We all like to give--within our own set parameters. But sharing and giving to total strangers? We might not be so comfortable with that. Sheila Smith's family story might have happened to any of us. But how would we react?
No Room at the Inn
by Sheila Smith
The Shiretown of Dorchester is unlike surrounding communities in our corner of the Maritimes. Historically, it was home to a master ship building industry that thrived alongside the County Courthouse and federal penitentiary – known locally as “the Pen” or “the hill”. Progress brought an end to wooden ships and the County Courts were moved to the nearby city for political reasons. All that remained was the prison as the community’s main employer. Dorchester is a prison town filled with closed lives behind bolted doors.
I grew up there and I remember better times. After an absence of eight years, my husband John and I returned to raise our family and moved into our six-bedroom home. Two doors down, on the other side of the street, was a three-story stone mansion, built by Sir Edward B Chandler one of the Fathers of Confederation. In recent years the owners opened its doors as a local B&B - the Rocklyn Inn, which housed overnight guests – many of whom were family visiting incarcerated loved ones on the hill.
Christmas of '91 promised to be one for the books! With a home large enough to comfortably hold the overflow of our extended family returning for the holidays, we looked forward to our first Christmas together in years. Every bed was made ready, cooking completed, and the piano tuned for the festivities.
That Christmas Eve was a cold, blustery day. Roads were drifting in but everyone had arrived in town safely though still dispersed. About 3pm, I went down to the Church to put the finishing touches on decorations and get music ready for the evening Mass. On arriving, I noticed a car in the churchyard with a lone occupant. But since the church was on the main road through town it was a common sight and I thought nothing of it. I was already too busy thinking of my “Norman Rockwell” vision of the perfect family Christmas. With tasks completed, I returned home to wait for our guests.
Shortly after, sister Sharon and her family arrived with oodles of luggage and brightly wrapped parcels to add to the already huge pile under the 12-foot Christmas tree. With everyone settled into their assigned sleeping quarters, Sharon and I prepared supper for the next arrivals.
An hour later, the doorbell rang. Expecting to see my sister Margie with her family, my husband and I went to the door to find a strange woman shivering on the veranda. "Sorry to bother you,” she said, “I'm looking for a place to spend the night," -- to which I retorted, "I'm sorry but we don't take people in.” I thought, 'Humph! Imagine, pestering people on Christmas Eve!'
"I'm from out of town,” she continued. “I borrowed a friend's car to visit someone at the prison and when I arrived, I was told I needed security clearance before I could visit. I was told that if I came back about 6 tonight I might get in. Last night I stayed at the “YWCA” in the city but the roads are drifting in and I'm nervous driving someone else's car. I really don't want to drive on unfamiliar roads after dark -- with the snow and all."
Trying to be helpful, but really to get her on her way, I pointed to the Rocklyn Inn. "There's a bed & breakfast right over there. They take people in."
She smiled. "I tried that but the lady said they were full. So I was sitting in the churchyard down the road waiting to go back up to the prison and the minister showed up, saw me sitting there and asked if I needed help. I told him I was fine but needed a place to stay and he said if I came here, you might help. I don't mind paying."
In my mind I was thinking, The only minister that lives in town is the Baptist minister. I don't know him very well. Why did he send her here? And why didn't he send her to one of his own congregation?! "Well, there's a house around the corner that used to lodge men on the road crews. You could try there.” Guilt was seeping in. “But if you don't have any luck, come back and we'll try to think of something. And we certainly wouldn't want money." As I shut the door, I knew John was annoyed at my offer to help. His look said it all. "What was I supposed to say? Besides, she probably won't be back."
Dorchester has its own lepers: the inmates and their families, definitely not to be trusted! Ignore them and maybe they'll go away. Besides, this promised to be a Christmas card perfect holiday. And I really had no room. Who wants a stranger in their house on Christmas Eve? Who wants one of them messing things up? But all the while the shame of brushing her off gnawed at me. Decidedly, if she came back, if I had that second chance, I'd do something for her. But it would also mean dealing with family dynamics.
As luck would have it, ten minutes later she rang the doorbell again. "Hi. The woman at the house said she doesn't take people in anymore." Reluctant, but true to my word, I opened the door. "All right, come in and don’t worry. I'm not sure what we can offer you but you're welcome to stay. We're just getting supper ready so it’s best you have a bite to eat and get warm if you're heading up to the Pen. It could be a long wait."
Her name was Sherry. She had met a young man at the Pen while on a visit there with a cousin who had gotten into trouble. She said the young man’s family could not adjust to the “shame” of his deeds and would not visit. Sherry decided to bring him a little Christmas cheer knowing she would be his only visitor. With coffee and a hot meal she set off for her 6pm visit.
