A Story for Christmas

                                                           

Here’s a story for the Holidays.  Feel free to copy it, print it, and share it.  

 

 

 

Anna’s Gift

by John Starley Allen

          

                                                                                                            

 “Son, remember we’ve got an appointment to visit Anna in half an hour,” said Brad’s father, poking his head in the doorway of his son’s bedroom.

Brad was at his desk doing homework. He groaned inwardly. “That’s ’great,’ dad,” he said, looking up, hoping his father would catch the sarcasm in his voice.

“Now son, don’t sound so overjoyed.”

“All right, dad,” Brad said simply.

He was tempted to say something more—something with amplified sarcasm—but decided against it. What would be the point? It would just hurt his dad’s feelings. And they would still end up going to visit Anna Christopherson, one of the neighborhood widows they visited each month—and one of Brad’s least favorite people.

The practice of making monthly father-and-son visits to widows in the neighborhood had not been initiated by Brad’s father. A generation earlier Grampa Watkins originated it with Brad’s father as his younger sidekick. Grampa Watkins had read a particular passage in the Bible that captured his attention.   The verse stated that the fatherless and widows should be particularly cared for and looked after. And Grampa Watkins took the scripture to heart.

When Brad’s father was around twelve, Grampa Watkins began taking him on regular visits to the widows in their neighborhood. The father/son duo broke up only when the junior partner moved away to attend college.

“Pop wasn’t much of a carpenter,” Brad’s father once recalled, “but when Mrs. Sugden became confined to a wheelchair, he got some wood and somehow made a sturdy ramp up to her front door. Pop was sure proud of that.”

Brad had heard several stories of how his father and grandfather had visited and helped all the widows who lived nearby.

And now his father was continuing the tradition—with Brad as his unwilling accomplice. Sometimes they just dropped in, but usually Brad’s father would call and make appointments.

Visiting the widows somehow always interfered with something—homework, your favorite television show, going to your friend’s to try out the latest video game. And it was not uncommon to get dressed (Brad’s father usually preferred they make their visits wearing Sunday apparel) and drive over to visit someone, just to have them cancel the appointment or not even be there. Mrs. Brownlow’s nurse would come to the door and say, “She’s just not up to seeing company tonight.” Or they would loudly knock on Mrs. Shumway’s door without any response, then leave a note saying they stopped by. The next day Mrs. Shumway would call and say “Oh, I’m so sorry.   I just forgot you were coming. I was out with my friends from the book club.”   That was old people for you, always forgetting something…

And then there was Anna Christopherson. She was a crotchety widow who didn’t have a good thing to say about anything.

“Dad, she’ll probably just tell us the story of how her boss patted her on the head and said she was the fastest worker in the candy factory,” said Brad on the way to her house.

Anna had worked several years doing tedious packaging work by hand and had the arthritic knuckles to prove it. Her knuckles were grotesque—almost the size of cherries—and her fingers were permanently bent giving her hands a gnarled, claw-like appearance.

But she was proud of the job of her youth and would tell anyone who would listen about how she was recognized as the best worker in the plant.

And Brad, sitting in the car moodily with his arms folded, didn’t feel one bit guilty about complaining to his father about Anna Christopherson.

“Yeah, I know you’ve heard the candy factory story more times than you’d like,” said Brad’s father.   “But I know a few other things about Anna that you don’t. Maybe it would help you understand her if I told you a little about her.”

It turned out that her husband had been an alcoholic—stable and kind when sober, but erratic and abusive when drunk. And as the years passed, he was drunk more often than sober.

One of the few bright aspects of her otherwise dismal marriage was the fact that it had produced two healthy sons. Her sons were the light of her life—especially the oldest son.   He radiated great promise. Everyone liked him. His skill on the football field had won him the admiration of the whole town.   His classmates voted him student body president.

But he had been killed in a tragic car accident.

The surviving son, Bart, seemed to live in the shadow of his departed brother. He became increasingly withdrawn. And eventually it became apparent that he suffered from the same problem his father had: he was an alcoholic whose drunken behavior had caused him both personal and legal difficulties through the years.

Brad conceded that maybe Anna Christopherson had a right to be bitter. “But dad, if you think about it, doesn’t everyone have a right to be bitter?” Like people who have to go with their father to visit people they don’t like, Brad added to himself…

“Come in, come in,” said Anna Christopherson as she opened the door to Brad and his father. She was a spry old woman with hair as wispy and white as thistledown.

She directed them to sit down, then asked Brad’s father, “So how are those brats at the high school treating you?”

“Oh, they can be insufferable at times, but all in all they’re pretty good kids.”

“And what is it you teach—some fool subject like drama or something?”

“It’s English, Mrs. Christopherson.”

Having fun yet, dad? thought Brad. Nothing makes for an enjoyable evening like having your profession ridiculed, eh, dad?

“You ought to be teaching them something useful,” declared Anna, “like wood shop or math—something they could use.”

Okay, Anna, Brad thought, get ready to hear dad launch into his speech about how language is the foundation for society and so on and so forth. Brad had heard the speech a hundred times. Ever since he first started school and complained about spelling or reading, his father had tried motivating him by extolling the virtues of language. Lincoln, the founding fathers, Martin Luther King—they all relied upon words to make positive changes in the world. And to use words effectively, Brad’s father would say, you had to know about wearisome things like spelling and punctuation and grammar.

