Until then, though, they would make the best of what they had. Even though every day was a challenge, they were doing the best they could. And she never, ever forgot that no matter how bad things were, they were never as bad as they’d been with Darren. That and the fact that Little Lisa and I are together, she thought. That was the main thing – the best thing.

Satisfied her savings were secure and safely hidden, Megan sat for a minute staring out the front window. Gusts of wind were blowing, keeping the windshield clear. The parking lot was empty except for two cars parked by the front entrance. It was the cleaning crew: Tim and Ramon, two twenties something guys who would spend the night getting the store ready for when it opened at six in the morning on today, already, Christmas Eve.

Then the snow started falling again, a sure sign it wouldn’t be getting too cold tonight, maybe ten degrees or so. She watched, mesmerized by the way the flakes drifted past the tall flood lights, sometimes swirling like tiny ballerinas dancing in the night. Soon she felt her eyes getting heavy so before she nodded off she roused herself. There was one more thing left to do.

She reached over the back seat for her shoulder bag and took out the twinkle lights, snow globe and doll. She ever so carefully took the lights out of their packaging and strung them around the inside of the car and turned them on. The snow globe she set on the dash. She was surprised to find that it was also a little music box. She tried it out for just a moment, not wanting to wake her daughter. The song was ‘Silent Night.’ Perfect. Finally, she took out the Rainbow Barbie and looked at it, grinning to herself and thinking, ‘How she comes up with these things, I’ll never know.’ Smiling now, in a good mood, she wrapped the doll inside the special stocking cap she had bought a few weeks earlier at the Dollar Store. It was an ‘Elsa’ hat and had long golden braids hanging from it just like the main character from the movie. She wrapped both items in a Target plastic bag as carefully and as quietly as she could, and set the package on the dash panel next to the snow globe. There, she thought to herself, all set.

Then she slipped off her boots, put on her own thick socks and pulled her feet up onto the seat and tucked them under her for warmth. She looked out over the parking lot. The snow falling was peaceful, nearly obscuring what little traffic there was a quarter mile away on the highway. The world was shutting down. Megan went through the list in her mind of what she would be doing tomorrow, Christmas Eve: she had to work from three in the afternoon until ten. Until then she and Little Lisa would go to a public library she knew would be open from ten in the morning until noon. It would be the highlight of their day. Little Lisa liked the children’s section and they could read books together until closing. Then, before going to work, they would go to a nearby big box store and wander around, staying warm and, hopefully, not drawing any attention to themselves. And, most importantly, she promised herself to resist any potential last minute holiday temptation and not take anything.

But there was one final thing to do on this late, wintery night. She leaned over and shook Little Lisa gently. “Hey there, sleepy head,” she said rubbing her hand over her daughter’s tiny shoulder, caressing her softly, “Look what happened while you were asleep.”

And while Little Lisa woke up, Megan looked around the car: the white lights were on, casting a magical glow inside, reflecting off the snow that was covering the windshield. Some of the snowflakes outside on the glass even twinkled, adding to the feeling of wonder in the car. Megan was inspired to star humming, “Silent Night,” just like the snow globe.

“Momma, look at this,” Little Lisa pointed when she had finally come awake. “Look at the pretty lights.” She excitedly pushed out of her blanket and sleeping bag and pulled off her mittens, scarf and stocking cap, and sat up in stunned silence, gazing around, her face lit by the magical lights as well as her happy smile.

After a few minutes Megan showed her the snow globe, smiling to herself that, in all her daughter’s excitement about the lights, she hadn’t even noticed it. “Look at this, Honey,” she said, pointing it out to her.

“Oh, how pretty,” Little Lisa exclaimed. She took it carefully off the dash and shook it, then held it gently in her hands, hypnotized by the snow scene inside.

“And look at this,” Megan said, showing her how to operate the key. And when Little Lisa turned it they both sat back in childlike awe as the sparkling snow fell and ‘Silent Night’ played, filling their old car with a joy and wonder only brought about by the magic of dreams coming true.

When the song was over Megan next showed Little Lisa the package on the dash; beaming to herself when her little girl opened it, took out the stocking hat and squealed in delight. “Look inside the hat”, Megan told her, and the squeals got ever louder as Little Lisa pulled out her new doll, holding it to her chest and smiling a wide happy smile.

“Momma, how did all of this happen?” she asked, looking around the car in awe, with its white, twinkling lights, snow globe, Christmas music and her new doll and hat; taking in the transformation like it was now a scene out of a fairytale – a wonderland – a place she’d only glimpsed before in her imagination. Except now it was for real.

“It just did, sweetheart,” Megan said, hugging her little girl tightly, “Sometimes you just have to believe that things will get better. And if you believe it hard enough, sometimes they do.” Then before Little Lisa thought about it too much and started asking too many questions, she changed the subject, “Do you like it, Sweetheart?”

“I do, Momma, I really do.”

And that was good enough for Megan.

They stayed awake for nearly half an hour, looking at the twinkling lights, playing with the snow globe and the rainbow Barbie, singing along with Silent Night and enjoying the peaceful snow coming down, both inside the snow globe for fun and outside the car for real. Megan even started the old Ford, turned the heater on and ran it for a few minutes to warm them up. A special gift for both of us, she thought to herself.

