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," Mike explained to them.
"But of course," Marie said. "If you are up to solid food, we were just about to enjoy our Christmas feast when you arrived."
Mike looked sheepish. "I'm sorry to have been a bother."
Marie assured him that was not the case. "We can heat everything up and be ready shortly. Because of the war, there are still serious shortages. But you are welcome to share what we have."
"I would be honored. It shall be my most memorable Christmas feast!" Mike said with such a happy tone.
"That is quite true," Emily agreed.
Looking over, Mike said, "Why, thank you."
Philippe came in with one of his shirts, Mike's having been cut away. The boy Jacques had washed Mike's blood stained jacket; it was drying by the hearth now. Mike got up to wash in the basin the family had set in the room for him and to dress.
Outside, Juliette and Marie had a quick exchange. "He is still not quite right in the head," Marie offered.
Juliette nodded. "His head injury is very serious. Who knows what damage inside is there?" she said as she tapped her own noggin.
When he entered the kitchen area, Mike looked remarkably fit, though his wounds still shown. He looked out the window momentarily. "I need to get back to my unit, wherever that is," he said. "And I'd love to get word to my family. If they heard about the firefight, they would be worried out of their minds now."
"You can take nourishment first, as our guest," Philippe said. "Then rejoin your people shortly."
"Yes, yes of course," Mike said. "I do need some sustenance."
Platters were set upon the table. Mike eyed the mouth watering spectacle. "Go ahead," Emily told him. "You are supposed to overindulge."
"Because on Christmas one is allowed to overeat?" Mike wondered.
"No. Because this is France, where we overindulge in the physical pleasures," the girl spoke. Mike nodded appreciatively, and reached for the nearest platter, taking a heaping portion before passing it on. When the plates were all filled Mike, fork in hand, paused. The whole family bowed their heads as Philippe spoke a simple blessing in his native French. Mike was not conversant, but he got the gist of it. It was reminiscent of Mom and Dad's table, where grace before and after meals was a foregone conclusion.
Juliette watched her patient carefully, but unobtrusively. She wanted to be sure he was well and up to the rich food; also that she not make him feel self-conscious.
Philippe produced a bottle of wine and offered a generous pour. "We men need a substantial drink to weather life's storms, eh?" he said companionably.
Mike offered a toast. "To new friends, and the end of war."
A chorus of "Amens" greeted him, and all downed their drink, the children included. Mike realized customs in Europe were different. "In the States, I'd be brought up on charges for contributing to the delinquency of minors."
Marie smiled politely. "Jacques is used to French wine. This bordeaux, he has had it since the age of two." Mike raised his glass in toast to the boy. Then he offered it as well to Emily, who smiled prettily, though the adults yet again shared concerned looks.
The French were curious about life in America, not only at Christmas, but year round. Mike relished the telling, and in response learned much about French customs. Much of the soldier's conversation centered around his family. He told them of his new wife, and how she had only learned of her pregnancy after he had shipped overseas. "The baby is still six months away," Mike said.
Marie looked sad. "I think the war will not be over so soon. You will not be there for the birth of your first child."
"No," Mike agreed, with a tinge of melancholy. "But I shall be there when the baby grows up, to help guide him or her through life. That is what is important. And to win this war once and for all, so the world will be safe for all our children."
"Yes, indeed!" Philippe agreed and took another healthy sip.
"Do you wish for a boy or a girl?" Jacques asked.
"Jacques!" Juliette admonished. "It is impolite to ask expectant parents such a thing."
"No," Mike was quick to insert. "I don't mind at all."
"You Americans are very, how you say...blunt?" Philippe said.
Mike smiled. "It's been said. Anyway, I don't care whether we have a boy or a girl. So long as the baby is healthy."
Marie smiled. "An excellent viewpoint!"
"You are going to have a girl," Emily spoke for the first time in a while.
Mike looked at her searchingly. "A girl? From your mouth to God's ears," he told her, as a momentary quiet settled over the rest of the table.
