The countryside sped by as Anne Morgan Davidson – Mrs. Matthew Davidson until six months ago – watched her reflection in the window of the train, a picture superimposed on the snow-covered scenery. An oval face just barely etched with lines – a testimony to years flitting by. Or maybe just to the last year, which hadn’t been a very good one.
Her reflection showed an attractive woman with chestnut-colored hair, and eyes as green as the countryside in spring. Her eyes reflected intelligence, as well as sadness. As she studied her face and the wintry countryside, she let her mind wander.
Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the train. If I would have flown, I’d have been there by now. Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to this trip at all. Am I being ridiculous, trying to recapture some of the excitement I felt as a child spending Christmas with Aunt Beth? So far, it isn’t working.
I can’t seem to rise above the sadness and disappointment that Mac and Jennie, my own kids, decided to go skiing with their dad, instead of spending Christmas with me. Good ol’ Matthew Davidson. I can always depend on him to make me unhappy. At least he’s reliable on that score. I’m sure the kids will have a great time with Matt and his new wife, Deirdre.
It was two days before Christmas, but Anne felt none of the joy emanating through the train car where she was seated. She was oblivious to the bright-red garland stretched atop the windows and the wreaths decorated with shiny silver balls that hung over the doorways on either end of the railway car. None of the festive air surrounding the other passengers even touched her as she observed happy couples with their freshly scrubbed, overdressed children.
Enjoy it while you can, folks, because when the bloom is off your marriage, the kids will go wherever it’s “fun,” and they won’t give a second thought to your happiness.
As she remembered the phone call from Mac and Jennie, Anne suddenly felt guilty for thinking like that. They really were sweet kids. They were very apologetic as they assured her how much they would miss her.
I do understand ... really. A couple of college kids wanting to go off on a winter skiing holiday with their dad. It’s the “their dad” part of the equation that I resent so much. I must admit, though, that even Matt’s phone call was pleasant. He hasn’t seen much of the kids since the divorce, and he does have a right to see them. But why does it have to be over the Christmas holiday?
Anne leaned back, resting her head against the headrest, trying to take her mind off of her kids and her ex-husband ... and his new bride. She forced herself to think of Aunt Beth’s invitation to spend Christmas with her on the farm. Anne could hardly believe she’d accepted. An old-fashioned Christmas with her seventy-five-year-old aunt on an Iowa farm was hardly Christmas in Aspen, Colo., or even in Des Plaines, Ill., where she’d lived since she and Matt were married twenty-four years ago.
“Come be with me, Annie,” Aunt Beth had encouraged. “Come share this special holiday with me, and let me share my treasures with you.”
So, convincing herself that Aunt Beth needed company, and secretly hoping she could recapture some of the wonderful feelings she’d felt as a child spending Christmas at Aunt Beth’s farm, Anne accepted. Aunt Beth was the only remaining relative on Anne’s mother’s side of the family – her mother’s sister. A pang of loss grabbed Anne as she thought of her mother, who had been gone now for many years. She knew her mom and Aunt Beth, who were born only fifteen months apart, had been extremely close.
I wonder what Aunt Beth meant by “share my treasures.” It seems to me that she’s mighty short in the treasures area. She’s barely been able to keep up the house since Uncle Ralph died all those years ago. She rents out the land, so all she has, as far as I can tell, is that old, drafty house that’s badly in need of paint.
The train slowly eased to a stop, the motion breaking Anne’s reverie. After gathering her bags, Anne made her way down the aisle, out the doors and onto the platform. The station was in the middle of nowhere, and her feelings of desolation and abandonment increased.
I should just buy a ticket and hightail it right back to Des Plaines. A country Christmas just isn’t right for me anymore.
“Annie, it’s so good to see you,” Anne heard someone call. “Let me take a look at you.”
Suddenly, Anne was wrapped in the arms of her Aunt Beth, who hugged her, then took a few steps back so she could look at her late sister’s only child.
“You look a bit sad and depressed, Annie,” Aunt Beth said. “It’s two days until Christmas! This is the most festive time of the year, remember?”
“I know. I’m sorry, Aunt Beth,” Anne said. “This is my first Christmas since the divorce, and the kids aren’t spending the holiday with me, and ... I guess I’m just overwhelmed.”
“I understand, honey. Sometimes life is almost more than we can bear, but we have to keep going, and we have to grab happiness anywhere we can find it,” Aunt Beth said. “The kids love you, you know that. And Matt probably still does, too. He just didn’t want to be married to you anymore.”
“That’s for sure,” Anne said. “He wanted Deirdre – ‘DeeDee,’ who’s just four years older than Jennie.”
“Let’s not talk about things that sadden you. It’s Christmastime, and there’s a lot for you to be happy about ... really. And it’s up to me to show you.”
The taupe-colored interior of Aunt Beth’s twenty-year-old car was spotless. It didn’t look much different than it had when Uncle Ralph had brought the car home, much to his wife’s dismay. Aunt Beth had worried that the neighbors would think they were putting on airs, driving a brand-new, fancy car. Anne smiled at the remembrance. She and Matt had showed up for a visit that same day, to show off their baby daughter. It had been such a happy time, and now it was a bitter memory.
Anne glanced over at her aunt, who was chattering nonstop. Every now and then, Anne could feel the car’s tires lose their grip on the snow, and the car would shift ever so slightly.
“Aren’t you going a bit fast for this much snow cover on the road, Aunt Beth? And don’t they ever plow the roads around here?” Anne asked.
“No, I’m not going too fast, Annie. I’ve driven these roads for more than sixty years. I know them like the back of my hand, and I’ve never had an accident, not even a fender-bender. And of course they plow the roads. They just don’t plow them every hour on the hour, like they do in the big city.”
Aunt Beth had left the garage doors open on the small, detached garage at the farm, so she could drive right in when they returned. As they pulled in, Anne noticed that one of the hinges that held the door on the right side was broken, causing the door to hang askew. Anne looked at her five-foot-tall aunt and wondered how she managed to maneuver the door.
Anne stepped from the car and turned toward the old farmhouse. The snow covered its flaking paint, and it was beautiful. It looked picturesque, flanked by huge evergreens, their branches sparkling. Although it was afternoon, daylight was giving way to twilight, and the light left served as a backdrop to a scene perfect enough for a Christmas card.
“Here, honey, let me take your suitcase,” Aunt Beth said, taking her niece’s luggage. "You’ll have trouble just keeping yourself upright without boots."
Anne grabbed her bags, which contained gifts for her aunt, then tromped through the snow after Aunt Beth, embarrassed and wishing she hadn’t accepted the invitation.
Her regrets vanished, however, as soon as she walked into the kitchen, resplendent with the smells of Christmas – the smells she so clearly remembered from her childhood.
Anne eyed the many rows of cookies Aunt Beth had made – gingerbread boys carefully decorated with frosting faces, and sugar cookies in every Christmas-related shape imaginable. Remembering that she hadn’t eaten on the train, Anne reached out for a sample.
“Go ahead, honey,” Aunt Beth said. “Just one, though, because dinner’s in the oven, and we’ll be eating soon.”
Anne couldn’t help but smile as she bit into a gingerbread cookie, first biting off a leg the way she’d done as a little girl.
She still thinks of me as a child who needs to be reminded not to ruin my dinner with too many sweet treats.
Anne followed her aunt, who was still carrying Anne’s luggage, into the back bedroom – the room that Anne had stayed in as a child, the room that she and Matt and the kids had stayed in each time they visited Aunt Beth. She marveled at the same off-white wallpaper, accented with blue bows, although now it was browned somewhat because of age. She looked up to see the same ceiling light, so dim at night that she could barely see without turning on the two amber-colored hurricane lamps lined up like sentries on either side of the dresser. The lamps had been kerosene lamps at one time, but Uncle Ralph had converted them to electric fixtures many years ago.
