Redemption

Once again there was no Christmas to celebrate with family: Sarah had outlived all of her relatives. That’s the problem with getting old. Everyone she knew had disappeared, leaving her all alone. Part of Sarah’s problem, however, wasn’t that she was considered ancient, but that she had never married, never had children, and because of choices her parents had made when she was young, had no idea if she had any cousins, aunts or uncles.

Last year in mid-summer, a pretty young woman dressed in a yellow-flowered shift knocked on her door claiming to be a niece. Sarah thought there was some resemblance to her mother, the shape of the woman’s chin, the color of her hair, and so she’d let her in. The woman, named Vickie, visited a couple of times, always polite and always refusing a cool beverage or a sweet treat. On the fourth visit, Vickie entered in tears and proceeded to share a sad story about being broke, being stranded in an unfamiliar city, and being desperately in need of money. Vickie never asked outright for money, but it was certainly implied. No dollar amount was specified, but Sarah’s guess what that it was in the thousands.

Sarah was smart enough to know it was a scam, so after the hints became more of demands, the woman scuttled out as Sarah called the cops. Several days later the newspaper carried a story in which the woman was killed in the nearby park during a scuffle, possibly over drugs. While she hated reading about the Vickie’s death, Sarah breathed a sigh of satisfaction that she hadn’t fallen for the “poor is me” story and handed out wads of cash. Or invited her to move in.

There were friends at the senior center that Sarah enjoyed seeing. People she ate lunch with nearly every day or that she’d talk with over a cup of coffee and day-old snacks that a volunteer brought in. She’d invited one woman, Sandy, to join her for lunch and a movie, but Sandy declined and never reciprocated.

Because no visitors would walk through her doors, Sarah hadn’t bothered to put out what few decorations she still had. The artificial tree, kept in the basement, hadn’t seen an ornament in years. The tree wasn’t too heavy for her, but because of its shape, it was awkward to lug up the narrow stairs while clinging to the handrail.

To bring up the tree first she’d have to rearrange the furniture. Sarah used to set the tree up in the front window, the one that overlooked the street, so that when the lights were on, everyone could enjoy the beautiful sparkles. Sometimes neighbors would comment about how cheery it looked, but these days Sarah wasn’t cheery.

The other issue was that she didn’t know if any of the light strings worked. That would be another hassle. Carry them up, plug them in, replace burnt out bulbs, repeat over and over. If she didn’t have enough replacements it would mean a trip to the store and facing endless questions about if she was going somewhere or having folks over. It she had said that she was celebrating alone, then there’d be sighs and condolences. But no invitations.

She owned a ton of Christmas CDs, but she didn’t play any of them partly because they were buried behind stacks of more recent purchases and partly because it was too much effort when she could hear all the music she wanted, and more, on the little radio she kept by her chair.

Years ago she’d bought a fancy receiver, multi-CD player and desktop speakers.  The last time she’d turned it on all she got was screeching noises. She’d tried everything she knew to get it to work, but gave up. Probably new speakers were needed, but at her age, why bother?

There was a time when she would have enjoyed the challenge of fixing things, but not now. She lacked the strength and agility to bend, pull, push and connect. Therefor things remained broken if unessential. Otherwise she hired someone. Because she’d lived without the stereo for years, that would be an unnecessary expense.

Sarah had every right to be gloomy despite the cheery Christmas music and the colorful displays in every store, but she tried not to let loneliness drag her down. The sun was shining this fine Christmas Eve, and since it was relatively warm for the San Francisco Bay Area, she put on a jacket and headed out for her daily walk around her neighborhood. This was a ritual she loved so much that she timed it so that dusk was just beginning to fall as she closed the door behind her. She wanted it to be not too dark for kids to still be outside and just dark enough for the colorful lights to come on as she walked. And since it was nearly Christmas, almost every house would be lit up.

Today she headed north toward the park at the end of the block. A pair of young boys rode bikes past her, their high-pitched voices shrieking with excitement. Sarah bet they were dreaming of all the wonderful gifts they’d open the next day. She smiled even though there were no presents for her. Hadn’t been for years.