Brad knew the lecture well; and now it would be Anna’s turn to hear the lecture.

But to Brad’s surprise his father just laughed good naturedly and inquired how Anna’s son Bart was doing.

“Well, I guess I should be grateful he’s kept out of trouble for a while. He stays pretty busy working at his garage.” She turned her attention to Brad. “Do you have a job yet, son?”

“No, I’m kind of concentrating on school right now. I might get a job in a couple of years.”

“Not working at your age!   Never heard of such silliness.   Why, when I was your age I was working for the Regal Candy Company in Chicago. They used to have us wrap those little candy sticks by hand.   And I was the fastest worker. In fact, one day Mr. Jacobson—he was the owner of the company—he spoke to me personally and said I was the best worker he had…”

Brad and his father stayed another twenty minutes, then said goodbye and left.

In the car Brad sighed and muttered sullenly, “At least we’ve got that over with for another month.”

“Well, just so you won’t consider the entire evening a total bust,” said his father, “let’s go get us an ice cream cone.”

 

 

When they visited Anna in November, Brad was fidgeting in his chair. He looked at his watch. They had already visited for twenty minutes and in fifteen minutes his favorite TV show would be on—and he hadn’t thought to set the VCR to record it. But if dad would just wrap up the conversation, they could be home in time for his show.

“So, is there anything we can do for you, Anna?” asked his father.

Good. This meant that Anna would say, “No, I can’t think of anything,” then they could say goodbye and be on their way.

But Anna strayed from the script and said, “Well, if it isn’t too much bother I’d appreciate it if you could fill my arthritis prescription for me. I usually have Bart get it for me, but he’s down with the flu. I suppose I could wait but I’m working on something I want to get finished and my hands keep freezing up on me.”

“It’s no bother at all.   Just get us the empty pill bottle.”

Well, so much for seeing my show…This is so not necessary, thought Brad. But as Anna got up to get the bottle, Brad saw that her hands were noticeably more swollen and red than usual.

On the way to the drug store Brad complained, “What’s an old person like her got to use her hands for anyway? Why doesn’t she just take it easy? And as far as Bart having the ‘flu,’ we both know he’s just recovering from one of his binges.”

“Come on, Brad.   That’s not the right attitude,” chided his father gently.

 

 

In December Brad and his father took some Christmas cookies over to Anna.

“Thank you,” she said.   “Come in and sit down. Just so happens I have something for you.”

When they were seated, Anna handed Brad’s father a small package.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” he said.

“Well, you shouldn’t have brought me cookies, either. But you did.   Now don’t just stare at the package. Open it.”

It was a beautiful leather-bound book.

Brad’s father held it gently in his hands and read the cover aloud, “North of Boston by Robert Frost.” He looked up at Anna and said, “Frost is one of my favorite poets.   This book looks like it’s an early edition. Where did you find it?”

“Oh, it belonged to my grandfather. I guess I never told you about him. He was a lover of words just like you. I know he cherished this book. So I thought you might like it too.”

“Like it?   I love it.” He carefully opened it up. “Why, this is a first edition—and it’s signed! This is wonderful. But I can’t accept it. You need to keep this in your family.”

“Now why would I do a fool thing like that. Bart wouldn’t be interested in it. All he likes is working on cars. No, you take it and I won’t hear another word about it.” The subject was closed, which was fine because Brad’s father was speechless.

“Now for you, young fella.   Go fetch that package under the tree.   The one with the green wrapping paper.”

As Brad grabbed a hold of the largest of the gifts beneath the tree, his fingers sunk into something soft beneath the crinkly layer of wrapping paper. And as he lifted the present, he found it to be heavier than expected.

When he sat back down in his chair with the bulky package, Anna said, “Now don’t just sit there.   Open it.”

As Brad ripped the paper, an enormous quilt was revealed. Brad unfolded it on his lap. The pattern was a snowflake design dominated by shades of blue—sky blue, pale powder blue and accents of dark royal blue. There were large creamy white snowflakes and smaller snowflake crystals made of silvery thread.

“Thought you might need something to keep you warm,” said Anna.

Brad stroked the quilt and looked up at Anna in wonder. “You made this, didn’t you?”

It was now Anna’s turn to feel a little flustered; but she tried to cover it by saying, “No sense buying something when you can make it yourself.”

“It’s so beautiful…it’s too good for me to sleep with and wrinkle up.”

“Nonsense. That’s what quilts are for: not to look at, but to sleep under.”

All Brad could do was meekly say “Thank you” and join his father in a state of speechlessness…

 

 

Anna passed away the following April. Her son Bart asked Brad to say a prayer at the funeral.

“She thought a lot of you, son,” Bart told Brad at the funeral.

“I thought a lot of her,” Brad truthfully told her son. “And I’m sure going to miss her.”

But every year about late October or early November, Brad would pull out the snowflake quilt from the linen closet and remember his friend with the thistledown hair.   He was obedient to Anna’s admonition. He didn’t just look at the quilt and admire it: he used it. And for all the use it was given, it was treated with care. If a small tear was discovered he immediately had his mother—and later his wife—repair it.

The snowflake quilt with sparkling silvery thread gently reminded him not to judge people too quickly or too harshly.

And how it kept him warm.

 

 

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