Last Christmas

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TerryDonnelly“One dollar and eighty-seven cents…two dollars and sixty-seven cents…three dollars and eighty-two, three, four cents.” The old couple counted out the assorted change that lay strewn about in front of them. It was December 24th and they had small gifts bought and wrapped for their grandchildren and one for the teen who always helped the old woman with her grocery bags. Three dollars and eighty-four cents was all that remained of the money they had to spend for the month.

“That isn’t much.” The old woman was sad. “I hoped to have enough to get a tree for our front window this year.”

“Come on Kitten, we can find something if we try.”

The old man had called his wife “Kitten” for over sixty years. They had been married in a different time. One that seemed simpler. They worked hard and saved a small amount of money over their lifetime, raised a family, and now lived quietly in their retirement years. They needed to count every penny every month, but voiced no complaints. Their spirits were generally upbeat now that they were approaching the end of their time on Earth. They both joyously agreed that they had led charmed lives together and vowed to revel in the simple pleasures they found daily.

Together, the old couple scooped the change back into her timeworn, leather purse, donned their coats and scarves, and headed out the door. Bundled up, they looked a lot alike as they walked–both a bit stooped over, each with a shock of white hair rising out from the wool scarves around their necks. They held hands as much for support as from love.

They turned down the sidewalk toward the intersection where shops and restaurants stood.

When they got to the corner it was nearly three o’clock and not many people were about. The old couple stepped into a fenced lot that was advertising Christmas trees for sale. The owner was preparing to close his stand for the season and go home to his family. His inventory had been pretty well picked over and only a few good trees remained.

He watched as the old couple sized up one tree after another. They turned the trees and stood back to take a better look. Each time, after looking at the price tag, they put the tree back–the prices were all too much.

As they were about to walk home without a tree, the old man noticed a small one tucked into a corner of the lot. It looked okay from a distance, but when he picked it up, he saw the backside was flat and without many branches. The tag for that tree read $5.

“Look!” He tried to sound happy about his find. “We can put this side in our window. It has some good branches.”

“I don’t know.” The old woman was not sure the sparse tree would make their apartment look any more festive.

“Will you take $3.84 for this tree sir?” the old man asked the tree lot owner.

“Sure, why not? I’m about to close up and no one else will be buying any trees this late on Christmas Eve.”

He took the handful of change not bothering to count it.

As the couple left the lot the old man noticed another tree sticking out of a barrel.

“What are you going to do with this?”

“Burn it.”

“Can we take it too?” the old man asked.

The old woman looked at him like he had lost his mind. This tree was worse than the one on which he had spent the last of their money.

“I sure don’t care. It’s yours if you want to haul it away.”

After wishing the lot owner a Merry Christmas and receiving returned greetings from him, the old couple dragged the two scrawny trees back to their apartment.

The old woman went into the kitchen to put some soup on the stove to warm for their dinner. The old man began to tinker with the trees in the living room.

First he began to braid branches from the flat side of one tree into the branches on the flat side of the other tree. After about twenty minutes of twining and tying string around some branches and securing the two trunks together, he crossed two boards and nailed them to the bottom of the hugging trees so they could stand on their own.

He stood his creation upright and stepped back for a better look. The result was amazing! The trees fit together like matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Together, the complementary trees made one full, round, beautiful decoration. It was as if the trees came to life after they were introduced to each other–the faults and shortcomings of one made beautiful by the strengths of the other.

The old man was stunned. He didn’t expect something so magnificent to come from the two, broken, outcast trees.

“Kitten, come in here. Look at this!”

When the old woman emerged from the kitchen she dropped her soupspoon. She stood and stared at her husband’s creation. It looked to all the world as if the two trees were one elegant spruce.

After the old couple had eaten their soup, they spent the rest of the evening winding the two ancient strings of lights they had stored away onto the tree and finally topped it with the only glass ornament they owned. It was a shiny, round bulb with hand-painted stripes. The ornament had belonged to the old woman ever since she was a little girl–it was a prized possession. The old man carefully tied it to the top of the tree as the old woman plugged in the lights.

With many different colors of bulbs glowing, the tree leapt to life–dancing with light that illuminated its wondrous form. Together they lifted the little tree onto a stool so it would be tall enough for its full radiance to be seen through the window. They pushed the tree into the space that looked out onto the street. Next they carefully placed the few gifts around the stool under the tree and finally sat down on the threadbare, brown loveseat with its faded design to enjoy their new decoration.

Snow began to gently fall in big, white flakes as the day turned to night. All evening as people passed the apartment they stopped and took time to admire the glorious tree in the window. Each viewer took great joy in seeing the dancing lights on the tree made more vibrant when framed by the falling snow. No one guessed that it had been created from two cast offs that would have been without a home this Christmas had it not been for the old couple bringing them in and piecing them together.

After a few hours of admiring their tree and delighting in retelling stories from Christmases past, they reluctantly decided it was time for bed.

“Let’s leave the lights plugged in all night just in case someone comes walking by late who needs a holiday boost in spirits,” suggested the old woman.

After turning out the lamp and before heading into their room, they stood in the glow taking one more long look at their beautiful tree and the fabulous array of shadows the lights cast on the walls. As they did so the old couple hugged each other. As their arms and bodies intertwined they looked to all the world as if they were one. As if they were two matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fitting perfectly together–the faults and shortcomings of one made beautiful by the strengths of the other.

[Editor’s note: Terry Donnelly is a long-time columnist and author who will begin a bi-weekly column with the Mesquite Local News in January.]

Comments

  1. Norma LoPresti says:

    What a beautiful story. We don’t have a home in Mesquite any longer but wouldn’t miss articles such as this if we still didn’t get to read the Mesquite News. They don’t have good stories like this in the big city. I guess too many people in too big a hurry.

  2. Carol Ann Wolthuis Zomer says:

    Terry, Thank you for this delightful story. So simply told; but, jam packed with meaning. I loved it. Merry Christmas!

  3. Jane Viers says:

    Great story. I love short Christmas stories. Merry Christmas to you and Pat. Missed seeing you this past summer.

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