After her departure, Margie and her family arrived and so did the flood of demands for answers and understanding. "My God, Sheila, we could be murdered in our beds!" "We could wake up and find every present gone from under the tree!" "Where do you think we could put her? Somebody has to give up a bed!" "What'll we do with her while we're at Mass?!" "Do you have to be a sucker for every bleeding heart story?" "Who in the hell comes looking for a place to stay on Christmas?" Do you know what you're opening yourself up to? They'll be knocking on your door all the time looking for hand outs!"
Just then, the door opened and in walked my Dad. "Did a girl come here looking for a place to stay? I went to turn on the heat at the church and saw her sitting in the car. I went over to ask if she needed help and she needed a place to stay so I sent her here. I figured you might be able to help her out." Dad was the presumed pastor who offered a hand! With his words came the sense that I had made the right choice after all.
Sleeping arrangements needed to be shuffled. My young daughter Jennifer offered her bed for our guest. “I don’t mind, Mommy. I can stay with Frances and that lady can have my room.” Two more cousins were relegated to sofas. As the last of the family arrived, they were filled in. Some fumed silently, throwing nasty glares in my direction as they coped with the thought of such an intrusion.
Sherry returned later to say that she was not permitted visitation rights until 11am the next morning. At our invitation, Sherry decided to join us for Christmas Eve Mass. While we waited to leave, we chatted, listening to her story. Divorced, her children were with their father for the holidays. She was alone; no other family nearby to celebrate Christmas. This was a woman who opened her doors to troubled teens brought by the RCMP who were not welcome at home. As her tale unfolded, she apologized profusely for the inconvenience of disrupting our family festivities. We were ashamed at our reluctance to help, telling her she was as welcome as she made others.
Being the parish choir director, I had to leave for Mass early. Sharon and Jennifer came along to help with last minute preparations. Pulling out of the driveway, Jennifer asked, "Mom, why is that woman staying at our house?" As we passed the Rocklyn, Sharon and I looked at each other and gasped in revelation. "Because there was no room at the Inn!" That night, the words of Scripture rang in our hearts as we heard the Christmas story of the miraculous birth of Jesus with renewed spirit. The prayers of thanksgiving were truer; the music sweeter than it had ever been before or since. We opened our door to a stranger and found a friend. After Mass, we welcomed Sherry into our midst in fine Maritimer style. We gathered around the piano to sing and raise glasses in hearty toasts of good will into the wee hours.
Before going to bed, Jennifer asked, "Mom, how will Santa know Sherry is here? Will there be presents for her to open in the morning? Did you get her a present to put under the tree?" My heart sank . . . momentarily. "Don't worry honey, Santa will find her." After tucking her in, I turned to Sharon for help in the next step of conspiracy.
Those were the early days of the Home Shopping Channel and viewers saw still shots of merchandise with a voice over by the sales staff and customers called in to purchase items. At the time, my mother was a compulsive shopper and on a first name basis with HSC salesman "Bargain Bill". She had more treasures hidden away than Long John Silver. We decided to do a little pirating of our own. While Mom and Dad partied at our house, we manoeuvred the car over icy roads to their house to relieve Mom of some of those treasures and returned with a box full of goodies. After Sherry retired to her room, stocking stuffers were divided and an extra Santa sock filled for the new arrival. All was ready!
As in every house, the kids were up early to check their Christmas loot. Jennifer woke us up. "Mom! Santa brought some presents for Sherry! And a stocking too! Is she going get up, Mom? I don't want to open my stuff until she gets up!" I smiled, "Go wake her up honey.” Off she went beaming from ear to ear.
Not wanting to intrude in the family ritual, Sherry was reluctant to join us. Assuring her she was family and that Jennifer wouldn't open her presents until she did, she finally agreed. Jennifer joyfully handed her the Santa sock filled to the brim and Sherry burst into tears, as did we. Mom and Dad arrived for the ceremonial gift opening and Jennifer looked after giving Sherry her share of the loot.
It was a glorious morning; the sun was shining, and our home filled with the sweet sounds of Christmas joy! After a hearty breakfast, it was time for Sherry to leave. One last ritual: the family photo -- which of course, included Sherry, who bore the Christ child in our midst that Christmas. It was a day no one wanted to forget. We cried tears of joy and waved goodbye to the stranger, who had given us a Christmas fit for a Heavenly King because there was no room at the Inn.
Sheila did not provide a bio with her story, but it's obvious that she is a storyteller of talent, grace and insight. Thank you, Sheila, for a story that reminds us that kindness begins at home. And, as Sheila says, "Because of the recent outreach to refugees, I thought this personal story of our family Christmas was a timely one to share."