I wrote the Christmas story,”Nick,” years ago when I was feeling blue about Christmas. Every few years, I pull it out and putter around with it. Change the title, revise, edit…a writer’s prerogative, I suppose. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it. And I wish you a Merry Christmas. Anita
With one sweep, I cleared my desk of the eggnog, cookies, and fruitcake into the trash and made for the door.
Just as I was about to make a clean getaway, Ellen blocked me at the exit. “Where are you going, Sarah?” her red curly hair and green eyes really made the elf hat work for her and I secretly wondered if she worked for Keebler. “It’s Christmas,” Ellen said in that dreamy Christmas voice everybody seemed to get that time of year.
I rolled my eyes.
Ellen giggled which sent her red curls into a spasm of bounces. ‘Okay, this party is pretty lame but I was hoping we could go catch some lunch and talk.”
“I can’t, Molly will be home soon,” I said hoping that if I played the kid card Ellen would let me off the hook.
Ellen smiled. “Oh how is she? Is she excited about Christmas?”
“Yep, just like every other six-year-old in the world,” I said – although probably not as excited as Ellen, from the looks of it.
“Okay, well you want to get home and who can blame you? But I wanted to give you this,” Ellen took a folded piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to me.
I looked at the paper without unfolding it. “What’s this?”
“It’s the flyer for the shelter I told you about? A bunch of us are going there on Christmas morning to help out. Remember? Anyway, you said you wanted the information, so there it is.”
I nodded and jammed the paper in my coat pocket. “Okay, I’ll see if I can make it.” Which we both knew was code for, not in a million years would I go to a homeless shelter on Christmas morning.
Ellen smiled. “Right. Okay then, Merry Christmas,” she said and gave me an awkward hug.
“Merry Christmas,” I mumbled and put my hand on the doorknob.
I turned back. “Yes?”
“What’s your beef with Christmas, anyway?” Ellen asked, her big green eyes sparkled – even under the hideous flourescent light.
“I don’t’ have a beef with Christmas,” I lied. “It just doesn’t get me all crazy like it does most people.”
Ellen nodded, sketched a wave and walked away.
I felt guilty on the ride home. I should have admitted to Ellen I wasn’t going to the shelter on Christmas day. But it was hard to say no to her. She was a sweet, caring person who always saw the good in people. I on the other hand, lost my rose-colored glasses long ago. How we had remained friends over the years was a mystery to me, except that Ellen never gave up on anyone – even lost causes.
When I got home, I felt safe from all the sparkly, tinseled good will and let out a sigh. I dumped my coat and purse on the living room chair and went to the kitchen. Molly would be home any minute, needing a hot lunch and then a nap. I went to the kitchen and got going on her favorite – tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Just as I was finishing up the soup, the back door slammed, announcing Molly’s arrival. “Mommy!” she sang out and it was my favorite song.
I turned away from the stove and bent down to grin at my angel, ally rosy-faced from the cold. Golden strands of hair fell into her eyes, refusing to obey the barrettes I’d put in her hair that morning.
Molly threw her arms around my waist. “Mommy, Mommy, I’m so excited!”
I stroked her plump cheek. “Why Pumpkin, what happened?”
“I got a new friend. He’s so nice. Can he eat lunch with us? We have lots of food, can he have some too?”
I pushed the hair out of Molly’s eyes. “Sure. Where is he?” I looked around the room for another pint-sized companion but saw no one.
Molly’s eyes wandered to a spot on the ceiling. “Outside.”
“Outside?” I said and stood up, trying to see through the backdoor window. “Tell him to come in the house before he freezes his nose off.” I said and turned to the cabinet for another place setting.
“You’re sure it’s okay?” Molly asked in that voice that kids get when they’re looking for confirmation after having just tricked you.
Bowl and soup spoon in hand, I stopped and looked at her. “Molly, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she said and shot out the back door.
I shrugged and chalked it up to the Christmas season when children stuffed themselves with sugar and bounced off the walls on a regular basis.
As I ladled the soup into bowls, the back door whooshed open and closed. The rush of icy air made me giggle. “Okay kids,” I said, my back still turned, “sit down, and eat it while it’s hot.”
“Looks mighty good,” a man said.
Startled, I turned toward that baritone and stifled a gasp when I saw my daughter’s new friend. “Molly, who is this?”
Molly made busy work of sitting down and getting her friend to join her and without looking up, said, “This is Nick, Mommy.”
Nick was 50 if he was a day and his clothes were ragged and threadbare and he smelled of the street – yet, his hands were clean. Still, all I could do was stare as I was frozen to the spot holding two bowls of soup in my hands.
Molly recognized the look but met it with a defiant look of her own and said: “Nick’s a nice person. You don’t have to have new clothes to be a nice person, right?”
