Christmas Eve Expectations
I watched my children pass out Christmas Eve gifts to the children in the terminally ill ward. We had bought them the day before. We wrapped them in colorful paper this morning, complete with ribbons and bows. Both my kids were excited to help the community in someway. It had been their idea planted by the pastor at church last Sunday and unintentionally by a story I had told them of my childhood. So they reminded me of a promise I had once made with my brother. I had been more than happy to help fulfill their giving spirits and placate my past ghosts. Now listening to the excited voices that reflected joy and no pain from their illnesses, I was very glad again and fell into reminiscing. . .
It took Johnny and me longer than usual to arrive at the train station. The snow had fallen silently, but fast last night. There was only a thin hard crust on top and it couldn’t hold us up. I had sunk knee-deep and struggled to get out. It left me with souvenirs of clingy, balls of ice on my boot laces, dark grey wool skirt and the edges of my matching jacket. I’d semi-grumpily decided that it was pointless to pick them off. If the ice remained the same consistency, then I’d only collect more on the way home. Plus my gloves were too thin to handle getting any wetter. Sighing forcefully enough to see my breath, I focused on the fact that Johnny and I were in the same spot as last year. I could tell because of the weirdly bent nail. It reminded me of a hunched over old gnome. Glancing around, I wondered if everyone was in the same spot as last year. I could see that the Murray twins were across from us, just like previous time. They were staring hard down the tracks. I followed their gaze down the endless black line. The frosted rails seem to shiver in cold excitement with me. Soon the train would rush toward us, spraying ice and snow into a thick mist. We would scream in delight knowing when it settled, the most important car, the one in last place, would appear. The Red Caboose that contained the rich man and his overwhelming generosity.
My brother, Johnny, causally chatted with his friend, Ryan. They were both older by five years. This would be their last year to receive the gift. I checked to see if they were sad. But their faces were a study of feigned indifference. The only thing giving them away was when their eyes darted furtively down the line. Then they would mask it with a look of contempt if anyone intercepted their glance.
Ignoring them, I decided to imagine how the big the shiny silver boxes would be this year. Would they be small enough to fit one hand? Two? Would it be too big to hold like last year? I had trouble walking home because I couldn’t see over the top. I contemplated if I wanted, when the package was shaken, for it to jingle or sound muffled? This year I was hoping for muffled!
Oh, how the air bit at my nose and snuck into the openings of my old clothes. However, sensing the time was at hand, I refused to let it dampen my spirits. Yanking my coat down, and rubbing my hands up and down my arms I smiled joyfully at the noon day sun. It made the glittering, white snow twinkle and tease, “Soon, soon!”
My ears perked up, I turned my head and strained my neck to look down the thousand miles of steel. I could see it, the black-gray smoke signaling the engine’s efforts in its rhythmic approach! I yelled ecstatically with all the others, “I see it, I see it!”
Eagerly pressing forward with the crowd, my arms outstretched. We all were reaching for the carousel ring. Some of our arms were longer, some shorter, but all were the same length in desire. I wondered if he thought we looked like a horizontal forest reaching for a tilted sky. Our limbs waiting in catch positions, for the silver rain to fall!
There was organization to the chaos. For we all knew the routine. Grab it and move out of the way! I could hear paper ripping behind me already! My body tingled as my turn came, “Don’t miss!” I prayed silently through my frosty breath.
The man in the navy wool coat looked directly at me. My dancing eyes followed his lift and strong toss. He grinned widely as I barely caught the package and then pulled it in tight. I shouted my thanks and hurriedly moved out of the way. The other noisy, scrambling children surged forward to replace us. I searched for my brother behind the throng. He was holding his package, gently turning it this way and that, savoring every minute of his last one. I walked slowly and thoughtfully toward him. I was not in a hurry to invade his moment. Lifting my box to my ear, I shook it carefully and then harder, when I decided it wasn’t fragile. There was a satisfying sound of muffl-i-ness.
I reached Johnny and his eyes met mine and we answered the age old question, “Yes, we will wait until Christmas morning to open them!” We walked back home in silence. So I took the time to study my box thoroughly. The silver wrapping paper was crumpled from where I caught it. The blue velvet bow was crushed from my hug. But I didn’t care that it wasn’t in perfect condition. I was content with the knowledge that I got two gifts, today the receiving and tomorrow the opening.
We returned home, chilled from the setting sun, but warm with gratitude. Johnny and I place our presents in front of the fireplace. We rushed to bed, but we made sure we thanked God that there was someone out there who cared enough to make our lives a little bit better simply because they had so much. We also vowed out loud that someday, we would do the same.
Startled out of my memories by the loud chorus of, “Thank you, Dr. Jenny Upton, Johnny and Mary! Merry Christmas!” I responded with, “You’re welcome and may we all have many more!” Now misty eyed, I tried not to remember too hard that Johnny joined the army and died in the war. He never got to fulfill his promise and I almost forgot to fulfill mine. I whispered to him, “I swear I will do this every year from the both of us.”
(a writing assignment for a class that was inspired by Cynthia Rylant's, Silver Packages)