The National Catholic Review
Karen Sue Smith
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The social worker and I belonged to the same parish, but we were merely acquaintances. So I was surprised when she called to ask whether anyone at our farm might be willing to take in a mother who had given birth during the night. There were perhaps 50 committed adults living at Koinonia Partners Inc. then. Koinonia is an ecumenical Christian community in south Georgia, formed in 1942 and still going. We operated a pecan plant and a 1,400 acre farm.

The hospital, the social worker said, was releasing a mother and her newborn in a matter of hours and they had nowhere to go. Because this woman was a vagrant without established residency in the county, the social worker could not tap the welfare system to obtain the housing, food stamps and other assistance she and the baby would need. Would we keep her gratis for just 30 days until she could establish residency?

While I no longer remember my deliberations at the time, in the end I said yes, I would take her in. It didnt seem like much to ask. At that time I lived in a two-bedroom trailer at the edge of a large field near the Koinonia office, pecan plant, woodshed and community dining hall. She wouldnt need a car to get around.

Driving the 10 miles to the hospital, I pictured this mother as a young black woman, like some of the students I tutored for the G.E.D. or like many parents with whose children I worked in summer educational programs and Vacation Bible School. Sumter County had a large black population; and Koinonia, one of its largest employers, hired blacks and lived alongside them. On farm property we had established a sweat-equity housing program for low-income families, all of whom initially, it turned out, were blacks. But when I walked into the hospital room, the woman I saw looked like she could have been my sister: blonde, of average height and not at all slim (for the record, my own sister is actually a slim redhead). What I noted most, though, was that she was palpably disappointed to see me. I would later learn from Linda (not her real name) that it was because I was a single female just a few years older than she (we were both in our 20s). She would have preferred to see a couple, middle-aged or older, who might parent her and be grandparents to her new daughter.

I told the social worker that I (and the farm) would provide Linda room and board until the new year, since I couldnt conceive of turning someone away in December, just before Christmas.

Getting to Know Her

Over the next seven weeks or so, I learned much from Linda about what it is like to be one of 18 children, raised in a group home, spending your life longing to be adopted. Every Christmas some of the children in the institution were invited to a lush party at the home of a wealthy family. It was something of an audition, for the lucky children were found by their future parents there.

Now Linda was a mother, feigning ignorance about her pregnancy, as though nine months of body changes could sneak up on a woman, still hoping to be adopted herself, all the while fearing that someone might try to adopt her own child out from under her. It didnt help that one family at Koinonia had adopted a baby girl, one of a number of foster children. Or that another family was caring temporarily for a two-year-old whose mother was in prison; that mother feared the wardens wife would try to adopt her child.

It did not surprise me to find that Linda responded to her baby as she had seen others do. She enjoyed holding her, gazing upon her and talking to her; these were the Madonna moments, and they were precious. When Cindy (not her real name) would cry, Linda would be tender at first, but she had never learned patience. I had no experience as a mother, though I had mothered my sister a bit and was a sought-after baby sitter. In the middle of the night, I would listen as Linda threatened to throw Cindy out the window if she didnt shut up. I rehearsed ways of calming them both without seeming to intrude or convey that I felt the necessity to rescue the child. Despite my fears, nothing violent ever took place.

Seasonal Expectations

In my role as a self-appointed teacher, temporary aunt or guardian, I was impassioned about teaching Linda all I could in the few weeks we had together. And because I was a new Catholic, newly aware of Advent and the liturgical year, I wanted to create a meaningful, joyful experience. Hadnt I been graced with a young mother and a newborn babe in my own house at this auspicious time of year? I couldnt wait to put up an Advent calendar, explain to Linda what it was and how to open the doors. She wasnt Catholic, but had been raised a Baptist, just as I had been. It must have been obvious that I myself was more enthusiastic than she about all this, but her interest grew.

Every evening when we sat down to supper, we would say grace or read some Advent prayer and open a door on the calendar. I was trying to run a Catholic family holiday here.

I asked Linda if she would like to cook one night a weeksomething I did when I lived with a family on the farmbut she had never learned how. All the children had been kept out of the kitchen at the group home. At the farm I had learned to make chicken a hundred different ways, to bake bread and homemade granola, and I could teach her these skills if she wanted to learn. She didnt. So we started with her favorite easy-to-prepare foods: hot dogs and boxed macaroni and cheese, for instancepretty wretched fare for a farm in wintertime. Still, it was progress and would help her later.

I may need to explain here that Koinonia was a Christian experiment. We partners tried to practice what we called compassionate living, a simple, non-materialistic lifestyle directed outward. We lived in farm houses, received a food allowance ($7.50 a week in the late 1970s) and a small monthly stipend we worked out with the farm leader. Other than that, we shared vehicles, the noon meal and worship, and we worked for no wages at all. We tried to be frugal and resourceful; we were countercultural in many respects, making our own music and recreation; most households didnt own a television.

