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: Jessie and Maddie find a small wooden box hidden in their grandmother’s bookshelf. Before they can open it, Grandma Johnson comes upon them and takes the box. With tears in her eyes, she tells the girls that the box contains a note from their mother and an item that could belong to them one day.
Chapter 7 – The Gift
By CHRIS SMITH
Honestly, if I weren’t aching so to see what was in the box that Grandma Johnson held, I’d have grabbed my kid sister’s hand and run out of the ranch house as if the earthquake was back.
Grandma was by far the stoniest person I knew. Who’d have thought she could cry? Grasping that little wooden box, those leathery hands of hers trembled and it seemed the spirit drained from her like from an open spigot.
Grandma’s eyes rose from the box to Maddie and me, and she went to say something but couldn’t unclench her lips. She forced a breath and said, “Come, sit!”
As she turned away, Maddie gazed up at me with her mouth and eyes open about as wide as they’d go. Here it was Christmas Day and there was a box with a note and something else from our poor dead mother, and Grandma Johnson was sitting us down for a talking-to.
A sweaty little slip awoke me to how tightly Maddie and I gripped hands. We sat on the divan and our grandmother settled into her winged chair at our left, the box on her lap.
The faintest, saddest smile lifted her face.
“Your mother gave me these things just before Christmas six years ago. Rachel could barely catch her breath in those days, what with the holidays and a new bakery to run, and the two of you. But I suspect she stayed up nights plotting how to make me feel better.
“That was our first Christmas without your grandfather. My Jesse, still in his prime, was taken by pneumonia early in February of ‘99.”
Her eyes welled up again as she reached and double-patted Maddie on her arm. “You were but a babe in arms then, Madelyn.”
Her gaze came to me, and stuck. The Grandmother Johnson I’d known had eyes searching always for something else to be harsh about.
“Jessica, you were still shy of 5 then. I don’t imagine you recollect much about your mother’s father, the grand man you were named for.”
I wished I could say I had a bushel of memories of Grandfather Jesse, rather than the few foggy mental pictures and memories I couldn’t swear I hadn’t picked up from stories I’d heard.
I could only frown and shake my head.
“How he loved this family. Your grandfather worked so hard on this ranch, and everything he did was for us,” Grandma Johnson said. “He called you two and your mother his band of angels.”
“Now let me tell you about this,” she said. Grandma lifted off the box lid and took out a wrapped-up embroidered handkerchief I knew had been Mother’s. She unfurled it and took hold of what was inside.
“Ah!” sprang from my mouth and Maddie reached like a hungry animal at a morsel at the sight of a golden treasure in our grandmother’s fingers. It was a brooch, a graceful and arching stem capped by the tiny bud of a rose.
Maddie groaned in protest as our grandmother handed it to me. It wasn’t the length of my little finger and was so fine that I could feel the teeth edging the leaves and the thorns too small to see.
“While Jesse and I were courting he had this made for me here in Santa Rosa, from a bit of California gold his father left him from the Rush. He told me this love of ours was like a new rose that would blossom and grow strong enough to endure whatever might come.”
Maddie whined at me. “Alright, but be careful,” I told her, and I let her take the brooch in her fingers. The way she studied it you’d think she expected it to bloom before her eyes.
Grandma Johnson nodded at her. “I wore it just once, on my wedding gown. It seemed too precious for other occasions.” She giggled – was that the first time I’d heard her do that? “Hop growers in Santa Rosa don’t have much cause for dress-up and jewelry, anyway. So I kept it in this box, took it out now and again to admire it.
“When your mother grew up and your father proposed to her, I thought to pass the rose to her. I asked your grandfather if he’d mind. He laughed and said it seems it did the trick for us, and if I wanted Rachel to have it for her wedding day, he could think of no better use for it.
“Rachel wouldn’t accept it, at first. But I wouldn’t take no.” She smirked at us. “I can be pretty tough, you know.”
