Julia (not her real name) has spent her whole life looking for love. Looking at her life, you might think she has not found it. You would be wrong.
As a little girl growing up in a girls' orphanage, she felt there must be something wrong with her or her parents wouldn’t have abandoned her. Many of the children in the orphanages have one or both parents alive but are often just abandoned. Julia remembered her mom and what felt like love. But she wondered if that was love, why didn’t her mom protect her, and why did she leave her in the orphanage? She remembered her dad, but she would give anything to not remember him.
She saw a picture once of a family gathered around a glowing fireplace in a cozy living room. That looked like the love she wanted. The love she felt for the other girls in the orphanage was not that cozy living room. It was the desperate love of little girls huddled together to ward off the chill of memories and of the uncertainty of the future.
I remember visiting the orphanage when Julia was little. Indeed at times it felt like I, due to no innate goodness of my own, represented that fireplace the little girls would struggle to get warm by. But there were too many little girls and Julia was shy. I am sure she got little of what she sought from me.
Julia continued her search for love. When she hit puberty, she thought she could see glimmers of that warm, secure love she sought in the eyes of boys and men she would pass on the street on her way to and from school. When she was finally old enough to leave the orphanage, she discovered that the glimmer in some men’s eyes was a darker kind of fire. She was sure she was on the path toward a lifetime of love and security. Instead, she got a month’s worth of lies and passion, a baby, and finally, abandonment.
A few years ago when I was visiting Ecuador during Christmas time, Cristina, one of the girls who had also left the girls orphanage, told me I needed to find Julia. Julia had quit her job because she could not find anyone to watch her baby while she worked, and now both she and the baby were slowly starving to death.
I called her. Over the phone, I arranged to meet Julia at a simple restaurant at the Plaza Chola Cuencana. She would not tell me where she lived; she was ashamed for me to see her home but said she lived near the plaza. When she arrived, there was no roundness in her cheeks, and her eyes looked sunken. When I gave her a hug, I could feel her ribs and shoulder blades through clothes that hung on her like a shirt on an undersized hanger.
I held her plump happy baby as we looked at the menu. I told her she could order what she wanted. She ordered papas fritas (french fries) and chicken foot soup — the cheapest thing on the menu. Feeling generous, I told the waitress to add half of a broiled chicken and a salad to Julia’s order.
When the food came, her sunken eyes looked like she could eat the whole thing in one bite. Yet, she only ate the salad, the broth, a few fries, and one bite of chicken. When she asked for a bag to put the leftovers in, I thought: That is smart, she wants to make the feast last until tomorrow.
When we left the restaurant, I noticed she started in the opposite direction from the way she approached the restaurant so I asked where she was going.
She looked away and then said, “Sometimes when I have no food, there is a family down this way who will sometimes feed me. They usually only have rice and never have any meat. I thought they would like the chicken. You don’t mind if I give them the chicken, do you?”
And I thought I was being generous.
The next time I came to Ecuador I talked to Cristina and asked how Julia was doing.
She paused a long time. Then, with tears running down her face she said, “A month ago my husband Victor was having a hard time, and the kids and I had to leave in the middle of the night.”
I knew what "Victor having a hard time" meant: He was drunk and beating Cristina. A few visits earlier, I had taken Cristina to a women’s shelter, but she hadn’t stayed.
Cristina went on, “I had no place to go, and it was raining. We went to Julia’s apartment, and she let me and my two babies stay there.” I have since seen where Julia lives, and the room she calls her apartment is slightly bigger than a king-sized bed.
“We stayed there two days, “ Christina continued. “It was wonderful. We all slept in her bed. It was cozy. We talked about old times and laughed and cried.”
“So, Julia is doing better? She isn’t starving anymore?” I asked.
“When I got there, she said she was doing fine. We were hungry and she cooked us big bowls of hot rice. It wasn’t until we were leaving when I realized we had eaten everything she had.”
You see, in spite of not finding love everywhere she has looked, if all of us found as much love in our hearts as Julia has found in hers, the world would be a far better place.
This blog post is fifth out of a series of 12 Christmas stories by founder Rex Head. Read the other stories below.