Finally, when Little Lisa started yawning, Megan turned the car off and bundled her up again, making sure she had her new doll and was wearing her new stocking hat, before finally getting her calmed down and ready to go back to sleep. When Little Lisa was cozy and snuggled into her sleeping bag and blanket, Megan put on her own stocking hat and mittens and took a hold of her own blanket and stretched out on the car seat, holding her daughter in front of her. She then pulled her blanket around her and wrapped her arms around her little girl. Their shared body heat would help keep them warm.

Just before Little Lisa fell asleep she turned and said to her mom, “I love the lights, and everything, Momma, it’s almost like we have a brand new home.”

“Hush, sweetheart, you go to sleep now, Ok? I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Will our new home still be here,” Little Lisa asked, starting to nod off.

“Yes, it will sweetheart.”

“And you’ll still be here?”

“Always, Little Lisa. Always.”

Then Megan wrapped her arms just a little tighter and listened to her daughter’s breathing as it slowed, becoming deeper and deeper until she finally fell asleep, safe and secure in her mother’s embrace. Then Megan, too, began nodding off, her mind relaxing now for just a few hours; a brief respite before the process of making it through another day started all over again. She took a deep breath and softly let it out, remembering Little Lisa’s joy and happiness at the little bit of wonder she’d experienced. Things could be a lot worse, was Megan’s last thought before she finally fell into her own deep sleep.

The lights would be the first thing they’d see when they awoke in the morning. And the snow globe with it’s pretty song would be there, too. And her daughter would have a new doll, something that would make her happy. Like Little Lisa had said, ‘It’s like it was a brand new home.’ Megan had to agree. It wasn’t much but at least it was theirs. Outside the snow continued to fall, and the temperature dropped. The wind buffeted the car and it was getting colder, but inside mother and daughter slept peacefully and held each other tightly – they were as warm as they could be. And, for tonight, that was warm enough.

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Friends Like These

The first week riding the bus to work her purse was stolen. The second week a heavy set guy pushed her down on the side walk near the corner of 5th Street and Nicollet Avenue while running from the police, tearing a hole in her nylon and giving her a bloody abrasion on her knee. A month later she awoke in the hospital with a fractured arm, and the first thing she said was, “How long before I can go back to Macy’s?”

Jerry, who had been called away from his job as manager of Long Lake Hardware, was keeping a vigil with his mother. He turned to the attending nurse and said, “Sorry about that. My mom can be a little rude.”

To which the nurse replied, smiling, ” Don’t worry. We all think your moms’ a real sweetie.”

Helen, who had been following the exchange with sharp eyes, replied derisively and emphatically, “Humph.”

When she was seventy eight, Helen Jorgenson said to heck with sitting around bored out of her mind in her stuffy one bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of the Ebenezer Senior Living Home and applied for a job. It had been posted (along with a few application forms) on the bulletin board in the Community Room on the first floor and after reading it she started thinking, ‘I could do this.’ The next day she took the 7B bus downtown and turned in her application, had a short interview, and a few days later was notified she had ‘won out’ (as she put it) over thirteen other applicants for a job at Macy’s, the largest department store in downtown Minneapolis. She was going to be a ‘Greeter’ at the door on the seventh street entrance and work noon to 4 pm, Monday and Thursday.

She was ecstatic, calling her oldest son, Jerry, later that day and telling him, “This is just what I need. I was going nuts pretending to be nice and trying to have pleasant little conversations with all the doddering old fogies around here.”

Jerry took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly to calm down, a practiced skill he’d learned after years and years of dealing with his strong willed, headstrong mother. “Mom, you know you shouldn’t talk like that. Those ladies are just trying to be nice.”

“Nice,” Helen spat out her answer, “Boring, boring, boring is more like it.”

They’d had variations of this conversation for years and it was a battle he was not going to win. Time to change the subject, “So you’re going to take the bus back and forth?” he asked, “Won’t that be dangerous?” He was concerned and thinking about the gangs of Blacks, Mexicans, Asians and what all downtown, roaming the city streets at will, robbing, killing and raping their hapless victims. Or so he imagined. Over thirty years earlier he and his wife had moved their young family twenty miles away from Minneapolis out to the little town of Long Lake in western Hennepin county to get away from all that. His mother, however, had always lived in Minneapolis, the city where he’d been born and raised, and it was the city she had chosen to live out the rest of her life.

“I don’t need you telling me what to do,” she told him firmly, starting to get angry. “I can take care of myself,”

“I know you can, Mom,” he said, trying to be patient, but in his mind he could picture her, a short, stout white haired woman, with an assertive and, some might call, combative nature, valiantly fighting off a gang of thugs with her cane. He quickly erased the imagine, though, finding it just too disturbing. “When do you start?” Again, changing the subject, something he was doing more and more often with her these days.

“Tomorrow,” she barked, before slamming the phone down.

“Geez,” Jerry said into the silence before clicking off. “If she doesn’t get killed down there, she’s going to drive me insane.” Then he started the process of placing calls to his three younger siblings, letting them know what crazy scheme their mother was up to this time.

