Saturday, November 24, 2012

How "A Ragamuffin Christmas Came To Be..."

I moved to Nashville, Tennessee in November 1997.
I'm a native of Philadelphia and grew up in the Philadelphia area. I had never considered living anywhere else, except one brief notion about moving to California because I had been there for 10 days when my best friend got married and I was in his wedding. Who wouldn't fall in love with a place that was 35 degrees warmer when you got off the plane than it was when you go on board? (Greg had gotten married in January and it was 35 degrees in Philly the morning I flew to L.A.)
But I love my hometown so very very much and I never thought I'd ever live anywhere else.
Then I got married.
My now-ex-wife is from Utah. (It's an interesting story how we met but one I won't tell here) She hated the Philadelphia area from day one. So we moved to Nashville where I soon realized she merely hated me.
We were married in February 1997, she got pregnant in August, we moved to Nashville in November and in May 1998 my daughter was born.
My daughter is everything. She is the one thing I live this life for (other than God of course). She is all the hopes and dreams I have for every day I shall walk this earth. I loved her from the moment I found out I was going to be a dad. I fell even more in love with her when we had that first grainy sonogram done and I could see the outline of a real-life child in there. I loved her every day during Holly's pregnancy and I told her so each night, when I would hold a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels against her mother's belly and tell her "Hi's your daddy. I love you and I can't wait to see you!" One night around the 7-8 month mark, I did this as I always did, and before I got to "I love you and I can't wait to see you"...she kicked. Really kicked. It's a story I've related before so I won't retell it further.
Morgan has been the driving force in my life for every day of the 14 plus years she has been on this earth...and the 38 weeks before. (She was induced 2 weeks early because it was a difficult pregnancy).
I started out down here doing carpentry but that wasn't paying nearly enough. So, on the advice of another of my dearest friends, in September 1998 I got into the mortgage industry. I struggled terribly that first year. I stayed up late memorizing lender matrices so I could know which programs to put my customers in off the top of my head. I studied rate sheets and called on realtors. I held first-time home-buyer seminars. I called "For sale by Owner" ads and asked them to send me leads from people inquiring to buy their houses. I busted my butt to make something of myself for my family.
On December 1, 1999 at 2PM, I walked out of Davidson County Fourth Circuit Court a divorced dad.
My ex had really never been happy and my struggling to have success in a business I was brand-new to was all the impetus she needed to end our marriage. It crushed me. I had dreamed dreams and made plans and set goals for this little family of mine...really all the family I've ever had...and suddenly the person I dreamed all those dreams for decided she was going to find someone else to make them come true with. And my little princess, my daughter-who was the driving force that kept me going when I worked for that first crappy mortgage company where I learned to excel but was rewarded with my pocket getting picked in a thousand ways- was now a visitor in my home once a week and every other weekend and two months in the summer.
I don't know if you've ever known a broken-hearted divorced dad but let mt tell you...if you are a real dad, you don't have an off switch to make your love for your kids subside on the days they aren't there. I was a zombie for years after my divorce. Morgan was my one source of life and energy and the one person in all my life who had not changed her mind about loving me and who I could love safely. I would spend myself willingly for her happiness and I did.
A year after my divorce I really turned the corner in the mortgage business. I was really really good at my job. I had become a branch manager of a net-branch company and had my own office and was starting to see some real, measurable income. By 2005 I was a branch operator with the largest privately funded mortgage company in the U.S. I was successful, I was making more money each successive year. I was nationally recognized by my bosses for running a good branch and for being active in the community and for developing a really great marketing campaign for a FSBO product we had. I was doing okay.
There was still a massive hole in my heart, but I comforted myself with being a great dad and with the house I had purchased in 2004. Nothing special, 2500 square feet on five acres in the country. It was really the five acres that I loved. I had a wonderful vegetable garden that was ten times bigger than I could ever consume myself. But like my uncle Franny, I love making things grow. I once planted Cheerio's to see if I could grow donuts. (Not really...)
