“They found me sleeping in a park,” he says. “This place [The Madison] saved my life.”
“We’re a community here now,” he tells me in response to his own question of what is different this Christmas over last at The Madison. I agree.
“I’ve got two friends coming over to share in the turkey I’ve got cooking in my oven,” he emphasizes the ‘my’ as he explains why he won’t be sharing Christmas dinner in the common room. “Haven’t been able to do that in way too many years.”
“I wasn’t sure who was doing the cranberry sauce, so I made my special homemade sauce just in case,” he smiles and hands me a tub of his very own cranberry sauce. “I used to make this at home. A long time ago. It felt good to be able to do it for the guys today.”
“I lost ten years of my life to the streets. A decade. That’s a lot of time at my age. I’ll never get them back.”
“I talked to my brother on the coast,” says one man. He still lives in a shelter. His friend had invited him to spend Christmas at The Madison. “Nothing worse than spending Christmas day in a shelter,” he tells me. “It reminds you of everything you’ve lost. But I’ve been in touch with my brother. He’s talking about bringing me out to the coast. He wants to help me. I should be gone by spring.”
“I don’t have to worry about dying on the streets no more,” he says. “I’ve got a home.”
“I love you guys,” he says to the men sitting around the table in the common room. “You’re my family now.”
This was Christmas dinner at The Madison. A time of laughter, of teasing one another, of sharing. A time to enjoy companionship, turkey, homemade cranberry sauce, and, dare I say it, store bought pie. My doing. I apologized to the men and told them how I’d forgotten about dessert and by the time I remembered, I didn’t have time to create something original. They laughed and teased me and told me I was fired. Last time they invited me to cook their Christmas dinner, they joked.
I felt like I was surrounded by brothers, young and old. A family. A community. I felt welcomed. Included. Special. I felt like I belonged.
And that welcome extended to the two volunteers who came down to help out. There was no hesitancy in the welcome. No caution. This is our home. You are welcome, they said. And then, proceeded to include them in the joking and ribbing, the sparring and jostling. Randy brought buns. Gail mashed potatoes. Jane made candied yams that Al delivered, Ursula sent sweet potato pie and Charles made a special trip to deliver the beets and pear dish as well as the brussels sprouts I’d forgotten at home. I’d gone down earlier in the morning to stuff the turkey and put it in the oven, and Pat, the Alpha House staff on duty, carefully basted it throughout the day. (Alpha House operates the 16 unit Madison building which is owned by the Calgary Homeless Foundation to provide housing and supports to formerly homeless veterans.)
When I got back at 1, the turkey was turning golden brown, the aroma of it cooking permeating the air. One of the residents helped me set the table, another helped with organizing the dishes of food I’d brought. Slowly, the men trickled in.
Before we could do dinner though, they had to give gifts to two children of a single mom who sometimes comes in to help out. The mother, her sister, and her parents arrived with the two young children in tow and the men excitedly gave them their gifts. Together, they’d collected $150 for the kid’s presents. The look of joy on their faces as they watched the kids open their gifts spoke of Christmases past, of family ties, some long broken, some yet to be restored. Their faces and rapt attention spoke of hope and love and joy.
And then, the children handed out baskets filled with Christmas stocking goodies to each of the men and there were tears and laughter and sadness and joy all mixed in together. Pat, the staff member, handed out the gifts the Christmas WishList volunteers had bought for all the men and I watched their faces glow in the memory of what it feels like to be given a special gift on Christmas morning. Of being remembered, of feeling important, of knowing someone cared enough to buy you that special something you’d wanted.
I shared my Christmas with the veterans at The Madison. It is the second year I’ve been blessed with this gift of community. The second year I’ve been surrounded by those who are willing to contribute to making it possible, and those who open their homes, and hearts to my presence.
“Thank you for allowing me into your Christmas day,” I told the men at the end of the meal. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here. Thank you for teasing me and making me feel welcome. Thank you. You help make my Christmas very, very special.”
Thank you to everyone who contributed to Christmas at The Madison this year. To Veronica, Andrena, Wendy, Sharyn, RoseMary, Brandi, Andrew, Kathy, John, Rosemarie, Dan, Jackie, Jim, Liseanne, Sinead, Randy, Anne, Charles, Al, Jane, Tamara, Ursula, Gail and many many more as well as the staff at Alpha House.
You are many and you are mighty. You have made an enormous difference. You have touched many hearts.
You are the spirit of Christmas.