A trailer park. I am sixteen. I am a dummy. Lots of sixteen-year-old boys are. Today, there are three dummies here to help Johnnie Miller’s mother decorate her trailer for Christmas.
His mother goes all out for Christmas even though his house is—how should I put this?—a dump. It’s an ugly, brown, sixty-foot mobile home, with a rusted roof, and a hot water heater in the backyard.
She has lights, giant lawn figurines, a plastic Santa with reindeer. She owns a lifetime’s worth of Christmas junk, and her collection only seems to grow each year. Johnnie has been putting up these decorations each December since he was old enough to sprout armpit hair. This year he’s recruited help.
We boys climb on ladders. We deck the halls and decorate every square inch of the ugly house. The windows, trim, gutters, eves, porch posts, even the steps.
And his mother doesn’t use modern Christmas lights. These are the kind from 1951, with thick bulbs and aluminum wiring you often hear about on the evening news. (“And in local news tonight, a sixteen-year-old boy electrocuted from faulty Christmas lights, police used fingerprints to identify the melted body. Back to you, Lisa.”)
Johnnie and I and two other boys are working from noon until night. And after several hours of work, it occurs to one of us: “Hey! Why doesn’t your mom just leave the decorations up year round?”
Johnnie’s mother overhears this. She is standing on the lawn, smoking a cigarette.
“It ruins the excitement,” she says. “There’s nothing special about decorations if you leave them up.”
She is older than other mothers. She has white hair, she looks like she’s lived a hard life. Her voice is like a tuba, and she always wears embroidered sweatshirts.
We work on the house until dark. We are ready to go home because we think we’re finished. But we discover that we aren’t even close to being finished. Because now it’s time to decorate the inside of the trailer.
“The inside?” we all say in unison.
(Cue “Jaws Theme Song.”)
His mother brings dozens of cardboard boxes from storage. And just when you think this woman couldn’t possibly have any more Christmas-themed junk, you realize you haven’t even scratched the tip of the holiday-crap iceberg.
She has boxes of porcelain figurines, Mr. and Mrs. Claus saltshakers, advent calenders out the wazoo, throw rugs, disco balls, inflatable elves, flame throwers, etc. We apply garland to every surface, we decorate her mantle into the World’s Busiest Nativity Scene.
At the end of the day, the house is so gussied up that you could charge admission to see it.
Johnnie’s mother turns off the living room lamp and we see nothing but flashing lights, twinkling tinsel, and little elf dolls that stare at you with creepy Children-of-the-Corn eyes.
That night, Johnnie’s mother feeds us. And we all end up sleeping over. We do what all sixteen-year-old boys do when they have sleepovers. We watch old movies.
Before Johnnie’s mother goes to bed, she thanks us for our help, and tells us she doesn’t know what she’d do without us.
We blush. We mumble a “You’re welcome” that sounds about as sincere as a kazoo playing the national anthem because we are sixteen, and, like I said, we are dummies.
That night, we all decide to go for a walk. Once we are outside, Johnnie fumbles a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He asks if I want one. I refuse because I can’t smoke, it breaks out my tongue. I never could get past half a cigarette without feeling like I licked a porcupine.
The trailer park has one big paved main road that makes a loop. We meander along the, acting like grown men talking about meaningless things.
Johnnie starts talking about how much he loves his mother. He talks about what a saint she is. Which is a little unusual for kids our age. Most boys complain about their mothers. But not him.
“She adopted me,” he finally admits. “She ain’t even my real mom.”
We all sort of look at our shoes. Because what do you say after that?
“She’s not your real mom?” says one.
“Nope,” Johnnie goes on. “She found me, I was a baby, screaming in an empty apartment, nobody knew where my parents disappeared to, they said I was alone for days. But I don’t remember it. She took me home.”
It is all he says about the matter. And neither of us have the guts to ask him anything else about it. Because when a sixteen-year-old boy shares something deeply personal, you just let him alone. Then, after the appropriate amount of time passes, you clear mucus from your throat, spit, and say something about a professional sports franchise.
Which is what I do. The other boys thank me for this because it breaks the tension.
We finish the loop around the trailer park and we finally get close to Johnnie’s house. We stop walking. Because we are overcome with admiration.
In the center of a sea of ugly mobile homes is one little trailer in the distance. Sixty feet long, brown, rusty roof, a water heater in the backyard. But you can’t see those things in the darkness. All we see is a little house, lit up multicolored in the night, brighter than anything around for miles, and lovely.
We slap each other’s backs like a bunch of dummies.
“Hey, the house looks really good,” says one boy.
“Yeah,” says another.
“It really does.”
“You know, you’re wrong, Johnnie,” another boy adds. “She is your real mom.”
Marilyn Ward Vance - December 4, 2019 9:26 am
I think I must need to dust this house…something is making my eyes tear up….gotta be dust! Great post, Sean.
Glenda - December 4, 2019 10:00 am
This one gave me goosebumps!
Camille - December 4, 2019 10:08 am
Just when I think your stories cannot get any better, something like this shows up! Thank you, Sean, for making another day for me.
Kelly Wynne - December 4, 2019 10:27 am
Talk about tugging your heartstrings😢💕 Sean , you sure have Gift, and we have the pleasure of opening this gift each day! Thank you!
Steven Paul Bailey - December 4, 2019 10:46 am
Karen - December 4, 2019 10:48 am
This is a heartbreaker. Thank you, Sean.