By 2006 the industry was really starting to feel the rumblings of what was ahead. I made very little money in 2006 and by January of 2007 I lost my home. 2007 rebounded for me in my market and I made enough money that I rented for a year and Morgan and I lived a nice little life in a neighborhood in Franklin. But my heart was sinking and the business was drying up. I had my best year ever in 2007...and I didn't close one loan after August 1st of that year. I closed two loans in February 2008. They closed my office in March, along with all but two other offices in the state. I was officially a loan officer for another branch but I had no more business. In May my lease expired and I was homeless. Morgan and I stayed in a friends loft apartment for the summer, travelling back and forth to Delaware so we'd have something of a time together. In August she went back to live with her mom, and my friends needed the apartment for a previous commitment  And so from August 2008 until January 2012 I was homeless. I slept in my car and showered at the local rec center.
Christmas 2008 was hard, but not the hardest. 2009 was terrible. Morgan had informed me that year that she no longer believed in Santa. Okay...I knew this was coming. But along with losing my home, my workshop and garden that were my refuge, and the two dogs the cat and the Welsh Pony that were also part of my I could no longer climb up on the roof on Christmas Eve, as Morgan was just drifting off to sleep, and stomp around and shake the sleigh bells I had made and bellow my "Ho Ho Ho" and be Santa. I would have liked one more chance to do that...on my own roof while my daughter slept in her own bed.
Morgan and I had always had the Advent calenders. I would buy two identical calenders and she would take one to her mom's and leave one at my house. And so together, whether in person or on the phone, we would open a door each day and get even more excited about the approaching holiday.
2009 she told me she didn't really want to do that either. I think it was her defense mechanism. I think that because I was living in my car, and had no kitchen counter to put it on, she just didn't feel like it would be the same. I have wondered if her not wanting to do the Advent calender that year was her way of dealing with the hurt and disappointment of what had befallen her daddy...and subsequently her as well.
I was devastated. I was worried that my daughter would lose faith in me and in God. All I had at the time were my words. And so I began writing a series of stories for the Advent...only they were very grown-up stories about broken Morgan's daddy...who found their way back to the manger and to the baby Jesus. They found their way back to Christmas itself somehow. They were broken, limping, hardened, and desperate. Their faith was dimmed by the beatings the world had inflicted. Their hearts were calloused from the blows of life. But somehow they all knew they needed to be the cave where Jesus was born. They needed to hold this baby and let babies do what babies do. Each day became a journey for me. Each story was inspired as I walked five miles each morning before going inside the rec center to shower and then go off to try to find a job. Each story became very real to me-in the way characters become real to writers- and I was amazed sometimes at how the stories twisted and turned and finally found themselves in front of the most precious Gift ever given.
These stories...and this book...were born from the heart of a very very broken daddy who had seen his whole life vaporize and who wondered if it was ever going to be the same again. Sometimes I still wonder that. I am still such a long long way from anything resembling the normalcy we once knew.
I wrote these stories during the worst Christmas Season my daughter and I ever knew. I had no money for a gift. If my friend Chris hadn't generously given me a rebuilt laptop he had worked on at his shop and was willing to let me pay him for it over time, I would have had nothing whatsoever to give my daughter.
I was crushed. I was nearly lifeless. I had nothing but these stories that seemed to pour out of me from a place that held so much pain of my own and so much embarrassment and humiliation over what my daughter was having to endure, not being able to stay with me on our weekends and knowing her daddy was living in his car. I could have left. I could have wandered into another state and found work and suddenly 5 years would go by and I would be too involved with that life to return to my first life. It happens all the time.
All I had that year were these stories and the love for my daughter that drove me to write them and polish them over the next 3 years until they became what you see now in final form.
These stories were my gift to her...from the deepest pain I've ever felt they brought me hope. Hope that one day we would look back on this difficult time we lived in and found something to share for generations.
It's the hope I have for everyone who reads it now.
Merry Christmas, Ragamuffins...

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