A True Story of Christmas in El Cajon, California

It was a cold and rainy night in December. Terrilyn locked the workshop door and sighed. “Such a long day. I won’t be finished for hours”. “I hate to leave the phones. I better get going. Longs will be closed.” Her husband’s cough had been worse when they talked at supper time. And he was out of cough syrup.

“Oh, well, ” Terrilyn thought, “Move on, old girl.” Longs Drug Store wasn’t all that far. If it hadn’t 1 been raining, she would have walked.

Her umbrella flipped inside out as she got out of her car at the drug store. “Oh, rats,” Terrilyn exclaimed. She shivered. The wind pushed hard against the drug store door. Terrilyn scarcely noticed a couple huddled together under the shelter of the store’s overhanging roof. She was too busy battling the wind for the door.

Later, outside again, her arms piled high with Christmas wrappings and cold remedies for her husband, Terrilyn paused to shift her load. The couple was still there. Terrilyn tried not to stare, but they were funny looking. “Mutt and left”, she smiled to herself. The man was tall; the woman, five feet, if that. They had on long heavy overcoats. The woman’s hung to the ground. They stayed out of the wind behind two heavily laden shopping carts covered over with dripping plastic. “Those aren’t Christmas presents in those baskets”, Terrilyn thought to herself. “Those people are homeless!”

She could at least say hello. It was, after all, the season – but what does one say to the homeless? “Merry Christmas” certainly caught in her throat. Before Terrilyn could speak, the woman looked up and smiled. Terrilyn smiled back. “My word,” she thought, “they’re old! Old and homeless, and from the look of those coats, they’ve come a long way. People in San Diego don’t have coats that heavy.”

Cold unrelenting rain had been falling for days – the rain, a break, finally, from the worst drought San Diego had had in years. Out east here in El Cajon, people were grateful the drought had finally ended, but they were also beginning to complain. The chilling dampness had gone on too long. Many people had runny noses and fierce coughs. All hoped for a few days of sunshine so theycould finish their Christmas shopping.

Cold and wet herself, Terrilyn’s heart went out to the couple, but she had to get back to work. She vowed she’d check on them on her way home. Maybe she could help. Back at work, she was soon busy filling Christmas orders.

She didn’t think about the old people again until late that night as she gratefully settled into her bed. Her aging bones ached. She tried not to think about being old and outside on a cold rainy night. She vowed she’d find the couple in the morning. Maybe she really could help.

Next morning Terrilyn found the couple right where she’d left them, under the overhang at the drug store. They seemed to recognize her. They smiled. Encouraged, Terrilyn took a deep breath and introduced herself. She said she’d seen them the evening before and wondered how they were doing. “Do you have a place to stay? Can I help you find shelter? Do you have plans?”

The woman smiled and replied, “Oh, my, yes. My name is Gloria, and this is my husband, Martin. We’re just waiting for our ride.” To Terrilyn’s unspoken question, she offered, “I’m 79; Martin’s 85. ”

Gloria re-arranged the muffler tightly around Martin’s neck. Almost, Terrilyn thought, as a mother would care for a child. “He has a sore throat,” Gloria explained Occasionally she’d pat his arm. In response to Terrilyn’s probing, Gloria told her their story, with occasional comments from Martin. Gloria describes circumstances which Terrilyn could not – in her wildest imaginings -envision for herself and her husband. Sixty years before – they’d been newlyweds then – Gloria and Martin had been hired to run a small private orphanage in their home state of Kentucky. The Depression was on, and they’d been lucky to find work. “We both love children and felt doubly blessed. We hoped to have our own family back then, but we never di ”

For sixty years, they’d run the small orphanage in exchange for an apartment, their meals, and a little cash. In the ‘503, the Board had asked that they give up their apartment to make room for more children. They’d been happy to do that, Gloria said, and had moved into a single room. “But it was a big room, plenty big for the two of us. ”

Gloria continued that right after Thanksgiving, she and Martin had been called in by the Board, thanked for their many years of dedicated service, given a plaque and a check for $500. They were told they could have until the New Year to find a new place to live.

Terrilyn’s jaw dropped. She asked if they knew why they’d been dismissed so abruptly. “I guess they thought we are too old, and they talked about licensing problems.”

“You do have Social Security” Terrilyn asserted. “Well, no”, Gloria replied. “We never paid Social Security.” “We always meant to”, she said, ” but the Board didn’t tell us we had to, and our wages were small… but mostly we were just too busy to think about it.”

