When recently prompted by Kathy Streib’s Challenge to share our favorite holiday memory, I had several memories emerge. Yet among the many warm memories, one untold, bitter-sweet, holiday memory continued to occupy my mind. I have tried to write this story several times, but painful memories are so entangled with sweet ones, that words do not easily come. I will try once again! This particular story begins a couple months before Christmas of 1962.
On a late October evening in 1962, there was a slight lull in the storms which had plagued Sacramento, making it the wettest October on record for our city, before or since. The United States was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I was so pre-occupied with a personal crisis, that I felt oblivious to this country’s concerns with thermo-nuclear war.
In my own world of concerns, I climbed the steps and entered the front door of 2814 "I" Street that evening, and I immediately became known as "Pat." I wasn't unlike the other girls, who were already living in what became a shared world of our own. We came to this place from a number of little towns and cities, around central and northern California.
Camellia House, as the place was known, was a good-sized bungalow styled home built in 1905. It was owned and run by the Salvation Army as a home for unwed mothers.
We came from a variety of backgrounds. Among them, we had "Susan," a daughter of a minister, and "Marian," a Japanese girl, who had shamed her family, not only because she had become pregnant while unmarried, but also because a white boy fathered her unborn child. Our eclectic group became fairly close and shared what resources we had. There were others, as well. I name them in "quotes" because these aren't their real names, which for the most part I do not know. While living at Camellia House, other names were used to protect identity. I was 19 years old, and while I was among the oldest in the home, I was as naive as the youngest of 15 years.
The following year, 1963, was to become one characterized by the loss of that naiveté, for me and for our nation as well. "The pill” ushered in the sexual revolution, and America suffered the pain of innocence lost, and a president lost, with the assassination of John Kennedy.
Social and revolutionary change knocking at the door just the year before, was yet unseen. The stigma of the old term "unwed mother" is remembered, carved on that antiquated closed door.
Miss Taylor who ran Camellia House on behalf of the Salvation Army, was a woman likely in her early sixties. And behind her door, she was all business, but not unkind. Mrs. Barnes who performed household and cooking duties for the several of us living there, was warm hearted, grandmotherly, and delightful to be around.
The most humbling experiences in my life were had in that home at Christmas that year. I remember feeling chilled much of the time that winter. I suspect it was partly from the dampness of the air, but my nerves weren’t helping either. Neither my family nor I had ever been the recipient of charity. We had always been the givers. But on this Eve of Christmas, we the unwed madonnas, gathered around the wonderful tree which filled the Camellia House living room and it warmed my nerves. We listened to carols and told stories. There were kind words from a minister and his wife, who often came to visit.
Presents were given to each of us. These gifts were from strangers, not from Kings of the East, but worth as much. Each girl was provided a pair of warm flannel pajamas, which were nicely Christmas-wrapped, along with a pleasant supply of toiletries.
Later that evening, we enjoyed an amazing Christmas dinner, wonderfully prepared by Mrs. Barnes, who was a southern cook. It was my first encounter with cornbread dressing. To this day, I continue using her recipe, although I add in pine nuts and golden raisins.
Yes, there was great anxiety in my Christmas of 1962, but as the Dalai Lama has said, suffering is OK. In it we learn compassion. I also learned when things seem darkest there are folks who are exceptionally giving. They are the angels among us who show up when needed most!
Each year, when I hear the bell of a Salvation Army Santa, I am reminded of that 1962 Christmas, and the blessings those bells provided to me during my most difficult time. The Salvation Army remains my favorite charity!
As for the rest of this story, I gave birth to a baby girl in March 1963. In those days a good future for her wasn't possible if she stayed with me, so I made the very painful decision that she be given for adoption. Each year on her birthday, and many days during each year, I wondered if she was alright, and I especially missed the baby I could not hold! However, on February 2, 1990, we were reunited, and, have been in contact since. Her name is Valerie. In this picture of all my children, she is pictured on the right.