Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Past: Grandma's Christmas Tree

Chapter Four

     When Buddy awoke that afternoon, it had already begun to darken outside. It was the first day of winter and the days were very short. He sat up and the first thing he did was to reach down to stroke Susie’s silky ears. Then he glanced around the room that was fast falling into shadows and suddenly he caught his breath. Rubbing at still sleepy eyes, he looked again. Could he really be seeing it? Yes, it was still there, but Buddy couldn’t believe what he saw. Standing there in the corner of the front room stood Grandma’s rubber plant, tall and unwieldy as always, yet something was different. Hanging from the flat green and shiny leaves were the precious ornaments that Buddy remembered from Christmases past, when he and his mother and dad had come visiting. How could it be? Grandma dearly loved that plant. Often she scolded Buddy and Grandpa for bumping into it or for treating it with any less care than she did. Now here it was decorated with Christmas ornaments, and no one else could have done it but Grandma.

     Buddy slid out from under his warm quilt and padded barefoot across the cold wood floor. He didn’t feel his toes grow chilly as he stood before the strange Christmas tree. He didn’t see Grandma when she came from the kitchen. He only barely heard her say, “Put your slippers on, boy. You can’t expect to get well running around here barefoot.”

     Buddy turned his face up to hers, and Grandma’s stern frown melted when she saw the light in his eyes. She watched in silence as he reached out a hand and touched one of the paper ornaments, causing it to turn and catch a bit of the light that was left, reflecting it in the glitter sprinkled on the paper.

     “It’s the best I could do, Buddy,” Grandma said in a voice that was softer than usual. “It certainly doesn’t look like a Christmas tree, but in times like these I guess we just have to make do with what we have.”

     Buddy touched one of the ornaments again and felt a small warmth begin to grow inside him. But it wasn’t only because of the makeshift tree bearing ornaments of times past but because somehow he knew that in spite of her sternness and impatience, Grandma really did love him after all. Despite her brusk manner and sometimes scolding words, despite that she did not often hug him, Buddy knew that only love would make Grandma do this. Only love would have allowed her to hang her ornaments on the rubber plant so that he might have something that at least vaguely resembled a Christmas tree.

     The truth of this warmed Buddy from the inside out, and even if he couldn’t have his parents here, together; even if they wouldn’t be able to spend Christmas with Grandpa, even if this was the only tree they had this year, it really didn’t matter right now. The discovery Buddy had just made was enough to fill his small self with joy.

     “I’ll go dish us up some soup,” Grandma said, breaking the silence. “Might as well eat early tonight.”

     Buddy didn’t say anything when she turned to go back to the kitchen, but before she left the front room he called out, “Thanks. Thanks, Grandma.”

     A moment of silence loomed before he heard her say, “Put your slippers on, boy.”

     “Yes, Grandma,” he said softly and turned to go back to the couch.

     Snow fell outside the window, big sparkly flakes that glistened even before they reached the ground. From down the street drifted the sound of Christmas carols. Buddy knelt on the couch and peered out, hoping to catch of glimpse of the carolers. Were they coming this way?

     In a few moments he saw them and then they stood out on the walk, bundled from head to toe in big woolen wraps and mufflers. They sang an old song that Buddy remembered hearing at school, a song about a Christmas tree.

          Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

          How lovely are thy branches.

     Buddy’s throat was still a little scratchy but he joined them in singing the words and when the carolers were gone, moving on down the street, he sat back on his heels and sighed. Susie jumped up next to him and he put his arm around her, the beauty of the song staying with him, joining with the new-found joy he felt inside.

     “She really does love us,” he whispered into Susie’s ear.

     The little dog leaned into him as in the December twilight, they watched the snow fall.

Author’s Note:

At one time scarlet fever was a dangerous disease of children and adults alike. People feared epidemics, as those stricken often died or were left with lasting disabilities due to the infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria; thus the reason for quarantining anyone with the disease. In the Little House on the Prairie series of books, Mary Ingalls lost her eyesight to the effects of Scarlet Fever. In the book Little Women, the third sister, Beth, died from the effects of the disease. Thanks to the discovery of and widespread use of antibiotics, scarlet fever is no longer the scourge it once posed in our country but still remains a problem in other places in the world.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Past: Grandma's Christmas Tree

Chapter Three

     The days went by slowly, and the big house seemed very empty without Grandpa. Buddy missed him coming home everyday and instead could only look forward to him stopping at the door to leave food and whatever else Buddy and Grandma might need. Buddy would stand at the window with Susie and wave to him, but it wasn’t the same. The days were long, and Buddy didn’t know what to do with himself. When he felt like it, he would think up games to play with Susie, but most of the time he spent on the couch, staring out the window at the snow that now fell lazily on the lawn. It beckoned him to come out and play when he knew he could not.

