Merry Christmas kind readers! This short story is my gift to you. May your New Year be filled with friendship. Seek it out, pray for it, hope and it will come!
She stared out the dingy window watching the snow fall softly to the ground. Her white, knit shawl wrapped tightly around bony shoulders. In the street outside children squealed, trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues. She smiled to herself at their happiness.
It had been a long time since children had been in this house. She looked around at the faded rose print wallpaper. A long time. The Victorian house she had lived in for over sixty years looked as fragile and worn as it’s owner.
The tick tick tick of the brass anniversary clock filled the room. It chimed its familiar tune, reminding her of the hour. Time to take her medicine. Slowly, unbending worn joints, she stood and made her way across the mauve and jade hooked rug. Her pink slippers swished slowly across the floor. Sighing she noted the little ceramic Christmas tree on the kitchen table. It whispered to her heart of happier times. Her old hand, now gnarled and bent, had been agile enough years ago to create the pretty decoration. It was about the only thing left she had the energy to bring out for the holiday’s. Somehow, it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without it in its usual place.
Going over to the old porcelain sink she filled a glass of water and swallowed a handful of pills in a variety of colors and shapes. Turning to the stove she put the kettle on to boil. Her ritual cup of peppermint tea in the afternoon was one of her little enjoyments. Unbidden, ghosts from the past swirled around her as she stood at the ancient stove. A little boy’s laughter echoed as he played with a favorite train at her feet. A shy girl sat upon a straight back chair, nose buried in a book. A handsome man, dashing with his trim mustache and contagious smile. She welcomed them gladly. The memories had become her only company through the lonely hours.
Across the street seven-year old Lizzie and her mother were making Christmas goodies. Blonde hair and a smattering of freckles, Lizzie was a miniature of her pretty mother. The crisp yellow kitchen was filled with the warm, buttery aroma of baking cookies. It was the smell of love if ever there was one. Lizzie’s daddy was working late, delivering Christmas mail in his chilled postal truck. Lizzie was excited about the surprise she would have waiting for him when he finally came through the back door stomping the snow off his boots. But that would be a couple of hours yet.
Lizzie sat at the round table for four in the breakfast nook by the bay window, that looked out on the street, while she finished putting sprinkles on the sugar cookie snowflakes, angels, and snowmen. The lace curtains were drawn back and from time to time she would watch the soft snow falling, twinkling, as it danced its way down in the light. The houses on the street made a pretty backdrop, their own lights reflecting the glitter of the falling snow. All, save one.
“What are you thinking little bit?” asked Susan, noticing her daughter staring out the window.
Sincere blue eyes met hers. “I was thinking about the house across the street. We should take some Christmas cookies. It looks sad.”
Susan was touched by her little girl’s thoughtfulness, but was reluctant to venture from the warmth of the cozy kitchen to visit a neighbor she had never met. “I’m not sure they’re home sweetie.”
“There was a light in a window just a minute ago. Please, mama.” Her china eyes widened expectantly.
Her mother smiled. “Okay. But, you have to finish decorating this last batch first. I’ll look for a plate and we’ll take some over before it gets too dark.”
Lizzie bent her small head to the task. Her hands iced and sprinkled and placed silver beads just so. She wanted to make sure her cookies were perfect.
Back across the street in the gathering gray, Lizzie’s neighbor had finished her tea and early supper of chicken salad and saltines. She shuffled her dainty pink slippers back across the large entry hall, past the ornate walnut staircase. Settling into her small mauve recliner by the window she turned on the 17” television sitting on the edge of an oak chest. The room was filled with antiques. At one time it had been fashionable and quite lovely. Now the drapes were faded and dusty. The mirrors, cherry wood, and gilt frames had lost their luster.
In the middle of the room, facing a marble fireplace stood a musty, burgundy settee. Flanking the fireplace were matching wing back chairs in worn damask. Old cherry side tables held assorted photographs and porcelain figurines. Heavy wine colored drapes with tasselled fringe covered the windows and darkened the room. A beautiful gilt mirror hung over the mantle reflecting back the parlor’s ruined beauty.
The room sat mostly undisturbed. She kept to her little corner by the window. The side table beside her chair held an assortment of books, magazines, and a small brass lamp. She was cozy in her spot. The window let light and life into her faded world. As she sat, a silent prayer formed on her lips. Her heart hesitated to speak the words. Disappointment loomed, a fearsome specter at the jolly season. So, she stared out of her window, and hoped. Unaware that hope was, in reality, the prayer she was too afraid to speak.
The soft flakes softened the angular edges of the world. She dozed by her window, comforted by the Christmas lights that wrapped themselves around the joy contained in her neighbor’s homes. Even from a distance their warmth and cheer reached her.
A short time later she was startled by a knock at her front door. Unknown to her little Lizzie across the street had won out. As only a child can, she had known with innocent certainty the house that stared down on her own was in real need of Christmas cookies. Susan had relented because she trusted her child’s reliable instincts of kindness.
