Sixty Second Parent shares the final part of this Christmas short story written by Dr. Huff. Share this poignant story about a resilient boy as a part of your holiday celebration this year.
All through the night, between layers of cloud and patches of clearing sky, the wind had continued its work. Snow, pushed into strange, twisted, and sculptured displays, framed woodsheds and outbuildings with giant halos. Tree limbs, and the coal tipple too, had been stripped bare again. The entire valley now looked like a painted landscape of contrasts between sheer, sparkling while, and stark, cold black. A weak sun, partially encumbered by high, thin clouds, touched the snow with sparkles of crystal blue, changing the surface into thousands of tiny diamonds.
Down this fragile and luminescent valley, Eliza and Nathan walked to school. Their steps moved briskly, and the sounds of their voices lifted lightly into the frosty air. Perhaps it was the memory of the parson’s words from the night before, or the anticipation of the festivities of Christmas Eve that made Nathan feel more open and alive. Then too, the image of his father and the nightmare of his death seemed dimmer and somewhat harder to recall. Whatever, as they walked, Nathan sensed a newness, like that of the snow around him.
“Special? Maybe so,” he thought to himself. “Yes,” he spoke out loud. “The parson has just got to be right.”
Eliza looked at her brother. Silently she nodded her head. Nathan saw, and tilted his head in reply. Together they began to run, their lunch pails swinging to keep pace with their speed, until, breathless and red-faced, they pushed through the school-house door.
School was identified by name only that morning, for all pretense at study ceased even before Miss Jenkins finished calling roll. The usually quiet first graders, happily and noisily, joined with the older children, as all eight grades of the one-room schoolhouse set to work. Soon, dingy walls, frosty windows, and dusty rafters were turned into the colors and pictures of Christmas. All the while, they talked, their conversation reflecting the tin adventures they shared.
“Hand me them streamers, Susie, the red and green ‘uns,” shouted Otto Tate. He reached to catch them from her grasp and promptly became decorated in them himself.
“Here, Jennie,” prompted Miss Jenkins. “Put the popcorn around the tree like this.”
“Here are the red berries I brung, Miss Jenkins. Ma told me to be sure and not eat any of ’em.” Dish Tyler handed her a long string of shiney, waxed, red berries. “Got one caught in my windpipe once and like to a-died,” he continued. “Pa hit me in the stummick, tho, and whee, out it come! Want to see it, Nate?” He grinned widely through two missing front teeth and fished out of his overalls a hardened, shriveled, rock-like piece of berry.
“Ugh! You make me sick, Dish.” Jennie looked in disgust at the boys as she spoke.
“Jamie, fill this bucket with water and pour it into the tub for the tree.” requested Miss Jenkins.
“I shore am anxious to git my hands on that candy!” Exclaimed Dish; a chorus of voices echoed his desire.
And so it went all morning. The children joined and encouraged by Miss Jenkins, worked with a joyous frenzy that suggested spirits more colorful than their drab world allowed. Before noon, they had transformed the one large room with its pop-bellied stove and ancient seats into a grand and glowing hall. Pieces of pine boughs were tied to the rafters, and red and green crepe paper, intertwined, ran from the corners of the room to meet at a large, slightly tattered by still beautiful, paper bell. In the front of the room, close to Miss Jenkins’ desk stood the tree. It was covered with shiny berries; bright glass balls of all colors’ cut-out pictures of birds, lambs, cradles, and donkeys; loops of popcorn; and bits of sparkling tinsel. At the very top, tinged a bit with age, but full of grandeur still, sat the Christmas Angel, her wings spread and her head held high.
Prominent by its emptiness, was the desk on which the box of Christmas candy would sit.
Finally it was finished. In a moment of awe they moved closer together to admire and celebrate their work. With hushed voices now, they declared it the prettiest thing they had ever seen; or rather would be when the box of candy took its place.
In their excitement and busyness, no one had noticed that the sun had long since ceased to cast shadows of the bare tree limbs and that new snow was falling, thick and fast, from close, leaden skies. Their attention was drawn to this new development by the arrival of Parson Couch.
“Ho, ho, to all the good children,” he boomed, and stamped the snow from his boots. “Merry Christmas!”
“You ain’t Santy Claus,” Tessie Combs cried. “You’re the preacher.”
“Right you are, Tessie, and I have come to tell you and everybody else to get along home. Your radio says bad storm, Miss Jenkins, with a lot of snow and getting’ dark real early. Some of the kids got to go up frightful hollers to get home, so I came to let you know.”
“Thank you, Reverend.”
Miss Jenkins threw him a puzzled look as she replied. Usually, school was kept to the exact hour, no matter what, unless of course the creek flooded and the river ran wild. Suddenly she felt a chill of apprehension as she moved rapidly to help with boots, coats, and mittens. Surely, she thought, nothing could interrupt this occasion for those who needed it so much.