     Grandma didn’t get that sick but she still had to remain inside the house with Buddy until Dr. Tate lifted the quarantine. Only a few days remained until Christmas now, and Grandma watched her small grandson gaze out the window to the houses across the street. Cheerfully decorated trees and other trimmings of the season had appeared in their windows in the time they’d been ill. She knew Buddy was hoping they would be over this sickness before the big day arrived so that Grandpa could come home and they, too, could have a Christmas tree. It would be a sad and lonely Christmas if they didn’t have a tree, and Grandma realized time was getting short. What could she do to brighten the house for the boy?

     Still feeling a bit weak but determined to do something to lift their spirits, she climbed the stairs to the attic. There she found the box of ornaments that they used to decorate their tree every year. They weren’t such bright or fancy colorful ornaments, in fact most of them were hand-made of paper, but each one had been made by some member of the family, lovingly and with more care than could ever go into any plain store-bought ones.

     How many Christmas trees had she hung these paper ornaments on? Too many to count but she remembered vividly how important each of those trees had been to her, especially those of her own childhood. A Christmas without a tree was unthinkable for herself but even more so for Buddy. There must be something she could do to put the light of Christmas in the little boy’s brown eyes, eyes that had looked so sad and tired theses past days.

     Slowly and carefully, Grandma carried the box of paper ornaments down the stairs and set them on the desk that stood next to the staircase. Buddy lay on the couch sound asleep, Susie curled on the rag rug next to him. Grandma’s gaze rested on him a moment before traveling around the front room, her thoughts searching for an idea. Then she spotted the tall plant that stood in one corner. A rubber plant, its leaves big and thick and shiny, and it was Grandma’s pride and joy. She was always babying it, talking to it and caring for it with a tenderness that was sometimes more than she showed her grandson. She knew she hadn’t shown her love for Buddy by hugging and playing with him, but she did understand about children and Christmas, and she knew how great his disappointment would be if there were no tree this year.

     She made up her mind. It might not be the best Christmas they’d ever had, and the tree might not look at all like a Christmas tree should, but she must at least try, for the boy’s sake. It was all she could do.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Past: Grandma's Christmas Tree

Chapter Two

     When Grandpa came home from the factory that night, he found Grandma tucking Buddy into bed, having finished sponging him down to lower the fever.

     “Is the boy sick?” he asked.

     Grandma put a gnarled finger to her lips and pushed Grandpa out the bedroom door.

     “Scarlet Fever,” she said in a low voice. “Dr. Tate stopped by earlier and said the boy’s throat is fire red. I knew I shouldn’t have let him play with those children from down the block, but how was I to know what they had was still catching?”

     “Now Emma, you can’t blame yourself.” Grandpa hitched up his overalls as they went downstairs. “It’s in the air. The boy would probably have gotten it anyway. Did the doctor seem concerned?”

     “Well, he said the fever is often the hardest on young children, and you know how every illness seems to hit Buddy. I certainly wish we’d never agreed to take care of him. He should be with his parents.”

     “Don’t fret so.” Grandpa patted her arm. “With your good care, I’m sure Buddy will be better soon. How about some supper, Em?”

     Grandma started for the kitchen while Grandpa sat down to read his evening newspaper. She fixed supper for him but didn’t feel much like eating herself. Instead, she prepared a small tray of tea and toast and told Grandpa she was going back upstairs.

     “I want to see if I can get Buddy to eat some of this toast. He needs it if he’s going to fight this fever. I’d hate for him to be sick on Christmas.”

     Grandpa didn’t argue with her. By now he knew that Grandma was always right about these things.

     Before leaving the kitchen, Grandma stopped in the doorway.

     “William?” she said to Grandpa. “Have you ever had Scarlet Fever?”

     Grandpa looked up from his supper, surprised.

     “Why, I imagine so.” He shrugged. “Couldn’t say for sure, though. What about you, Emma?”

     “I don’t know either,” she admitted and went upstairs.

