“She’ll be here at any moment, girls,” Mom called to us from the kitchen down the hall, hurrying to last-minute preparations of Christmas turkey, dressing and yams… homemade yeast rolls… and our favorite green bean casserole. “Can you keep her busy while I finish up in here?”
If I knew how to really do it… the way they did in books… I’d have harrumphed right then and there, teenage style.
Who was this old lady anyway? And why was she coming here to our home – interloping – on our usual family and friends affair? The last few years had been enough of a trial, marked by serious family pain, struggle and eventual tragedy in losing my brother just when we had high hopes things were turning around. Mom probably thought it would be a good distraction for us all, to have someone new here to lavish Christmas spirit on. It was like her to be thinking of others above our own grief. To feel like maybe a new face, new stories at our table, might refresh us all. Keep us from wallowing. Plus, mom – despite how she always told us tales depicting herself as a shy person growing up, the child violin virtuoso who refused to play for others unless her back were turned to them — well, we often kidded her about her sometimes embarrassing to us teens tendency to strike up deep conversations in grocery aisles with people she’d never before met or would never see again.
But, today of all days, I just didn’t feel up to entertaining a stranger. Keeping conversation going… especially with one who was in her 70’s and probably hadn’t a clue about kids today.
A loud roar suddenly droned up our driveway with a splutter and a thumping sound like a light sonic boom. What in the world? I peered out the curtains, from my bedroom. A super-sized old white Chevy, a bit banged up for wear. And a tallish, yet wiry-looking woman standing with her head deep inside her car trunk as she rummaged around in there for who knows what. All I could see of her was a flashy, almost psychedelic, orange and yellow print tunic – worn over neon orangey-red…and flared…pants. All she needed to complete the look was a fiesta hat. I could just imagine it…the kind with those fuzzy magenta hanging balls attached. She was reaching here, grabbing things there, and seemed to be stuffing odd-shaped items of varying sizes into a pouch.
Then… out of the trunk depths flew a humongous paper department store carryall… looking somewhat like a Mary Poppins carpet bag. Only somehow, I didn’t think she had any magic or spoons full of sugar hidden inside. Humming to herself, the woman settled the bag at her feet, took one last look around the cavernous trunk, patted her short and bristly white hair, slammed the trunk lid down and stood straight up to get a good peer at our house. I leaped away from the window. Had she spotted me checking her out? I didn’t think so…
Oh heavens… she was already ringing the doorbell as I slipped on my brand new shoes. Ouch… I hoped they weren’t going to pinch blisters into my heels all day. My sister stuck her head in. “C’mon!” she urged in a stage whisper. For all we knew, it might take both of us to keep conversation going… Ugh. I prayed this wasn’t going to be an ordeal. I scrunched my face ruefully at myself in the bedroom mirror, pushed my bangs away from my eyes and put on a wobbly smile. Well…the best I could do.
“Oh, Mae…” Mom was greeting her, “Come on in! I’m so glad you could join us today!”
“My dear, it was so good of you to ask me!” she trilled out. “And these must be your lovely girls!” She reached out for our hands, the over-sized bag still in hers, then laughed at herself as she slipped the handles up and onto her arm. “Mustn’t give away my surprises too soon!” she chirruped, tucking the opening of the bag a little closed, but unable to hide several bulges. Hmm… I thought. Wonder what it is she has in there –?
While she chattered away about her morning’s adventures apparently driving hither and yon, visiting all number of friends and acquaintances up and down the Pacific West coast… I suddenly realized, here was one woman who was anything but at a loss for words. Well…good. Listening was easier anyway.
“Won’t you come in and sit down?” I invited, in what I thought was a gracious manner, leading the way to the comfy cream and brown floral wing chairs by the tree, even as she talked on and on. Our nervous sheltie began to bark a bit warily at this unknown person, claiming her territory, but hushed when I scooped her up, close in arms.
“I stopped by Lydia’s and Ralph’s, on the way in,” Mae was saying in a tch tch sort of way. “Poor things. They’ve been having such a tough time this year what with this and that…” Making herself comfortable against the chair cushions, she explained in detail about some sorrowful occurrences that made me feel a bit sad for these faceless people I didn’t know.
“They were so cheered up by the few goodies I brought that they gave me something still unopened right from under their tree…” she went on with hardly a breath. “And then, I had to stop and visit with Rosalie… I told her how I’d been waiting all year long to hear her play the piano again. You know, she’s so lonely since her kids moved out of state, and she gave me the most glorious Christmas concert there in her front room…”
My sister and I just nodded.
“And John and the boys, they were so proud to show me the wondrously big tree they chopped down in the mountains this year… They trundled on and on about how they’d discovered just the right one, how they’d pulled it back to their truck on some sort of cobbled together wagon they’d made, how they’d never had such a tree before that rose taller than the living room ceiling… and oh, that fresh-cut evergreen scent! Said they wished I could stay for dinner with them…” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “But – well, I told them I’d love to, but I was invited to share Christmas dinner with this wonderful family… and they said, well, sure… it surely sounded like fun.”
We smiled at her.
“And then… I decided to go out of my way and surprise Lottie just to say ‘happy Christmas’ on the spur of the moment, don’t you know…” She tugged her tunic blouse up a bit, straightened out some wrinkles, then settled her head back against the chair wing with a sigh.
