Sunday, December 4, 2016
A Simple Christmas Eve: A Story
She slipped into her threadbare Goodwill coat; the inside lining torn and frayed. Outside the wind whipped, sending snowflakes spiraling. "Brrr. . . it's very cold today Eli. It's snowing again, Henri. You both are very lucky to have such warm winter coats."
Two tails wagged, the smaller terrier, Eli made a soft whining noise in anticipation. The larger dog, Henri, the retriever, looked at his human with complete adoration on his doggy face. His muzzle was graying, the playful step now gone. But the woman knew he still enjoyed their walks together.
She buckled their leashes onto collars and took one look around the small apartment. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. An old sofa bed with stuffing poking from its many holes. Worn carpeting and a small table. It was all she could afford. And here it was the day before Christmas and she didn't have anything to give her beloved pets. The small check she received each month barely covered rent and the least expensive frozen meals. Dog kibble was costly and she would never let Eli and Henri go hungry.Yet she couldn't afford a toy for either of them or a bacon treat.
A small chicken sat defrosting in the apartment-sized refrigerator in her tiny kitchen. Tomorrow they would all feast on it and the vegetables that came from the dented cans she'd found in a half-price bin at the local grocers.
They walked out of their apartment and the snow began to fall much harder. The woman was patient; she smiled as each of the dogs buried their noses into the snow-covered ground, hunting some wonderful scent. No matter the cold wind that battered her, nothing made her happier than their contentment.
For a moment her mind wandered and she thought of her husband gone so long. He had loved this time of year. And this day was his birthday. She'd always made it special with his favorite meal and afterward, a small gift and then midnight church service. Late into the night, he would present her with his own gift: a portrait he'd completed of one of their precious memories together, for he was a talented, but humble artist.
He'd left her with one young child, a boy. The woman sighed with a pang of regret so fierce it almost stole the breath from her. She hadn't seen him in many years. He'd gone to make his fortune; to become important and leave his simple upbringing behind. His cruel words still hurt when he'd told her she was a nothing and a nobody. When he'd pushed her coldly away as she tried to cling to him while he gathered his suitcases that day. With no phone to try to call him, or no way to reach out, not even knowing where he lived, she'd remained alone, lost and forlorn with the two dogs as her only family.
I've failed as a mama and I lost out as a wife. Perhaps the young one had been right; she was indeed nobody. The mistakes she'd made cloaked her like a suffocating blanket. A tear slipped down one wrinkled cheek. She rubbed her red, chapped hands together for warmth still clinging to the end of her precious furry companion's leashes.
As they made their way around the block, the woman noticed something strange. A large, shiny vehicle sat in a parking space near the front of her building. Someone must have important company. How nice for them, she thought, and walked on. She neared the stoop and saw a package wrapped in white tissue paper; a note sticking from underneath a big red bow. The handwriting on front of the envelope simply said: Mama. She glanced around; not a soul was in sight, and her curiosity got the better of her. The package felt heavy in the crook of her arm. Maybe one of the ladies who lived upstairs had a daughter who'd left something special for her. She would bring it in to her place and hold it for a day or so.
Vegetable soup simmered on the food-caked stove. The clock ticked four p.m. The package sat atop her counter and she wished just for a moment that it might be for her. What wonderful surprise might it hold? She let her mind wander and pictured so many things; the beautiful doll she'd gotten as a little girl. Tears poured from her eyes when she thought of the family who'd lived down the block and had lost everything in a fire. Yet, she glowed inside thinking of the shy child's smile when she handed her the beloved dolly; a true gift from the heart.
The light was fading outside; the snow had slowed. Her belly was warm and full from the soup. She sat in her grandma's spindly rocker and picked up her old, metal crocheting hook as the rhythm of the yarn lulled her. Eli and Henri lay at her feet; nose to nose, snoring softly.
She must have dozed for the bang of a car door woke her from a light slumber. The sound of footsteps and a knock at her door caused her a moment's panic. Now I've gone and done it, she thought. Someone is already coming to retrieve the package I took in today. Perhaps they'll think I've stolen it. Well, it won't be the first time. People always seemed to have an unkind word and cruel names to call her. Old hag, gypsy, half-crazy, they said. She sat a little taller, remembering something an old pastor had said many years ago. She was a child of God. Nothing could take that from her.
The knocking grew louder and a bit more persistent. "Coming," she said, and got up from her chair.
She drew the chain lock back and peered out into the dimness. A man and woman stood on the stoop. Their expensive clothing made her feel shabby. The woman was fair-haired and pretty, and the man was tall with dark, wavy hair and soft features.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Did you find a package here today?" the man asked. "It had white tissue and a red bow."
"Oh yes, I'm so sorry. I only took it in to get it out of the elements. I'll go get it for you."
The pretty young woman spoke. "No, it's for you," she said. She looked down at her feet, a bit nervously and when she looked up again, she was crying.
"What is this?"
"Mama, it's me. This is my wife. We've come to visit you. We've come to bring you home. I want to tell you how sorry I am for everything."
The old woman stepped back and her hand went to her heart. The couple walked into the room and their sobs resounded in the stillness of the night. Both dogs awoke with a start and Eli began yapping. "Quiet," she said.
Her son and now a daughter on a most magical Christmas Eve night. They held one another tight, tighter, tightest; and years of grief melted away. Her little boy now a man--a good man who promised he would make life better for her. She would be leaving with Eli and Henri tomorrow to live with them. No longer alone; no longer a nobody.
"Mama, can you ever forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive. You've come back to me. God be praised." Tears flowed freely from the old woman's eyes, but her heart felt light. "What's in the package?" she asked.
She went to retrieve it, and shyly brought it before her son and his wife.
"Go ahead, Mama, open it."
She hadn't had a present since before her husband had died. She gently peeled away the paper, careful not to tear it. In it was a painted portrait of the man she had loved--her husband. The likeness was incredible. She laid it against her couch standing back to admire it. "Who did this?"
"I did, Mama. I painted it from memory. You see, when I left all those years ago, I thought I would live in my dream world of big business and huge corporations. It turned out that my heart wasn't in it. I began painting several years back, and people told me how much they liked my work. It's God's gift, really."
The old woman sighed and she beckoned to her son. The two of them stood side by side as Eli and Henri sniffed cautiously around the feet of the two strangers in the room.
His arm went around her. "Are you happy, Mama?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered. "For my prayers have been answered. I have everything now, you see. And I have the best gift of all which is love."