Mandy walked barefoot down the cinder track leading to Aunt Muriel’s farm cottage. The sharpness of that path hurt her feet, but she determined to be just like the other kids who removed their shoes as soon as they left school running as fast as they could to homes scattered around this rural village.
Mandy hated the country. She was city bred and used to the way things were done there. But ever since her father Frank had died in a vehicle accident mother Lucille had been forced to give up their spacious home and downsize taking an apartment in a part of the city she considered unsafe for Mandy. Lucille was determined to earn enough to support herself and her daughter, but as she’d be away from the apartment all day and evenings it was felt Mandy would be safer under supervision of her sister Muriel. Hopefully they could be reunited when Mandy was old enough to know how to protect herself.
Lucille had been brought up in this village along with her sister Muriel, but a young salesman from the city supplying their village store had swept Lucille off her feet, and when they married she had to adjust to a new culture. Rural life was quite different, people were laid back and had time for each other, city folk were always in a hurry and had little time for the kind of socializing rural folk enjoyed. Lucille hated it at first, but as both she and Frank had to work hard to save for a suitable place to raise children she eventually began to fit in with the rhythm of the city.
Mandy and Lucille had shed tears as they headed down the freeway to Aunt Muriel’s village home. That home had been with the family for generations. It was built in the 1800’s, compact but containing sufficient room for the ancestor who’d built it with the help of village neighbours to raise five children. Will the gardener and handyman for Aunt Muriel had kept house and grounds looking beautiful. Residents in this village were proud of their history and kept properties well presented.
Aunt Muriel had married her childhood sweetheart just before new husband Brett had been conscripted to serve in the great war. He’d been killed while fighting in the Pacific. Shock when that news had been delivered had resulted in the loss of her child. So, childless Muriel doted on her niece and was delighted when Lucille had approached her to care for Mandy until she matured enough to handle city life with a working mother.
Mandy approached the porch with relief. Her small feet had not hardened like the rural kids who’d gone barefoot since they could walk and her feet hurt after walking the cinder track. She determined she’d not be so silly in future. She’d wear shoes home even if kids at school laughed.
She walked up three front steps and sat on the porch swing putting her school bag beside her. Giving a kick to set the swing in motion she sat thinking. Life sucked! She missed her Mom despite Aunt Muriel’s kindness and constant concern. Nothing was too much for her Aunt and Mandy appreciated that very much, but it was not like having her own Mom with her. Her Father had been gone long enough now for memories to seem like dreams rather than reality. Her Father had doted on his daughter and subconsciously she was profoundly affected by this gap in the family. A shiver went through her small body. First her Dad was removed from her life, now Mother. She felt terribly alone!
Aunt Muriel appeared through the front door with a glass of her home brand lemonade. This took Mandy out of sad thoughts and she reached to take the glass.
“I saw you coming through the kitchen window. I’m making some chocolate chip cookies, want some?”
Mandy smiled and nodded. Aunt Muriel disappeared inside soon to appear with a plate of cookies. She sat on the swing with the plate and gently set the swing in motion so lemonade wouldn’t spill.
“Did you have a good day at school? Did I cut you enough lunch?” Muriel looked anxiously at the child. She desperately wanted to make her happy knowing how difficult it was to lose a loved one and fend for yourself.
Mandy’s cheeks were too full of cookies by this time to talk so she continued nodding and smiling.
“Good, I have to go and finish baking. I have a large rye bread in the oven we can have tonight along with roast and vegetables. Children need to eat heartily to be healthy!” She nodded at her own sage advice and reached down to take the empty glass and cookie plate.
That evening after Mandy had finished homework Aunt Muriel looked up from reading.
“Mandy, school vacation starts next week and that reminds me we need to put up the Christmas tree and add decorations around the house. I’ll need to have you help me with those. Then I’m reminded we need to prepare for Christmas day celebration and make treats to share around neighbours for that’s our village custom. As I haven’t had anyone in the house to share Christmas with for a long time I haven’t wrapped presents for years to place under the tree. What would you like to have me buy for you as a special gift for that day?”