“Hang your things in the armoire, Annie, and put your folded clothes in these two drawers,” Aunt Beth said, pulling out the drawers and allowing the lavender scent of the sachets inside to fill the room. “Dinner will be on the table in an hour. I’ll see you then.”
“Can I help with anything?” Anne asked, starting to follow her aunt out the door.
“Naw. You get unpacked and make yourself at home,” Aunt Beth said before turning and leaving the room to check on dinner.
After all these years, I can’t believe this room has stayed the same. I can still remember Mom tucking me into this bed, the crisp, cool sheets smelling of lavender. And later, this is where Matt and I slept, most of the time with the kids tucked in between us. Those were wonderful, hectic years, traveling from Illinois to this obscure Iowa farm. Why is it that some things change so much, and others don’t change at all?
Anne sighed and began unpacking, shaking her garments out carefully before putting them away. She dressed quickly after selecting a pair of beige wool slacks and a forest-green cable-knit sweater. She’d almost forgotten how cool the room could be, making quick dressing a necessity, and she knew she’d be dressing quickly for the duration of her visit. She pulled on a pair of brown suede boots, ran a brush through her hair, and then headed for the kitchen.
“You look much more comfortable,” Aunt Beth said, noticing her niece’s warmer attire. “Did your feet finally dry off?”
“Yes, but they’re still a bit chilly,” Anne said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I should’ve known to dress warmer for the trip.”
“Why don’t you sit here by the stove and prop your feet up by the oven? That’ll warm you up in no time.” Aunt Beth nodded toward the old gas stove, with its white ceramic knobs and solid iron burner plates.
Anne pulled one of the heavy oak kitchen chairs over to the stove and did as her aunt suggested. She smiled as she thought about her friend Marilyn. She and Marilyn had worked together for many years at Clarion Publishing, where Anne was an associate editor. Marilyn would think she was foolish for nearly toasting the expensive boots she wore, but doing it felt good – it felt right.
“So, what’s this bit about a treasure you’re going to show me?” Anne asked.
“Not a treasure, Annie, many treasures. Some you’ll see tomorrow when we put up the tree. Riches – every last one of them.”
“Well then, I guess I’ll just have to wait,” Anne said.
I feel like a kid here. But isn’t that why I came, to recapture some of the Christmas magic I knew here as a little girl? I feel totally relaxed. I haven’t felt this free in a long time. Thanks, Aunt Beth. Thanks for the invitation, thanks for being you, and thanks for not changing over the years.
Anne bolted upright, almost tipping the chair as she pulled her feet away from the stove.
“Aunt Beth, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I haven’t helped you with anything,” Anne said, embarrassed as she noticed that the table was completely set.
“No need to be sorry, Annie. You’re exhausted, so you took a little nap. That’s what we humans are supposed to do when we’re tired. Getting dinner ready and on the table was no problem at all. I’ve done it thousands of times, and I love doing it. In fact, I love doing it even more for my favorite niece,” Aunt Beth said.
Anne immediately felt tears spring to her eyes, and she blinked rapidly, doing her best to keep them under control.
How could I possibly have stayed away from this wonderful woman for so long? I am so fortunate to have her.
Anne joined her aunt at the table, the delectable smells making her realize that she hadn’t had a really substantial meal in a long time – not since Mac and Jennie had told her that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas. Since then, she had allowed herself to wallow in self-pity.
Aunt Beth reached across the table and took Anne’s hand, which was a stretch for the small woman. Her grip, however, was quite strong as she offered thanks for the food they were about to eat. She also thanked the Lord for her niece’s visit. Touched by the woman’s kind words, Anne squeezed her aunt’s small, work-worn hand after saying “Amen.”
“Are we expecting guests?” Anne asked. “Surely all this food isn’t just for the two of us.”
“I’ll take what’s left to the church tomorrow. They can always use it, especially this time of year. I can’t do much, but I can help with food donations.”
Anne nodded, knowing that there were no limitations to her aunt’s generosity. Years ago, when Aunt Beth and Uncle Ralph were younger, they spent every Thanksgiving and some Christmas Eves delivering food baskets to neighbors who’d had bad crops or were just down on their luck.
“Now, tell me about yourself, Annie. What’s going on with your job? What do you do with your time down there in the city?” Aunt Beth asked.
For the next hour and a half, Anne told her aunt about her job, her activities outside her job, and her kids. She told about Jennie working on the college newspaper and about her upcoming choir tour. She boasted with pride as she told about Mac’s academic accomplishments in his freshman year of college.
“Well, I guess bedtime will be approaching soon, and here we are still jabbering away,” Aunt Beth said, getting up from the table. “I go to bed early and wake up early. Old habits held over from the early days I guess, when Ralph and I had morning chores to do.”
“That’s fine with me,” Anne said, yawning and stretching as she stood. “I’m beat, so going to bed early sounds wonderful. I don’t know about getting up early, though,” she added with a laugh. “I get up early at home because I have quite a drive to the office, and the traffic is abominable, but since I’m on vacation, I might decide to sleep in a little later than usual.”
“You go right ahead, honey. I have little things I do around here in the morning,” Aunt Beth said, “but I’ll try to do them quietly.”
Anne put her arm around her aunt, leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
“Who knows, I just might catch the get-up-early bug and join you in the morning with your little chores,” Anne said. “Now, let’s get these dishes done so we can get to bed. I can just hear those lavender-scented sheets calling me.”
Anne didn’t wake until shortly after nine o’clock the next morning. Shocked at how late it was, she immediately jumped out of bed and hopped from one foot to the other on the ice-cold floor until her feet finally found the warm, woolly slippers she’d brought. She ambled into the small bathroom adjoining the bedroom, and suddenly another memory came back to her.
Before Uncle Ralph installed the fixtures to make this a bathroom, the bathroom had been a little building several yards behind the house. It was a great, but cold, experience as a kid. But now that I’m all grown up, I’m extremely grateful that Aunt Beth and Uncle Ralph installed indoor plumbing.
The bathroom was very chilly, and Anne’s teeth chattered as she shed her warm pajamas and hopped into the tiny shower stall. The water was steaming hot, and she basked in its warmth, lathering herself with scented soap, taking a longer shower than she had actually intended.
Where does Aunt Beth find all this wonderful, fragrant stuff? The whole place smells like her – sweet and old-fashioned. It’s great!
The smell of fresh biscuits and bacon greeted Anne the moment she reached the kitchen doorway, enhanced by the welcoming fragrance of fresh coffee. Aunt Beth still made egg coffee, feeling that it couldn’t be matched by any of the newer drip-style coffee machines found in most kitchens now.
“Aunt Beth, I’m so embarrassed. I had no intention of sleeping so late. It just seemed so dark, and that bed is so comfortable, and ...”
Aunt Beth turned from the stove, where she had just removed the hot biscuits from the oven.
“Nothing to be embarrassed about, Annie. You were exhausted, and as you said last night, you’re on vacation,” Aunt Beth said. “Let’s sit down and have some breakfast. That’ll give us both energy for all the things we have to do today.”
“You waited for me? Aren’t you starved?” Anne asked. “I’m guessing you’ve been up for a while.”
“A while. I got all my little chores out of the way, though, so we can do important Christmas things today. I usually don’t eat breakfast until midmorning anyway, so waiting for you was no problem. I started fixing things when I heard you stirring in your room.”
Anne dug into the delicious food her aunt placed before her.
I’ll be as big as a house if I eat like this the whole time I’m here. But I’m famished this morning. I feel like I haven’t eaten in ages, in spite of the huge supper we had last night.
