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A Christmas Story
by: Grandfather Oswald and Grandmother Antonia

Christmas Squares

Preston Cork sat quietly in his office, thinking about apples and weather vanes. He wouldn’t be home for the holidays this year, wouldn’t feel the crisp winter air or smell the smoke of the wood fire in the big living room fireplace. Sighing, he opened his desk drawer and reached inside.

With memories of Christmases past on his mind he played with a rubber band, shooting it through the air. He remembered playing with his cousins after they were sent unceremoniously outside while the adults wrapped presents. The children talked of Santa’s arrival and all the good they had done through the year, as opposed to the bad. No coal for their stockings that year.

As they played outside, a sudden winter storm came racing across the skies. In a panic Preston, with his cousins behind him, raced up the front porch stairs and busted through the door. The adults intoxicated and not being aware of the occurrence in the weather looked bewildered. Suddenly the lights went out. He never forgot what happened on that day, and it all came back to him as he toyed with the rubber band.

Preston took a deep breath, exhaled it slowly, and loosed another rubber band as if to eject his thoughts. That event, when the lights went out, so many years ago, now seemed emblematic and in keeping with what that particular Christmas had brought. In the present, the events that had followed slid through his mind and fell into place assembling the unfinished mosaic that was now his life.

His office chair let out a heavy groan as he leaned back removed his glasses and closed his eyes. Twenty-five Christmas Eves had come and gone and the memory of that one day played back in his head as if it only happened yesterday. The storm had blown in without warning and sent all the children scrambling for the front door. His older cousin, Meredith, was the first through, with him right behind, when the roof came crashing down and the lights went out.

Preston could feel his throat tighten as he recalled the earsplitting crash, the howling of the wind, and the sound of splintering wood. Somehow in the chaos that ensued, his father found his red and chrome flashlight and after some fumbling managed to bring some power and light into the house. The storm had moved out as fast as it had moved in and in the silence of the moment all eyes were fixed on the same image. As long as he lived, Preston would never forget the sight of the hand protruding from the red sleeve with the white fur trim that stuck out from the rubble that had once been their roof.
Little Kate, a highly strung child – her nerves already on edge from the storm, let out a shriek that brought the staring company to life. Uncle Bill took the opportunity to have a sip from his wine glass, Mother rushed through to the kitchen to see if she could save the Christmas dinner. The red sleeve with white fur trim flapped briskly in the breeze rushing in from the holes in the roof, but the hand was awfully still.

Meredith, as the older of the children, went closer and said, “Oh, that’s just the big Santa that we had on the roof.” Well, that crisis was averted. However, Mother returned and said that the bird was safe but all of the food that was on top of the stove was ruined. They lived in the country so there was no store available to buy replacement items.

She sent Uncle Bill down to the root cellar to see what he could find that could be heated for dinner. All of the children were delegated to bring in wood for the fireplace. Dad and Preston went to the small house to get a tarp to put over the hole in the roof now that the storm was past. When they returned, Uncle Bill was grinning. In one hand he had a flour sack filled with carrots, potatoes, cabbages and turnips; in the other, a burlap bag that seemed strangely rounded. The children clamored, “What is it? What is it, Uncle Bill?” Out of the second sack rolled onto the floor a dead possum! “Eeuw, eeuw!” the children shrieked. “Eeuw, eeuw!” Mother shrieked, “You’re not expecting me to cook that are you?” Uncle Bill laughed, “I hope not—it’s alive and I’m going to set it free in the yard.”
While Uncle Bill took the possum outside, Father grabbed a ladder and went outside to temporarily fix the roof. He asked Meredith to come along and help. "Meredith, hold the ladder for me, while I climb upon the roof." Meredith could see that the rain was turning the roof into a slip-and-slide. This made him nervous, as he watched Uncle Bill make it to the hole in the roof. Uncle Bill secured the tarp over the hole with some roofing tacks and started to inch his way down.
"Look-out Meredith,” was the last thing Meredith remembered before something slammed into his head, and his body crumpled to the ground.

Now, there on the ground out cold was poor unfortunate cousin Meredith. Uncle Bill just stood over Meredith examining the piece of the roof that had fallen and taking an opportunity to have another sip of wine. Mother came rushing in to see what the commotion was about this time almost tripping over debris from the roof and the fallen Santa. Father looked as if he would have liked to join Uncle Bill for a couple glasses of wine. As for Little Kate, this was all too much for her now as she began ranting with her hands in the air. "What else could possibly happen?" thought Mother. Hearing Little Kate’s ranting, seeing Meredith collapsed on the floor, with Uncle Bill and Father seemingly helpless, she drew a deep breath. She was determined not to have Christmas spoiled.
Mother knelt down and placed her hand on Meredith’s forehead. She closed her eyes and began to say a silent prayer. Within minutes Meredith opened his eyes. Meredith reached for Mother embraced her with a hug and asked, “What happened? What happened?” Father, Uncle Bill and Little Kate were so relieved that he wasn’t dead that they began to shout, “Thank goodness, oh, thank goodness.”

