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Advent: Christmas in a Nutshell

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 12, 2012

From the Improvement Era, December 1954 –

Christmas in a Nutshell

By Yvonne Child Hiss

Becky lifted the basket of clothes and stepped out into the frosty morning air. She held her face in her collar to hold the warmth of her breath and started courageously toward the clotheslines, struggling to keep the basket above the deep snow.

“It’s a good morning,” Becky said to herself, “for today Papa comes home from his trip to the settlement.” She peered over the basket and intently watched her feet so she could step in the footprints already in the snow, made by her previous trips to the line. “Papa will bring presents,” she thought, “and food, and maybe surprises!”

The clothes on the line rattled like skeletons against each other and bobbed stiffly up and down as she lifted the steaming pieces from the basket and quickly hung them up.

Peter would come home with Papa, big brother Peter who was thirteen and who had been staying in town with Bishop Osburne’s family. He had been gone two months now, to work and go to school, and it would be good to see him again.

“Peter must go to school all winter!” Papa had said, “for someday Peter Hansen will be a great man!”

Becky blew on her hands to ease the ache in her numb fingers. “It is good there are not many more clothes,” she sighed. “My fingers will not work quickly now. They move slowly like the poor crooked hands of Katrina Black’s grandmama.”

At that thought she worked with renewed vigor and finally hung the last pair of socks on the line with a flourish. Then, slinging the basket over her shoulder, she picked her way along the path back to the washshed.

Mama was standing over the boiler stirring the clothes with a stick. Her blonde hair was done in two neat braids, but wisps of hair curled along her perspiring forehead.

“Is now the last batch,” she smiled at Becky. “You have worked well – and with no complaining. Mama is proud of you.”

Becky flushed under her fond gaze. “Is it not time for Papa to come?” she asked.”The sun is beginning to go down.”

Mama frowned and wiped the steam from the windowpane to peer out at the road. “Ya, it is just about time,” she answered. “We must hurry and get to the cooking or dinner will not be ready. Come, we lift the boiler down, Rebecca.”

Becky dropped a creamy white potato into the pan and started dutifully peeling another. She kept listening for the sound of the sleigh that would bring Papa and the presents. “There is no use to wonder what they will be, though,” she sighed to herself. “Always they must be the same; new boots for Papa and shoes for the rest of the family, only this year Peter would have boots, too, and cloth for each that Mama must sew into clothes.”

Becky frowned a little as she thought of the presents she would give. Always she and Peter put their money together to buy gifts. Peter would buy some pen points for Papa and yarn for Mama, and he had made willow whistles for the boys.

She searched for an idea. There should be something she could give that would be special for Mama alone. The yarn always ended up made into socks for the boys or a muffler for Papa, but never into anything for Mama. There had to be something special! But what? There were only five days until Christmas!

Her reverie was interrupted by the noises of the sleigh and horses outside. She hurriedly put the pot of potatoes on to boil and skipped out of the door to meet the arrivals.

The boys climbed all over the sleigh, and Peter industriously shooed them out of the packages. Papa kissed Mama and put his arm around her, then turned to Becky, and taking her hand they started toward the house.

Becky shivered at the delightful crunch and squeak an complaining of the snow under Papa’s big boots as he walked. Mistaking it for cold, Papa hurried them into the house.

“I have a surprise for you,” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes. “Something quite wonderful, and you won’t have; to wait until Christmas! Only wait until Peter and I unpack the sleigh.”

The children were seated around the fireplace in wriggling anticipation when Papa opened the door, stomping the snow off his feet as he came in. Seven-year-old David could contain himself no longer. “What is it, Papa?” he squealed, clutching at the big sack Papa was carrying.

“David!” Becky tried to restrain him, but it was too late. The sack slipped from Papa’s grasp and fell to the floor. Little round balls bounced and clattered in every direction.

Papa smiled. “Is all right, don’t cry, Davie,” he said. “You see, they are walnuts – English walnuts! Bishop Osburne sent them home to us!” Then getting on his knees he roared playfully, “Come on, now we will hunt for our treat like a treasure!”

