My father died when I was three months old. I don't recall his laughter or his touch. My memories of him came secondhand, through my mother's words and well-thumbed photo albums.
"Your father was a soldier," my mom told me, and there he is, in grainy black-and-white, with his GI grin and rumpled uniform, standing in the ruins of Berlin. Kids in ragged clothing cluster near him, holding high the gifts he's taken from a tattered duffel bag-chocolate bars and chewing gum, socks and stocking caps, bits and bobs finagled from his squad. No department-store Santa ever looked half so merry as my dad did that day, among the children in the ruins of Berlin.
"Your father's favorite holiday was Christmas," my mother said, and fully half the photos in the albums prove her point. There he is, years later, playing Santa at our church on the west side of Chicago, baking angel cookies to give to friends and neighbors, placing the star atop one glittering tree after another. While my father was alive, Christmas began on my mother's birthday, the fourteenth of December, and climaxed with a lavish party on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day was spent recuperating.
After my father's death, my mother cut back on the festivities, for emotional as well as financial reasons. When I was growing up, there was always a whiff of mourning in the crisp winter air. No one had to tell me not to compare my father's extravagant celebrations with my mother's humbler holidays, but I secretly lived for the day when my Christmases would match those in the photographs.
"The day has finally come," I murmured. I curled my legs beneath me on thecushioned window seat and gazed upward at the sky. I was a grown woman now, with two children of my own, and the lean times I'd endured after my mother's death were a thing of the past. Thanks to an unexpected inheritance from a family friend, I possessed a cottage in England and a fortune large enough to celebrate Christmas as lavishly as I pleased. This year, I vowed, my father's favorite holiday would again be a time of jubilation, freed at last from any hint of sorrow.
The crescent moon sailed serenely between lowering clouds, and the dead leaves on the beech hedge fluttered dryly in a bitter northeast wind. I eyed the heavy-laden clouds intently and shivered with anticipation. Christmas-my first Christmas in England and my sons' first Christmas ever-was a mere two weeks away. I wanted it to be perfect.
It was unfortunate, to be sure, that my nanny had temporarily abandoned her post to enjoy a prolonged holiday in Italy with her fiancé. The twins were nine months old and fearfully mobile. It was no easy task to keep them from killing themselves and/or dismantling the cottage, but my father-in-law accepted the challenge without a second thought.
William Willis, Sr., arrived at the cottage the day after my nanny departed, and insisted on assuming her duties. Willis, Sr., was no fair-weather grandfather. He was a fastidious, patrician gentleman in his mid-sixties, a Boston Brahmin and a lawyer of high repute, but his passion for fine tailoring was nothing compared to his passion for his grandsons.
He slept on a rollaway bed in the nursery, got the boys up in the morning, read stories to them at night, and took dirty diapers, flying farina, and splashy baths in stride. When I commented wonderingly on his devotion, he informed me that since he'd never expected to live long enough to see his son's sons, he intended to make every moment with them count.
With Willis, Sr., in residence, I was able to go full speed ahead with my holiday plans. I took stock of my winter wardrobe and declared it null and void. My blue jeans and Salvation Army sweaters reminded me too strongly of the bad old days, so I dispatched the lot to Oxfam and filled my closet with silk-lined, custom-tailored trousers and tops that ran the gamut from raw silk to handspun wool to jewel-toned velvets. I replaced my ratty sneakers with handmade Italian boots, in suede and buttery leather, and my even rattier bathrobe with a vintage 1940s dressing gown in the softest shades of gray and baby blue. I splurged on a sumptuous black cashmere swing coat with a shawl collar I could snug around my face when the harsh winds blew. I'd never been a clotheshorse, but I was learning fast.
Once I'd refreshed my wardrobe, I escorted my husband to Oxford to be fitted for a Father Christmas suit. While he was at the tailor's, I hunted down exquisite antique ornaments and a lacy spun-glass star for the top of the tree. Bill and I plundered London on a dozen shopping sprees, buying gifts for everyone we knew. We roamed the bridle path in the oak grove near the cottage, harvesting evergreen boughs, bunches of holly, and sprigs of mistletoe, and brought home a living Christmas tree from a nursery near Oxford. I invited Bill's English relatives to our Christmas Eve bash and arranged for them to spend the night at Anscombe Manor, the spacious home belonging to my closest friend and nearest neighbor, Emma Harris. I ordered a goose, a turkey, and two hams for the party, along with sundry accompaniments, and stockpiled ingredients for the daily round of baking that would fill the cottage with holiday aromas.