When dinner, which consisted of several courses, some of which Mike had no clue as to the contents of but enjoyed it all hugely, was finished, he sat back and proclaimed, "I'm stuffed." Everyone stared at this strange pronouncement.
"We stuff the goose and the mushrooms, but a person, is impossible!" Philippe exclaimed.
Mike laughed and explained the idiomatic meaning of the term in the U.S. When he was done, everyone joined in the laughter. "Ah!" Philippe said in the merriment, "There is still to be dessert, so we stuff you more!" And all laughed.
Mike happened to look over at Emily who said, "I told you this is France. We eat!"
"But first we take a brief rest," Marie announced. "To allow the food to settle, the better to enjoy the dessert course. And, Maman and I need some time to finalize the dessert preparations."
Jacques asked what was a traditional Christmas Day dessert in America.
Mike said, there were several. His mom's apple pie was a favorite.
"Ah, yes," Philippe said. "We have heard the saying about things being as American as mom and apple pie."
"Yes," Mike agreed thoughtfully. "Mom also has another specialty along with the apple spectacular. She makes a mean rum cake."
"Why is it mean?" Marie questioned. "People are angry to eat of it?"
"No, not at all," Mike laughed, enjoying himself and this kind family so much. He explained what a mean cake meant.
"Yes, so Marie and Juliette's cooking, it is also mean?" Philippe said. Mike nodded encouragingly. "Marie, you may bake the mean dessert," Philippe joked, enjoying the fact he was becoming an Americanized male.
"Marie," Mike interjected, "If you have the ingredients, I would be pleased to make the rum cake."
"Oh, but you are our guest," Marie insisted. "You must not work. And you are injured."
"I would enjoy it," Mike said. "Enjoyment is not work. And I feel much better, for some reason."
"Spoken like a true Frenchman," Emily said with a smile, though only Mike seemed to be looking at her.
Marie was about to refuse Mike's offer. She still felt it would reflect poorly on her as hostess. Juliette intervened. "Marie, my precious, their ways are different. I think maybe this would bring our Mike a taste of home in a sense." Marie relented, showing with a wide sweep of her arm the way into the kitchen, as Mike took advantage.
Despite wartime shortages, they had flour and sugar and eggs. It was a farm, for pete's sake. Mike doubted if the main ingredient would be in the supply stores. Rum.
Marie assured him, "This is France. The one thing we have in abundance is drink. Including rum."
Mike set to work, mixing bowl at the ready. He was ably assisted by Emily. As he worked, Juliette watched and again wondered, "How can he be alive?"
Dessert was wonderful, Mike's rum cake proclaimed a rousing success. The women demanded the recipe, which the young GI was only too happy to provide. Knowing the recipe came from Mike's mother, Marie said, "Your mother? She could be a French chef. Her cooking is so sublime."
"That it was," Mike said, wiping at an errant tear. He reflected on how comforting Mom's kitchen had always been. How as a youngster he loved doing his schoolwork there while she spent the hours preparing that evening's dinner.
After they had eaten, Emily took Mike by the hand. "Come," she beckoned quietly, leading him to their humble Christmas tree. It was sparse and bare but it had provided the welcome light that had allowed Mike the extra strength to make it from the field where he lay to this wonderful family's home. Mike and Emily stood before the tree, holding hands, and enjoying the moment.
Philippe soon joined Mike, also admiring the tree. "In America," the French father asked, "We have heard you do not put candles on the tree?"
Mike acknowledged that to be the case. "President Roosevelt has brought electrification to practically the entire country. So now we use electric lights. So much safer than flame."
Philippe was astounded at the thought of electricity...in a house! "Your President Roosevelt is a great man. He is much admired in France. He came to us in our hour of need."
Mike knew that to be so, that FDR had steered the U.S. through the shoals of isolationism. He graciously told his listener, "It was only right to assist your country. After all, France helped us gain our independence." Philippe smiled happily and putting his arm over Mike's shoulders, gave an appreciative squeeze.