It was a merry gathering that night in the little farmhouse. The fire crackled as it devoured the shells, and the children laughed as they ate the nuts. Becky was kept busy cracking nuts for little Karl and baby Benjie, although it must be confessed that she was busier keeping shells out of Benjie’s inquisitive mouth than putting nuts in.

Finally Mama saw her plight and said, “Take some nuts for yourself, Rebecca. Mama will feed the babies for a while.”

Becky looked at the nut in her hand. It was beautifully grooved and golden. Suddenly a glow came into her eyes. “I know!” she said to herself, “I know now what I’ll do for a present for Mama.” And she cracked her nuts carefully so as not to crush the shells.

-oOo-

Becky set the steaming bowls of gruel on the table. It smelled deliciously of cinnamon and nutmeg, and she was very hungry. They had taken the little tree decorated with suet and bread and berries for the birds and set it by the grave in the orchard. They always put the tree by the grave because Mama said that would make it so the little dead baby sister could share in the Christmas, too.

Now they must eat their breakfast, and then they could open the packages and the stockings that were bulging so enticingly on the mantlepiece. Becky coaxed the gruel into Benjie’s mouth and hastily swallowed her gruel between his bites.

“I’m ready!” announced David loudly.

“Just one minute!” cautioned papa, “we all go in together.”

“Come Benjie,” said Mama, lifting him from his chair, “we go to see the tree now!” and the family trouped into the front room.

Never was there such a glorious Christmas! The stockings were filled with candy and nuts and popcorn, and in the very toe was an orange! Never did one see such a wonderful thing as an orange, except on Christmas.

Becky was in tearful ecstasies over her doll. Mama had made the cloth body to be sure, but the head – the head was of china – beautiful, delicate china! Everyone was exclaiming over his gifts, and Benjie was eating everything within his reach, stockings, paper, orange, peel, and all. Finally all the presents were opened except Mama’s.

“I wonder why Mama never opens hers until last?” Becky thought, “maybe it’s because she already knows what will be in them.” She picked up her present. “Open this one, Mama,” she whispered.

Mama smiled and took the package. She opened it, and with an expression of pleased wonderment came into her face. “Oh, it is beautiful!” she exclaimed.

There in the package lay a cluster of three nutshells tied together with ribbon. Nestling in each shell cup was a tiny bouquet of delicate flowers which Becky had painstakingly fashioned from her own hair and some softly tinted down feathers.

“Do you like it?” Becky asked anxiously.

“It’s so beautiful,” said Mama, the tears brimming in her eyes. “I will wear it on my dress this very Sunday. I will wear it to church for all to see!”

—oOo—

Anne glanced again at the small envelope which lay on her dressing table and an expression of mingled pleasure and distaste came into her face. Miss Rebecca Anne Osburne – Anne looked at the name which caused her displeasure. Why had Mother picked such a revoltingly old-fashioned name as Rebecca? it sounded as if it belonged in a log cabin or a musty old book! Just because Grandmother Gregerson had been named Rebecca, Becky Hansen, she was called. Oh, well, Rebecca was her name, and there seemed to be nothing she could do about it except inform everyone that she preferred to be called Anne. Anyway, if she was going to the party with Bob tonight she had better get busy.

She snatched her coat from the back of the chair and fairly flew down the hall.

“Where are you going, Anne?” Mrs. Osburne called as she saw her daughter hurrying toward the door.

“I’ve got to do some shopping, Mother, and I’ve really got to rush if I make it to the party.” Anne opened the door. “I’ll talk to you when I get back,” she flung over her shoulder as she went out.

She hopped into her new cream convertible and eyed it proudly as she started the motor. This was her Christmas present from the family. Of course she had it two months early, but as she told Dad, she’d rather have it at the beginning of school and be able to use it than wait until Christmas, anyway. Christmas was just for kids and Anne was sixteen.

As she drove along the busy streets, her irritation grew. “All these people running around look so foolish!” she thought, “yes, as foolish as chickens with their heads cut off!”