The decorating, the baking, the wrapping of presents, and the warbling of carols would begin tomorrow, the fourteenth of December, my late mother's birthday. I could hardly wait.
Even now, I could picture the living room, the hallway, the staircase, the entire cottage lit with candles, wreathed with evergreen garlands, and decked with boughs of holly. Best of all, I could envision my family-husband, father-in- law, and sons-gathered before the hearth, with mugs of hot cocoa and plates of angel cookies, enjoying the special peace of Christmastime.
There was only one thing missing from my perfect celebration. I leaned forward to breathe upon the windowpane and wrote with a fingertip in the frosty condensation: snow. I wanted snow so badly I could taste it. I wanted it to fall in drifts and block the lanes and transform the furrowed fields into something pristine and magical. I longed to watch my sons' eyes widen as the cottage disappeared beneath a sparkling cascade of swirling flakes. When the heavy clouds swallowed the slender moon, I peered upward and rejoiced.
My husband cleared his throat and I turned to face the living room. Bill sat in his favorite armchair, clad in a crewneck sweater and twill trousers, gazing pensively into the middle distance. Willis, Sr., dressed down for the evening in creased pajamas, leather slippers, and a magnificent paisley dressing gown, sat in an armchair on the opposite side of the hearth, reading a novel. A fire, lit after the babies were safely tucked up in the nursery, crackled merrily and cast a rosy glow over the low-ceilinged, comfortably furnished room.
I sighed with pleasure and gazed adoringly at Bill. He would make a splendid Father Christmas. If anyone had been born to play the role of a gift-giving saint, it was my gentle, great-hearted husband.
Bill cleared his throat once more and folded his hands over his stomach. "Christmas," he stated flatly, "should be abolished."
"Huh?" I said, startled.
"Christmas should be abolished," said Bill, biting off each word. "I'm sick to death of it."
"But it hasn't even started yet," I objected.
Bill blinked rapidly. "It hasn't started? Then what have we been doing for the past month?"
"Getting warmed up," I replied.
"Lori," Bill said slowly, "do you realize that we've been to fifteen parties in the past ten days?"
"Has it been that many?" I said. "I guess I wasn't counting."
Bill's laughter held a touch of madness. "Seven dinner parties, five luncheons, and three sherry evenings, in addition to running back and forth from London every other day, not to mention all the little jaunts to Oxford, on top of playing woodsman in the oak grove ... Lori," he gasped, "I'm worn out."
"Of course you are." I crossed quickly to sit on the arm of Bill's chair, smoothed the hair back from his forehead, and cooed, "It was thoughtless of me to pile so much on you, but you know how hard it is to refuse an invitation without offending someone. I'll go to the rest of the parties by myself, okay? All you have to do between now and Christmas Eve is bring the tree in from the garden shed tomorrow."
Bill leaned his head against the back of the chair and breathed a sigh of relief. "I think I can manage that."
I smiled sweetly. "And play Joseph in the Nativity play."
Bill's eyes swiveled toward my face. "Nativity play?"
I got to my feet and put a couple of yards between me and my great-hearted husband before asking, "Didn't I tell you about the Nativity play?"
"No," Bill said, with frightening calm, "you didn't."
"Well," I said, taking a deep breath, "Peggy Kitchen decided to stage a Nativity play on Christmas Eve, but according to her, Nativity plays are always directed by the vicar's wife, so she corralled Lilian Bunting into directing it, only Lilian's never directed a play before, and there was a shortage of male volunteers for the cast, so I"-I backed up another step-"I volunteered you." Bill lowered his chin in the manner of a bull about to charge. "You'll have to unvolunteer me, Lori."
"It's mainly tableaux," I coaxed. "Hardly any lines to memorize. And they're only holding four rehearsals."
