About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
In the rocking chair beside a brightly lit tree in front of a potbelly stove, Granny and child rocked in perfect contentment on Christmas Day.
The day before Christmas was less serene. To understand, first you have to see the place in which their cottage stood. It was in the North Country on 65 acres of woodland beside the long lake. It was a lonely place where breath hung visibly in the frozen air, and people battled the elements and survived.
The one constant, the one steady influence, the one source of warmth in the child’s life, was Granny. She spent all the days of her growing-up watching Granny’s hands: tatting, padded satin-stitching, quilting, sewing, making noodles for Swedish meatballs, turning the compost pile, staking peas, digging potatoes, holding the pail to prime the pump and putting those hands down slowly, lowering her head, and hissing “Stay still, child” as a she-bear and her cub lumbered by: “Don’t look them in the eye; never challenge a wild animal.”
The child was obedient and, as she looked down, she saw the double-barreled shotgun Granny held close along her leg. Up there, they were alone, the old woman and the very young one. They were isolated, but they were together.
They didn’t have much, but they did their best and, most days, it was enough. The child ran, early in the morning, to the pump to prime it and, in the still cold, she had to chop ice off the spigot to let the water flow. When she came back into the cabin, by contrast with the white-iciness, it was the cheeriest place she could imagine: warm, colorful, lamps glowing gold; Granny humming under her breath; milk in the pitcher; and fire crackling in the old potbelly stove.
It was the day before Christmas and the child was six. She felt excited and ate breakfast quickly because they were going to town. Now, it wasn’t a city and maybe it wasn’t a proper town. Some would call it a widening in the road, but still, to the child, it was pretty exciting.
Off they went in the old gray Plymouth. The floorboard on the passenger side had rusted out in a place or two. It didn’t matter to the child since, sitting on the seat, her feet didn’t touch the floor. Still, Gran wrapped an old Indian blanket around her legs, and she curled them under her. She reached out a cold hand and held onto a flap of Granny’s coat.
It takes a long time in life to learn that there are many different kinds of people in the world living different ways. At six, the child thought all Plymouths had the floorboard missing on the passenger side and everyone lived with bears and cold and frozen pump handles.
The town had a gas pump, a dry-goods store and houses built closer together than on the lake. There were people walking on the street.
“A regular hustle-bustle,” Granny smiled.
The child was impressed, and they walked hand-in-hand into the store.
“Came all this way to our store day before Christmas,” the storekeeper was saying, “I’ll just bet you want to buy this little girl a present.”
“Indeed I do,” Gran replied, but then she moved closer and added something in a low voice.
It was late when they headed home, and they drove away from the lights into blackness.
When ready for bed, Granny said, “Come here, child. There is something I think it right to explain to you. In the store today, I had no money for a Christmas gift for you. I got the flour, dried fruit and karo so I can make a holiday cake; got a piece of meat, and we have vegetables in the root cellar so we can have a Christmas meal. Other children get store-bought gifts, too, and I’m sorry you won’t.”
The child curled up in her Granny’s lap. She was uneasy and perhaps a bit afraid. She fell asleep thinking Gran wanted to do something –give her a gift – and she could not do it. The child had believed there was not a single thing Gran wanted to do that she could not do. Now there was something, and it made the child afraid or confused and sorry. For the first time, the child thought perhaps not all Plymouths were missing the floorboard on the passenger side.
Sometime later, she couldn’t tell how long, Granny shook her awake. Gran pointed to the big clock which read midnight and said, “It’s Christmas, and I have two presents for you. Bundle up.”
Hand in hand, they went to the cabin door; Granny threw it open, and said, “Look up!”
The sky was alive with pins of diamond-bright lights and a pure white moon hanging low and impervious. The cold made the light brighter, and it was absolutely silent as if the light swallowed the sound.
Clouds passed across the moon, and Gran said, “Wait for it.” All at once the snow began to fall.
“This is the northern sky, our sky, ours exclusively.” Gran said. “And this is a white Christmas; a gift to you.”
Gran had known when the snow would start. “How did you know?” The child whispered the question, enchanted with the sight.
“You can smell snow comin’,” Gran said.
They walked down to the lake and watched the snow fall over the frozen water. The snow was lit from above and the moon reflected off the surface below. It was a wondrous sight.
“Thank you,” the child whispered.
Gran led the way back to the cabin. The warmth of the cabin after the sting of midnight cold was welcoming. Granny went to the corner and fiddled with a plug and, all at once, the tree was lit.
“Ohh,” the child said.
Gran considered and then said, “I was sad that there was not enough money for a gift for you, so I sat and reasoned it out. I remembered that not all gifts have to be store-bought gifts. My second gift is a story I made up just for you.”
They settled into the rocker and Granny told the story of a little puppy.
Filled with love and generous spirit at Christmastime, the puppy went into the store to buy something pretty for her Granny. The saleslady was suspicious and asked to see the puppy’s money. The puppy had only pennies.
The saleslady snorted and said, “There’s nothing here for you.” She admonished the puppy not to touch and meant to hurry the puppy out of the store, but her attention was caught by a demanding customer and she turned away.
The puppy was so small, rapt in looking here and there for an affordable gift, that she did not realize when the store was locked up for the night. There the puppy was, locked in the store on Christmas Eve. The puppy was delighted. She knew she could not take and keep anything she could not pay for but, even so, it was a dream come true. She looked and considered, touched and tried all the lovely things. The saleslady was right. There was nothing she could afford, but now she had a gift for her Granny. It was the story of her adventure and she knew Gran would love it. The puppy fell asleep in a warm spot under the counter, content to wait for morning.
In years to come, Granny made up many little puppy stories that told of love and loyalty and even limits. The stories were filled with joy and adventure and lessons to live by. For now, in the rocking chair beside a brightly lit tree in front of the potbelly stove, Granny and child rocked in perfect contentment on this Christmas Day.