Stan Ellis stuffed the last of his purchases into his camper shell. Smiling proudly, he strode to the driver’s door, unlocked it, and climbed behind the wheel. The engine started immediately, and so after giving it an extra shot of gas, Stan threw the truck into reverse.
Careful not to hit anyone, he backed out of his spot. He cranked up the volume on his favorite country station just in time to hear a Christmas tune by George Strait. Smiling, Stan sang along, tapping his hands on the wheel to the rollicking beat.
On Main Street he merged into the slow-moving traffic. It seemed as if the whole town was out shopping. With just three days before Christmas, it came as no surprise. Stan didn’t care how long it took to get through town, as he was full of the holiday spirit. He was going to give his grandpa a special Christmas surprise.
It had been many years since they had decorated the house. His grandmother loved to hang lights, put ornaments on the tree, and bake cookies that filled the house with the sweet smell of vanilla. Christmas music soared throughout the house, his grandma’s golden voice blending with the singers on her favorite records.
Every meal was special, with at least one holiday favorite on the table: stuffing with raisins, carrots covered with a glaze, ham and pineapple, sweet potatoes drowning in a marshmallow topping.
After her death, Grandpa refused to celebrate. No decorations were permitted, no music, no special foods. It was hard on Stan, for he loved Christmas. He missed the gaily-decorated packages, the tinsel on the tree, and the joyous feeling that permeated life day and night. Among his friends, he was the only one who did not celebrate the holidays. Sometimes one of them invited him over during winter break, and Stan would drop in for a brief visit, but each time his soul sank like a rock in water.
Determined to bring cheer into their lives, Stan had driven into town. The ads shouted deep discounts on everything needed to brighten a home. He never knew there were so many kinds of lights, nor variety of ornaments. He was surprised that garland came in the form of plastic candy canes, neon M & M’s and strings of imitation popcorn. Looking for the sales, Stan chose the best items.
Home Depot had a few trees left, so Stan bought one of them as well. It wasn’t as much fun as climbing the hills on the ranch and cutting down a live tree, but he made the most of the experience. He remembered that Grandpa loved Noble firs, elegant with their evenly spaced branches, so that’s what he got.
Once home, Stan took the tree to the barn, got down a saw and cut off a good chunk of the trunk. He removed the lowest branches to prevent them from dragging on the hard wood floor. The trunk fit perfectly into the new, sturdy stand. With pride he carried the tree into the house.
His grandmother placed the tree in the front window so that the lights could be seen shining on the darkest of nights. To her, they were a beacon, calling her family home. Wanting to recreate the last Christmas he recalled, Stan would have to move a lamp and table that sat in the designated spot. He carried them upstairs, into an unused bedroom, and then returned to move the tree into place.
Keeping an eye on the time, for his grandfather was expected back before dinner, Stan carried in his bags of decorations. He opened boxes of lights and strung them on the tree, around the windows, and over the mantle. He hung ornaments, strategically placing them so as to balance color and design. Garland went on last, a sparkling silver stole gracing the tree.
One box left. Stan opened the lid and pulled out a figurine. He gently unwrapped the Virgin Mary. Next Joseph and the Baby Jesus, followed by Wise men, a shepherd, two sheep, a donkey, and a cow. Lastly the crèche, a wooden structure with hay glued to the roof.
Stan staged the scene on the credenza in the front room. He kept out Baby Jesus, just as his grandmother did when he was young.
Brushing off his hands, he admired his work. Bursts of color filled the room, and the smell of pine tree tingled his nose. The crèche filled his eyes with unexpected tears. For some reason, Stan felt compelled to fall to his knees.
He gave thanks for his grandfather who loved him, his girlfriend, his teachers, and his life. Stan crossed himself, as taught, then stood in time to hear his grandfather’s truck rumble up the road.
He went outside to help carry in the groceries that would be in the back.
“How did it go, Grandpa? Were you the high bidder on the stallion?”
“Naw. Josiah Turner beat me by fifty bucks. I did get a pretty filly, though. She’ll produce beautiful colts when mated with Silk.”
Both men grabbed handfuls of bags. Walking side by side they strode up the wide steps and onto the porch.
“What the heck have you done, boy?”
Stan fought hard to hold back a grin. “I thought it was time that we got back to celebrating Christmas.”
“Take it down! Take it all down!” Grandpa dropped his bags and literally ran down the steps, across the yard, and into the barn.
Disappointed, Stan carried put the groceries away. He turned on the radio, and after finding a station that played Christmas music, prepared dinner. He peeled, sliced and fried potatoes, browned a couple of pork chops, opened a jar of applesauce and placed it on the table, all the while singing along to joyous tunes. When everything was ready, Stan opened the back door and rang the bell, the call to dinner. He stared at the barn, hoping to see his grandfather emerge.
When the door did not open, Stan sat at the table. He said grace and then dished out his meal. He ate alone, the only other voice that of the radio commentator. When finished, he cleaned up. Leftovers went into the fridge, pots and pans scrubbed, rinsed, and dried.
Heartbroken, Stan stepped into the front room to enjoy the bright lights by himself. He walked over to the tree and fingered the needles. He loved the firm, rubbery feel.
“Watcha doing, boy?”
