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As a single mother, I lost my job before Christmas. I don’t believe in miracles, but here’s what happened.

Tammy Rabideau with her daughter, Kristil, in 2008, the year she lost her job around Christmas. (Family photo)

On a Friday evening in December, two weeks before Christmas, I lost my job. I hadn’t seen it coming. I’d driven home from work the same as I’d done every night. I was excited for the weekend when my daughter, Kristil, then 12, and I planned to get our Christmas tree. Then I listened to my voice mail:

“We're sorry but your work assignment has ended as of today.” My heart sank and anxiety sent me spinning. I wasn't just a single parent; I was the only parent. My paycheck was survival.

I scanned the workday, wondering if I’d done something wrong but couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. I’d been at my job in Madison, Wis. for nine months, contracted through an agency for a three-month “temporary-to-hire” assignment. I thought I’d be hired any day. Instead, I lost my job.

Money had always been tight. Kristil’s father had been in prison most of her life and hadn’t been able to contribute much. Though I’d grown accustomed to the hustle of solo parenting, I’d never gotten used to the constant anxiety of living on the edge. One wrong move could send us spiraling.

It pained me as a mother. Kristil deserved better, and though I did everything I could to give her a good life, there were some things my love couldn’t fix.

A man strung Christmas lights from his home to his neighbor’s to support her. The whole community followed.

Kristil's voice pulled me back to reality. She'd come out of her room where she'd been studying. “Mom, it's the weekend! We get to pick out our Christmas tree tomorrow,” she said.

I wasn't prepared to tell Kristil the news. I knew she'd worry.

“Yes, it's going to be great,” I told her.

The next day as we searched for our tree, I struggled to be cheerful as I eyed each price tag.

“Is everything okay?” Kristil asked. “You seem worried.”

I knew I couldn't keep it a secret any longer. We were too close that way.

“I got some bad news yesterday,” I told her. “I lost my job.”

“Oh no, and right before Christmas,” Kristil said. “Well, I have a $100 grandma gave me that I can give you.”

“Absolutely not,” I told her. “We'll be fine.”

It wasn’t Kristil’s responsibility to solve our money problems.

This retired couple spends every day of the year making Christmas toys for kids in need

Monday morning, I dropped Kristil at school and set off on my moneymaking pursuits. First, I drove to the employment agency.

“We don't know why they ended the position, but we'll start looking for something new right away,” the recruiter told me.

“Call me for anything,” I said.

Next, I headed to the pawnshop. The owner put his hand out: “What have you got?” I presented a garnet ring surrounded by two small diamonds set in 14-carat gold that my mother had given me a decade earlier.

He examined the ring with a magnifying glass, then got out a scale and weighed it.

“Best I can do is $70. The stones are worthless,” he said. “We’re only interested in the gold.”

I didn’t have much choice. “Sure, $70 and I get the stones back,” I said.

I painfully watched as he extracted the garnet and two small diamonds and returned them to me, then threw the gold band in a bin to be melted down.

There were a lot of things I thought I'd never do until I was hard up for money. Selling jewelry my mother had given me was just one of them. Next was the antique store. I sold six Precious Moment figurines for $150 and ended the day $230 richer.

School band director and bus driver die in crash, leaving Christmas event in doubt. Bands from 33 schools performed in their honor.

Over the next week, I furiously applied for jobs as my bank account grew smaller. I still needed to come up with money for rent, food and gifts for Kristil. I felt like the world was closing in on me.

On a weekend afternoon, Kristil had a birthday party to go to in a wealthy gated community. I dropped her off in front of an enormous three-story house beautifully decorated for the holidays. “Have fun, I'll pick you up in a few hours,” I told her. I watched as she walked up and went in, surrounded by all the nice things we couldn't afford. Why couldn't I do better for Kristil? Why hadn't I made better choices? We didn't need a mansion, but couldn't I at least keep food on the table and buy her gifts at Christmas? I drove home defeated, knowing what I planned to do.

It was a terrible idea, but the only one I had. I would write checks even though there wasn’t enough money in the bank to cover them. I would pay the money back as soon as I could, but until then I’d take my chances.

Back home, I dug my checkbook out of my dresser drawer then glanced out the window to check the weather. It had been snowing on and off all morning. I noticed a small white car pull up in front of my building. I peered closer because the car looked familiar. A petite old woman with short white hair struggled to open her door against the blowing snow and wind. As she got out and made her way to the front entrance, I realized it was my old college professor, Sister Esther Heffernan. I hadn’t seen her since we’d met for lunch three months ago and wondered what she was doing there.

A baby was taken from her mother’s arms in the Holocaust. The family just reunited.

I’d first met Sister Esther 10 years earlier when I was a student in one of her sociology classes at Edgewood College in Madison. Kristil was 3 years old at the time, and, with no child care, I sometimes took her to class. Sister Esther was understanding and would bring coloring books and treats to occupy Kristil. Often, I’d visit Sister Esther in her office to discuss an assignment and end up staying for hours as we got lost in conversation. I loved hearing about her early life and how she became a nun. She’d been an only child, and when her father died when she was young, her mom became a single parent like me.

Sister Esther took a vested interest in our well-being. When I was in a violent relationship and fled, she helped us gather basic items to get back on our feet. When I was close to graduating and ran out of loan money, she provided resources she’d found. I was profoundly grateful.

After I graduated, we kept in touch, meeting for lunch every few months. I delivered flowers on her birthday each April. I had grown to love her like family.

I rushed to the front of my building. “What are you doing out in this weather?” I asked as we hugged.

“Well, I tried to call last week but couldn’t get through. Then I called your job and they said you weren’t working there anymore, so I thought I would come by,” Sister Esther said. “I have a couple gifts for you and Kristil.”

I made her a cup of tea, and we talked. She was concerned about my job loss and gave me a heads-up on positions she’d heard about. Just being in Sister Esther’s presence gave me a feeling of hope. We made plans to get together after the new year. As she got up to leave, she handed me a Christmas card. “This is for you,” she said as she kissed me on the cheek. I walked her to her car and waved as she pulled away.

When I came back in, I sat at the kitchen table to open her card. I treasured everything Sister Esther gave me. The front displayed a simple white dove and the word “peace.” As I opened it, I saw there was money inside. I gasped in shock. Hundred-dollar bills poured onto the table. She must have known, I told myself. Tears of gratitude puddled in my eyes as I counted the money. Sister Esther had given me $1,000.

On Christmas morning, Kristil and I gathered around our tree, and I joyfully watched as she opened her gifts. I silently thanked Sister Esther in my heart.

A week later, I got a phone call from my old boss. They had ended my position with the staffing agency because they wanted to hire me directly. I started back in my job two weeks later as a permanent employee.

It has been 13 years since that Christmas, but I’ve never forgotten what Sister Esther did for us. Last year at age 91, Sister Esther died, but the love she gave during her life lives on in the hearts of many. I am lucky to have been one of them. This year for Christmas, in her memory, I will share that love with another family in need.

Tammy Rabideau is a writer living in Madison, Wis. She is working on a memoir, “Making It: One Single Mother and Daughter’s Journey from Homelessness to the Ivy League.”

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