Christmas can be a trying time for the aged. But Mary Beth had a secret...
Mary Beth sat quietly in her old rocking chair, by the window; she could see the snow falling gently. It had been falling quietly for some time now. Her girl, Tammy had turned the heat up before she left. Well Tammy wasn’t really her girl, but she was the girl from Basic Homecare that came by every day and sat with her for a while. She cleaned her house, cooked her meals, and did her shopping. And then when all the work was done, kept Mary company for about five hours a day. On the days Tammy couldn’t come, when she took her days off, this, that or the other one would come by. But Tammy was Mary Beth’s favorite.
Mary reached her old hands down and pulled her comforter close around her. The heat was on but a slight draft was blowing in the window beside her. Her old skin was wrinkled and aged with spots. She reached up and patted the gray bun on top of her head to be sure it hadn't come loose; Tammy had worked hard on it that day.
She looked in the corner and saw her old Christmas tree twinkling. Tammy had done a wonderful job decorating it for her, her old eyes could even see that without her glasses. Some of the ornaments dating back long before the fifties, each ornament held a special place in Mary Beth’s heart. And then some had even been crafted by Mary Beth’s own hands before she became too shaky with old age. Crocheted and stitched, wonderful white snow flakes, and bells, crosses, and little green Christmas trees. All still as beautiful as the day they were made, but a little musty from having been packed away.
Mary Beth had seen a lot of Christmas’s come and go: some wonderful, some sad. Tomorrow would be her eighty-seventh Christmas.
Tomorrow would be a very lonely day for Mary Beth. She already knew it. She had told Tammy and all the others to go ahead and take Christmas off. She could survive one day without her respite care. She had her walker, plenty to drink, and her medicine already set out. Her potty was close by, and her bed had been in her living room for quite some time now. She would make it.
Mrs. Cramer, her young neighbor in the apartment next door to her, had already agreed to come by around noon with a plate of Christmas dinner for Mary Beth to eat. Mrs. Cramer’s eight year old daughter would stop by in the morning with a bit of oatmeal and maybe some of the Christmas fruit she received in her stocking. Mary knew she wasn’t going to starve; her kind neighbors would see to that.
The rest of the day Mary Beth knew she would sit and remember all the happy times that she so dearly missed. Sometimes she wished she did have dementia or even old timers, because then she would no longer have to remember that she was all alone. That all of her family had already passed on and gone; and that any, or all of her younger cousins, or nephews, nieces, and greats had forgotten about her.
Mary leaned her head back on the pillow in her chair, wiping a tear quickly away. She closed her eyes to take a sleep.
Lynette Cramer was lying on her back, her little arms stretched wide and legs spread as if she were doing jumping jacks on the floor. Her brown hair was brushed, after much argument with her mother, brushed to remove all the tangles, and put into a pony tail. The little girl had already had her bath and was in her Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Pajamas. On her back she lay, her mouth was wide open as she stared up at the big Christmas tree. Her little eyes focused on the bright star blinking on and off. Her insides were all excited. Tomorrow was Christmas! What little eight year old girl wouldn’t be excited! She hoped beyond all hope that she got her Zhu Zhu Pet and Playhouse. And she hoped Santa brought her a brand new Barbie and some pretty things for her mommy. She knew she had been a very good girl. Or at least she hoped she had.
She was pretty positive she had been good. She couldn’t be anything else for a while, when her mom was so sad and depressed. When she was so sad because her mommy was sad. But Mommy was sad because Daddy was gone.
Before they hadn’t lived in the crowded apartment on a noisy and dirty street in the city. They had lived on an army base. Her daddy was something called a specialist, she had no idea what that was, just that he had went to work every day in a uniform and came home every day in a uniform, that is until he had to go away for a while. And then he never came home. Mommy said he was gone now: he wasn’t ever coming home. That he was with baby Jesus and Mary, and Grandma and Grandpa Cramer.
Lynette sat up and yelled for her mother. “Mom, is it bed time yet?”
“No honey it's not, it's only six-thirty, why don’t you go next door and take some Christmas cookies to Miss Mary Beth?" Her mother told her, walking into the room, wiping her hands on an old dish towel.
Lynette hopped up, excited to have something to do, and excited to go see the old lady next door. Lynette absolutely adored Mary Beth. Even though she had the distinct feeling that the old lady didn’t care much for her. But even Mary Beth’s conditions didn’t scare her, and her apartment that was old and sometimes smelled of mildew didn’t scare her. It was like Lynette had found a grandmotherly figure in the old woman. And they had a few things in common.
