Here is part 3 of my Christmas special! I hope you enjoy reading this little story as much as I enjoyed writing it. :)
I entered my apartment quickly, shutting the door against the flurry of snow that threatened to follow me inside. Boxes in my hands, I walked over and placed them down against a noticeably bare tree.
Guests will be here in about an hour…plenty of time to decorate this thing!
The live tree filled the house with the pine-like aroma, and I quickly switched on some instrumental Christmas music, before turning to a box of ornaments that rested on a chair waiting for someone to give them their moment to stand out on the tree.
I picked up the lights first and began to wind them around the tree, going top down and trying to make it all even. This Christmas gathering was going to be spectacular, every year a friend volunteers to host a holiday gathering and families all show up at that house on Christmas Eve and stay over until Christmas day. This year I was "talked into it" by my girlfriend, Jane, who was living with me and jumped at the chance to host her own party.
Figures, she isn't even here yet… I thought as I untangled a knot in the lights, she was still out shopping leaving me to decorate. Typical…..good thing I loved her enough to overlook that small fault.
I finished placing the lights evenly and switched them on. The tree suddenly erupted in a blaze of white light, which bathed the entire front room. "Alright, lights done!" I told myself, proud of my accomplishment.
I began picking out ornaments and placing them on the tree. Jane had bought almost every type of ornament that there was over the years. We had traditional baubles, snowmen, Santa clauses, bells, hearts, and reindeer also.
But it was the untraditional ones that stood out to me as I picked them up. We had a homemade star that Jane had made at one of her art shows, a stuffed bear dressed in a Christmas Jacket, and a tiny sheep wearing a Santa hat.
I placed them on the tree, making sure they could all be seen, before reaching into the bin for more. I pulled out a tiny green stocking that was adorned with camouflage and military symbols and paused for a moment, remembering the man who gave this to me….a long time ago.
Captain John Irons….U.S Army.
John was an odd fellow, he'd served in Vietnam for a few terms and came back to the states when a leg injury forced him to retire early. He'd grown old and cranky and lived next door to me when I was about 18. I didn't think much of him until a break in occurred at his house.
I happened to be outside at the time, and I could hear yelling and the sound of glass breaking. When I went to investigate I saw three men in masks standing by John.
I quickly rushed away and called the police, reporting the break-in, before going back to the house to check in on John. Turns out there was no need, as I had momentarily forgotten that he was an army vet.
Two of the thugs were already unconscious, laid low by blows of a cane, and the third turned to run when I put my one self-defense class to use and punched the man in the jaw.
Granted I broke my hand, but he was out cold!
Anyway the police arrived and the thugs were taken away for a long while, and John and I bonded over that incident and he often invited me to his house to tell me old war stories, or to have me do chores he could no longer do.
If the man had one fault though, it was that he didn't believe in Christmas. He always testified that any God he thought he believed in had abandoned him in Vietnam, and he didn't want to become part of the "Commercialization" of Christmas. No gifts, no lights, no Santa for him…he wasn't unpleasant, he just didn't believe.
Which was why it was such as surprise to me when he always came to our Christmas gatherings. He always joked that it was because of the free food that we offered, but he always had fun even if he politely left the room during prayers and more Christian carols.
On one such gathering however he pulled me aside and pressed a small, badly wrapped gift into my hands saying:
"Now listen here son, this action goes against everything I believe, but you've been kind to me so I'm making one exception."
As I opened it the stocking was revealed, and it was so military like, it couldn't have come from anyone else.
The next year he was gone.
The old leg wound had gotten infected and he'd died in his sleep after a prolonged battle with disease, but I always made sure his stocking had a perfect place somewhere…..The gift from a man who didn't believe in the holiday.
I snapped back to the present as "Silent night" began to play and I placed the stocking on the tree, right in the middle where it blended into the needles.
I picked up not an ornament, but a massive silver platter from the bottom of the bin, and as I stared at the polished surface I read the words inscribed into the silver.
Remember child, the secret to a good holiday can be found in the food everyone brings, so bring yours in style!
Yep, that was Big Mama's style alright, the Cajun woman who had a big voice and an even bigger personality.
Big Mama was a woman of many words and many dishes. She was the owner of a restaurant where I'd worked as a dishwasher and she worked harder than any other chef. She always rolled up her sleeves and dove straight into the food fight bringing Cajun dishes to life. Gumbo, Jambalaya, rice and gravy, seafood, and corn. The people loved it and she loved her food, and I loved working for her.