“I suggested to Rachel that she could pass it to her children for their weddings, and they to theirs. She accepted it and wore it on her gown at the altar, as I had. Believe you me, you never saw a lovelier, happier bride.”
Grandma Johnson put her fingers to her lips and left them there the longest time. Finally, she said, “I don’t think your mother wore that rose again after the wedding. She was going to save it for you.
“Then our Jesse died.” Grandma shook her head so sad and slowly my heart broke. “I‘ve been angry at the world, wantin’ no part of it. It’s been all I can do to keep the ranch going while waiting to join your grandfather.
“I came in from the kiln one day, maybe a week after Thanksgiving, and your mother had left this box right where you’re sitting. Inside was the brooch. And this note.” She handed me the paper.
I flushed at the sight of my mother’s writing. I read aloud her note to Grandma Johnson:
“Dear Mother: Please accept back the gold rose Father gave you as a symbol of the love that grew sweeter and stronger right to the day he died. Jessica and Madelyn will have no need for it for a good many years. For now, I believe Father would want you to have it, wear it and remember him. You know he would want for us to hold together, and to be happy again.
“Please, Mother, come back to life. I love you, Rachel,”
Grandmother Johnson lifted her head from her hands. “But I was so lost and empty without your grandfather, so bogged down that I put the pin and the note back in the box and hid them away.
“And then…the earthquake…your mother…” She slumped in her chair like there was nothing left inside her. I stood and stepped over and put my arms around her shoulders. Maddie dropped to her knees and plopped her head into Grandma’s lap.
We cried until we couldn’t any more. I said, “I’m sorry I’ve been afraid of you, Grandma, and not very nice.
“Maddie and I will come over more. We’re big enough to help around here, and maybe you can teach us what you taught Mother about baking. That would please her, I think. That, and us doing the best at staying a family as we can.”
Grandma Johnson nodded and took us in her arms. I straightened after a bit and asked Maddie for the brooch.
I pinned it to the collar of Grandma’s blouse and said, “Merry Christmas”.
She patted the rose, moved her hand to my cheek, “I’ll wear it ‘til you need it,” she said.
The grandfather clock chimed and she noticed the afternoon was slipping away. “We must get ourselves to the Colliers’. Gracious, I hope we’re not late for Christmas dinner.”
She asked me for the note from my mother, kissed it and placed it in the box, then set the box on the table by the divan. It would stay there, in the open, pretty much forever.
Bundled up for the cold, we were headed for the door when Grandma skidded to a stop. She tipped her head at me. “Weren’t you keeping something here for Maddie?” How could I forget that? I ran to the pantry and pulled out the wrapped doll I’d hidden up on the shelf too tall for my sister to see or reach.
“Can I open it?” Maddie squealed. Grandma and I laughed. I told her she could – soon.
Big Boy tugged us onto Cherry Street. Before we reached the house, everybody streamed out the front door – Grandma and Grandpa Collier, Aunt Ruth, our cousins. They waved and called to us and we couldn’t make out what there were saying.
Grandpa quick-stepped up. “Hurry inside, you three, there’s just time enough for you get warm before we all go downtown.
“On Christmas? But why?” I asked.
“We’ve got a surprise for you,” Grandpa said. “Your father’s coming in on the next train.”
Read more about the Santa Rosa of 1906 in this 2006 Press Democrat story.
Chris Smith was a year out of college when he went to work for The Press Democrat in 1977. He began as a stringer on contract to provide news, features and photos from the Fort Bragg-Mendocino area of the Mendocino Coast. In February of 1978 he joined the staff as a general-assignment reporter specializing in the human element of the news. For 10 years he wrote a column, Must Be Friday, which ran once a week in Gaye LeBaron’s space. He became a full-time columnist in spring of 2002, following Gaye’s move to semi-retirement. His column runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and on Mondays he runs a “Sonoma Stories” profile on someone intriguing.
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