The Christmas Visitor

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

After the Great Depression, a young girl dreams of a Christmas miracle. But will it be what she expected?

In 1941 times were tough and money was tight. The war had been raging for a little over a year across the ocean. Now it threatened America as well. Families said goodbye to young sons, watching them head overseas one by one, not knowing if they’d ever see them again. FDR was president, radio was king, big band music was in full bloom and the country was finally emerging from the Great Depression.

In the small steel town of Ambridge, Ellen Romano, ten years old, carried her coat and schoolbooks on an unusually warm December day. It had been a little disappointing since snow hadn’t fallen yet, and she worried it wouldn’t be a white Christmas. With only two weeks to go, it had been such a strange winter.

Ellen walked past the newly- built middle school at the corner of the long hill leading to her street. A few kids stood around outside playfully jabbing at one another, girls flirting with boys and vice versa. Ellen waved to a girl she knew.

She approached her own block, taking her time, all the while watching for signs of her father’s car. She breathed a sigh of glorious relief when her house was in view. Papa’s old Dodge wasn’t anywhere in sight. Maybe he’d work late tonight and they’d have some peace. God knew it had been tough recently. With money so precious and tight, and her father’s gambling, they had to make due many times with much less food on their table. And if Papa lost in his card games, and his drinking worsened, he’d take it out on their family. Many nights Ellen lay in bed unable to sleep, fingers plugged in her ears,  her father’s angry voice bellowing, and the sound of a slap, or of a piece of overturned furniture. Many nights, she held onto her sister, Claire as they waited for the blessed silence which would finally come. But when Papa finally passed out from drunkenness, the heartbreaking sound of their mother’s sobs would begin.

Her mother’s careworn face broke into a smile as Ellen walked through the door. Mama had a huge apron tied around herself, flour up to her elbows, and a hair net pulled over her short curly permanent wave.

“How was school, cara mia?”Mom asked. “What did you learn?” Ellen pulled a chair from under the kitchen table and sat looking at her mother. Her brother and sister weren’t home from high school just yet. This was precious one on one time with Mama.

“Oh, Mama, I learned how to multiply numbers today. I’m getting so good at it,” Ellen said reaching for a small pinch of her mother’s dough and making a little ball with it.

“That’s good then,” Mama said. “I didn’t have the opportunities you do when I was your age. I had to quit school to help take care of my brothers and sisters. You kids are so fortunate today.” Mama plopped a huge slab of dough onto her floured board. “I’m trying to get some Ciambelles made for Christmas Eve dinner at Aunt Angie’s house. You know how much your Papa loves them.”

Ellen groaned inwardly. Papa was coming to Christmas Eve dinner then. He had missed several years in a row, preferring to spend the special night playing cards with a bunch of other drunken men down at the local S.O.I. club. He hadn’t had the decency to show up for their dinners before. No matter. Christmas Eve was such a warm, wonderful night. So many of her cousins, aunts and uncles would be there, gathered at Aunt Angie’s house. There would be laughter, stories, games, and a small gift stocking for each small child filled with an apple, orange or some type of fruit, nuts or maybe even a small trinket. Oh, Ellen couldn’t wait.

 

  • * *

A few days before Christmas Eve, it hit. One of the biggest snowstorms ever.With it being an unusually balmy winter, the snow was a complete surprise and Ellen awoke to the brightness of the morning, huge, fat flakes cascading outside her window. She jumped up in the flannel nightgown she wore, running over to the window, wiping at the frosty pane with her sleeve for a better view.

Her sister Claire rolled over in bed, clucking her tongue in anger. “What’s wrong with you, little girl? We have at least another hour to sleep.” Claire pulled the bed covers over her head and sighed.

“It’s here, Claire!  The snow has finally come!  Oh, I’m so happy,” Ellen said, doing a little dance around the room.

“You won’t be so happy when you wake Papa up,” Claire mumbled from under the covers. “He was up pretty late last night. Hush up.”

Nothing could stop her glee at this moment. Not even her father.

A little later, Ellen and her sister sat in their tiny kitchen eating bowls of Cream of Wheat. Mama was a little quieter than usual. She had dark circles under her eyes and her hands shook as she served her girls.

“What’s wrong, Mama? Where’s Tony?” Ellen asked, referring to her older brother.

At that, she saw Mama’s face grow pale. “Shhh, quiet, young one,” Mama said. “Your brother got in big trouble last night. I let him sleep in today.”

Apparently, Tony had gone out late with his friends. He was sixteen years old, and turning into a regular night owl. He and the boys played cards sometimes at each other’s houses. But last night, he hadn’t been home by his usual curfew of ten p.m. Papa sat up waiting for him and when Tony strolled in at midnight with the smell of whiskey on his breath; their father had almost killed him. He had beat Tony with his belt, while Mama tried to intervene. It had been no use, and when Papa was done, Tony defiantly looked at him and said, “See, now I’m just like you.” Their father had gone to bed then, apparently exhausted from his murderous rage.

