A little taste of the "Good Old Days"...
He jumped off the last step of the big, yellow school bus and slid across the patch of slippery snow on the sidewalk just like he had seen the older boys who had gotten off before him do. It was fun, he thought, as he balanced himself shakily, his arms stretched out to either side of him.
“Bye; Merry Christmas,” Timmy called to his friends as he skidded to a halt a few yards away. Today was the last day before Christmas vacation and it was perfect, too. The snow had started this morning as they rode the bus into school and it promised to be enough to sled on maybe right through New Year’s.
He ambled down the sidewalk away from the others, watching the huge snow flakes fall around him. They landed on his coat and on his scarf and hat. He could even see them glisten on the edges of his dark brown hair as they melted into sparkling water droplets. He was very careful not to move too quickly now so that the snow would not shake loose.
He figured if you were going to walk in snow, you might as well look the part. It would be kinda neat to be trimmed in white, his nose and cheeks red, when he got home into the big, warm kitchen. He imagined Momma would pull off his hat, saying how dreadfully cold he must be, as he shook the melting snow off onto the mat at the door. Then maybe she’d offer him some hot cocoa or some cookies warm from the oven, or maybe even some coffee, which he had tasted once before and really liked. He knew it was a grownup’s drink and he felt good knowing Momma had allowed him to drink it.
The snow was falling thick and wet now and he decided he had plenty of time for the snow to stick on him before he got home. Hadn’t Daddy said once that it was a good half mile to the bus stop from their house and he’d wished the bus service was better? Didn’t the kids in the plan get off practically right at their front doors? But it didn’t matter to him. The kids in the plan had to come down this way if they wanted a place to play. Gosh, their yards weren’t even big enough to play baseball in.
He poised himself at the top of a big dip in the road that ran alongside Old Man Kunkle’s cow pasture, readying himself to slide down the one side, then race up the other without slipping. He measured the distance carefully, gazing sharp-eyed down the length of road for icy spots, then he carefully checked the small bundle he had secured underneath his coat. He tapped it with his mittened hand, then raced down the street, sliding gleefully down long stretches of slippery snow. He stopped at the bottom of the hill as he felt the parcel slip, deciding he’d better not run so much or else he’d lose it. And he didn’t plan on that. This was too valuable, and there wouldn’t be time to replace it before Christmas. Tomorrow would already be Christmas Eve and he had very little money left to go to the shopping center over on the other side of the plan and buy anything else. His teacher had said it would make a lovely present, anyway. Course, she knew he had nothing else to give. He had heard her say she knew Daddy’s circumstances, and besides it was the thought that counted.
He agreed with that, as he again patted the package, once more secure under his coat. Gifts showed how we felt about the people we bought them for, not how much we could spend. Sister Charlene was smart that way; she knew and said lots of things like that. He bet she was one of the smartest persons in the world; he guessed that’s why she was a nun.
He gazed up through the thick haze of snow to the top of the hill he had to climb. Maybe it’d be easier another way, he thought as he glanced sideways at the remnants of barbed wire fence and past to the old pasture now blanketed in several inches of wet snow. He could even make patterns in the snow with his boots as he walked. Looked like nobody else had walked there yet—it’d be fun to be the first.
He quickly scrambled over the sagging fence, one hand grasping his jacket to hold the package. Then he slid down the small bank and began plowing through the wet snow, his pace slowed by the thickness of it. He paused once at the small creek, its water still flowing cold and clear in a narrow channel between slabs of thick, gray-white ice. He stepped carefully onto the ice, then over the water to reach the further bank. Then he continued across the field to the cliffs.
Looming in front of him were sheer walls of gray stone, nearly covered with great white frozen waterfalls. He moved along the base of the wall, looking up at the gigantic icicles as he went. In a little while he’d reach the cow path that zigzagged up the steep hill to the upper pasture. He thought it funny that the kids who moved into the plan didn’t even know about cows. They thought milk came from the store. But he knew that cows give us milk. Hadn’t Daddy even let him milk Bessy, their only cow, one time? The other kids lived in the city before, Daddy had said, and they didn’t always know things like that. And he thought everybody knew that stuff.
He trudged up the path, feeling, even through the snow, the uneven, once muddy ground—now frozen—where the cows had walked. Arriving at the top of the hill, he looked out over the unbroken white of the upper pasture all the way to the woods’ edge several hundred yards away, the only blemish being a deep gorge where the creek cut through the field, cascading over the sharp rocks, and spilling into its bed below. Though the creek there was covered with ice, he could still see the waters bubbling and flowing under their crystal wrapping.
