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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

yellowstone christmas

I never dreamed I would spend Christmas Eve away from my native Midwestern roots, without the comfort of family and familiar foods. But, then I never dreamed I would be a widow at age 29 either. But both are true. And now, by the generosity of a fellow teacher, I am ensconced in a plush room at the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park, awaiting the holiday festivities. That is, my daughter and I are sharing a room next door to my fun-loving friend, Christy. Though my parents will sorely miss having my 3-year-old opening her gifts at their home tomorrow, I could not bring myself to come without her — we go everywhere together — we are best buds.

Christy bounces in. “Hurry already!” She tosses her jacket on the chair. “They're having the most awesome buffet downstairs in the great hall.” She smooths her skirt and starts toward the door.

I stop her. “Christy, thanks. For this. The trip . . . everything. I mean, it’s been 2 years and still . . . well, holidays are difficult.”

She gives me a quick hug. “Hey, I know. I have loved having you and Kenna here with me. Now, how about that food . . . .”

I make a face and grab Kenna's hand. And we're off to join the other guests for a scrumptious and hearty meal.

The Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the quintessential mountain structure — exposed beams, hewn stone, oversized seating, and a mammoth fireplace with snowshoes on the mantel — just being here makes you feel like a Klondike adventurer. And with the snow piled deep by the door and the Christmas trees catching the sparkle of the crackling fire . . .well, it almost rivals Christmas with my family in Indiana . . .almost.

When I cannot possibly swallow another appetizer, I pull Kenna back on my lap and settle into an Adirondack chair. She sits still for a minute, then pulls back to look at me, and points toward the window “Mommy, please, let's go see the snow.”

I can’t refuse her. I want to see it too.

We go over to the room across the hall and gaze out the huge window at the silent world being draped in a frosty coverlet. And seeing isn’t enough. Kenna and I want to feel the feather-soft snow on our faces. A quick dash upstairs, and we are bundled into parkas, gloves, and caps. We go through the main hall and out the door. I happen to catch the gaze of a young park ranger as we go out the door. Thinking he might attempt to dissuade us from our play, I quickly slip out, hoping he won’t follow.

The snow is incredible. Kenna and I twirl in circles like 2 sisters, laughing at the shower of tiny snowflakes. She is so tiny there beside me, an elfin child in a world of white. Then…...she is gone. I don’t see her. And the panic is unbearable. I turn toward the lodge, opening my mouth to scream. And look up into the face of the ranger. His face is calm, chiseled against the wintry night sky.

 I point. “My little girl. She was right here. I can't find her.”

He lightly touches my shoulder and is gone. I hear a radio and realize he is calling help.

Someone holds out a hand, “Come back to the lodge. They'll find her.”

As I stand by the window, I moan my stupidity. What was I thinking? To go out in the snow, at night, with a child? And I find myself running to my Father. “Oh God, I‟m so sorry. Please keep her. Help him find her. You said You‟re a help to the fatherless — please be with Kenna. Help her not to be scared.”

It is really a very short time, though it seems much longer, and Kenna is back safe and sound, her nose very red, and a few dried tears on her cheeks. She snuggles close to me by the fire. I try to thank the ranger.

He smiles and leans down. “I heard you and Kenna praying over your meal, and I knew she was in good hands. He just used me to find her. And anyway, I’ve been looking out for you since you came yesterday. You seemed a little out of your league here.” His eyes twinkle; he extends his hand. “I'm Bruce Grayson — park ranger, Sunday School teacher, from Montana.”

I put out my hand. “I'm Claire Isaacs — Kenna's mom, Kindergarten teacher, from Indiana. Wait a minute . . . Bruce Grayson . . . from Montana . . .you’re not . . .you were my husband's hunting buddy? The one who led Him to Christ?"

He nods. “I heard about Dave . . . can't believe he got to spend Christmas in heaven before I did. We used to talk about that by the campfire. He always wanted me to meet you. I’m glad I finally get the privilege.”

It‟s getting late. Kenna’s head is lolling around on my shoulder. I get up. “Again . . .thank you. I am very grateful.”

“You’re welcome.” His tone takes no credit, just rejoices.