Helen stared out the window after hanging up on her oldest, and certainly the most loyal, of her four children. I’m not going to get a new job to irritate him, she was thinking, feeling badly she’d hung the phone up so…well, forcefully. He was the one who kept in touch with her more than the other three of her children combined and she certainly appreciated his concern. The two of them had always been close and were able to talk easily with each other about just about anything. But too bad if he doesn’t agree with me on this because I’m serious, she thinks to herself. It’s not his life, but mine, and she stamped her foot on the carpeting, firming up her resolve to ignore Jerry’s concern and go ahead with her plan, muttering under her breath,” I need to do this.”

Helen’s view out her third floor apartment faces downtown Minneapolis, just over three miles away and a slow twenty five minute bus ride down Hennepin Avenue. She’s looking forward to her new job. She’s lived at Ebenezer for five years now, ever since her husband, Harold, died of a heart attack and she decided that keeping up their house in south Minneapolis, the home they’d owned for over fifty years, was getting to be too difficult; especially considering her arthritis in her right knee. That and the fact her ability to see clearly wasn’t what it used to be. A rare form of glaucoma in both eyes had left her with limited vision. She couldn’t drive anymore, but she could see well enough to get around since only the fringes of her sight were affected.

‘It’s like being underwater,’ she often told those who asked, ‘Everything is a little blurry.’ Which wasn’t something she mentioned to Lori Loftgren, head of personnel at Macy’s, the cheerful, energetic woman who hired her. Why make a big issue out of the fact that the folks she’d be welcoming to one of the nicest stores in downtown Minneapolis she couldn’t see perfectly precisely? In Helen’s mind, it didn’t make a bit of difference. I can see well enough to distinguish male and female, adult and child, so what’s the big deal? I’m hired to be greet people (or guests, as Ms. Loftgren said she needed to think of the shoppers as) and be friendly. Not paint a detailed portrait of them.

Notwithstanding Jerry’s concern, she was still excited to be doing something new and different and, as she thought of it, Getting on with my life, so she called her closest friend, Bonny Anderson, to tell her the news.

“Bon-Bon, guess what? I got the job,” she said when her friend picked up. Bonnie lived two floors above and Helen could just as easily have walked up, but she wanted to rest and save her energy for her first day tomorrow. Besides, Bon-Bon had a way about her. She could be a little fussy.

“I can’t believe you’re going to go into downtown and work,” she snipped after Helen told her the news. “You’re going to get robbed for sure, maybe worse.”

Helen sighed. Just like Jerry, she thought to herself. Why is everyone so afraid?

“Don’t worry, Bon-Bon,” she tried to reassure her, “I’ll be just fine.”

Well, those words certainly came back to haunt her now, lying stretched out in a double room on the sixth floor of HCMC with a cast of her left arm. Hennepin County Medical Center was a huge hospital complex that served not only the county but also a good portion of central Minnesota and western Wisconsin. It was located only a few blocks from both Macy’s and the street corner where Helen had been injured. A group of three young blacks who had been passengers on the crowded bus had pushed past her as she was exiting, knocking her down the steps and out onto the sidewalk. They were laughing and joking and probably didn’t mean to hurt her, but she had stumbled anyway and hit the pavement wrong. The pain in her arm was intense and she screamed louder than she had in years. Then she curled into a ball grimacing, holding her arm and groaning in agony.

Her fall caused a commotion. The youths took off running. Two street cops came and interviewed witnesses who pointed down the crowded street. The cops got on their walkie-talkies and within five minutes the three of them were apprehended in a skyway a few blocks away where they were heading north, and they were heading there fast.

Jerry filled his mom in on all of this after the nurse had left. The doctor had recommended they keep Helen overnight for observation. His mother grudgingly agreed. Jerry felt relieved, thinking it was great advice.

“Mom, you really can’t keep working there at Macy’s. It’s just not safe.”

Helen’s first thought was to argue and make a scene. She loved her job and didn’t want to give it up. But in a way Jerry was right. It wasn’t safe, as illustrated by one purse snatching and a tumble down the stairs of the bus, plus the fact that she’d been knocked down on the sidewalk a month earlier. But so what if it wasn’t totally one-hundred percent safe? It certainly had been ninety-nine point nine-nine percent of the time (if not more) and that was good enough for her. Why now give up the job she loved and lose her freedom just because she’d had a few bad experiences?

She looked at Jerry with affection, thinking that she could do a lot worse than have a son like him who cared so much about her. But working at Macy’s was more than just her job, and after thinking about it for a minute, she knew she should tell him. She owed it to both of them to be honest. “Jerry, I need to tell you something I should have probably told you a while ago.”

Jerry looked at his mother with an expression a mixture of curiosity and dread. “Geez, now what, Mom?” he asked, mentally crossing his fingers. Was it too much to expect to hear some good news for a change? But really, knowing his mother, who was he kidding? “Might as well tell me what’s going on and get it over with,” he sighed, shaking his head, a sudden resignation in his voice and demeanor, not entirely sure he was the least bit ready at all for what she was about to tell him.

