This last month has been an emotional roller coaster. So much going on with family and friends, so much heartache and loss, that focusing on Christmas really kept my mind busy.
And can I tell you that there are so many giving and loving people around? We have seen it firsthand in our family and in my Aunt Kim's family this Christmas season. It truly is the season of giving.
As a belated gift to you, I want to share this cute and also true Christmas story. It is written by a cousin of mine. It's a little bit long, so grab a cup of cocoa, sit back and enjoy.
She Pondered Them In Her Heart
Margaret R. Eller
Papa always said the winter of 1923-24 was the worst he had ever seen. It started snowing in early October so by Christmas the drifts were eight feet high in places, couldn’t even see the fences. No Chinook winds had come down the mountain passes and through to the prairies. Every morning Papa would hurry outside and face the west hoping to feel the warming wind, but it continued 25 to 40 below every day and even colder during the night.
As Christmas approached plans were made to go to town to meet the train – Margie was coming home – the eldest of the six children. Everyone was so anxious and eager to hear her tales of adventure. Papa wondered just how much adventure there was in a Catholic Convent but Margie would entertain them for days and make them believe the Convent was the most exciting place in the world. Papa remembered how the kindly nuns were a little reluctant to take a Mormon as a pupil, and resident, but Mama had encouraged them by explaining that the little country school only went tot the eighth grade. She told them how very intelligent and gifted Margie was and deserved more education. Finally they accepted her but surely they often had regrets when she caused as much trouble and mischief as she did at home.
Margie was always the favorite topic of conversation when the ladies in the community met and often they expressed, “How can she be Ethel’s daughter?” In fact, at times, they even queried Aunt Liz, the midwife, “Are you sure you were there when she was delivered – she’s not adopted or one of Ethel’s charity cases?”
Aunt Liz always assured them that the red-haired, high spirited and mischievous child was indeed Ethel’s daughter. Ethel was a Saint! Everyone said so, old and young went to her with their problems, she was always at the bedside of the sick and dying, she consoled, counseled and many a family had food and clothes that she provided. She kept her house immaculate and her children and the three nephews, taken in when their mother died, were happy, obedient and considerate children. Well, all of them were obedient except Margie. It was difficult even for Mama to believe Margie was her daughter and though the girl often taxed her patience and provoked righteous anger, Mama understood this complex oldest child. She knew that in spite of the problems she presented that underneath the bold exterior was a talented and sensitive spirit.
On the 23rd Papa hitched Dobbin and Blue to the sleigh, Mama heated bricks in the oven and they were distributed in the hay on the bottom of the sleigh. Everyone but Mama and the baby were going to town, ten miles away; to meet the train, buy Christmas trees and groceries. All of the children had their yearly savings stored in the ends of their mittens and were anticipating Christmas present purchases at the Mercantile. There were so many quilts covering the children they could hardly be seen. Papa kept assuring Mama that there would be no problems but she was still shouting instructions as the sleigh pulled away, “Don’t forget to go to the Post Office, there should be mail-order parcels and packages from grandmother; be sure and be at the depot when the train comes in; get some good Japanese oranges and five pounds of dried apricots.”
Mama hurried back in the house and upstairs to the crying baby and watched from the south window until she could no longer see the sleigh and it’s precious cargo. Then she knelt in prayer and asked for Heavenly Father’s protection on her loved ones. This wild country was so unpredictable and storms came so fast. Often there was a tug of homesickness when she remembered the beautiful mountains and her valley home in Utah. This Canadian prairie, so extreme in its weather, had never been quite accepted and often she longed for her old home on the slopes of Mt. Ben Lomond. Her mother had once remarked during a visit to the homestead, “If you stand on a sardine can you can see for 100 miles.” But the prairies had been good to them financially, their home was big and comfortable, there was always plenty of good food to eat and even a Model T in the garage. Of course it couldn’t be used much in the winter but it was a joy in the summer.
Mama looked lovingly at the now sleeping Maggie and wondered again what Margie’s reactions would be to the new baby. When Olive was born four years ago Margie pleaded, “Please Mama, no more children. I’m so tired of washing diapers and cleaning house. I’ve peeled 30 tons of potatoes and wiped 10,000 dirty noses. I’ve pushed that dumb old baby carriage at least 5,000 miles and made 7,000 trips to the outhouse in the middle of the night with all the brothers, sisters and cousins.” The last thing Margie had said as she left on the train, her head sticking out of the parlor car window and loud enough for the whole town to hear was, “Remember, Mama, no more babies!”
Well, Mama decided, there was no use worrying about it and anyway, she was sure Margie would just have to look at this beautiful, new child and she would love her just as much as the rest of the family did.
Everyone knew Margie and to know her was to love her or detest her. She could make life delightful or miserable, she teased and tormented but she also had a talent for making people laugh and be happy. To Mrs. Goodman, the teacher in the little one-room school, Margie was a challenge but she recognized Margie’s talents and tried to channel them. Mrs. Goodman was stern, dedicated and demanding and all the children were terrified of her – all of them except Margie. Three mistakes in spelling meant the strap, conversations with your desk mate also meant the strap, or being late for class, raising your voice or saying ain’t. Many a blistered hand went home at 4 o’clock but no sympathy was extended by parents. Cows were milked and dishes washed in spite of tender palms. But as frightened as the children were of Mrs. Goodman they were more afraid of Margie.
