News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

December 16, 2012

MARK BENNETT: For some people in the Wabash Valley, happy holidays require a little help

Picture yourself as a kid, not yet 5 years old, growing up in a small house in Terre Haute.

You’re not unusual. About 3,373 youngsters that age live in this city. That’s what the Census Bureau and its American Community Survey says. The faces you know, though, are Mom, your kid brother, the kids in the apartment next to yours, the daycare ladies and the kids there, and Grandma and Grandpa. You remember Daddy’s face. He brought you a Happy Meal and a toy truck on your birthday last summer. Your mom says you’ll see him more soon.

That’s not unusual. About 2,575 families have a single mom or single dad raising their kids at home, alone. That’s what the Census people say.

Your favorite time of the day is breakfast, when your mom lets you pour the Toasted Oats cereal, and then the milk. You’re brother is too little to do that; he’ll spill everything, she says. Some mornings, she eats with you and your brother.

Sometimes she doesn’t, and says she’s on a diet. When the clock numbers say 7:45, your mom zips up your Jimmie Johnson jacket — that’s your daddy’s favorite NASCAR driver — and walks you and your brother down the sidewalks to the daycare. Then she walks to work at the drive-thru restaurant.

That’s not unusual. About 3,782 people walk to work in Terre Haute, and about 2,883 have those kinds of jobs. That’s what the Census people say.

After Grandma picks up you and your brother, she waits in the drive-thru parking lot till your mom gets done working and drives you all home. Sometimes you leave your Jimmie Johnson jacket on, especially when your mom can’t push the button on the wall to make the house warmer, because “we can’t afford it this week.” But she starts the heater on the floor that glows (and smells a little funny), and that helps.

That’s not unusual. About 275 homes in the city heat with kerosene. The Census people figured that out.

Sometimes, your mom laughs when you or your brother talk about Christmas, and she tells the story about Grandma finding a bird’s nest in the Christmas tree after Grandpa brought it home from the tree farm and put it up in their house. Your tree doesn’t need water, like that one did. It’s pretty, though. It has ornaments with pictures of your mom when she was little, and some with you and your brother. One has her and your daddy on it. Sometimes, she cries about Christmas because “things are really tight,” though you don’t know what that means. She wants to get “a GED” and then go to college and be an accountant, because she loved her math classes in high school.

That’s not unusual. About 5,917 adults in Terre Haute don’t have a high school degree. Census people know that.

When Christmas finally gets really close — “Just a few days to go,” your mom says — she smiles a lot more. People from a church and some “club” helped “make sure we could have a good Christmas,” you hear her tell her friend on the phone.

A few days later, on the morning of Christmas Eve, three people carrying a big box of groceries ring the doorbell and hand your mom the food — ham, stuffing, pumpkin pies, bread, milk, potatoes, butter, rolls, noodles, macaroni and cheese, cans of vegetables and sweet potatoes, and even some Little Debbie snack cakes. They brought fun books, too, like one your mom remembers by a “Doctor Soos.” The people who carry the basket are all smiling, even though it’s still dark outside. They say, “Merry Christmas,” walk to their pickup truck and drive off.

Now your mom is doing both — smiling and crying. That’s not good, she says, because her “mascara runs” and she looks funny, and has to be at work in 30 minutes. She makes a crazy scary face, and you and your brother laugh. She puts the groceries in the fridge — it looks so full — and wipes her face with a tissue. Then she zips up your Jimmie Johnson jacket, bundles up your little brother, and all three of you walk down the steps to the sidewalk.

“Next Christmas will be better,” she says.

You don’t understand. You’re happy right now. Tomorrow is Christmas.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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