Yes, thank goodness Meredith’s identical twin, Meredith (Mother wasn’t good with names), also ran to the rescue and was able to help stop the bleeding and revive her brother. Father and Uncle Bill looked up from spiking the punch long enough to be thankful for the bountiful harvests and the innate doctor skills of the younger Meredith; skills that would one day lead her to medical school. While the Merediths were busy and the adults were occupied with their potent potables, Little Kate wandered off chasing the possum.

The adults then enjoyed a good amount of the spiked punch. The younger generation watched as the “vino” influenced the drama of the night. Stories of the family’s past were enchanting everyone. Little by little, Uncle Bill started to share tales about the family’s history. Father also had tales to share.
As Father reached a high point in his story, a loud shout came from the bedroom door – it was Old Uncle Zeke. Uncle Zeke lived in the back bedroom and never came out of his room. When we asked why, the adults explained that he was “ailing in the head.” However, this particular day, Uncle Zeke had a lot to say, it seems that Father’s story sparked something in him.
“The Box!” he rasped, in his unwelcome scratchy voice, “Have ye all fergott’n‘bout The Box?”

The box? What box? The children wondered, as all the adults began to remember collectively: Grandfather Oswald’s great Iron Strong Box! It was also stashed in the root cellar, in a cobweb and dust covered and long disregarded corner. But now they all remembered the long-departed old gentleman’s final request: “Don’t open The Box until a great storm threatens a family Christmas.”
Now Uncle Zeke held up the dull brass key between his gnarled fingers, “It’s time,” he croaked, “fer us all to go down, and have a look!”
And so they began their trek to the root cellar and “The Box.” With Uncle Zeke leading the way, their family’s version of a holiday parade, they marched single file to the mystery below.

They gathered in the cellar and watched as Uncle Zeke reverently removed “The Box” from the shelf where it had sat so long. Since the cellar was too dark and dank for a respectful opening, it was decided that they would retrace their steps and retreat to the living room and the warmth of the fireplace.
Uncle Zeke sacredly placed “The Box” on the coffee table and they sat around anxiously awaiting what wonders were about to be unveiled. He put the key in the lock and, just as he began to turn the key, a loud, mournful cry was heard from the kitchen.

They ran to the sound and imagine their happy surprise when they found the source of the yelp. The cry emanated from their little possum friend who, thanks to Little Kate’s creativity and doll collection, had been loosely clothed as Santa. She had taken the clothes off her Santa doll and dressed the possum for the season; they never did find out how she did that. The cry was just the sound of Santa Possum clearly letting all know that he was not full of holiday cheer about his new role. They all laughed at the sight of that poor possum and Mother made sure that Little Kate knew the inherent problems of playing with possums.

After that interruption, they quickly returned to the important task at hand, “The Box.” There would be no returning to the fireplace for them, they would open this family treasure now, before another calamity occurred. They huddled around Uncle Zeke as he placed and opened “The Box” on the kitchen table.
In this great box was only one thing, a quilt; a blanket made of countless numbers of tiny 2” by 2”cloth squares. Each square told a story that seemed to mean so much to the adults. They shared stories about some old apron Grandmother Antonia once wore and Father’s football jersey.

It was great sharing and hearing those stories but why the mystery, why “The Box?” None of them got it. The family looked at the quilt up close and far away but it didn’t seem to explain why it was needed for a stormy Christmas, like the one they were having.
It was then that Preston found the answer. He turned “The Box” upside down and read aloud the following, which was carved on the bottom of this heirloom:
“When winds and weather make you shiver and shake,
remember life’s purpose is but to give not take.
The love of friend and family is all one truly needs,
So enjoy the season and do some good deeds.
This storm will pass quickly, before the New Year,
For now, appreciate the fact that your family is near.
That is our message we leave for you,
Have a Happy Christmas and New Year, too.
Love, Grandfather Oswald and Grandmother Antonia
P.S. May this quilt of family memories remind you of what is truly important and may those thoughts keep you warm in heart and soul.”
Upon the conclusion of Preston’s reading, the family gathered closely together and wrapped the quilt around them. Preston never felt so warm and secure.
Grandfather and Grandmother had left them a most unexpected and irreplaceable holiday gift. “The Box” was a treasure for the entire family, a present that was not wrapped in colorful paper and ribbons or had come from a shopping mall. It was a personal message from them, especially meant for their family, this storm and the adventures of that particular holiday.
As Preston reflected on those cherished memories, he closed his desk drawer, put on his coat and walked out the door. He would come back later, much later. Work would be there when the season was over. He had more important things to do now. He had a family to meet and some old shirts that needed to be cut into squares.

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