When she was in her twenties she’d fallen for George Miles, a not-so-handsome teacher at the high school where she worked. His neatly combed black hair, his crisply ironed button-down shirts and his funny way with words warmed her heart. Sarah sat near him every day at lunch so she could laugh at his not-quite-funny jokes and enjoy his riffs of contemporary music. She kept a dreamy look off her face so as not to scare him away and never, ever stared at his face even though the cleft in his chin tickled her pink. If word had gotten out that she fancies George, she would have been the laughingstock of the campus. Handsome George would never have fallen for plain Sarah. And then the most severe deterrent was that it was unseemly for a teacher to flirt with a peer.

For years she’d dreamed of the dates they’d go on, the kisses and the proposal after a fancy dinner, followed by a summer wedding in a lush backyard garden. Never once, however, had he asked how she was doing or engaged her in conversation or said good morning or dropped into her classroom to share curriculum even though they often taught the same level of math.

One August about fifty years ago, when school resumed, George did not appear. Sarah learned from the gossipers that he’d transferred to Fremont High School where his salary would be substantially higher. Her dreams crushed, Sarah swore there would never be a workplace romance, no marriage, no children and resigned herself to a life lived alone.

Other teachers teased her about her single status and one tried to set her up with a new hire, an odd-looking fellow with such a heavy accent that he was hard to understand. Sarah declined, but that didn’t stop further attempts at coordinating blind dates. After a while even those dried up.

At the park Sarah set on the one bench that wasn’t covered in bird poop and watched four little kids climb up and slide down, over and over, laughing and giggling as watchful parents stood guard. She imagined herself as a mother and how she’d walk hand-in-hand with her child everywhere they went, the snuggles on the couch while she read book after book and nighttime treats of vanilla ice cream and macaroon cookies. It saddened her that she’d never held her own newborn, never know the joys of motherhood, but what’s done is done. No going back now. Not at her age.

The kids were rounded up as the sun set lower. The parents dutifully buckled them up in car seats before pulling away from the curb. Sarah fought back tears that inevitably fell after such events.

She resumed her walk, this time one block over where there were a series of blowup decorations. Her favorites were Snoopy and the Grinch. Whenever she passed a Nativity scene she stopped for a minute to thank God for the blessings in her life. That left her feeling buoyantly proud of how well she’d managed despite being alone. A paid-off house, car, and an ability to live on her retirement.

Felling a bit chilled after the walk, Sarah brewed a cup of Chamomile tea as her microwaved dinner cooked. She turned on the evening news and listened, in horror, about shootings and stabbings and thefts all around the Bay Area. It was depressing how violent the world had become. She didn’t recall things being so bad before.

After eating she cleaned up a bit, wiping down kitchen counters and washing her fork and cup. She settled into her recliner and pulled the new sherpa-lined throw she’d ordered from JC Penneys that had come the day before. Just as her body warmed, an unfamiliar noise arose that drove Sarah to her front window from where she could see all the goings-on in her courtyard.

Outside stood a group of carolers, young and old, smiling despite the steam pouring from their open mouths. Their sound was beautiful even though a few loud voices sang off-tune. Sarah opened the door, saying, “Oh, my, how beautiful. Would you like to come in?”

Once inside with caps removed, she recognized her neighbors. “Oh! Thanks for coming. I’d offer you seats, but as you can see, well, I’m sorry, but I can’t seat you all.”

“No matter,” the youngest little boy said, “we’ll sit on the floor.”

There were four children spoke who quietly among themselves while the adults, in singles and pairs, approached with gifts. Ms. Bern offered a tin of homemade shortbread cookies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith a foil-wrapped plate of lasagna and the Mendoza clan of six gave her tamales and enchiladas. “We wanted you to have a special Christmas,” Mrs. Mendoza said, “so we made our favorite holiday foods to share.”

Sarah beamed. “This-this is wonderful. I don’t know what to say.”

