At a Washington shelter, woman reflects on Christmases past


Volunteers from Tifereth Israel Congregation served home-cooked food at the John Young Center for Women in D.C. on Christmas Day. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The first Christmas she can remember was 52 years ago, when she saw her father coming down the stairs of their house, his arms wrapped around two blond dolls.

Carolyn Mack was 6 years old. She looked at her father. Her father looked at her, and then scampered back up the stairs. She asked her older sister: Shouldn’t a fat man in a white beard and red suit be bringing us presents?

Her sister replied: “Ain’t no such thing as Santa Claus.”

Her mother had an alternative explanation: Of course Santa exists, but your father had to help because there are so many presents this year.

The next Christmas that Carolyn Mack can recall was a few years later, when she was around 10, and her father came through the front door of their house on Holbrook Street NE, carrying the tallest tree she had ever seen. She and her seven sisters dressed up the branches, making sure the tinsel and icicles were just so.

The whole house smelled like pine needles.

The next Christmas she can remember, when she was 12, she woke up in the middle of the night, crept to the living room and opened a box of candy tucked beneath the tree. She bit into a chunk of choco. . .

“Get your hind pox back into bed!” her mother shouted.

When she was 14, Carolyn Mack asked her mother for a bicycle for Christmas. She wanted that bike so badly she cried. Maybe, her mother said. We’ll see. The family didn’t have a lot of money — her mother was a secretary, her father delivered Royal typewriters and hauled scrap metal.

Then her mother got sick and had to go to the hospital. She was home for Christmas, in a wheelchair. There, alongside the tree, was a 10-speed blue bicycle, with matching tassels hanging from the handlebars.

“That was a good Christmas,” Carolyn Mack said.

Maybe her best.

The next 44 Christmases are more of a blur, she recalled Wednesday as she waited in line for lunch at a shelter on D Street NW for people who have nowhere else to go.

A van pulled up at the John Young Center for Women and out came Santa Claus, with presents for the shelter’s residents.

“God bless you,” Santa said to Mack as he walked through the shelter’s front door.

“God bless you,” Mack responded.

She lit a cigarette and tried to recall something distinctive about those remaining 44 Christmases.

There was the one after her father died, when her mother looked so sad because he wasn’t around to put on the music of Sarah Vaughan, his favorite singer.

There was the one after her sister died, when her mother looked as though she wouldn’t make it through the day.

There was the one after her mother died, when she realized that there would be no more of her sweet potatoes, her string beans, her cranberry sauce, her chocolate cake, her peach cobbler, her caramel cake.

Her mother had made all of it, every year, and never let anyone help.

Two years ago, Carolyn Mack celebrated Christmas at a TGI Friday’s in Silver Spring with her best friend Jeanetta, whom she knew from the National Institutes of Health, where they worked as cafeteria servers.

A few months later, Jeanetta died of a heart attack. Around the same time, NIH hired a new company to run its cafeteria, and Mack said she was laid off after 33 years.

A year ago, she went to her sister’s in Forestville to celebrate the holiday. She was unemployed. She did not have enough money to buy her four nephews presents.

Still without a job a month ago, she was evicted from her Southwest apartment and ended up at the shelter, assigned to Bunk No. 6, her bed next to the entrance to the showers where a sign near the toilets reads, “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Flush, Flush, Flush Again.”

Every morning, they awaken at 5 a.m. They must leave the shelter by 7 a.m.

On Christmas morning, they were allowed to stay indoors because of the frigid weather outside. They watched “Fatal Attraction” before lining up for a lunch prepared by Tifereth Israel, a synagogue on 16th Street NW.

“Y’all gonna get cold,” Mack said to a volunteer serving the food. “You want my coat?”

She took a roll, then turkey, then yams, before passing on the broccoli.

She took her food back to a chair next to her bed, walking by a resident staring vacantly into space, another sucking her thumb and another in a ski hat with a New York Yankees logo on the front.

Several tables were crowded with women eating turkey, many of them in their coats.

The son of a volunteer, a young boy in glasses, approached Mack and offered her a wrapped present.

“No, thank you,” Mack said. “I got one.”

She ate her turkey and chuckled as she watched a woman rise from her seat, snapping her fingers and shaking her hips to the R&B tune coming from the speakers.

“Hey,” Mack said, “it’s Christmastime. Do it, baby!”

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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