Little Nina was growing increasingly restless. It was Christmas Eve, after all—a time when impatience rules in children. However, Nina’s preoccupation was not with Christmas, but with her father’s tardiness. How long can it take to cut down a Christmas tree and drag it back to the cabin?
A noise from outside startled Nina and she jumped out of her little chair in front of the fireplace to look out the front window. “This time, it’s got to be Papa!” she said as she streaked across the room. Nina pressed her cute little nose against the windowpane. Squinting her eyes against the glare of the setting sun on the fresh snow, Nina strained to see evidence of Papa’s arrival. As she scanned the scene, she noticed that the woodpile beside the pump house had accumulated another inch of snow since last she looked, barely thirty minutes earlier. Snow blanketed the open field that tumbled up a gentle slope and no animal had dared mar its pristine surface. More important, neither had her papa. The primitive log fence that lined the perimeter of the field stood silent sentry over the tranquility of the setting. To Nina, the fence also blocked her papa’s return.
“Where is he?” she sighed with a resignation suggesting Papa might never return. She was not asking a question as much as registering a quiet complaint. Time seemed to stand still.
“Honey, what did you say?” her mother’s soothing voice inquired. Nina realized that Mama’s keen hearing had detected her impatience and turned from her vigil at the window. “Oh, nothin’,” Nina said with distinct resignation. Mama shifted her attention from her cooking to her restless little girl and smiled warmly. Nina knew what that signaled—it was hugging time.
Nina slowly approached, drawing out her arrival and intentionally teasing her mother in a game played many times. When she finally got within reach, Mama swooped down to enfold Nina in her arms and rocked her in a big bear hug. “Come here, you little stinker,” Mama growled. “I’m gonna take all the sugar I can before you give it all away to your papa!”
Nina squealed in delight. She knew well how to play this game. It was one of her favorites. “Oh, no! It’s my sugar and you can’t have it,” Nina cackled. She nuzzled up to her mother and pressed her face to Mama’s bare neck.
“Wow! What a cold nose,” Mama exclaimed.
“Yes, I’ve been looking out the window. It’s cold outside and I got you cold, too.” Nina smiled broadly and wrapped herself in Mama’s unbuttoned sweater. As Nina’s nose warmed, she became aware of the multitude of aromas that filled the air. She stretched up and craned her neck to survey the kitchen. “Whatca cooking?”
“What do you mean?” Mama pretended to scold her. “I’m fixing what I always do for Christmas—cheese and potato soup, roast turkey, sugar-cured ham, creamed corn, squash casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, lima beans, candied yams, cornbread, sweet potato pie, coconut cake, and raspberry linzer tart.”
“I sure hope Papa is back before it’s time to eat,” Nina sighed.
“You don’t have to worry about that, baby. Papa has never been late for a Christmas dinner, and he won’t start now. He’s just making sure that all the work ‘round here’s been done before he returns,” Mama said ruefully. “I could use some help around here.”
“I’ll help you, Mama,” Nina volunteered hopefully.
“Great! You can help by setting the table.” As Mama deposited Nina on the floor, she said, “By the time you finish with that, it will be time to eat.” Nina went straight to work. She liked doing things only big kids get to do.
The rough-hewn table was long and sturdy. Mama had already covered it with the holiday tablecloth. All Nina had to do was arrange the plates, silverware, and glasses. She was straightening the last glass when the front door flew open.
“Somebody help me with this tree! It must weigh a ton,” Papa yelled from the doorway. He stuck his head in the door and strained to see if anyone was in the dark interior to hear him. When at last he saw the two women in his life rushing to his aid, he puffed out his chest and smiled. “Look what I have—the best Christmas tree in the whole forest! And it’s a real beauty.” He stepped aside so they could appreciate his prize.
“Where in the world did you find such a beautiful tree? Papa, it’s magnificent,” Mama declared. “It sure is,” Nina added. “When can we decorate it?”
“We can trim the tree right after we eat,” Mama said. “But it’s so big, I’m not sure we have enough decorations for it.”
“First things, first,” Papa said. “Let’s get the tree in the cabin and set it up. Then we can worry about decorations.” With the agenda set, everyone pitched in to move the tree inside. Papa squatted to wrap his arms around the base of the tree, while Mama and Nina each grabbed a branch. Together they strained against the unwieldy tree. Slowly, with great effort, it squeezed through the door and into the right-hand corner of the great room. The corner was the perfect location for a Christmas tree. The vaulted ceiling provided ample space, allowing for majestic trees. This was required because of Papa’s taste in Christmas trees. He reasoned that, if an eight-foot tree was grand, a 16-footer would be doubly so.