He headed across the field with a quickened pace, remembering the spring days he had been chased across the rolling green carpet by the big white bull that spent its afternoons here, lazily munching on garlic shoots. He would always just make it to the barbed wire fence and scoot over with the help of an overhanging crabapple tree branch. He and that bull had a running bet and he was determined he would always win. The secret was to start across the field when the bull was far away and didn’t notice him. Then, when he was nearly across, he’d attract the bull’s attention and then run for his life.
But today there was no bull. He lazily swung up over the fence on the crabapple branch and dropped lightly on the other side in the woods—his woods. He was in no hurry now with no homework to get home to do.
He ambled through the woods, still hearing the crunch of the nearly-buried leaves underfoot. They had long ago all died, turning brown and dry. But the snow made the woods alive again. Dark branches were crusted with white, like chocolate cupcakes iced with thick confectioner’s sugar icing. Other branches and even some remnants of strong-stemmed weeds were weighted under a clear coating of ice, as if someone had encased them all in glass. He heard no sound but the gurgling of the water that raced by under its icy covering, and the crunch of his own boots as he walked, following the stream bed.
Soon he came to the clearing, and he knew that he was nearly home. There the creek veered sharply to his left, running off to one side as if it, like the surrounding trees, knew that it must stand back from HIS tree, which stood alone in the very center of the clearing. It was the only fir tree in all the woods and as far as he knew, no one else knew about it. He often wondered how it had gotten there.
The tree itself stood a few feet taller than he was, and was a perfect living pyramid. But its upswept blue-green branches were now weighted with great clumps of wet snow and hung limply down. He raced over to the tree, reaching as high as he could and brushed as much of the snow off as he could. The branches sprang back again, curving gracefully upward once more. He stood back and smiled.
He liked this tree; best of all the trees, in fact. Sure, he couldn’t climb in it and it gave no fruit like some of the other trees surrounding it, but it didn’t have to. It was different, and he liked that. Yep, not like any of the other trees there.
With one last look at the tree, he continued on his way and was soon home. He stomped in through the kitchen door, shaking off the snow as he went. His mother, tall and slender, was standing at the sink, washing the dishes. She was dressed, as usual, in a simple print house dress covered with a bright, flowered apron. She looked tired, he thought, and for the fist time he noticed that her short, wavy dark hair looked gray around the edges.
She turned as he entered the room. “Oh, Timmy, you’re covered with snow,” she said. “Have you been wandering through the woods again?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he murmured, feeling slightly foolish. He patted his coat once again to see if the package was still alright. But it wasn’t there! He unbuttoned his coat and whipped it off, but there was no sign of the small parcel. Where could it be?
“Alright,” Momma said, “off with boots, too. I don’t want you tracking snow all over my clean kitchen floor.”
“But, Momma,” he said, his voice strained, “can I go back out for a while?” He must have dropped the present somewhere in the woods on the way home.
“You’ve only just gotten in,” his mother remarked. “There’ll be plenty of time to play tomorrow. Right now, out of those wet things. I don’t want you catching a cold.”
Timmy’s face fell as he began removing his boots. What was he to do now with no present for his parents? He had worked long and hard during art class at school to make the gift and now it was gone.
That night, his mother tucked him in bed, his big, cozy patchwork quilt atop his covers.
“It’ll be cold tonight,” she said as she kissed him on the forehead. “G’night.”
“Night, Momma,” he murmured. She flicked off the light and was gone.
Timmy lay in bed a while, his eyes open, staring into the blackness of the room. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and he had no gift to put under the tree. He knew there was no Santa Claus, even though Daddy had said Santa was real—in spirit—but still that wouldn’t put gifts under the tree for his parents.
He must find another gift tomorrow, but what? He had counted his savings before climbing into bed: two dollars and 35 cents. Not very much, but maybe he could find something for both of them at the shopping center for that price. He rolled over and closed his eyes, feeling better knowing that he would have a present under the tree.
Voices drifted up to his room from the kitchen below, at first softly, then louder. His parents were arguing.
“We can’t afford it,” he heard his father say.
“But how can we have a Christmas?” his mother sounded upset.
“We won’t be able to eat for the rest of the month if we spend it foolishly now,” his father countered. “I didn’t ask to be laid off work all these months, you know. I don’t want this situation either, but we don’t have any choice.”
“Not even a tree, though?” she said. “It just won’t be Christmas.”
Timmy awoke the next morning determined that he would buy the best tree he could find at the tree sale over in the shopping center parking lot. He would go through the plan and shovel people’s walks and with the money he made, together with his savings, he could afford the biggest, prettiest tree there.
