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Embracing the Spirit

FAMILY ALBUM / The Johnsons and the Murillos : A profile
of two families--and how their lives intersect.

With the help of a stranger, the Murillo family is trying to salvage Christmas--their first one without a mother and daughter. And that stranger, David Johnson, is learning to enjoy the season again.

December 20, 1998|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is, in the mountain town of Blue Jay, a Santa Claus suit that David Johnson hasn't worn since 1988, the year of his divorce. He bought it 17 years ago and wore it for his daughter and, eventually, his son, so that they might find in Christmas a joy that eluded him in his own childhood.

In those years, friends started asking him to be Santa for their children, and in time it became a holiday tradition. The suit, now kept in a closet, changed him, he says. Christmas changed him. He found the spirit of the season in the faces of children. As he peered at them through antique glasses, the joy he saw became his own.

"I didn't have a real happy childhood," he says. "Christmas wasn't a happy time. I remember one year when Christmas dinner was fried bologna and eggs, but when I put on that Santa outfit and I [went] to someone's house and [saw] their eyes light up, it's something special."

As a youngster and then as a young man, he blamed himself for his parents' divorce. The Christmas gift he always wanted but never received was for his parents to get back together, so they could be a family again.

Perhaps his own children wanted the same.

But after he and his first wife divorced, Christmas was never the same. For 10 years, the Santa suit, elaborate with its attention to detail, went unworn.

He and Linda married in 1991. It was a second marriage for both, a new beginning, new family. Earlier this year, they moved from Las Vegas to the San Bernardino mountains in search of a quieter, simpler life. Linda, who works for Bank of America, transferred to Lake Arrowhead. David quit his job as general superintendent for a construction firm and sold his remodeling business, vowing to slow down. No more working night and day for weeks on end trying to get ahead.

"To the people out there who want to be millionaires, I wish them the best of luck," he says. "I've learned that you can't live for money."

He has started his own small construction business and has learned to be happier with less.

A few weeks ago, Linda heard that the bank had adopted a local family, the Murillos, for the holiday season through a nonprofit organization called Operation Provider. David suggested they donate a used refrigerator and washer and dryer they had no use for, and also buy the family a tree.

It was Linda who suggested he dig out his Santa outfit.

Maybe, he thought, it was time. And, so this Christmas Eve, he will climb into the costume for the first time in 10 years, fill his bag with gifts donated by the bank's 16 employees and deliver them to a family trying to remember the goodness and joy of Christmas.

*

There is a white alder on the shore of Lake Gregory that Adrian Murillo visits from time to time. It stands between patches of snow in the shadow of the woods. He remembers last March when he came here with his two brothers, his sister, his mother and her boyfriend.

His mother, Julie Marie Gonzalez, was 30 years old, struggling to patch together a life threadbare and ripped by alcoholism. She barely knew most of her children, who had lived most of their lives with her mother, Helen Murillo.

It was Adrian who had spent the most time with Julie. Of all the children, he was the one who knew her best, who forgave her the most, who believed in her, defended her and wanted them all to be together as a family.

His mother had come to Crestline to ask Adrian, 12, and Marty, 14, if they would consider living with her in Phoenix. The kids hadn't seen their mother for six months. Her goal was to reclaim all four children as her life became more stable. They decided to wait until summer. When school was out, Marty and Adrian would go with her to Phoenix.

It was a quick visit, lasting only one day. Julie didn't want to take too much time off from her job as a waitress at Denny's. They spent most of the day at the lake, where they carved their names into the alder.

She looked good, her family says, healthy, happy. Before leaving, Julie's boyfriend knelt on one knee and proposed marriage. For Adrian, it had never felt so much like family.

"He'll be good to her," Adrian thought, "he won't beat her."

The children wanted them to stay another night, but Julie and her boyfriend left. They were minutes away from home the following morning when their vehicle crashed into a cement truck and burst into flames. It is unclear who was driving. Julie's boyfriend, who survived and tried to rescue her from the burning vehicle, initially said he was the driver. Later, his story changed.

It was Adrian who took his mother's death the hardest.

"Sometimes my friends tell me that they hate their mothers," he says. "I tell them they don't know how lucky they are to have their mothers alive."

At school when he sees mothers visiting or picking their children up from school, it makes him want to cry. He tries to hold it inside. Since her death, he says, he has been getting into more trouble. He gets into fights and was arrested for shoplifting.

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