Papa set about attaching the tree stand while Mama returned to kitchen duty. The tree was eventually righted and secured after an engineering process that took more than twenty minutes.
“Okay, let’s eat!” Mama announced after scraping out the last, elusive remnants of dressing stubbornly clinging to the bottom of the pan. Strategically placing the serving spoons where she would sit so she could control the size and number of Papa’s helpings, Mama sighed deeply. A quick survey around the table assured her that all was ready. Still, her eyes darted one last time to the stove to be sure that she hadn’t forgotten anything. Preparing this feast in such a primitive kitchen was a logistical accomplishment befitting a highly-decorated general, but the beads of perspiration Mama wiped from her brow were her only decorations.
Yes, all was finally ready. However, for her, eating would be anticlimactic. Frequent sampling to check the seasoning of the food during cooking blunted her appetite—besides, she was more interested in her family’s reactions. She would not be disappointed. Papa was a veteran of too many holiday celebrations not to know the expected payment. Summoning his best Gomer Pyle impression, he intoned, “Well, golly! I don’t know how you do it.”
Mama was suddenly embarrassed by the attention and disclaimed, “Well, Nina was a big help.” Nina’s focus on the snow falling outside was broken with the mention of her name. She snapped her head around and slid quickly off her chair with a big toothy grin on her face. As she scampered toward a seat at the dinner table next to Papa, Nina studied his face for some sign of approval. She found it in his wink of recognition. Nina pulled out her chair and put a foot on the bottom rung to jump headfirst to the padded seat. Papa redirected her move by scoping his big hand behind her knees and deposited her gently on the seat.
By this time, Mama took her place across from Papa. Her movement returned Papa’s attention to his wife and he smiled when his gaze caught her eye. “It’s a lucky man who has two beautiful women work so hard to prepare such a wonderful meal for him.” Mama blushed at the thought of being considered beautiful and Nina, at being thought a woman.
As his eyes struggled to take in all the food choices before him, he exclaimed, “I don’t know where to begin.”
“Well, you may not know where to begin, but I do,” Mama scolded as she intercepted his outstretched hand before it consummated its intended transgression with a drumstick. Bowing her head, she began, “Dear Heavenly Father, as we approach the anniversary of your son’s birth, help us to be ever mindful of the many blessings you have bestowed on us. Teach us to be good stewards of your gifts and give us the grace to endure the trials and tribulations that visit us to give us strength. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies that we may do Thy will. Bring peace and brotherhood to all . . . .”
Before the blessing was completed, Papa assumed an appropriately reverent pose. As he closed his eyes, he shot a quick look at Nina, whose scolding countenance cracked into a silent giggle when their eyes met. Clenching his eyes tightly to expunge any trace of mirth, Papa responded to the end of Mama’s prayer with a solemn amen. One thing you do not do around Mama is show disrespect for her religious sensibilities.
Her somber nature had intensified this year. The family was having a lean financial year. However, the crushing blow was the death of her father. The words of her prayer seemed more an attempt to convince herself than a simple blessing.
After the amen, Papa lifted his head and smiled at Mama, rolled up his sleeves, and began to do some serious eating. Little Nina tried her best to keep up with him, but was no match. She lacked the capacity and practice. Still, she surprised her parents by asking for seconds of the roast turkey.
As the meal progressed, Mama’s mood softened somewhat. She enjoyed watching everyone eat. If she had her way, Nina would be somewhat plumper and Papa, 10 pounds lighter. All and all though, he was in quite good shape for his age and the limited amount of exercise he got.
From out of nowhere, a thought invaded her mind. So was her father! He was always in good shape and still cut a fine figure when he died. Everyone was surprised when he sufferred a sudden fatal heart attack. Most of all, Mama was surprised—no, shocked was more like it. She was totally unprepared for his death. Her father had been a rock of support for her all her life. She assumed he would always be there for her in moments of need. His dependability was a great comfort to her, but did not prepare her for the reality of his death.
Christmas was especially hard for Mama. She put up a brave front for her family, but inside she was devastated by the lack of closure that his death caused. She was angry at her father. Why did he have to die so suddenly? She had no time to prepare herself. It was not like him to let her down like this! He did not even say goodbye and he always said goodbye. It was their shared ritual to express their love at any parting. His death was the only time she could remember that he ever disappointed her.