I start toward the stairs, glance back and see Bruce walking toward the front desk. Our very own guardian angel. Who would have guessed?

A few minutes later, I am wrapped in my chenille bathrobe, fuzzy slippers warming my feet, when I hear a knock on my door. A bellboy stands there with an envelope. It’s from the ranger. “Please join me for breakfast tomorrow. I have some stories about Dave you probably never heard. The lodge kitchen makes a mean French toast platter. — Bruce.”

I smile. An angel who likes French toast. I prop the note on the night stand and switch off the lamp. God is looking out for me — my present and my future. Maybe Bruce will be part of that. But for now, I am content. Christmas is alive in my heart. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

far from home

The wind on the lake flung ice crystals against the glass window pane of the cabin. Britta could barely see the fir trees in front. Such a storm!

The cabin was warm enough; the rocking chair made by her husband’s skilled hands sat in front of the fireplace, a cheery braided rug at her feet. But she was not one for relaxing; that was what she took from Mamma—busy hands. Right now, her hands were clicking knitting needles. It was a surprise for Anders—a new sweater of lovely blue.

He would need it in the winter months to come. This America, ach! Such a wild, cold land. She remembered the first time she had seen their new home, six months ago, on a glorious summer morn that rivaled any at home in Sweden. The lake was pure azure and dark green trees gleamed on the shore; the sun warmed the little house as Anders carried her over the threshold. She was perfectly, wondrously happy. After their long separation while he came to America to clear land and build the house, it had been unspeakable joy to be together again. Sometimes, Britta still couldn't believe it was true, and she would raise the lid of the cedar trunk to take another look at the wedding dress packed safely inside. She was now Mrs. Anders Lindgren. In their own happy little home, she could put aside the memories of the big ship pulling away from the dock and Mamma and Pappa, waving goodbye, and growing smaller and smaller in the distance. With sunshine and a garden and summer nights to enjoy, she didn’t have to think about her oldest and dearest friend, Linnea, who was expecting her first baby any day now. She and Anders had picnics on the lakeshore and long drives in the twilight. It had been different in the summer.

But it was winter now. This place named Minnesota was frozen; the Lake called Superior was solid. There was no warmth, no waves and no color—only wind and snow in shades of grey and white.

Still, Sweden was terribly cold too. And the winter days there hadn’t seemed unbearable. Pausing to pick up a dropped stitch, Britta thought about the difference family and friends make. She hadn’t really considered how important they were, especially at Christmastime. A plump tear rolled down her face as she thought about Mamma, with golden braids wound around her head and a crisp apron around her middle, baking pans of Pepparkakor (ginger cookies) and saffransbullar (saffron buns). She wondered which of her sisters would be chosen to be the Lucia Queen on December 13. Perhaps it would be Helena; oh, how she would love to see her in a white gown, wearing the candle crown and carrying a tray of coffee and sweet rolls for everyone to enjoy. She would miss the wonderful Christmas Eve smorgasbord and the Christmas church service. Yes, being without loved ones was awful.

Of course, she loved Anders too much to tell him about it. He was working so hard, and he would worry if she told him about her sadness. This is what being a prairie wife was all about. She must buck up and do the job.

At least, that’s what Mamma would say. Britta thought about the quiet night last spring when they were sitting on Britta’s bed, stitching pillowcases for her trousseau. She remembered Mamma’s words: "Britta, soon there will be an ocean separating us. I could not let you go so far on your own." She stopped sewing and laid her hand on Britta’s. "But I know our dear Savior Himself goes with you always. And it was His plan that a woman stay with her husband. You must honor His way, even when it causes hurt. And, if you do, He will be true to you. I know it." Her eyes had been shining with misty tears and love.

Britta stopped knitting. So, I am here. The snow is piling at my door, and my husband has gone to help a neighbor. But, I have spices and sugar and flour and eggs; it is time for me to do the baking. I will make Kanelbullar (cinnamon buns). She hid her knitting and got up from the chair.

Before she started mixing and stirring, she went to the cedar chest and took out candles. She fashioned a little wreath with fir sprays and tied a bit of ribbon here and there; then she set the candles inside and struck a match. She lit candles in the two glass windows Anders was so proud of. Then she stood looking out at the wintry sky; "Lord, I have lit the candles in honor of the Christ Child. I am here, following Your way. I’m waiting on Your answer."

