Christmas Eve, Present Day.
No visions of sugar plums danced in their heads, for the simple reason the children were too old to be tucked in and made snug in their beds. By the properties of logical extension, their mother was also entirely too old, something this aged lady dwelled on in the quiet. Oh, there was a time when her home was the center of all the holiday festivities and she did it all. The turkey in the oven always prepared to perfection, along with the fixings, the presents all carefully selected and wrapped, the house itself appropriately appointed for the season, and everyone's clothes laid out for Christmas Mass.
So expert was she that her family took to good naturedly calling her "Mrs. Claus". That was long ago, mind you. Now, she was too feeble to handle all the holiday chores. After her beloved's passing, the children took on the onus for the holidays and entertained her the past number of years. This year however, she felt too weak to make the chauffeured journey to even the nearest child's home.
So her children, a son and three daughters, and their spouses and kids, her grandchildren, did the next best thing. They handled all the preparations, bundled them together and brought Christmas once more to the ancestral home.
The old lady's sole responsibility was to set the table. She did this the day before, taking out the good china and the holiday serving platters with trembling hands. Fortunately she managed without any mishap, the precious china surviving for eventual handing down to the next generation. Her own mother, now very long departed, had always said getting the table just so was the most difficult part of the day's preparations. She had laughed then, but now in her own old age saw some of the truth in that remark. Setting the table had indeed exhausted her.
She revived mightily, courtesy of the food, good spirits, presents and the unadulterated love that accompanied the feast. Well after dinner and Church and gift giving (she always enjoyed the giving more than the receiving), her children approached in what she thought of as an "intervention."
"Mom," her eldest daughter said, "It's not right for you to live alone any longer. We want you to come live with us!" And each of the other children pledged the same, assuring her no one's feelings would be hurt based on which child's home she preferred.
Looking at them as she always did, which was lovingly, she said, "I am so very touched by your generosity and love. But this (she motioned to the house around them) is home. It's where I still feel the presence of your father, and you all and the grandchildren (said with a wide smile), and even my parents. I have my own routine carved out here, and with your help to do the grocery shopping and such, I make do." Though at the thought of her father, the old lady's voice caught.
There were much hugs and kisses and her adult children went to the other room where the grandchildren were playing. Shortly thereafter, a delegation of the three sons-in-law and the one daughter-in-law solemnly processed in. They also told the old lady they very much would enjoy her presence in their daily lives, that she would never be a bother, and that their homes were hers. The old lady cried, for she was so touched, knowing she had less claim on her in-laws' hearts than of her own children's. She again lovingly assured them of her gratitude, and affection, and certainty that she could still manage and preferred to do so on her own. She wiped at her eyes and assured them hers were "the good kind of tears." The in-law sons were perturbed that there could be such a thing as good crying, but daughter in-law assured them that was a thing.
One of the grandkids asked why Grandma was crying, and one of the adults explained, "She always gets emotional, on account of what happened to her father on Christmas."
The rest of the day the old lady mostly sat in her easy chair, enjoying the sights and sounds of merriment all around, especially of her grandchildren, in whom she also saw much of her own children, and truth be told, something of herself and her husband.
When at last all had been cleaned and put away, and the happy crowd had departed, the old lady walked slowly back to her family room, where the tree her son had put up stood. She was so very happy, but yes, a tad tired, and she knew that in her old age it was almost as if she was herself becoming something ethereal, a flimsy, lace covered presence standing before the tree. She fingered the favored ornaments. These were the ones the children had made in school a hundred years ago it seemed, not expensive and yet priceless.
The old lady pushed back a stray wisp of white hair as she slowly sat in her chair and stared at the tree. Her thoughts moved from the present day's events and her wonderful children and their families, and she thought again of her own mother.
She hoped that she had inherited much from that wonderful woman, who had practically raised her single handedly for so very many years, her father having passed on way too soon. Thoughts of her mother made the old lady pick up a treasured heirloom, a music box that played a French carol that had been a favorite of her mother, indeed had always been cherished by her grandmother as well. She listened to the melody and it swept her back through the years.
Placing the music box aside, she fingered her most prized possession, which was rare. Not that the item was rare or that the old lady valued commodities. She did not. She was old but her heart was young beyond its years, having had regular exercise by being extended to all she came in contact with throughout her life. So the physical things that too many people sadly misplaced their worth in, she knew were unimportant compared to the eternal things, like love.
No, the item she fingered had value because of what it represented. It was a gift from her father. A beautiful ring, turquoise in color, but not a gem by any means. Despite that, it was valuable to her because of what it represented.
