Dear Decaturish – A Christmas miracle in Avondale
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We arrived in Avondale Estates, Georgia in November of 1962 when I was eight years old. My brother and I had arrived by ourselves from Cuba and had been without our parents from March till August of that year. We were refugees and our family was sponsored by the Avondale Baptist Church who found a job for my dad. They had also provided a lovely small house owned by the church and rent free to us for 6 months. The congregation was very generous and had furnished the house and supplied clothing for all of us. They had filled the pantry and the refrigerator with all sorts of yummy food. Wow! We were in heaven, not only because of the generosity of the church, but also for a chance to start over in our new country. What a wonderful feeling to be together again in a home where we could begin to look forward to the future.
December entered into our lives and we started to think of Christmas. It would be the first in our new land. We knew that this year we would not be able to celebrate as we had in the past with our dear extended family. The custom of visiting our family on Noche Buena to share a meal and talk until we were all full of cheer and goodwill would not happen that year. We were alone, together as a family, yes, but far from our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. How would we celebrate Christmas, and would the Three Wise Men visit us in Avondale, Georgia? I had no idea.
As the month progressed, I realized that the Three Wise Men didn’t visit the children in Georgia. That seemed very strange to me at the time. Of course, I had realized already that our parents were the ones who provided the gifts. I think my brother told me. He was older and always knew everything before I did. Anyway, we learned that here in the US, there was an old man named Santa Claus who visited on the night of December 24th and left presents for everyone…and he came down a chimney wearing a red suit! Ha! How weird was that!?! Well, at least we had a chimney in our house! I remember joking with my brother about getting our father in a red Santa suit so he could slide down our chimney. Would he really do that? We kept badgering him to do it but, alas, he never did! To this day I think he would have done it if the chimney had been wide enough! That was my dad!
As you can imagine we didn’t have much that December. We had not been allowed by the Cuban government to bring any money with us or even our clothes. Well, we could bring what we had on and one change of clothing. Regardless, my parents had saved some money from the few months we had lived in Miami and now my dad had a job at Sears. My mom did tell us, though, that this Christmas would be a small one. Yes, Santa would come (not the Three Wise Men!) and of course, the four of us were together. A true miracle!
I remember having a beautiful, green tree that year. I don’t know if the church gave it to us or if a church family donated one to us. I just remember that our little house felt joyful. The lights on the tree and the few decorations cheered us on those grey and chilly days of our first December in the U.S. We missed our family so much: my Tia Yoya, my grandmother Nena, my cousins Nolita and Alex, and so many more! We missed the warmth of our Caribbean island and all of the traditions that we left behind. Still, we made new traditions that year. I have learned that what matters is being together, not the trappings of the season. Celebrations are of the heart.
December was a challenging and happy month for me. I started third grade at Avondale Elementary without speaking English. Well, I might have known a few words that allowed me to communicate a bit with the other kids and the teacher. And oh, what a lovely teacher she was! I still remember her. She will always be a bit of a hero to me. Her name was Mrs. Livingston and she treated me like I was someone special, just like she treated all of the kids in her class. She thought that me speaking Spanish was great and she was so patient with me as I learned English. As a teacher myself, I have tried to emulate her with my own students. I’ve had many great teachers in my life (including my own mother!) but the kindness and understanding she showed an eight-year-old immigrant child, stands out for me as what decency towards and acceptance of the other is all about. I seem to have digressed a bit from my Christmas story except that perhaps having Mrs. Livingston as my first teacher at Avondale was definitely a Christmas miracle, no doubt about it!
My mother had prepared us for a small Christmas, not too many gifts. I think I told her I wanted a tea set. That’s all really. My brother and I were aware of our financial situation and it didn’t matter. Didn’t we already have a home? Didn’t we already have our parents with us? Didn’t we already have food and clothing? We were lucky indeed!
On the 24th of December my mom and dad cooked all day. We could smell the delicious food throughout the house as my brother and I played or watched TV. Even now I couldn’t tell you exactly what we had to eat. Was it roast pork or turkey? One was part of our Cuban tradition and the other represented our new country. Either way it was wonderful! That evening (Noche Buena to us) we were all very merry, eating and listening to Christmas Carols. We may have watched a Christmas show on TV after dinner or we may have played some games. My dad may have told us one of his made-up stories or my mom may have recited a poem to us in Spanish. I don’t remember exactly except for the thrill and anticipation all children feel on the night before Christmas. Whatever the case, we were so excited!! Tonight, Santa would come (ha, ha) and tomorrow we would have some presents under the tree. Yay!
I woke up early that Christmas morning (as all children do!) and ran to my parents’ bedroom. I woke them up and by that time my brother was with us also. We all walked into the living room and there under the tree were the gifts! How wonderful! They were wrapped in glittery paper with bows and ribbons. They were magical offerings given unconditionally. My parents handed out the presents to us. I don’t remember what my brother got. He liked building model airplanes so it’s possible that he got that but being an eight-year-old girl, I didn’t pay much attention to him. I was more interested in my own present as I ripped it open.
Oh, my! It was a dainty, porcelain tea set with flowers painted on the tea pot and on the four teacups and plates. It was beautiful to my little girl’s eyes! Oh, wonder of wonders! I loved that tea set from the moment I saw it. I played with it that day and for so many years after with my dolls, my mom and my friends. It was a way to gather together with them and share moments of joy and unity, a ritual of sorts that bound us over a cup of pretend tea.
I’ve come to see this as rather miraculous, the sharing of tea or coffee or cocoa or even pretend tea. We can sit and talk and tell our stories, our hopes and our dreams. We become friends and begin to understand each other. It isn’t the tea per se. It is the sharing, the equal give and take. It is offering something of oneself to the other as we pour the “tea” into each other’s cups. Not only do we share but we wait on each other as a way to say, “you matter”.
Life has been like that for me. So many people have shared so much with me over the years. They have shared their lives, their love, their compassion and so much more. I think back to that first Christmas here and what I remember is the joy of sharing a miracle with my family. So many people gave a great deal so our family could have a home and a first Christmas in the U.S. Christmas is a time of giving and receiving. It is a joyful time for me because even though we could not celebrate that Christmas in 1962 as we had celebrated in Cuba, we were together as a family in a land that had welcomed us and given us a new beginning. So, during this Christmas season, I say to you, “’Let’s create miracles. Let’s all share a cup of cheer”.
– Aida de la Cruz Dean
Editor’s note: The author met her husband, Stephen Dean, at Avondale High School. They both graduated in 1972 and currently live in Oregon. She said, “We met in the 9th grade in homeroom and sat near each other since both of our last names began with a D.”