Stan’s heart flew into this throat. Turning, he saw his grandfather’s figure seated in a recliner on the far side of the room, half-hidden in darkness. “I…I was just checking to see if it needed more water.”
“Have a seat. We need to talk.”
Stan sat on the floor at his grandfather’s feet. This is where he always sat when there was a story to be told.
“Do you know why I was angry?”
“I think so. You miss Grandma. So do I. I miss her terribly. But we have to live, Grandpa. She wouldn’t like us to live in sadness.”
“You should have asked me first, Stan. That’s why I was angry.”
“You wouldn’t have let me go shopping.”
“You’re right about that. That’s not what made me angry, though. It’s the shock of seeing all this.” His hand swept around the room, indicating the tree, crèche, and lights. “Your grandmother was a very religious person. She loved Christmas, as it made her feel close to God. She worked hard to bring His love into our lives. Nightingale was my Christmas gift, the best one I ever got. There is no way that Christmas will ever be the same without her.”
“I know that, but I miss the lights. Can’t we enjoy Christmas like everyone else does?” Stan’s tear-filled eyes reflected the disappointment that was dragging him down.
“I don’t know, boy. I just don’t know. Looking at all this makes me miss her all the more. Can you understand that?”
Stan’s chin hit his chest and sobs shook his shoulders. His large, calloused hands covered his face. “I’m sorry, Grandpa. I’ll take it all down,” he said as he wiped the tears away with the tail of his gray flannel shirt.
“No. Let it be,” his grandpa said as he strode into the kitchen.
Stan moved into the newly vacated chair. He looked at the tree with its lights, ornaments, and garland. Nothing seemed as beautiful as it had earlier. In fact, it all seemed garish, even the cheap wood crèche with its plaster figurines. What was I thinking?
While Christmas tunes continued to float through the house, they didn’t seem so gay anymore. The words spoke of gifts, Santa, snowmen, and kissing under the mistletoe. There was little mention of the Christ child or of God’s love for His people. Christ is missing. That’s what’s wrong. That’s why Grandpa’s upset.
Stan stood, walked over to the tree, and pulled the plug. He turned off the stereo. An eerie stillness came over the house. I’ll take it down in the morning, Stan told himself as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
Sleep did not come easy. Most of the night Stan’s eyes stared at the darkened ceiling. Memories of his grandmother came unbidden. Even the smiling faces of his parents, dead for many years now, floated in a mist-like cloud above his bed.
When dawn turned the sky a dusty gray, Stan arose and dressed. He walked to the head of the stairs and stopped. What the heck? Stan’s eyes opened dinner-plate wide, for before him was an amazing sight.
Teddy bears covered every flat surface. Tinsel dangled from ropes of garland that stretched from one side of the room to the other. A toddler-sized Santa and sleigh sat near the door, and a Rudolph with blinking nose stood guard. Stan’s crèche was gone, and in its place sat a hand-carved Nativity scene, created by his grandfather, long ago, as a gift for his grandmother. On one wall hung a tree-filled picture frame that his grandmother had filled with old jewelry that she had gathered from relatives.
Dazed, Stan slowly went down the stairs. His store-bought ornaments were gone. In their place hung homemade ones. He fingered lace snowflakes, felt stockings, cloth-covered Styrofoam balls, reindeer made from clothespins. Everything was beautiful. Everything was just as he remembered.
Even though he knew his grandfather was in the room, Stan did not turn to face him, for embarrassing tears poured down his face. “It’s wonderful, Grandpa. Why did you do this?”
“To make you happy, boy. While I ate my dinner last night, all I thought of was that unhappy face of yours.”
“Thanks, Grandpa. This means a lot to me,” Stan said as he wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Next time you get an idea to surprise me, will you talk to me first?”
“Yes. I promise,” he said. Stan stood behind his grandfather and draped his right arm over his shoulders.
“I used to love Christmas, too,” his grandfather said. “Nightingale filled the days with so much love that her happiness filled me as well. When she died, I thought I would never feel that way again. I swore that no Christmas decorations would ever come in this house again, to protect and honor her memory. It wasn’t fair to you, Stan.”
Stan patted the muscle-bound shoulders of his grandfather.
“When I saw the tree, my heart broke into a thousand pieces. The only thought that came to mind was to run away and hide. Then I snuck inside while you ate. Looking at the tree reminded me of Nightingale. After you went to bed I did some thinking. That’s when it came to me. I’ve been wrong all these years. I wasn’t honoring your grandmother’s memory at all. She would have wanted us to continue her traditions. So I went out to the barn and got out her things. It’s funny, but as I unpacked the old decorations, I felt as if Nightingale was helping me. I swear I even heard her singing.”
Stan planted a kiss on his grandfather’s rough cheek. “That’s the way I felt. It was as if Grandma was with me at the store, helping me decide what to buy. All I wanted was to bring Christmas back into the house. I’ve missed it, Grandpa.”
“So have I, boy. So have I.”
Stan sat in the chair that used to be his grandmother’s and watched, with his grandfather, as the rising sun filled the sky with a golden color. There was no more need for words.
I think the part I love best is that the grandmother’s nickname is Nightingale, because of her beautiful voice.