Mary Beth awoke from her slumber to the faint knock at the door. “Who is it!” She yelled, suddenly afraid of who might be knocking after dark, but then she heard the key turning in the front door and knew it must be one of the Cramers: Tammy had left her key with them when she left at four- thirty that day. Mary Beth huffed as she saw the little head pop into the room .
“Christmas cookies and milk,”she heard a timid little voice say. And then she saw Lynette all dressed for bed with a covered plate in her hand and a glass of milk in the other.
“Why thanks, child.” Mary Beth said, a small smile forming on her lips.
“I hope you like them,” Lynette beamed, “I helped mommy make them.”
“I’m sure I will, if I can find my teeth.” Mary Beth laughed.
“Your teeth!” Lynette exclaimed, and then watched, eyes popping, as Miss Mary Beth reached her hands in a glass of water and plopped her teeth in her mouth. Lynette sat the plate and the glass of milk on the older lady's TV tray, her eyes wide with dismay.
Ignoring the little girl's shock, Mary Beth’s smile grew wider. “I’m really not supposed to have much sugar, but I won’t tell if you won’t,” Mary Beth said with a wrinkle of her nose, sitting up slightly and unwrapping the cookies. She helped herself to one and bit into the peanut butter and chocolate goodness. “Mmmm.. Good!” She exclaimed. “Just like my mama used to make.”
“Mommy told me to remind you to take your medicine.” Lynette informed the older lady as she sat on the couch next to the rocking chair.
“Oh I know, child, I know, all this medicine, too much,” she said as she reached for her pill box and took her evening dose, her hands shaking. “You are a sweet little girl to come over here and remind me, thank you.”
“Santa comes tonight.” Lynette informed Mary Beth. “So if you hear some noises, don’t be scared. We baked some of these cookies for Santa too.”
“Well I bet he loves them as much as me.” Mary Beth said, biting into another cookie.
“I bet he does too,” Lynette said. “I wrote him a letter: I asked him for some toys, I was going to ask him to bring Daddy back, but I don’t think he can do that, I could have asked him to bring you some real teeth!”
“No honey,” Mary Beth snorted, “I don’t think he could do that.”
“So sad,” Mary Beth thought to herself. Her daddy went the same way her Harry, and David had, but in a different time and different wars.
Harry had been her first husband. She lost him too young to the Korean war. He was her first and only true love. David had been her only son, by her second husband; she lost him when he was just nineteen to Vietnam. Mary leaned her head back closed her eyes and cleared her head, too much loss to think about. If she could ask ‘Santa’ for one thing, she supposed it would be her loved ones too.
“Did you know that Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’s birthday?” Lynette asked Mary Beth, smiling up at her, chatty as always.
“Yes honey, I sure did,” Mary Beth answered, leaning forward to pat the small girl on the head.
“Well I guess I better get home and get to bed,” Lynette said, standing up to give old Mary Beth a big hug. Mary accepted the hug and squeezed the child as tight as she could. “You miss Ernie this year?” Lynette asked Mary Beth. “I know it's your first year without him too?”
“Yes I do.” Mary Beth stated. Letting go of the child, she reminded her to lock her door on her way out.
“What a funny child.” Mary Beth thought to herself as she got up out of her chair. With her walker, she slowly made her way to the bed, which was already turned down, and settled into it. “Funny, funny child.”
She reached for her remote beside the bed and turned on the television. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was just going off. She caught it in time to hear the little child on her screen say, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.”
Mary Beth giggled and turned the channel, ‘The Christmas Story’ was just coming on. She knew it would repeat over and over all night long. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” she mumbled to herself, and placed the remote on the stand beside the bed. Ernie had loved this movie every year. He was just two years younger than Mary Beth. They had met late in life at a senior citizen's social, when she was seventy years old. She hadn’t really thought she would ever love again.
After Harry, Mary Beth had married again, to Lenny, David’s dad. He was a friend of a friend. And she hadn’t stayed single very long. Back in those days a woman needed a purpose, children and a man to care for. And so she married the shoe salesman, whom she didn’t really love, but grew to love, and tried to make a life and family.
After David’s death, Lenny had gone mad. A bottle of whiskey and a shot gun later, Mary Beth had been a widow for the second time. After that Miss Mary Beth swore she would never welcome a man back into her heart again. She obtained a job at the local library and worked there for many years, happy with her life, and with her books, and of course her old cat Whiskers.
Then after many years alone Mary Beth had met Ernie. He was a godsend and they had been together for seventeen wonderful years, until God had called him home. He had so many of Harry's wonderful traits, and had loved Mary Beth with all his heart, for the short time they had together in their golden years.