Philippe saw Mike's attention diverted. "This is my favorite decoration," Emily told Mike. She pointed to it. It was of a crudely carved horse, painted it seemed, by a child. "I made this when I was six," she announced proudly.
"Our daughter Emilie made that when she was six," Philippe said, a tone of wistfulness creeping into his voice. He walked off then.
Next thing Mike knew. Emily was back at his side. "You sure have a way of popping in and out," he said. "There sure must be a lot of nooks and crannies in this old farmhouse."
The little girl looked up at him and smiled. "I have my ways," she said.
Mike felt at his head, then frowned. "You know," he told Emily, "When you are near, I have such an amazing feeling of serenity that runs all through me."
Emily nodded. "That is why I like to spend much time here. It comforts Maman and Papa. They are often sad."
"Why?" Mike asked. "The war?"
"No. It is because they lost a little one, a girl, several years ago."
"How sad," Mike said. "I wish there was something I could do to comfort them," he said.
"Oh, you will," she spoke animatedly. The soldier gave her a quizzical look.
Just then Marie said, "It is time for us to go to Mass. You of course are welcome to remain here and rest while we are gone."
"Oh no!" Mike protested. "There is nothing quite so sublime as midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I would very much like to accompany you."
Juliette happened upon them. "You are sure you are well enough?" she asked with some concern.
Mike gave that infectious grin. "I feel so alive!"
"Very well then," Marie said. "Sadly, because of the rationing, we do not have enough gas for the auto. So we must take the carriage. Philippe and Jacques are hooking up the reins now."
"A horse drawn sleigh," Mike cried out happily. "Just like I'd imagined it when I was a little boy!" Indeed it was not a sleigh but a four wheeled cart. However when riding over the new fallen snow with the horses snorting in front, one certainly had the illusion of being in the middle of the Jingle Bells song. The French had never heard it, so as they clambered through the woods, Mike sang. The group was smiling, Emily clapping along as she sat cozied up beside the GI.
When Mike finished, Marie clapped and said, "But that is Vive le Vent". She began to sing in French, words that in no way corresponded to the James Pierpont composition circa 1850, but bore an identical tune. Mike enjoyed it hugely. "When I get home, I must share with my family!" At this, Emily looked downcast, the only time during Mike's stay thus far. She recovered quickly as they approached the Church.
"It is beautiful," Mike commented as he noted the architecture and exterior carvings. "Such workmanship, much like my home parish," he marveled.
Emily beside him chirped, "Any place where we give honor to the Creator is beautiful."
"Mike looked at his precocious friend. "You're so right," he agreed.
"What was that?" Marie asked.
Mike said, "I was just agreeing that anywhere we honor the Lord is a place of beauty." Marie nodded, but looked faintly troubled.
The soldier added, "So beautiful, the way it is all lit up." He stood a moment, just taking it in.
Emily said, "It is only right. He is, after all, the Light of the World." She and Mike shared a warm smile.
As they got out and tied up the horses, Philippe said, "At least you will have no trouble with the language, I think, eh?"
"No," Mike said. "I can get lost in the Latin along with everyone else." The family laughed knowingly.
Inside the congregation sang the entrance hymn, Joy to the World. When they finished and the priest was on the altar, before he turned his back to begin the service, he spoke to the worshippers. Naturally he spoke in French. Emily whispered a translation in Mike's ear. The priest said, "It is well that we begin with the word Joy. Now that the enemy may be gone for good, we have much to be joyful about." With that, the priest turned toward the altar and in Latin made the Sign of the Cross. Then he began with, "Dominus vobiscum."