Helen assessed her son as he adjusted himself in the chair and leaned forward, hands tightly folded, elbows on his knees, his entire body stiff and tense. I know he’s concerned, but I’ve got to tell him anyway. She took a breath and went ahead, wanting to quickly get it all out in the open. “I’ve made some new friends at work, and I just don’t want to give them up,” she told him, spilling the words out all in a rush, watching her son as she spoke.

Jerry opened his mouth to speak but then stopped himself and was quiet, sitting more stunned than anything else. Or blown away. Whatever the case, Helen filled in the silence by continuing with her story, only putting up her hand once in the beginning (the one unencumbered by a cast) to stave off Jerry’s first objection by asking, “Do you want to hear about my friends or not?”

He did. Reluctantly. So he told her, “Sure, Mom, go ahead. Fire away.” And then he shut his mouth and listened, accepting that she depended on him to listen and be there for her no matter what, like he knew he had to be.

“I have a life there that’s different from anything I’ve ever known before, and I like it,” she said, surprised to hear herself sounding a little nervous now that she had begun, wondering how Jerry would take the news. She looked closely at him. He seemed…what? If not totally accepting, at least maybe something closer to curious. At least he doesn’t seem mad me, she thoiught. That was something. Encouraged, she added, “And I like it so much because I’ve meet some really wonderful people.” She paused for a moment and took a deep breath, let it out, and then continued on, her concern for Jerry’s feelings outweighed, now, by wanting to finally share this important part of her life with him.

“There’s Asid, a young man who works fulltime as a janitor and is there during the hours I am. His parents immigrated to Minneapolis from Somalia in the early nineties and he was born a year later. He’s married to a young Somali woman named Decca and they have two small children. Their apartment is on the West Bank over by the University of Minnesota. I like him a lot. He’s friendly and sometimes shares his lunch with me when we take our break in the employee’s lounge. It’s a meal called Qado.”

As his mother spoke, her words began to flow smoothly and Jerry noticed she was becoming enthusiastic and happy, her injured arm apparently forgotten. It was good to see. He kept his promise not to interrupt (hard as it was) and gave her his full attention.

She added, “It’s a traditional rice dish spiced with cumin, cardamom, cloves and sage that Decca sometimes packs for him.” She smiled at her son, appreciating that he was paying attention and not interrupting. “It’s amazingly flavorful,” she added. In fact, in spite of the dull pain in her arm, just thinking about the scrumptious meal was making her mouth water.

“Then there’s Clare, she’s about your age,” she continued, looking at Jerry, appraisingly. He could feel his mother silently noting the fact that he’d slowly but steadily been gaining weight over the last ten years or so. But she said nothing about his extra pounds and, instead, went on with her story. “She’s in her mid fifties and has worked the perfume counter for over twenty years. She’s from Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s the capital, you know. She’s shy and quiet but when there are no customers around she hums these traditional Scottish folk songs which are really quite pleasant to listen to. Plus, she’s always dusting and cleaning and keeps her counter area spic and span spotless. I like that a lot.”

She looked at Jerry who nodded his acknowledgement, knowing that his mom valued both cleanliness and tidiness and placed them up near the top of her list of worthy character traits. But still he kept his promise to stay quiet, even though he was mildly shocked to find the further along she went, the more he was enjoying her story.

“Then there’s Simon who’s from Lebanon. He’s the assistant floor manager and he stops by to talk to me during slow periods. He’s very friendly, has a bright smile and a good sense of humor.” Helen paused, grinning to herself, “He usually has a joke or funny story to tell and he always makes me laugh.”

She glanced at her son, surprised to find him listening with a slight smile instead of the frown he’d worn when she’d first started. Encouraged, she told him about another friend.

“There’s Leon, one of the security guards, who stops by to chat when he’s on his rounds. He’s very nice and has a boy playing football at the University of St. Thomas who apparently is quite good. He told me he’s never missed a home game. I guess his boy’s on the Dean’s List, too. I like that he’s so proud of his son.”

“Then there’s Rico’s. He’s a Mexican-American man who’s in charge of all of the indoor plant displays. He’s quiet, but friendly, and sometimes brings me a cut flower to wear on the lapel of my jacket.”

She paused for a moment to catch her breath.

Jerry was listening and nodding along, not interrupting like she’d asked him too. As she talked she seemed to come alive. There was a spark in her eyes and a warm, loving tone to her voice. It’s more than the job, he was thinking to himself, it’s the people she is working with.

“I’m sorry to lay all of this on you, now, Jer. I know it’s a lot to take in.”

“I just never knew, Mom,” he said, happy to be able to say something. He reached out to take her hand, “But I’m glad you’re telling me now.”

“I’ve wanted to tell you for a while, but I was afraid of what you might say. And, please don’t take this wrong, but it’s like having a new, special family for me. They are good people, Jerry. They watch out for me and take care of me. Plus, they’re fun to talk to. I’m learning so much about other cultures. It’s almost like going to school.”