She had barely finished when there was a bang on the door. Outside, with snow peppering down on golden curls was a young woman.

Britta threw open the door and smiled. “Hello, welcome.”

The stranger smiled back at her. “I’m Olga. My Gunnar knows your husband. He said you might like a visit." 

"Oh yes, I would! Come in! I'm just going to make Kanelbullar. Let's do it together!"

Saturday, December 9, 2017

christmas crash

The calendar on the refrigerator had so many dates circled it looked like a geometry test. The kitchen sink was piled with white bowls and plates like a mouth crowded with teeth. A laundry basket in the hallway grinned mockingly, the red sock hanging over the side looking amazingly like a stuck-out tongue. The oven light was out, and the soup had spilled over and burned on the eye of the stove, filling the house with an acrid aroma. There wasn't enough milk for Janie‘s sippy cup; there were cookies due for the playgroup party tomorrow, and Noah has just discovered the Christmas presents trying to hide in her closet.

Then the phone rang. It was the neighbor. The dog had broken loose from his run and ransacked their trash barrel.

Celeste was tempted to tell Mr. West to donate him at the Salvation Army kettle by Walmart, but she prayed, grit her teeth, and tried to sooth the none-too-amiable older man next door. She hung up the phone and collapsed on a kitchen stool. Was this the real picture of holiday joy? She heard a crash from upstairs.


She found Noah sitting among the shards of her favorite figurine, his tiny thumb dripping blood. It was, as her grandma used to say, the breaking point. She cried, sat down next to her toddler and howled for a moment. Noah was so shocked that he quieted and looked at her in wonder.

I can‘t do this, God. Maybe I wasn't ever cut out to be a mother. I mean, I can‘t even handle a normal household and a couple kids, let alone keep my husband happy and wear a smile to church! What am I supposed to do here? I need major help. Please!‖

If she had expected to hear the rustle of wings or see a shining light, she was disappointed. The floor was still littered with sharp, glittery pieces, the kitchen was still in disarray and at that moment, Janie woke up and began crying.

Her domestic world was still a bit fractured. But somehow she had the strength to wipe her eyes, hug Noah and start the process of clean-up. A band-aid, a broom, and a few minutes later and the mess was gone. She picked up Janie and put her in the baby swing. She got Noah settled at the table with a cup of yogurt. Then she faced the kitchen.

It taunted her again; she ignored it. First, clear the sink, then clean the stove, next, fold the laundry. Now, give Janie a cup of juice and sit Noah down with a coloring book. Finally, remove the calendar and make a list of the events they needed to attend.

The afternoon was gone too soon. Celeste never did get that quiet moment to read the new book on her nightstand. Instead, she read ―Baby Bunny‘s First Christmas to a little boy with a band-aid on his thumb and eyes that looked like his daddy‘s. She rocked a baby girl and changed two diapers in the space of an hour. She explained again that Noah couldn't experiment with the light strands on the Christmas tree because it might hurt him. She put dinner in the oven and wiped the smears off the bathroom mirror. She still wished for a wonderful hour of comfort and joy, for a latte and a nap. But she found that she had just enough calm to make it through the day, and she counted that a great triumph.

Somehow she had picked up the idea that the peace Jesus promised would erase the stress of life, even the busy season of motherhood or the crowded holiday schedule. But maybe that was wrong. The Father promised strength in measure to her need. It didn't remove the outer strain, but would match it with divine stamina. Without that grace, the equation of life was unbalanced. With it, there was no missing factor. And as Celeste sat by Christmas tree with her children on her lap, she knew that, in a few days, she would feel merry again. But, in the meantime, His grace was enough.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

the christmas swap

In that very odd manner that train stations have, it was cozy and yet too full at the same time. To Pastor Dillingham, it was a haven. Or at least the prelude to a haven. He was on his way home for the Christmas holidays. And everything within sight fairly sparkled with homecoming cheer.

 It had been a tiring year in his parish. The war, you know, complicated everything. And while he delighted in the everyday mechanics of ministry as well as the time spent in the pulpit, the burden of grief he carried along with the families in his charge felt at times too monstrous to bear. 