Anne glanced out the window and, in a childlike tone of delight, said, “Oh, it’s snowing.”
“Uh-huh. It’s snowing hard. We’ll need to shovel before we can even get out this morning.”
“Do we really have to get out?” Anne asked. “I mean, couldn’t we just ‘hole up’ in here until the storm, and this does appear to be a storm ... or maybe ‘blizzard’ would be a better word for it ... is over?”
“This isn’t a blizzard, honey. It’s just a heavy snowfall. It’s not blowing a bit. We just need to shovel a path to the garage this morning. But if it continues snowing like this, we’ll probably have to shovel ourselves back in this afternoon.”
“But the roads ... the driveway?” Anne questioned.
Glancing at the large clock hanging on the wall opposite the table, Aunt Beth said, “In about fifteen minutes, you’ll hear the roar of Joe Abramson’s tractor plowing us out. You can almost set your clock by Joe. He comes by every morning when it snows, and he comes back again when the snow’s over. He’s been doing it ever since Ralph died.”
As her aunt had predicted, at ten o’clock, Anne heard the rumble of the tractor, and within minutes, the driveway was plowed. She did notice, though, that it seemed to be piling up fast again as the snow continued to fall steadily.
“We best get these dishes out of the way before too much of the day has disappeared,” Aunt Beth said. “Tonight is Christmas Eve, and we still need to get the tree put up.”
The tree. Where is the tree? Surely Aunt Beth doesn’t plan on us going out and chopping down our own tree – I hope. No, she couldn’t. It’s not very wooded around here. But where will we find one?
As if reading Anne’s mind, Aunt Beth said, “Joe was going to bring the tree over this morning when he came to plow.” She peered out the window and added, “Yep, there it is, propped up against the garage. We can shovel right up to it, then we’ll have a good path so we can drag it inside. It looks like a big one.”
Anne looked out the window, feeling the excitement and anticipation that a small child might feel.
“Oh, it’s a beautiful tree, Aunt Beth.”
Anne thought of her tree at home, and those of her friends. Artificial trees – displayed like artifacts to match the furnishings of their living rooms. Anne had settled for a tabletop tree this year, which she decorated with all silver ornaments. When she put it up, she thought it was lovely, but now it seemed shallow and pointless, like it was just another piece of furniture.
“OK, kiddo,” Aunt Beth said, drying her hands as the last dish was put away. “Let’s shovel that path so we can bring in our tree.”
“Wouldn’t it have been better to ask Joe to bring it to the house?”
“Naw, I wouldn’t ask him to do that. He’s not a deliveryman, Anne. He’s my neighbor,” Aunt Beth said. “No, I just asked him to bring me a good tree from Wayland’s lot in town. He’s been picking out my tree and bringing it out for five years now. He always picks the prettiest tree in the lot.” Aunt Beth turned to Anne and said, “Be sure to dress warm. The snow’s letting up, but the wind is picking up, so it’ll be cold.”
Before Anne knew it, Aunt Beth had propped her shovel against the garage, so Anne did the same. Their task was over, and Anne was filled with a glow she hadn’t experienced in years.
“OK, Annie, you grab one end of the tree, and I’ll take the other,” Aunt Beth said, shaking the tree vigorously until most of the snow that was on it fell to the ground.
The two tromped along the snowy path they’d just shoveled, carrying the fragrant, six-foot-tall fir between them.
“Now, let’s warm up with a cup of cocoa or coffee,” Aunt Beth said, standing the tree against the porch wall. “Which do you prefer, Annie?”
“I think I’d like a cup of cocoa,” Anne said.
This is a cocoa event. I can have coffee anytime, but how often do I get the chance for hot cocoa made from scratch. I know she’ll make it just like she did when I was a kid. I loved watching her combine the dry, bitter cocoa with a heaping amount of sugar, then slowly stir in the milk until the mixture was blended and almost boiling.
“Grab some mugs and put a couple of marshmallows in the bottom of each one,” Aunt Beth said.
As Aunt Beth poured the steaming hot cocoa into the mugs, the marshmallows bobbed to the top, their foamy-white, sweet and sticky substance covering the surface like thick froth atop waves on a stormy sea.
“Mmm. I could get used to this,” Anne said, wrapping her chilled hands around the mug and letting the steam rise to warm her face.
Aunt Beth just smiled, happy that her niece was enjoying herself. Neither of them spoke while they sipped their cocoa, but the silence was pleasant.
“We’d better get to work,” both women said at the same time.
Aunt Beth went to the porch and shook the tree vigorously, knocking what snow and moisture remained onto the floor.
“Give me a hand, honey, and we’ll get this thing inside,” Aunt Beth said. “Joe sawed the trunk for us, so all we have to do is drop the trunk inside the stand, which is already in place. That Joe, he’s a gem. I should’ve married him.”
Anne quickly glanced at her aunt to see if she was serious. She could tell by the mischievous sparkle in the older woman’s eyes that she wasn’t.
When the tree was secured in the tree stand, Anne stepped back, inhaled deeply and said, “That has to be the most divine fragrance known to man.”
“Isn’t it? And soon it’ll fill the whole house,” Aunt Beth said. “Don’t you put a tree up at home?”
“Not a real one. I couldn’t find one this fresh in all of Des Plaines,” Anne said. “This year, I put up a little table tree and hung little silver balls on it. I decorated the house some, too, so it’d look festive for having friends over. It looked all right, but nothing like this one will.”
Anne drew in another deep breath, filling her senses with the smell that reminded her of so many past Christmases. Christmases when she and Matt were young and happy. Christmases when the kids were little and looking forward to Santa’s arrival. And even Christmases as a child – some of them spent right here at Aunt Beth’s farm.
“We need to run by the church before we start on the tree,” Aunt Beth said. “I have some breads, cookies and other food I want to drop off.”
After dropping off the baked goods at the church, Anne and Aunt Beth went back to the farm. As Aunt Beth parked the car in the garage, Anne was grateful that they had shoveled the path that led to the house earlier that morning.
“Now it’s time to get down to business,” Aunt Beth said, shedding her outdoor clothes and kicking off her boots just inside the door.
With Aunt Beth leading the way, they went into the living room, which Aunt Beth called the parlor, ready to decorate the tree. Aunt Beth pulled one of the many boxes in the room closer to the tree. She opened it and pulled out the first of many strings of lights.
“I like lots of lights, don’t you, Annie?” Aunt Beth asked.
“Mmm-hmm. I’ll climb the ladder, Aunt Beth,” Anne said, taking the ladder from her aunt’s hands. “You hand the lights up to me after you test them, and we’ll work our way down.”
They worked silently for almost an hour, placing the lights on the tree. The only light in the room was the subtle daylight of the gray day and the many lights adorning the tree. When the last string was hung, they both stepped back to admire their work.
“Perfect,” Anne said.
Aunt Beth said nothing. She just nodded in agreement.
“OK, Annie. Now it’s time for my favorite part of decorating – the ornaments, of course,” Aunt Beth said, as she drug another box over closer to the beautifully lit tree.
She opened the flaps on the old box and pulled out several smaller boxes. She carefully set them on the table nearby.
The first small box she opened was a small, gray gift box. She removed the cover very carefully, pulled back the old, discolored tissue and removed a silver ball ornament that was curved in on one side, housing a snow scene with a small deer.
“Oh, Aunt Beth,” Anne exclaimed, covering her mouth with surprise and delight. “I remember that ornament. It was Mom’s. It hung on our Christmas tree every year when I was a kid.”
