Throughout the night, the blizzard howled and shook Maddy Hawthorn’s small cottage. She’d used a pillow to cover her ears and, though she’d slept fitfully, she had finally gotten some rest. She woke in the morning to a profound quiet. If it hadn’t been for the occasional groans and creaking emitted by snow-laden trees, there would have been no sounds at all. The fire was out. She’d known it would be. Her last few logs were now stacked neatly next to the stove, kept dry for her final fire.
She got out of bed and pulled on heavy socks. Once she’d make her way to the kitchen, she looked out the window and frowned. Cardinals and sparrows twittered from one snow-covered branch to the next, lifting off every few minutes and settling back down as if that might compel her to scurry out the door with her usual offering of birdseed and fruit. It would be difficult. There were six and seven foot drifts marching off into the forest as far as she could see. Overhead, she could hear occasional pops and snaps as her roof struggled to hold up its massive load.
She loved this place, this remote home her husband Glenn had built nearly sixty years earlier. At that time they’d been almost twelve miles outside Jackson, Michigan. Now the town had closed in to less than a mile from her front door. Still, with the dense woods that surrounded her and the long drive leading back to the cottage, there were dozens of folks in town who had no idea her home existed.
She stooped on trembling legs to stuff paper and kindling into the woodstove. Then one by one she loaded the logs. She scraped a wooden match on the side of the box and touched the flame to the paper. Propping the door slightly ajar to allow air, she hobbled slowly to the sink to prepare coffee.
Doctor Amos had told her to quit drinking the stuff almost forty years ago. But she hadn’t paid any attention. She clucked her tongue at the memory of the obese doctor, who constantly smoked and sucked on jelly beans. He was long gone, of course, buried five years after her own dear Glenn, their cemetery plots not separated by more than ten feet.
Thinking about Glenn brought instant thoughts of their son Richard. He’d been a disappointment. Married three times and a father of two girls he’d chosen to ignore in order to avoid child support. Thanks to his selfishness, she’d never really known the joy of being a grandmother. Once Glenn passed away, fifteen years ago now, Richard made occasional trips out to visit her but it was a rare time he didn’t ask for or pressure her for money. His last visit, he’d asked her where she kept her cash and inquired if she still had the stocks and bonds Glenn had invested in while working for the railroad. She remembered smiling as she patted Richard’s hand and told him she could still take care of her business.
But Richard took offense. Leaped up, pulled his boots on and headed for the front door. “Have it your way, Mom. You’re not so independent when you need groceries and that damn birdseed. I’ll be back when you cry uncle and not a day before.”
That had been six weeks ago. And even though today was Christmas Day, she knew Richard would never give in. Nor would she. Only thing that boy took from her was his stubborn streak.
Now the food was nearly gone, the wood just about burned and not but a little more birdseed. All ran out together like that poem Glenn used to recite, The Wonderful One Hoss Shay. Yes indeed, almost as if planned. Poor Richard. He would surely blame himself if he ever got sober or a conscience.
Maddy pulled a cardboard box from the corner and settled slowly onto the floor in front of the stove. Christmas. In the old days she’d have been putting up the tree, hanging the ornaments and beginning the celebration. The box was dusty, its contents worn. There was a folder filled with the children’s drawings, Santas and reindeer, trees, stars and angels. The crayon colors had lost their brilliance, seeming to soak into the aged construction paper, creating an earth-toned and still pungent patina.
There had once been three children, Robert, Richard and Nan. Robert and Nan were gone now, one in his youth and one from the flu. If there had been but one who was going to live, she would not have chosen Richard. Probably the reason the Lord took such choices out of our hands.
The things in the box evoked such memories. She could almost hear the children’s shrieks of joy, see them again as they hung their stockings and strung popcorn on those long ago trees. Back when they’d been young there was little money and few gifts but the excitement of the season could still be felt after all these years. Little voices echoed from the box. Ornaments glittered and she could almost taste ancient Christmas dinners and crisp, frosted cookies.
She pulled item after item from the box. Popcorn garland so old it crumbled at her touch. Delicate glass ornaments she’d obsessively protected over the years, hand blown into shapes of horns, bells, sleighs and houses, covered in places with old glitter that still sparkled in the morning light.
Traditions. They made so little sense and yet they’d owned her body and soul. Even after Glenn had passed she’d tried to set up a tree, had hung those old stockings and sat lost in thoughts of Christmas mornings long past.
How silly it seemed this morning that custom of dragging a tree into the house, covering it with ornaments, garland and lights. And yet some of her happiest moments had been spent in just that way. But it wasn’t just the tree. Oh no. It was how they’d felt, snugged in against the weather, secret gifts stashed away, sharing anticipation and quiet reverence. She shook the memories aside. Today was today. Glenn, Robert and Nan were long gone, just like all those old celebrations.
She opened the woodstove door and saw the logs had already burned low. She gathered the last few woodchips from the floor and tossed them into the stove, enjoying the sudden burst of light and flames. And then she tossed the folder of old art into the stove, followed swiftly by those old glass ornaments. The fire flared with new life, fed now by Glenn’s stocks and bonds, by Maddy’s checkbook, her account numbers and cash. Soon it would all be gone and the stove would turn dark and cold.
While she waited, she put the last of the birdseed in a bowl and tossed it out across the snow, glad to know the Lord looked out for sparrows and their kind. They would need a miracle tomorrow. But He would provide. He always did.
Afternoon was drawing on.
She imagined all the homes in town where children had grown drowsy from their toys and all the food. Where adults looked around at the debris of paper and boxes and quietly wondered what all the fuss had been about.
There was one single commodity left in her world. An old can of kerosene. She poured it across the floors and bedding, soaking it into the couch. And then she climbed up on the bed and threw a match. Tonight, at long last, Richard would get the coal he’d deserved for so many years.