Note: Back when I was teaching, I would share stories about Christmas that I had written. I enjoyed it. My students did too … I think, mostly… Anyway, I enjoyed it, the writing and the telling.
Today is Christmas Sunday on the church calendar, so even though we are a bit past December 25, it’s still appropriate for a little Christmas offering. Be warned, it’s actually quite a bit longer than my typical posts.
Frankie looked at me across my kitchen table. Her gaze clipped her half-empty mug of Christmas Cocoa Delight and settled on my smiling face. She just finished telling me her story and said, “Jane, that was probably my best Christmas.” Her brown eyes flickered down for an instant and hinted that there was probably more to it, more to be told later. We didn’t know each other very well and her grin said, “That’s probably enough, at least for now.” But, then she smirked, shrugged her shoulders and waited for me to share my story.
I really don’t know how I got to this point with her, sharing memories from my life with someone I’d known for only a short time. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. A friend told me about a speaker that came to her church. Her idea was we should slow down and create some space in our lives in order to be more available to others. Maybe give someone a needed smile or a friendly word. Maybe be that non-cranky customer at the grocery checkout. Maybe give someone a bit of a break in some way. Simple stuff really. No big deal. Just small things. No big commitment. Just have the time to do something good.
So, when neighbor Sue cooked up this idea to have a neighborhood Christmas tea party, I thought why not? I’ll go. I’d get to meet some of the neighbors. I’ll make the time. That’s where I met Frankie.
It was a pretty fancy party; everything just so. Tea was served in special china cups resting on delicate saucers with holly leaves painted around the edges. Trays of mini-cakes, baklava, petit fours, and other delights filled the table festively dressed in holiday finery. Cloth napkins lay at the ready to dab away errant crumbs from perfectly painted lips. Don’t get me wrong. Even though I’m a paper napkin in one hand and a mug of hot chocolate in the other kinda girl, I’ve been around long enough to be able to ‘do fancy.’ But I wondered about Frankie.
When I first saw her, she was alone. She hovered around the dessert table, looking a little lost and a little nervous. The only one dressed in jeans, she was by far the youngest at the party, about the same age as my daughter Stacey. Other than living on the same cul-de-sac, there seemed to be little that connected her to the rest of the tea party guests.
I watched her as I waited my turn to pour a cup of tea at the counter. She balanced a too-full cup of tea on her saucer while reaching for a small Swedish princess cake. The tea cup quivered, slid a bit and tipped ever so slightly on the raised inner ring of the saucer. No one else seemed to notice, but I knew what was about to happen. I watched the whole thing unfold like a linen napkin. I wished I could help stop the seemingly inevitable disaster. But, I knew there was no way I could intervene in time.
What a way to get introduced to the neighbors! Broken teacup and saucer and a cup of oolong splashed all over the white linen tablecloth and dripping down onto the newly cleaned carpet. Instinctively, I took two steps in her direction to help. And then she pulled back her hand from the cake, leveled her saucer and steadied her tea. She paused and stood straight. She took a deep breath, puffed her cheeks and blew a word of thanks to no one in particular. She looked down at the dainty tea cup, then looked up, saw me, and grinned. Apologetically, she said, “I guess tea is not my thing. But, I sure could use a mug of hot chocolate.”
That was how we met. Before I knew it, a couple of weeks later, in mid-December, with Frankie’s kids in school and mine living their lives scattered across the country, we were having afternoon coffee and cookies around my kitchen table. Christmas carols were playing to an empty room around the corner in the living room just loud enough to float up and over and around us providing a bit of holiday fa la la la la…
Frankie liked to talk and didn’t mind telling stories of her past Christmases. She paused and drank the last drops of her coffee. She wiped her mouth with one of the leftover Thanksgiving napkins I’d set out.
I knew it was my turn when she looked at me, smiled expectantly and said, “So.”