"No," said Bill.
"Not even as a favor to Lilian?" I pleaded.
"No," Bill repeated.
"Bill," I said sternly, "it's your civic duty to help the vicar's wife."
"Civic duty?" Bill sputtered, pushing himself up from his chair. "You've had civic duty on the brain ever since the Harvest Festival last summer. Well, here's a news flash for you, Lori: I danced with the morris dancers at the festival, I singed my eyebrows lighting the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, and I bought a year's worth of beeswax candles for Saint George's Church at the last benefit auction. I've done my civic duty, and I plan to spend the next two weeks at home."
Red-faced with fury, Father Christmas stormed out of the living room, slammed open the stair gate, slammed it shut behind him, and stomped up to the master bedroom. I stood frozen in place until his last foot-thump faded, then leaned against the mantelpiece and groaned.
Willis, Sr., looked up from his novel. "My son is tired," he offered.
"Your son is right." I sank into the chair Bill had vacated. "I never should have accepted all of those invitations."
"Christmas comes but once a year," said Willis, Sr. "It is only natural to wish to share the joys of the season with friends."
"Maybe," I said, refusing consolation, "but I definitely could have planned our trips better. If I'd arranged things properly, we wouldn't have had to run back and forth to London and Oxford so often."
"My son is accustomed to letting employees run for him," Willis, Sr., observed. "I do not think it such a bad thing for him to do his own running now and again."
"Okay," I allowed, "but I shouldn't have volunteered him for the Nativity play without speaking with him first."
"No," Willis, Sr., agreed, "you should not have."
I folded my arms and slumped back. "Now Bill's mad at me and I've left Lilian in the lurch."
"I can do little to remedy the former predicament," said Willis, Sr., "but I may be able to help with the latter." He ran a finger along his immaculately shaved jaw. "Perhaps I could take Bill's place in the Nativity play."
I shot upright in my chair. "Are you serious?"
"I do not pretend to be a polished thespian," Willis, Sr., cautioned, "but I believe I could fulfill the role of Joseph without embarrassing myself or Mrs. Bunting."
"Lilian will weep with gratitude," I assured him.
"Then you may tell her not to worry about finding another Joseph," said Willis, Sr., with a decisive nod. He picked up his novel. "And now I believe you have some diplomatic business to conduct upstairs?"
I beamed at him. "What would I do without you, William?"
"I tremble to think," he replied.
I gave him a peck on the cheek, then headed for the staircase, hoping that Bill had been too angry to fall asleep at once. When I reached the head of the stairs, I turned automatically toward the nursery to check on the twins and saw, in the night-light's dim glow, that Bill had beaten me to the punch.
I watched in silence as my husband bent low to place a handsome pink flannel rabbit at the foot of Rob's crib. When he straightened, I whispered, "I'm sorry."
"You should be," Bill whispered back, but he put a hand out to me, to take the sting from his words.
"Don't worry about a thing," I told him, taking his hand in mine. "From now on, we're having a quiet Christmas at home. Except for the Christmas Eve party."
"I should be recovered by then." Bill pulled me close and wrapped his arms around me. A few moments later he murmured softly in my ear, "Your willingness to make amends shall be rewarded, my love."
"How?" I asked huskily, running my fingers through his hair.
"With snow," he replied.
My hands dropped to his shoulders. It was not the answer I'd expected.
Bill drew me to the window. "I don't know if it'll last until Christmas, but it's a start."
A shimmering veil of snow swirled and billowed just beyond the windowpane. Fat flakes, wind-driven, splashed the glass or cartwheeled through the darkness to deepen drifts already forming along the flagstone path. It was dazzling, hypnotic, an answer to my prayers-I would have stood there all night, entranced, if my husband hadn't suggested a better way to spend the evening.
Hours later, long after Bill and I had fallen asleep, after Willis, Sr., had closed his book, quenched the fire, and crept upstairs to bed, the snow kept falling. It curled like ermine along bare boughs, filled furrows in plowed fields, and drifted gently over the tattered stranger sprawled beside my graveled drive.
The gift the stranger carried nearly cost him his life.