She was just one of those bosses who didn't ever seem like a boss, she was always your friend. She always had a twinkle in her eye and a song in her soul as she worked.
I invited her to one of our gatherings where she mixed her Cajun wisdom with the spirit of Christmas, often singing louder than anyone else during carols. She was a die-hard Christian believer, and she let religion fuel everything she did. She even once joked that the reason she loved cooking so much was so she could cook for the Lord, everything she did on Earth was just practice.
She was always in the kitchen during gatherings, helping out Jane who loved to cook. The two women had a mutual respect for each other while each one secretly believed that their cooking was much better, so it was always interesting in the kitchen on the holidays. Both women had a deep, almost spiritual connection with the art of preparing food. The problem was having two of those connections in the same room.
Big Mama had given me this platter after playfully complaining about the lack of serving dishes in the house, and it was tradition for us to always serve the prized centerpiece of our meals on that platter.
She had died three years ago in a hospital, and I was one of the few with her when she passed. Even while dying she praised the Lord, and went up with a smile on her face.
Every year since then the platter has remained a gathering and a mealtime staple, a gift from a woman with a recipe in her heart and a song in her soul.
I carried the platter to the kitchen, whispering a "Good luck" to it, because it was going to be carrying a big bird tonight.
I pulled out another non-ornament, a small wreath that was not covered in pine needles and bells, but in wire and thumbtacks, with a handwritten 'Merry Christmas' adorning its center. It wasn't the prettiest, but there was no other wreath I would rather have on my door.
It was given to me by Kenny Jay…a criminal, who was my best friend.
Kenny was what people called a 'bad kid'. He had tattoos, a Mohawk, a deep disrespect for authority, the whole nine yards. He smoked a lot and had been in jail three times for robbery charges.
So when a nice guy like me crossed paths with him, the inevitable happened.
It was a nice spring day and I was out for a jog when I saw Kenny leaning against a tree, smoking a cigar. He held a can out towards me as I passed and asked for some money. I'm not sure what made me give five dollars to a man who certainly didn't look poor or down on his luck, but I did. Kenny thanked me and went on his way, as did I.
A month later, several robberies took place in my neighborhood, and although my house was broken into, nothing was stolen at all. I triple checked and nothing was taken or even showed signs of being touched.
Kenny was eventually caught and convicted of the crimes, and against my better judgment I went to the prison to ask him why he left my things alone, heck I had tons of valuables in the house.
What he said to me changed both our lives forever.
"When I broke in I had every intention of robbing you, but then I saw a picture of you and realized you were the guy who gave me five bucks on the corner. The only one who was nice to me, so I left you alone….and your house won't ever be bothered by me again."
I saw the good in him that day, and as we talked more and more I began to understand where he came from as a person and a criminal.
I continued my visits over the months and when he was let out I helped him stay on the straight and narrow path. He always told me that my friendship was what he depended on to stay out of jail, and he managed to keep to the good path.
He gave me the wreath, something he'd made while in a rehab center he was forced by the state to go to, and I always hung it on my door right before the gatherings, which he always came to. He loved the food and the friends, but most importantly he loved feeling like he belonged…..which he never got in prison.
He was killed during a driving accident a while back, and for a while there was a hole in my life. He was a criminal, a 30-second report on the nightly news, he'd hurt people with his actions. Yet, he was also a good man who just needed a little kindness.
So the wreath stayed, a gift from a criminal with an honorable heart.
I placed the wreath on the door, also checking the time. Guests will be here in thirty….where are you Jane?
I walked back to the box of ornaments and picked up another one. It was a dog collar and the heart shaped tag read 'Jinx'
Jinx was one of the best dogs in the world, even though we'd gotten her completely by luck.
Jane had returned home one day with a brown Labrador puppy in her arms, along with toys, food, and bedding for it. Like always she didn't even consult with me first….and like always I loved her enough to overlook that fault.
When I asked her why she had gotten a dog when the house was barely big enough for two humans, she said that she saw the dog in the pet store and just had to, had to, had to have it. The puppy didn't have a name, so I jokingly called her 'Jinx' because she was a stroke of luck…..and 'Lucky' just felt too obvious.
