Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Christmas vs. a Cold Heart

“Christmas vs. a Cold Heart” was first published in Cheryl Kirking's anthology, All is Calm, All is Bright, Baker Book House Co, 2001. That Christmas volume was re-published in 2009 and my story was chosen to be included again. In addition, The Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post published Leonard's Story twice. Then, this just-past Christmas of 2010, the president of our adult Choose Life Sunday School class, Peggy Benson, asked me to read one of my Christmas stories to our class this year on the last Sunday before Christmas. Of course, Leonard's story is the one I chose. A few people asked me if the story could be found on the web so for the first time, it is cyber-available here for you in its revised version with all the true Christian trappings included.
Hugs and Blessings, Liz

Good morning Choose Life Class! And Merry Christmas.
Let’s pray. Holy Father, thank you for Christmas and the Light that will never go out. Let all our words honor you. In Jesus name. Amen.

PROLOGUE - Do you remember your Christmas of 1973? Today I’ll tell you the true story of my 1973 Christmas. A lot has changed since then and most of you know all about the “now” that my Gus and I have been given so let me briefly connect the missing years.
In 1973, Gus Eberle and his wife—who also was Liz—lived in Lubbock, Texas. Gus was busy selling Pitney Bowes equipment all over West Texas. Their two daughters were married and their teenage son, Rusty lived at home. (Rusty and his wife are now building a house down the road from us and expecting their first grandchild.) But, in1973, Gus and the first Liz Eberle were enjoying their first granddaughter, Debbie, a delightful three-year-old.
I lived in Austin, Texas and my precious Melinda was struggling with those pre-teen years. My second child, three-year-old Eddy, was an absolute gift after two miscarriages. Eddy grew up to be a Marine who has often been in the prayers of this Choose Life class.
Fast forward to 1997 for a second. I was a single grandmother working full time as director of the Golden Hub Senior Center while caring for Melinda, and helping her raise her son John Lowrey. The local newspaper guy, Terry Collier, had no idea what he was setting up for me as he began to publish some of my Christmas and personal experience writing in the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post, including the one you’ll hear this morning. Then, in 2000, I was asked to write a story for his paper covering the 103rd birthday celebration of a delightful, local German lady. She turned out to be the mother of Gus Eberle who, by then, was a widower. Of course, most of you know the rest of that story…  in 2002, Gus and I married, blending our love and our families. In these eight years, we’ve held many family celebrations on our hill and our families, including Gus’s granddaughter Debbie and (my son) her same age “Uncle Eddy” and their families join in along with Melinda and Eddy’s dad and step-mother. Our families are a testimony that even when we people mess up and Satan tries to make things bad, God can turn any circumstance to bless others and spread His truth.

