From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

Momma’s Christmas Magic

About twenty-five years ago, Christmas was much the same as it is now. A tree with lights. Midnight Mass. Christmas dinner. But times were hard for some families. I know they were hard for us because my brothers and I were orphans. My paternal grandmother had stepped in, and with very meager, sometimes nonexistent resources, she set out on a daunting journey to rear us. Having already gotten her own nine children off to a start and out of the nest, she felt up to the task. However, rearing three small children in the fifties and sixties was different than it had been in the thirties and forties, especially since her dear husband had passed, and she was alone.

Momma, as we all called her, was quite a character. Those of us who knew her remember her as having a quick wit and a hard-working, kind soul. She could make a grand meal out of nothing, and boy, did she love a game of cards! Even if she wasn’t feeling well, she’d play “auction” all night long! Her bark was worse than her bite, although those of us who had been on the receiving end of it didn’t think so at the time.

This one Christmas, however, things had gone from bad to worse. With no such thing as assistance available to her in those days, her only sources of income were a small Veterans allowance, our family allowance and her pension. With such limited funds, extras for three small children were in short supply. Thankfully, one of our relatives was a farmer, so some meat and fresh vegetables were usually available. But the light bill was overdue, the wood was running low and, to make matters worse, the oil tank was threatening to run dry.

Poor Momma was in quite a fix with all these problems to shoulder alone, and many nights when we went upstairs to bed, we heard her downstairs at the kitchen table lighting a cigarette, her only luxury, and drinking a cup of tea. She stared out the window at the dark, wishing I suppose for some sort of a miracle.

Well, I guess God listens to such wishes, for some sort of a miracle did happen. To a twelve-year-old child, it’s kind of tough, I guess, knowing there isn’t much for Christmas. I was glad my brothers were younger, one only a baby. They wouldn’t realize the difference as long as Santa left something.

None of us kids could comprehend how serious things were until three or four days before Christmas when our water pipes froze from the cold, and all of a sudden, we were without water. Momma had been forcing herself to ration the wood and oil in an effort to make them last a bit longer, but the winter wind was relentless.

This seemed to be the last straw for her, with the added threat of the power being shut off, and still nothing for Christmas. She did something we had never seen her do before. She slowly walked over to her favorite chair at the end of the table, sat down heavily, folded her arms on the table, put her head down, and cried. Shuddering sobs so deep, and for so long, that we stopped our play and sat quietly. It scared us to see her so upset and utterly hopeless, and I think even as young as we were, it dawned on us that something was wrong.

As if on cue, we heard a knock at the door. Momma tried to compose herself. She smoothed down her everpresent apron and answered the door. She wasn’t expecting anyone, certainly not the tall, thin, silver-haired gentleman who asked if he could come in. He sat and talked to her awhile; she seemed to know who he was, and we children went back to our play.

After a bit, he got ready to leave, and I guess to our young eyes he appeared taller than he actually was. Before he left, he reached into a deep pocket and took out a white envelope, which he pressed into Momma’s hand. She thanked him gratefully, but left the envelope unopened until after the gentleman had gone. He wished us all a merry Christmas and then he left.

Hands shaking, she opened the envelope and looked inside. As if in a dream, she slowly sat down in her chair again, and once more put her face in her hands and cried.

This time, we all began to cry. It was too much. Frozen pipes, maybe losing our lights, fuel running low, Momma crying twice in one night, this time after a stranger passed her an envelope. What was in that envelope anyway. Another bill? More bad news?

With tears on her cheeks, Momma said, “No! No! Don’t cry! It’s wonderful news! See what’s in this envelope? It’s Christmas!”

She opened it up. Wow! A fresh, crisp one-hundred dollar bill. A fortune! Certainly in those days it was.

Well, poor Momma! She almost flew to the telephone and arranged a drive to town the next day. She was so happy, and we were so glad to see her smiling face again. She helped us get ready for bed, and indeed, the teapot went on the stove very quickly that night. Out came a pen and paper and as we went upstairs, a list was being compiled and a budget carefully stretched.

The next day, with the youngest of us in tow, the other two in school, Momma set off for town with her prearranged ride. Somehow, maybe more Christmas magic, that one hundred dollars bought a lot of happiness. First things first—the electric bill was secured and wood was ordered, some oil was dispatched to be delivered to the house, and she called a neighbor in to fix the pipes. With the necessities covered, she carefully rationed what was left.

On Christmas morning, excitement was pretty high. Santa had come! Something nice for everyone, and I can still remember what I received. It was a beautiful brown sweater with a butterfly design on the front. It was so warm, and I loved it. Also, a book for me I loved to read! The boys were so pleased with what Santa had left: trucks to play with, puzzles to put together, and no doubt a hockey stick had appeared, too.

In an effort to keep us all believing, there was even a pack of cigarettes under the tree for Momma. Given the circumstances, I’m sure it was her only comfort in those hard times.

Christmas dinner soon followed, and I honestly don’t remember if we had a turkey. As I said earlier, Momma was a wizard at making the most out of nothing, but even one hundred dollars only goes so far. It didn’t seem important, because whatever we had for dinner, we were warm and comfortable and so happy. I do remember the wonderful smell and delicious taste of Momma’s brown sugar cookies and creamy fudge. She must have been up all night.

She was so relieved and happy after that. I’m sure she must have believed in Santa from then on, for in her darkest hour, her prayer had been heard and a miracle arranged.

Even after all these years, as a mother of four wonderful children of my own, I still remember that Christmas, and I can only imagine the despair she must have felt. I later learned the silver-haired gentleman was a local businessman and politician. His visit must have appeared to be a miracle to Momma, for how he knew of her troubles she could only guess. All he asked of her was that she was not to mention the deed to anyone, and she never did reveal his identity.

Since that long-ago Christmas, our benefactor well, he has passed away, and so has Momma, but there isn’t a Christmas that goes by that we don’t think about her. We still love her and miss her, and I think even through the struggles, she managed to instill in us a love for the Christmas season and a belief that God hears our prayers, and sometimes even answers them.

Nova MacIsaac

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