She checked her list – Cuff links for Dad, gun set for little brother Jamie – “I wonder if he still believes in Santa?” she mused – Blouse for her best friend, Gloria, and – Oh dear! She’d have to get something for Carla Mitchell. Carla had given her a compact last year, and Anne hadn’t had a gift for her. It had been very embarrassing. “I’ll get her some perfume,” Anne decided, “and then she probably won’t have a gift for me this year! Oh, well.”

Anne stepped out of the car and pushed her way along the street. The stores were crowded, and she heaved a sigh of relief when she crossed the last name from her list. She started back to the car – then suddenly she remembered, she hadn’t bought a gift for Mother!

“I’ll put these packages in the car, then I’ll go back and get that rhinestone pin in McMonah’s Jewelry.”

-oOo-

Anne climbed the stairs to the attic and unlocked the door. She groped in the dimness and finally found the light switch.

“My goodness, but it’s gloomy up here!” she exclaimed. “Mother ought to have the attic remodeled. It could be rather nice and cozy, but then, she’s only interested in impressing people, not making cozy attics.”

She picked her way past furniture and boxes. “Mother said I’d find Grandmother’s dresses in the big trunk in the corner. Now if I can only get to it. I’m supposed to be dressed as the ‘Spirit of Christmas Past.’ I hope I can find something suitable.”

She climbed over an old table and moved an old chiffonier with creaking casters, and finally reached her goal. The lid was heavy with dust, and Anne couldn’t resist tracing her name with her finger before lifting the lid and delving into the trunk’s contents.

As she lifted each dress, her excitement grew. “Why, these are lovely!” she exclaimed unbelievingly. “I didn’t expect anything like this.” There were filmy summer dresses and odd straight dresses of the ’20’s. Suddenly near the bottom of the trunk she spied a dress of dark green velvet.

The minute Anne lifted the dress, she knew this was the one she wanted. It was a deep rich velvet with a bustle of creamy lace. The top was low on the shoulders, but modestly filled with a high yoke of tucked lace, buttoning up the back with tiny velvet buttons.

“I’ll take it over to Mrs. Morgan’s. She can fit it, then get it pressed while I get my hair done.” She paused in front of the old dresser to admire herself in the mirror. “Yes,” she sighed, “this green really shows my blonde hair off to advantage. I’ll have my hair sprinkled with glistening snow and pin it with a sprig of holly and mistletoe. I really believe I’ll win the prize!”

She held the dress carefully and hurried down the stairs. Once inside her room she shook out the folds of the skirt. As she did so, a small package wrapped in tissue dropped to the floor.

“What’s this?” she said in surprise as she stooped to retrieve it. She opened the tissue, and there lay three nutshells filled with a tiny cluster of delicate flowers. “Oh, how quaint! I wonder how it would look on the dress?”

She eyed it critically. “If I took off the ribbon and tied it with a bit of gold –” She worked quickly, then with a dubious expression held it up to survey the results. Her eye caught sight of the small words printed on the back. On each shell were two words; together they read – To Mama – Merry Christmas – Love Becky.

“Grandma must have given this to her mother for Christmas! Can you imagine! My, how times have changed.” But for a moment she felt a twinge of envy, thinking of the love and closeness that Grandma must have felt with her mother, to give such a simple, intimate gift.

“I can imagine my mother’s face if I gave her nutshells for Christmas! It’s not sentiment that counts anymore, it’s money,” she thought bitterly, then with a mock flippancy added, “and thank goodness, the Osburnes have plenty of what counts!”

She laughed, then dropped the shells into the white box on her dresser. “I’ll lay it in here with Mother’s rhinestone pin so it won’t get broken until time for the party. – On second thought, I won’t wear it. It’s really too silly. I’ll take it upstairs with the dress tomorrow.”

She swept the dress gaily into her arms and hurried out. The clock was chiming four. “I’ve got to run if I’m ready by eight!” she said, “I won’t have time to get my presents wrapped, but I can have the maid do it for me. I’ll go tell her right now.”