Jerry couldn’t believe what we was about to say, but he said it anyway, “Well, whatever the case is…I have to say that I’m happy for you, Mom.” And he was, too. Compared to what she was telling him, he was beginning to see how living at Ebenezer could have been somewhat stifling for her. Plus, for all the arguments swirling around in his brain against what she was doing working downtown, one fact remained: It was good to see her so happy and energized.

However, she wasn’t finished. “There’s more,” she said, shifting in her bed and smiling at her son, making a little joke.

“More?” Jerry asked, looking a little stunned.

“That’s right. Lots more.” Helen chuckled as Jerry rolled his eyes before sitting back to listen. The tension that had been between them when she started her story had lessened considerably. Helen was glad she had been able to say what she needed to say, and Jerry was happy to hear things weren’t as bad as they might have been.

“Yes, that’s not to mention all the customers I’m getting to know. Like Mrs. Anderson, Evelyn, who comes in with her granddaughter, Carrie, who’s ten. They make it a point to stop and chat with me every other Thursday when they drive in from Northfield. That’s thirty miles away, you know. When they’re done shopping they always have a snack at the City View restaurant on the ninth floor. They like to have time together and ‘catch up with each other’ as Mrs. Anderson tells me. And that little Carrie is so polite, just standing quietly, watching while her us two old ladies yap away. She reminds me your sister, Susan, when she was that age.”

She smiled at Jerry. He could see more in that smile than in all the words she was saying put together. His mother really had found a place that suited her just right. She was making friends and they were not just making her happy, they making her life better. It was more than a job; her life was improving. He couldn’t ask for anything more than that for his mom, no matter how much grief and consternation she caused him

“And there are many, many more customers. Such nice, friendly people. I like so many of them and look forward to seeing all of them. I sometimes wish Lori would give me more hours.”

And, Helen thought to herself, most of her friends and customers were not the kind of people Jerry or the rest of her children or Bon-Bon would want her hanging around with at all. But that was just too bad. She liked her new friends and that was just the way it had to be. For the first time in a long while she wasn’t bored out her mind, in fact, just the opposite. Her brain was stimulated and she was actually enjoying herself and her life. Who could argue with that?

New friends? Jerry was thinking. He could tell by the fiery look in her eye that his mother meant every word she said. He could have tried to convince her that she shouldn’t go back to work, that riding the bus was too dangerous, that being downtown was too hazardous and, who knew, maybe even the store itself was an unsafe place to be. But, in the end, he knew all the arguments he could come up with would hit the brick wall of his mother’s steadfast resolve and would eventually prove to be fruitless. Once his mother made up her mind, there was no going back. And her mind, most definitely, was made up.

Jerry’s knew his mother had always been the kind of person who went her own way and did her own thing. She would have fit right in with the free spirited era of the 60’s except she was too busy being responsible as a wife to Harold and mother to Jerry and his brother Steve and his two sisters, Linda and Susan. Plus, she was working. After her children were in grade school she hired herself out as a cleaning lady, riding the bus to her many customers in the south Minneapolis area. She even landed a few jobs out in ritzy suburb of Edina to do housework for, as she jokingly put it, ‘The rich and famous.’ She was an independent thinking woman and used the money she made to help send Jerry and his sisters Linda and Susan to college at the University of Minnesota, and his brother Steven to the Dunwoody Technical Institute where he excelled in software engineering. She worked cleaning houses right up until just after Harold died and her eyes started to fail her and her knee started giving her trouble, although she downplayed her aliments to her children. ‘I’m just getting too old to be crawling around on my hands and knees all day, cleaning floors and mopping up after people,’ is the story she told her kids. And they had no reason not to buy it so they did.

Now, after listening to his mom, Jerry could see how happy and fulfilled she was working at Macy’s. Her life was good, right up until the unfortunate experience of putting a little hairline crack in her forearm; which is how his mom looked at her injury – just a little unexpected incident she had no control over, so why make a big deal out of it?

But now the question was this: What to do next? Steve, Linda and Susan, Bon-Bon, and most everyone else were all of the same frame of mind: ‘Quit the job and stay home where it’s safe,’ or some variation of that sentiment. Even her primary doctor, Dr. Parquet, a wonderful and caring physician from Pakistan, cautioned her to, ‘Maybe learn how to take it a little more easy and enjoy life.’ But Jerry wasn’t so sure anymore. He’d have to think about the pros and cons and talk to his siblings. One thing was he was sure of: His mother wanted to keep working, and it didn’t seem right to stand in her way.

Helen was exhausted. All of that hospital folderol with the doctors and nurses and then talking with Jerry – it had left her drained.  She lay her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes. Jerry got the hint. He leaned over to give her a quick kiss on the forehead, “You rest, Mom. I’ll get going now.” He watched her eyes lids flutter but stay closed. He smiled with affection, “See you tomorrow morning,” he told her softly, standing up, “Remember…I’ll be here at nine to take you home.”

Helen opened her eyes and watched her son as he walked to the door, then called after him, “Thank you for everything, honey,” she told him gently, “You know I love you, don’t you?”

“I do, Mom, you just take it easy,” Jerry said, turning. He smiled, encouragingly, “I’ll see you in the morning. We’ll talk more then.” He waved goodbye and then was gone.

