Christmas 1981

1981 was a hard year for us. It was the first year of railroad layoffs, and we did not expect them. We had been married for three years and had two children who were one and two years old and a house we had built a year and a half before. Railroad unemployment was $25 a day, which wasn’t a lot even then. We had $300 in savings, which we had given to a family member just before the layoff. The check that was supposed to repay us bounced.

I had not worked since I had the kids, but since a brief stint with the local daycare proved unsatisfactory, we decided that my husband would take care of the kids and I would go back to work until we figured out what was going to happen. In those days, layoffs were months long, and since this was the first one, we did not know if there would be a job for my husband to go back to.

I went back to the staple job of my college years: McDonald’s. Now I have nothing against McDonald’s. It was a good job during the college years, and it was a different entity, I think, back when Ray Kroc was alive. Standards were the same from store to store, and there was pride in good food and fast delivery. We just didn’t know all the health standards about holding food and other things. Nevertheless, at least in those days, McDonald’s was hard work. And it was even harder than it had been in college because I had two babies and a husband to go home to.

I worked the 5 AM-2 shift, which meant I had to be up early since the closest restaurant was about eight miles away. Part of my job was to stock the restaurant, and not having been schooled in safety, I did not realize that when I was lifting things, I should not have been wearing my wedding and engagement rings. So one morning, I was horrified when my engagement ring snagged on a shelf as I carried a box by and snapped. Several anxious minutes later I had found both halves, but still…. Times were hard. Money was tight. How was I going to tell my husband and, worse yet, where would we get the money to fix it?

I did tell my husband, and he was very sympathetic. We put both halves of the ring in my jewelry box, which then held very little, and I went on my way. My hand felt very bare, though, and despite the risk, I couldn’t bring myself not to wear my wedding band.

The layoff lasted from April until mid-October. We had two small children and were out of insurance. Despite it all, we were happy as I remember it. Ecstatic, really, when my husband went back to work (for two months before he was laid off again.). When I was back at home, I had the time to look, and as I was cleaning one day, I looked in my jewelry box. The halves of my ring were gone! Our son, who had just turned three, was curious and into everything. Even though Mommy and Daddy’s room was technically off limits, he came in at every opportunity. Had he done something with it? I scoured the house, but I found nothing.

One day when my husband came home, he found me on the floor going through the contents of the vacuum bag with a fine tooth comb. He watched for a while and finally asked what I was looking for. I almost couldn’t tell him. We were young and we didn’t have a lot. That ring was one of my most prized possessions. I cried as I told him I couldn’t find it. He put his arms around me and told me it would turn up.

And so it did. I worried about it periodically, but with Christmas coming and the kids, there really wasn’t too much time. And since things had been hard for us that year, we decided that we were going to concentrate on the kids. Nothing for each other.

I know you all know where this is going, but you may not know what it was like to live through it. I was twenty-six; my husband was thirty. And I have only to look at my children and my daughter-in law, who are twenty-five, twenty-six and twenty-seven, to know how young that really is.

After the kids had opened their gifts and were playing, my husband turned to me and smiled. “There’s one more thing to open,? he said. Then he went to the tree, pulled up the skirt and pulled out one small box.

I held my breath as I opened it. Inside, of course, laid my engagement ring, all back together now.

“Where did you find it?? I cried. “And why didn’t you tell me??

“I took it out of your jewelry box,? he said. “And how could I tell you, especially since I knew how hard you had looked for it? Besides,? he added with a grin, “it would have spoiled the surprise. ”

I stared at him. He had watched me going through the vacuum bag. And he had never said a word. But my desire to scold him for letting me worry unnecessarily was overcome by the enormity of his gift. That ring was fixed with money we most definitely didn’t have. And my husband, who had made his way through life without a lot of support emotionally or otherwise, who watched over our finances so our little family could survive, thought it was important enough to be fixed. That was a gift in and of itself.

My husband put his arms around me. We sat on the couch and watched our toddlers play. We didn’t have a lot that Christmas according to the world’s standards. But we thought we were rich.


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