“That’s right. It was really important to your mother – to Kathleen,” Aunt Beth said thoughtfully. “She bought it up in northern Minnesota the summer you were six months old. She and your dad took a vacation with your dad’s folks, and on the way home, in a small town called Pequot Lakes, they stopped in a coffee shop that had an adjoining gift shop. While your dad and grandpa lingered over coffee and looked after you, your mom and grandma wandered through the gift shop and bought ornaments. Christmas in July, I guess.”
“OK, ladies, we’ll have another cup of coffee and another piece of coffee cake. We’ll even watch the baby, but remember, the car’s already loaded top to bottom, so unless one of you wants to ride on the roof, try not to buy out the whole doggone gift shop,” Grandpa Morgan teased the women, who were set on shopping before going back home to Albert Lea, Minnesota.
Elmer and Sarah Morgan, their son, Keith, his wife, Kathleen, and their baby, Anne, had just spent five days vacationing in a lakeside cabin in a resort managed by old acquaintances. Elmer and Sarah had spent many a vacation day at the resort, and so had Keith, when he was a boy. It was a wonderful getaway opportunity for Keith and Kathleen. Life had been hectic since the birth of their daughter, Anne, six months ago. And they knew it would be more hectic when Kathleen went back to her teaching job in the fall.
“Look at all this stuff,” Kathleen said to Sarah, amazed at the items shelved in the tiny shop.
“Do we have any idea what we’re looking for?” Sarah asked.
“Not really. I want some kind of memento of Anne’s first vacation,” Kathleen said, glancing around, searching for just the right thing, when she suddenly spotted the Christmas ornaments. “Look, Sarah, Christmas in July. Maybe an ornament would be the perfect thing. You know, take it out year after year and remember these last five days – Keith running around with Anne on his shoulders, dipping our toes in the cold lake, trying to bathe Anne in that tiny pan while she kicked water all over.”
“Well, let’s take a look and see if you find anything you like,” Sarah suggested. “Anything that just sort of jumps out at you.”
“This is it,” Kathleen said, holding up the silver ball ornament. “This is just perfect.”
Anne continued to gaze at the silver ball as she carefully hung it on the tree. Her eyes were a bit misty after hearing her aunt’s story about the origin of the ornament. As she looked at the lit tree through her unshed tears, the light shimmered, and in the indention where the deer was, it looked as if it were snowing.
“I remember photos of that vacation,” Anne said. “Me sitting in a tiny, round pan surrounded by bath water, which I’d apparently splashed all over. Me riding high on Daddy’s shoulders, and Mom, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa posing in their matching flannel pajamas. There weren’t many pictures of Daddy after that, except for the one in his uniform. Mom had that photo sitting beside her bed until the day she died.”
“Well, honey, there weren’t very many opportunities for pictures after that. That vacation was in July, and your dad left for Korea in October,” Aunt Beth said.
“And he was killed three months later,” Anne said. “I never even knew him. Just what Mom told me about him. And the photographs. I know he was a handsome man.”
“That he was. He was a good man, too,” Aunt Beth said. “We all loved Keith.”
“Aunt Beth, did you ever wonder why Mom never remarried after Daddy was killed?” Anne asked.
“No. There was only one love for Kathleen, and that was Keith,” Aunt Beth said, smiling as though she could see the two of them standing right before her. “They had great plans for the future – they wanted brothers and sisters for you, and a new house, and ... and then the Korean War intervened. I think you’re the only thing that saved your mom’s life after your dad was killed. Kathleen knew she had to go on because of you. We were all really worried about her for a while, but she made it through that awful time, and she made a good life for the two of you.”
“Yes, she did,” Anne said, thinking of how much she missed her mother. “She had great friends and a wonderful family – both sets of grandparents, and you, of course. You two were really close, weren’t you?” she added, feeling guilty over the lack of attention she’d given her aunt recently.
“Yes, we were. Close in age, and close in caring about each other. We were as different as night and day, but our personalities complemented each other. We fit together just right,” Aunt Beth said, straightening a branch on the tree.
Nestling a small, white, plastic bird in her hand, Anne said, “Oh, how tiny! But there’s nothing to hang it with.”
“Just set it back in the branches,” Aunt Beth instructed her niece. “It doesn’t matter if it shows, just so it’s there. Kathleen always felt that it was her good luck charm. She said it helped her believe your dad was looking down on the two of you at Christmastime.”
“I’ve got a feeling there’s a story here. Am I right?” Anne asked.
“You’re right. There are stories everywhere. You just have to look for them,” Aunt Beth said. “But this one’s an easy one. The little bird is from your mom and dad’s wedding cake.”
“Don’t you want any color on your cake, Kathleen?” her mother and future mother-in-law asked the bride-to-be.
“No, I want it all white – white cake, white frosting, white roses ... or whatever decorations Diane decides to use,” Kathleen said. “I don’t want a gaudy or flashy cake. I just want a cake that looks, well, pure and simple.”
Diane, your mom’s friend, had agreed to bake the cake, and she agreed with your mom that a pure and simple white cake would look great, so she promised to do her best to make it look special.
When the cake was brought out at the reception, Kathleen knew she had made the right decision. It was three layers high, with pure white frosting over the top, edged with white swirls. White roses graced the top tier, and small, white, plastic bells and doves were imbedded in the frosting on the other tiers. Several people at the reception told your mom how beautiful the cake was.
Kathleen saved a handful of the bells and doves, and when she and Keith celebrated their first Christmas together the following DecembeR, she used them as tree ornaments. And she continued to use them each year. Eventually, some were lost, but one of each remained when she gave me her Christmas ornaments shortly before she died.
Your mother regarded the dove as an angel that watched over the family each Christmas,” Aunt Beth said, hanging the bell on the tree, while Anne placed the little dove on a branch close by.
“I remember both the dove and the bell – vaguely,” Anne said, “but I don’t remember the story that goes along with them. I guess I wasn’t a very inquisitive kid.”
“Oh, you were inquisitive, all right,” Aunt Beth said, chuckling. “Trust me on that. But the dove and bell are small, and I’m guessing that because they were so important to your mom, she kept them separate from the other Christmas ornaments, and she probably placed them on the tree herself each year, so she didn’t take a chance of either of them getting broken.”
“Here’s one I do remember,” Anne said, holding a small, decorated walnut in her hand. “I wanted Mom to be room-mother for my second-grade class. I didn’t realize that she couldn’t be a room-mother because she was a teacher, and she had her own class to take care of. I had a real temper tantrum over it. Eventually, Davey Larson’s mother agreed to be our room-mother. But not before Mom said she’d make an ornament for every child in my class for the Christmas party. I guess it was her way of appeasing me.”
“Can I have one, Mommy?” asked seven-year-old Anne, seeing the large pile of walnuts on the table in front of her mother.
“Not these,” her mother said. “Go get a couple from the nut bowl on the dining room table.”
Kathleen watched, amused, as Anne carefully squeezed the handles of the nutcracker, exercising a talent she’d just acquired. She heard a ‘crack’ and knew her daughter had accomplished her feat.
“Are you going to eat all those by yourself, Mommy?” Anne asked. “There’s a lot of them.”
“No, honey, I’m not going to eat any of them,” her mother said. “These are the Christmas tree ornaments I promised you I’d make for you and each of your classmates. There are forty nuts here, so each of you will get ...”
“Two,” Anne shouted, proud that, knowing there were twenty kids in her class, she could figure out that forty ornaments would give each child two. “But, how are you going to make these nuts into ornaments? They just look like nuts to me,” she added, a pout appearing on her face as she leaned over the table where her mother was working.
“Well, little Miss Impatient, sit yourself down right here beside me, and I’ll show you how it’s done,” Kathleen said.