She was so old now, the old lady's fingers were weathered such that the ring no longer fit, not without significant risk of falling off and being lost. So it was that she had several years ago placed the ring on a gold chain and now wore it as a necklace. As she lovingly caressed it, her
thoughts turned to her father. She gazed at the portrait that had been on the mantel as long as she could remember. The lady was old, but she understood how Mom would have been so attracted to Papa. Even in the photo in his soldier's uniform, his handsomeness and kind eyes showed forth.
She looked at an ancient ornament, one she had made in fourth grade. A simple gold ball, it had a picture she had pieced together from separate photos of her and her father with the word inscribed by a glitter pen in her then childish scrawl, "Papa."
As she stared at the beloved decoration, the old lady's mind wandered to the stories Mom had oft shared about Papa. One story in particular had always resonated deeply because it was still so hard to believe, from the war time, and it to this she now turned, replaying it ever so slowly, and lovingly.
Christmas Eve, 1944.
What would come to be called the Battle of the Bulge waged furiously, having started December 16. Encompassing much of Belgium through the Ardennes forest, warfare included the neighboring areas in Luxembourg and France. The battle would result mid-January in an Allied victory, spelling the death knell for the hated Third Reich, though the outcome was seriously in doubt this Christmas Eve.
Just over a week after the battle began, a splinter Nazi unit ambushed a tiny American force near the French town of Givet (pronounced Jiv-vay). Most of the U.S. troops were massacred, until reinforcements showed and sent the Germans scurrying back toward their lines.
A detachment from the U.S. ninth infantry regiment was tasked with the sad duty of retrieving the bodies of their comrades for burial. Snow had fallen before the skirmish began and the relief unit worked quickly and wordlessly in the frigid temperatures. When they were done, they left, just as quietly.
Shortly thereafter, one head raised itself from the snow, seemingly having been left behind. The soldier was so tired and weakened, he did not notice how much of his blood had seeped into the snow. He tried to stand, but was entirely too weak, and fell back repeatedly. After a while, he began to crawl, where, he could not say, but anywhere away from this place of death. Slowly, painfully, he dragged himself forward until he felt he could move no farther.
The urge to sleep was overwhelming, and he let his head rest on the ground. A part of him dimly registered that death was imminent, but so be it. He had not the power, as Dickens might have said.
He was unclear as to how long he had lain there, but the sudden thought came to him: it was Christmas Eve. He had just written, before the bloody engagement, to his mother and to his young bride Mary how he longed for just one Christmas respite.
Christmas was the one holiday he had always lived for. Helping Dad cut the tree, there being an abundance of lush growth in their home in the Hudson Valley, some thirty miles northwest of Manhattan or, as all the Valley residents called it, "the City." He had rarely been to the City. No roads directly connected his small town to the great city. A trek was time consuming. He had been once, the year before being called up in the draft, and had thrilled to the major holiday displays, including the massive Rockefeller Center tree.
Aside from this exciting foray and the annual tree cutting and trimming excursion, home always had a welcoming smell, largely because his mother and sisters baked a variety of goodies. His favorites: apple pie and rum cake. Along with a steaming cup of mulled cider that was Dad's contribution. Popcorn balls and candy canes rounded out the treats for the taste buds.
In town, a manger was prominently displayed, courtesy of the Nanuet National Bank. And Santa could be visited at the local volunteer Fire Department before commencing his ride from the North Pole.
Music abounded as well. That new Bing Crosby hit from the film Holiday Inn, White Christmas, was all the rage. Many a family gathered around the radio each evening to listen to Der Bingle croon his heart out with holiday joy.
There would be a small handful of presents gaily wrapped and under the tree. A sweater for Dad, a simple bracelet for Mom, who would always protest it cost too much, a simple toy for Mike and his sister. His all time favorite toy was the Flexible Flyer sled he had received several years ago. His sister's was the Ideal Hedwig Suzanne doll.
Of course, the highlight would be midnight Mass, the Latin and the incense transporting the congregation dressed in their Sunday best (even in years when Christmas did not fall on a Sunday) to a mystical realm where one could almost feel the presence of the baby Jesus. Mary and her parents would accompany Mike's family to Church this year, by virtue of his marriage to her just before he shipped out
Sadly, there would be no such traditions for Mike this year. He knew that when he had been assigned to the European front. Yet he longed for just one small taste of home. Of the peaceful bliss that made up Christmas.
So strong was his desire, despite his weakness, he now felt he could not fall asleep in the snow and succumb. So he crawled farther on. As he did he repeated a prayer from before the battle, "God, please just give me one last Christmas, with family, warmth and lights! Please, God!"
