Christmas in HamtramckDECEMBER 27, 2008
- Charnita Monday
- (Desiree Cooper)
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More From Desiree Cooper
In April, we brought you the story of two sisters, Charnita Monday and Helen Hatcher. They'd been inseparable their whole lives. But in the late 1970s, they were kicked out of their homes in Hamtramck, Michigan. It was part of the city's attempt to get rid of all the African American neighborhoods. Charnita and Helen found themselves living apart for the first time. Poor health put them both in wheelchairs, making it difficult to see each other. The black residents of Hamtramck eventually won a discrimination suit. It took decades, but the city finally built new homes for the victims to buy or rent at low prices. This spring, Charnita and Helen moved back to Hamtramck in side-by-side houses. The homes even had ramps so that the sisters could visit each other. Weekend America's Desiree Cooper checked in on them this holiday season to see how they were doing.
The day is cold and sleety, but Charnita Monday's house in Hamtramck, Michigan is bright and cheerful. She's hung a handmade wreath on her door. Skinny, plastic candy canes line the sidewalk between her house and her sister Helen Hatcher's house next door.
The weather is so bad and the wheelchair ramps are slippery. That makes it hard today for the women to visit together, so I end up shuttling between the two houses.
Helen and Charnita are a year apart, in their early 60s, and they still do everything alike -- they even sound like twins. Charnita is the one with a little fire. Helen is easy-going, almost pious.
As she sits by her Christmas tree, Helen remembers what Christmas used to mean to them over the years.
"Christmas Eve was our time," she explains. "When we were in good health, we would always celebrate Christmas Eve at my house. And Christmas day, we'd go to Charnita's house for dinner. But since we had moved far apart, we never did it no more."
This year will be different. The sisters have planned their menus: ham, stuffing, homemade desserts and freshly baked bread. Helen said that nothing will stop them from being together this year.
"I can't say if we'll have a lot of presents or not," she says, "but we have each other."
The pain of the discrimination that forced them out of Hamtramck almost 30 years ago seems all but forgotten. But Charnita, the more skeptical of the two, has always wondered if this was too good to be true. This summer, something happened to confirm her suspicions. She got an eviction notice.
Just like the other blacks who have moved back to Hamtramck, Charnita's payments are subsidized by the racial discrimination settlement. Her payments are modest, but she says she always pays on time. But the eviction notice came anyway.
"I kept thinking about how I was this close to my sister," she says, "and we were going to be pulled apart again."
If Charnita was out, so was Helen.
"If my sister had to leave," says Helen, "I was leaving, too, whether I got an eviction notice or not. Because we had went through this once before."
As the fiery one, Charnita got on the phone and asked a lot of questions. There had been a computer glitch. She didn't have to move after all.
"The eviction notice was a mistake," she says, "but still, sometimes when people make mistakes, they'll be unaware of the effect it has upon a person."
The prospect of losing her home, the bad economy, and the rash of foreclosures in Michigan, all have made Charnita grateful for what she has. She says she can't wait for Christmas to come, "just like a little child." "I believe that dreams can come true," she says. "Things do happen. If you wait long enough and you pray hard, it happens."
Now, it's as if Helen and Charnita were never apart. They laugh about how they'll get up and dress in the same colors or call each other at the same time. As I walked from house to house, I found out they even had the same New Year's Resolutions.
"I got one plan, one New Year's resolution," says Helen. "I wish I could do more for myself, and I wish I could lose some weight."
"My New Year's resolution," says Charnita, "is to lose some of this weight so that I can get around better and get out more."
Maybe a year from now, they'll be out of their wheelchairs and walking to each others homes for the holidays.