We waited, listening. She closed her eyes for a suddenly-silent moment, then looked meaningfully into ours. “It’s so good to have somewhere to be on a day like this, isn’t it?” she reflected, her voice turning soft and thoughtful. Like a little girl’s – almost.
Something about her words, the wistful tenderness in her tone, put a lump in my throat. My sister and I stole a look at each other, stirred a little uncomfortably.
Mae reached across to the couch where I sat and patted my knee. “You probably don’t think about it much at your ages… I know I never did,” she ruminated.
I tried then to picture how she might have been as a young teen… imagined brown curls softening her face. Or maybe she’d been a honey blonde…
She fingered a delicate little glass ornament on our tree, as if lost in remembrance for a moment, then continued. “…Dear Lottie… she’s stuck in that home, you know, sitting in a wheelchair. Still sharp as a tack. But all around her, poor unfortunate folks who aren’t doing as well as she… No one to really talk to. Or sing with. And no visitors but me. We strung lights together on her mini tabletop tree and I arranged her few Christmas cards so she could see them beneath it. I promised her to stop by again and tell her all about you and your lovely family… and this Christmas we have together… soon…”
Sitting there, something inside me did a flip flop as she described this bittersweet scene. Unexpectedly, I had a wild wish that she could have brought dear Lottie along today…
Another thought whispered in me then. Mae might be talking about Lottie…but maybe she was talking about herself too. All these people she’d purposed specially to stop by and see today. They’d apparently given her some little tokens of the holiday. Sent her on her way with well-wishes. But – had they been thinking about Mae on this day or had she been a hurried afterthought? Maybe, um, prickly thought…someone they had simply endured. Had they even planned special gifts for her or just given her some castoffs? An elderly single woman… no kids. She had spent this day in her own “It’s A Wonderful Life” way… going from person to person… letting them know they were remembered, cherished.
Unexpectedly… she didn’t seem like a strange old lady interloper anymore. And I hoped… prayed… sharing our Christmas together somehow made her feel cherished.
“I brought some small surprises for you,” she was saying then, opening up her Poppins bag once more and beginning to pull out gaily wrapped packages.
Each one in a different paper…
Suddenly I knew. These were gifts given to her by those she’d visited today… presents she was then passing on to us, unopened. And I understood. They were the only treasures she had to give.
We oohhed and ahhed over some old-woman scarves and clunky gold tone jewelry we would never wear… thanking her heartily for thinking of us.
The doorbell was ringing then…merry voices mingling from the porch. My aunt and cousins were here. Our close family friends right behind them. Tall Father H. towering over all, with his dark as olives, laughter-crinkled eyes and his cheerfully booming Christmas hello! He was another one who liked to visit all and sundry of friends and acquaintances, but always chose OUR invitation above all for dinner and fellowship. And like Mae, and the wise men, he came ever bearing wrapped gifts… Now he was handing Mae a box of what looked like See’s chocolates (yum!)… more than possibly passing on a gift someone else had given him… I could see her blue eyes were dancing as she accepted the prettily-wrapped box. The Christmas angel and the priest…
Mom was introducing everyone to Mae who blushed and offered her hand and effusive welcome to all, one by one. Rapidly, she was becoming the belle of the ball, escorted to the dining room on Father H’s gentlemanly arm, as Dad carved the turkey… and we all took our places. The table overflowing with all my mother’s handiwork set delectably and artfully before us drew many long appreciative sighs… And Mae’s open exclamations of fresh wonder at this once a year feast made me realize anew – how great mom’s labor of love was, memorable as any gift beneath our tree.
Every season, I perpetually wished we would carol together or do any of the extra-Christmasey things people always seemed to do in movies or on TV musical variety programs. The warm way large families would gather around the hearth to join in spontaneous song, or toast popcorn. We never had of course, and we didn’t have a piano or a guitar anywhere around, or anyone to play if we had. But somehow… this year, with the coming of Mae to our festive home and table, our little Christmas celebration seemed to sparkle more than expected. Even Dusty, our sheltie, seemed to have adopted Mae, giving her own seal of approval as she curled up beside this new guest’s feet.
The evening felt – mm, wreathed with good conversation…winks and smiles…and lovely carols of a new and – Oscar Hammerstein Getting-to-know-you-and-hope-you- like-me– kind.
I wondered… did Mae hear them singing? And what words might she sing to Lottie about this night?
Pam Depoyan is a writer and artist in Southwest Michigan. Her stories have appeared in Highlights, Pray! Magazine, Mature Living, and four volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She once received a Letter of Merit from the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) for her Uncovering the Ghost of Nancy Drew, and was thrilled recently when she stumbled upon Highlight’s fun audio story link to this story, available to read or listen to at https://www.highlightskids.com/audio-story/uncovering-ghost-nancy-drew.
At her blog, Writing Apples of Gold, she enjoys crafting word picture stories out of what seems to be the everyday ordinary – stories meant to draw readers into Life’s wonder and grace, moment by moment.
As an artist and a storyteller, Pam also loves to capture those stories of our lives in classic, heirloom-style illustration. Browse her original pen and ink, pencil and pastel portraits of homes, children, vintage and more online at her Picture It In Pen and Ink blog. (Prints available there for purchase as well as commission of custom drawings.)
Inspirational Blog: Writing…Apples of Gold, https://www.wordglow.wordpress.com
Art Blog: Picture It In Pen and Ink, https://www.pamdepoyanblog.wordpress.com
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