“She loved the cookies.” Lynette told her mother with a smile as she settled into bed and felt her mom tuck her in.
“Snug as a bug in a rug,” Her mother said as she leaned forward to kiss Lynette on the forehead, “Now say your prayers and get to sleep before Santa comes,” Sandy Cramer said sternly.
“Mom?” Lynette asked before her mom left the room, “Can I pray for God to give Miss Mary Beth some new teeth?”
“Don’t be silly,” Her mother laughed as she turned out the light and shut the door to where just a little light was shining in from the hallway.
Lynette shrugged and prayed for it any way’s.
"Now I lay me down to sleep"
I pray the lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I awake
I pray the lord my soul to take
Dear god please watch over me as I sleep tonight
Please be with Santa, keep him safe in his sleigh
And be with Mommy she is scared, and Daddy in Heaven
And please god be with Miss Mary Beth.. And please help her get some new teeth.
Be with all my friends and my teacher, and help me to fall asleep
Thank you god for this day and everything you have given me.
Lynette rolled over and closed her eyes and tried her best to get to sleep
Sandy waited until she was certain Lynette was asleep, and went into her closet to get all of her wrapped gifts.
She had had a time finding the Zhu Zhu Pets and Playhouse her daughter had wanted, but more than any other year she wanted to make sure her daughter received what she wanted. The little one had been through so much this year; so had she, she wanted to somehow make it a happy Christmas. She was unable to find one online, she had no credit cards, no debit cards and no means to purchase one that way. Her husband's affairs had not yet been settled. And all of the stores had been sold out, and so she had resorted to the classifieds in the newspaper. The price was steep and outrageous. Sandy had pawned her wedding rings to meet the hefty price, and to have the money to spend on Christmas.
This had torn at her heart, but she had a feeling Tom would have understood. He was a very understanding man, and would have wanted her to do anything to make his little girl happy. She knew now it was too late to retrieve her rings; the time to retrieve them had already passed, and she cried many nights over this. But she knew Tom would always be with her in her heart. She felt his love every day, but she also felt all the hurt deep inside of her. Hurt that rocked her soul. Why oh why, she cried every night, did he have to leave her. She wanted so badly to feel his arms around her again, to feel the touch of his hands and the kiss of his lips. She needed him to hold her, needed him for moral support, she just needed him.
As far as the gifts, she had met a man in a seedy part of the city and made her purchase. But her little girl would have all four Zhu Zhu Pets, and the new pink one that was just on the market. And also various other little gifts like her new Barbie, and the hamster playhouse. Sandy also had wrapped a few things for herself; Lynette always reminded Santa not to forget her mommy on her list.
Sandy placed all of the gifts under the tree and shut out the lights to retire for the night herself. She knew she may not sleep very well that night, it was her first Christmas without Tom, and she did not know how she was going to get through it.
The UPS guy hated working on Christmas: he also hated working in a foot of snow. It was just after seven in the morning when he arrived at the old brown dreary looking apartment building. He buzzed the buzzer three times before anyone in the Cramer household had answered. “Delivery, UPS,” he said into the loudspeaker to the young woman whom had answered. Sandy finally let the delivery man in.
At the door Sandy smiled brightly. She was surprised to be receiving the package, but double surprised to see that the UPS man was someone she had gone to school with. Brock Meyers, she hadn't seen him in years.
Mary Beth had awakened very early, probably just a little after five. Her night's sleep had been very hard. She wrestled with heartburn and dreams all night long. Even the Tums weren’t doing the trick. It must have been the tuna salad she had the day before.
Her dreams had been filled with Christmases past. Christmases with Harry, and Lenny, David, and Ernie. Christmases with her brothers and sisters, parents and aunts and uncles. She had awakened crying her pillow damp. Maybe she hadn’t been crying before she awoke, but she was crying when she realized it had been a dream. The little cabin she had celebrated many Christmases when she was a child, just a dream last night. Her first and only married Christmas with Harry, just a dream last night. David’s first Christmas, just something that had haunted her dreams last night. It had gone on and on. Everything from her past, and everything she dearly missed.
At seven thirty Lynette had sprinted down the hall with Miss Mary’s breakfast. “Mom had a delivery this morning!” she said beaming. “But we haven’t opened presents yet! So I don’t know what it is.” She went on, excited. “Santa came!”
Lynette invited Mary Beth over to watch her open her gifts. But Mary Beth told her to go on. enjoy her day. She wasn’t feeling her best this morning and she didn’t think she could make it down the hall. Maybe if she had her wheelchair, but she didn’t want to be a bother.