Anne pulled up a chair beside her mother, her green eyes attentively sweeping over the piles of supplies her mother had arranged on the table. She had been so focused on the nuts, she’d overlooked the bowls of red and blue sequins, the pile of cotton, and the stack of red felt.
“This is how we turn this pile of nuts into Christmas tree ornaments,” Kathleen said, smiling at her daughter.
She picked up a walnut and a small bottle of glue. She placed three dots of glue on the top side of the walnut – one about halfway down, and the other two a bit above the first one, spaced evenly apart. She placed a red sequin over the first dot of glue, and she put blue sequins over the other two glue dots.
“There,” she said, holding the sequin-adorned walnut toward Anne. “Santa now has eyes and a nose. What do you think?”
“He’s going to look great,” Anne said, clapping her hands together and giggling.
“What’s so funny?” Kathleen asked.
“Santa’s bald,” Anne said, still laughing.
“So he is,” Kathleen said, smiling at her daughter’s pleasure with the project. “It’s up to us to take care of that. Now, come on, silly, let’s get to work. You can help me make the Santas, OK?”
“OK,” Anne replied.
For the next couple of hours, mother and daughter diligently added facial features to the walnuts. When they finally finished, Kathleen looked up and noticed the time.
“OK, little lady,” Kathleen said. “It’s time for bed.”
“But we’re not done,” Anne said. “The Santas are still bald, and they don’t have beards yet.”
“I’ll fix them tonight, and when you get up in the morning, they’ll be perfect,” Kathleen assured her daughter. “Now, go get ready for bed, and I’ll be there in a few minutes to tuck you in.”
When Anne woke the next morning, the first thing she did was run out to the living room to examine the Santas. As her mother had promised, forty little Santas stared up at her from the box where they were neatly lined up in rows, complete with snow-white moustaches and beards, and red hats trimmed in white cotton. And each hat was topped with a tiny little ball of cotton.
The ornaments were a hit with my classmates,” Anne said. “I was very proud when the kids and teachers stopped by to see our classroom tree that we’d decorated with forty walnut Santas. The day before Christmas vacation started, I helped the teacher, Mrs. Jones, hand the little ornaments out to my classmates. I wonder if anyone has them anymore. Probably not. But I’m sure glad you still have mine. Seeing it brought back such great memories of Mom.”
Anne was beginning to understand exactly what Aunt Beth had meant when she invited her to come spend the Christmas holiday with her and share her treasures.
“Time to break out some cookies,” Aunt Beth said. “We have to eat Christmas cookies when we decorate the tree, you know.”
“Of course,” Anne said. “As I recall, cookies were a necessity for decorating at home. And at Grandma and Grandpa Morgan’s. How about Grandma and Grandpa Ferguson’s? The years we went there for Christmas, we didn’t go until Christmas Day, so the decorating was already done. Most years, they came to Albert Lea to be with Mom and me.”
“I’m not sure. When your mom and I were kids, the tree wasn’t decorated until Christmas Eve night, after we’d gone to bed,” Aunt Beth said. “When we got up Christmas morning, there was the tree, loaded with lights, and strings of popcorn and cranberries, and presents for all were neatly wrapped and placed beneath the tree.”
Anne and Aunt Beth went into the kitchen. After Aunt Beth had made a pot of coffee, she grabbed a plate of cookies, then sat down at the table across from Anne and continued her story.
“First, we had breakfast – freshly baked cinnamon rolls, stollen, eggs and bacon, and herring with crackers and sour cream. A breakfast that was sort of a combination of Sweden and Iowa,” Aunt Beth said. “Oh, and we had rice pudding, too. Mom would put a single almond in the batch of pudding, and either your mom or I would find it in our serving. Mom and Dad never did find one. Whoever got the almond was destined to have good luck in the coming year. As we got older, it was supposed to mean that we’d meet our future husband during the year to come.”
“Did it work out that way? Did you get the almond the year you met Uncle Ralph, and did Mom get it the year she met Dad?” Anne asked, interested in the tradition her grandmother had started.
“It’s hard to tell. Ralph and I grew up together. I knew him forever. Of course, I had no idea that I’d end up married to him. He was just a pesky boy; someone to tease me when we were kids, and someone to carry my schoolbooks home when we got a little older.”
“What about Mom and Dad?” Anne asked.
“Your dad came into your mom’s life when Kathleen was a sophomore, and Keith was a senior. Keith’s dad took a teaching job at the university in Ames, and they bought the old Creighton place, which was about eight miles from our farm. I think Keith was smitten with Kathleen the first time he laid eyes on her. She was beautiful, and she could be quite the little flirt.”
“Mom?” Anne exclaimed, finding it very hard to believe that her hard-working, serious mother who never dated once during her entire widowed life, had been a flirt.
“I think she knew Keith was the one for her the first time they met. And like I said earlier, I knew there would never be anyone else for your mom, even after your dad died.”
They finished their coffee and cookies, and put their dirty dishes in the sink, then made their way back to the parlor.
“Anyhow, I don’t remember if either of us found the almond the years we met our husbands-to-be,” Aunt Beth said. “It was a fun custom, though, and it added to the suspense of breakfast on Christmas morning. We weren’t allowed in the parlor until after breakfast. The waiting was pure torture, but finally seeing the beautiful, decorated tree was sheer delight. I think the tree was more important to us than the presents.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Anne said. “Thank you so much for sharing your memories with me, Aunt Beth.”
Anne reached for another box and opened it, ready to continue the decorating party.
“These are cute,” she said, clutching a little red wagon in one hand, and a tiny, multicolored train engine in the other. “I sort of remember these. Did they have something to do with what Mom gave me for Christmas one year?”
“That’s right,” Aunt Beth said. “For a few years, after Kathleen bought your Christmas presents, she would hunt for an ornament to match. The wagon when you were three, the train when you were four. She couldn’t always find one, but she always tried. And sometimes, you’d like the ornament even more than you liked the gift. She said you took the wagon off the tree every chance you got. You’d borrow the Baby Jesus from the nativity scene, and you’d crawl around on the floor, pulling Him in the wagon.”
Both women laughed.
“And your mom made these,” Aunt Beth said, holding up an ornament of a tiny pair of ice skates, “because she couldn’t find one, and she was determined to match your gift of ice skates with an ornament. I think you were eight years old that year.”
“I can’t believe that in all the places I’ve looked, I can’t find an ice-skating ornament, Beth,” Kathleen complained to her sister on the telephone. “It’s ridiculous, especially since we live in the middle of snow and ice country.”
Kathleen had bought ice skates for Anne, and she wanted to mirror the gift with an ornament, as she’d done since Anne was a year old. This was Anne’s first pair of skates – white, with pink pom-poms adorning the bottom of the laces. Anne had learned to skate on a secondhand pair and continued to wear hand-me-downs from her cousin in Minneapolis. She never complained, but Kathleen had seen her admiring these new ones in a sports store over the Thanksgiving holiday. She knew how much her daughter wanted a new pair of skates, and she’d hoped to commemorate the occasion with a matching ornament. Kathleen could just see it – a miniature skater gliding across the ice. But she’d had no luck in matching her imagination with the real thing.
“Why don’t you just make an ornament, Kathleen?” Beth suggested to her sister. “You’re so good at that sort of thing. In fact, now that I think of it, I saw a package ornament at Myrtle’s that you could easily make. They were little ice skates, tied to the package with a big red bow.”
“Could you describe it to me? Maybe making the ornament is the way to go,” Kathleen said.
“They were made from fleece and had red felt around the top,” Beth said.
“That would be simple enough,” Kathleen said, “but what were the blades made from?”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Beth said. “Paper clips – shiny, new paper clips.”