Hours passed and he was certain it was the end. Until he heard the music. A familiar tune, French, one his mother adored and sang in her lovely voice throughout the short holiday season. Indeed, she would sing it until the 12 Days were ended with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Mike lay there transfixed by the beautiful music. Summoning some inner strength, he raised his head--and in the distance beheld a young girl. She stood in front of a simple farmhouse, where a small colorfully lit tree graced the window. He could see the girl because she was backlit by the inner lights, that were so warm, so inviting, behind her. From this distance he thought her to be quite young. Perhaps nine years old. As he looked up, she waved.
Mike listened as she sang. "Il est ne le divin enfant; Jouez hautbois resonnez musettes..." The GI knew the song by heart, as well as the English verses, both of which were sung by his mother. "He is born, the Divine Child; Oboes play, set bagpipes sounding..."
It was so lovely and the light so overwhelming, Mike found a branch and with its help was able to stand, as he stumbled slowly toward the homestead. He was a stranger, true, but because America was liberating France, he hoped the family would take him in, however briefly.
As he neared the home, the girl could no longer be seen, but Mike plodded on. Through the window, he again glimpsed the tree. It was plainly decorated, with candles and but a few ornaments. It would come to be called a Charlie Brown tree, though that term had yet to be invented. Yet when he saw it, Mike thought it the most beautiful tree he had ever seen, the Rockefeller Center tree notwithstanding. The light, and the warmth drew him in. With a last gasp he reached the front porch, tossed his stick aside, and rapped very feebly on the door.
Inside, the occupants heard the faint knock on the door and everyone froze. For the past five years, a knock on the door of any French home at night only meant one thing--Nazi atrocities were imminent. This tiny town had just been liberated, but old habits, even of relatively recent vintage, die hard. Hence the family's reluctance.
The father of the small extended family roused himself and announced he would answer the door. His wife, a petite woman, rushed to the kitchen for a cooking implement. At the first sign that a criminal, especially a Nazi one, threatened her beloved, she would hurl the tool at the malefactor.
Trembling slightly and breathing heavily, the father pulled the door open.
There were a series of gasps from several of the family members. There, on their front step, was an American soldier. A severe gash that had bled profusely marked his head, and there was significant seepage of blood through his jacket, in the chest area.
"Puh...please. I am...so c...cold...and tired. Can you h...help me?" Mike said. Then he collapsed on the doorstep.
The French father still stood frozen, the American soldier slumped in the doorway, unconscious. The farmer looked back at his family, specifically to his wife. "Marie, what should we do? There may still be Germans in the area!"
Marie looked at him quickly. "For five years we have lost our country. But we have not lost our humanity." Looking at Mike she said, "He is just a boy. We must help him!"
Marie stooped to tend to the GI when a sharp voice called out, "I must see him!"
The younger woman turned to the imperious voice and quietly answered, "Yes, Maman." The older woman, she had to be in her sixties, knelt at Mike's side. She conducted a cursory examination. This older woman had some medical training. She had served in the French army nursing unit during the First World War, that was the war to end all wars, but quite clearly had not.
Standing abruptly, and with a severe frown upon her brow, she walked to the large wooden farmhouse table, clearing it with a mighty sweep of her arm. Then she barked out orders, not in a mean way, but as a matter of urgency. "Philippe and Marie, bring him here! But be gentle!"
Looking at a young boy of 12 or so she commanded, "Jacques, fetch a pail of water and warm it."
"Oui," the boy nodded and was out in a flash. As the mother and father carried Mike to the table, the squeaking sound of the outside handle being pumped was distinct. Other than that, all was calm; all was bright. The boy, Jacques, brought in the bucket and wordlessly placed it by the stove, allowing it to heat.
The old woman had already told her daughter, Marie, that she needed clean towels. Quickly. Marie brought them. The father, Philippe, stood by awaiting instructions. When the child brought the now warmed water, the older woman, whose name was Juliette, dabbed one of the towels and ever so gently sponged Mike's head wound. "Mon Dieu!" (My God) she exclaimed. "It is so deep!" She wiped, cleaning as best she could, careful not to disturb anything deeper in the cranial cavity. She knew head wounds could be the most serious, and the trickiest to deal with for a health care provider.
"Marie," she said as she continued her ministrations, "Please to get my satchel under my bed. The one with my medical supplies. Philippe, carefully remove his jacket. Be extra careful when you move him. The chest wound also appears deep. After his jacket is off, we will cut off the shirt." In the meanwhile, the water pail was so bloodied, she told young Jacques she needed more water. Clean water.