The excitement was high in the Cramer household. Lynette was walking on air. Santa had really come through for her this year. Everything she wanted and more. She couldn’t wait to call her little friends. Her mom had told her that would have to wait. Here aunts and uncles were due over around noon and they had much to do to get dinner done on time.
“Mom please would you just open that package!” Lynette cried.
Sandra looked at the box on the table. The box that was wrapped in brown paper and indicated that it came from a military post office box in Iraq. And was addressed from her dead husband Tom: post marked just three days ago UPS.
Sandra looked at her daughter and took a deep breath. She took a seat on the sofa and slowly opened the box. Inside was another little box all wrapped in Christmas paper. On top was a note.
My Darling Sandra,
I always promised better ones,
I caressed these with my angel wings,
And kissed them with my angel lips,
I am always watching over you and Lynette
Hug her every day for me.
Love Always From Heaven,
Sandy gasped and dropped the note, tears streaming from her eyes. How, who, why was all she could think. She tore open the box and inside was another little ring box. A new ring box that held her wedding rings. They had been polished and shined and a new set of little diamonds had been added to the engagement rings. Something Tom had wanted to do for some time. Sandy could do nothing but weep and cry.
Mary Beth smiled as she listened to Sandy’s wonderful story. She had stopped in for just a minute to drop off Christmas dinner and a present from herself and Lynette.
Sandy’s eyes sparkled. For the life of her she couldn’t figure out what had happened or how it had happened, but she was so thankful. She told Mary Beth that no one knew she had pawned her rings. Told her that only a few people had known Tom had always wanted to add more diamonds. Lynette one of the few.
Mary cried with Sandy and said it must be a Christmas miracle. As Sandy left. Mary Beth admired the Angel snow globe the Cramers had given her. She had told Sandy not to worry about her the rest of the day, to enjoy her day; she would have plenty of food left from what she had brought and wouldn't need anything for the rest of the day.
Lynette played herself silly that day. She ran and roughhoused with her little cousins; it was so wonderful to have so many other people around today. After a while she was tired and decided to take a nap. She fell asleep under the Christmas tree to the sound of church bells ringing just down the street.
Mary Beth never knew what hit her. She was eating and the next moment her chest hurt so badly she blacked out. The last thing she remembered was the sound of church bells ringing.
She came to in a little fog. Everything around her was bright and white. She felt a presence. A presence that felt so wonderful to her that she wanted to shout with joy.
She sat up and for miles all she could see was white… Was she dreaming, she wondered? Her eyes focused and in the distance she saw Harry, and Ernie, and David. Her mom and her dad, her sisters and brothers. She didn’t see Lenny… For some reason that made sense to her. She ran to her family and was surprised at how easily she moved. She felt no pain: her legs and hips were all as they had been when she was a very young woman.
When she reached her family, she hugged them all and cried tears of joy. They cried tears of joy right along with her, and led her to a table full of a feast.
Was this Santa? She wondered to herself. She looked behind her, and knew that she could sense the presence of the Lord.
“Eat, eat, be with your family, my child,” she thought she heard him say. "We have much time."
She reached up to her mouth, flicked her tongue, and felt there in her mouth her teeth; her natural teeth. She began to eat. She could see everything so clearly. She was happier than she had ever been.
In the background she heard a choir of what could only be angels begin to sing. It was the most wonderful sound she had ever heard. Off in the distance she saw a man, a man in a uniform waving at her and smiling. She nodded her head and smiled.
Sandy Cramer sat smiling, looking at her rings. It was such a wonderful surprise she had no idea how, but she could not take her eyes off of them. Lynette was down for the night. It had been a wonderful day, a wonderful Christmas. And had ended just a few minutes before with a phone call from Brock Meyers asking if he could come by to visit one day. Sandy had agreed that he could stop in, maybe the next day or the next, it would be great to catch up on old times.
Tammy was running a bit late, but she knew she better be on time. Mary Beth was always cantankerous after a holiday. She had darted up the steps and over to Sandy Cramer’s to retrieve the key. She smiled when she saw the ring on Sandy’s finger.
That had been one of the oddest errands Mary Beth had ever sent her on. She had to search every pawn shop in the city for the woman’s rings. Mary Beth had been beside herself when she saw her neighbor was no longer wearing her rings. And she had guessed why. She might have been old but she was observant. And she had heard many stories from little Lynette about how her daddy had always wanted to make her mommy’s ring better. As luck would have it, Tammy had a cousin in Iraq. Mary Beth’s secret would always be safe with Tammy.
“Did you have a good Christmas?” Tammy asked as she walked in the door. And then she let out a cry and gasped.