Terrilyn remembered thinking, “As far as the government is concerned… these two don’t exist.” Tears came to her eyes. She looked away from Gloria’s bright and smiling face. A few tears got loose anyhow when she spotted the brightly-colored, hand-crocheted afghan

folded neatly on top of one of the grocery carts. Terrilyn had one just like it at home. She’d made it evenings as she and her husband watched television. “Except that my afghan”, Terrilyn thought toherself, “is on the back of a couch, in a warm family room, in a warm dry house. ” Swallowing hard, Terrilyn pointed to the afghan, and for a few minutes the two women discussed patterns and yarn.

Terrilyn was astonished at the matter-of-factness with which Gloria and Martin talked about their circumstances. Terrilyn tried to use the word “plight “, but Gloria and Martin didn’t seem to see it that way. They thought that, except for Martin’s sore throat, all was well. “How can they think that!” Terrilyn exclaimed to herself.

Gloria continued. “After a lot of prayer, we decided to go to my sister’s. She invited us to live in a trailer on her property. That’s near the City of Hope, in Duarte, near Los Angeles.”

Terrilyn knew that the City of Hope is a hospital, but she didn’t quite get whether Gloria’s sister worked there, or that Gloria and Martin thought they might find work there themselves. Whatever the case, Terrilyn liked the sound of where they were headed – “the City of Hope”. Maybe Gloria and Martin liked saying it, too – to keep their spirits high.

“And their spirits are high”, Terrilyn later told us, her friends, in disbelief. “Here they’ve spent ten days hitchhiking from Kentucky to California, pushing heavy grocery carts, walking when they couldn’t get rides, and they are happy!”

Gloria had explained. “Each morning we ask the good Lord to send us the right people, and He always does.” Martin nodded in agreement. “Truck drivers”, Gloria explained. “Our grocery carts won’t fit into most cars, and most people can’t lift them. But, as you can see, we’ve made it this far, and we’ll be in the City of Hope by Christmas”. She sighed contentedly and adjusted Martin’s scarf.

“But why are you here?!” Terrilyn asked. “El Cajon is a long way from Duarte.”

“Our last driver dropped us here on his way to Alpine. He said that’s about 20 miles from here. He thought we’d be safer here than in downtown San Diego. He’ll pick us up on his way to Los Angeles. He knows where the City of Hope is, and hell carry us to my sister’s.”

“Well, when is he coming?” Terrilyn asked indignantly.

“We thought it would be the day after he let us off”, Gloria answered. “He was just seeing family, but his truck broke down. ”

“How long have you been here?

“Three days.”

Terrilyn swallowed hard. “How do you know he’s still coming?”

“He sent word with another trucker. He’ll be here. He’ll get us to Duane by Christmas.”

Regretting that she’d been too preoccupied to intervene the night before, Terrilyn said, “Come home with me while you wait. My husband won’t mind. He has a cold, but we have plenty of room.”

Gloria said, “No, ma’am. Thank you, though. We’re just fine. We don’t want to go far. Our driver expects to find us right here.”

“How about the warehouse at my business then?” Terrilyn asked. ” It’s not far. There’s no heat, but at least you’ll be dry, and I can bring over blankets and I have a heater. “No, thank you”, Gloria responded. “We’re fine.”

“Could I give you some money then, or a loan? You could sleep in a motel at night and still be here during the day. If you’d feel better about it, you could send me the money when you get to your sister’s.”

“No, thank you. We have money.”

Terrilyn tried again. “There’s an armory near here that’ll be open tonight.” That year – though it was the last year they did it – the City of El Cajon opened the National Guard armory to the homeless on cold or wet nights.

Gloria and Martin finally agreed to the armory, but only when Terrilyn assured them that they could keep their grocery carts with them. Terrilyn had no idea if that were true, but by that time, she was willing to lie, if a lie would get the old people into a dry place that night.

Gloria said, determinedly, “But only for one night, and only because Martin has a cough. We’ll be fine. Don’t you worry now.”

The next morning Terrilyn got to the armory early. Gloria and Martin had been there all right, but they’d left. Terrilyn had hoped to buy them breakfast before she went to work. Once her day started, Terrilyn knew, the phones wouldn’t stop ringing with Christmas orders. At least, she hoped that would be true. She and her husband had a small factory that produced custom-made children’s furniture.

For the next few days, Terrilyn kept her eye om for the old people. They were easy to spot. They stayed within a half-mile radius of Long’s Drug Store on Fletcher Parkway. A few times, Terrilyn stopped to say hello and see if there were anything, they’d yet let her do for them. Each time, Gloria and Martin assured her that they were fine and that the trucker hadn’t forgotten them. “He’ll come.”

It was a little warmer by that time, and sometimes there were breaks in the rain. The days moved on toward Christmas. Gloria and Martin were still in El Cajon, but they remained cheerful. In fact, they were the ones who boosted Terrilyn’s spirits, assuring her that all was well.