 If hadn’t been for the unselfish assistance of the “twin saints” as he called them, he doubted he could ever have managed. Emma and Susan had been members of the Faith Chapel congregation for as long as anybody could remember. Sisters who had seen more of life than he was old, they were industrious souls, collecting clothing for the needy, distributing baked goods far and wide and ministering to the children of the city; he felt sure there could be wings hiding under their sensible coats. But, whether maiden humans or heaven’s angels, he thanked God daily for them. Yet even they could not entirely lighten his load. He needed a rest, a Christmas break.

And so home to the farm he was going. Pastor Dillingham felt like a schoolboy at the thought - for there was nothing like the village of Greyston in December. 

 Leaning back against the bench in the station, he closed his eyes and conjured up in his mind the look of the little town nestled in a glen against a backdrop of wooded hills. He recalled the scent of cinnamon escaping from the bakery and the twinkle of colored Christmas bulbs in the front window of the hardware store. Of course, being a minister, he naturally thought of the little chapel on the main street and wondered if the village children would be staging their annual production of the nativity story, complete with farm animals and turban-shrouded shepherd boys. The parents and grandparents would agonize through each line uttered, a beatific smile on their proud faces as their quaking offspring participated in the thespian triumph. The cocoa and cookies following would not be the best, but it would be devoured amidst cooing over the young stars among the commoners. 

 The real delight though would be to lie in his bed past 9:00 and then putter around in his dressing gown if he felt like it. The fireplace in his childhood home would crackle with welcome all day long; mother would bake his favorite treats and stuff him with fattening goodness and father would draw him into a discussion of war tactics or the new model Chrysler was making – both of which he was miserably inadequate to discuss - the first because he was a preacher, not a soldier and the second because, as a preacher, he couldn’t afford the new model of car. But never mind that; he and father would go at the discussion as if both of them had the brains and the means to merit both subjects.

It was while he was wrapped in the comfort of these anticipations that he took notice of a young man hunched on a bench a few feet away. The uniform was a trifle rumpled though his shoes retained a glint of spit polish in spite of the snowy weather. 

 He was obviously on leave from the service, a weary warrior needing rest. Pastor Dillingham sympathized with him. Whatever the battle a man was in, Christmas was a welcome break. But the look on the young man’s face didn’t reveal any hint of hope for relaxation and comfort. Rather, he looked as if he were headed back to the front if the drawn expression and slumped shoulders were a clue. 

Pastor Dillingham walked over to the bench where the young man was seated and nodded in friendliness. “Where are you going to spend the holidays, young man?” 

The boy seemed startled to hear a human voice directed at him. “What?” His eyes looked bewildered. ‘Are you talking to me?”

“Indeed, son. Where are you going for the Christmas holiday?”

Pastor Dillingham took the vacant seat opposite the young man, not bothering to ask if he could. “Oh, to a canteen, I suppose. They have free beds and food.”

Pastor Dillingham leaned forward. “No family of your own?”

“Nah. My grandmother died a year back and I never had anyone but her anyway. No reason to go back to that place. They had to sell the house to pay for her doctor bills.”

“I’m so sorry.” And Pastor Dillingham was. In his way of thinking, there were few creatures on God’s earth more miserable than the man without a home. It reminded him of the Scripture where the Psalmist referred to himself as an owl in the wilderness. This boy had the look of wilderness all over him. He sank back in his seat, closing his eyes and letting his hands fall open at his sides. 

Pastor Dillingham knew what he had to do. But he resisted for just a minute, just long enough to relish in his mind the sounds and smells and comfort he wasn’t going to enjoy. Emma and Susan had assured him that his seat at their table was open on any occasion. They wouldn’t be a bit surprised when he showed up on Christmas Day. If he knew them, they’d already been stirring and baking for days as if the entire Royal Army was going to be fed in their parlor. And he almost smiled in spite of the lump forming in his throat. 

Pastor Dillingham straightened his back and signaled the porter. Then he scratched out a quick note on a scrap of paper from his pocket. "Father and Mother, please receive this young man in my name. Give him my room, my favorite foods and all the love that I know you have in your hearts. Believe me, you are doing this as unto me. I know your love unites us though we may be apart. Happy Christmas. May He who came from heaven for us all grace your hearts as you open them to this representative of me. Lovingly, Your Son.