Mimi - December 4, 2019 11:29 am
It’s strange how things show up when you need them. I can’t sleep and started reading and this was in my inbox. It’s beautiful. And it’s beautiful because I have experienced the love of a mother who was not biological. My mother passed away in a car accident when I was 14. My Dad remarried and I got my bonus Mom. Hilda was a union coordinator for many years, and tough as nails. She traveled extensively in her career as well as my Dad, but she was always present at births, graduations, when I got my driver’s license. She taught me to write thank you notes and set a beautiful holiday table and cook the best pecan Christmas cookies. She was steadfast and moral and was the example that true, sweet love doesn’t have to be blood related. Love is love. She recently passed away of a sudden stroke, but two days before she and Dad were dancing the night away at a wedding. She lived 100% and those bright lights leave a darkness when gone, which is why I can’t sleep and I am reading emails at 4 AM. Hilda loved Sean and went to several of his events, getting pictures each time. Sean’s books are proudly displayed on her piano right now. We often discussed these stories in this column because she was a true southern lady and those ladies recognize good souls and good writing. Sean’s stories were about her hometown of Andalusia, Alabama at times and that always brought a smile. Thanks for this. When God sends the helpers to you (maybe it’s a relentlessly loyal and devoted second Mom or an accidentally but wonderfully effective columnist) it’s a true blessing. Happy Heavenly travels, Hilda and thanks for everything. Keep sharing, Sean. Some of us need your light.
Roger Varland - December 4, 2019 11:50 am
This one struck a good chord. We adopted two boys as babies who are now 17 & 18. Sixteen has passed, but we still have enough teenage stupid for several families. Hoping our boys will always know how much we love them. Blessings on your days.
Lita - December 4, 2019 12:18 pm
Wonderful. Thank you.
Debbie Prewitt - December 4, 2019 1:34 pm
Awesome!!! First cry of the day. Love it. Thanks
Connie Havard Ryland - December 4, 2019 2:04 pm
Dang it. My eyes are leaking again. Beautiful story. Love and hugs.
Jayne - December 4, 2019 2:06 pm
I still enjoy riding around and looking at lights. The lights are so uplifting for me..once again your story has taken me back to the past..
Richda McNutt - December 4, 2019 2:08 pm
I try to read your columns to my husband, and can’t finish because I’m too choked up – – I’m going to start buying stock in Kleenex.
Martha Young - December 4, 2019 3:11 pm
Russell - December 4, 2019 3:20 pm
Wonderful and moving. Thank you
Linda Moon - December 4, 2019 4:39 pm
Grown men are prone to talk about meaningless things. Meaningful topics might lead to soul-searching. I searched mine as I read this. Johnnie, at 16, knew better than to waste time with this kind of talk. “She took me home”….some of the most beautiful words I’ve read from you, Sean. Thank you for sharing meaning in your stories that are funny and/or soul-searching every day!!
Ann - December 4, 2019 4:53 pm
Wow, Sean! You made me cry, again! Merry Christmas!
Janice D Silverhill - December 4, 2019 5:15 pm
This one spoke to my heart ❤️ Your words 😢
Janie F. - December 4, 2019 5:20 pm
Beautiful story Sean! I am just like the mom in this story. At one time all three bedrooms & both bathrooms plus the laundry room off the kitchen were decorated for Christmas. But after injuring my leg 9 months ago I decided at 64 it was just too much work. So this year only the living room, dining room & kitchen are decorated. But it makes our humble old double wide mobile home look so pretty and I love it.
Thank’s for this story, it really touched my heart!
Edna Barron - December 4, 2019 5:53 pm
A beautiful story. Johnnie was a lucky boy to have such a wonderful Mom. My Daddy wasn’t my biological father, but he was my father in all things. I was very lucky too. Sean, you have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.
Berryman Mary M - December 4, 2019 6:00 pm
A wonderful, timely Christmas message about what love really is. Thank you, Sean
Donna Burson - December 4, 2019 6:07 pm
Sean, I enjoyed this story so much. That’s what Christmas is all about. Sharing and caring. Thanks.
Melissa Williams - December 4, 2019 6:20 pm
Are you going to make me cry everyday between now and Christmas? 😉 I dare you!🎄💜
Shelton A. - December 4, 2019 7:10 pm
She was his real mom. Thanks for this…I really needed it.
Dee Thompson - December 4, 2019 9:34 pm
Wow, as an adoptive Mom this really got to me. It’s so painful when someone says to me “Where’s his REAL Mom?” — like I am just a lame stand-in. I adopted a 13 year old and a 10 year old and they knew well their “real” moms were more interested in drugs/alcohol and partying than in being moms. I spent a lot of time and money [even cashed in my retirement] to adopt my kids but I would do it all over again, just the same. Real families are forged from love, not biology.
Just as an FYI, my 85 year old mom who lives with us had a bad fall last week but didn’t want to go to the hospital, and my 23 year old son has been sleeping in her room, helping her to the bathroom several times a night, for almost a week, because he doesn’t want to see her in a hospital or nursing home. She’s not his “real” grandmother but the love they share is very real. Love is love is love.
Susan Gregory - December 4, 2019 11:49 pm
Luv ur words as usual !!
Martha Black - December 5, 2019 4:46 am
A REAL family is built not just birthed…….