Christmas vs A Cold Heart

In the summer of 1972, I thought I could handle anything. Our Melinda had survived a really, nasty aneurism seven years earlier and during her long rehabilitation process, our family spent a lot of time with sick children whose lives had twisted off center. We felt deeply blessed. We’d made much progress with Melinda and our son Eddy thought he was ‘king of the road,’ so we decided the best way to give back was to become a foster family.
Off we went with no knowledge, cell phones, computers, e-mail, or dishwashers and precious little help from the state agency. But, we learned fast and as Christmas neared that first foster year, I was proud that our frantic life had not been as bad as people had warned.
On the first Sunday of Advent, with our four children, we lit the purple candle of hope and I remember thinking we had real reason to celebrate Hope. I even felt a little smug. Melinda and Eddy had adjusted well to their two temporary sisters, twelve-year-old Brenda, and six-year-old Betsy. Both of Melinda and Eddy’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as our neighbors and church family welcomed our new situation and children with open arms and love.
Did I mention smug?
By Tuesday, I was on a roll. Nobody was sick, all four kids were in school, I’d made my list, and checked my pantry twice. I think I even hummed Jingle Bells as I hand washed the breakfast dishes.
Then the doorbell rang. Our child protective services caseworker stood on my porch gripping the hands of two struggling children. I vividly remember that the little boy glared at me defiantly with angry brown eyes. My eyes locked with his while I told the caseworker very firmly that I absolutely could not add any more foster children to the four children already in our home. Especially two disruptive children who she said had been moved in and out of foster homes for months. No. The caseworker sighed, “Liz, You’re my last hope.”
Hope? Hope.
Within an hour, eight-year-old Leonard and his blond, six-year-old sister had moved in. That afternoon in the middle of making up beds, I remembered to call my husband. I whimpered, “He is only eight years old; the other children will help, Sally loaned us a single bed we’ve set up in Eddy’s room, and well, honey, it’s Christmas.”
He just laughed and said, “I’ll be home early—you Wimp!”
It is true that Leonard stole my heart, but that was just the beginning.  That child set about stealing toys, books and money from everybody in the family, from our neighbors, and from kids in his second grade class.  Immediately—with no metal detectors—I initiated a “Leonard screening” that would shame today’s airport TSA. Before and after school, every day, I found some object belonging to other people hidden in his boots, under his shirt, inside his belt, or in the sack lunch I had just prepared. That December I spent more time in the principal’s office than I did in my own kitchen.
We learned that Leonard had watched his mother die in a fire that erupted in their shack during a drunken brawl. Afterwards, his father beat him regularly, telling Leonard he was to blame. Through it all, Leonard was the sole caregiver for his little sister. Stealing food for the two of them was just one of the things he had to do for their survival until the state stepped in.
When Sunday rolled around, we lit the second purple Advent candle, the candle of Shepherds. My own little flock was confused and losing its way. I was not a good shepherd. I knew I could not feel the depth of Leonard’s pain, and he could not know I would never give up on him, but I wanted to care for him and provide the best Christmas he could imagine. Leonard responded by sullenly watching as the family decorated the tree, made gifts for each other, and baked cookies. Even the friends and neighbors Leonard had stolen from and fought with helped us out with gifts, money, and food. We were determined that all the children – our two birth and our four foster—would receive equally.
On the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the pink candle of Joy. With a big, phony smile pasted on my face, we went to church, sang carols, read the Christmas story during family devotions each night, had pictures taken with Santa, and took part in the school parties and the annual Christmas pageant at church. I had no joy and nothing touched Leonard. If he addressed me at all, it was to snarl, “Hey Lady!” His rebellious expression never changed and the few words he uttered were punctuated with loud expletives. His anger slowly overpowered Christmas. I was helpless to stop the heaviness that settled over my household.
The calendar continued to solemnly move forward and the fourth Sunday of Advent fell on the day before Christmas Eve. Even though I could not even think about the hills of Bethlehem, we lit the last purple candle of Angels and I tried in vain to encourage my own little band of forlorn angels.
After Christmas Eve service, we opened presents from each other and our families but our evening was hollow and forced. The next morning, the foster children were amazed to find gifts from Santa but Leonard created so many disruptions, our family traditions were tattered beyond repair. Still, as we wearily sat down to Christmas dinner, we lit the white Christ candle. I silently prayed that the day would just end with no more pain.
My husband was serving the turkey when Melinda, our eleven-year-old daughter, suddenly remembered that a tiny box had arrived before Christmas from her daddy’s mother. She could not remember opening it.
Somehow, we finished the meal. Then clutching Leonard by the hand, we all frantically searched the entire house but the box was not to be found. The day slid from bad… all the way down to worse.
The next morning, a sibling argument broke out and, in a fit of anger, Leonard yelled at Melinda, “I took your stupid box, and it’s in my desk at school! So what ‘cha gonna do ‘bout it crybaby? Tell your ol’ lady and see if I care.”
During the month of peace on earth, the principal of our large elementary school and I had reached a strained—but polite—relationship which included exchanging each other’s home phone numbers. He was not pleased to go on a scavenger hunt the day after Christmas, but knowing well my fierce “foster-mother temperament” he agreed to open the school for us. As Leonard and I arrived, the principal’s displeasure was evident. The manger scenes and the red and green Christmas decorations on the public school walls mocked us as we three trudged silently down the long hall—in a most unkingly manner.  The principal unlocked the classroom door and Leonard stomped to his desk, dumping the messy contents at my feet. He clawed through the jumble of crayons, books, papers, marbles, broken pencils, and miscellaneous toys then triumphantly grabbed a small, delicate box and shoved it at me. A tiny antique cross fell to the floor.  
Leonard snarled, “Now where ya gonna make me go? When do I leave? And, uh, who you gonna give all them presents to that had my name on ‘em?” He jammed trembling hands into his jean pockets. “I knowed I couldn’t of kept ‘em. I knowed it all along.”
Fighting back my own tears, I cupped his angry chin in my hands and said quietly, “Leonard, the presents are yours to keep whether you stay or leave. I won’t force you to stay, but I want you to be one of my little boys for as long as you need me.”
For an eternity, he stared at me with those captivating brown eyes. When his sobs started, I reached out and he fell into my arms. We held each other tightly as years of pent-up pain poured out of his young, tortured soul. The principal stood by silently, as if guarding his flock. After a long while, Leonard wiped his face with a dirty hand, sniffed hard, and with a quivering voice said, “Can… can we go home now… Mama?”
Christmas was late that year but it arrived on the cold floor of that empty schoolroom.
 I wish I could tell you that forevermore I held onto my joy and hope. You wouldn’t believe me. But, thirty-seven Christmases later, I know that through ALL the no-matter-whats in my life, the light of our Lord Jesus Christ burns brightly and always leads me home.

Sometimes, I even hear an angel—or two or three or eleven—sing.