From his vantage point, Papa could tell that his wife was struggling again. He had seen that distant stare many times in the past few months. It seemed like she was adrift in a sea of her own thoughts and he knew her thoughts would eventually drift to her father. Papa consoled her when she let him.
Instinctively, he felt that his wife grieved for more than the death of her father. She also grieved the loss of the myth of his infallibility, something very dear to Mama. She was born late in her father’s life, after Grandpa had enough time to decide what he wanted out of life. What he wanted, more than anything, was his daughter. He devoted himself to her happiness, but after her mother died, he positively doted on her.
Papa smiled to himself as he thought about the bond between his wife and her father. He was the consummate father and a hard act to follow. Still, Papa had to admit that Grandpa guided him. Grandpa’s example was the model Papa used with Nina. It was a high standard, but the benefits were worth the effort.
Papa pushed his chair back from the table to get more room to breathe. “Hey, Pumpkin! If you’re done with all that food, I think we should start decorating that lonely tree hiding in the corner over there. What do you say? Let’s put a smile on it.”
Nina stood up in her seat as she exclaimed, “You betcha. Let’s go!” Then she jumped in the general direction of her papa, confident he would anticipate her move and catch her—and he did. Turning to Mama, he said, “Come on, dear. The dishes will wait. It’s Christmas Eve and we’ve got memories to make.” Mama agreed, but ruefully looked over her shoulder at the mess awaiting her.
The next hour was passed with stringing lights and hanging an amazing array of ornaments on the tree. Some decorations were new, but most the family accumulated gradually over the years. By the time they finished the tree; its glow filled the room with incredible warmth.
“Well, little one, it’s time you were going to bed. Santa will be here soon,” Papa said.
“But I’m not tired yet, “Nina replied while rubbing her eyes. “Can’t I sit with you and Mama for just a little while?”
Papa grinned at his sleepy little girl and patted the place beside him on the couch. Nina dove for the couch before Mama could say otherwise. She crawled to the spot next to Papa, wormed her head under his arm, and smiled. Papa leaned over, planted a kiss on her forehead, and said, “You can only stay until I get tired of you.” Nina knew she was there for the duration. Papa smiled and began to read “The Night Before Christmas.”
By the time Mama tidied up the kitchen, Nina was fast asleep. Her head had succumbed to gravity and was resting on Papa’s lap. Mama wrapped her in a blanket and took her to bed. Later, returning to Papa, Mama folded herself into Papa’s arms, much as Nina had earlier.
“Honey, you outdid yourself.” Papa gave her a squeeze to emphasize his appreciation. Mama responded with a tired, contented “Hmm.”
“A penny for your thoughts.” Papa invited. “What are you thinking?”
“Oh, I was just thinking how strange it felt to celebrate Christmas without Dad here. This was always his favorite time of year. It’s just not the same.”
“He may not be here in body, but he certainly is here in spirit. I thought about him often during the day. In fact, your father found this Christmas tree last year. He shaped it and said it needed one more year of growth to fit perfectly in that corner.”
Mama smiled and said, “That’s just like him—always thinking ahead.” Then Mama fell silent. Papa could see the glow from the fireplace glisten on the tears welling up in her eyes. Before Papa could offer words of comfort, Mama lamented, “If he was always thinking ahead, why didn’t he say goodbye!”
Papa responded rather sternly, “You know he would have if he could. Sometimes we cannot control what happens—even your dad.”
“I know, I know. My head knows that. But . . . my heart won’t listen.”
The two of them rested on the couch and enjoyed the atmosphere of the room. The fireplace competed with the Christmas tree, but faded into the background. Although the fire was warm and fragrant, the tree, with its lights and decorations, warmed the insides.
Christmas is a season of hope. Papa hoped his beloved wife would soon recover from the loss of her father, and Mama hoped her melancholy would not spoil Christmas for the family.
When the wall clock chimed eleven, they agreed to finish their preparation for Santa’s arrival and hurry to bed. Morning would arrive early—especially if Nina had anything to do with it. As Mama left for bed, Papa said he would put out milk and cookies for Santa and, then, come right up. He quickly did what he promised, but added one more item. He tucked an envelope in the toe of Mama’s Christmas stocking.
The family slept soundly that night, the labors of the day having exhausted them all. They were oblivious to their surroundings, failing to notice the house grow colder as the fire died down. Nor were they aware several hours later as increasing light crept across their rooms as the sun slowly awoke the sky. Finally, with that internal alarm clock all children seem to have on Christmas morning, Nina suddenly sat upright on her bed. In the middle of her ensuing stretch, she realized what day it was. Christmas! Christmas meant Santa Claus, and Santa Claus meant presents, and that meant—why was she still in bed? Squealing with delight, Nina sprang from her bed to wake up her parents. “Mama! Papa! Wake up! It’s Christmas. Let’s see what Santa brought me. Hurry!” Nina could scarcely contain her excitement.