Aggie Johnson certainly didn’t like her. She had never forgiven her for convincing her ten children that it was Christmas on the 20th of July and they had all walked five miles home during a heat wave to hang up their stockings and trim the tree.
However, there was also Granny George, alone and lonesome. Margie would go once a week to clean her little house and stay the night. She would read all evening to the little lady and sing “The Last Rose of Summer” at least five times.
Yes, Mama thought, this Christmas vacation should be interesting. She kept trying to think of ways to convince Margie that this new baby was a blessing. She accomplished a lot while the family was in town; the lace was sewn on four flannel nightgowns and buttons sewn on five new nightshirts. Fudge was made and popcorn balls, even a suet pudding. She brought the tree ornaments down from the attic and lit lamps in every room, dressed the baby in her prettiest dress and put her down for a nap in her cradle by the fireplace. Just as dusk fell she could hear the sleigh two miles away, the happy voices and laughter carried loud and clear in the cold evening air. She lit a lantern and hung it on the post, then waited on the porch as each boy and girl, laden with packages, rushed into the kitchen eager for warmth and food.
Margie, enthusiastic as always, hugged and kissed Mama and ran from room to room in the sheer delight of being home. She had pulled off her cap and her beautiful red hair fell to her shoulders in waves and curls. Her green eyes glowed with love as she took in the familiar sights of home. There was a feeling of expectation as all family members looked at one another, the time was here, and the well-kept secret had to be revealed. Finally Mama opened the parlor door, the signal that Margie was about to meet her baby sister. Margie ran to the piano and ran her fingers joyfully over the keys, then to the bookcase to check on her beloved books of poetry. Suddenly she sensed the air of anticipation and her eyes followed as the ten heads turned to the fireplace and the cradle beside it.
Anger replaced the happy atmosphere. Margie looked defiantly at Mama and then Papa, back to the cradle. Then she turned, ran through the kitchen and to her room upstairs. Everyone heard the key turn in the lock.
Mama had experienced many such tantrums and knew the best way to handle such a situation was to ignore it, so the rest of the family continued in preparation for the Christmas festivities, pulled taffy, strung cranberry and popcorn ropes for the tree. The children all went with Mama to the barn to pick one of the trees Papa had brought from town. Soon neighbors would be coming to get a tree too. Papa had put aside the tallest one for the school house. On Christmas Eve there was always a party there, the tree was decorated, a pot-luck supper, program and, of course Santa Claus. They were the happiest times ever, those Christmas Eves with family and friends.
Margie came down to breakfast in a happy and loving mood, hugging and kissing everyone, even the cousins, but not once did she look at the baby. Mama watched anxiously for any sign of interest but Maggie was completely ignored by her oldest sister, and so the others lavished more attention and love to compensate. The tree was trimmed and funny shaped packages appeared under it.
As the clock hands crept toward five and time to leave for the school, excitement reached a fever pitch. All the children were bathed, the girls’ hair was braided and finger nails inspected. Baby Maggie was safely bedded in the big apple box Mama had saved for taking her to church and other events. All the mothers in the district thought the apple box was such a good idea they followed suit and all babies arrived in identical beds.
Mrs. Goodman had built a big fire in the old pot-bellied stove so the building was warm and inviting. Even the cloakroom was cozy and comfortable for the four babies. One member of each family was assigned baby duty but if the babies were good the festivities could be watched from the doorway.
Margie was having fun, exchanging secrets with good friends and charming or antagonizing the adults. For ten years she had sung “The Christmas Lullaby” at every Christmas Eve program. Each year her voice was better and even the people who didn’t like her were eager to hear her sing. When her turn arrived everyone was surprised to hear her sing “O Holy Night” instead of the beloved lullaby. Though she was begged to sing it for and encore she refused.
Walter Smith was Margie’s greatest admirer, her cohort in crime and her most ardent defender. If there was any prank requiring more than her imagination he was always ready to assist. Everyone should have expected trouble when they volunteered for baby duty the last half hour of the party.
Bishop Jensen was giving his annual Christmas message and orating at great length. It gave Margie and Walter ample time to carry out their plan. In the cloakroom all babies were sleeping peacefully in their apple crates. Margie and Walter carefully removed the blankets from the babies and then proceeded to switch each infant. Richard Johnson went into Harold Adam’s box and covered with Harold’s quilts and Harold into Richard’s. Julia Judd was moved into Maggie’s makeshift bassinet and covered, then Maggie moved into Julia’s. Margie made Walter move Maggie; she still wouldn’t look at the new nuisance. They stood back and surveyed their work, hoping the babies would stay asleep, not fuss or cry, and then all families would go merrily home – with someone else’s baby.