The crowd recited back, "Et cum spiritu, tuo." And on it went. Mike followed all, save for the sermon. That was the only part in French. Even though Mike did not have his St. Joseph's Daily Missal with him, he knew the Latin responses by heart. When Mass ended, the Church bells rang out happily. Good news of glad tidings, for on this day, the Saviour was born. As the crowd processed out, a number of the people greeted Philippe and family happily. Some paused to make Mike's acquaintance; some bypassed him entirely, as if they couldn't see him. Mike thought it strange. Emily tugged at his sleeve, and he dutifully leaned down.
"Do not mind them," she whispered. "Their hearts are hardened. Many were Nazi sympathizers and collaborators. It will take much time for this land to recover." Mike knew she meant more than recovery from the physical ravages of war. Still, the complete snubbing of him, as if they didn't even see him, did surprise. Mike let it go. He felt so blessed, that this family took him in and offered him a taste of home at Christmas time. They all were absolutely wonderful, but Mike felt a special bond to Emily. He thought when the war was at last over and he was back in the States, how he'd love to have Emily visit and spend time with his own family. Especially at Christmas. "Wouldn't it be perfect if Emily could befriend our soon-to-be baby?" he thought. He journeyed back to the farm, a satisfied smile upon his face the whole way, matched by Emily's beatific look, as she snuggled next to him and held his hand.
When they returned to the farm, Mike said, "I hate to say it, but I have to be on my way."
"Oh no," Emily pleaded. "There is yet one more thing we need to show you. It will not be long."
"Well, all right. I guess I can spare a few more moments," Mike said. Philippe, Marie and Juliette looked at him with some surprise. But they sloughed it off, and the entire group headed inside.
"Now we traditionally exchange presents," Emily proclaimed.
"Now we traditionally exchange presents," Philippe said as he guided Mike inside. The GI thought it odd that Philippe merely repeated what his daughter had just said, as if he hadn't heard her.
Inside, Marie led Mike to a seat near the fireplace, next to the tree. Philippe gave Marie a lace doily. "Philippe! It is exquisite! Where did you manage to get such a thing? I thought the stores in Paris were not yet fully functioning."
Philippe smiled at his ingenuity. "Mademoiselle Charlotte in town makes these, if you recall. She agreed to do this for me, in exchange for several dozens of eggs."
Marie clapped her hands and gave her husband a warm kiss, happy most of all that despite the hardships of war, he had thought of her. Philippe smiled broadly, so pleased he could bring such joy to his beloved with so small a thing. Marie took a small package, wrapped in nondescript brown paper, but gaily festooned with images of cherubs. "Maman," she said as she offered the gift to Juliette.
"Oh, you need not have," Grandmere Juliette said. Looking at the wrapping, Juliette said, "You are such a talented artist, Marie. I cannot bear to tear this paper. I must open carefully, so I can preserve it." Marie smiled at the compliment, then tensed slightly in expectation of Juliette's reaction to the present. Juliette did open it so very, very carefully, so it took a bit of time. No one minded, least of all Mike, who was touched by the spirit. As was Emily, who clutched the soldier's hand throughout this simple gift exchange.
Suddenly Juliette let out a gasp. "Marie! You...you did this?" Marie nodded. "It is exquisite!" And the older woman burst into tears. Marie, Philippe and Jacques approached her, the four hugging tenderly. "Look, Mike," Juliette held the picture aloft. "It is a painting of my late husband, Marie's father, Alair!" She traced her fingers over his features so tenderly. Mike knew nothing of how the man looked. There were no photographs in this country farmhouse. But he could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this, and he could see by Juliette's expression how well Marie had captured the family patriarch's essence.
For Philippe, Marie and Juliette produced a knife, that Philippe proclaimed "the finest cutting instrument that has ever been made." He liked to whittle, and a knife was always useful around the farm. Philippe had not expected anything, so the expression of love surpassed anything he could have anticipated.