“Sure, that would work,” Kathleen said. “I’d turn them on their sides and stitch them on the bottom of the white fleece shoes. It probably won’t take an hour to make. Thanks, Beth. Thanks so much!”
Beth and Kathleen talked a little longer, then wished each other a Merry Christmas before hanging up. As soon as she was off the phone, Kathleen searched through her sewing scraps for some white fleece and red felt. When she found it, she went to the desk drawer and found a brand-new, unopened box of shiny paper clips. In no time, she had the ornament completed and tied to Anne’s package. She tucked the package far back under the tree, hidden from the child’s curious eyes.
On Christmas morning, Anne was so excited about her skates, she could hardly wait until afternoon, when her grandfather had promised to take her skating.
As soon as the last piece of pumpkin pie had been devoured, Anne and her grandfather made their way to the skating pond, where Anne joined other children from the neighborhood trying out the new skates they had received for Christmas. Anne skated so long, her cheeks were bright red by the time she and her grandfather got home.
Grandma scolded Grandpa for keeping Anne out until she was nearly frozen, but Anne didn’t complain at all. She loved to skate, and she thought of herself as a princess when she wore her brand-new ice skates. She treasured the skates and wore them until they were so small, she could no longer tug them on her feet, no matter how hard she tried. And she also treasured her package ornament, which was easily transformed into a tree ornament. Anne hung the ice skates ornament on the Christmas tree each year until she moved away from her childhood home and into her own home in Des Plaines.
“These ornaments all seem to have come from Mom’s collection,” Anne said. “Don’t you have any that were on your tree, Aunt Beth? I know you’ve always put up a Christmas tree. Where are all of your ornaments?”
“I only use two ornaments, and I only use them because they’re so special to me,” Aunt Beth said. “Other than that, my tree has always been adorned with just strings of popcorn and cranberries, just like our tree at home when your mom and I were growing up.”
Aunt Beth smiled as she recalled Christmas trees from her childhood.
“And I always use lots of lights. I like the big ones, but all I can find these days are the little ones. I still use the multicolored ones, though. I like to decorate my tree as much as possible like the ones I remember as a kid.”
Anne glanced up at the tree, ablaze with all of the colored lights, and said, “We could still string some popcorn and cranberries, you know.”
“We might,” Aunt Beth said. “Now that I have all of your mother’s ornaments, I rarely do that any more. I just like to look at all of the treasures Kathleen left me. It helps me remember my sister and feel close to her.”
Anne’s eyes filled with tears, and as she glanced at her aunt, she saw a small tear trickle down her cheek.
Aunt Beth loved Mom as much I did, and it’s easy to see that she misses her just as much as I do, too. I’m so glad I came, so I can be here to share all of this with Aunt Beth.
Anne pulled an ornament out of the next box and held it up. The basis of the ornament was a Styrofoam ball. A small strand of silver garland was wound around the ball, held in place by pins and a baby blue pipe-cleaner. The pipe-cleaner was made into a small loop at the top, for hanging the ornament on the tree.
This is truly an ugly creation. It’s so obvious that it was made by a child’s small, creative hands and big imagination. Hey, wait a minute, I made this ugly ornament.
“I see you’ve come across one of my two ornaments,” Aunt Beth said, smiling. “Remember, I told you that along with popcorn and cranberries, I put two very special ornaments on my tree every year. Well, at least I did before your mother left me her beautiful collection. Well, that’s one of them. A very special ornament given to me by a very special person.”
“Are we there yet, Mommy?” asked seven-year-old Anne. “You said it wasn’t far, and we left home ages ago.”
They were headed to Beth and Ralph’s farm in Iowa, where they were going to spend Christmas. It wasn’t a terribly far journey, but it was far enough for a young widow and her daughter.
Kathleen wasn’t fond of winter travel, and she was anxious, certain it would start snowing soon. Anne finally stopped complaining and watched the countryside flit by. There wasn’t much to see in Iowa in December – leafless trees, snow-covered fields, and an occasional cow or two. Anne sighed.
Kathleen glanced at her daughter and smiled. Anne had a package, wrapped in colorful paper and bearing a big red bow, nestled firmly on her lap. Kathleen had packed the other gifts in a box and put it in the trunk of the car. But Anne had refused to let her mother add her package to the others.
“I need to watch this one. It might break if I don’t. And I made it ‘specially for Aunt Beth. I bet she’ll think it’s beautiful,” she said.
“I know she will,” Kathleen said. “OK, you can hold it on your lap.”
The snow began to fall just as Kathleen pulled the car into Beth and Ralph’s driveway. She was excited about spending Christmas with her only sister.
Ralph and Beth met Anne and Kathleen at the door, hugging them tightly, happy to see them.
“You two go inside with Beth, and I’ll get your things out of the car,” Ralph said.
“Thanks,” Kathleen said. “The suitcases and gifts are in the trunk.”
“Except for this one,” Anne said. “I carried this one on my lap ‘cause it’s special,” she added, handing her package to Aunt Beth.
“It certainly looks special,” Aunt Beth said. “Come on inside with me, Anne, and we’ll find a special spot under the Christmas tree – a special spot for a special gift.”
“And it was special, Annie,” Aunt Beth said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as excited about giving a gift as you were when you gave me that ornament. And I’ve treasured it ever since. It’s always had a special spot on our popcorn-and-cranberry-garland tree.”
Anne quietly hung the ornament. She could still remember the joy of that Christmas nearly forty years ago, when she and her mother spent the holiday with her aunt and uncle. The memory lit a glow deep inside her, something she thought she’d lost when her husband ended their marriage. Suddenly, she realized that she no longer felt angry toward Matt for betraying her. All of a sudden, she realized, for whatever reason, that their marriage had run its course. And if she really wanted to be honest with herself, she had to admit that the marriage was really over before it ended.
And she felt nothing but warmth toward her children, no matter who they chose to spend this magical holiday with. She hoped that they were having the time of their lives, replete with material for memories in years to come.
“It’s two o’clock already? I can’t believe the way this day is flying. When I was a kid, Christmas Eve day seemed like the longest day of the year,” Anne said. “When the kids were little, though, it seemed like the shortest. I never seemed to be ready for Christmas Day. I have to admit, I really did expect the day to drag this year. I thought my loneliness would make it unbearable. But you’re a sure cure for loneliness, Aunt Beth.”
Aunt Beth smiled at the compliment. She knew the loneliness Anne was talking about – she knew it well. But living on the farm, alone for the many years since Ralph’s death, she had learned to devise her own cures for the numbing feelings that came with being alone. Many times, she’d struggled with the ache her niece was experiencing since the divorce from her husband.
“Loneliness is a tough foe, Annie. One that can steal the very moments that, together, make up your life,” Aunt Beth said. “You’ll find that the best way to keep it at bay is to keep busy. Don’t think about happier days. They hurt too much right now. But you’ll heal eventually. Just give it time. The day will come when thinking about the things that hurt so much now, are the very thoughts that will bring you happiness, and you’ll think of them as memories.”
Aunt Beth’s lived all her life on this obscure farm, yet she’s gained so much wisdom. She’s a real philosopher!
Anne lifted the next ornament she came to from its box and unwrapped it.
“Oh, I remember this,” Anne said, holding the ornament of tiny cardinals at a tiny bird feeder, as the memory flooded her. “Mom bought this and a nativity scene at a gift shop the day after Christmas one year. She was never one to shop after-Christmas sales. She said everyone seemed to be part of a greedy mob. But she’d looked for something at this wonderful little gift shop called Martin’s Gifts, and she said everything was just too expensive to buy. So as soon as she learned that all of their ornaments would be discounted fifty percent the day after Christmas, she made plans to go. She wouldn’t take me with her, though. She said that everything in there was so fragile, and expensive, and she was afraid I would touch something and break it.”