Although their tired bodies rebelled at the idea of getting up at such an early hour, Papa and Mama roused themselves to go downstairs with Nina. She would not wait long and they did not want to miss the expression on her face when she saw her gifts. Nina took each parent by the hand and dragged them toward the Christmas tree. When she saw the pile of presents there, she released her grip and ran ahead. “Wow. I can’t believe it!” was all she could say.
Mama sat down on the couch near the tree, leaned forward to get closer to the action, and hugged her knees. There was a bigger smile on her face than was on Nina. Papa stood nearby, enjoying the scene. Is there anything more gratifying than the smiles of a child on Christmas?
After an hour of opening presents, it came time to see what was in the stockings hanging on the fireplace. Nina, with her typical impatience, went first. She quickly, and unceremoniously, dumped the fruit, nuts and candies and ran her fingers through the pile like a miser. She let fistfuls of candy rain down through her fingers with glee. As almost a second thought, she asked, “Mama, what did you get?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see what we have here.” Mama poured out the contents in front of her. She was stunned by the envelope that fluttered down. Recognizing her father’s handwriting on the envelope, she tore it open with desperation. “It’s from Dad! How could he? He didn’t forget.” Mama held her hand to her mouth in an unsuccessful attempt to fight back the strong emotions welling up in her. Her eyes devoured the letter.
Although it was not particularly long, it was the most important letter she ever received. Mama was not even aware that she had been holding her breath while reading until her lungs screamed for air. The gasping sound frightened Nina.
“Are you hurt Mama?” Nina asked as she approached her mother.
Realizing the scene she was making, Mama opened her arms to comfort her daughter. “No, honey. I’m not hurt. I'm just surprised and happy to get this letter.” Mama turned her attention to Papa. “How did this letter get in there?”
“Your father wrote it last spring when he found out from his doctor that he might not have long to live,” Papa responded. “Not wanting to spoil what time he had left, he didn’t want you to know. He gave it to me and made me promise to give it to you this Christmas. What does it say?”
“You mean he didn’t tell you what it said?” Mama asked.
Papa assured her, “No, not even a clue other than you might need this last gift.”
Nina did not understand any of what was transpiring, except that her mama was strangely happy and crying at the same time. Not knowing what to do, Nina just gripped tightly to her arm.
“Here, read this,” Mama said as she offered the letter to Papa. He accepted the letter and hurriedly scanned its contents. It read,
It is hard for me to write this—as I am sure it is hard for you to read. I am writing to this because I want to be sure to tell you how much you have meant to me. I know you think of me as strong, and, I suppose, in many ways I have been. However, my strength has been the strength that I got from you. Yes, you! Because of you, and the faith you had in me, I had no choice but to be strong. I had to be strong for you because you deserve nothing less.
You may have some hard times adjusting to my death. I must admit that a small, selfish part of me enjoys that thought. Still, I have every confidence that you will display the strength you thought I had. You must. You must for your family’s sake.
One last thing I want to say. I always knew you would turn out to be the person you are. You were and are a good girl—my girl. I never had to worry about you. I do not worry now.
As Papa put the letter down and turned to his wife, he smiled. Everything was going to work out just fine. Even after his death, Grandpa reached out to take care of his daughter. What a Christmas gift.
I want to give some background to this fictional story. There is nothing more enjoyable than a Christmas story, so I decided to challenge myself to write one. Most of my writing has been work related and technical in nature. The challenge to write a story like this is daunting, but I was feeling a need to express many deep emotions. My little daughter Nina was around four years old at the time and displayed the unvarnished enthusiasm for life that is rarely seen outside of early childhood. I wanted to capture that on paper so I would never forget. I also wanted to memorialize a conversation I had with my grandfather. He told me that when his mother was on her deathbed, she told him that she never had to worry about him because he was a good boy. He said that had a profound effect on him and was a source of strength throughout his life.
I decided to merge these notions into my Christmas story. The world is filled with hate and greed and many individuals lose sight of our need to share what little we have with others. I need to remind myself that what I have will one day fade; only what I share remains forever.
I hope you enjoy this story and that it touches a responsive chord in you. It helped me get in touch with many memories that were buried beneath day-to-day living. Merry Christmas.