What My Unemployed, Single Mother Taught Me About Generosity During the Holidays

We had just moved out of our one-bedroom apartment when my single mother of two was laid off from her hospital job in a sudden change of staffing and budget cuts. Resilience was elusive and the bills were imminent. This drought continued on for seven, maybe eight months in our home, and I began to wonder how we were going to make it through December, my forever favorite month of the year. Our usual cheery firecracker of a mother was discouraged and defeated. I dreaded what might become of our perfect holiday season.

I, like the rest of anyone breathing, know that Christmas is truly the most wonderful time of the year - the story, the songs, the gifts, the almond brittle. I remember the first year my sweet family of three took on the task of buying one another presents for the first time. My sister and I were a little older, and a little rusty as newcomers to the whole thing. My sister purchased an awfully bright orange tea kettle for my mother, which I found to be hideous. Then Gabby opened up her gift from Mom - a brand new sheet for her nonexistent ironing board. Like I said, we were rusty. (I’d like to think I knocked it out of the park with great gifts that Christmas, but I can’t remember what I gifted either of them and Mom still uses her orange tea kettle. So sister wins.)

This particular Christmas however, was going to be different. My mom let us know early on that she couldn’t afford gifts for us and that we would most likely be laying low for a while even after the season was over. There would be no new trinkets or crazy Christmas decorations, and definitely no trips to the mall to tempt us either.

So it was up to all of us to get creative, pursue contentment, and daily reset back to the real heart of the season.

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Now if there’s one thing that turns any day around for my mom, it’s food - eating it, cooking it, sharing it, and putting more on your plate even after you’ve told her you’re already full. So in the abundance of spare time my mom now had with no job to head to, the Food Channel became her favorite pastime, as she learned recipe after recipe along with the names and personality quirks of every featured chef.

Enjoyed a great soup at the restaurant? Mom would learn how to make it better. Couldn’t get enough of a dish at that party? Mom had an updated version up her sleeve. A dessert you dream about every night? Oh, here comes Mom pulling two batches fresh out the oven.

And it was in that frame of mind that my mother discovered the power of a pizzelle.

A pizzelle is an Italian cookie known for its flat shape and snowflake pattern, usually found at Italian weddings and popular around Easter and Christmas time as well. They’re also usually found at Jane’s. Jane is my mom’s best friend and wise confidant in every season. Mom was over at her house one day, getting her usual fix of encouragement from her loyal companion, when Jane began to pull out her fancy pizzelle maker.

“The ingredients are simple,” Jane explained, pulling out the baking staples. “And the result is delicious.” It was my mom’s first time having a pizzelle, and the two wasted no time making dozens upon dozens of pizzelles to bring to their respective family members and friends.

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That’s when creativity struck. My mom borrowed the pizzelle maker and brought it home, staying up night after night to make different batches, playing with the recipe and experimenting with the sizing. More powdered sugar here, coats of dark chocolate there. She made lists of friends she wanted to bless by playing Santa, recruiting my sister and me to help drive to their homes and drop off cookies on their doorsteps. And sure, the glow from the television’s Food Channel marathon still illuminated our living room, but one look at her face and I already knew: our firecracker was back.

She demonstrated to me then what I am still learning now - if you’re waiting until you have enough to give, you might end up waiting forever.

But giving in the midst of your deficit, whether monetarily or emotionally, ensures a rich reciprocity that goes deeper than monetary value. It has been tested and it has been proved - few things warm and rejuvenate the heart like giving does. Here was my mom, in the tension of the most consumeristic season paired with no employment, deciding to use her time and resources to give. Because after all, there is something to be said about a freshly baked cookie.

Soon she was notorious for these pizzelles; she brought them to social gatherings and various festivities, and always left with empty tupperware. People couldn’t get enough. Our home was now filled with the delectable aroma of pizzelles baking in batches, the television finally off, and Mom dancing in the kitchen to Christmas music crooning instead (Clay Aiken’s album is her personal favorite). She was getting orders from people asking her to cater their holiday parties and gatherings, and in an unexpected way she was finding herself with a source of income again.

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I was amazed. More than that, I was encouraged. There was no way we wouldn’t make it through the holiday season. We had more than enough in each other, not to mention the calorie count, and there was a growing list of people we wanted to give to instead of receive from.

Christmas came and went. The pizzelles were still stacked in multitudes on the kitchen counter into January. And it was still a couple of months before my mom found a new job and began working again. But there was something renewed in her spirit as a result of all she learned in that strenuous season. You don’t have to be someone with plenty to be marked as a generous person. You don’t have to wait for Christmas time to give your best gifts. You can give as you are, with what you have, where you are now, in whatever season you’re in.

Sometimes a stroke of generosity comes to us in the drought, in the lack, in the space where everything is telling us we need to get more, buy more, receive more than we have.

Sometimes it looks like a television show that inspires us, sometimes it looks like a friend’s encouragement. And sometimes if you’re lucky, it looks like a cookie.

Photos by: Joanne Pio

Chantelle Gibbs

Chantelle is a curly-headed native of Los Angeles, with a love for puns, musical theatre, and lightly sweetened kettle corn. She currently works as an adjunct college professor of Communication and teaches art history at various elementary schools in Orange County. She is learning, slowly but surely, how to practice the art of seeing others and the world with whimsy and wonder.