For young Jacques, well, he was the only one to receive multiple gifts. A small box of chocolates, from nearby Belgium. Jacques said he would offer pieces to all, and swore he would eat but a single piece a day, so as to make the gift last. The memory, of course, would last much longer. As happy as Jacques was with the candy, his eyes early popped out of his head when he opened the package Marie and Philippe presented. "It was my Papa's," Philippe said. "You are now of age." Jacques felt ten feet tall as he lovingly caressed the hunting rifle, that Philippe had polished so that it shone as new. It was all so small, and yet Mike felt touched by the warm heartedness of it all. He thought them the most magnificent Christmas presents he had ever seen.
Mike wondered at the oddity that there was no present for Emily. "Perhaps it will come," he thought. In any event, he had an idea. He was forestalled however, when Marie shyly approached and said, "We did not expect you, so what we have to offer is very small."
Mike found himself blushing. "Oh no, no! You have done so much for me! I want for nothing."
The family smiled. Juliette stepped forward with a brown parcel. It smelled scrumptious to Mike. He peaked inside and smiled broadly. "A loaf of bread, for you to share with your friends when you rejoin your unit," she said.
"They will be overcome!" Mike exclaimed. "Man does not live by K rations alone," he quipped, to which they all smiled in understanding.
"And this," Juliette said, as she also shyly stepped forward and held out a very tiny parcel. Mike accepted it gratefully and slowly opened the package. "Why, it's lovely!" he said.
"A hair clip," Juliette said.
"I can see that," Mike said.
Juliette explained, "I wore it as a baby, as did my mother before me...and as Marie and later our Emily did when...when she was an infant. It is for your child."
Mike had tears in his eyes. "I...we...shall treasure it always," he managed to get out in a whisper. Philippe clapped him gently on the back in understanding.
"I...I have to go now," Mike said. "Before I am declared AWOL. But...I do have some things for you. It is not much, but it is all I have. You all have a standing invitation to visit my family in America, after this war. And Jacques, this is not as elegant as the one your father just received, but it is something every man should have. It's called a Ka-Bar." Jacques's eyes again widened as he reverently accepted the GI's standard issue knife.
"And for Marie and Juliette, I know it is not Belgian chocolate, but this is all the rage in the States." With that, Mike produced two Hershey's chocolate bars, that the women oohed over. Things American were considered exotic in Europe these days.
"Thank you so much," Marie spoke for the family. "Is there anything else we can do for you?"
"Yes," Mike said. He produced an envelope from his inside pocket. "This is a letter I just wrote for my wife. Could you see that it is mailed? I can send it from my unit, but it would mean so much to me to know I started it on its delivery on Christmas day."
"But of course," Marie said, noting the address.
Mike adjusted his pack, and tugged at his jacket. "I best be going. Oh! There is something else." He looked about, but saw no sign of Emily. He worried that he could not delay any longer. Some...thing...was telling him he had to leave.
The soldier looked at this family, took something out of his pocket and said, "This ring was supposed to be a Christmas present for my bride. But I can get her something else. Right now, it is important to me to leave this for Emily." He pressed the turquoise ring into Marie's hand.
Marie gasped. Philippe said, "For Emily? But it is not possible!"
"Nonsense," Mike smiled. "I insist. You have all been wonderful, but Emily was there at every moment I needed some...almost supernatural...guidance...."
"You...you saw Emily?" Juliette asked.
"Of course. She was there when I was stranded in the field, and when I awoke, and when I was at dinner and before the tree and at Church. Ah, but you know that. Well, I best be going." And Mike opened the door and was gone.
"Mon Dieu! (My God)" Marie exclaimed. "Can it be?"
"I think maybe yes," Juliette said.
"We must know more!" Philippe said. He rushed to open the door to call after Mike. But in every direction he looked, the soldier was nowhere to be seen.
Three months later.
Not only was the Battle of the Bulge Germany's last gasp, safely in the rear view mirror, the war itself was winding down. Allied troops, British and American from the west and Russian from the east, were fast closing in on Berlin. In six weeks, Hitler would be gone, Field Marshall Jodl forced to sign the terms of unconditional surrender, and VE Day celebrated throughout the western world.