“Mommy, can I go with you? Please? I promise I won’t touch anything,” Anne begged her mother.
“Not this time, honey. I won’t be gone long. I’m just going to pick up an ornament,” Kathleen told her daughter. “You’re going to go play with Kerry. Betty’s going to watch you guys while Myrna and I go to the gift shop. OK? Now, get your coat on.”
Little Anne’s pout turned to a big smile when she found out that she’d be playing with Kerry, her best friend. And his sister, Betty, let them do whatever they wanted, as long as they stayed out of her room.
Kathleen and Myrna didn’t return quite as soon as they had intended. Shopping the wares of the gift shop proved to be more enticing than expected.
“I think I handled every ornament in there,” Kathleen admitted to Anne when they got home.
“I hope you didn’t break anything,” Anne said.
Kathleen laughed as she hugged her precocious little girl.
“No, I didn’t break anything, silly. But I did buy a couple of lovely ornaments. Here, let me show you,” Kathleen said, as she opened a bag and took out two objects with what seemed like yards of tissue paper wrapped around them.
She unwound the first one and said, “See, honey, it’s a pair of cardinals at a bird feeder.”
“Oooh, look how tiny the birds are,” Anne said with apparent delight. “They have a fancy bird feeder,” she added, noticing the gold filigree top to the clear glass feeder. “And they’re soft,” she said, lightly stroking the tiny red birds with her index finger.
“Yes, they are,” her mother said. “And they’re very fragile, too.”
“Does that mean they’ll break really easy?” Anne asked, pulling her hand away.
“Yes, it does, so be very careful, honey,” Kathleen said, unwrapping the second ornament. “And here’s the other one.”
It was a very small nativity scene, and much of it was made of gold and green sequins, placed strategically to catch the light when it was placed on the Christmas tree. Kathleen learned over the years that if she hung it in just the right spot relative to a light, it would reflect off the sequins behind the baby in the manger and look like a halo shining bright over His head.
“Mom always gave that nativity ornament a very special spot on the front of the tree, high up on the branches,” Anne said, nodding to the ornament Aunt Beth had just unwrapped. “I’m sure she wanted it out of my reach. I had this compulsion to play with the tree ornaments when I was a kid. She also wanted it to be a focal point. As tiny as it was, it was one of the first ornaments you saw when the tree was lit. She’d put it in just the right spot, and the lights would glisten off of it.”
Aunt Beth placed the little ornament up high on the tree, adjusting it until it glistened like Anne had just told her Kathleen had always done.
“And this one,” Anne said, again holding up the bird feeder ornament, “I really had a hard time leaving alone. I loved to pet these tiny, soft, red feathers. I remember I broke off a small tip of one of them one time. I cried so hard, you would have thought I’d just killed a live bird. Mom told me that I’d learned the meaning of the word ‘fragile.’ And of course, she fixed it with a little glue, and it was as good as new.”
Aunt Beth watched Anne gently hang the cardinal ornament on the tree, noting her niece’s face, aglow with the joy of sharing her memories.
“Oh, Aunt Beth, the kids,” Anne said, lifting out an ornament with a photograph of her children, Jennie and Mac. Shaped like a small tree, a small circle was cut from the center of the Styrofoam, and the photograph of two smiling faces was placed in the cut-out. In the photo, Mac, a toddler with chestnut-brown curls, was grinning with delight at the photographer, and Jennie, every bit her father’s daughter, with her sleek, shiny black hair and dark eyes, looked as though she could wrap anyone and everyone around her little finger, even at the age of five.
“I told you I always hung two special ornaments on my tree. The one you made for me when you were a child was one, and that one, with Mac and Jennie’s picture, was the other one. Of course, I haven’t had this one as long as I’ve had the one you made. I treasure it, though, just like I treasure those two children of yours.”
“Oh, Aunt Beth,” Anne proclaimed, winding her arms tightly around her aunt’s neck, the ornament hanging from her finger. “That was such a wonderful Christmas – the year we came here to be with you, and the kids gave you this ornament. It seems like it was just yesterday.”
“OK, guys, let’s get you into Aunt Beth’s house before we start unloading the presents,” Matt said, gathering two-year-old Mac in his arms, the child barely discernible beneath the bundle of warm clothing.
“But, Daddy, the presents are the most important part,” argued Jennie. “They need to go under Aunt Beth’s tree right away.”
“And they will,” Anne told her daughter, “just as soon as we get you inside. And besides, young lady, the presents aren’t the most important part of our visit. We are.”
Anne’s statement was supported by her aunt, who was hastening out of the house, surrounding them with hugs.
After Anne unpeeled the warm clothes from the children, and Matt had lugged the suitcases and packages in from the car, Jennie and Aunt Beth arranged the packages under the tree.
“There’s a special one for you from me and Mac. It’s that one with candy canes on it,” Jennie told Aunt Beth, pointing proudly to a package that had obviously been wrapped by small hands.
“If it’s from you and Mac, honey, I know it’s special,” Aunt Beth said, giving Jennie another hug.
Anne and Matt fell into bed that night exhausted.
“Brrr, it’s cold in here,” Matt said, burrowing down into the covers.
“Oh, yeah. It’s always cold in this room,” Anne said. “You should have been here before Uncle Ralph put in the central heat.”
Matt and Anne were just dozing off, when Jennie announced from her cot in the corner of the room, “I can’t sleep, Mommy. I’m cold.”
“Come on in here with us, honey,” Anne said. “We’ll snuggle and keep each other warm.”
Jennie quickly ran across the room and jumped into the bed between her mom and dad, just as Anne was getting up to get Mac.
The four of them snuggled together under the pile of quilts Aunt Beth had placed on the bed. Warm and content, they slept soundly until morning, when they woke, ready for their celebration.
“That Christmas we were here, the one when the kids gave you this ornament, was one of the happiest of our lives,” Anne said, as she put the ornament on the tree. “Whatever happened to us to change us so? Back then, Matt and I wanted nothing more than to be happy with each other and the kids for the rest of our lives. Whatever happened?”
“Probably a lot of things happened – little things. You’ll probably never know, honey. But that doesn’t change the happiness you experienced here that year, or the many other happy times you shared. Life isn’t a formula, Anne. You can’t analyze it, and if you find an error, change the formula to reach the desired result. Life is a collection of memories. Treasure your memories, Anne, and go on from there. Treasure them like I treasure these ornaments.”
“Mom’s grandfather – your grandfather – made this, didn’t he?” Anne asked, holding up a carved snowman that was painted white, complete with a hat and a green scarf.
“Uh-huh. Pop McNair. He loved to whittle. See those little monkeys on that shelf over there,” Aunt Beth said, pointing to a trio of small, carved monkeys. “Pop carved those for me when I was just a kid, to commemorate my first – and only – trip to the zoo.”
Aunt Beth took the snowman ornament from Anne and turned it in her hands.
“This is one of the first things Pop cut out on the jigsaw Granny gave him one year for Christmas. You think kids get excited with new toys! Pop spent days in this little coop he called his woodshop, making Christmas tree ornaments. He and Granny put most of them on their tree – they always had a very large tree. They had lots of ornaments and plenty of strings of popcorn and cranberries, but no lights. Granny was terrified of fire, and she didn’t want any fire hazards on her tree. Those early lights really were hazardous. They were only one step better than candles.”
Anne listened closely while she watched Aunt Beth gently run her fingers over the snowman ornament.
“Anyhow, Pop thought making tree ornaments was a good way to use his new toy – the jigsaw. Trouble is, only a handful got finished. There was a shoebox full of them when he died. Granny took a half-dozen or so and painted them. She gave all of them except this snowman and a Christmas stocking to some kids from her church. The snowman went to your mother, and the stocking went to me. We were just kids then, and I lost mine. I’d give anything to have it now, but I played with it like a toy, and I lost it somewhere out in the yard.”