Nick grinned and exposed a beautiful smile. He stuck out his big, calloused hand. “How do you do, ma’am? Thank you for your invite to lunch. Appreciate it.”
Pretty good manners for a bum, I thought. I knew I couldn’t stand there all day holding two bowls of soup, so I set one down in front of each of them. The time had passed for a confrontation anyway, and Molly was so enamored of her new pal that I went along and decided we’d have a talk, later.
They ate like prize fighters and laughed and chatted like were lifelong friends. All I could do was watch and listen and wonder about the rapport between them.
After lunch, I loaded the dishwasher. “Go wash up, honey.” Molly obeyed without protest – another first. When she was out of earshot, I decided to have a little heart-to-heart with Nick.
“How exactly did you and Molly meet?” I asked.
Nick blinded me with another smile. “She was waiting on her bus one day when I was collecting bottles over near the stop and she smiled a sweet, little smile . . .” His deep blue eyes sparkled and I could see how easily a child could come under their spell.
He shook his head. “No, it ain’t what you think. I’d never do nothing to little children that would hurt them. I think they are the most precious things. Had some myself, once . . .” he disappeared into his own world for a minute.
I don’t know why, but I believed him. I nodded. “She smiled at you and?”
The sparkle returned and Nick continued. “She asks me, what are you doing looking for bottles? So I says, if I can get enough I can get a hot dog down at the minimart. So, she gives me her cheese sandwich and apple that she didn’t eat for lunch.” He grinned. “You sure do have a sweet, little girl.”
“Yes, I have,” I said, still standing with my arms crossed over my chest.
Nick squirmed in his chair and put out his leg to ready it for flight.
“Did you tell her, Nick?” Molly appeared in the doorway.
My heart skipped a beat. “Tell me what?”
Molly joined Nick at the table, pulling her chair closer to the old man so she could pat his arm and reassure him. “Bobby Miller tried to steal my lunch. He pulled my hair so I’d let go,” she rubbed the back of her head to illustrate the point.
“Just kids being kids,” Nick interjected.
“It hurt!” Molly insisted. “I almost cried, but Nick came and chased him away.” She beamed at him like he was a super-hero. “He saved me, Mommy.”
Getting rid of Nick was going to be trickier than I thought. It was clear my daughter Nick as nothing less than a saint and if I tried to force the issue, it would only make things worse. I uncrossed my arms and forced a smile. “Thank you, Nick for coming to my Molly’s rescue.”
Nick stood up and bowed with such grace that I wondered if once upon a time Nick had been an entertainer. “My pleasure, ma’am.” He stood, pulled on his shabby coat and moved toward the door. “Thanks for the eats.”
I don’t know why but I suddenly noticed how pitiful his clothes were and how they would be no protection from the cold and darkening day he was about to face. “Don’t leave just yet, I’ll be right back.”
I went out through the connecting door to the garage where we kept the donation bag. Digging through it, I found my brother’s old overcoat, a pair of trousers and a shirt that would fit Nick and brought the clothes back to the kitchen. “Maybe you’d like these.”
Nick flushed and bowed his head. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Something about the small show of humility made me feel a pang at the hundreds of times I’d scowled at the homeless in the park, loitering at storefronts and on the streets. In an instant that indistinct mass of huddled wanton need became part of humanity. “I’m sorry,” I murmured.
Nick just stared at his feet and cleared his throat.
Molly jumped up and down and beamed. “See Nick, now you won’t be cold!”
He smiled. “Yes, little Molly, you’re right.” His big beefy hand patted her shoulder gently and then he stepped back.
Lest we all become a molten mass of sentimental jelly, I nudged Molly toward the living room. “Time to say good bye to Nick and go clean your room, honey,” I said trying to nudge her along.
The glow in Molly’s eyes went down a notch, “Okay. Bye Nick, thank you for coming to lunch and for walking me home and for being my friend.” She blew Nick a kiss and he pretended to catch it and put it in his pocket.
“Bye little Molly, you have a good day.”
After Molly left the kitchen, I put a fifty in Nick’s hand. “Maybe you could get a room tonight, and a good night’s sleep,” I said, surprised by my own charity.
Nick shook his head, “No, ma’am I couldn’t …”
I forced the money into his hand. “I want you to have it. Really. It would make Molly happy to know you weren’t sleeping on the street tonight.”
“Bless you,” Nick mumbled and he was out the door.
The next morning, I awakened to the sound of scraping outside my window. It was barely light out and I peered through the bedroom window.
And there they were, Molly in her red snowsuit and Nick in his new clothes, shoveling the front walk and having a grand old time. Dread did a little dance in my stomach. “Just like a stray cat,” I mumbled, “once you feed them, they’re yours forever.”