     All that night, Grandma sat by Buddy’s side, putting cool clothes on his hot forehead and offering him sips of water. By morning his fever was not so high, but his throat still hurt and his face was flushed bright red. To keep him where she could watch him, Grandma allowed Buddy to come downstairs with her and lay on the couch, wrapped in two thick quilts. From here Buddy could see out the big front room window. He saw the milk wagon stop and the milkman leave two bottles on the front step. He watched the other children walking home from school and he waved to them, but then Grandma said the light wasn’t good for his eyes while he had the fever and she pulled the curtains shut.

     Buddy lay back on his pillows, his hand dropping to rest on Susie’s head. She had taken  her place curled on the rag rug next to the couch, and she licked Buddy’s hand with her soft warm tongue. Too tired to even lift his hand again, Buddy drifted off to sleep.

     Dr. Tate stopped to look at Buddy’s throat that afternoon. When he was done checking the boy, he turned to Grandma. He adjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles over the bump on his nose.

     “Now Emma, I want to see your throat. Open up, please.”

     “For heaven’s sake!” Grandma sputtered. “Whatever for?”

     “You know what for.” The doctor tapped his foot impatiently. “Your cheeks are pink and I’ll bet your hands are ice cold. Come on, be a good patient like your grandson and open up.”

     Grandma obeyed. The doctor shook his head much as he had the day before when he’d looked at Buddy’s throat.

     “I believe you’re coming down with it, too,” he said. “I’m going to have to place you and Buddy under quarantine.”

     “But what about William?” Grandma was a bit alarmed. “Does this mean….?”

     “Yes, I’m afraid it does, Emma. We don’t want this to spread any farther than it already has. William can stay at my place, if need be.”

     “That won’t be necessary. He’ll probably sleep at the factory.” Already Grandma was trying to figure out how they would manage without Grandpa, especially if she became sicker. Quarantine meant no one could enter or leave this house except the doctor, Grandpa included. Knowing William, he would no doubt want to stay here and care for them, but there was no way Grandma would permit it. He had said himself he didn’t know if he’d ever had the fever, so there should be no taking any chances. Grandpa had to work at the factory. Should he become ill, they would all be worse off. They just couldn’t afford for him to get the fever, too. Besides, it would be bad for him at his age. Grandma never stopped to think it was bad for her.

     That evening, Grandpa was met at the door by the quarantine sign and the firm shake of Grandma’s steely gray head.

     “It seems I’ve got it, too,” she said through the door. “The doctor has put us under quarantine so you’ll have to stay at the factory for a few days.”

     Grandpa scratched his head and looked confused.

     “But who’s going to care for you and the boy?”

     “Don’t worry,” Grandma assured him. “I don’t really feel so terrible, and Buddy’s fever has gone down some. If we need anything, I’ll ring you at work.” The overall factory had a small room with a cot where Grandpa could spend the next few nights.

     Grandpa gazed at his wife’s small face, white except for the bright flush of fever on her cheeks. He hated to leave her alone with the boy, but what could he do? Certainly it would be worse if he got sick and couldn’t work. Slowly he turned to go, then stopped and said through the door.

     “Promise you’ll call me if you feel any worse?”

     Grandma nodded and watched him go down the porch steps and across the dried winter lawn. He paused at the sidewalk to wave to her and then toward the front room where Buddy sat staring out the window, his little-boy face lonely, his arm encircling the small black spaniel.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Past: Grandma's Christmas Tree

     This story is based on an incident that happened to my dad when he was a little boy. As he passed away when I was very small, I heard the story from my mother and always knew this was how the ornament came to us. I have fictionalized what I don’t know, but much of it is true, and the message I think it brings is timeless. In this beautiful season of the year that has been darkened by recent events, I would like to dedicate the story of a little boy who found kindness and love in the midst of sadness and hardship to the memory of the children and their teachers who went to heaven on December 14, 2012.


Chapter One
About a hundred years ago.

     A sharp December wind skipped across the brown lawn as Buddy dragged his feet up the walk. Like most nine year old boys, he was glad to get home from school, but today it wasn’t because he was eager to play with his little black spaniel. Today he wasn’t feeling so well. His throat felt scratchy and his head ached, and not even Susie’s romping about to greet him could coax Buddy into playing. All he wanted was to get into Grandma’s warm house, although he wasn’t so sure even that would make him feel better. Since his parents had left him here two months ago, Buddy had begun to think of himself a bother, a nuisance. Surely Grandma did not want to have to take care of a sick little boy. Probably she would be mad at him for getting sick. Hadn’t Buddy just the other night overheard her telling Grandpa she was too old and tired to be looking after a youngster? Dejectedly, Buddy clumped up the porch steps.