Caught somewhat off guard, I blinked and said, “Uh….” Not very profound, I realized, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to delve into what could be an easy yet somewhat difficult story to tell, especially to someone I just met. Even though it happened long ago, diving into the depths of my memory and sharing my heart about that Christmas…, well I just wasn’t sure. Even though I consider it, my best Christmas, I needed a bit more time. So I stalled.
I got up to refresh our drinks and grabbed a couple more cookies. On my way, I walked past a picture on a shelf next to the cupboard. I’d probably passed by it a dozen times every day without really seeing it. This time, thanks to Frankie’s Christmas stroll down memory lane, I saw it again on my way to refill the coffee mugs. It was a picture of my dad and me and that old red Farmall A tractor. There we were, the three of us, outstanding in our field behind the house.
My dad worked in an office in town. However, he loved working outdoors and tending the five acres we lived on just a few miles north of town. He could build anything, fix anything, drive anything, even back up a trailer and place it just so. In my eyes he was a wonder. That’s what I remember.
In the picture, I was ten. My face was coated with dust kicked up from my first solo drive of the Farmall. “The boys can drive, plow and disk the field, so can you, Janie,” he said. He taught me. He trusted me. We worked side-by-side. That meant a lot. I loved him so. Now he’s gone. I picked up the picture and brought it to the table.
Frankie nibbled at a fresh cookie. She looked up at me as I approached the table with the refilled mugs. I set the picture down in front of her. “That’s you,” she said. “I can tell by the smile.” She grinned as if she were smiling back at my ten year old self so many years ago.
I said. “That’s me and my dad.” Then I told her all about our farm, my brothers, and the Farmall. Mostly I told her about my dad.
“Do something good today,” he’d say to me and my brothers as he left for work in the morning and we left for school. When he got home I’d be home already, homework done, eager and ready for whatever project or chore he might be working on at the time. He was like that. No matter what it was, there was always an open invitation to join him. No matter what the work, even though he could get it done faster and better, even though I was just a kid, he would make sure I knew I was doing something worthwhile. He always made time for me.
During the course of the work we’d talk. Without specifically asking he’d coax from me the day’s happenings and find out what ‘the good’ was that I did that day. It was expected after all, doing something good. Sometimes I could point to a specific instance. You know, like I helped Allen with some math problems. He would wrap his arm around my shoulder and say something like, “Nice. I’m sure Allen appreciated it.” And we’d keep cleaning the barn.
Of course, he had a way of finding out the other too. I remember a time when my mother … oh, my mother! I loved my mother, too. But, oh man, we could get into it! And I’d say things. And I’d get in trouble. And my dad would come home. “He’d say something like, “Let’s go to Koops. I need a couple of 2×4’s.” We’d hop into the pickup, drive the half mile back and forth to the lumber company and talk. Well, he talked. I listened. More times than not, when the lesson was over, though, he would give me a hug and say something like, “Okay then, remember, do something good.” Then with a twinkle in his eye and an extra squeeze, he’d say, “even for your mother.”
When my dad passed away, my brothers and I went through his stuff in the barn. When we came upon a big pile of unused 2×4’s we laughed and laughed. We decided it wasn’t that Dad needed the lumber, it was us needing our dad. I could have used one of his hugs just then.
After I moved out of their house, after I got married to Jake, after we started our own family, my dad got sick. Real sick. Cancer. Bad stuff. It was the beginning of the end for him or he would say the beginning of the beginning. At this Frankie gave a puzzled look. “I’ll explain,” is all I said. Then I continued with, “His ending was where my Christmas story began.”
Joy to the World played in the background as I geared up to tell my story. It was the strange stanza, the one about ‘the curse’ that poked my ears. “Far as the curse is found” is how it went. It seemed eerily, appropriate as I began to tell Frankie about that Christmas so long ago. And in the telling it seemed like just yesterday.
I took a deep breath and looked at Frankie. Her smile waned as she tried to interpret the combination of sorrow and peace clouding my face. “Are you okay?” She said. I nodded.
“You see, it was 17 years ago today, that my dad died. A week and a half before Christmas,” I said. “He was 85. He lived a long, good life.” And so my tale began.