I threw on some clothes and went outside.
“Hi Mommy,” Molly chirped.
“Morning,” I said to Nick. “What brings you here? And so early?”
“I seen your walk needed shoveling,” Nick said as he scooped up mounds of snow as though they were light as feathers, with my snow shovel. “Thought if somebody didn’t get to it pretty soon, you or Molly might slip and fall.” Amazing, the man had shoveled most of the walk and continued as we talked but not a huff or a puff out of him.
Nick was right of course. Overnight, the snow had piled up like laundry in a frat house. The whole neighborhood was knee-deep in it. “That was very thoughtful of you but my brother usually comes over for this stuff. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up any minute with his snow blower.”
“Mommy, can Nick have some coffee?” Molly asked completely ignoring my polite attempts to get him to leave.
Nick caught my frown. “Now, Molly, we don’t want to bother your Mama. She’s got better things to do than make coffee for an old man.”
Molly disagreed, “but you’re our friend! Isn’t he, Mommy?”
I nodded and smiled – besides my teeth were chattering and it was too cold to argue. I went inside and made coffee, pancakes, bacon, and juice.
After breakfast, Nick insisted on doing the dishes. Molly pulled a chair to the sink and helped him. I don’t know which was more shocking, that I had a homeless man washing my dishes or that my daughter was happily doing chores. The effect he had on Molly was magical. I wondered what Ellen would say if she walked in on the scene. Me, the original Scrooge, doling out free food and clothes. I’d never live it down.
When they finished the dishes I said to Nick, “Thank you, it was very sweet of you to come by and help us.”
“That bottom step on your back porch is a little loose,” Nick said. “Where do you keep your hammer and nails?”
Molly ran to the garage door and threw it open. “In here!” she pointed the way. “Come on!” she cried as though Disneyland was just beyond the door.
Nick followed Molly out to the garage and I could hear them discussing what tools they needed. And then they stepped through the door and headed outside – Nick with a tool box and Molly with her enthusiasm. “This is going to be fun!”
I poured myself another cup of coffee and watched them through the kitchen window for a few minutes. They were so happy to be in each other’s company and clearly in no hurry to finish, that I left the two of them to their repairs and went to my bedroom to wrap Molly’s presents.
The morning zipped by without notice until I heard loud noises coming from the garage. “Now what are they doing?” I yanked open the garage door. Nick huffed and puffed as he swept, dragged, and stacked – his favorite helper, Molly, right beside him.
“Look Mommy, we’re cleaning the garage,” Molly sang.
I smiled and nodded. “What would you two like for lunch?”
So went the day. Every time I thought I could persuade Nick to leave, he found another chore to do. Each time he did a chore, I felt obliged to feed him.
By the time we ate dinner, did the dishes and Molly was in the bath, it was seven o’clock. I found Nick in the garage, sweeping up the last of the dust. “Nick? Can we talk for a minute?”
He smiled. “Yes, ma’am. At your service.”
“About all this help you’re giving us . . .” I got distracted by the transformation of my garage. What was once a bottomless pit of junk and unloved castoffs was now something out of one of those remake-your- space-in-a-day shows on cable. I had no idea there were shelves, tool pegs and even a workbench out there. After Nick’s magic there was even room to park the car. How could anyone so resourceful have ended up homeless?
“You know, ma’am, a lot of people think I’m a bum. I can’t blame them. I got no home, don’t own anything.”
Nick’s other superpower was that he could pull people’s thoughts right out of their heads, like he had done to me with those few quiet words. I opened my mouth to protest but there’d been no accusation or judgment in his words, so what was there to protest?
His blue eyes were bright as Christmas lights, and his shaggy hair sparkled like spun silver. And if I hadn’t known better I would have thought he emanated a golden aura. And then something twinkled inside of me and this man was no longer a suspicious stranger, but a friend. Was it the same thing Molly had felt?
“But I ain’t a bum. I always try to return every kindness with a kindness. I don’t want to live off other folks. I want to earn my keep, just like anybody else.”
I forgot what I wanted to say as I stood in my clean but chilly garage.
“Sometimes, you just have a run of bad luck.” He bent over and picked up the dustpan, then emptied it in the trash can. “But it don’t mean you ain’t trying to get back on your feet.” He smiled shyly. “Maybe you know what I’m saying?”
I nodded. “Maybe I do.”
Nick put the dustpan on a shelf and leaned the broom against the wall. “It’s late and I best be getting on,” he said shrugging into his coat. “Thanks for your hospitality. Tell little Molly I said, good night.” He pulled the garage door open and exposed the night, blanketed in white glitter. All of Nick’s shoveling a memory – but something told me, he didn’t mind.
