At this time each year, a memory squeezes my heart. It was a Christmas-card-worthy scene, a cold December night somewhere near Chicago, a fresh snow covering the ground making it beautiful, . My first husband was an entertainer. We lived on the road much of the time – he and I and our three-year-old son – and performed a family variety show that was especially popular at Christmastime. Many of our bookings during the holidays were entertainment for company employees and their families. Sometimes we appeared at school assemblies, but “the memory” occurred in a Catholic home for children – orphans.
The small room where we were to perform was decorated with colorful lights and a Christmas tree. There was no stage, which meant that my husband and son and I were placed in close proximity to our audience — about twenty youngsters ranging in age from five to sixteen.
We opened the show with a lively tapdance. My husband was the accomplished dancer and star of that number. I accompanied him, holding up my end, and sandwiched between us was our three-year-old son, dressed just like his father in dark trousers, a white sports coat, and a red bowtie. He was adorable, smiling, valiantly trying to imitate all the moves his dad made. Even though he wasn’t accomplished, the sweetness of his effort never failed to please the audience.
Our audience this time, I noticed immediately, could not take their eyes off my son. Realization hit me. Reflected in their gaze was an intense longing that could not be denied. In every pair of eyes I saw a child imagining that he or she was part of a family, a family like ours that appeared to be perfect….loving, close, working and playing together. They each wanted to be that little boy with two parents.
But we weren’t perfect. And just a few years later, we were a family torn apart.
There was shared blame: marrying for the wrong reasons; a lack of tolerance and forgiveness; a man who took out his frustrations through abuse; and although that had not yet touched my son, I knew the time would come. When no other solution seemed possible, I took my son and fled. I’m happy those children did not sense the tension, the growing ugliness of our real situation. Had they known, I would have felt I had disappointed them by failing to maintain for my son what they so desired, what they yearned for.
My son is grown now, married, and pursuing the career he always wanted as an artist. He and his beautiful, talented wife live a fulfilling life. But every December I wonder what has happened to those twenty children. Did they grow up to find the security and family they wished for? If I could talk to them, I would ask to hear their stories, the stories of how they came to be in the orphans’ home. What happened to their parents? I wonder if they have good stories to tell their own children, stories of overcoming the obstacles of life and finding some joy to pass on to their families.
Every year I remember, and as always, I wish them, and you, a happy holiday – a holiday that becomes a memory you will cherish.