Life in Givet was slowly coming back to normal, though much rebuilding was still to be done. Philippe had that morning told Marie, "I sense this year will produce an abundant crop! We will have surplus at long last!" And the farmer twirled his wife around, as they had when courting.
Philippe and Jacques were tending the fields when Jacques heard an unusual motor sound. He looked off and said, "Papa! An American jeep! Military!"
That was an unusual occurrence. No one visited Givet. Certainly not the American army. More unusual was when the jeep stopped right in front of the farm house. Philippe and Jacques hurried in from the fields. Marie and Juliette had come out to the porch, both wiping their hands on their aprons.
Three people emerged from the jeep. A man, he had been the driver, in uniform and bearing a chest of medals. The others were a markedly older man, worn by the cares of life, and a very pregnant young woman.
The uniformed man introduced himself. "Major Henry Harper, United States Army." He introduced the others. They were Mike's father, Michael Senior and Mike's wife, Mary. Mary and Marie shook hands warmly. "So Mike, he is well?" Marie asked.
The major cleared his throat. "That's why we are here. May we speak inside?" The French family of course agreed and led their guests into the farm house. When all were comfortably seated, Juliette busied herself with brewing hot cocoa, and compiling a plate of macaroons. Major Harper said, "Flying is unusual, especially for civilians, but we thought this important enough that we invited Mike's family to join us. They might be able to shed some light."
Philippe and Marie exchanged a glance. What light need be shed? The major prevented any questions by saying right off, "If we may ask you some things, then we can explain. I think that might be the most fruitful way to proceed." The French family was puzzled, but agreeable. The major seemed hard bitten, but Mike's wife and father gave off an aura of sincerity. Besides, if they were Mike's family, they must be genuine, since he was such a good person.
"Ma'am," the major began, "Could you tell us everything about your encounter with Mike? No matter how trivial it may seem. It could be important."
The American group seemed so serious, Mike's relatives in particular so vulnerable, Marie's heart went out to them. She began telling the story. Philippe and Juliette, with very infrequent observations by Jacques, added details.
Major Harper asked occasional follow up questions. Mary and Mike Senior just hung on every word.
When the French were finished, Mary looked at Marie and Juliette, her eyes misting. "In your letter," Mary said, referring to the fact that Marie had written her own missive that she included when sending Mike's off to the Hudson Valley, and Marie nodded encouragingly for Mary to go on. Mary took a deep breath. "In your letter you mention a young girl. Emily."
There was a brief collective intake of breath on the French side. "We thought it a blessing from God," Juliette spoke.
Marie picked up the thread. "We had a daughter, Emilie," she immediately switched to the Americanized version, "Emily. She caught diphtheria just after the war began. The Germans had already seized control of France and embargoed all medical supplies. We could not get medicine for my baby." Marie began to weep. Mary held out her hand, giving the French mother a comforting squeeze.
"The child died," Juliette said quietly. "In 1940. She was only nine years of age." Mary produced a tissue, that Marie gratefully accepted and dabbed at her tears.
"You mentioned that Mike saw her," the major jumped in.
"Yes, he appeared to." Philippe had picked up the thread and he explained how on leaving, Mike had left a gift for the child, explained how he had seen her throughout his brief stay, and then took his leave. "When we tried to find him to ask how this could be, Mike was nowhere to be seen." Mary had her hand in her mouth, her father-in-law holding her tightly.
"So Mike, he is well?" Marie asked, tentatively, because she sensed otherwise.
Major Harper asked about the timing. "Could you be wrong that this happened on Christmas Eve?"
The family looked at one another and was adamant. "Certainly not," Juliette said. "We did all our Christmas Eve traditions, including Midnight Mass, in which Mike joined. Why is this important?"
The major looked at Mary and Mike Senior and inhaled. "You see, Mike was involved in the skirmish with that stray German unit in the field not far from here."