The cold air raised gooseflesh on my arms. “Where will you go?” I asked and sounded like Molly.
Nick buttoned up his overcoat and pulled on a pair meager gloves. “Shelter down the road. If I’m there before eight, I get a cot.” He patted my arm. “Ain’t nothing to worry about, ma’am. I’m old and I lived a long time but I get by.”
I wanted to bring Nick back into the house where it was warm and safe. Give him hot chocolate and cookies and offer him the guest room for the night. Maybe for as long as he needed it. Everything in me wanted to stop him from leaving but I just stood there – and I didn’t know why. Did I think he would refuse? Was I just not ready to accept that I could feel differently about things – about people? Was I afraid to trust this new part of me? I didn’t have any answers, so instead, I smiled and said, “Good night, Nick.”
“Night, ma’am.” Nick paused at the open door and smiled. “I’m glad we got the chance to talk.”
“So am I.”
I watched him as he trudged through the snow, bent against the night wind and my heart hurt a little.
The next morning, I jumped out of bed with a plan. I’d bake cookies all morning until the smell woke up Molly. When Nick arrived, we’d have breakfast and then we’d go to the park and ice skate. Just like they did in that old Christmas movie – maybe I’d even fine a bonnet to wear. Afterwards, I’d invite Nick to stay in the guest room until he was back on his feet. People had live-in housekeepers, why couldn’t we have a live-in handy man? It was a perfect plan. It was Christmas after all, and it was the time year to be merry and jolly and the whole idea really grew on me.
I sung while I baked and when I realized, it was a Christmas Carol, I laughed out loud.
“Mommy?” Molly stood wide-eyed in the middle of the kitchen.
I grinned. “Good morning, my little sugar cookie!”
Molly giggled and twirled. “Morning, my gingerbread mommy.” She gaped at the disaster that was the kitchen and laughed. “What are you doing? This place is a mess!”
“Making cookies!” I said as I slid a cookie sheet into the oven.
“You are?” Molly dragged a chair over to the counter, got up, and looked for herself. “You are!”
“I am!” I giggled. “Want to help?”
We made more cookies than we’d ever made in our life. Flour and cookie dough clung to our clothes, our hair, and our faces but we didn’t care – because it was Christmas, you know?
“When is Nick coming over?” I asked as we frosted gingerbread men.
“I don’t know.” Molly looked at the clock and frowned, “Maybe he’s not.”
I noticed the time – half past ten. I had expected him much earlier. I threw off my doubt for Molly’s sake and said, “Of course, he’s coming. Nick’s your best friend, isn’t he? Of course, he’s coming.” But I wasn’t so sure.
A knock sounded at the back door. Molly squealed, “He’s here! He’s here!” She jumped down to from her chair and ran to open the door.
“Come on in,” I said as I finished with a gingerbread man, “coffee’s on.”
“What’s got you in such a mood?” my brother Michael asked.
I looked up from my happy gingerbread man to see my brother dripping snow all over my kitchen floor. “What are you doing here?” I asked and couldn’t keep the disappointment out of my voice.
Michael shrugged his broad shoulders. “What do you think?” He jerked his thumb toward the backyard. “I came to shovel you out. It snowed all night, sis. Haven’t you looked outside?”
“No,” I said and glanced out the kitchen window. If the snow drifts in the back yard were any indication of what was out there, it was going to be a long, cold day.
Michael took off his gloves and helped himself to a cup of coffee. “Digging your car out is going to be a pain,” Michael griped. “You should have pulled it into the garage,” he chuckled. “As if that would ever happen.”
“We cleaned the garage,” I said remembering my nice, clean and orgainzed garage – courtesy of Nick. “But I forgot all about the car.”
Molly came to me and threw her arms around me. “Mommy, is Nick okay?” Tears pooled in her blue eyes. “Is he buried in the snow too?”
I picked Molly up and hugged her tight. “No, honey, I’m sure Nick is safe.” She rested her head on my shoulder and cried a little.
“Who’s Nick?” Michael helped himself to a sugar cookie and took a big bite. “Man, these are good cookies. Who made them?” He finished the one he had and shoved another one into his mouth.
“We did,” Molly corrected.
“Right, Molly, and I made them,” I said. I looked around my kitchen and was in awe of just how many cookies we’d made. There wasn’t a clear surface in the entire room – gingerbread men, chocolate chip, sugar cookies, iced cookies, sprinkled cookies, Christmas tree cookies, angel cookies – and for the life of me I couldn’t remember where I put the cookie tins. I put Molly down and started to search the cabinets.
Molly started looking in the lower cabinets. “What are we looking for, Mommy?”
“Cookie tins, honey.”