–oOo–

Anne opened one sleepy eye and looked at the clock, fifteen minutes to eight, it said. She pulled the covers up over her head. Jamie was shooting it up in the living room with his new guns.

“Why do kids get up at such unearthly hours?” she moaned. “A person can’t get any peace and quiet!”

The gunplay continued.

Reluctantly she sat up and slipped her feet into her scuffs. “Just as well get up. Can’t sleep with Jamie thinking he’s Hopalong Cassidy.” Of course, it was Christmas morning and you had to make some allowances.

She threw her robe over her shoulders and plodded sleepily down the hall. The rest of the family would have their presents open. She wondered how they liked her gifts. As she splashed her face with cold water and gave her hair a quick brush, she pondered on this question.

“I wonder how Mother liked the pin? Of course, it’s only rhinestones, and she should have nothing less than diamonds, but at least it wasn’t shells! I guess she won’t care enough to notice what it is, though – or even wear it.”

She sauntered nonchalantly into the living room. Mother and Dad were on the floor by the tree, and Jamie was brandishing a couple of six-shooters.

“Stick ‘em up! I gotcha covered!” he shouted, crouching at Anne with a fierce scowl. “Boy, Sis! This is just what I needed. Must of cost you a fortune, though. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” she answered with an indulgent smile.

“The cuff links are perfect,” Dad said, holding up the box.

“And the pins were lovely.” Mrs. Osburne’s enthusiasm was genuine. She nodded toward the rhinestones, lying in the white box on the floor. “The rhinestones are very beautiful, but this” – she put her hand to her dress – “this is the sweetest thing you have ever given to me! Where on earth did you find it? It’s enchanting – and I couldn’t be more touched with the words you had inscribed on the back – from Becky! I always wanted you to go by that name, it makes me feel closer to you.”

She came over to Anne and put her arms around her daughter.

Anne’s eyes bulged, and her throat choked up. This was the first time in years that Mother had ever put her arms around her, and there were tears in Mother’s eyes. Cold, aloof Mother, crying for joy – and the pin. Now, there it was on Mother’s dress, tied with a gold ribbon – three nutshells!

Anne felt the tears stinging her own eyes. Maybe Mother did care after all. “Strange,” she thought, “that such a little thing could recover what I’ve been missing all these years – and Mother must have been missing it, too.”

Dad came over to them. Anne noticed that even he seemed to be affected by this “reunion” – his voice seemed a bit husky.

“It looks like we’ve found our Christmas in a nutshell,” he said, and together they walked into the dining room for breakfast.

And Jamie? Why, he was so impressed that he forgot to take his guns to the table!



2 Comments »

  1. I have only found a gift this perfect for someone a few times in my life, but knowing your made something happen for someone that makes a change in their heart, well I think I got the better gift.

    Before my second husband and I had been dating for several months, and his birthday was coming up. Being fairly newly single with three kids and transitioning between jobs, he made me swear not to spend any money on his birthday. He told me birthdays were not important, and he’d never had a birthday gift he really liked, so he asked me to write him a poem or story, because no matter what that would be the best birthday gift he had ever been given.

    His birthday was after Valentine’s Day, and so I started preparing for a birthday surprise that I didn’t spend money on. I advertised my Valentine’s truffles (I used to make them every Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, as a way to make extra money.) as for sale or for barter, and listed some of the things I wanted to barter for. I also put up a different ad, focused only on bartering my different skills or items I had, in exchange for a series of gifts that I could give him through out the day.

    I was fortunate that year not only to sell more truffles than most years, but a lot of people who read the barter ad were also interested in bartering. Through a lot of hard work and careful planning, I was able to make it so that he never went more than 2 hours during the day without a special surprise, and none of it cost me anything.