It was such a typical Christmas for us. Busy, busy, busy. Too busy really. There were presents to buy, food to make for what seemed like endless parties, my work, Jake’s work, church activities, school programs, kid’s concerts and just everyday life. On top of it all my mom needed help taking care of Dad.
The cancer had taken over his body and he was wasting away. Hospice was called in. Dad didn’t want to go to some care facility. He wanted to stay home. My mom wanted that, too. But little did she know how much care he would require. Even when the hospice folks were there it was way more than she could handle. Providentially, my siblings and I all lived within driving distance. We made the time to take care of Dad, and Mom, too, for that matter.
Then the day came. I was at my folk’s house with the girls, Stacy and Emily. Dad’s hospital bed was in their family room so he could look out over the now overgrown garden behind the house. A blanket of fresh snow covered the leftover coneflowers left to disintegrate back into the soil only to rise again in the spring.
I had just given him some pain medication, just a slight dribble past his barely parted lips. He wasn’t eating anymore. Drinking? All he could manage was a few drops at a time, at best. His breathing was labored and slowing. We were just waiting.
Just the week before, when we were there, Dad’s eyes were closed and Emily was sitting by his side telling him about her week at school. My mom was knitting and doing what she could, which was just being there. Stacy walked in. “Hi Grandpa,” she said as if she expected him to answer.
Dad’s eyes fluttered open. He saw the girls. His lips curved up into a slight smile. Then, at barely a whisper, he said, “Girl’s, do something good.” He raised his finger ever so slightly. Exhausted, he fell asleep again. That was it. His last words. A week later, he was gone.
I gave Frankie a reassuring smile as I continued and as she wiped a tear that escaped from her eye. “There’s more,” I said.
It was as if the brakes had been slammed on the whole Christmas roller coaster. We cancelled everything. We put all of our energy into taking care of Mom, making all the arrangements, the figuring out of all that needed to be done. Funeral planning, the endless details, and of course, the grieving left no room for Christmas. That’s what I thought, then.
The funeral was a blur. Dad had a lot of friends! It seemed as if everyone one in town knew him. They filled the church. Everyone had only the best to say about him and they said so to all of us over and over and over again. We were numb.
The preacher helped us remember my father’s life and then helped us to say goodbye. He reminded us of the comfort we can have because of the One who was born on Christmas day. The irony lies in that it was an Easter sermon we heard that day, just a few days before Christmas.
The days between the funeral and Christmas for my brothers, their families and for me and my family were quiet days. All the trappings of Christmas were erased from the canvas of our lives that year. Yet, we decided to still have the family Christmas party, which we moved to Christmas Day. I looked past Frankie around the room remembering the scene.
“We had it here,” I said. All of my brothers, their wives, my nieces and nephews and my mom, of course. We filled the house. Everyone brought a little food to share. We talked, we cried, we laughed, we ate, we cried some more. We showed slides on the wall for over an hour. No one tired of the pictures of Dad and each of us on the Farmall, on the big trip out west, the times at the lake, past Christmases… It was wonderful.
Without any planning, the real Christmas story filtered through all the remembering, the laughing, and the grief… Everything was stripped away except for what Christmas was really all about. As strange as it may sound it took a death to bring us back to its true meaning. “It was my best Christmas,” I said.
Another version of Joy to the World wafted through the kitchen, putting in the final word for the day. “He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found…” That’s what we heard and that’s where I paused the tale of my best Christmas… for now. I could tell from the look on Frankie’s kind, smiling face that she didn’t quite get it all. But it was time for her to go. “The kids will be at the bus stop soon,” she said.
“I’m so glad we could do this,” I said.
“Me, too, Jane. Let’s get together again,” Frankie said. “My place? Next week? I’d like to hear more.” She paused. “If you have time, that is. I know there’s a lot going on.”
“Sure, Frankie. I’d like that,” I said. I grinned. “I have time.” And then I thought of my Dad as I waved good-bye to my new friend, heading out the door.
“Do something good,” he’d say.
“I’ll try, Dad. I’ll try.”