When Maurice Beaudet was growing up, his father never owned a wedding ring.
“We were poor,” Beaudet, now 58, said recently, “and my father, he was the type of guy who never bought anything for himself. The only time he got something good was when someone gave him something for Christmas.”
Beaudet’s father worked long hours as a foreman in a plastics factory in Fitchburg, where he and his wife raised their family: Beaudet, his brother and their three step-siblings from their parents’ previous marriages.
When Beaudet, who now lives in transitional housing on Shawmut Avenue run by the , was 15, he became frustrated with school, dropped out and joined his father at the factory.
About a decade later, when Beaudet was in his mid 20s, he injured his leg falling off of a ladder at another job and received a workers’ compensation check. He used most of it to put a down payment on the house that he and his parents had lived in for years and saved the rest to buy his father a Christmas present: the wedding ring that he never had.
“I wanted to buy him something that he would’ve never bought for himself,” Beaudet said of the $600 gold band.
“He was happy as heck,” he added.
“I never thought I’d be homeless in my life.”
Years later, Beaudet and his siblings would chip in to surprise their father on Christmas morning once again with the same Hohner accordion he had when they were kids.
“It was the exact same color, had the exact same trim,” Beaudet said.
Beaudet’s father came from a big family in Canada: He had 13 brothers and sisters, and, for Christmas, the family would always come together at his house in Fitchburg.
“It’d be packed from wall to wall,” said Beaudet, who has a deep voice with a subtle smokers’ edge. “We’d have like 50 or 60 people over, and my mother would spend all day in the kitchen making dinner.”
Beaudet remembers catching his parents wrapping presents from Santa Claus one Christmas Eve, and he remembers getting in trouble with his brother for cutting down the family Christmas tree in a neighbors’ yard. He remembers knitting pot holders around the holidays and trying to sell them door to door, and he remembers pretending to like gifts from family friends, only to get them over and over again.
“Growing up as a kid, I always liked Christmas,” he said.
Just over a decade ago, Beaudet suffered a traumatic head injury while being robbed. Unable to work, he fell behind on his mortgage. Eventually, he lost his house, sold all of his possessions and began sleeping under a bridge next to a river in Fitchburg.
Although it's difficult to count the number of homeless people in the U.S. because it's often a temporary condition, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that each year more than 3 million people experience homelessness. Most of the families that are homeless are headed by females (65 percent) but 67.5 percent of the single homeless population are males, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors report in 2007.
Beaudet stayed under that bridge for seven years, until he decided to come to the Pine Street Inn in Boston in 2006.
“I never thought I’d be homeless in my life,” Beaudet said as if still in disbelief from the common room of the Shawmut Avenue residence where he has lived for about a year and a half now with 15 other people, including a case manager.
For Beaudet, Christmas has become a time to reflect.
His father passed away in 1990, his mother, in the last decade. He has lost all contact with the rest of his family, including his brother.
“When you get older, the years go by so quick,” said Beaudet, whose hair is graying. “You don’t realize how quick they go by, you know. ... Then I say to myself, 'What the heck did I do with my life?'”
This year, Beaudet will have a Christmas dinner with his housemates; he was planning to put up the house’s artificial Christmas tree. He’ll watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” as he does every year, and, for the first time in many years, he is considering going to Midnight Mass.
“As a kid,” he said, “I used to go every year.”
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.