In the spirit of the season, we bring you one of Tony J Bender’s columns from 2002.
The teapot whistled, and the old man rose from his rocking chair by the window where he watched the sunrise. He pulled two cups out of the cupboard, a force of habit developed over 53 years. He filled one cup, dropped an Earl Grey teabag in it and then turned to put the other cup back on the shelf.
“Funny,” he thought as he watched the neighborhood children shrieking and rolling in the cover of fresh snow, “I never much cared for tea.” But she had, and from that first morning after they were married, he had boiled the water, prepared the tea, and they watched the sunrise that first morning together and every one thereafter.
He stole a look at the vacant rocking chair to his right. Sometimes, he swore it rocked — just a little — but it was probably just the wind working its way through the thin walls.
A snowball thudded against the house, a victim of the exuberant battle outside. The errant thrower covered her mouth, aghast. She peered into the window expecting to see a frown.
But he smiled and waved, and that’s all she needed to see as she reached for more ammunition and aimed more carefully this time.
The old man found himself searching the neighborhood for the brown-haired little girl in the red coat who always was in the midst of every activity. But she was not there.
Some of the outdoor Christmas decorations in the neighborhood were still alight, competing with the day’s fresh sun. It was a marvelous beginning to a Christmas Eve.
The old man rose. “Perhaps another cup of tea,” he thought. He glanced at the chair to his right and was about to ask if she wanted more, too. Fifty-three years of habits are hard to break.
He added a spoonful of honey to the tea this time, using the same teabag as was their frugal custom. He didn’t much care for honey in his tea, but she had enjoyed the small luxury immensely, and it added flavor a used teabag could not deliver.
He heard a crunching and turned first to the empty rocking chair, but when he heard the crunch again, he knew the sound was coming from the porch. The sound of snow underfoot.
When he opened the door, a soft wind blew a sprinkle of snow inside where it melted on the worn hardwood floor. It was the brown-haired girl in the red coat. She was holding a plate covered in plastic wrap. Behind her, the battle raged on and one left-handed thrower heaved, laughing, and then took a snowball to his chest.
“I made some cookies for you,” the little girl said. “Mom helped,” she amended.
The old man was startled for a moment. He had never actually spoken to the girl in the red coat, though she had always been his favorite.
The snowman and Christmas tree cookies were decorated, a bit clumsily perhaps, in sweet red and green frosting and colorful sprinkles that had no taste at all, but the lovely colors fooled the tongue into thinking otherwise.
Gallantly, the old man stepped to one side, bowed and waved the girl in with a dramatic flourish. She set the plate down on the small antique table between the two rockers.
“I thought maybe you wouldn’t have anyone to make cookies for you this Christmas,” she explained, as if one must really explain a kindness on Christmas or any other day for that matter.
They sat, the girl in the rocker to the right, the old man in his usual spot, and they munched the cookies and watched the construction of the winter’s first snowman outside.
The girl watched longingly, interrupting the consumption of the snowman cookie she had just decapitated with a bite. She was a leader, an organizer, always creating order from havoc, and the snowman … they were doing it all wrong!
“I never got your name,” the old man said as the girl’s boots dripped a pool of melted snow onto the floor.
The off-balance snowman toppled outside. The girl sighed.
“Becky,” she said.
“And I am …”
“You are Mister …” she interrupted.
“Call me Nicholas,” he interrupted right back. “Friends should call each other by their first names.”
The sun was higher and warmer as the children filtered away. The birds sang. “They’ll be drying off and going to the department store soon,” the old man said. “Santa always comes to the department store on Christmas Eve.”
The girl nodded and bit the arm off the snowman cookie.
“Aren’t you going to see Santa?” the old man prodded gently.
“I’m getting too old for Santa,” she said in a very businesslike manner, and it sincerely seemed to hurt the old man. She could see that.
“Well, maybe I’ll go this year,” she said after a pause, and the old man seemed to brighten. “But after that, I’m done with him!”
After the girl in the red coat (I mean, Becky) had gone, the old man walked slowly to the closet and began putting on the padded red suit. He would have to do it alone this year.
He groaned as he leaned to snap black spats over his old wingtips. His wife had always helped with them. He stood before the mirror for a long time. The whiskers were securely in place, and he looked quite splendid. His cheeks were even rosy from the exertion of it all.
He stepped out the back door and walked in the alleys three blocks to the big store as he had for nearly 30 years now. He had started the job before his hair had turned white, and now it seemed that he had grown into the task.
The manager at the department store had been kind. “We can find a substitute if you don’t feel up to it this year,” he said. But the old man would not hear of it.
It was an especially long line that year, and his lap was tired long before the line began to noticeably shorten. Even as he heard the Christmas wishes of the children for toys and trucks and trains and puppies, the old man found his eyes searching the line for the girl in the red coat.
She was the very last one.
He delivered his best “ho-ho,” and lowered his voice an octave so she would not recognize his voice. He did not feel quite so tired now.
“What shall it be for you, child? A nice doll, perhaps!”
“Dolls are for little kids,” she sniffed.
“Perhaps a pretty new dress!” he boomed.
“No,” she said seriously, because she was a very serious child. “I was thinking … I have this friend. He’s very old. And he’s alone. Could you make this Christmas special for him?”
She wondered for many years what she had said to make tears well up in Santa’s eyes. She had been far too polite to ask. But she was sure the wish would be granted. He had promised.
“Consider it done,” he said softly.
There was a new Santa the next year. His whiskers were whiter and his cologne had changed. She was far too bright a child to be fooled. But she wished another special wish for a sad, lonely woman on the block that adored — simply adored — burnt chocolate chip cookies.
And in the years to come, the little girl did not ask for toys or dresses. She simply asked that someone special have a particularly excellent Christmas. She was a very practical child that way. And every year without exception, the wish was granted.
© Tony Bender 2002