Our Christmas Guest

by Cecilia Moelter

Temperature influences me constantly. Since I am a Southern Californian, my exposure to extreme elements is infrequent, so cold and rain capture my attention. This may be why I thought of Sally on this particularly bone-cold night.

I did not know Sally. If we passed close enough to one another, we nodded. During the day, she lived in our church parking lot—a treeless, asphalt-covered corner with a stucco fence on both sides—furnished with her two shopping carts.

In the evening, she pushed one cart with a purposeful stride to the park about a mile away. The second cart stayed in place with a sign “Do not remove this. I am in church.”

My contact with her was seeing her around the church or pushing her cart by our house when she walked to the park at night. I wondered how she managed in the male-dominated environment of the streets, but her system worked.

In the hot summer of the valley and in cold winters as well, she collected items for her shopping carts. Meals of handouts and staples from our parish service center sustained her.

Looking back, I’m not clear how we ended up inviting her to join us at Christmas. Probably a conscience plagued with unease and embarrassment over our good fortune.

I was snuggled on the couch and wondering aloud where Sally might be. Then I said yes when my husband suggested letting her use our travel trailer for a few days because the night temperatures were near freezing.

He got up and driving toward the park, he caught up with her on the road. He invited her to come with her carts to our house that night and stay until Christmas.

She answered vaguely but took a paper with our address.

We were surprised when she arrived shivering an hour later. We put sheets on the bunk, hooked up utilities, showed her the bathroom, and explained how to work the electric heater.

That was when I realized that my concern for other people is ambivalent. I worried about a potential headline: “Woman Burns in Do-Gooder Couple’s Backyard.”

The next morning, Sally ate the breakfast we had left for her, used our bathroom, and was away by 8 a.m. to her daytime position in the church lot.

That night she returned and started no fires, so I relaxed. One day, seeing our grandson playing in the garden, she said, “He reminds me of my sons. They live in Chicago.”

On Christmas Day, we invited her to dinner, and she showed up at exactly 5 p.m. Our family included her in the conversation, and she giggled unexpectedly during the meal. The day finished with my feeling of satisfaction from having shared—even if it was tentatively.

Two days after Christmas, my husband and I agreed that sharing the toilet facilities with Sally was not working. The temperature rose, and the brief rain showers ceased. So I asked Sally if she could prepare to leave. She accepted this with no comment.

The next morning, she was gone. She had left some gifts: a box of Kleenex, a bar of soap, and a greeting card signed with two names—Sally and Marilyn Lee followed by three surnames and a social security number.

I think about that episode with tinges of sadness.