Author’s Note: This piece has been edited and now appears in “Angel Songs, 20 Christmas Short Stories and Poems, plus Recipes” by Dona Watson. Click here for more info.
I looked at today’s challenge topic and my heart fell. What in the world am I supposed to do with that? But as I started to think about it, I decided it might not be so bad after all. After all, almost everyone has a special ornament, right? Here’s what I came up with.
Kaitlyn walked into the living room and plopped down on the couch next to her grandfather, a napkin in her hand loaded with four chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. The teen held them out to the old man and he selected one for himself with a “Thank you.” With Christmas carols playing from the other room, they sat for a few minutes, just admiring the newly decorated Christmas tree.
This year Grandma had decided to go with a white and gold theme and the various patterned balls sparkled against the rich green pine needles. But right in the front hung an old dowel roughly the size of her little finger, suspended from a loop of common string run through a hole in the top. The dowel had been crudely painted to resemble what Kaitlyn guessed was supposed to look like baby Jesus. The bottom two-thirds was white and the top third was brown on the back and flesh-colored on the front with two dots for eyes and a wide, wiggly, cheesy smile underneath. Ever since she could remember, it had always hung in the front of Grandma and Grandpa’s Christmas tree.
“Grandpa,” she licked gooey chocolate from one finger, “why do you have that ornament on your tree every year?”
Grandpa chuckled. “Oh, you mean the ugly one?”
Kaitlyn grinned and nodded. She couldn’t have said it better herself.
The old man took a deep breath and leaned his head back against the couch’s headrest.
“Well, there’s a story behind that.”
He paused and Kaitlyn waited patiently.
“Before you were born–before your mom and dad got married–your dad was in the army. They had shipped him off to the Gulf War. He hadn’t been there but a few months when a roadside bomb went off just as the vehicle your dad was in was driving past. It flipped the Humvee over and all the guys inside got banged up pretty bad.”
He ran a hand over his face as if to wipe away the memory.
“Your dad, he was injured pretty badly. They airlifted him out to Germany, where he laid in the hospital in a coma. Your Grandma and I wanted to see him, but Germany is an awfully long ways away, you know? We didn’t know if he’d live and it hurt that we couldn’t be there.” He looked at Kaitlyn sideways with a sad smile, the cookie in his hand forgotten.
“So then what happened?”
“Well,” he shifted his attention back to the tree. “Your Grandma was heartbroken. One night I was pretty upset so instead of hanging around the house and making her feel worse, I took a walk. I remember it was early December because I walked down to the park where they always have the Nativity display set up. I sat on a bench and looked at Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds, and I prayed, ‘Dear Jesus, please be with my son. You know I want your will to be done, but if it’s possible, could you please bring him back to us?’”
His eyes glistened with unspilled tears.
“I just sat there, thinking and hoping for some kind of sign that God had heard my prayer, but God felt so far away. After about 20 minutes, a mom came by, pushing a stroller with a baby all bundled up inside and a little girl walking next to her. I’d be surprised if the girl was five years old. As they walked by, the little girl stopped and looked at me. Then she asked, ‘Mister, why are you sad?’ Well, I didn’t know what to say. Then she held out this little ornament. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘I made a Jesus stick at school. You can have it.’ As she dropped that simple little ornament into my hand, she said, ‘My mom said that Jesus is always with us. You look awfully sad so you can keep this in your pocket and Jesus can be with you too.’ She and her mother continued on their way, but I knew Jesus had sent that little girl my way, just to remind me that he’s always there for us. I took the Jesus stick home and hung it on the tree and it’s been there every year since then. Just to remind us that Jesus is always there.”
Kaitlyn’s grandfather wiped a tear and, after a moment, she asked, “So what happened then?”
He looked down at the half-eaten cookie in his hand, then up at her. “Then I went home and the next day we got a call that your dad had woken up. After a month or so, they flew him back to the States. He had some rehab to do, but eventually he healed up just fine.”
The conversation fell silent and Kaitlyn looked again at the ugly ornament. The Jesus stick. Now that she knew the story behind it, she knew she’d never look at it again the same way. The baby Jesus who would always be there.
This story is part of a Writing Challenge I have undertaken to write something every day in the month of December on a pre-selected list of topics. Photographer Jacqueline Ashford is keeping pace with me on the same list of topics, her with her camera and me with my keyboard. You can see Jacqueline’s gorgeous photos here. We’re having way too much fun with this mutual challenge. (You can see the list of topics here.)
Tomorrow’s Topic: Something You’re Reading