    I had a key to his apartment, so I snuck in and made waffles, eggs and bacon for breakfast and let the smell wake him up. I have him a hand made birthday card, with both a poem and story as he requested. I then asked if I could borrow his truck to pick up a set of bunk beds someone in the ward was giving me. He had me drop him off at work. I went back to his apartment and laid out 4 brand new shirts that I had found in his size (shirts that he likes and that are made for someone as “large and tall” as he was took a lot anytime. I had been lucky enough to find them on clearance, and the gift card I had bartered for 3 dozen truffles covered their cost with $1.02 left over on the gift card.) I knew he was coming home at lunch time to change, since he was doing an installation in the afternoon, but had gone to work in a suit and tie for a sales proposal first thing that morning.

    I had called the secretary of the head of the company where he and the head sales guy were giving the presentation, and she would hand him a wrapped package when the meeting was over. As a part-owner of the company, he chose out the employee of the quarter nominations and winners. On our first date he joked about every time he gave one out, that he was a little jealous that there wasn’t a chance to earn an award. I had bartered 10 home made freezer casseroles with the owner of a gift and engraving store in town. (He furnished the ingredients, and I cooked everything in his kitchen in about 6 hours.) So, as he left the meeting, he had a box, which contained a silver played business card holder, inscribed with, Boss of the Year, and with a business card sized note from each of his employees sharing what they valued most as a boss. His partners even wrote notes telling him what he had done well and/or they admired him for.

    His sales guy drove him by the apartment, to let him change, and he found his bed covered with the shirts and cut out paper hearts. He texted me and accused me of breaking the rule regarding me spending no money. I just texted back: I am following the rule, I just got a little creative with bartering. He confirmed I would pick him up from the install site at 6:00 pm, and then I told him I really did need to get to work. (It was actually a day I had off. I switched with another manager who had needed a Saturday off in January so I would have enough time to get things done.)

    About 4:00 pm, a huge bouquet of red and white roses was delivered to the place he was doing the installation. I had traded ten, half dozen truffle boxes with the florist, which she sold as a Valentine’s Day special. She ended up ordering 25 more to sell, that she paid for, after she tasted the sample box I brought to let her choose the flavors for the truffle boxes. She personally did the delivery so she could report back to me. She said that first he was stunned and then got misty eyed. The note simply said, “Now you can’t say that no one has ever cared enough to send you roses.”

    In the meantime, I had picked up the other flowers I had bartered for with a local nursery that grows hothouse flowers, so that I could have perfect, fresh daisies for the table at dinner that night. (The owner loved having 16 boxes of four truffles to give to his employees to take to their wives on Valentine’s Day. He assured me that the two potted trees would be delivered and by the doorway to the apartment between 7:00 and 8:00, so they would appear after we left for dinner and before we came back.

    All day I had been running around in my car while his truck was being meticulously detailed by a man I had bartered to help his son study for the ACT. He had not done well the first time, and so four times before the birthday and three times after, we did two hour study sessions to help him bring up his score. His dad was so thrilled when his son drastically improved his score, enough to qualify for a scholarship, that he detailed my car, and have me several gently used items that his son had grown out of. My son still has the leather jacket, even though it doesn’t fit him anymore, and I think it may be about time for another boy to feel extra cool, and stay warm, in the jacket.

    At 6:00 pm, I picked him up, along with the roses, which were much prettier than I expected. 44 long stem roses is actually quite a few long stem roses. As he first saw the beautiful wax job, he was impressed and thanked me for washing the truck, since he hadn’t had the chance after the last snow storm. When he saw how meticulously detailed the inside was, he was at a loss for words, literally. We went and got changed for dinner and then headed out to one of the nicest restaurants in town. When we got there he sternly told me that he was paying for dinner because I had already done way more than anyone had ever done for his birthday. I told him he could pay whatever bill came, and ordered steak and lobster right along with him.

