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.
Previously: As Christmas approaches, 11-year-old Jessie wants something more than presents. Her father had to leave Santa Rosa to take a cook’s job at a lumber camp in Mendocino. One of her grandmothers has taken ill. And Jessie keeps dreaming about the day a terrible calamity hit her town.
Chapter 2 – The Giant’s Footsteps
By GAYE LeBARON
“Once upon a time…” It was Mama’s soft voice, reading Maddie a fairy tale, that was the last sound I remember before I woke up in a bed that was shaking and bumping across the floor and a roar that sounded like one of the freight trains coming right into our bedroom.
It’s funny what I remember. Most of it is like a dream, but really real, maybe because I’ve had the same dream so many times since. I even remember that it had been a nice spring night and outside our window, I could hear the branches of the backyard maple tree making a soft scratching noise against the eaves.
It was the kind of night when I wished that our little cottage on Cherry Street, tucked in behind Grandma and Grandpa Collier’s house, had an upper story, so I could be closer to the tree, up among the branches and closer to the stars.
I mentioned that once to Mama. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I said, “to have a big two-story house?” and Mama explained that the cost of the glass cases and the new ovens at the bakery came first before a new house. We were lucky, she said, to have this nice little cottage next to Papa’s parents.
Anyway, Maddie’s beanstalk bedtime story must have been part of my dreaming because I woke up thinking of the giant chasing after Jack, his thundering footsteps rattling the windows and shaking the bed.
Then I heard Maddie, whimpering – first, “Mama?” then “Jessie?” I was wide awake then and very, very scared when I saw Maddie was on the floor beside her bed. She was holding her “pet” blanket, stroking the silky edge against her cheek as she had done when she was a baby. Her eyes looked very big.
When the roaring stopped, it seemed like the house was still moving and I could hear voices in the street, people shouting.
“Mama,” Maddie said again. She was sobbing now.
Our mother? Where WAS Mama?
I remember picking up the big alarm clock that had fallen from the bedside table. The glass was broken but I could hear it ticking. The little hand was on 5 and the big hand was between the 2 and the 3. Maddie was crying now, and I bent over to hug her. Then I remembered that it was Wednesday and that I was the big sister whose job it was to get Maddie ready for school on Wednesday mornings when Mama went to the bakery early and Papa’s apprentice baker had a day off.
That’s where Mama was, I thought. Stacking the warm loaves, putting the bread that went to the hotel dining rooms into paper bags. Papa would be swinging the big oven doors open and closed and moving the loaves in and out with the big, long paddle he calls a spatula.
I was out of bed now, on the cold floor. I wrapped Maddie in my arms, blanket and all and stood her up.
I tried to tell her it was all right. I asked her if she remembered the day at Grandma Johnson’s when she hollered at me while she was going potty because she thought I was shaking the outhouse. “Remember, Grandma said it was an earthquake.” I said. “I think that’s what happened now.”
I was trying very hard to pretend I wasn’t scared to death, so I tried to smile. “The good thing about an earthquake,” I told her, “is that by the time you know it’s coming, it’s gone.”
She looked at me like I was crazy but she stopped crying and asked, “Is it over now?”
I told her it was and that we had to get some clothes on so we wouldn’t catch cold. I could hear more people out on Cherry Street, and their voices were getting louder. I could hear a woman crying, very loud, so I pulled Maddie’s dress on over her nightgown and grabbed one of mine just as Grandpa called to us from the hall.
I told him the dresser had fallen over in front of the bedroom door, but he pushed hard and it moved enough to let him in.
The next hours were all a muddle. It was like I was watching a play that all of us were in, but it wasn’t real.
When Grandpa carried us to the big house, because there was broken glass all over, Grandma was busy picking things up off the floor. Maddie and I helped her gather up the precious things that had fallen from the mantel and from the knick-knack shelf that she was so proud of. Most of them were broken, but it looked like some could be fixed.
Grandpa had gone off to town to see about the bakery. Neighbors came in and out. Some would start to tell what they had seen, but Grandma shook her head at them and they stopped.
When Grandpa came back, after a long time, Papa was with him.
Maddie ran to him and buried her head in his stomach.
“Papa, I was so scared,” she said. “I fell out of bed and we couldn’t get out of our room and Grandpa pushed… and,” she stopped suddenly. “Where’s Mama?” she asked.”
“I know,” Papa said. “I know, little one.” He sat in Grandpa’s big chair and gathered her into his lap. Then he reached out with his other arm for me.
He looked different. There was soot and dust mixed with the flour on his clothes. And there were streaks on his cheeks from what I thought were tears. Right then, I knew what he was going to say.
“The brick wall at the back of the bakery came down,” he said. “Right where your mother was working.”
I don’t really remember anything after that, only what he said, when he got up and turned away so we couldn’t see his face. “She didn’t hurt at all. She never knew what hit her!”
Once upon a time… Papa worked in the bakery and came home to us with cookies that hadn’t sold. And sometimes a cake.
That was before the little cottage had been knocked off its foundation and our bakery was nothing but a pile of bricks, before Papa went off to cook in a lumber camp up in Mendocino.
And once upon a time, Maddie and I had a mother who was always here when school was over, who read us stories and tucked us in at night; a mother who loved Christmas more than anyone else, who always said, when I asked, that she still believed in Santa Claus.
Papa comes back sometimes. But Mama is gone forever.
Next time: “Leaving Home,” by Petaluma author Amanda McTigue. Jessie and her sister find themselves once more packing their belongings. Where will they be for Christmas?
Read more about the Santa Rosa of 1906 in this 2006 Press Democrat story.
Gaye LeBaron worked as a Press Democrat reporter for several years before she wrote her first column for the newspaper in 1959. A daily columnist until her retirement in 2001, she continues to contribute a “historical perspective” column twice monthly. She is the author, with three other researchers, of a two-volume local history — “Santa Rosa, a 19th Century Town,” and “Santa Rosa, a 20th Century Town.” She is married to photographer John LeBaron.
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