By Ashby Hartwell Williams © 1986
Issue: December, 1986
It wasn't going to be a picture postcard Christmas. While the weather had been a little too warm for snow, it had sure rained enough, more than enough. As Mary Lewis stood looking out of her kitchen window, it seemed like the whole world was turned to mud.
The weather had been unpredictable all year, first drought, then too much rain. The cows had been sold at a loss simply because there was no way to feed them through winter. Oh, they would make it. They always had and always would, but Christmas was coming and it wasn't going to be easy.
Mary thought about the children. Katie was ten and David was eight. If they were older, they might understand. If they were younger, they might not notice. But at their ages, it would be hard to understand why they didn't get new shoes soon enough or there not being a shiny new bicycle under the tree on Christmas morning. It almost broke Mary's heart every time she saw them looking through the toy catalog. She couldn't shut out the sound of their young voices from her mind: "Look at this, Katie. Boy, I'd like to have this. My friend Jerry has one and we could have a lot of fun together if I had one too." "Look at this, David. Isn't that the prettiest doll you ever saw? I would take care of her and keep her forever!"
Mary shook the thoughts from her head and turned from the window. It was almost time for the school bus bringing her children home. She looked in the cupboard and took out her big mixing bowl. "I can at least make Johney Cakes." When the children came in the door, the kitchen was filled with the smell of cookies fresh from the oven.
As the children settled down to doing their homework at the kitchen table, Mary busied herself starting supper. They hadn't sold all the cows. One of them was slaughtered and put in the freezer. Mary also had the vegetables she had managed to coax to grow in her garden. The potatoes and corn hadn't done too well, but there were plenty of beans. She couldn't help but think about how tired they were going to get of beans before spring. But for tonight, Mary was going to fix beef stew. One steak cut up in pieces, a few potatoes, a pint of her home canned carrots...It would make a tasty meal and not take much to do it. Mary was already planning her meals so the beef and vegetables would last for a long time.
If things got much worse, they would have to let their only hired hand, Jeb, go. Mary felt as responsible for him as if he was family. They gave him meals and only paid him so little now that it hurt her conscience. It had been rough trying to keep up the farm since her husband died. The children were just too small to do the heavy work and she wasn't much better. Yes, she could run the tractor and such, but she couldn't manage to change the heavy implements behind the tractor, or lift the hundred pound feed sacks.
Jeb had a family of his own to support, a wife and four kids. They didn't even own their own place, but rented. Jeb never complained. Work was hard to find and he was grateful for what he had.
Christmas was back in Mary's mind. It was only one week away. The children had tied a red string in a tree last September, marking it for the one they would come back to get at Christmas. Today they would trek out to the hill behind the barn and get it.
Mary went to the hall closet and began getting out the decorations from where they were stored year after year. She had to swallow a big lump to keep from crying as she looked over the ornaments. Some were ornaments she brought from her family tree. She could remember Christmases of her childhood when she looked at them. Some ornaments were ones that she and her husband had bought together. When she looked at them, she thought about Christmases when he was alive and with them. Some ornaments were ones her children made in years past. When she looked at them, she could remember the little hands cutting, pasting and painting and the smiles on their faces when they hung them on the tree.
"At least I have the hundred dollars." Mary had been saving change all year just for Christmas. Many times she was tempted to dip into it, but knowing what Christmas would be like without it kept her from doing it. She would go into town on Christmas Eve and buy things for the children. On Christmas Eve, things would be picked over, but many prices would be cut in hopes of selling inventory before the first of the year. She might get some real bargains.
Mary's thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. When she opened it, there stood Jeb, holding his smallest child in his arms and the other three huddled around him. From the look on his face, she could tell something was wrong immediately.
"Mary, I got a real big favor to ask. My wife fell this afternoon and they took her to the hospital. As soon as they got word to me, I got the children and come straight over here. Could you watch them so I can go see how she is? I ain't heard nothing yet. They said her leg looked like it was broke. I don't know what all else..."
"Sure, Jeb, you know I will. Don't worry about the kids. Take the pick up truck."
Jeb got the children into the house and left as soon as he could. Mary looked down into their worried, scared little faces. The oldest one wasn't even as old as David.
Mary set out the stew and served all the kids supper. David and Katie did their best to play with the four children and keep them from worrying about their mother.
By nine o'clock, Mary had got the four little ones bathed and asleep in bed.
She sat down in her rocking chair, thinking that they had forgotten all about the Christmas tree. She hadn't been sitting there five minutes when she looked up and saw Katie and David standing there. They were standing there quietly, the way children do when they are wanting to talk to you about something important.
"Mom", David began. "Jeb and his family are going to be in a real bad way, ain't they?"
"Yes, son, I imagine they are."
Katie looked at David then turned to her mother and said, "David and I have been thinking. We know you been saving all year for Christmas. We know it's for our presents." Katie hesitated, twisting the hem of her shirt and staring at it. "David and I want you to give the money to Jeb. They need it more than we do."
The house was perfectly quiet for the next few minutes as what the children were saying sank in. They were normal children and knew enough to realize if the money was given to Jeb, they wouldn't have any toys for Christmas. From the looks on their faces, Mary knew it wasn't an easy decision to make, but they understood the meaning of their decision.
Mary reached out her arms and hugged the both of them to her. "Is that what you really want to do?"
Katie and David both nodded yes. Mary said, "There are all kinds of Christmas presents. Some have more value than others. Giving the money to Jeb is a Christmas present to him, but it is also a Christmas present to us all. It's probably the most Christmas our money could buy. And besides, it isn't like we won't have anything. We'll have the most beautiful tree ever, good food and each other."
Mary hugged and kissed each of them and sent them off to bed. She sat alone in her rocking chair, looking at the fire in the fireplace. "Katie and David are growing up. They understand more than I thought they did. They are going to be fine young people. Their father would have been so proud..."