“So you see, girls,” Mama said. “It’s not such a good day for me. My dear son, my poor boy.”

Ellen got up from her place at the table and hugged her mother. Mama, always a little embarrassed by the show of affection, brushed her away.

“Now girls, go. Have a good day at your schools. When you come home tonight, we’ll finish our meal preparations together for Christmas Eve, okay?”

Ellen buttoned up her coat, grabbed her books and looked at her sister. Claire appeared to be lost in her own world. As the girls left, they walked in silence for a while.

“I heard the fight last night,” Claire said unable to look at her sister. “I’m so glad you were fast asleep. I don’t think you could have taken it, Ellen.” Claire pulled her threadbare coat a bit more tightly around herself shivering. “Papa’s so mean. I hate him. Sometimes I wish he’d die.”

“Oh, Claire, you mustn’t say such things. It’ll come back on us.” Ellen quickly said a prayer and made the sign of the evil eye at her sister.

Both girls walked on in silence, Ellen kicking up tufts of snow before her.

In school though, Ellen couldn’t shake her own bad feelings. Why? Why did Papa have to be so mean? Her good brother didn’t deserve the beating he’d gotten last evening. He was always such a great young man. So what if he messed up one time, didn’t their stupid father do that when he was young?

And what about Mama? Ellen had seen her father on several drunken occasions grab his wife and shake her, while she and her siblings sat cowering in fear. She’d remembered hearing stories of Papa’s father, a hostile, bitter man who ruled his wife and children with his hateful fists. Was it any wonder her father could be so unkind then?

God, if you’re there, please show me a sign. Show me some type of kindness or let me know you hear me. We can’t go on like this. I’m so afraid, God. Please, please help Papa to change.

Later that night, Tony sat at the kitchen table while Mama was rolling out homemade pasta noodles. He helped her cut the long strands into thin strips. When Ellen walked through the kitchen door, she ran to her brother, squeezing him tightly. And when Papa came home from the steel mill later, he was reserved. There was no talk at the family table during supper, just the scrape of forks against plates in the silence of the kitchen.

 

  • * *

The snow continued into Christmas Eve. At least eight inches lay on the ground, the sparkling diamonds of crusty snow in piles.

Ellen, Claire, Mama and Tony trudged the five blocks to Aunt Angie’s house. Papa, the only driver in their family was asleep from working a late night shift and would join them afterward. Each of them carried satchels filled with foods and baked goods Mama had prepared. They wore their warmest winter coats, rubber galoshes and mittens. It was still snowing lightly as they approached Angie’s home; beautiful fat flakes with lacy patterns landing on bushes. To Ellen, absolutely nothing could steal her joy on this late afternoon.

Uncle Eddie and Aunt Ida were just arriving when they reached the house, followed by their children, Annie, Patsy and Bobo. Grandma Adelina leaned heavily on her cane, as Uncle Eddie carefully guided his mother-in-law across the snowy path. “Come, Mama,” Eddie said to her, helping her up the porch steps.

Ellen’s favorite cousin, Wally, was already in the house when she walked through the door. A regular prankster, nobody could make her laugh the way he did. He was one year older, but so small; people usually mistook him for a young child. Wally was the third of four children, Aunt Angie’s favorite. He sneaked behind Ellen when she entered the kitchen with her parcels.

“Boo!” Wally said, laying his hand on Ellen’s shoulder. Ellen jumped and screamed, almost dropping the bag of homemade cookies.

“Silly goose,” she said. “I knew you were there all the time.” She went up to other aunts and cousins, handing over all she’d been carrying as Mama and Claire walked in behind her.

There had never been anything like the foods prepared in Aunt Angie’s kitchen. Artichokes in olive oil, pasta with tuna sauce, baccala fish, smelts, fried green peppers and roman beans. Ellen’s mouth watered as she looked at the feast spread before her. Mama brought Struffoli, little dough balls soaked in honey, Ciambelles, hard Italian biscuits and a huge bag of wine cookies, flaky on the inside and a bit crispy on the outside. Aunt Ida pulled homemade bread from her own satchel along with soft buns, their outer edges crusty brown. Wine decanters were placed on the table with a small bottle of anisette. It didn’t matter none of these people were well-to-do. What mattered on this night, they were rich in their heritage, love of family, and anticipation of the birth of the savior.

“Is Sam coming, Louisa?” Angie asked her sister, after taking her coat and hanging it on the cellar landing.

