December, Kansas Prairie
SNOW drifts and swirls outside the kitchen door. Icicles drip from the eves of the house and porch. Grandma is baking. The house smells of cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger. Little Susie is sitting next to the cast iron stove, watching every move of the old lady's hands with wonder and awe. Every year, as the darkness surrounds us earlier and earlier, this room becomes a place where magic is created. The child may not realize it now, but this time and place, the whiff of spices, the rhythm of movement, the love, will be in her mind for years to come. She will picture each detail with a crispness that never fails to surprise and delight her.
Now, the kitchen is warm and inviting, a plain wooden table in the center, its surface worn and scarred from years of use in fixing the family's meals. Glass-fronted hickory cupboards lining the walls reveal mixed sets of cups and saucers, plates and bowls, rows of glass jars filled with the autumn's harvest from the garden, small spice tins and cannisters of salt and sugar and flour, pots and pans and baking dishes. The deep double sink with the pump handle is set beneath a window glazed with steam and condensation from the heat of the kitchen. The day outside is silver and cold, the sky overcast, and Grandma, a short slim woman with white hair wisping around her face and sharp brown eyes that never miss a thing, stands at the table in the bright light of the kitchen lamps, quickly rolling out dark brown dough for gingerbread men.
She glances over at little Susie, who is perched on a chair moved back from the table, watching with that wide-eyed gaze, her blonde hair curling on her shoulders from the warmth of the stove. "Almost there," Grandma says, as she deftly tucks under a corner of the dough and picks up the wooden rolling pin again.
Susie makes no answer; her dark blue eyes never move from the scene at the table, and her hands are neatly folded in the lap of her white cotton pinafore. She sits straight, well-taught, the old lady thinks, setting the pin aside at last and reaching for the man-shaped cookie cutter. And quiet . . . always so quiet. Not natural for a child to be that quiet.
Oh well, the old woman shrugs as she swiftly cuts out gingerbread men with the cookie cutter, it's been a hard year for everyone. Drought in the summer, influenza in late fall . . . too many in town had died, though none in their family, thank the Lord! Almost everyone was sick with it at one time or another, and there were few well enough to help those who were ill. So it was that this poor child had had to help her mother with the nursing -- the old woman had strenuously opposed that, seen too many young'uns carried off by fevers and the like, she'd wanted to take Susie to Kansas City or further -- but her son wouldn't hear of it, and that, Grandma thinks to herself irritably as she drives the cookie cutter into the dough, was that. Have to teach Calvin to respect his elders -- he was brought up better than that, to risk a child's life and pay no attention to someone who knew what she was talking about! Hmmph.
Grandma glances over at Susie again, and catches the shadow of an anxious expression flit across the innocent round face. The old lady smiles easily, saying, "That's one gingerbread man who will know his shape!" and is rewarded with a relieved smile from Susie.
The porcelain clock ticks reassuringly in the comfortable silence that follows, as Grandma transfers the cut-out cookies to baking pans and slips them into the cast-iron stove. The rich scent of ginger and molasses drifts from the stove; Grandma busily clears the table, washes the bowls and forks and cups in the dishpan in the deep metal sink, and checks the cookies. Susie stays in her chair, her gaze shifting now and again about the bright kitchen, drinking in the warmth and comfort and safety of this well-used room.
At last the cookies are done and cooling on the table, and Grandma looks up at Susie expectantly. "Well," she says briskly, "are you going to sit there all day? Come over here, child, we have to decorate these cookies!"
Susie's face lights up in excitement, and she rushes to the table, climbing onto the chair next to her grandmother, kneeling so she is high enough to help with the cookies. "That's right," Grandma says in satisfaction, "now I'll do the frosting and you can do the raisins, how's that?"
A quick nod of the bright blonde head was her answer. Susie can hardly sit still as Grandma moves the bowl of dark plump raisins closer and starts piping frosting onto the cookies. And as Susie carefully selects only the very best raisins, and concentrates on placing them just so on the dots of frosting provided for the purpose, the little girl says softly, "Grandma?"
The old lady glances at her in surprise, but Susie's head is bent -- a raisin is being gently placed on the gingerbread man's chest. "Yes, child," answers Grandma, turning back to her own work.
"Can I ask you somethin'?"
"Of course," she replies briskly, wondering what was coming.
Susie's voice is low and muffled as she bends even lower over the cookie. "Are there . . . are there miracles at Christmas?"
"Oh my yes," Grandma replies immediately, "more so than at any of other time of year, I think. It's a special time, you know."
"Mmhm." Susie finishes the gingerbread man and starts sorting through the raisins in the bowl to use on the next cookie.
The clock ticks loudly, and the sound of the wind outside, rushing through the bare branches of the elms around the house, fills the silence, an expectant silence, no longer comfortable. Grandma almost smiles, remembering Calvin when he was young, and the stories she used to tell him. She thinks of all the ones she knows, about the family, about the times she has lived through -- stories she knows Calvin has not told Susie -- and wonders what will happen to them after she is gone. It's stories that knit us together, she muses, all of us, our past and what we have shared and endured, together. Without that . . .
"I know a story about a Christmas miracle," she says suddenly.
Susie looks up eagerly. "You do?"
"Yes, I do," the old woman answers firmly. "It was a very special miracle indeed, at least to my way of thinking, and it began just this way . . ."
You're invited to help us finish this story! Please send your tale of a Christmas miracle, the kind that Grandma would tell Susie, to us by midnight Central Standard Time, 26 December 1997. Responses selected will be posted and remain available at the Holidays page through Twelfth-night, which ends at midnight Central Standard Time, 6 January 1998. (Please note that all stories forwarded to us are considered contributions to KanColl and may be edited as needed.)