Jinx was a handful, but Jane and I managed to keep the house in order. She liked Jane more than me and seemed to go ballistic if Jane was out of her sight for even a millisecond. I, however, could be gone for hours and she'd simply chew on her toys and only give a little bark when I returned.
Somehow we managed to bond more as Jinx grew up, and I always joked with Jane that Jinx had outgrown her.
Jinx and I were inseparable, always rolling around on the floor, cuddling, playing tug of war or fetch outside. She was my best friend, and Jane always joked that if she didn't have a firm "You're only cuddling with me in bed, so no dogs allowed rule" I'd forget she existed.
Maybe that's why losing her hurt the most of all.
Jinx passed away in her sleep, painlessly, at a young age. She'd been sick a few times, but always pulled through. To this day we don't know why she died, but she is now buried in our backyard, in the sun, just like she would have wanted.
I walked out to the window and looked into the backyard, where in a small corner, right by a garden….a grave stood tall despite the snow and wind.
I fiddled with the dog collar for a long while as two Christmas songs came and went, just staring at the grave. I then walked over to the tree and looped the collar over one of the topmost branches, making sure the tag was visible, staring at it for an equally long while.
The opening of a door broke me from my memories as I turned to see Jane (finally) walking into the house bearing packages and bags. I rushed over to ease her burden and smiled "So this is why you were so late!"
She laughed "No peeking, most of these are for you."
I smiled and did my best not to peek as I placed the bags down as she remarked "Baby, you did a good job with the tree, but you've got one more ornament to put up."
I walked over to the bag of decorations and pulled out the last ornament….a flame carved out of glass.
Emilia was a young girl who was paralyzed from the waist down, unable to use her legs. Despite that she was the bravest girl I'd ever met, and in all honesty didn't need her legs.
I met her during a routine walk around the block, where she needed help getting over a curb. After seeing that no one else was going to her aid I went over and asked if she needed help. I helped her get over the curb and cross the street and she told me that she worked at an art studio nearby. When I told her my name she asked me if I was Jane's boyfriend, as she was a regular attender of that studio, and a friendship formed.
I quickly learned from her that you didn't need legs to move around quickly, and losing a body part didn't mean losing your spirit. We hung out more and more outside of the art studio (Jane was the artist not me) and she taught me about her inner fire, and how it always needs to keep burning for her, or she'd fall into pity.
Emilia was a wonderful girl and very mature for her age, I could speak and learn from her as if she were an adult and I often invited her to the gatherings. She always brought her family along and each time she enjoyed being in a place where she could feel like not having the use of her legs was normal, because no one looked twice when I introduced her the first time.
She was studying abroad now, and couldn't come to gatherings anymore, but on the day she left she gave me this ornament and a message:
"Whatever you do, don't let your inner flame burn out…..hopefully this will remind you that you can always light it high and bright!"
I always kept my inner flame lit, for her….and I hope she feels the flame now….wherever she is.
I placed the flame on the tree and sighed "That's all done."
Jane kissed me on the cheek and smiled "You did wonderful, and look what I got us."
I looked up and saw mistletoe in her hand, raised above us, "Like I need an excuse to kiss you." I grumbled playfully before kissing her.
We stayed like that for a few moments before a knock at the door broke us apart. "The guests are here, I'll get the door." Jane smiled, the fervor of hosting her own party getting to her at last.
As she walked away I turned on the holiday football game and looked back to see…..them.
John was sitting on the couch groaning about how in 'his day' the Ravens quarterback would never have ran the ball during a 3rd and goal situation, no passing the ball was where it was at. Big Mama was in the kitchen over a pot of mashed potatoes and gravy singing along with the instrumental music and her voice echoed through the house. Kenny was staring at me with the look of 'You and Jane, get a room man!' like he always did when we got overly affectionate. Emilia was sitting in her wheelchair fiddling with some paper and art supplies, and Jinx was walking around the house, sniffing at all the new people.
I blinked and they were gone, but they were there….I'd seen them all.
The real guests started walking in, friends, family, neighbors, and others. I turned to greet them and smiled as I surveyed the decorations, each one a part of a special person and each one a vault of 101 memories. They might be dead, but their spirit….the Christmas Spirit lives on, in all of us.
And Gatherings are really what the holiday is about right?
Have a happy holiday guys, I hope you liked my Christmas updates and please check out my story "The Power of Music" for a special holiday treat! See you all in 2016!
As always please leave a review, feel free to check out my other works and have a wonderful day!