Janie Judd came in first to pick up Julia. Margie loved Janie and she felt a little pang of guilt – but it passed quickly. Margie hastened to pull the quilt over the baby’s face and urged Janie to keep the baby well covered. As Elsie Adams came to claim Harold, Walter insisted on carrying the baby to the sleigh and quickly pulled the covers across his face. Aggie Johnson came next to pick up Richard, but with ten other children on her heels she didn’t pay much attention to the baby.
Mama and Papa herded their brood to the sleigh and all were safely and warmly tucked in. The baby up front with Mama slept peacefully. The family trooped into the house, hanging up coats, mittens and caps while Papa took care of the horses. Then Mama had everyone go into the parlor for the Bible reading of the first Christmas. It was late, almost 11 o’clock, but Mama would not let anyone go to bed until the story from St. Luke had been read and family prayers were said.
Margie was a little nervous, expecting the baby to cry any minute and the discovery of the switch, but little Julia was being very good. During the reading time Mama’s voice trembled as it always did when she read those beautiful words, especially the part “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” As the last amen of the prayer was said the baby started to whimper and all the children were sent quickly to bed.
It was only a few minutes until Papa was calling, “Margie! Come down here this minute.”
Mama was pacing the floor with a baby obviously not hers, big brown eyes and black straight hair. Mama didn’t often get angry, but it was very apparent when she did.
“Can you explain how I got home with Jane Judd’s baby?” she said through gritted teeth, “And I suppose Jane has Maggie!” There was no use denying that she was responsible, Mama had this uncanny talent of knowing when Margie was guilty.
Then three shorts and a long ring came on the telephone. Margie just knew it was Elsie Adams, she could hear her screaming clear across the kitchen, “Do you have my Harold? I’ve got that ugly Johnson kid!” Margie turned to escape but Papa blocked the doorway. He had his heavy leather gloves in his hand and he whacked her twice, right on the bottom. Mama was trying to calm Elsie and assuring her that Harold would soon be home.
As Mama was figuring out where each baby was and the best route for the return to rightful mothers, Papa was out in the barn harnessing Daisy to the cutter. Margie was told to dress and be prepared to return each baby and beg forgiveness. Margie couldn’t understand the frayed tempers; after all, a baby is a baby – why all the fuss?
Papa was quiet as they rode away from the house, baby Julia was still shrieking at the top of her lungs. It was five miles to the Judd farm and Julia was exhausted by the time they arrived there and just giving weak little wails and sobs. Janie was angry, but happy to see her baby and offered to keep Maggie until Papa and Margie were finished with the exchanges and could pick her up on the way home.
Another five miles to the Adams and all the way Margie wondered about the reception they would receive. It was worse than she had even imagined and as they were leaving she could still hear Elsie screaming, “Keep Richard warm and be sure Harold is well covered on the way back!” Richard cried for the three miles to Johnson’s and Aggie grabbed him out of Margie’s arms and shoved Harold at her. “You’re a born trouble-maker, Margie Hall, we’ll all be happy when you’re back at the Convent!” she ranted, but she looked adoring down on her baby boy and Margie wondered, “How can she love that funny looking kid?”
Papa knew how Margie dreaded facing Elsie Adams again so he offered to make this delivery. Margie was grateful that she didn’t have to hear another tirade but she watched thoughtfully as Papa handed Harold to his mother and she saw how eagerly Elsie reached for him.
As they left the Adams farm Papa lifted his head and smiled, “Daughter,” he said, ”I can smell a Chinook!” A mile or so down the road he laughed aloud and said, “Yessir, I smell a Chinook.” Margie joined in his laughter as she replied, “Papa, you’re the only man in Southern Alberta who can smell a Chinook, and the only man in the world who can smell one passing Poore’s pig farm!”
It was good to hear Papa laugh, Margie had been having pangs of remorse; not only about all the problems of cold, wet and hungry babies, but she realized Papa must be tired. Bu the time they had picked up Maggie at the Judd’s and were on the last lap it was almost five o’clock Christmas morning. The warm Chinook wind was blowing in and for the first time Margie was holding her baby sister.
Maggie was awake, hunger and unhappy. Margie started to sing “The Christmas Lullaby” and the baby’s sobs ceased. Margie’s arms tightened around the little bundle and tears welled in her eyes. This baby sister was special, she realized, and a great feeling of love overwhelmed her. Suddenly she knew why each mother had been so angry – each baby was very special to the mother.
The words Mama had read earlier came to Margie’s mind, about the birth of Jesus Christ and how Mary had pondered the wonder of it. Tears ran down Margie’s cheeks as she pondered the miracle of His birth and the great love He had brought to the world.
She sang a few more lines of the lovely lullaby and her tears continued to fall. Papa’s heart was full as he observed what was happening and though no words were spoken he realized his daughter was experiencing the Christmas spirit. It was almost as if the warm Chinook wind had blown the cold and indifferent attitude right out of her heart.
This isn’t to say there was a complete reformation but the rest of the holidays were more peaceful, there was still a lot of teasing but Margie was the first to read the scriptures each night and the last one off her knees after family prayer, as if she was adding a private word.