“Yes, he was sleeping. He should be here before we start to eat.” Ellen watched her mother carefully as she said this. Nothing in Mama’s face betrayed her emotions. She was stoic to the last, and nobody in the family knew about Papa’s drinking and temper.

At six p.m. promptly, the family gathered around the table for the blessing when Papa walked through the door. He made a striking figure, coal black hair, neatly trimmed moustache. If she hadn’t been so frightened of him, Ellen would think her papa was one of the most handsome men in town. He took his place at his wife’s side, and all were silent for a moment. Uncle Carmen, Angie’s husband, usually a man of very few words, said the blessing.

In Italian, Carmen spoke of God’s goodness and bounty. He thanked Him for providing work for all of them, and warm houses, food on the table. He thanked his heavenly father for watching over their sons who fought in the terrible war. He thanked God for his wife and children and all who were gathered together in their home. When he finished, each man held a glass of wine before them, and toasted, “salute” to each other.

Aunt Angie set to work, heaping dishes with steaming foods. By the time the last small child had been served, all eyes looked to the matriarch of the family, Adelina. She smiled her toothless grin, and said the words they all had been waiting for: “Mangia, tutti!” Everyone, eat!

Ellen watched her mother out of the corner of one eye as she wolfed down pasta. Mama seemed content, Papa’s hand rested atop hers, giving a little squeeze of affection from time to time. Talk was light and fun, each person adding a little something to the conversation as they continued their meal.

Cousin Giorgio brought his accordion out after dinner, while the men retired to the cellar to continue drinking glasses of homemade dago red. The children helped their mama’s clear the table, putting away leftovers and helping wash dishes.

Ellen and Wally got the messy job of bagging garbage to bring out to the tin can behind the house. As they put on their coats, a soft knock sounded at the front door. Everyone glanced around at one another, nobody else was expected. Perhaps a neighbor stopping by to wish them goodwill.

“I’ll get it, Mama,” Wally said, running from the room.

Naturally, Ellen thought, anything to get out of helping me. She dropped the bag of garbage she’d collected, following Wally into the living room. Wally opened the front door and there, before the two children on the porch stood a man, shabbily dressed, hardly enough clothing on a night such as this. Old dungarees and work boots, flannel shirt and no coat. A blast of frigid air blew into the room. The man stood there, rubbing his hands together, his rheumy eyes darting between the two children.

The first thing Ellen noticed besides the strange gentleman, it had stopped snowing. In the glow of the streetlamps, the last of the fallen snow glistened under the cast of the lights. The next thing she noticed was not another soul was out. Nobody walking, no neighbors outside their homes.

“Would you kind folks be able to spare me something to eat tonight?” The man’s gravelly voice startled Ellen out of her reverie. Had she heard him correctly? Barely enough to feed all of them and he wanted some of it? But on the tail end of that thought, Ellen became ashamed. Poor man looked as if he hadn’t had a meal in a long time.

It was Wally who broke the silence. “Come in, sir,” he said, motioning for the man to enter. “Wait here.” He and Ellen ran to the kitchen, breathless with excitement.

“What’s going on?” Angie asked, drying the last of the metal sauce pots.

“Mama, there’s a man at the door,” Wally said, catching his breath. “He says he’s so very hungry and would we have something to spare?”

Ellen stood behind Wally, waiting to see what the grownups would do.

Aunt Angie broke the silence of the moment. “Let me go see him.” She walked from the kitchen, her dish towel still clasped in one chubby hand. Ellen and Wally stood close by.

The man stood perfectly still, his eyes almost dreamy in the warmth of the home. He appeared to be whispering something, lost in his own world. Ellen thought he must be feeble or crazy.

“Well hello there,” Angie said, walking over to the man. His eyes opened wider and a smile broke out on the homely face. It appeared to light up his countenance, and for a moment, he didn’t seem so scary.

“I’m so very sorry to bother you tonight, ma’am,” he said in that growly voice. “You see, I’m so terribly hungry. I haven’t been home in a while. I just wondered if you perhaps had a little food to spare.”

It was then Ellen noticed a change on the man’s face, and how blue and piercing his eyes became as he looked directly at her aunt.

Angie began to protest for a moment. “Well, I’m sorry, but we barely have enough for ourselves.” She was interrupted by Ellen’s mother.

“Nonsense,” Louisa said, putting her hand on her sister’s arm. “A few of us already packed some things for you.” She handed a paper sack to the man, its sides bulging, and the heavenly aroma of the foods pouring from it.

“It’s fine, Angie,” Mama said. “Please, take it, and have a Merry Christmas.”

Ellen’s heart burst with pride for her mother, a kind, good woman who would give the last of her own food to another.

“Bless you all,” the man said, accepting the parcel and holding it tightly as if they’d change their mind and take it back. “You have no idea how much this means.” He turned to go.