Michael sat at the kitchen table, still munching cookie looked at me and laughed. “Who are you and what have you done with my sister?” He grabbed a few more cookies and stuffed them in his pockets.
“What do you mean?” I asked and cried out in victory when I found two empty cookie tins.
Michael snorted. “What do you mean, what do I mean? When was the last time you made cookies?”
I stopped and looked at him. “Now is not the time to make fun of your little sister. Now is the time to find cookie tins, so we can pack these up.”
Michael pretended to struggle to his feet, patted his stomach and then belched. “Okay, and then what?”
Molly and I continued to find cookies and stacked them on the counter. “And then we better get dressed and grab a shovel,” I said.
After we secured the cookies in tins, we all trudged outside to do our winter duty.
“Mommy, look!” Molly cried and launched off the porch. “It’s Frosty!” she pointed a mittened hand.
On my front lawn stood a snowman that was so intricate in design, I expected him to wake and introduce himself. He wore the clothes I’d given Nick just a couple of days before and he sported a cigar in his mouth.
Molly trudged hip-deep through the snow to hug the snowman. “I love you, Frosty.”
I trudged right behind Molly and the closer I got to the snowman the more impressed I was with him. He was no ordinary snowman, he was a work of art. An envelope was pinned to the snowman’s overcoat. I unpinned the envelope and opened it. Inside was a Christmas card that had a happy Santa on the front and a note from Nick scrawled inside:
Thanks for sharing a few moments of your precious life with a grateful, old man. Merry Christmas.
He’d also enclosed a fifty dollar bill and I wondered if it was the same one I had given him.
“Who’s it from? What does it say?” Molly hopped up and down.
“It’s from Nick. It says, Merry Christmas” I said and gave her the card.
“Where is he?” Molly asked. She studied the card, and searched it front and back, as though it contained a hidden clue to Nick’s whereabouts.
“I don’t know, angel. He doesn’t say.”
Molly gasped when she recognized the coat on the snowman. She tugged at the snowman’s sleeve. “Oh no! Is this Nick? Did he get all frozen last night when it snowed?”
Michael tramped across the yard, dragging the shovel behind him. “Who’s Nick?” his words came out in smoky gusts in the cold air.
I stared out at the blanketed landscape and imagined the worst. “How bad are the roads?” I asked my brother.
We drove around for hours looking for any place Nick might have gone. Many of the roads had been plowed or salted but the bitter cold and gray skies kept most people off the roads. And it felt like we were on a lonely impossible mission to find something that fate would deny us.
“How many more shelters can there possibly be in this town?” Michael complained.
“Just a couple,” I said, peering out the window of his truck. My eyes searched for anybody huddled in doorways or by heater grates but the streets were deserted.
Michael pulled over to the curb and put the truck in park, but left the engine idling. The heater whispered warm air into the cabin and the windshield wipers offered a steady syncopated beat to wind’s song. “What’s with you?” Michael asked. “Molly brings home a bum . . .”
“He’s not a bum.” Molly explained from the backseat. “He’s our friend, isn’t he, Mommy?”
“Yes he is, honey.” I shook my head at Michael to let him know we wouldn’t be referring to Nick as a bum in front of Molly and to mind his manners.
Michael smirked. “Okay, a friend. Who mooches a few meals and few bucks for doing some work – which I could have done for you by the way. Then he gives you back the clothes and the money? And you’re upset?”
Michael rubbed his face with his hands and shook his head. “You finally get rid of him. He’s out of your life. . . and now you want to find him again?”
“I want to make sure he’s all right,” I said and watched as the snow came down harder and piled up on the hood of the truck.
“Why? What’s it to you?” Michael was confused.
“He’s old. He hasn’t any family or friends or a home.” I moved my face closer to the window and strained to see through the wall of white.
“Yeah, but why do you care?” Michael asked.
I looked at my big brother and put my hand on his shoulder and smiled. “I don’t know. But I do.”
Michael threw up his hands in surrender, put the truck in gear and we continued our trek through the snowy night. And though we met many misplaced, and sad people that night, we didn’t find Nick.
The snow was relentless and though the plows kept going, the roads got worse, but I pretended not to notice.
The windshield wipers worked full-speed but Michael still had to lean forward to see through the windshield. He gripped the steering wheel so hard I thought it would burst the seams on his gloves. “I just came over to do my brotherly duty. To shovel my sister and her kid out of the snow . . .” he muttered
It wasn’t fair to force Michael into this – he was exhausted and nervous about the roads. Molly could barely keep her eyes open but she would never admit it. I had to face facts – Nick was gone and we weren’t going to find him.
I leaned over to Michael and said, “Okay, let’s go file a police report and then go home.”
Michael took my hand and squeezed it. “What’s gotten into you, sis?”
