“Mom, don’t panic, but the house is on fire,” is not how most warm and fuzzy holiday stories begin. But it’s how Connecting Vets’ Home for the Holiday’s contest winner, Catherine “Cat” Bradshaw, describes her most memorable Christmas.
This remarkable story actually begins seven months before Christmas 2002, on Memorial Day. The world was dealing with the first whispers of a second Gulf War, which her family kept a close watch on: her older brother and her sister’s husband were both in the military. Cat was just seven years old. That weekend, her family was on vacation.
One brother, Steven, couldn’t go because he had to work as a lifeguard. That night, after work, he decided to fry up some French fries as a snack.
“Not a good idea,” Cat can now say with a massive smile on her face.
“You shouldn’t ever deep fry French fries.”
Cat was asleep when her mom got the call from Steven. She didn’t go home right away, but when she finally did, the outside of the house was standing, but the inside was a total loss.
“I remember thinking, where are we going to live?” Cat recalls when she finally was taken to see the burnt out shell of her house. “Where am I going to go to school? Are we even going to be able to live there anymore?” The inside of the house had to be stripped down to the 2×4’s.
“Kids at school helped us by getting clothes. I think someone did give me a doll, but we lost everything.”
The Christmas after the fire, Cat and her family were staying with her grandmother. The Gulf War was no longer just a possibility, it was going to happen. The military was on alert. Her sister and her husband were shipped off to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. Her big brother, Michael, wouldn’t be home for the holiday because he was training on the USS Montpelier, the submarine where he was stationed in Norfolk, VA.
Being a big military family, the Bradshaws knew: country comes first. Michael had important things to do before shipping off to Iraq and the impending war. That Christmas Eve, Cat went to bed after looking at the barren floor around the tree. No sister. No big brother. No presents. Would Santa even know where to find her since her house was destroyed?
“I remember going to bed thinking that I would probably never see my family together again,” she says, still with a slight catch in her throat. “I went to bed wishing my brother could be here.”
Bright and early that Christmas morning, as millions of children do, Cat got up and rushed into the living room to see if Santa did find her. In the corner of the room, under the tree were piles of presents, but right in the middle, in a green military-issued sleeping bag, was her best present ever.
Her big brother.
“I went up and fell on top of him and started kissing him! I was so glad he was home,” she says.
Not only was her brother there, but his shipmates and commanding officer had sent presents for his family.
“They helped us a lot, especially during the deployment,” Cat said.
Every month Michael was away, the CO sent her family a letter. On Mother’s Day, he sent Cat’s mom a massive bouquet of flowers.
“As a kid, having to start from nothing… I’ve grown up so much since then, but I wasn’t sure we’d see Michael again,” a very happy Cat explains. “Waking up the next morning, him being there, well that’s every family’s wish.”
And what will Cat do with her $1,000 prize? “I’m paying off some medical bills; I was sick this July, so this is so perfect,” she says. After that, she’ll buy baby presents for an expecting cousin, and Christmas gifts for her family. If there’s money left over, she’s going to spoil herself with a killer lunch here in Washington, D.C.
As for sharing her winnings with her brother Michael, that’s not going to happen.
“I did call him when I won,” she said with a laugh, “but he’s not getting any of this. We can say he’s a great guy and that should be good enough.”
Our “Home for the Holidays” contest was brought to by Cigna. Cigna is a proud partner of ConnectingVets.com. Click here for more information about Cigna.