Listening to Lindas stories of growing up was like being hooked on a soap opera. She had left the group home without a high school diploma or any job skills. As a result, she had trouble finding and keeping jobs. That left her depending on anyone she could find, typically some fellow she met in a bar. She told stories welldesperation with a degree of swagger. In the telling, she used an expression I shall never forget: he thowed me away. In her life story, many people had thrown her out, like garbage.

Was she interested, I asked like some Pollyanna, in cutting down a Christmas tree and decorating the trailer for Christmas? My hope was to spend evenings with Linda making decorations and little gifts for families at the farma Christmas she would remember. It also might help her learn to think about someone else for a change, a habit she had never had an opportunity to cultivate.

During the day I ran a small co-op grocery store, with a secondhand store adjacent to it. Whenever I saw anything there I thought Linda or the baby might like or use, I would buy it and squirrel it away for them for Christmas. One item was a pair of leather gloves with fur cuffs, which I loved and was sure Linda would too. The community was gathering a shower of practical gifts for the babymany of them brand newand for Lindas big move into town.

When we started to make paper ornaments, I realized that Linda could not cut with scissors; it was something she had never done. Yet Linda was savvy, smart and articulate in her way. While I was at work, she loved visiting other partners.

Gone Missing

One evening, in torrential rain, Linda and the baby went missing. Another partner volunteered his truck for the search; we found them in a bar in the next county over, unharmed. Linda was unapologetic. She said she had hitchhiked there. Perhaps she was homesick for her friends, but she had not told anyone where she was going, how, or when she planned to return. I could never decide whether she had simply acted as she always had, with no one to worry about her or to track her down, or had done it on purpose, even if sub-consciously, to see if we would look for hera measure of real care. For several weeks, I went through the kind of things many a foster parent goes through with a teenager (though Linda happened to be 22 and a mother).

One Saturday morning, we took a walk to find a little Christmas tree to cut down. It was my idea of a perfect Christmas. I liked choosing it, axing it, setting it up and decorating it with our sad little cut-outs (all the ones too straggly to give away). Then I set out presents with Linda and Cindy written on them. This piqued her curiosity. I was pleased.

Christmas was almost here. I had planned and stocked food for our dinner. The social worker had called to say that Linda could move into an apartment near the Catholic church in town after New Year. Everything was working out well. The baby was calmer, and small tensions seemed to have eased.

Very early on Christmas morning, I heard car doors slamming and a knock at the trailer door. My sisters! Linda exclaimed and asked me, Can I take my presents? Half-awake, I heard myself say, Yes, of course, as I scrambled to put on a robe. But before I got there, Linda had whisked them into a bag, was out the door with Cindy, and the car was backing out, barely in view. I could scarcely take it in. Where had her sisters been? Had all this been arranged? I felt so bereft, startled and alone that I cried like a spoiled child.

Then it dawned on me that I had never made any real gifts of my own to give friends at the farm. Nor did I know what other families were doing, so caught up had I been in our celebration.

I decided to make a linoleum print and carved out an image of a strong-armed Mary in an apron and toque, kneading bread. Make us the bread, Mary, we need to be fed it said, a line from a song called The Bakerwoman. Then I printed enough for everyone, hung them to dry and went that evening to present my gift to each family, one by one.

Before New Year, Linda came back for a couple of days, but we kept some emotional distance. The next week I and a few other partners moved Linda into her new apartmentnice, clean and downtown. For a while she would come to Mass and we would chat afterward and make a fuss over the baby.

The story does not come to an inspiring end. I would have wished for something like this: a young single mother, embraced by Koinonia and the local Catholic Church, reforms her life and rears a happy child. What happened is that I left the farm that summer for theology studies at Notre Dame, then left it for good in September. I lost touch with Linda and Cindy. Later, I was saddened to hear that she was charged with a crime and lost custody of her child, at least temporarily. I dont know what happened after that. While I did more than I was asked, it was a lot less than those two needed, and I feel some responsibility for letting go so easily. The story has no pretty ribbon tying it up.

That Christmas I learned that Lindas real family was her sisters, that, not surprisingly, she preferred to be with them for the holiday, even though she had never mentioned their whereabouts to either the social worker or me. Need brutalizes a person, and desperation can make one crafty and self-protective. Living under someone elses roof doesnt change that in a few weeks.

In retrospect I have learned that the Christmas card image of Jesus birtha family scene filled with light, joy, angelic music and the adoration of shepherds and wise mencan be misleading. It does not describe adequately the world into which Jesus was born. God entered a dark, broken world, rife with squalor, violence and suffering, a world that needs a savior. What generates Christmas light and joy is Gods presence in that world.

So it was with us that Advent. Gods Spirit was there with us, blessing the house. Every Advent for 30 years, I have thought of Linda and her tiny daughter, heard that baby cry and her mother answering down the hall. And I am grateful that God brought us together then and is with us still.

Karen Sue Smith is the editorial director of America.

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