Autumn's cold winds have finally blown away most of the leaves sprouted seasons ago. They remain as nature's memories of spring. Some leaves remain on the ground but most have blown off into hidden areas of our landscape where they will fertilize the upcoming season of renewal.
We are entering what some refer to as the 'dark ages' here in the northeast. It will be months before we enjoy the rejuvenation of a new season. This year, of all years, is one where we should be concerned about the members of our communities.
As fall turns to winter this year, I am reminded of a significant adversity in my life. Fourteen years ago my family experienced what so many families are going through now, losing a house to foreclosure. In many cases, but not necessarily all, it represents more than losing a home: it is the foreclosing of a dream.
A dream can have more impact than reality in our perceptions of the world, in that, we remember our dreams and can appreciate the passion with which we pursued them. At some point, we hope they become reality. In this way, former dreams can become more memorable - they represent aspirations that we were most passionate about in life.
When we think of dreams, the one that binds us together is not clearly coherent or visual, but of a singular concept - the American dream.
The concept of the American dream is not directly represented in our homes, nor does it necessarily have anything to do with economic prosperity; rather, it is comprised in the prosperity of our families.
My family's journey really began in 1986 when my parents set out on a dream of home ownership in a suburb of Orlando, Florida. My mother had raised me as a single parent for several years before marrying the man who would be my father growing up. We lived in a small apartment while my parents saved enough for a down payment on a home. Two years later my parents purchased a house big enough for the family they planned to grow over time.
Not until much later in life did I realize the dream they set out upon had probably been doomed from the start - they signed a 'balloon note' to finance the house. To an eight year-old, that means nothing.
Over the years, though, I started to notice that my family was less financially fit for the neighborhood. Seasonally, my dad would put his boat on auction in the front yard, as if it could be sold if he came up short on the monthly bills. His job as a construction supervisor suffered many ups and downs. Along the way, my mom and dad added my two sisters. And yet, I cannot remember a single Christmas when Santa failed to come through with the presents we had asked for.
I wouldn't have known better, but I felt like we had the American dream.
That dream came crashing down dramatically over the course of a year, though, after a decade of roughing it out. My parents were never able to refinance the balloon note and our family's economic situation weighed on their relationship. My parents, who could barely afford to live under one roof, separated during my senior year of high school and set on a course for divorce. In the middle of all this was a dream, a house and three kids.
My mother recalls a grieving period during the fall season of 1995 just as the leaves took on their autumn hues.
The first stage was denial. You try to hold onto the home, even if it is financially impossible. We had garage sales to sell non-essential items for a few bucks here and there. It provided temporary hope, but no real solution - the money barely lasted a week.
There is also a certain amount of bargaining that occurred as we realized our home was lost. At one point, we had another family live with us - another newly single mother and her children. They were able to pay part of the mortgage. It was a balance that did not last long - too many people living under one roof.
My mother tried to look for other places to live all while balancing her job. She did not want to uproot me during my senior year, especially since I was hoping for a Congressional nomination in my current district to attend West Point. There were not many places that would take a dog and be affordable enough for us to move into. The search became an impossible task.
As fall turned to winter and the holidays approached, we found ourselves strapped for cash. Without cash for a babysitter, my mother eventually lost her job - at that point, all real hope was lost.
I worked on weekends at a local fast food restaurant as a cashier. The sixteen or so hours at minimum wage afforded me just enough for gas money and insurance on my jalopy of a car - an '86 Chevy Chevette. At home, we ate cheaply - lots of cereal and canned goods.
In those rough times, all you could think about was the future. You looked for a light at the end of the tunnel. That light of hope is kept alive through dreams of a better tomorrow. Without them, it is hard to face the challenges of making it day to day.
Two dreams kept me going during that time. First, I hoped to win a state championship in the pole vault. Second, I sought an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Whether those dreams were realized or denied would not be determined until months later. December was the dark period - a time when there was little to look forward to other than the holidays. However, even the holidays seemed more of a chore than an opportunity for family time and spiritual renewal.
After hope is lost, all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep chopping wood to keep the fire going. Everyone copes differently. My mother prayed for a path ahead, as she struggled without a broader family support network while I simply held onto my dreams. Today, I admit my youthful selfishness - I failed to recognize that my mother was losing her dream.
Christmas was a central event every year in my family, as it is for many Americans. The yearly spiritual celebration marked with church gatherings, presents and family time always offered a marker in our family. My memory fades when I think about that time during the holiday season of 1995. Those memories have been washed away. There is not much I have wanted to remember. Every year until that year, Christmas had somehow stood out as a bright day though it has one of the shortest daylight hours of the year.
Unfortunately, my family was not able to get into the Christmas spirit that year; at least not until the last minute.
On Christmas Eve, at about 8:00 P.M., my mother gathered me and my sisters into her car to try and do some last minute shopping with the little money she had. There were still no presents under the tree at that point. I could sense her desperation - it was heartbreaking, not so much for my own experience, but for my younger sisters. In retrospect, I feel more sympathy for my mother who was fighting so hard to keep her dream alive.
As we drove around to find all the stores closed, the acceptance began to settle in - the dream was over. My mother cried that night - to varying degrees we all did.
Unfortunately, Santa did not come to visit my family that year. I do not recall any special moments, only the car ride the night before and what I wrote in my journal shortly after that time. One might say that presents don't make Christmas special and that is true. However, the lack of presents reminded us that we had nothing to give to one another. The magic of Christmas was gone in my mind - the basic expectation that on just one day of the year that the stars would align and miracles would happen.
My mother and I stuck it out in that house until March - we remained even after the electricity and the water were shut off. It did not end well, but we would survive.
The whole experience is a winter season in my life - a dark period that would eventually be followed with renewal. Admittedly, the foreclosure left the dream of a strong family in disrepair. It would be several years before my sisters and I would share anything close to a normal Christmas.
The magic of Christmas has been renewed in my own family's experience. My wife and I have three children now and I've come to fully understand the Christmas spirit - it springs from family, friends and communities that help one another in good and challenging times. My mother has helped to rebuild our family with my dad, even though they remain divorced. This year, my parents and sisters will celebrate in North Carolina. The home that was foreclosed fourteen years ago, until only very recently, was abandoned.
The spring season always emerges and it often comes marked with new family members - new generations for whom we set hopes for and who begin to take on dreams of their own. Helping a new generation achieve their dreams begins with strong families bound together through special experiences. That is why holidays are so vitally important.
I often wonder how many families are experiencing loss of hope and their dreams. More importantly, I think about how many families could be saved with just a little bit of help. Few people in need have a voice. The news focuses more on statistics than delving into individual stories - there are simply too many.
This holiday season we can help preserve the American dream for many families by giving to various charities. Any amount helps. The Marine Corps' "Toys for Tots" program is one that we should 'surge'. For those looking to give to more comprehensive programs that are focused in this area year-round I recommend the Association to Benefit Children. There are plenty of other charities, so I encourage awareness and outreach on this issue.
Giving to charity during prosperous times is relatively easy, but it is a true test of character to give during troubled times. The American dream is destined to experience a season of renewal following a long winter. In years ahead when we reflect on this holiday season, may it be remembered as a time that our country came together and took action towards the preservation of that dream.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan McDermott.