A Different Kind of Christmas

 

by Lael J. Littke

Martha had tried to ignore the approach of Christmas. It was fairly easy, what with all the work to do around the cabin the meals to prepare, the rugs to braid to cover the earthen floors, the lye soap to make, the snow to keep cleared away from the door, and the myriad of other things necessary to sustain life in the bleak valley. She would have kept it almost entirely out of her thoughts if Jed had not come eagerly into the cabin one day, stomping the snow from his cold feet as he said in an excited voice, “Martha, we’re going to have a Christmas tree this year anyway. I spotted a cedar on that rise out south of the wheat field, over near the Norton’s place. It’s a scrubby thing, but it will do, since we can’t get a pine. Maybe Christmas will be a little different here, but it will still be the kind of Christmas we used to have.”

It was a two-day journey from their home on the floor of the wide valley to the mountains where there were pine trees, and none of the settlers felt they could spare the time that busy first year to go after trees. Besides, the snow was too high to do any unnecessary travel.

As she shook her head, Martha noticed that Daniel glanced quickly up from the corner where he was playing, patiently tying together some sticks with bits of string left over from the quilt she had tied a few days earlier. She drew Jed as far away from the boy as possible.

“I don’t want a tree,” she said. “We won’t be celebrating Christmas. Even a tree couldn’t make it the kind of Christmas we used to have.”

Jed’s face set in lines that were becoming familiar.

“Martha, we’ve got to do something. For the boy, at least. Children set such a store by Christmas.”

“Don’t you think I know? All those years of fixing things for Maybelle and Stellie. I know all about kids and Christmas.” She stopped and drew a deep breath, glancing over to see that Daniel was occupied and not listening. “But I can’t do those things for him. It would be like a knife in my heart, fixing a tree and baking cookies and making things for another woman’s child when my own girls are back there on that prairie.”

“Martha, Martha,” Jed said softly. “It’s been almost a year and a half. That’s all over, and Danny needs you. He needs a Christmas like he remembers.”

She turned her back to his pleading face. “I can’t,” she said. “Besides, what could he remember? He was only a little more than five when his own mother died, and I don’t think his pa did much last Christmas.”

Jed touched her shoulder gently. “I know how hard it is for you, Martha. But think of the boy.” He turned and went back out into the snowy weather.

Think of the boy. Why should she think of him when her own children, her two blue-eyed, golden-curled daughters, had been left beside the trail back there on that endless, empty prairie? The boy came to her not because she wanted him but because she couldn’t say no to the bishop back in Salt Lake City last April before they came to settle in this valley. Bishop Clay had brought Daniel to her and Jed one day and said, “I want you to care for this lad. His mother died on the trek last summer and his pa passed away last week. He needs a good home.”

Jed had gripped the bishop’s hand and with tears in his eyes thanked him, but Martha had turned away from the sight of the thin, ragged, six-year-old boy who stood before them, not fast enough, however, to miss the sudden brief smile he flashed at her, a smile that should have caught her heart and opened it wide. Her heart was closed, though, locked tightly around the memory of her two gentle little girls. She didn’t want a noisy, rowdy boy banging around, disturbing those memories, filling the cabin with a boy’s loud games.

Yet she had taken him, because she felt she had no choice. Faced with the bishop’s request more of an order, really and Jed’s obvious joy, she couldn’t refuse.

He came with them out to this new valley west of the Salt lake settlement and had proved himself a great help to Jed, despite his young age. Sometimes Martha felt pity for him, but she didn’t love him.

With Jed it was different. He had accepted Daniel immediately as his own son and enjoyed having the boy with him. They had a special relationship, a secret sharing that sometimes shut Martha out and made her wonder once, when she could bear to think of it, how Jed had felt about somehow seeming to be just outside the charmed circle she and her daughters had formed. Not that she really resented Jed and Daniel’s relationship she was glad Jed gave the boy some attention since she so often ignored him but sometimes she felt that Jed had grown to love the boy more than he did her. She told him as much one evening after the man and boy had come laughing together into the cabin only to sober up when they saw her, but not before one of those quick smiles from Daniel, the smile she was never sure had actually been there, it was gone so fast.

When Daniel went back outside for a bucket of water, Martha spoke to Jed.

“Seems as if you enjoy the boy’s company more than you do mine these days.”

Jed didn’t look her quite squarely in the eye. “That’s not so, Martha.”

“The two of you laughing together all the time. You never laugh with me anymore.”

His voice was quiet. “You don’t seem to find much to laugh about lately, Martha.”

It was true, of course. When the girls were with them they had been a happy family, laughing at humor and hardship alike. It just seemed as if all her laughter had also been buried on that grim morning back on the desolate prairie.

“I’m sorry, Jed,” Martha said. “I just can’t seem to forget my girls. I can’t feel that close to that boy. He’s always so serious around me. Almost like he’s afraid. Calls me ‘Aunt Martha.’ I notice he calls you ‘Pa.’ Did you tell him to call you that?”

“No. He just started doing it. He’s just a little fellow, Martha, but he knows how people feel about him. He needs more than just a full stomach and a place to sleep.”

“I know,” she said. “I know.” She was ashamed that she could deny love to a child. Any child. She tried harder after that, but she found she was always comparing him with her daughters. They had been soft and yielding, a pleasure to hold close. Daniel was bony and wiry, and his small body was hard-muscled from the work he did with Jed. The girls had been golden-curled and had taken pride in keeping their little pinafores neat and clean. Daniel was always grimy; he seemed to attract dirt, and his shirt always hung out from his overalls. The girls had liked to play quietly in the house with their rag dolls. Daniel preferred the outdoors, where he had full-scale, one-man battles, playing the parts of both settlers and Indians and making enough noise for any real fight.