Mandy looked up in surprise. She hadn’t thought much about Christmas celebration. They’d missed celebrating last Christmas as both she and Mom had been too distressed after Father’s death to think about Christmas. There’d been packing boxes all around the house as her home had been sold and most money received had gone to the bank in settlement of their loan. Mom had just enough to buy a small apartment she lived in now. Lucille had promised they’d move into a better home some day and she was working hard to save money for that purpose. Lucille had a day and night job and that was a good reason for Mandy to be with Aunt Muriel.
Mandy shrugged. “I don’t need anything as Mom has supplied all clothes and books I need for school. I just wish you could put my Mom and Dad under the tree on Christmas Day.” She tried to smile at the foolishness of that request, but instead tears cascaded down her cheeks.
Aunt Muriel was there in a flash folding the child into her arms sympathetically. She understood what it was like to lose loved ones and knew it would be distressing to be separated from a mother.
Muriel pondered the child’s request over the next few weeks while she and Mandy removed the Christmas tree from the attic along with its hangings and carefully put them together. The house was decorated outside with coloured lights by Will the handyman.
It was now vacation time and as there was no homework to do Mandy sat listening to the radio before it was time for her to be tucked in bed.
“It’s time for bed now.” Aunt Muriel put her sewing down and stood to take the child to bed.
Mandy had given up pleading to stay up a little longer even though it was vacation so she turned off the radio and stood. Aunt Muriel was very strict about being prompt for meals and bedtime. Come to think of it Aunt Muriel was very strict about most things, but she was kind and Mandy understood it was all for her good.
“Is Mom going to be with us for the Christmas celebration?”
Aunt Muriel stood thoughtfully for a moment before gently nudging the child toward the bedroom.
“Mandy, you know your Mom has two jobs and one of them, the restaurant, is not closing over Christmas. They need your Mom there and she’s frightened if she refuses to work they may give the job to someone else. She gets a lot of tips from the restaurant job at night and is saving hard for the time when you both can be reunited and she can afford a better home in a safer place. I’m afraid you must be considerate and understand why she can’t be with us to celebrate Christmas.”
Mandy looked dejected, but nodded her head in understanding.
After tucking the child in bed Muriel went to her room and sobbed quietly. The child’s distress brought back memories of her own loneliness and distress after loss of both husband and child. Lucille and Frank had tried their best to comfort her but no one can substitute for a loss like that. However, Muriel loved them for trying. She resolved to seek a solution and grant the child her wish.
On Christmas eve Muriel put the child to bed a little earlier than usual. She needed to move quickly. Will had agreed to sleep on the front porch that evening in spite of winter cold to be around the house as a precaution. A half hour later she peeped into the child’s room. She was asleep. Good, time to put her plan into action!
The sound of a car starting up briefly woke Mandy. She turned over and went back to sleep again only to be awakened by the sound of a returning vehicle. Once again, she slept.
Right on 5am as was her custom after coming to live with Aunt Muriel Mandy washed her face and headed down stairs. She looked in the kitchen where her Aunt was usually to be found preparing breakfast, then not finding her there she headed for the front door to look for Muriel. Perhaps she was out sitting on the porch with warm apple cider she loved to drink on a cold day while looking out over snow covered front yard with twinkling lights in fir trees.
On the way past the front room proudly displaying their Christmas tree with coloured lights she detected movement in her peripheral vision. So, that’s where her Aunt was! She turned to greet her.
“Mom!” Mandy ran and was swept into the arms of her waiting Mother. Both cried loudly, but it was from joy this time.
“I believe you wanted to have Mom and Dad wrapped under the Christmas tree? Unfortunately, your Dad wasn’t able to be here!” Lucille laughed as she spoke.
“I’m so happy, where’s Aunt Muriel?” Mandy continued to look around expecting her Aunt to materialize.
Lucille was suddenly sober.
“Your Aunt asked the restaurant boss if she could work in my place over Christmas. I’m your present from her! You see she used to work at that restaurant long ago but decided she didn’t like the city and came back to live in this village permanently. You wouldn’t remember that as you were only a baby. It was because of her recommendation I got that job. They were happy to have her back again. I think you have a very kind Aunt and hope you thank her when she comes back home.
“Happy Christmas Mandy,” said Lucille giving her daughter a big hug.
“Happy Christmas Mom!”
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