Guest column: Remembering the joy of Christmas, even when times were hard

Penny Fletcher
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Penny Fletcher stands with her sons, Taylor, left, and Brian.
Courtesy photo

Every Christmas, I am reminded how gifts and kindness are blessings that need to be remembered.

In 1994, I was a new single mom with two small boys and a mountain of debt. My oldest son, Bryan Fletcher, was still undergoing treatment for leukemia, and my youngest son, Taylor, was 4 years old. I worked full time at a medical clinic, but I never made enough money to support all three of us and pay off a mountain of medical bills. I was 30 days late on the mortgage, utilities, day care and life. Fortunately, I had a roof over my head and support from friends and family.

That winter was particularly hard. I set my alarm every morning at 5 a.m. to plow our driveway. Once I finished, I quickly showered, fed the boys and made sure they were properly dressed for the weather. All my early morning work was wasted, however, when I heard and saw the results of the city snowplows that created a berm outside our garage three feet high. I scrambled to get the boys in the car while I went back to shovel just enough snow to back my car out.

Most nights I fretted that I did not have enough money to buy Christmas gifts for the boys. I had an excellent job working at Steamboat Medical Group, where the doctors and the managers understood my limitations and encouraged me to stay strong. But the financial demands were too much.

The phone company disconnected our phone, the mortgage company sent letters weekly, and the medical expenses from Children’s Hospital kept adding up. I had so many letters from my health insurer that I used the paper as fire starter in our wood-burning stove. I didn’t want my family to know what a difficult time I was having, so I tried to cover it up. I didn’t want to ask for help from anyone because it would be an admission of failure. I could not let my boys down.

Two weeks before Christmas, the reality of having no money put me in a very sad state, but Santa’s elves saved me. I walked into work at Steamboat Medical Group, and Dr. Dudley smiled ear to ear; Dr. Williams’s kind eye greeted me, and the nurses and staff looked at me with happiness. I felt like the room was full of little elves with a secret. I took off my coat, and on the counter in the x-ray room was a Christmas card with my name on it, and in it was $300 with Santa’s signature. I went into a small room, closed the door, and tears flowed down my cheeks.

When I walked out, the work area was business as usual, patients, doctors and nurses at their daily tasks. I wanted to ask who had organized this incredible gift, but not a soul looked at me. Generosity continued when, on the following day, I received a call from Social Services and they gave me two boxes, one with Taylor’s and the other with Bryan’s name.

Each box contained new pants, coats, boots and homemade cookies. On the same day, an envelope was then delivered to our home with a Safeway gift certificate, and then without me paying, the telephone company reconnected our line and our driveway was plowed. I am so grateful that when I needed it most, my neighbors checked on me, my friends supported me, but most of all, my boys and I felt loved by this Steamboat community.

Many of those elves who helped us are still helping others today in our community. I have watched how we rally together when times are tough, when members of families are ill or injured, or when a loved one dies. What this community does for others is incredible. Steamboat is full of elves who like to help.

These gifts might be a hug or a listening ear, or it might be a driveway that needs plowing or a ride to a medical appointment, and they’re incredibly special during the holidays.

When I look back at that time in my life, I am very humbled. Our lives could have gone in another direction at any point. The gifts I received in 1994 gave me the confidence to believe in myself. I was able to move past that horrible time in my life and have the confidence to raise my boys with the knowledge that Steamboat has a safety net for people in need. I was able to teach my sons about generosity, courage and determination. I will always hold that Christmas in my heart, and to all those elves that cared about me, thank you and please know I strive every day to pay it forward. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

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