“Christmas,” I whispered and wiped at my tears.
“You don’t know his last name?” Detective Stefanski asked, rolling his eyes at his partner.
“Nick, just Nick,” I repeated and regretted giving him two tins of cookies. From the looks of it, the detective had eaten plenty of cookies in his life.
After Stefanski finished typing the report and I signed it, he said, “You know we ain’t going to find him, don’t you?”
Molly’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“I know you’re going to try,” I shifted my gaze to Molly.
The cop softened, “Ah, yes ma’am, we’re going to try. And thanks for the cookie. Merry Christmas.”
Michael hustled us toward the exit but a young officer stopped us. “Don’t let Stefanski bother you, ma’am. He’s pulling a double and chewing everybody out.”
I appreciated his kindness and gave him a tin of cookies. “Thank you.”
The young officer opened the tin and grabbed a cookie. “No ma’am, thank you!” He bit into a chocolate chip cookie and grinned. “I’ll keep an eye out for your friend. If I hear anything, I’ll give you a call.” He took another bite of his cookie, winked at Molly and went on his way.
Once we got home, I made dinner since none of us had eaten anything but cookies, all day.
Michael gobbled his food so quickly, I doubt he even chewed. Molly played with her food. I nibbled a gingerbread man I’d made that morning. His cheerful face mocked me and I deserved it. If I hadn’t been so judgmental and suspicious, Nick wouldn’t have disappeared.
“We’ll see you tomorrow for Midnight Mass?” Michael asked putting his coat back on. I didn’t answer him. “Sarah?”
I flicked him a look and nodded.
He picked me up and gave me a bear hug. When he put me down, he said, “Don’t worry so much.”
I couldn’t remember the last time Michael had hugged me and my face said as much. He grabbed a couple of tins of cookies and laughed like a little kid. “Let’s not get all mushy just because it’s Christmas.” And then he was out the door.
A sleepy Molly, went willingly to bed. I pulled the quilt up to her chin and kissed her soft little cheek. “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, are you excited?”
“Why did Nick go away?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
She threw back the covers and sat up. “Is he coming back?” Molly asked.
“I don’t know that either,” I said tucking her back in.
“I’m worried, Mommy – do you think he’s out there, in the cold?”
“Let’s say a prayer for Nick and ask God to keep him safe and warm.” I knelt down at Molly’s bedside, closed my eyes and for the first time in a long time I spoke to God. I asked Him to keep Nick safe and warm and to protect him from any harm. And I asked Him to forgive me for being so out of touch.
When I opened my eyes, Molly was asleep and probably dreaming of her friend Nick.
Somewhere in the middle of watching Christmas in Connecticut, I fell asleep on the sofa. When I awoke Molly was braiding my hair. “Hi, Mommy.”
“What are you doing?”
Molly continued braiding my hair. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
I smiled. “I know, muffin. Are you happy?” I tried to tickle her but she dodged my hands.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess so,” she sighed.
I pulled her into my lap and hugged. “But Santa’s coming tonight!” Then I laughed at myself because I sounded like one of her friends. Or Ellen.
Molly crawled out of my lap and pouted. “But I won’t get what I want.”
I grabbed at her and tickled her. “Oh yes, you will. You’re the best little girl in the world. Santa will give you anything you want.”
Hope rushed into Molly’s face. “Do you think so? Will he bring Nick back?”
All my good cheer and jolliness came to a screeching halt.
Molly frowned. “I thought so.”
But there wasn’t time to think or worry about Nick. I had food to prepare for the family feast. And Molly had parties to attend though I had to force her. “What if Nick . . . ?” she kept asking.
“I’ll come and get you. We’ll come and get you. I promise,” I kept responding.
When her ride arrived, Molly marched off like a soldier to war – ready to do her duty but none too happy about it.
Despite the decorations and our dazzling tree, the house felt cold and empty. Every time the phone rang my heart leapt, only to fall when it wasn’t news of Nick.
A fund raiser for a local shelter called to solicit a donation, which I was happy to make.
“You want to give us how much?” she asked.
“A hundred dollars? Will that help?” I looked at my check book and saw I could afford more. “How about two hundred?”
“Yes! Thank you!” I thought she’d leap through the phone.
“Great,” I said. “I’m a little crunched for time though, can you send someone by for the check?” Silence. “Is something wrong?”
“Wrong? No, not at all. It’s just that I’ve called you every year for the last five years and you never gave us anything. Last year, you hung up on me before I even finished.” She was right and I remembered hanging up on her the year before and I felt ashamed of myself. “I almost didn’t call you, this year.”
“I’m glad you did. I’ve changed my mind about things.” And I meant it.
