The Thanksgiving Gift

On Friday, October 18th, 2002, I received my final severance check in the mail. I had been unemployed and unsuccessful in finding a new job for exactly three months. I was living in Horn Lake, Mississippi, a town that barely qualifies as a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, and that certainly isn’t brimming with vacant jobs.

That afternoon, back at home after what I thought would be my last trip to a bank in my foreseeable future, I received a telephone call about a job in Indianapolis, Indiana, working as a contractor for Eli Lilly. After a few telephone interviews, my 12-year-old son and I drove to Indianapolis Sunday for a Monday morning meeting with who would be my new employer. We spent Monday afternoon arranging little details –things like negotiating salary and start date (they needed someone ASAP), learning about schools, finding a home, etc. We drove home Tuesday, October 22nd to arrange everything else.

The following Monday, ten days after the initial contact, I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. I started my new job the next day. I left my son in our house with his father, who graciously agreed to temporarily move into my house and “baby-sit” his son. I wanted him to finish his fall semester at school and I felt better leaving him there until I had arranged our new life to be routine for him. It took almost two months to just recompose myself, so this turned out to be a smart plan.

For someone who had never spent more time than required by a 2-hour layover north of the Tennessee/Kentucky state line, nothing seemed the same to me: the streets, the stores, the businesses, the weather (I needed a coat in October!), the nicely kempt midwestern people with absolutely no accent (how do they do that?). In hindsight, it seems insignificant, but when giving directions here, they actually use east and west and north and south, rather than right and left, as in “Go South on Meridian, then west on Fall Creek”. Imagine! It really requires a lot of unnecessary thought as far as this southerner is concerned, but when you’ve no idea where you’re going in the first place, it can cause panic attacks!

It turned out that driving confusion would be the least of my worries. I learned the first day when signing the usual paperwork for benefits that my company’s paychecks weren’t current. I wouldn’t receive any pay until the end of November. My sign-on bonus reimbursing my moving expenses wouldn’t be paid until the end of December.

My apartment was a disaster. They had forgotten to include me on the maintenance list, so I had a long list of things that were unacceptable: Just to name a few, I had closet doors off their hinges and standing in halls, missing and falling window blinds, a sliding glass door with a broken lock, a refrigerator in which something had apparently died, cobwebs in more than just one or two corners, bathtubs with hairs in the drains, shower heads that produced trickles of running water because of gunk that they like to call “hard water” build-up. I also had no hot water the first night and following morning. The maintenance man explained that the hot water heater thermostat had been turned all the way down to save money while the apartment had been vacant. He also mentioned that he’d fix the rest of my “complaints” as soon as he could get to them.

My upstairs neighbors never stopped slamming cabinets and doors, pounding who knows what, and walking from room to room to room. Oh, I exaggerate. They seemed to rest between 1 A.M. and 5 A.M. But the ultimate contribution to my defeat was a woman in the adjacent building who curiously roamed the parking lot alone talking to imaginary people. Her husband would join her when he got home from work with a beer or two or fifty and they would both walk around talking to each other (I can only hope) until their three young children came outside to summon them home. Then the fun began.

She apparently enjoyed calling 911 and waiting outside, with her children, for the authorities to show up. The first night and every night thereafter, three or four police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck would respond, sirens-a-blaring. From what I could surmise, she thought her husband was trying to kill her. They’d calm her down, order the entire family back into their apartment (apparently neither she nor her husband were any real threat?), and then stand out in front of my building for an hour or so and chat….loudly. And to clarify, this was actually on a very nice side of town and considered one of the finest school districts in the city!

On the bright side, I was sleeping almost an hour each night.

I opened a checking account with what little money I had after my move because ATM fees were really adding up. I wrote five checks to pay some bills and they all bounced. Come to find out, the bank here has a policy about holding new account holders initial deposits for seven days. They just failed to tell me. $125 in fees later (which they did eventually reimburse), I had officially lost my mind.

By that weekend, I began to cry. And, I couldn’t stop. My mind was besieged with “What have I done!?!” and “I want to go home!” thoughts.

Throwing dignity to the wind, I cried so much to the apartment manager that she tore up my lease. I guess it would be somewhat pitiful to watch an average 40-year-old woman lose her mind. She told me that I could stay there as long as I needed, but that I could move anytime I wanted.

It took me almost two weeks, but I found an affordable, clean, newer, upstairs apartment in the same school district. My son would still be able to attend the middle school he had visited and “approved”. I arranged to move the weekend before Thanksgiving.

And I stopped crying….as much.

I had no idea how high things were about to look up. By mid-November, the best thing I never could have imagined happened. I’m typically not one to express too much emotion or admit defeat, but I was melting. I told a wonderful friend, Sheila, who was back in Memphis, about my recent crying spells. I told her that I had no idea if it was due to the haze of overwhelming change, the feeling of loss from my son not being with me (we had never been in different states for longer than a week at a time), or just plain worry. I was so worried about him already (with such fast change) and I really wanted him to spend some time in his new “home” before he actually moved over Christmas holidays.

She then asked me what we were doing for Thanksgiving. Driving to Mississippi and back twice to bring my son to Indianapolis was too much for the four-day break. I couldn’t stay with my ex-husband in my house, and he certainly had no plans of meeting me halfway. He was already doing me a favor by just living in my house, after all. There really was no logical way to spend the holiday with my son.

She asked about flying him from Memphis to Indy. She even offered to take him and pick him up at the airport. I began to cry again, not from self-pity, but because I was so touched by her generosity. He had flown before, so his “unaccompanied minor” status wasn’t an unfamiliar concern. But I couldn’t do it. I was so close to broke by this time and still had to pay for my second move!

The next day, I received an e-mail from American Airlines notifying me that I had been given a $250 gift certificate from Sheila and three other friends. She had recruited them to donate to my cause.

So, naturally, I cried again.

My son and I spent Thanksgiving together and he was actually excited about the new apartment I had chosen without him. By spending those four days together, it eased his mind and helped him to think of the move as a fun adventure.

And I finally stopped crying.

So far in my life, this will be THE memory of kindness that makes me smile during my last days. It’s undeniably amazing how fast God shows up when you least expect Him. And I certainly never suspected that He’d look just like Sheila!

--Karen Rutherford, 2004

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