The confused, elderly lady blinked, trying to orient herself. When was the last time someone had knocked on her door? Slowly she laid aside the book that had slipped to her lap and the white shawl that had slipped from her shoulders, stood, stiff in every joint, and moved to the door. Instinctively she patted her short, white hair as she walked.
As Susan stood on the flaking porch by her excited little girl she shifted nervously from one foot to the other. The Victorian home had been a real jewel at one time. That much was plain. Even still it clung to a dignified elegance in it’s crumbling state. Slowly the large oak door opened, as if by some great effort from the hand on the other side.
The old lady opened the door slowly and peaked through the opening. The watery blue eyes met the eager, dancing ones. They smiled at each other. Magic.
Susan saw it instantly in the old woman’s delicate face. The spark that lit her eyes and warmed her features was unmistakable. Tears filled her own eyes with pride for her wise little one.
“My name is Lizzie,” chirruped the tiny imp in the pink coat with white fur framing a face as fresh as a pink camellia in January. She thrust out the red plate of sugary offerings. “I made these myself.”
“Hi, I’m Susan.” Her mother offered her hand. “We live across the street in the white house with the big porch.” She nodded over her shoulder in their house’s direction. “We wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. I’m afraid we haven’t been very good at getting to know our neighbors since we moved here in August. But Lizzie insisted we remedy that.” She looked down with a proud smile at her girl.
“I’m Louise Dalton.” Offered their neighbor. “I’m very pleased to meet you Lizzie and Susan.” She took the proffered plate from Lizzie’s hands. “You’d better come in and help me eat these lovely treats, dear.”
She stepped back from the door to let her guests into the spacious front hall. Thankful she had put on a clean cardigan with her faded blue slacks this morning, she led them to the worn but respectable front room. She set the plate of cookies down on the low table in front of the settee. “Please, have a seat while I get us some milk.” She twinkled at the treasures standing in her parlor.
“May I help you?” asked Susan.
Louise paused, smiled thoughtfully and answered, “Yes, dear, I would appreciate it.”
Susan and Lizzie followed her back across the large foyer, marveling at the grand house. In the kitchen Louise set out a mahogany tray inlaid with an intricate design and brass handles. She set three cut glasses on the tray and poured them full from a small carton. “There,” she said returning the carton to the ancient refrigerator. “Susan, dear, would you carry the tray for us please?”
They followed each other back to the parlor. Susan and Lizzie sat like ladies on the settee. Louise’s hand shook as she handed them their glasses, whether from age or excitement Susan couldn’t tell. “Lizzie, your cookies look delicious, but they’re almost too pretty to eat.”
“Thank you,” replied the child politely, her face aglow with pride. They each took one and nibbled gingerly at the white frosting. Louise sat in a brocade arm-chair, taking in her guests.
“I like your house,” piped up Lizzie.
“Why thank you, dear. It’s very old. Older than even myself.”
The young eyes blinked back with wonder. “Have you always lived here?”
“No dear, I moved here as a young bride with my husband. He was some years older than myself and had inherited it from his aunt. I’ve been here for over sixty years.” A look, as if joy and sorrow had married, washed over her face. “Would you like to see it?”
Lizzie nodded. She stood and approached Louise’s chair. Her soft fingers wrapped around wrinkled, bony ones. Tears sprang to Louise’s eyes. She stood, leaving behind cookies and milk, to drink of something deeper. The pair left the room hand in hand. Susan stayed a few steps behind and watched them.
Across from the parlor Louise led Lizzie into the formal dinning room. It was as dusty and ripe with memories as the parlor. Cobwebs hung from the ornate brass chandelier. A long, dark table down the middle was the heart of the room. It must have hosted many happy gatherings. The trio was reflected in a gilt mirror over the fireplace at the end of the room. Lizzie looked so small standing in the grand, gloomy space.
“We had dinner parties here that were just marvelous, Lizzie. But my favorite memories are of Christmas dinner with the family. My children dressed in their holiday best, washed and tidy. Happy music played from the sideboard there.” She pointed to an ornate piece of furniture that at one time must have been spread with lavish food and apparently had held a record player that had since been moved. “We had goose or pheasant and every good thing you could think of. Gingerbread, pies, coconut cake, and cookies of every kind. We were happy together.” She trailed off wistfully, lost in a place that belonged neither here, nor there.
“Did you have a boy or a girl?” asked little Lizzie, pulling her companion back to now.
The two were still hand in hand. Faded blue eyes, alive with memories, looked kindly down at the upturned face. “I had a girl and a boy. Emmeline was oldest and then Robert came next. They were good friends, though Emmeline liked to play quietly and Robert could be a bit of a ruffian.”
“Do they visit you?”
Susan saw the shudder of the old woman’s shoulders. Her head shook slowly. “Not anymore. They’ve gone.” She paused and changed the subject. “But look here, dear. Here is something you might like.” She walked Lizzie over to the low fireplace mantel. In a row across the top were four plates each painted with a different Chinese scene. “My husband traveled all the way to China and brought these back for me.” Each picture told a different story. Around the edges were ornate decorations of flowers and designs. There was a scene of a boy and girl in a garden at the foot of a mountain. Lizzie’s favorite was of a beautiful girl riding on a plumed bird.