"Yes, we know that. Marie relayed it when she shared the story just now," Philippe said.
"The thing is," the major spoke quietly, "Mike's body was recovered that morning after the battle and brought back to headquarters. We've checked and double checked. There could be no mistake. Mike was dead and gone before you saw him." Marie, Mary and Juliette each made the Sign of the Cross.
Mary's tears were flowing and Marie gasped, also beginning to cry. She rose and approached Mary, and the two hugged for a long while. At last Mary spoke, in barely a whisper. "At least he got to enjoy his last Christmas. What he said in his letter he wanted above all else. Thank you...Marie...I have a commitment to your heart." Marie looked through watery eyes and nodded, hugging the now single American expectant mother fiercely.
Mike's father also expressed his profound gratitude. Both families pledged to remain in touch. "We have been blessed by the Christmas angels," Juliette said. "We with a glimpse of Emily and you of Mike." Mary and Mike Senior nodded and even Major Harper had to bite on his lip.
"We must go," the major spoke quietly.
When they were at the door, Marie suddenly cried out, Wait!" She ran to a back room, returning almost immediately. "Here," she pressed the turquoise ring into Mary's hand. "This must be with you."
Mary shook her head. "No." She patted her tummy. "It will be the baby's. M...Mike's and mine. And I believe it will be a girl." Looking at the other bereft mother, Mary said, "The baby's name will be...Emily." And she and Marie hugged yet again.
Christmas Eve, Present Day.
The old lady broke off her ruminations, still staring at the crude ornament she had made long ago of her and her father and again fingering the turquoise ring she wore around her neck. "I'm so happy you had that last Christmas, Papa," she whispered. She looked at the recent card and warm letter from Jacques, whom she thought of as her French cousin. The old lady's mother Mary had remained in close touch with Marie and Philippe, as the now old lady had with Jacques. To the old lady's satisfaction, her children had bonded with Jacques's children, so there was now a three generation global friendship.
Touching the turquoise ring around her neck again, the old lady felt a sense of inner peace. As she did when she glanced at the hair clip she had worn so long ago, and was now destined for the next grandchild on the way come next June.
Looking once more at the portrait of her father in his crisp military uniform, the old lady spoke quietly in her reverie. "Oh, Papa, how I wish I could have seen you just once. Ah, all the things we could have done, but above all just to hold you, and feel your love flow through me."
The old lady sat back and released a deep breath. She looked at the clock. Almost midnight. She was too old for Midnight mass now, which is why they attended the Christmas Eve afternoon vigil service. As it was, she was now up way past her bedtime, but it had been such a delightful day. Reliving memories and making more memories. Her son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren were going to stop by the next morning for the Christmas Day. For now, she supposed it was time for bed.
Suddenly a bright light shone outside, showing through the glass panel on her front door. So bright she had to momentarily shield her eyes.
When the light subsided, the old lady heard a light rap on the door. "Oh goodness, who could be calling at this hour?" she wondered. Probably one of the kids. They had been known to pop in in the late evening to keep her company and be sure she slept well through the night. The old lady slowly got up and opened the door.
Her heart skipped a significant beat, not in a dangerous way because, although she was stunned, the old lady felt enveloped by a tremendous peace. Looking at the so familiar face, she practically whispered, "Papa?"
The smiling serviceman nodded, and the two flew into each others' arms. The old lady sobbed, "Oh Papa! Papa!" feeling his love course through her very being. And Mike hugged her just as tenderly. They stayed like that a long while, there being no need for words. At last there was a minor disturbance down the walkway to the end of her driveway. "What is it?" she asked.
Mike, smiling as hugely as he ever had said, "Just some carolers."
At which point, a young, blonde haired girl stepped forward and waved in recognition at Mike. Mike clutched his daughter even tighter as little Emilie, for whom the old lady was the namesake, began to sing, joined by a choir of the heavenly host:
"Il est ne le divin enfant; Jouez hautbois resonnez musettes..."