Angie walked ahead of him, and began to open the door. An icy blast of wind blew into the room, and Ellen wanted to protest. Couldn’t he just stay there with them and eat his meal? Where would he go? Did he have family nearby perhaps?

As if he read her mind, the stranger turned to face Ellen and said the most perplexing thing. “Your prayer has been heard.” With that, he walked out the door and into the night.

The women went back to the kitchen. They talked among themselves of the strange man and the odd things he had said. The sound of the accordion rose from the basement with the voices of their men singing.

Ellen and Wally looked at one another. “Wally,” Ellen whispered. “I’m scared. Why do you suppose he spoke to me like that? What does it mean?” Her curiosity got the better of her and scared or not, she wanted to see where he was headed. “Let’s walk outside and see where he goes. I’m dying to know.”

The two children slipped out onto the front porch. It had only been a moment or so since the man had gone. They peered in both directions up and down the block, across the street at the other houses. No sign of him. It was then Wally piped up, his eyes widening, his finger pointing at the ground.

“Look, Ellen,” he said. “Would you just look? There isn’t a footprint out here, not one. It was snowing earlier, and it stopped when we were eating.” Wally’s eyes looked about to pop from their sockets.

“I don’t understand,” Ellen said, shivering a little in the cold. “What do you mean?” Then it dawned on her. There would have been some type of footprints on the porch or the walkway which led to the house. The man had some big laced up boots on his feet, and they would have imprinted in the snow. “What in the world?” Ellen walked off the porch, again looking in every direction. No footprints on the sidewalk either way. It was as if he’d disappeared.

They ran into the house. “Mom!” Wally screamed. “Come here!”  Angie, Louisa and Ida came into the living room, questioning him.

“No footprints!  He just vanished into the night!”  Wally tugged at his mother, hurrying her out onto the front porch.

“Well, I’ll be. . .” Angie said.

  • * *

Ellen lay in her bed unable to sleep that night. She turned on her side toward Claire and sighed.

“What, baby girl? Why are you so fidgety tonight?” Claire sat up leaning on one elbow.

“Claire, did you notice how extra kind Papa seemed tonight? Even though he’d been drinking with the others, he seemed, somehow . . . different.” Ellen flipped the light switch on her bedside table. “I, I prayed about him to God today. I, I think He heard my prayers.”

“What do you mean, Ellen?” Claire asked, reaching for her sister’s hand.

“I think that ugly man who showed up at Aunt Angie’s tonight was an angel, Claire. I think he came to deliver a special message to me.”

Claire laughed then. “Nonsense, Ellen, he was a poor lonely soul, looking for a meal. He probably had a wife and children in some dirty apartment nearby and shared his food with them.”

“No,” Ellen protested, sitting up and pulling her hand away from her sister’s touch. “No, it was really an angel. We learned a bible verse in Sunday school one time. Here, it’s in my notebook. I’ll read it to you.”

Ellen got up from bed to retrieve her bible school notebook from the corner desk in their room. She leafed through it under the glow of the bedside lamp. “Here it is, Claire, look.”

“Be careful to entertain strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Ellen shut the notebook. “Don’t you see, God answered my prayer.He sent us an angel to test us, and we passed the test. Mama’s kindness will be rewarded.” Ellen shut the light and whispered in the darkness. “Did you know he said something to me before he walked out the door?” When her sister didn’t answer, she continued. “He said your prayer has been heard.”

“You’re making that up,” Claire said. “You shouldn’t lie about such things.”

“Ask Wally, Claire. He heard it too. I’m telling you, the man disappeared, there wasn’t one footprint, and he did say that to me. And Claire, his face . . . changed. He was so scary looking when I first saw him, and when he spoke to Aunt Angie and thanked Mama, his face became almost beautiful.”

“You read too many stories and listen to too many radio shows. Get some sleep. We’ll talk about it another time.” Claire lay back down and turned her back toward her sister. Ellen lay there a while longer, silently giving thanks to God for hearing her prayer. She just knew things were going to get better with her Papa. Why else would God send His messenger to them?

Though it took some time, a change began to occur in Papa. After the New Year he’d had a dream of some sort, a vision perhaps of himself as a lonely, old man without his family. All his money was gone, and his family was gone as well. He said he saw himself in a filthy, roach-infested apartment, cold and scared. The dream terrified him, and little by little, he began to make small changes.

Ellen had no doubt that her Christmas Angel had come through once more.

 


Submitted: December 09, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Karen L Malena. All rights reserved.

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Nevidomo Istoriya

Excellent story and a good read!

Wed, December 9th, 2020 12:57pm

Author
Reply

Thank you so much!

Sat, February 13th, 2021 2:33am

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