“Just enjoy,” Mr. Bern said. “Now, we’d like to sing for you.”

Song after song rang out in her normally quiet house. For the first time in a long time, Christmas joy spread enlightened her. Sarah felt so buoyant that she feared her feet no longer touched the floor.

It was over way too soon, but the carolers had others they wanted to bless. As they left, Sarah shook hand after hand, saying, “Thank you so much.”

The last to leave, the Smiths, folded her into a group hug as Mrs. Smith said, “You’re invited to Christmas dinner. We’ll have snacks around four, so come then. You don’t have to dress up as we’ll be wearing jeans.”

That night Sarah couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t shared Christmas joy with another soul in over thirty years, after her parents died in a horrific car accident. To be with the Smiths was a chance to laugh and enjoy good food. The Smiths were a happy family of four, so there’d be plenty of stories told and friendly teasing and tons of joy to go around.

Even though she wasn’t supposed to bring anything, the next morning Sarah searched through cookbooks to find something simple, yet tasty to make. She settled on a cheese log that was once a big hit at potlucks.

Prior to leaving, Sarah tried on a variety of outfits: light blue jeans with sweaters, dark jeans with tunics, black jeans with blouses. Eventually she settled on blue jeans with a dark green sweater. A Christmassy look, but not too formal.

At precisely three-fifty-five Sarah slipped on her jacket and strolled down the street, cheese log wrapped and balanced in her hands. Before she could ring the bell, however, the door opened, a smiling Mrs. Smith welcoming her with a smile and hug. “Come in, come in. It’s freezing out there.”

She led Sarah into the front room, indicating a chair before a fire in the gas fireplace. “Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Hot coco? Soda?”

“Tea would be nice. Do you have Earl Gray?”

With Mrs. Smith off to the kitchen, Sarah looked around. A beautifully decorated artificial tree stood in the front window, all reds and silvers. Underneath were opened gifts, mostly books and board games and bits of clothing. On every flat surface was a symbol of Christmas: santas, nativity sets, angels and snowmen. Cinnamon filled the air, reminding Sarah of the freshly baked cookies her mother made when she was a little girl.

The front door opened and in rushed two boys followed by Mr. Smith. The three tossed boots and coats in the entryway, then the kids disappeared down the hall. “Well, hello,” Mr. Smith said as he stood with his back to the fire. “I’m glad you came. Christmas is a time to gather together. We just couldn’t bear the thought of you being alone.”

“I don’t mind,” Sarah said. “I’ve been alone most of my life.”

“Well, it’s time to establish new traditions.”

Mrs. Smith entered with a tray of tea cups, hot water and a variety of what most likely were homemade cookies and brownies. “Help yourself,” she said, then turning to her husband, said, “turn on some music please.”

The kids appeared when the music began. Everyone sang along, even Sarah, who hadn’t sung outside of church since her teen years. It was great fun.

“Dinner is ready. Time to eat,” Mrs. Smith said as she led the way into the dining room.

Sarah sat next to Mr. Smith who turned out to be a lively conversationalist. He was well versed in politics, sports, literature and local affairs. The kids entertained by sharing jokes that weren’t quite funny but that everyone thought hilarious anyway, so Sarah laughed with them. Mrs. Smith was also a joy, because she shared stories of her students’ sillinesses.

The evening passed quickly. Around seven Mr. Smith offered to walk her home. He helped her with her coat after ordering the kids to say goodbye. Mrs. Smith hugged Sarah so tightly that it was difficult to breathe, but Sarah didn’t mind at all.

“Did you have a nice evening?” Mr. Smith asked when they arrived at Sarah’s door.

“Yes, yes I did. In fact, it’s the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Thanks for inviting me.”

After hanging up her coat, Sarah turned on her television just in time to catch a Christmas movie. It was one of those with a predictable storyline: woman meets man, they don’t like each other, they talk, they fight, they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Sarah didn’t mind one bit. She’d just experienced her own storybook evening. This will be a Christmas to remember, she thought.

 

Bringing Christmas Home

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.