© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved
It was well after midnight before Ted, our two young children, and I returned home from my parents’ on Christmas Eve. Outside, a gentle snow drifted to the ground, the air was calm and the night was as peaceful as any greeting card promised this night should be.
Inside our century-old home, Sara and Jimmy, ages five and three, were wound up tighter than a timekeeper’s watch with the prospect of Santa’s impending arrival. I placed the near empty green bean casserole dish on the counter and tossed my purse onto one of the overstuffed chairs. It landed as gracefully as my husband had when he dropped into his recliner.
“Time for bed, kids,” he said, draping an arm over his eyes.
“Five more minutes.” The plea on Sara’s face was perfectly mirrored in Jimmy’s eyes.
“No, silly,” I said, as I hung their coats in the closet then shut the door. “You know Santa won’t come until we’re all sound asleep. Come on, straight to bed, you two.” They knew the drill, yet I wasn’t surprised at their repeated resistance. After all, Christmas was a once-a-year special event. It was about presents and bright colored lights, laughter and songs and a multiple of things that sent ripples of excitement through the evening air.
By the time Ted made his way into the kids’ bedroom, they had slipped on their pajamas but were still giggling and squealing with excitement. I kissed them goodnight and watched as he futilely tucked them in knowing they were nowhere near ready to sleep.
“S-h-h-h,” he said as he kissed them goodnight too then left the room.
I turned off their light and quietly closed the door. Tomorrow, I thought, our families would arrive by noon. My focus switched to the fifteen-pound turkey thawing inside the fridge that needed to go in the oven by seven a.m. The list of ingredients for my cranberry dressing had crossed my mind too when I saw Ted tiptoe down the stairs with an armful of presents.
“Come on,” he whispered and motioned with a nod for me to follow, “let’s get these under the tree.”
I leaned an ear toward the children’s room a final time. Certain they had fallen asleep, I picked up the pace, followed Ted down the stairs and into the living room. He had arranged his gift boxes beneath the tree and let out a sigh by the time I arrived with a load of presents that filled my outstretched arms clear up to my chin. The largest box in my hands was the miniature china tea set Sara had seen in a store the month before. Several smaller boxes contained shirts and sweaters that Jimmy would toss on the couch the minute he opened them. A quick tally of gifts encircling the tree assured me we hadn’t left any behind. I drew in a cleansing breath. With it came a sudden sense of tranquility—a peace I hadn’t felt since the shopping madness took over my life five weeks before.
Each year Ted and I promised not to cave in to the commercialization of Christmas and yet, the number of gift bags and boxes that encircled our artificial tree, the garland of Christmas cards hanging across the archway leading into the next room, and the diminished balance in our check book was a testament to our growing weakness. The holidays of my youth were far simpler, or so I thought, and in spite of our annual promise, we had fallen shamefully short of fulfilling our vow once more.
“If this old house could talk,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a hundred years old. Don’t you ever wonder about the families who lived here before us—who they were, what they did for a living?”
“Not really.” Ted stifled a yawn and rubbed his eyes.
“Do you suppose their children were anything like Sara and Jimmy?”
“Can’t you just imagine what Christmas must have been like in this house at the turn of the century?”
“Yeah, bitter cold and no modern conveniences.”
“Bet they were quaint.”
“You’re romanticizing it, my sweet. Come, on. It’s almost two.” He wrapped an arm around my waist and nudged me upstairs. “Let’s get to bed. We’re not going to get much sleep as it is and we’re in for a long day tomorrow.”
Unsure why that bit of nostalgia hit me just then, I surrendered to my husband’s urging. Christmas or not, my body ached for a few hours of sleep so I raced him into the bedroom, slipped on my night clothes and just as quickly slid under the covers and closed my eyes.
Ted did likewise and for a minute or two a wonderful silence engulfed us. That is, until we heard the pitter patter of footsteps going down the stairs.
“Darn those two! They’re up,” I said. “Ted ... the kids.”
He sounded off a few unpleasant grunts, swung his feet out from under the covers and dashed down the hallway. I heard him thunder downstairs first, then followed the sounds of his steps as he returned to the second floor landing and into Sara’s and Jimmy’s room. I sat up expecting to hear another round of giggles, instead, Ted shuffled into our room and got back in bed.
“Well?” I asked. “What are they doing?”
“They’re sound asleep.”
“But I heard their steps—I mean, so did you, didn’t you?”
“Thought I did. It’s this house, could have been the furnace.” With that he turned on his side and pulled the covers up over his head again. “Good night.”
* * *
The first glimmer of dawn came much faster than I would have liked, but adrenalin kicked in to make up for sleep deprivation. Still in my robe and without bothering to put on my slippers, I began to get things in motion for our annual family Christmas luncheon. Soon, the smell of freshly brewed coffee permeated my kitchen as did the smell of finely chopped onions and celery intended to flavor the dressing. I basted the turkey with a wonderful cranberry glaze and shoved it into the oven where it would need to roast for several hours.
With a piece of buttered toast in my hand I poured myself a cup of some much needed coffee and went into the living room to plug in the tree. Bright colored ornaments reflected the twinkle of the tiny white lights we had cursed at some weeks before as we labored to untangle the mess of twisted wires. I pulled open the drapes to find it had snowed overnight. A glint of early sunshine swept over the snow-covered ground adding a splash of its color across the landscape. Not a footprint or tire track had scarred its sparkling surface. Just as in a Christmas of long ago, I thought. Ted’s words echoed back shaming me into dismissing the notion as utter nonsense. I moved back to admire the Christmas tree one last time before Sara and Jimmy came down and tore into their presents. The peace of the moment was shattered, however, by the excruciating pain in the ball of my foot from whatever I had mindlessly stepped on.
I looked at the metal jack in disbelief. It resembled those from a set of ten I used to play with when I was a little girl—the kind that came with a small, bright red rubber ball. I hadn’t seen one like this in years and the thought forced a million images through my mind. Sara’s jacks were big, plastic, and pink and no one had been to our house since I vacuumed the room the morning before. I couldn’t explain how this little jack had found its way to the spot in front of our tree.
A chill ran up my arms as I glanced back at the staircase and wondered what presence had visited our home on that Christmas morning. Had a special child’s spirit or a playful angel stopped for a holiday visit, intentionally leaving the toy behind as tangible proof of their existence? I couldn’t say. All I know is that I felt as if I was meant to find it in my own clumsy way. Inexplicable as it was, I might have imagined the sounds of those tiny steps, but I couldn’t dismiss the object in the palm of my hand. I don’t know if it was a sign or an incredible coincidence. Whatever the answer, it left me with a warm sense of connection and a renewed belief in Christmas magic.