When Molly got home, we both went down for a nap. The past few days had worn us both out and Christmas hadn’t even arrived yet. And we would have probably slept until Christmas morning if the phone hadn’t rung.
“Yes?” I mumbled into the phone.
“Ms. Wayne, this is Officer Morgan. It’s about your friend, the homeless man?”
My eyes flew open and I was wide awake. “You found Nick?” my heart had wings.
“Maybe.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t know if it’s him. . . but this fellow we found – he’s sick . . .”
My heart crashed and burned. “Which hospital?”
On the way to the hospital, Molly cried. “Is he really sick? Or does he just have the sniffles?”
I couldn’t look away from the road because the snow was coming down once again with a vengeance. “I don’t know, honey, we’re not even sure if it is Nick.” I didn’t want to get her hopes up but I knew we were both praying that it was him and that he was all right. “But no matter what, we have to be brave girls. We can’t cry. Okay?”
Molly wiped away her tears with a red mitten and sat up straight and proper. “Okay, Mommy, I’m brave.”
I was thankful that the hospital was only a couple of miles away and that the roads were clear and empty. It was almost as if fate had given us a special window of time to travel through without interuption. We found a parking space just a few steps from the entrance and when we walked up to the nurse’s station, no one had to convince the nurse to let Molly in either.
The hospital was decked out with wreaths and decorations but they couldn’t undo the sorrow and pain that it housed. In hundreds of rooms, there were hundreds of people suffering, in pain and away from their loved ones on Christmas Eve – some of them children. Many of them old and alone. But there was also a reverance to this bastion of dedicated souls who tended to the sick and did so with an open heart. I started to cry. Molly squeezed my hand and I looked down into her beautiful child face.
“Be brave, Mommy,” she whispered. “Remember? We have to be brave girls.”
I smiled at her, took a deep breath and we walked into the room.
The room was dark and small light at the bedside table threw shadows on the form lying in the bed. I could hear his labored breathing and smell the ever-present antiseptic scent in the air.
We walked to the bed. “Nick,” I whispered and put my hand on his shoulder gently.
He turned his head and my heart leapt and fell in an instant. It wasn’t Nick. Just a poor old fellow – sick and alone on Christmas Eve. His pale eyes squinted to focus and he mumbled.
“It’s not Nick,” Molly whimpered.
“I’m sorry, honey.” I pulled her to me and my own tears welled up.
We turned to leave but the man called out in a paper thin voice. “No. Don’t go. Don’t go.”
Where was his family? How could they leave him alone in a hospital room on Christmas Eve? “I’m sorry . . . we didn’t . . . we thought you were…”
“Josie,” he whispered and smiled weakly, “you came.”
“No, you don’t understand . . .”
“Is that Tracey with you?” his eyes lit up with everything in his soul. He reached out a gnarled, bony hand. “Tracey, give your grandpa a hug.”
Molly looked at me and grinned. Without a word, she climbed onto the bed and hugged the old fellow like there was no one else in the world she was gladder to see. She patted his balding head and kissed his forehead. “I love you, Grandpa.”
The old fellow’s face filled with life and he seemed to grow six inches taller. “Tracey, Tracey,” he cooed as happy tears rolled down his cheeks. “Grandpa loves you too.”
Molly sat next to him and I held his hand until he drifted back to sleep. And we left a tin of cookies with a note that said: love, Josie and Tracey.
On our slow trek home, Molly asked, “How come that man didn’t know who we were?”
“Because he was sick and lonely.”
Molly thought about it for a few minutes. “Does he feel better now?” she looked up at me.
“Yes angel, I think he does.”
By the time we got home, my mind was made up. I sat down with Molly on the sofa and said, “Molly, you know there are lots of lonely people in the world? Like the man we saw tonight?”
Molly’s azure eyes darkened. “Yes.”
“That for some people, Christmas is a very sad time?”
“This Christmas, I really want to help some of those people. Do you want to do that too?”
She considered it for a moment. “Yes, I do. But how do we help them? What do we do?
“There’s a shelter, like the places we went to with Uncle Mike. We could go there and help. People send money and food then cook it all up and feed people who have no place to go for Christmas.”
“Who will we feed?” Molly asked.
“Anybody who’s hungry and comes inside.” I hugged her.
“What about Gramma and Grandpa and Uncle Mike and Aunt Kathy? Will they help too?”
“We’ll ask them,” I said. “If they don’t want to, it’s okay because you shouldn’t do things for people unless you really want to.”
The choir and lights at St. Pat’s were always magnificent to me, but this night they held a special meaning. They filled me with the soul of Christmas.
Afterwards, Mom chattered about the coming Christmas feast and that Molly would be in Heaven when she saw what Santa left her.
“Mom . . . there’s been a change in plans.”
