A Far-Away Christmas
by Adrienne Foster Potter
It was 1960 and my father had just received orders to report to Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya, far from the base in Utah where he was stationed. I was excited. We were moving to Libya, far away in North Africa, and I was going to see exotic new places. I would drive across the United States with my family and fly in an airplane to a strange country very different from ours. I was sure I would be safe, well fed, and secure, as long as I was with my family. My brothers and sisters and I couldn't see any drawbacks. It was simply another of those adventures we had come to expect and enjoy.
My mother was not at all happy. Libya was not particularly friendly to the US and it was a
desert country, dry and barren. It
lacked the luxuries and conveniences of the more developed countries.
Furthermore, she was expecting her twelfth child, and the Holiday season
was approaching. Four years of
living near family and friends and enjoying holidays with them were coming to an
end. We would
have to pay for our own move and although my father was well paid as an Air
Force Major the needs of his large family left little for unplanned expenses.
With worried resignation Mom did what she
had already done a half-dozen times in her marriage and began the packing and
other preparations, this time including passports, physicals, and immunizations
for fourteen. The nurses
good-naturedly refilled the lollypop jar after all the shots were done.
We would drive cross-country to the Air Base in South Carolina, from
where we would fly to Libya via the Azores.
Mom arranged to have our car and all our furniture shipped on a boat
after we reached the Base.
The day of departure arrived and with friends, relatives, and the grandparents giving tearful farewells, we climbed into our station wagon, filled inside with kids and topside with all the luggage it could carry. We set off across the country and at every town people gaped in wonder and counted the heads inside our car. We were used to it and waved and smiled back.
After a short stay at the Base in South Carolina we were loaded into a troop transporter with other members of the military and their families and all of our combined luggage, and flown up and away, over the sparkling seas to the Azores, then on to Tripoli, Libya.
The Air Force was ready for us at Wheelus and had placed an entire empty barracks at our disposal as we awaited the arrival of the boat with our car and furniture. Daddy was provided with a motor scooter to make the trip from the barracks to his office. We spun round and round on military swivel chairs, ran down the shiny corridors and skidded in our socks, drew sheets and sheets of military stick figures, and shadowed the bemused custodian, all in contrast to the discipline and shine usually found there. However, my father showed us how to make our beds so you could bounce a dime on the blankets. Impressed, we struggled to achieve that effect every morning and I finally succeeded on our last day.
We were assigned to off-base housing since there was nothing on the base big enough for us. It was a V-shaped villa with a courtyard in front and a patio in back, surrounded by dirt and high stucco walls with broken glass on the top to ward off thieves. None of this was reassuring to my mother but she proceeded to move us in. We had purchased special cabinets for the kitchen since cupboards were not part of the Libyan culture, and these had arrived with the rest of our furniture and our station wagon. Unfortunately all of the expenses had left us with no money except for groceries, and Christmas was around the corner.
Then my mother became very ill, possibly from the stress of the long move combined with her pregnancy, and was taken to the base hospital. I needed new shoes but there was no money to buy them. I remember classmates at my new school pointing out the holes in them and asking through their giggles, "Why don't you get new shoes?" I was embarrassed and so I told a childish white lie, "My father is fighting in a war and he can't buy them now, but he will as soon as gets back." This transformed me into a brave supporter of foreign causes and resulted in admiration rather than ridicule. I forgot about my shoes as I ran around the playground with my new found friends and lived out imagined adventures.
To my parents and older brothers and
sisters it must have seemed that this would be a bleak Christmas but I was
unaware of any of that. My older
sisters cared for me and the younger children while my mother was in the
hospital and though I missed her, I was fed, clothed, and happy in my child's
world of daydreams and play. It
never occurred to my seven-year-old mind that this was a difficult time and I
looked forward to Christmas just as I had in the States.
In a large family gifts and extras appear only on Birthdays and Christmas and so my mother had always saved year-round to make these holidays special, but this year that money had been used for the transfer overseas. Perhaps she remembered the Christmas days of the depression when she received nothing but a pair of underwear and a bit of candy, and so she was very sad in her hospital bed as she hurried to complete the hand-sewn gifts she had begun at home.
As a child she had lived on a large farm in Idaho where they had everything, but Asthma forced her father to sell his farm for pennies on the dollar and move to the city, and since it was the middle of the depression he could find little work. One of her main joys in life as she moved about the country with her husband and large brood was that her children were never hungry as she had been, and though we didn't have a lot of clothes we never had to wear dresses made of gunny sacks, as she had. Now, food and clothing were purchased at the Commissary and the Base Exchange at military prices, lower than wholesale, and housing was reasonable, so we children were happy. However, it must have been difficult for my father and older siblings to find themselves almost penniless in a strange land far away from home and help, with my mother in the hospital.
Then, two weeks before Christmas, we were invited to a Christmas party for all the children on the Base. Though our large family nearly out-numbered the other attendees we each received a gift and a visit with Santa, but someone must have noticed my shoes, our worn clothes, and the absence of my mother. Later Dad received a phone call from the President of the Officer's Wives Club who sponsored the party. "We have quite a few gifts left over since several families were transferred back home last month," she told him. "I was wondering if you'd be interested in purchasing them. I could let you have the whole set for $25 if you can come and pick them up because you'd be doing us a favor, you know." Dad told her he would talk to his wife about it and call her back the next day. Where was he going to get $25? The only money left was for groceries and that didn't even include a Christmas dinner.
He went to the hospital and sadly confided in my mother the charitable offering that they would have to turn down, but my mother had been praying about our predicament and she saw this as an answer. "Tell her yes," she told him. "If we trust in God I know he'll come through." Dad trusted his wife's faith, so he called the woman back and accepted the offer gratefully. That night we prayed as a family, though I was too young to understand what we were praying about.
A few days later another answer came. A large envelope from our sweet little grandmother back in Utah had somehow made the long journey across the Atlantic to our far-away villa in Libya in time for Christmas, addressed to Major and Mrs. Foster and "all the little angles." Spelling was not her forte but gift-giving was. In the envelope were Christmas cards for everyone in the family, and in those cards were money. Two dollars for each child and the new baby, and five dollars each for Mom and Dad. Thirty-six dollars! Enough to buy the whole set of left-over gifts and a fine Christmas dinner besides. Dad confiscated all the money, explaining that he needed to borrow it but that he would pay it back to us. I didn't mind. There wasn't any place to spend those dollars anyway. He didn't tell the older kids what it was for.
The best surprise came on Christmas eve when Dad brought Mom home from the hospital. We had planned to spend an empty Christmas without her but she wasn't about to miss it. On Christmas morning she was delighted as we happily unwrapped gift after gift of cameras, dolls, portable radios, cars, trucks, games, sports equipment, and other things that we couldn't imagine would be found in the deserts of Libya. We younger kids accepted these events without question but the older kids were bewildered. Dad explained, and so ended the story of the far-away Christmas that we now tell year after year to new generations of "little angles." And I got some sturdy new shoes as soon as Dad got his next pay check which I proudly showed off at school when the holidays were over.
As time has passed, we've realized that those gifts were not all leftovers from the little Christmas party. There were far too many. Someone took the time to buy more gifts and used the "leftovers" reasoning to protect my father's fragile pride in caring for his family. I have no doubt that whether or not we had produced the requested $25 those gifts were marked for us. Little did they know that even that paltry amount was beyond our meager means, but God did. We learned that God watches over all his children, no matter how far from home they may be, and that charity can happen anywhere, any time, even when it is least expected.
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