Her worry set off a train of rapid thoughts. She had come to Dewberry Creek three years before, fresh out of school and eager with ideas about educating children, changing adults, and refreshing the world. In the dreary, tired, discouraged village, she had nearly revolted. Every day for three weeks she had packed her bags to leave. Something, however, had held her. Perhaps it was the quiet eyes of the children as they watched her every move, waiting to see if the zest for life of which she spoke was real enough to share with others. Perhaps it was the honesty and integrity that was the backbone of survival for the miners who faced each day with courage greater than her own. Perhaps it was her own stubborn spirit, which, in the end, refused to give up for comfort’s sake. Whatever the reason, she had stayed, and she had not been sorry. What she had left behind in the brightness of the busy world had been replaced tenfold by the closeness and caring of people who valued her commitment.
“Here, Will, button your coat tight!” Miss Jenkins commanded as she pushed the children toward the door, waved a goodbye, and saw them all headed up the valley. She felt her throat tighten, as both she and the parson, at the same moment, saw Nathan Hamlin’s face, bright for the first time in two years.
“Please, God,” she breathed, “don’t let anything bad happen now.”
Although the valley had been like a shiny, misty fairy tale when they had come to school, the children’s trek homeward was through the dark of a late winter evening, not the noontime they mine whistle signaled. They hardly seemed to notice however, as, with shouts and shrieks they chased and pelted each other with huge handfuls of powdery snow. At first, a tight cluster of bobbing heads and waving arms, eventually they began to drift, separately or in small groups, into the hollows and creekbeds that led to their homes. Soon, only Eliza and Nathan were left to finish alone.
For a while, neither spoke. Their shoes made funny squeaking sounds in the deepening snow, and their breaths formed clouds of steam in the cold air. Finally Eliza reached for her brother’s hand and held it tightly as she spoke both a question and a plea.
“It is special, ain’t it, Nate? Just like the parson said””
But Nathan was still not convinced. His only reply was a mumbled “Maybe, ‘Liza, maybe.”
All the long dark evening and still throughout the night, the storm held to its task. Only the light of the new day was able to push it aside, and that only after enough snow had been left to totally alter the shape of the entire valley. By then, the snow had reached a depth that, for generations to come, would make it known as the Belt-Buckle Blizzard. Even so, it was no deterrent to the miners and their families who, that evening, made their way, panting, shouting greetings, and occasionally being swallowed by huge drifts, to the brightly lighted school-house. Yellow light streamed from the frosted windows, forming shadows of the paper wreathes on the untouched snow. It was like a steady beacon which the faithful, with much anticipation, followed.
Their anticipation was not to be realized. Long before the newly-decorated room had been filled, the early arrivals had passed back the dismal word that the box was not there. The explanation was simple enough. Dunhaven Switch had been totally blocked by the storm. The spur line was shut off so that No. 36 had never made her run. Those who had waited for the train and its cargo had done so in vain. The explanation, however, did little to erase the gloom that began to settle, heavier and deeper, over the room.
Nathan sat on one side of his mother, Eliza on the other. They were close to the front, their eagerness having compelled them to come early. Now they only had longer to wait to feel their disappointment and discouragement. Nathan shrank into his seat. His eyes avoided Miss Jenkins, who, with a brightness she did not feel, tried to keep alive the spirit that had so recently been kindled.
Why, Nathan thought, had he even dared to think things could be better without his dad? Who could be trusted to know anything about how he felt? And the parson’s words about Christmas being special. It was all one huge lie! Probably, God was a lie, too. Christmas was supposed to be His day, so why did He have to spoil it for everyone else? Didn’t he even have enough pull to keep the train tracks clear?
The only immediate response to Nathan’s thoughts was the restless shuffling of feet and the fussing of a few tired babies. The nativity scene was about over, and the wise men had turned to leave the infant Jesus. The parson stood, ready to invoke the blessing of Christmas. And then it happened. Bursting through the door came the tiny miracle for Lettie had prayed and everyone else hoped, and Nathan’s life was forever made new.
Accompanied by a blast of cold air, beard and eyebrows covered with frost, cheeks reddened by cold, and boots caked with snow, came a burly, laughing figure. Stuck precariously on his busy hair was a peaked red cap, and he wore a much too small red coat, trimmed with tufts of cotton, over his sturdy warmer one. He carried, on his shoulder, a large box marked:
TO DEWBERRY CREEK SCHOOL –
Instantly he was at the front of the room. With one hand he opened the box to allow the delicious aroma of Christmas candy to escape. With the other, he cradled Nathan and effortlessly swung the boy to his shoulders, stooping forward to allow him to reach in and scoop up the first fistful. The room filled with noise and laughter. Backs straightened, eyes sparkled, and children cried with delight at the taste of the delicious treat. Eagerly they gathered around the tall figure, pulling his coat, patting him on the back, touching and holding him.
Lige, weary from his long trip over the mountains, responded to them happily. Then he moved away from their admiring circle and turned to the boy in his arms. Kindly but directly, he looked into Nathan’s eyes. He felt the boy’s body loosen and then begin to shake as the tears, no longer denied, began to fall. Carefully he made his way to the door, his arms securely around the boy, people parting to let them pass. Before them, the stars in the clear winter night lighted their way. Behind them, a chorus of voices began to murmur the carols of Christmas. Lettie and Eliza rushed to join them, and together they headed up the valley, homeward.