As holidays get started, a desperate call sets the tone

Kristine Holmgren
Kristine Holmgren is a writer and a retired Presbyterian pastor who lives in the North Como neighborhood of St. Paul.
Photo Courtesy of Kristine Holmgren

By Kristine M. Holmgren

The phone call came late at night, after the timer switched off the holiday lights. I jumped. No one calls me after midnight unless someone has died.

The familiar voice was an old friend, sounding ragged and desperate. She began with an apology -- she knew it was too late to call; she had tried to wait, but couldn't. I was, she said, her last hope. I reached for the wooly afghan thrown across the couch, put down my needles and listened.

I knew she had been out of work a long time. But I confess -- I'd lost track. Her life is not mine, and these are tough times.

Like everyone else, I am focused on my own struggles -- finding the funds to keep up with the creeping mortgage payment, sliding ever higher with rising taxes and insurance costs. I'm worried about the upswing on the utilities, the rising cost of water and telephone.

I admit I had forgotten her. I neglected to check in, to ask how she was doing.

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And so she filled me in on the cold, hard specifics that have become her nightmare. Brilliant, educated -- her Ph.D. means nothing in the job hunt that has filled these past two years. She's old, she reminded me. Too old.

My chest tightened as I considered the purpose behind her call. She wanted something from me, and I had nothing to offer. My life is stretched to the limit. My scrawny cash flow doesn't meet the basics of this old barn and my tidy little life.

But I could hear, even over the phone, the pain, desperation and humiliation behind her call. She'd been evicted from her home. She didn't need much -- a place to stay until the dust settles. She knows things will improve after the holidays. She can't afford rent, but she's great with housekeeping, laundry.

I asked about her son; the Minnetonka lawyer with the big house and the terrific wife.

The wife left him six months after the firm laid him off. The formerly grand house is in foreclosure.

She sensed my hesitation. She knew my reluctance. And in the face of my quiet resistance to offer her my home and my help, she wept.

Something loosened in my chest and I cried with her. This house, I said, is a blessing to both of us. I asked if she didn't mind sleeping on my couch, shoveling snow, helping with the holiday upkeep.

So she's moving in. And I wonder: If this perfect storm of calamity can happen to a woman like my friend, with degrees, credentials, training, experience and connections -- how much worse are the circumstances of others?

After hanging up I turned out the hall light and walked toward my tiny bedroom.

The mattress is decades old; the springs creak. I crawled under my covers with a grounded sense of thanksgiving and humility.

Don't tell me happy days are here again. I know what I know. These are hard, hard times. Minnesota workers are in trouble. We need jobs. We need help.

Kristine Holmgren is a writer and a retired Presbyterian pastor who lives in the North Como neighborhood of St. Paul.