In a domestic violence shelter, Christmas is the most peaceful day of the year. I wake up at the end of a December 24th night shift and linger on the futon in the office. Not rushing out to make room for the day counselors, not worried the morning volunteers will catch me asleep.
I wander into the kitchen where Yecenia cooks breakfast for her son and Rosetta cradles a coffee mug in her calloused hands. I join Rosetta at the kitchen table and we look out the window at icicles stuck to the bare branches of a tree. The sunshine makes them look like crystal, we agree.
Christmas parties organized by church and civic groups have been over for weeks. Even the most generous Christians want the real holidays for their own families. The donated presents have been wrapped and unwrapped. Scarves and perfume bottles and puzzles and dolls don’t seem new anymore, even as Yecenia’s son plays with his donated toys in the playroom next to the kitchen.
So Rosetta at the kitchen table and Yecenia at the stove and Amanda and Jennifer in the smoking room down the hall laugh louder and breathe deeper today. Nobody has to dress up. Nobody’s praying an abuser will stay jovial and sober until the neighbors and distant relatives leave. Nobody watches her son unwrap a Christmas present, a toy robot he’s wanted all year, and then stands frozen as her husband throws it into the fireplace.
Christmas in the shelter is also a reprieve for people like me, whose not-so-gainful paychecks are cut in the business office downstairs. No too-tight hugs from my father. No parents’ friends telling me how nice I am for helping those poor women who are too dumb to find a man who doesn’t beat them.
The apartment I share with too many roommates never feels like home, but the shelter always does. I feel like I belong at this kitchen table, like I have something in common with women who have left everything they know for a chance to be safe. I’ve never applied for food stamps. I’ve never had welts or red marks to photograph for an evidence file because my father didn’t exactly hit. It was hard to explain why I felt so violated in his presence, how desperate I was to cross my arms over my chest whenever he told me I looked cute.
My mother got angry when I told her I wasn’t coming home for Christmas.
“Mom, I work in a battered women’s shelter. It never closes,” I told her, “Christmas is hard. The women need me.”
Christmas is easy and I need them.
If you’re spending Christmas in a shelter there is no point in pretending. So you don’t. You stay in your pajamas and drink coffee and make breakfast and laugh at children who hate taking naps. Because nothing sounds more wonderful than an empty bed and enough peace to sleep in the middle of the day.