Helen closed her eyes again, resting, but her mind was working overtime. She had done enough reading to know what most younger people didn’t know: The fact of the matter was that when an old person falls and breaks a bone, even a tiny little fracture like hers, it usually signified the beginning of the end. The body just can’t fight back during the healing process like when it was younger; it becomes slightly more weakened. Whether it’s months or a few years, it doesn’t matter. The cards are dealt, the die is cast, the end is near. But Helen didn’t want to accept a word of it even though the facts were there. She was a fighter and, moreover, she wasn’t ready for any of that ‘end of the road malarkey’ (as she put it). She was going to go back to work and there was not the slightest bit of doubt in her mind about it.

Downtown Minneapolis was a vibrant city filled with a mixture of affluent office workers, blue collar employees, down and out street people, and every kind of person and social class mixed in between. White, brown, yellow and red: people of all colors, religions, ethnicities and cultures were to be found working, living or just trying to get by in the mile square section of downtown and Macy’s was right in the middle of it all. But the friends Helen had made were people first, their skin color mattering little if not at all, and she wasn’t going to give them up. Not by a long shot.

Her thoughts and musings were interrupted when Lori Loftgren stopped by later on after the dinner hour. She brought with her a vase of mixed, colorful flowers and a condolence card signed by Asid, Clare, Simon, Leon and Rico and many other Macy employees. Helen had rested, even napped a little. She felt stronger and more confident, especially after talking with Jerry and telling him the truth about her job and how much it meant to her. He seemed to be coming around to being on her side, and that fact alone was making her feel just as good, if not better, as anything they did for her in the hospital.

After motioning for her to set the vase on the window sill, Helen offered Lori (they were long past the Ms. Loftgren phase of their relationship) the chair by the bed. It was good to see her. “Thank you so much for stopping by.”

Her boss made herself comfortable, then smiled and said, “Everyone misses you so much. They can’t wait to see you again.”

“Well, I can’t wait to see them, either,” Helen replied, meaning it. Even now, stretched out like she was on the bed, with monitoring lights blinking, equipment beeping and the relentless din of hospital noises in the background, she was getting restless. “I’ll be released on Tuesday tomorrow, and my doctor says I come back to work on next Monday. If that’s alright with you.”

Lori met her eyes for a moment and then looked past her. Helen’s motherly antenna immediately went up and her heart rate suddenly increased. Something was going on. Her first thought was that something bad had happened at work to Leon. He was overweight and dealing with recently diagnosed diabetes. ‘God, don’t let him be sick,’ she thought to herself. But she was wrong. It wasn’t Leon.

Lori continued, “I’m afraid I have some bad news. I’ve been told by upper management that I’m going to have to let you and the other Greeters go,” she finally said. “I’m so sorry. Their decision was unexpected, but I suppose I should have seen it coming. Our profits have been falling ever so slightly over the last five years. I thought hiring you and the others could help differentiate us and make us different from those generic big box stores, but it just hasn’t helped. (Helen had worked out so well, Lori  had hired three more women as Greeters for three other entrances.) It’s nothing against you and the others. It’s just…just a money thing. I’m so sorry.”

Helen didn’t know what to say. She held the card from her friends to her chest and stared straight ahead. The room went quiet except for the beeping from those stupid machines. The patient in the bed next to her started coughing, the monitor went off and a nurse ran in to administer her. It took a few minutes, but she eventually got the patient, a young woman, settled and then left.

When they were alone again Helen looked compassionately at Lori, who was visibly shaken and saddened by the news she’d had to deliver, and said, “I understand, dear. It wasn’t your fault. Don’t you worry about it at all. You just have to do what you have to do.”

And with that, Lori started to cry.

Three months later, and it’s the week after Thanksgiving. Macy’s is decorated inside and out for the holidays. The theme this year is ‘An Old Thyme Christmas’ and the displays throughout the department store reflect scenes and images of Christmases from the 30’s and 40’s. Lori and her young design team have been hard at work creating the look and feel of a time long ago – an era living on only in the memories of people who were children of the great depression and World War Two. The images they have created come from magazines and old movies. Not many are around who remember the way it truly was back then. But there are a few. Helen is one of them. She was born in 1938 and has good memories of those times. She has even helped Lori and her designers with some of the displays.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she has told the younger employees more than once, “Those were simpler times, but there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Lori is often nearby, working with her team, listening in to what Helen is saying and smiling in agreement. And, in quieter moments away from work, she has smiled for another reason – she is glad she followed through on what they had talked about that night in the hospital after Lori told Helen she was going to be laid off. Because after Helen heard the news and thought about it for a minute she responded by asking, “But how about if I volunteer to greet people. How would that be? You wouldn’t have to pay me then, would you? I’ll do it for free.”

And Lori thought about it for only a few moments before she told her, “Let me see what I can do.”

And what she did was talk to upper management and got them to agree that there was no reason in the world for them not to have Helen volunteer as a greeter.

As one of the top level bosses said, sounding wistful, “What can it hurt? It may even help our image.”

