A Christmas kindness, a season of joy
Allison Bartlett says she came from a really dark, ugly, horrible, violent place. She knew little in the way of kindness, and much in the way of degrading abuse, homelessness, and scrambling for her next meal. Three years ago, she put a few belongings in a back pack, and literally, walked out of her life. It was the only way out, and that back pack was all she had.
"I don't have my daughter's first ornament," Ms. Bartlett said. "I don't have her baby pictures."
Her first act of freedom involved a heart wrenching decision. She put her daughter Erica on a plane to Florida, where she would stay with Ms. Bartlett's father for the next five years. "There was no money, and we were homeless. She just needed to be safe. I could take care of myself as long as she was OK."
She is not proud of the next two years of her life. Sometimes she stayed on the street, sometimes in a shelter, sometimes in a hospital. A friend's couch was a luxury, and a motel was a lucky extravagance. She says she did what she had to do to survive, and when she is reminded of that darkness, her eyes well with tears.
Then, she came to Martha's Vineyard. It was not a random choice. She came because it seemed isolated, and because she heard people here are nice.
Turns out, she was right.
"I didn't have much money to get very far," Ms. Bartlett said. "It felt safe. I'd always heard about how the Island works. People are nice to each other. To me that was just so foreign, I didn't grow up that way. I felt like I was really escaping far, even though it was just the Cape. I just felt safe."
When she arrived, she answered a help wanted ad, though she was fearful about her chances of getting the job, because she didn't have a resume or references to offer. On the other end of the phone was Nancy Aronie, looking for someone to care for her son Dan. He was struggling with two debilitating diseases. "I just knew I loved her right away," Ms. Aronie said. "I knew immediately."
Turns out she was right.
Santa Claus this, Santa Claus that
Allison moved into Dan's home, and mastered the job of providing care and kindness, as well as the art of treating him like real person. In addition to his care giver, she became his friend, and she also grew close with Dan's parents. "I didn't get a job, I got a family," Ms. Bartlett said. "These people saved my life."
Finally, with a stable home and a job, she felt it was time to bring her daughter back. Last April, Ms. Bartlett sent for Erica, now 14, and she came to live on the Island with her mother. She made friends, excelled in school, and helped her mother care for Dan.
A few months ago, Dan's condition worsened, and he had to leave his home for medical care on the mainland. United Cerebral Palsy was paying Ms. Bartlett's salary, but after Dan left, the organization could no longer employ her. With the Christmas season about to begin, Ms. Bartlett found herself without a job, and without much certainty about the future.
In addition to her concern about where she would live, and how she would find a new job, Ms. Bartlett was worried about Christmas. "It was really bothering me that I didn't have a tree for Erica." Ms. Bartlett said. "She was so good, she didn't care, she said 'we're together and that's all that matters.' All week long I was joking around with her, I was 'Santa Claus' this and 'Santa Claus' that. If you don't believe in Santa, miracles won't happen."
Turns out she was right.
In early December, Ms. Bartlett went to the Martha's Vineyard Community Services Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven. She thought, if she could find everything for less than $30, she could make a tree happen, even if it meant eating pasta all week.
"I go in and the first thing I see is this beautiful artificial tree in the box for $10," Ms. Bartlett said. "I got all excited. The ornaments were 25 cents. I was so excited, I was so happy. It's going to be Christmas. Maybe we won't have anything underneath it, but we're going to have a tree."
Ms. Bartlett was so enthusiastic, that other shoppers in the store couldn't help but notice her joy. Finally, she gathered the tree and the ornaments, and approached the counter, where Dolly Campbell was on the register.
"I was hoping maybe we could barter a little bit, round it off," Ms. Bartlett said. She didn't know it, but Ms. Campbell was one of those who heard Ms. Bartlett as she spread her own version of holiday cheer through the shop. She was ready to give Ms. Bartlett a substantial discount, in the spirit of the season. Except, she didn't get a chance. As Ms. Bartlett approached the register, a shopper quietly motioned Ms. Campbell to the other side of the counter, slipped her some money, and told her that she wanted to buy the tree and ornaments as a gift. Then, wishing to be anonymous, she left the store.
When Ms. Campbell returned to the register, she began to ring up Ms. Bartlett's purchases, not revealing the act of Christmas kindness until Ms. Bartlett was ready to pay.
"She said 'the woman who just left said Merry Christmas, and paid for everything,'" Ms. Bartlett said. "I started crying - everybody in the store started crying. I broke down, I just couldn't compose myself."
"There was such a flood of tears," Ms. Campbell said. "It was such a sweet scene, it just made you weep."
"Allison is magic," Ms. Aronie said. "It's only right she should receive magic."
Ms. Bartlett went home, and teased her daughter a bit. "I told you to believe in Santa Claus," she said.
Turns out, she was right.
This week, Ms. Bartlett hopped a ferry, a bus, and a train to travel to the hospital where Dan is receiving medical care. She hauled Dan's cat all the way, so he cold see his pet. "They needed to see each other," she said. While there, everyone involved met with doctors to discuss Dan's future care. There was good news. "They are going to release him, he can come home so I can take care of him," Ms. Bartlett said. "It's a huge step." That means Ms. Bartlett will probably once again receive a salary from United Cerebral Palsy. But she hasn't checked with the organization yet to see if the arrangement will resume. That is not what is on her mind right now. "It's more important that Dan gets home," she said.
It wasn't so long ago that she was in a hospital, with little hope for the future. She intends to make Dan's time as comfortable and interesting as possible, and she knows she can make life at home more bearable than the antiseptic, mechanical atmosphere of the hospital.
No doubt, she's right.
A few short years ago, during the ugly, violent times, Ms. Bartlett could not imagine receiving kindness from strangers. Sometimes, during the darkest of the dark times, she wanted to die. "I hated myself," Ms. Bartlett said. "I accepted a lot of blame, which I know now was not my fault."
Even though she has experienced life-changing acts of kindness since arriving on the Island, Ms. Bartlett is not about to take kindness for granted.
"Dan is the reason I don't want to die any more, the reason I have my daughter back," Ms. Bartlett said. "It's such a gift. I'm a human being, I'm respectable. Because of what I've done for Dan, people like me. It's a weird feeling. It's really nice to be a real person. You do have to believe in Santa. As long as you don't give up and you keep going, there are good people out there."
Turns out she's right.