Juliette worked expertly, pressing firmly on the head wound to stop the bleeding. At last she was successful, and applying a salve from her bag, she then bandaged the wound. Next, she turned her attention to the chest area. A bullet had entered the chest cavity. It looked dangerously close to the heart; in fact it could have hit the heart, but the soldier's continued breathing, while labored, would not have been possible if the heart had been pierced. Juliette again gently cleaned this wound. She searched for the bullet. It had to be inside the GI's body, there being no exit wound on his back. She had a probe for such things, but try as she might, she could not locate it. She was so close to the heart, she dared not probe precipitously, for fear that she could be the unwitting cause of his demise. As it was, she thought his chances of survival to be nil.
She finished cleaning the wound, applied antiseptic, another salve, and bandaged. Looking over her handiwork she remarked, "It is a shame the village doctor had his heart attack and left us last week. We could certainly use his assistance. Ah, it cannot be helped." The soldier was still comatose, but at least resting peacefully.
"I think he needs someplace more comfortable to rest," she said. They quickly decided to put him on Marie and Phillippe's bed, just down the small hallway. Marie, Philippe and Jacques
lifted so carefully and carried the poor man to the bed, laying him atop the covers. Juliette brought blankets and draped them over him.
"Now we must let him rest," she said. "We will check on him every hour or so."
When they were back in the small living area off the kitchen, Philippe asked, "What do you think, Maman?"
She shrugged. "We have done all we could. Now it is in God's hands. Truthfully, his wounds are too severe. I do not understand how he is even alive. At that, I do not expect him to survive the night."
Marie clutched her arms together. "So sad! Such a young boy...and on Christmas Eve!"
"Too many young boys have died, on Christmas and every other day," Juliette growled. "Stupid politicians and their war games!"
A few hours passed. Each time one of the adult family members checked, there was no change in Mike's condition. Until suddenly Mike felt something. Some very slight presence...holding his hand? Mike opened his eyes. Wearily he turned his head, focusing on the little blonde girl who was indeed holding his hand.
"You," Mike rasped, for his throat was quite dry. "You were the one who was singing."
"Oui," the little girl smiled. She gave his hand another pat and said, "My name is Emilie. In America, I think you pronounce it Emily."
Mike groggily repeated, "I am Michael. Mike for short. Em...ily. It's a very pretty name. And you're a very pretty girl."
"Merci," she smiled.
Mike suddenly felt stronger. "It is I who should be thankful. You helped me. By the way, you speak American."
Emily giggled. "English. But yes, we are taught in our schools. Britain has been so major a world power, and now you Americans, it is important that we French learn."
"Who else is here?" Mike wondered.
"My mother and father, Marie and Philippe, and my grandmother, Juliette. Oh, and my younger brother, Jacques."
"You were holding my hand," Mike noted.
The little girl shrugged. "I had to. It was important to bring you around."
The phraseology seemed strange, so Mike asked, "Why?"
Another small shrug. "You so wanted to enjoy another Christmas. So I helped you with your wish."
"It's...Christmas?" Mike asked.
"Christmas Eve," Emily explained.
Mike then commented, "It's funny. I had written to my wife and mother this afternoon about that secret wish. I also prayed for it before the battle and while walking here. But you knew? How? I must have been speaking while I was out."
"A little," Emily agreed. "I must get Maman, Papa and Grandmere. They will want to check on you."
Mike nodded, wearily, then closed his eyes briefly. He opened them when he heard the door opening and sensed movement in the room. He watched three adults looking anxiously down at him. And at the door, a young pre-teen boy, obviously Jacques. That was what Emily called him, right?
The older of the women approached his bedside. She leaned over and placed her cheek against Mike's forehead. He smiled fondly. "What is funny?" she asked.
"Not funny," Mike said. "Happy. My mother always caressed my forehead with her cheek when I was sick. To see if I had a fever. I guess you remind me of her."
Grandmere Juliette smiled. It made her feel good to give this poor, injured child a taste of home--and hearth. She tucked the blanket around Mike's shoulders. "For now, you should rest a little more, I think."
"Thank you," Mike said. "I mean, merci."
Juliette grinned. "I know what it means."
When she was in the outer room, Juliette slapped her head. "It is a miracle! I cannot understand it! He should not be alive!"
Mike slept fitfully for but a short while. Juliette and Marie entered the room. "I feel much better," he said, as he raised himself in the bed.
"Oh, but you must rest," Marie said.
"No, really, I feel much better. There is something strange. I can't quite put my finger on it."
From the side of the room Emily chirped, "You're hungry!"
Mike looked over to where she stood and said, "You're absolutely right!"
Juliette and Marie exchanged puzzled glances. "I'm hungry,"