If all this sounds like a made up story with a Hollywood ‘Feel good’ ending, I can’t help that. Jerry and his wife, Jane, and their family have been next door neighbors of my wife, Lauren, and I and our family for many years. He and I talk regularly, usually while one or the other of us is working in the yard or doing something else outside. He’s a nice guy, maybe a little conservative for my tastes, but he’s kind and decent and a good neighbor. Over the years I’ve heard many stories about his strong willed mother. So when he told me about Helen and how she first got her job at Macy’s, and then how she’d been injured and unexpectedly laid off before finally becoming a volunteer Greeter at Macy’s, it prompted Lauren and I to do something we hadn’t done in a few years – we decided to take a drive into downtown Minneapolis to see the holiday lights and displays. Maybe we’d even run into Jerry’s interesting sounding mother.

We went on a Thursday afternoon, the first week of December, driving on I-394 for half hour into downtown and then parking our car in the lot A ramp. We walked five blocks across the city with the expressed purpose of going to Macy’s to view the eighth floor Christmas exhibit, but as we came through the Seventh Street revolving doors we were lucky enough to see Helen. We’d never met her before but Jerry had described her well; there was no doubt the friendly, white haired lady who welcomed us with a ‘Merry Christmas! Thank you for visiting our store,’ like we were long lost friends, was her. (Even in spite of the blast of cold winter air that trailed us in through the door.) We introduced ourselves as friends of Jerry and she was charming and gracious and couldn’t have been nicer.

We only chatted for a moment or two before more people crowded in so we left and made our way through the crowded aisles to the escalator and then up to the Christmas exhibit on the 8th floor. That’s’ where the Old Thyme Christmas theme was really put on display for all to see. A bustling, cobbled stone street scene had been created, and we walked along wide-eyed, admiring the quaint shops on both sides with workers inside illuminated by the glow of warm yellow lights. There were mounds of cotton snow all around, and the scene was populated with men and women out and about, carrying packages, dressed for winter in old time wool jackets and coats with colorful scarves and hats. There were children playing – ice skating and pulling sleds, and dogs running and cats hiding behind corners, and trees everywhere decorated with pretty ribbons and bows and ornaments and lights that twinkled. And, of course, softly playing in the background were the melodic strains of traditional Christmas music.

After Lauren and I viewed the exhibit we wandered around on various floors, window shopping and looking at other festive displays. We even saw Clare’s jewelry counter, decked out with sprigs of evergreens adorned with tiny silver and golden ornaments and red bows. In a word, the effect of the entire store was…enchanting.

When we were finished with our browsing we made it a point of making our way through the crowds back to where we’d entered, just to say good-bye to Helen. But we didn’t get the chance. She was talking to a young Somali man with “Asid” on his name tag. They were carrying on an animated conversation and seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely – in between Helen greeting new arrivals – and we didn’t want to interrupt them. I noted she was wearing a red carnation on the lapel of her jacket, a gift, no doubt, from her gardener friend Jerry had told me about.

Lauren and I left then, feeling good and infused with a little more Christmas spirit than we’d had before we entered the store. It was nice to see the older lady and the young black man together. With all the crap on the news lately about people not getting along, and everyone freaking out over the color of someone’s skin or their choice of religion, it was good to see those two together and how comfortable they were with each other. It was really good.

We walked through the crowded downtown sidewalks toward our car. The sun had set and every building had displays of Christmas lights on, filling the night with an festive glow. If it were to start snowing, it would have made the scene perfect. And then it did. We smiled at each other, then, and Lauren took hold of my arm. Was it the time of the year? The seasonal festivities? Or could it happen anytime or anyplace? We didn’t know, but for one brief moment the world felt right, and in sync with itself, and we walked along smiling and nodding greetings to complete strangers. Sound weird? Maybe, but it felt like it was the right thing to do and that was good enough for us.

We took our time walking to our car, talking about what we’d seen at Macy’s and about Jerry’s mom, enjoying each other’s company and the fresh snow drifting down and the pretty, colorful lights of the city – even the cold bite of winter in the air. And, most especially, the growing feeling that maybe Helen was on to something. Maybe it really was all about opening your heart to others and putting differences aside. Maybe it was about seeing those who were not the same as we were as people first and foremost, and not getting hung up on the color of their skin or where they worshiped. Maybe it was all about being humane and treating people with decency and respect – like Helen was doing; and like her friends were doing. And if that was the case, we were more than happy to join her. Which gave me the inkling of an idea.

Make no mistake, the city was loud. There were buses blasting by and cars speeding, kicking up slushy snow, and horns honking almost non-stop. In a way, it was kind of a madhouse. But, balancing the mayhem, there were also carolers on the street corners and bell ringers for the Salvation Army and people like us, out having a good time, enjoying the soul of the city and finding  joy in the season. Foremost in my thoughts was Helen. In my mind I saw her back at Macy’s talking to Asid and how comfortable they were with each other and how happy they seemed. It was little things like what she was doing that were making the world a better place, and she was doing it for no other reason than it was the type of person she was. And so was Asid, as well as all of her other friends: Clare, Simon, Leon and Rico. They were open and generous with each other. Skin color and religion didn’t matter. The type of person you were was what counted the most. I wanted to be part of that world.

