When your world is shaken apart, who needs Christmas?
When love is ripped from your hands, what do you hang onto?
One holiday story from 1906.
Chapter 1 – No Presents
By ROBERT DIGITALE
I hate Christmas.
All the other girls at my school can’t keep quiet about it. They want new coats and leather gloves and wool mufflers. You’d think Santa Rosa was the North Pole.
My little sister Maddie wants a doll. That’s fine, I guess. She’s only 7 and can’t know any better.
I was waiting for her after school one day so we could go downtown to meet Aunt Ruth at Carey’s. When Maddie came out of school, she was all red-eyed and her brown scarf was damp from wiping her nose. She started out into the street without looking and almost got run over by Mr. Ferguson on his Stearns Yellow Fellow bicycle. He braked and swerved and warned her, “Careful, child.” He stopped when he saw me and tipped his wool cap.
“Maddie, watch out,” I said after he pedaled away. “You have to look before you run out into the middle of the street.”
“Jessie, are we gonna to be orphans?” she cried.
“Who told you that?” I asked.
“Joey Battaglia. He said if Grandma Collier doesn’t get better, she could die and I’d become an orphan. He said orphans starve unless they go to the back of the markets and dig through the food scraps.
“We’re not gonna be orphans. Joey Battaglia’s a fool. Listen, Grandma Collier’s just been sick for a few weeks. She’s not going to die. And anyway, we still have Papa.
“Papa’s not here.”
“Papa’s working as a cook in a lumber camp,” I said. “He’ll be back as soon as he can. And we still have Grandma and Grandpa Collier and Aunt Ruth and Uncle Fred and Grandma Johnson. You can’t be an orphan if you’ve got somebody bigger than you.”
“Grandma Johnson doesn’t like me.”
“She does so. Grandma Collier says she’s just had a hard life.”
We walked down Fourth Street until we reached the square. I’d passed it 100 times since April, but still I couldn’t get used to seeing that big empty lot – just dirt with a sick patch of grass near the sidewalk. It makes our town look broken or something.
“Jessie, we still don’t have a new courthouse,” Maddie said, pointing to the spot where the old one had fallen down. “Joey Battaglia said Santa Claus can’t find our town without the courthouse. He’ll get confused and fly his sleigh right past Santa Rosa, and nobody here will get anything.”
“Don’t listen to fools,” I said.
Aunt Ruth had finished her milliner’s job for the day and was waiting for us outside Carey’s makeshift store. Makeshift. Papa taught us that word. It’s what you get when the real things fall down. The sign above the window read, “Don’t forget to cross the street.” That was their strange way of telling you that they had started up again in a new location, just across the street from where their old roof caved in.
Inside the store a strange man was peddling medicine. I didn’t take much notice until I saw Aunt Ruth stop to listen. I listened, too, while Maddie went to look at the dolls.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the man said, “this is the very Peruna that is advertised in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, complete with the testimonial of the oldest man in America, Mr. Isaac Brock of McLennan County, Texas. One hundred seventeen years old he is, and he considers Peruna the greatest remedy of the age for catarrhal troubles and la grippe.”
“Can it help someone who’s already taken to her bed?” Aunt Ruth asked the man.
“Madam, Peruna is the very medicine for such cases. Systemic catarrh is almost universal in old people. That’s why Peruna has become indispensable to so many of our elders.”
“I’ll read the advertisement,” Aunt Rush said.
Soon we set off home for Cherry Street. All Maddie could talk about was dolls. “I want the unbreakable one,” she said. “I saw it in the newspaper. I’m going to write a letter to Santa tonight and ask for a doll and maybe a pony.”
“A pony!” gasped Aunt Ruth. “Santa better deliver that pony to Grandma Johnson’s hop ranch.”
“No,” said Maddie. “She’s too mean.”
“Madelyn Collier, you mind your tongue,” said Aunt Ruth. “Your Grandma Johnson’s a widow and a good woman, and we will not say another unkind word about her. Besides, we may need her help if your Grandma Collier doesn’t get better soon. Lord knows I can’t do it all by myself.”
As we turned onto Cherry, a horse and wagon rolled slowly by with a cut fir tree lying in the back. “Look, Jessie, it’s a Christmas tree. I bet it’s for the Andersons. I hope Papa comes home soon and brings us one, too.”
“Not me,” I said. “I don’t want a tree or presents. Who needs Christmas?”
We went inside and up the stairs to say hello to Grandma Collier. Maddie ran to her and said, “Jessie doesn’t want Christmas.”
Grandma looked like she had had a hard day, but she raised herself in her flannel nightgown and gave a sickly cough to clear her throat. “Let me talk to your sister,” she told Maddie.
“Come here, brave one,” she said to me, patting the sheets. “Your grandma needs a hug.” I leaned on the bed and gave her one. She seemed thinner. It was too easy to feel her bones. I didn’t want to look her in the eye, so I peered out the window at my two younger cousins throwing a ball below in the back yard. “So you don’t feel like Christmas? That’s okay. I don’t feel much in the holiday mood myself this year. But still we should think about the family. Your grandfather likes his Christmas turkey, and what about Maddie? You’re almost 12, but she’s only 7.”
“What about Papa?”
She nodded. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I guess he’s sad.”
“I suppose he is. There likely are sad people all over town this year. Even so, let’s not be too hasty about Christmas. It only comes once a year. You come back in a few days and we’ll talk some more.”
That night I was in bed with Maddie. At last I stopped thinking about no Christmas and fell asleep. Then it happened, just like it does more nights than I care to remember. Maddie must have had a nightmare and started thrashing in the bed. All I know is I woke up feeling the bed shake. Suddenly I was back to that morning when our old cottage was shaking and the neighbors around us were screaming. And Maddie was crying for Mama.
Next: time: “The Giant’s Footsteps,” by Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron. Jessie recalls the day the earth trembled.
Read more about the Santa Rosa of 1906 in this 2006 Press Democrat story.
Press Democrat Staff Writer Robert Digitale and Healdsburg author Dean Anderson conceived and edited “XMAS SR ’06.” Digitale is the host of the online blog “Digitale Stories,” which previously published “Sonoma Squares Murder Mystery,” a serial by 16 local authors. He also is the author of the fantasy novel, HORSE STALKER. Learn more/see the video at www.horsestalker.com.
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