“Sir, please see that this is telegraphed ahead to Ephraim Dillingham in Greyston. And I find that I must return to the city. This young man and I are trading places for a while. I know I can trust you to deliver him safely to those who will be waiting.”

The porter nodded agreeably and ambled off. And Pastor Dillingham took the ticket held limply in the young man’s fingers as he dozed and reaching into his overcoat, he tucked his own glorious passport to home and love into the uniformed shirt pocket and stepped back with a smile on his face. He hoped the “twin saints” had roasted a big turkey. Pastors had big appetites, especially at Christmas.      

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

the christmas village

Marian held her breath and opened the box. She peered inside. Just as she had thought. The clinking sound was the pieces of her porcelain church – the centerpiece of her tiny Christmas village. Broken. She could hardly believe it. This village had survived four moves, three children and decades of holiday unpacking and repacking. Now her favorite piece was shattered.

In spite of herself, a couple tears welled in her eyes. She backhanded them. It was a little sentimental to cry over a toy building. Yet, she knew the reason. The Christmas village had become a special symbol to their family through their growing-up years. She remembered the clamor of little voices and the flurry of little hands as her children helped set up the tiny cottages, the trees, the carolers, the general store, the school house and especially the church with real windows and a beautiful belfry. Oh, how they admired it every year when the set was plugged in and each miniature building was warmed with an inner glow. If the Christmas village was out, the world was right. It was a tradition that the children cherished. And so did she.

Now, Marion wondered what would be the response of her three adult children? Would they remember the significance of the village? Would they care if a piece was broken? Would they think her ridiculously sentimental to mention it?

And then she remembered with a pang that Alexa was not coming home for Christmas. It was just another symptom of her drift, both from the family and from her spiritual moorings. Although she had never been openly rebellious, she had seemed to struggle more than Clay and Caitlin in the teen years. Now that she was grown, it was as if she preferred to walk politely away from her faith. And the little broken church Marion now held seemed to illustrate the fractured state of their family. Closing her eyes, Marion breathed a prayer for her daughter.

Gently, she arranged the intact pieces in their customary places and hurried to put away the boxes. She was going to her eldest daughter’s house for the traditional lunch with the grandchildren on the first Monday of Christmas break from school.

On the drive to Caitlin’s house, Marion continued her talk with the Lord, asking Him to work on Alexa’s heart, surrendering her once again to His care and love. She knew how headstrong Alexa could be. Even her mother’s heart began to doubt in the face of such obstacles to faith. She and Frank would just have to keep praying and waiting for Him to work.

At lunch, Brett and Bethany kept up a lively conversation about their school Christmas parties and the toys they wanted for Christmas. They were precious youngsters, high-spirited, but well-mannered, thanks to Caitlin. Giving them goodbye hugs two hours later, Marion promised to take them shopping the next day, along with Clay’s little girl. They would buy ornaments for the tree.

Driving home, Marion was thinking about replacing the broken church. She really needed to get that done as soon as possible. Maybe Caitlin and Clay wouldn’t notice the change when they came for Christmas dinner. 

Marion entered the kitchen and laid her purse on the counter. She slipped off her coat and walked to the hall closet to hang it up. Then she remembered her cell phone was in the coat pocket and fished it out. The light was blinking. She had a voice message. Strange that she hadn’t heard the ringtone. 

Marion opened her voicemail and listened. She knew the voice right away.“Hi, Mom. This is Alexa. The most incredible thing just happened. I had to call and tell you. I was walking past a gift shop today before lunch and in the window display was a Christmas village like we used to have.  But the church was broken; I guess somebody dropped it. But what’s really weird is that God talked to me, Mom. Really. He said that’s what I was doing to our family and to my relationship with Him – breaking it. I’m . . . sorry, Mom, so sorry. Can I still come home for Christmas? I need to talk with you and Dad. Oh, and Mom, I bought a new church for our village. I know you already have one, but this one is kinda special. I hope you understand. And Mom . . . I love you. Bye.”
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