My idea suddenly crystallized. I stopped dead on the sidewalk and told Lauren about it and she agreed. We turned around and headed with a quick step back to Macy’s. Helen (thankfully) was still there, in high spirits and just as cheerful as before.

I walked up to her when there was a break in the crowd and re-introduced myself and Lauren as friends of her son. She immediately remembered who we were. We chatted for just a minute before I asked her the question we’d come back to ask.

“Lauren and I were wondering if we could take you to dinner this evening when you’re done working,” I said to her. She didn’t bat an eye, and nodded enthusiastically as I was talking, but before she could agree out loud, I added, “And maybe bring some of your friends from work along, too.”

And she did. And that’s how we got to meet Asid, Simon and Rico (Clare and Leon couldn’t get away). We had a nice meal together, good conversation and, before we parted, made planes to get together for following Thursday. Hopefully, it was the beginning of something permanent for all of us.

And that may have been the end of the story except for one final thing. The next day I was out shoveling the five inches of snow that had accumulated since it had begun falling while Lauren and I were downtown. It had continued during our dinner with Helen and her friends as well as during our slow drive home and then long into the night. I had worked my way out to the where the driveway met the street and was clearing what seemed like ten tons of the stuff left behind when the city plow had gone past when Jerry drove up, slide to a stop and beeped. He rolled down his window and greeted me with, “So when are you going to break down and join the twenty-first century?” I was nearly too tired to laugh, but I did anyway. This was our long running joke about my insistence on shoveling my driveway and sidewalk by hand. Jerry, on the other hand, had used his powerful snow blower earlier, finished quickly, and then had run out to open the his hardware store before stopping home to drop off a gallon of milk for Jane he’d bought on the way. I was happy for the break since I’d been out for almost an hour and a half. The snow had been wet and heavy, our driveway was long, my arms were sore, and I was beat.

I laughingly told him, “Never!” Even though I’d been silently wishing for one for the last half hour, picturing myself jauntily prancing up and down my driveway gripping a big, red snow blowing machine with both hands, merrily flinging snow fifty feet into the air.

We chatted a while, being neighborly, before he turned serious.

“So how’d your evening downtown go?” he asked.

“Good,” I told him, “Really good.” I took my hat off and wiped the sweat from my forehead. “The holiday displays were great. Really pretty.” But I knew that’s not what he was really asking about. “The best part, though, was that we saw your mom and even met some of her friends.”

“Really? How’d that go?” He had a look between wanting to know and driving straight home without hearing my answer.

Well, don’t ask if you don’t want to know and he asked, so…I went ahead and told him about our evening, specifically about how happy his mother seemed and how nice her new friends were. “There’s a guy from Somali named Asid and he and Lauren talked cooking. We came away with the recipe for a dish called Qado that sounded delicious. We talked with Simon about the conflict in the Middle East. He used to live in Lebanon but he’s been in the States for fifteen years. He’s a Christian and had a pretty unique perspective about the different factions of Muslims and all the fighting going on between them. And her friend, Rico, gave me a hint on how to get rid of those Japanese Beetles that were feasting on my Morning Glories last summer. He said all I needed to do was brush them off the flowers into bucket of a little dishwater soap and water.”

When I was finished with my re-cap of our dinner, Jerry was silent for a minute, looking straight ahead through the windshield, doing some heavy duty thinking, I figured. I told him, “Your mom said she wished you’d come down there. She’d like you to see where she works and meet some of the people she works with.” I paused. He was quiet, thinking hard, I’m sure weighing the pros and cons, so I added, “They’re good folks, Jer. You’d like them.”

Finally he turned to me. I always felt Jerry had a kind nature and I knew he cared a lot about his mother.”I’m glad you saw her down there. I’ve been thinking about maybe going down there for a while now. My mom can be a force of nature, that’s for sure.”

“I don’t really think you have anything to lose. When was the last time you and Jane were in downtown, anyway?”

“A long time ago. Thirty years at least.”

I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but I felt a little nudge wouldn’t hurt. “The eighth floor Christmas show is done up old fashioned and is kind of fun. Jane would like it,” I said, just to push him a bit more.

He looked past me to his home, thinking some more. Then he said, simply, “Well, what the hell. Why not?” I realized, then, he must have been ready, all he needed was a reason to convince himself. It was really that simple.

We chatted a bit more, and I told him about parking in Lot A. Then I waved good-bye as he drove down the street to his driveway and turned in. I may have been mistaken, but I could have sworn there was a look of relief on his face. Like he’d told me many times before, he and his mother had always gotten along well. He must have come to the conclusion that it was time to move on and accept this new phase of her life. Besides, like I’d told him, her friends really were good folks. It wasn’t going to hurt at all to get to know them.

I finished my shoveling and walked up my driveway to the back door. I was thinking about Jerry and Helen. It was good he was going to make an effort to accept what his mother was doing and the new friends she was making. I know it sounds like a little thing and it may have been a long time coming and, yeah, I know change is hard, but you had to start somewhere. And that’s what he was going to do. You couldn’t ask for anything more than that. And, who knows, when all is said and done and for everyone concerned, it might turn out to be a pretty good new year after all.