“They sound like interesting grandparents – Pop and Granny,” Anne said. “I never knew them, of course, but I vaguely remember some of the stories Mom told me about them.”
“They were definitely interesting, and they almost seemed like a mismatch. Pop was a big man, a big Scottish redhead. Even though he was well into his seventies when he died, his hair was still bright red. Granny was tiny, and I don’t remember her hair ever being anything but gray. She wore it in a long braid, which she wound around her head. At night, she’d unbraid it, brush it, then braid it again and let it hang down her back until morning. It was a delight for your mother and me to brush and braid Granny’s hair,” Aunt Beth said, chuckling. “It didn’t take much to please us, that’s for sure.”
Anne smiled, enjoying her aunt’s recollections. She could almost see her mother and aunt as they relished their relationship with their grandmother.
“Here’s that darling sled. This one I remember well,” Anne said. “This is another ornament Mom had problems getting me to leave alone. See, Aunt Beth, you weren’t the only kid who thought ornaments were playthings.”
Five-year-old Anne was having a great time. She had emptied a bag of cotton balls on the floor of her bedroom. She smoothed them out, laying them in a neat, level pile. Then she rolled some of them with her fingertips, pretending they were snowballs. She did this until she had what appeared to be a small hill covered with snowballs.
She went out to the living room, to where the Christmas tree stood. Anne loved the tree. She and her mom had selected it last Wednesday, and Mr. Appleton, their neighbor, had brought it home for them. The tree sat in the corner of the living room for three days, until the weekend, when Kathleen took out the boxes of lights and ornaments. Then they decorated it, and what fun they had.
Anne walked around the tree, looking for a certain ornament – a tiny, red sled. Her mom had bought the ornament in Eureka Springs, Ark., in the fall, when she and two other teachers spent a few days there.
Kathleen said that the lady at the gift shop where she bought it told her the young woman who made the sled had paid for her master’s degree by making and selling the little ornaments. Anne wasn’t interested in the story about the woman who made them, and she had no idea what a master’s degree was, but she sure did like the little red sled.
Anne looked up at the sled hanging on the tree, but she couldn’t reach it. So she scampered to her bedroom and grabbed one of the small chairs to her play table. Placing it next to the tree, she climbed up on the chair and gently removed the sled ornament. She climbed down from the chair and went back to her room, dragging the chair with one hand, and carrying the ornament in the other.
After putting the chair back at the table, Anne took a pair of small dolls from her dollhouse and brought them, along with her sled, to the pile of cotton balls.
“Whee,” she said, having a great time with her make-believe sledding adventures.
Kathleen was in the kitchen, and after hearing ‘whee’ five or six times, decided she’d better go investigate the situation.
“Anne, what are you doing?” she asked.
“My dollies are sledding, Mommy,” Anne replied. “I made a snowy hill for them.”
“So I see. And where did you get the sled, young lady?” Kathleen asked.
Anne looked at her mother sheepishly, knowing she wasn’t supposed to touch the Christmas tree ornaments once they were hanging on the tree.
“Off the tree, Mommy,” she said so softly that her mother could barely hear her.
“You know you’re not supposed to play with the tree ornaments. Now, you put the dolls back in the dollhouse, and I’ll hang the sled back on the tree.”
Anne did as she was told, then she walked out to the living room where her mother was putting the sled back on the tree.
“There,” Kathleen said, “and there it stays. Understand?”
“Yes, Mommy,” Anne said.
That was the last time Anne removed the little red sled to use as a toy, but not the last time she played with the tree ornaments.
Anne carefully hung the sled ornament on the tree, then stepped back to admire the tree, now complete except for the angel topper.
“It’s like a memory book, Aunt Beth,” Anne said. “A beautiful memory book.”
“That it is, Annie. That’s why I treasure it so,” Aunt Beth said. “Every year, as I hang each ornament, I go over the stories, just as we did today. In my mind, I see your mother, I see you as a child, and, later, as a wife and mother. And I see those two wonderful children of yours.”
Just then, the phone rang, and Aunt Beth hurried to pick it up.
“Merry Christmas,” she said into the receiver. “Oh, hi, Jennie, are you having a good time?”
Aunt Beth talked for a few minutes, then she handed the phone to Anne.
Jennie told her mother that they were having a great time, but they wanted to call and tell her that they missed her and hoped she was having fun with Aunt Beth. Anne could hear Mac in the background, and hearing her children, she felt a tug of loneliness in her heart. But the tug was brief. Mostly, she felt pride in her children, and she was happy that they were enjoying their holiday so much.
Jennie asked if Anne ever found out what Aunt Beth meant when she invited her to ‘come and share her treasures,’ and suggested that maybe next year, she and Mac could join their mom and aunt.
Anne told her daughter that them coming along next year would be great, and she told her she’d been learning about Aunt Beth’s treasures all day. Jennie and Anne exchanged Merry Christmas wishes, then Anne told Jennie to wish her father and Deirdre happy holidays from her, too. Jennie assured her that she would, then she put Mac on the phone. They talked for a while, and when Anne hung up the phone, she turned to face Aunt Beth, her face aglow, and her eyes misty with joyful tears.
“Well, that was certainly a topper for what has already been an absolutely great day,” Anne said.
“And the day isn’t nearly over,” Aunt Beth said. “Speaking of toppers, you have the honor of this.”
Aunt Beth handed her an angel to place on top of the tree. Anne took it and carefully turned it around in her hands.
“Was this Mom’s, too?” she asked. “I don’t remember it.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t remember it. I gave it to your mom when she was in the hospital, shortly before she died,” Aunt Beth said. “Then, when she left her Christmas ornaments to me, I got it back. I always feel like Kathleen is looking down on me when I place that angel on the top of the tree.”
Anne climbed the step-ladder, reached up and placed the angel on the top of the tree. She climbed down, stepped back and clasped her hands together like a small child.
“Oh, Aunt Beth, it’s absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “And you’re right. I do feel like the angel is Mom looking down on us. It’s like she’s here, joining us for Christmas.”
As Anne looked through her tears, the lights on the tree shimmered like lit candles. The sight was breathtaking, and for a moment, neither woman spoke.
Finally, Anne said, “I almost forgot. I have another ornament for your tree, one to commemorate this year – a Christmas I know I will never forget.”
Anne scurried to the bedroom and returned a moment later. She handed her aunt a small box.
“Here, Aunt Beth, here’s a gift, a few hours early,” she said. “It just seems right that we put it on the tree now.”
“Thank you, Annie,” Aunt Beth said, beaming with pleasure as she removed the ornament and unwrapped it. “Oh, how charming. A Winter Garden 2006,” she said, reading the inscription.
The basis of the ornament was a window. Two birds resting on a snow-covered sill and a bird feeder were on the outside, and a potted flower, a packet of seeds, and a tiny garden tool were on the inside.
“There’s a whole story here, Annie,” Aunt Beth said. “Thank you so much. Let’s hang it right here by the cardinals.”
Aunt Beth and Anne were quiet on the drive to the church a few hours later, for Christmas Eve services. So many words had been spoken throughout the day, so many stories told. Both were reflecting the beauty of the night as the headlights danced on the snow, sparkling like stars in the heavens above.
Anne replayed the stories in her head, her aunt’s ‘treasures.’ Her heart swelled with happiness and joy, the distress that had troubled her on the train trip to Iowa long gone, replaced by love for her dear aunt, her children, and her wonderful memories.
This is one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. I’ll cherish it as long as I live.