It seemed as if he was always doing something to plague her. Not intentionally, to be sure. At least Jed said not. Just the high spirits and imagination of a boy, Jed said. There was the time he took her best tied quilt outside to build a tepee by the creek bank. By the time she found it, it was muddy and bedraggled and had to be laboriously washed.

Another day he got into the trunk she had brought across the plains and was playing with the carved wooden animals Grandpa Elliot had made for Maybelle and Stellie. She couldn’t bear to see them in his hands and had scolded him soundly for opening the trunk. Another day he pulled up most of the flowers she had grown from the precious seeds brought from Nauvoo. He said he wanted to surprise her by pulling the weeds, but he couldn’t tell which were weeds and which were flowers. He broke precious dishes and tore clothes that could not easily be replaced. And so Martha told Jed that she wanted him to take Daniel back to Salt Lake on his next trip for supplies and to give him back to Bishop Clay.

Jed looked at her for a long time before he answered, “Yes, maybe that would be best. For the boy’s sake. I’ll take him when I go in January.”

Daniel seemed to sense something, because he tried to please her after that and was careful not to annoy her. When winter came and he had to be indoors much of the time, he tried to play quietly, although occasionally the natural inclinations of a boy took over and he had to be reprimanded. Martha wished that Sister Norton had been able to establish the school for the children of the settlers, but she had been unable to get any slates or copy books and had decided to wait until the next fall.

Daniel mentioned Christmas only once. One day it was too cold and snowy to play outside, and he had been humming softly to himself as he played in his corner. Suddenly he looked up at Martha and asked, “Can you sing, Aunt Martha?”

Martha paused and straightened up from the table where she was kneading bread. She used to sing for her girls all the time.

“No, I can’t, Daniel,” she said. “Not any more.”

“My mother used to sing a pretty song at Christmas,” he said. “I wish I could remember it.”

He said nothing more, and she did not question him. She didn’t want to stir up any further memories of Christmas, since she didn’t intend to observe the day. Perhaps he did recall snatches of past Christmases, but certainly he wouldn’t remember enough that it would make any difference to him.

Martha couldn’t help thinking of Christmases past as the day approached. Three years ago had been the best one, before the persecution of the Saints in Nauvoo got so bad. Maybelle had been seven then, and Stellie five. She had made rag dolls for them with pretty, flouncy dresses and cunning little bonnets. That was the year Grandpa Elliot had given them the carved animals and had also carved a beautiful little toy horse and carriage for Maybelle, promising Stellie he’d make her one when she was seven.

Dwelling as she did in her past memories, Martha paid very little attention to Daniel those last few days before Christmas. He went in and out with Jed and she didn’t attempt to keep track of him. On the day before Christmas Jed went through the deep snow to do some chores for Brother Norton, who was ill. Daniel was alone outside most of the day, although he made several rather furtive trips in and out of the cabin. On one trip he took the sticks he had been tying together.

Toward evening Martha went out to the stable to milk Rosie, since Jed had not yet returned. As she approached, she saw there was a light inside. Opening the door softly, she peered within. Daniel had lit the barn lantern, and within its glow he knelt in the straw by Rosie’s stall. In front of him were the sticks he had tied together, which Martha recognized now as a crude cradle. It held Stellie’s rag doll, all wrapped up in the white shawl Martha kept in her trunk, the shawl she had used to wrap her babies. Her impulse was to rush in and snatch it, but she stopped, because the scene was strangely beautiful in the soft light from the lantern. Rosie and the two sheep stood close by, watching Daniel. He seemed to be addressing them when he spoke.

“The shepherds came following the star,” he was saying. “And they found the baby Jesus who had been born in a stable.” He paused for a moment, then went on. “And his mother loved him.”

Martha felt suddenly that she couldn’t breathe. Another mother, another day, had loved her little boy and had told him the beautiful story of the Christ Child with such love that he hadn’t forgotten it, young as he was. And she, Martha, had failed that mother.

In the silence she began to sing. “Silent night,” she sang. “Holy night.”

Daniel didn’t move until the song was finished. Then he turned with that quick, heart-melting smile.

“That’s the one,” he whispered. “That’s the song that my mother used to sing to me.”

Martha ran forward and gathered the boy into her arms. He responded immediately, clasping her arms tightly around her.

“Danny,” Martha said, “it’s beautiful. Your cradle and little scene here.”

“You never called me Danny before,” he murmured, his head against her neck.

“I didn’t do a lot of things,” she said. As she held him close, the bands around her heart seemed to loosen and break.

“Danny,” she said, sitting on the edge of Rosie’s manger, “let’s go in and get the cabin ready for Christmas. Maybe it isn’t too late for Jed for Pa to get that tree. It might be a little different kind of Christmas, but it will still be a little like the Christmases we used to know. We’ll set up your cradle with the Christ Child in it under the tree, because that’s what Christmas is all about.”

“Do you mind it being different?” Danny asked. “I mean with a boy instead of your girls?”

Martha wondered how long it would take her to make up to him for the hurts she had inflicted these many months. “No,” she said. “After all, the Baby Jesus was a boy.”

“That’s right,” he said wonderingly.

“I’ll open my trunk,” said Martha. “We’ll get out those carved animals to put around your manger scene. We’ll string some dried berries to put on the tree, and when it’s all done the three of us will sing ‘Silent Night’ and Pa will tell us the story of the Christ Child.”

She thought about the lovely little carved horse and carriage Maybelle had loved so much, and knew it would be the perfect gift to put under the tree for Danny’s Christmas morning.

She set him down on the floor and put her arm around his shoulders.

“Merry Christmas,” she said. “Merry Christmas, Danny.”

He looked up at her with a smile that did not fade quickly away this time, a sweet smile full of the love he had been waiting to give her.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, and then added softly, “Mother.”