“A change?” she blinked.
“Molly and I are going to the 6th Street shelter this year.”
Mom was stunned at first, then broke up. “Good one, Sarah. You got me for a minute.”
“I’m not joking, Mom.” And she saw it in my eyes. “ Ellen has begged me for years to help and I think it’s about time I did.”
“I’m positively stunned,” Mom said.
“Me too. But, I’ve realized that Christmas isn’t just about me anymore. I don’t want Molly to grow up thinking it’s all about her, either. It’s about peace and goodwill and reaching out to other people.”
“I know that, dear. I just didn’t know that you did.” She searched my face with a mother’s eyes. “ Something’s changed you.”
“More like someone,” I said.
Mom hugged me like she’d been waiting my whole life to hear me say those words. “Merry Christmas, honey.”
Christmas morning Molly and I sprang out of bed and ran for the tree, seizing our presents. We raced to rip off festive wrappings and squealed with each discovery. Christmas morning hadn’t been that much fun since I was Molly’s age. We made a mess and didn’t clean it up – the shredded paper and ribbons made the room look so happy. Cookies and chocolate milk made a perfect Christmas breakfast.
On the drive to the shelter, Molly asked, “Do you think Nick is there?” Her face glowed at the thought.
“No, I don’t think so, honey.” I smiled.
“Then why are we going?” Molly asked.
I pulled the car over to the curb. “Because there are a lot of Nicks and I have a feeling we’ll meet a few of them today.”
“I never met anybody named Nick, before,” Molly said.
“No, I don’t mean their names are Nick. I mean people like Nick. Down on their luck but trying to get back on their feet.”
Molly laughed. “Mommy, you sound just like him!”
I laughed too and pulled away from the curb.
The streets were quiet as our feet crunched across the snow and our breaths fogged around our heads like halos. Molly held my hand tightly and looked up at me. “I think I’m a little bit scared.”
“Me too,” I said and pulled open the door.
The smell of turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes filled the air in a sweet Christmas perfume. “It smells like Gramma’s!” Molly laughed.
Our jitters disappeared and we waltzed into the mission like we were home. The space was clean and as festive as discount store decorations could make it. Tables and chairs were set up in long rows and several people were already seated, waiting in anticipation of a good meal.
Three women assembled a cafeteria-style serving line. They debated about where to put the food, how many people would come, and whether they could feed everyone who showed up. What struck me about these ladies was that they were ordinary women, probably with little of their own and yet they were here, on Christmas day, worrying about other people.
The tall woman looked up and smiled. “Merry Christmas.”
Molly and I approached her. “Merry Christmas. I’m Sarah and this is Molly. We came to help?”
The woman shook my hand firmly. “I’m Vera.” She pointed to a petite woman, “this is Louise, and Mabel,” she nodded to a heavy- set woman.
Vera grinned. “You ever done this before?”
“No,” I blushed, “I haven’t.”
“All right, then. That way, is the kitchen, get yourself an apron and then get back here and we’ll figure out what to do with you,” Vera winked.
I saluted. “Yes, ma’am.”
Molly looked up at Vera. “Can I have an apron too?”
We all laughed. Vera knelt down and tweaked Molly’s nose. “Why, sweetie, you can have anything you want.”
Molly smiled and hugged Vera. “Oh, thank you!”
Soon, the place was filled beyond capacity with people delighted by the smell of the feast to come. The room buzzed with conversation and simple joy. And suddenly, it was like any other Christmas gathering I’d known – smiling, happy people, looking forward to a good meal, and celebrating a day of peace and goodwill.
I was scooping mashed potatoes like a pro by the time Ellen sauntered in, donning a her signature Santa hat.
“Am I dreaming or is this my dear friend, Sarah Scrooge Wayne?” Ellen grinned so wide, her face must have hurt.
“You aren’t dreaming any more than usual,” I said plopping potatoes on a little girl’s plate without missing a beat.
Molly, perched on a milk crate, served peas and waved, “Merry Christmas, Ellen!”
Ellen was so overjoyed she stuttered. “Seriously, what are you doing here?”
“I was invited,” I giggled.
“Oh Sarah!” Ellen threw her arms around me. “ But what made you finally come here?” She pulled back and held me at arm’s length so she could see my face.
I thought of Nick and smiled. “Change of heart.”
Ellen chortled. “Like a transplant or something?”
I checked my bucket. “We’re low on potatoes. If some people would quit gold bricking and get to work, I’d have a fresh supply here.”
Ellen pinched me. “Bossy, bossy, bossy,” she said and went into the kitchen for my potatoes.
As I looked around the room at my happy, simple Christmas, I sent a silent prayer to Nick and thanked him for giving Christmas back to me.