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Answer to a single mother's prayer

On a Friday evening in December, two weeks before Christmas, I lost my job. I hadn't seen it coming. I'd driven home from work the same as I'd done every night. I was excited for the weekend when my daughter, Kristil, then 12, and I planned to get our Christmas tree. Then I listened to my voice mail:  "We're sorry but your work assignment has ended as of today."

My heart sank and anxiety sent me spinning. I wasn't just a single parent; I was the only parent. My paycheck was survival.

I scanned the workday, wondering if I'd done something wrong but couldn't find anything out of the ordinary. I'd been at my job in Madison, Wis. for nine months, contracted through an agency for a three-month "temporary-to-hire" assignment. I thought I'd be hired any day. Instead, I lost my job.

Money had always been tight. Kristil's father had been in prison most of her life and hadn't been able to contribute much. Though I'd grown accustomed to the hustle of solo parenting, I'd never gotten used to the constant anxiety of living on the edge. One wrong move could send us spiraling.

It pained me as a mother. Kristil deserved better, and though I did everything I could to give her a good life, there were some things my love couldn't fix.

The next day as we searched for our tree, I struggled to be cheerful as I eyed each price tag. I knew I couldn't keep it a secret any longer. 

"I got some bad news yesterday," I told her. "I lost my job."

"Oh no, and right before Christmas," Kristil said. "Well, I have a $100 grandma gave me that I can give you."

"Absolutely not," I told her. "We'll be fine."

It wasn't Kristil's responsibility to solve our money problems.

Monday morning, I set off on my moneymaking pursuits. First, the employment agency. "We don't know why they ended the position, but we'll start looking for something new right away," the recruiter told me. 

Next, the pawnshop. I presented a garnet ring surrounded by two small diamonds set in 14-carat gold that my mother had given me a decade earlier. "Best I can do is $70. The stones are worthless," the owner said. "We're only interested in the gold."

I watched as he extracted the garnet and two small diamonds and returned them to me, then threw the gold band in a bin to be melted down. Next was the antiques store. I sold six Precious Moment figurines for $150 and ended the day $230 richer.

Over the next week, I furiously applied for jobs as my bank account grew smaller. I felt like the world was closing in on me. Why couldn't I do better for Kristil? We didn't need a mansion, but couldn't I at least keep food on the table and buy her gifts at Christmas? I drove home defeated, knowing what I planned to do.

It was a terrible idea, but the only one I had. I would write checks even though there wasn't enough money in the bank to cover them. I would pay the money back as soon as I could, but until then I'd take my chances.

Back home, I dug my checkbook out. It had been snowing on and off all morning. I noticed a small white car pull up in front of my building. A petite old woman with short white hair struggled to open her door against the blowing snow and wind. I realized it was my old college professor, Sister Esther Heffernan.

I'd first met Sister Esther 10 years earlier when I was a student in one of her sociology classes at Edgewood College in Madison. With no child care, I sometimes took Kristil to class. Sister Esther would bring coloring books and treats to occupy Kristil. Often, I'd visit Sister Esther in her office to discuss an assignment and end up staying for hours as we got lost in conversation. I loved hearing about her early life and how she became a nun. She'd been an only child, and when her father died, her mom became a single parent like me.

Sister Esther took an interest in our well-being. When I was in a violent relationship and fled, she helped us to get back on our feet. When I was close to graduating and ran out of loan money, she provided resources she'd found. I was profoundly grateful. After I graduated, we kept in touch. I had grown to love her like family.

I rushed to the front of my building. "What are you doing out in this weather?" I asked.

"I called your job and they said you weren't working there anymore, so I thought I would come by," Sister Esther said.

I made her a cup of tea, and we talked. She gave me a heads-up on positions she'd heard about. Just being in her presence gave me hope. As she got up to leave, she handed me a Christmas card.

When I came back in, I opened her card and saw there was money inside. I gasped in shock. Hundred-dollar bills poured onto the table. She must have known. Sister Esther had given me $1,000.

On Christmas morning, Kristil and I gathered around our tree, and I joyfully watched as she opened her gifts. I silently thanked Sister Esther in my heart.

A week later, I got a phone call from my old boss. They had ended my position with the staffing agency because they wanted to hire me directly. I started back in my job as a permanent employee.

It has been 13 years since that Christmas, but I've never forgotten what Sister Esther did for us. Last year at age 91, Sister Esther died, but the love she gave during her life lives on in the hearts of many. I am lucky to have been one of them. This year for Christmas, in her memory, I will share that love with another family in need.
 
Tammy Rabideau is a writer living in Madison, Wis.

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