He could hardly sit still through breakfast. He sat at his usual place at the right side of the big table which was covered with a green checkered table cloth, fidgeting as he gulped his juice, then wolfed down his rolled oats. His older brother and sisters had not even come down from their rooms yet.
“You must really like breakfast this morning,” his mother teased. “Or do you have something else on your mind?”
“It’s a surprise, Momma,” he murmured as he slipped out of his chair. “Gotta go.”
He reached up and kissed her on the cheek, then grabbed his coat and boots and raced down the cellar steps. He quickly located the snow shovel, its flat, square surface dull and dusty from lack of use since last winter. He grabbed it and was soon on his way.
Hours later, he sat dejectedly on the concrete curb at the parking lot edge near the hastily set-up storm fence that surrounded the area where they sold the trees. His shovel, now shiny and wet, lay beside him. He looked through the weathered, barn-red slats of the fence, watching all the people—women bundled in their furs or wools with matching scarves and hats, the men and boys with tossle caps and leather gloves—as they moved about between rows and rows of all kinds of evergreen trees. He saw tall ones, short ones, spindly ones and fat ones, ones with long needles that appeared soft to the touch, and others with short spines that stabbed sharply. Some of them lay on the ground, twine wrapped around their branches, looking like folded, living green umbrellas.
But the lowest priced one was $7.50, and he only had four dollars and 85 cents, even after shoveling snow all morning. Maybe he should have asked for more than 50 cents at each house. But it was too late now. He couldn’t buy a tree and he couldn’t do anything about it. He would just have to go home and give the money to his parents as a gift. It was better than nothing, and after all, it was the thought that counted.
He arose with new determination, grabbed his shovel, and started the long walk home. When he got to the bus stop, he decided maybe he could locate the gift he had lost. Maybe it would be okay and he wouldn’t have to worry about a gift for his parents. But that snow was wet, he realized, as he marched across the field, and the gift had laid out overnight. It wasn’t snowing anymore, but for all he knew the gift could already be buried under several inches of snow.
He reached the clearing in the woods, having no luck finding his gift anywhere along the way. He paused in front of his tree for a moment, noticing the snow-smothered branches. The woods seemed very quiet now—silent—as he stood looking at the tree. Nothing moved anywhere; a peace had fallen over the woods with the snow and now lay like a blanket covering everything just as the snow did.
He stared long and hard at the tree in the silent woods, himself still and quiet. Then he finally raced over to it and brushed the snow off the branches, watching as each would pop back up so that they once again hung in graceful upswept curves. White powder filled the air and covered him as he worked.
Suddenly out of the lower branches, he brushed a small package of green construction paper tied with a bright red ribbon. He scooped it off the ground quickly, brushing off the wet snow that clung to one corner where it had fallen. The paper there now was discolored, pale green edged in dark green, but it didn’t matter because he had found it and it was okay! The tree had saved it for him!
He quickly picked up the discarded shovel and raced the rest of the way home, holding the package tightly to himself so that he would not lose it again.
That night, he crawled under the covers, exhausted. His mother came into the room a little while later to tuck him in. He looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back at him, but it wasn’t her usual warm smile; it seemed sad.
She sat down slowly on the edge of the bed, then turned to look at him.
“Timmy, tomorrow is Christmas,” she began softly, “and your Daddy already explained to you about Santa Claus…”
He nodded, puzzled by her manner.
“You also know that Christmas is a time we give gifts; gifts to show our love for each other.” She paused, taking a deep breath. “Well, sometimes, when people don’t have enough money, they can’t always give gifts for everybody they love, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love them anymore.” She looked down at him, her eyes sparkling with moisture in the dim light.
“We have to remember the first Christmas and the most precious gift that was given to all of us then—the gift of love itself.”
She leaned down then and took the boy in her arms. “If we have nothing else to give this Christmas,” she whispered as she hugged him tightly to her, “we can give each other love.”
She released her hold on him and arose quickly, then left the room. He lay back slowly, pulling the covers up around him once again. He had a gift for them, he thought, but it wasn’t really. It was really for him, just so he could have a gift to give. Sure, it was nice and he would give it to them, but it wasn’t enough.
He slipped quietly out of bed, pulled on his play clothes and a warm jacket, then snuck stealthily down the stairs to the cellar. There, among the gardening tools, he found the ax, its sharp metal blade gleaming in the dark, its cherry wood handle soft and smooth to the touch.
He hoisted the ax to his shoulder and stepped out the cellar door. This would be the best Christmas ever, he thought, as he strode across the moonlit snow.