     When she opened the front door for him, Grandma took one look at Buddy, felt his forehead and sent him straight up to bed while she went to the kitchen and made tea with honey in it to soothe his throat. Upstairs, Buddy lay down on his small bed without even stopping to take off his shoes. Susie jumped up on the bed and curled next to him. She nosed his cold hand, asking to be petted, but Buddy didn’t feel like stroking the long silky ears the way he usually did. Instead he, too, curled into a little ball. He shivered. The room suddenly felt very chilly. Before he knew it, Buddy fell asleep.

     Grandma came upstairs with the tea and saw her grandson shaking with fever. She set the cup down on his bureau and lay her wrinkled hand on his forehead once more.

     “Just what I feared,” she murmured and glanced at the black dog lying protectively beside her small master. “Think I better call the doctor right away. Buddy might be coming down with that fever those other children had. I certainly hope not, especially with Christmas right around the corner, but I guess we better find out.” She pulled Buddy’s shoes off and drew the patchwork quilt up over his shivering shoulders. Then she paused to scratch the dog’s ear. “Keep an eye on him while I go down and ring Dr. Tate.” Susie nuzzled the boy’s cold hand and whined softly because he wouldn’t get up and play with her.

     Dr. Tate came soon after, looked down Buddy’s throat and shook his head.

     “It’s the fever, Emma. Same as the Miller children had two weeks ago.”

     Grandma wasn’t really surprised. She had suspected as much, but she was worried. Buddy wasn’t the strongest child and she feared the fever might strike him harder than usual.

     “His throat’s quite red already.” Dr. Tate peered into his black bag. “And his fever is climbing. Better try to get some of this down him.” He handed Grandma a small bottle of dark liquid, then turned and snapped the bag shut. “Call me again tonight if he seems any worse. Otherwise I’ll stop by in the morning. Oh, and Emma?”

     She looked up absently from the bottle in her hand and saw the doctor’s heavy brows drawn together in a frown. “Hmmm?”

     “Have you ever had it?”

     “What’s that?” Grandma was puzzled and a bit impatient, anxious to get the boy cooled off and some of the medicine in him.

     “The Scarlet Fever?”

     “Why…I can’t say for sure. Might have when I was younger, but I don’t really know.”

     “Well, let me know the first sign you have of any chills or sore throat,” he made her promise.

     “I’m too old to catch it,” Grandma protested. “If I haven’t caught it by this time in my life, I doubt I will now.”

     “Well, just the same you take care. The fever can be rough on the very young and the older folks,” Dr. Tate insisted.

     “Are you calling me older folk?” Grandma snapped.

     The doctor just harrumphed and picked up his bag. “Call me if you need to, Emma,” he said. “I’ll see myself out.” He left the room but not before noticing Susie lying by the door, waiting for her chance to take her place on the bed again. “You make sure that old woman listens to me,” he said and heard the thump of the spaniel’s tail in response.

(Please come back tomorrow for the second chapter of Grandma's Christmas Tree.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Past

     It's a little faded and frail but this ornament has hung on my Christmas trees all my life. In a way, it's an honor to be the keeper of its history and to be able to unwrap it every year and find a place to hang it on the tree. It's well over a 100 years old now and yet it seems to be caught in time, not really aging anymore. Maybe because for 11 months of the year it's gently swathed in tissue paper and tucked away in the plastic tote of decorations. How it came to be a part of my Christmas tradition is a story in itself, one my mother told me from the time I was old enough to understand. It's a story of hardship and struggle, in a time when life was much different that it is now in the 21st century. It's also a story of unexpected love and caring. Some years ago, I decided to write the story down, so its history wouldn't be lost, as so many family stories are when the those who know the stories best have passed from this life. Then the story was also tucked away in a file cabinet, as so many stories are when the author isn't sure what to do with them.
     Years went by and although I didn't forget the story, I also didn't do anything with it. The ornament has been brought out and hung with care every year and then put away with the rest of the holiday trappings. The story could easily have been lost when no one was left to tell it. But I've decided this year will be different. This year I resurrected the filed away story and thought I would put it here, so that it will in some respect be read and saved. I'll be posting it here all this week, so if you'd like to know the story behind the ornament, please stop back tomorrow for the first installment of Grandma's Christmas Tree.