“I like her. She’s beautiful. How did she get the bird to let her have a ride?”
Louise smiled. “That is the question isn’t it? These plates tell wonderful stories. The best part is we can tell them however we want.” Turning to Lizzie she asked, “How do you think she got the bird to give her a ride?”
Lizzie stood on tiptoe and stared at the delicate Chinese woman on the back of the bird with his wings spread out and edged in gold. It looked as if they were flying through pink clouds. “I think she fed him berries and said please. And he knew she needed help so he gave her a ride to take her home.”
“Please is very probably the answer, dear. It’s a powerful word. Shall we go upstairs and see what we can find there?”
The trio headed up the grand staircase. They traipsed through closed up rooms, several untouched for many years. In one room at the end of the hall Louise swung open the door to reveal a little girl’s paradise. It was papered with a blue background dotted by bouquets of yellow flowers. A canopy bed stood on the wall to the right. Against the frilly pillows rested an assortment of stuffed animals and dolls. Lizzie gasped at the sight of the beautiful room. A doll house sat under the window, colorful books filled low bookshelves, and a small table in the corner held a child sized tea set decorated with rosebuds.
“I do believe I’ve saved the best for last. Go in my dear, look at all the pretty things.”
Lizzie looked quickly at her mother’s face. Susan smiled at her “Go ahead, sweetie.”
Lizzie walked through the room with surprising tenderness. Softly she touched each pretty thing. She sat and rocked in a tiny rocking chair, examined the doll house, and finally she stopped at the bed fingering the lace on the beautiful porcelain dolls.
Susan stood beside Louise as they watched the little girl soak in the delights of the dusty room. “Where is your daughter now?” Susan ventured to ask. She guessed there was a story to tell.
A small sigh escaped as the older woman prepared to recount the sorrow. “Emmeline was twelve the winter she and her brother caught influenza. We did everything that could be done for them at that time. Robert recovered but his sister never did. It will be fifty-two years ago this February since we buried her. I didn’t have the heart to change her room. For a long time I kept it clean and tidy, even bringing flowers and setting up a little tree for Christmas. It’s been a while now since I’ve been able to clean much of the house at all.”
Susan reached out and rested her hand on her new friend’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine losing Lizzie, it must have been so hard.”
Louise reached up and patted the warm hand on her shoulder. “Thank you. It was dear, it was.”
“And your son?” Susan asked gently. She figured they might as well cover it all now.
“He was killed in an automobile accident as a young man.” The statement held so many emotions and unanswered questions. But it was enough.
“Oh Louise, I am so sorry.”
Louise shook her head as if clearing a fog. “Shh, dear, no worrying. Look here at the treasure standing in this dusty place.” She pointed to little Lizzie who had climbed onto the bed to get a better look at the dolls and animals lying there.
“Lizzie,” she said as she walked to join her at the bed, “do you see the doll with the blonde curls and pink dress?” Lizzie nodded. “That was my daughter, Emmeline’s, favorite doll. Would you like to take her home and take care of her?”
Susan joined the two by the bed. “Are you sure Louise, she must be very special to you.”
“Very sure, Susan dear. Dolls should be loved and it’s time this one was loved again.” She picked up the doll and handed her to Lizzie who cradled her and fussed over her dress. “Emmeline called her Katrina but you may call her whatever you like, Lizzie. Emmaline went to heaven when she was a girl and I miss her. It will make me glad to think of you playing with her doll.”
The solemn blue eyes looked up. “I’ll take good care of her.” Little Lizzie naturally knew the gravity of such a responsibility.
The afternoon shadows were lengthening into twilight. “I’m afraid we must be going Louise. Thank you for showing us your home and for the doll.”
The three moved to the stairway. “I’m glad you knew I could use some Christmas cookies Lizzie, they were delicious. Your visit did my heart good.
Susan and Lizzie embraced their new friend and stepped out into the frosty evening.
“Goodbye, dears, thank you for coming. It was the loveliest afternoon I can remember in a long time. Merry Christmas.”
Susan paused at the doorstep. “Louise, come have Christmas dinner with us tomorrow. Please.”
Up pipped Lizzie, “Oh please come! We’re having ham and sweet potatoes and red velvet cake. Will you come?”
Louise smiled shyly. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble you know I’d love to.”
Susan clasped her neighbor’s frail hand. “Good, we’ll eat at 1:00. I’ll send Ben and Lizzie to walk you over.”
Another embrace and they were gone, hurrying across the snow-covered yard. The mother and daughter turned and waved before they disappeared into their snug house.
Louise closed the heavy door against the stinging air and slowly made her way back to the chair by the window. A tear escaped her eye and her chin trembled. A prayer she hadn’t had the courage to speak out loud had been answered. Friends for Christmas!
On Christmas day as she sat at the table in the house across the street, surrounded by happy laughter and love, Louise looked out the window of the kitchen and up the hill to her own house. Her chair was empty and her favorite window looked down to where she sat among friends, no longer dreaming alone.
Pass on this story of friendship, share it with those you know and wish them well!