    One of the restaurant owners had seen my ad, and asked if I would be willing to make 25 boxes of four truffles each. I got to go with him on Valentine’s Day to deliver them to two shelters for battered women. When I realized how many teenage girls were there too, I asked him if we could give all 25 to that shelter, so those girls got a Valentine. We then went back to my apartment where he helped me box up 25 more sets of truffles so we could take them to the other shelter. (Luckily I had decided to make an extra quadruple batch, about 400 truffles, at the last minute, in case I got order on the day of Valentines. 100 of those extras went to the women’s shelter, 100 more went to single mothers in our ward, and the other 200 just seemed to find homes throughout the day. When I went to bed on the 14th, I don’t think I had more than 20 extras left.)

    When we were done with dessert, I pulled out the florist’s card that went with the daisies on our table. (He had noticed ours was the only one without roses.) when the waiter brought the “check,” instead there was a gift certificate for another “dinner date for two.” The note from the owner explained that since I had doubled what our original barter was, without asking for anything in return, he had talked to the other owner and they agreed that doubling the barter on their end was the right thing to do. Underneath the gift certificate were two tickets to a play the next month, a $100 gift card for me to a very nice dress shop that was less than a block away, and a gift certificate for a haircut, wash and style at *the place* to get your hair done, which I never could have afforded. Apparently all of those business owners were supporters of the shelter, and hearing about the truffles, and that I had bartered them to give my boyfriend a special birthday, they all wanted to pitch something in for me too. (I hadn’t thought of the extra truffles as part of our barter, since it had been my idea to make sure the girls, mostly 11-14ish got something along with their moms. I wouldn’t have considered the barter fair to the business owners if it had been discussed as a barter before or during the deliveries.)

    When we got back to his apartment, the potted trees were on both sides of the front door, and all 44 cards, each containing something I loved or admired about him, were tied on with the grey and yellow ribbon. The colors were a reference to the book Hope for the Flowers, which had come to be part of how we thought about our “second chance” together. Once we were in the house, with all the cards plucked off the trees, he told me to sit down, and start explaining how I had done everything that day, if I had been following the rules.

    I reminded him that I had known about the rules since New Year’s Eve, when he had first made them up, and that have me plenty of time to barter for all of his gifts. I didn’t consider purchasing truffle ingredients, truffle boxes or gasoline, as spending money, since I would have been buying them regardless of the truffles being sold or bartered. I reminded him that he had helped me on the 13th with getting that last “extra batch” of truffles done, by helping to box up the truffles that were ready to go.

    He made me go through each part of the day, including what I had bartered for it, and how I had pulled each one off. He kept asking how I had gotten every employee, including his partners to be in on it, but also keep the secret. The more I explained, the more I worried that the surprise and magic of the day was being lost. He was getting quieter, and while still asking questions, his smile was gone.

    When we got to the trees and their 44 slips of paper, he asked me to read them to him, so he could close his eyes and just listen to my voice. About the 12th, tears started rolling down his cheeks. By the time I was quiet, he sobbed, pulled me close and held me for 15-20 minutes, not saying anything. Finally he opened his eyes, lightly pinched both of us, and then thanked me for the best day he ever had. He told me he felt more loved and cared for in one day, than he had in the last 10 years combined. That brought years to my eyes, gratitude that I could show this wonderful man his true worth.

    Our marriage did not last, but that day still occasionally comes up in conversation. While we were married he would say it was the best day after the day we got married, and then eventually he put the birth of our daughter on the top of the list. Our wedding is off his list of best days, (at least I assume it is) but he still talks about that birthday as the second best after our daughter. It is always interesting to me that it made that big of an impact, enough that even several years after our divorce, he has told it to people for the first time. (So interesting to hear back from people who don’t realize I am the girlfriend who created that birthday, tell me about what happened that day.) I am glad that he still has a memory find enough to share. I hope that means that as our daughter gets older, and time mellows some of the pain, that we will be able to share, together, some of our happier memories with our daughter.

    (It looks like on e again I have managed to make my comment longer than the post. Lol )

    Comment by Julia — December 13, 2012 @ 3:00 am

  2. Nice enough original story, but Julia, the one you told is worthy of being told in its own right. A lot of imagination and creativity and love went into that birthday celebration!

    Comment by Ellen — December 18, 2012 @ 6:26 am

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