Finally, fearing that Gloria and Martin had been deserted by the truck driver, Terrilyn decided she’d drive them to Duarte herself, even though she was terrified to drive freeways and had come down with a bad cold herself.

Terrilyn tried to get someone from the Sheriff’s Department or the California Highway Patrol to lift the heavy shopping carts into her van when she was ready to go, but she was told no. She didn’t get a clear answer why not. She thought maybe it had to do with the “borrowed-from- Kentucky” grocery carts. A strong male friend offered to try. Terrilyn said shed call him when she was ready to go.

But then, just before Christmas, and before Terrilyn could leave work long enough to drive them to Duarte, Gloria and Martin disappeared. Terrilyn was sick with worry. She was glad she’d persuaded them to take her card with her home and business phone numbers, “just in case.”

Christmas came and went, and the days moved on. Terrilyn soothed her aching heart by telling herself and her friends that she just felt sure Gloria and Martin had been re-united with their truck driver. She was sure they’d spent Christmas in Duarte, near the City of Hope, safe and warm with Gloria’s sister.

Terrilyn and her circle of friends kept Gloria and Martin in their thoughts and prayers throughout that Christmas season. Those who were taking care of elderly family members and friends were especially patient and loving that year.

One day, near the end of January one of Terrilyn’s friends was driving down Fletcher Parkway, a steep busy thoroughfare in El Cajon, when she spotted a short woman accompanied by a tall man in an overcoat. The two were struggling to push two heavily laden grocery carts up the steep hill. Gloria and Martin! The friend had seen them a few times herself, so she recognized them. Terrilyn had arranged for her network of friends to keep their eyes open for Gloria and Martin, before they’d disappeared. But what were they doing back here! Terrilyn’s friend wanted to brake and call out, but she was headed down the hill, and Gloria and Martin were going up on the other side, with a parkway between them. She couldn’t stop or turn around until she reached the bottom of the hill.

As soon as she did, she called Terrilyn. “They’re here! Gloria and Martin! 1 saw them.” Terrilyn laughed. “I know. They called. We’ve been together. They’d told Terrilyn their story.

They had been re-united with their trucker. He’d suddenly appeared one day, ready to go. There hadn’t been time to let Terrilyn know they were leaving, and they’d hoped she’d understood. They’d found Gloria’s sister’s house near the City of Hope in Duarte without any trouble, but the house was dark; the sister, not there. Gloria and Martin’s hadn’t worried, though. They’d said, “Thank you and Merry Christmas” to their trucker and blessed him on his way.

Gloria and Martin learned from the neighbors that the sister was in Texas, in a nursing home. They stayed in the trailer on the sister’s property for three days, but the trailer was tiny and had no water, lights or heat.

Since that time, and with much prayer, they’d been trying to get back to El Cajon, but not to stay. They were “just passing through” – on their way to Mexico. They’d heard there are orphanages in Mexico that always welcome extra hands, and that’s where they were headed. “Don’t you worry”, they’d said. ” We’ll be line”.

That was the last time Terrilyn and her friends saw or heard from Gloria or Martin, but they never forgot them. Especially in December, near Christmas, or whenever it was cold and rainy, Terrilyn and her friends talked about the pair. They wondered if Gloria and Martin had made it to Mexico. They discussed the old people’s indifference to their plight and their perennial good spirits. They wondered at Gloria and Martin’s unquenchable desire to be of service, despite their advanced ages. They discussed the old people’s courage and their steadfast faith that their needs would be met daily. Had their faith been justified? Gloria and Martin had thought so.

In time, Terrilyn and her friends began to think of Gloria and Martin as angels, or as Christ figures, or as rabbis, or those other nameless holy beings who, the old tales tell, appear in unlikely places, always disguised as someone in need. Could Gloria and Martin have been two of these? The friends chose to think so. They liked to tell that in December of 1992, when a few truck drivers enroute from Kentucky to California found room in their trailers for two grocery carts, and in their cabs, for two elderly people, they unwittingly found room for the Holy Pair.

A few years later, Terrilyn’s health began to fail. The last time she was with her friends, they spoke of Gloria and Martin, as they always did when they were together. Terrilyn told them that she was sure her own heart was being measured that Christmas of ’92 in El Cajon, CA. The friends nodded agreement and decided that Life’s big questions are always just two: “How next will Holiness be disguised?” and “Will I be willing to serve?”

Carol Blashfield Frey Rawlins


  1. Lenona Carlburg on December 13, 2018 at 11:08 pm

    Carol, thank you for sharing that beautiful Christmas story.

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