CHRISTMAS IN MY
November 1875: Buffalo River, Minnesota
"We can take no chances, Lars.
We have to get Nellie into the house!" With the gust of a stormy night whipping up
her skirt, Mama stands over our sick cow.
She pulls her heavy woolen shawl closer around her large belly.
Papa strokes Nellie's head, a
worrisome look spreading across his face above his full beard. "You want to bring her in the house,
"Her calf will be born
before morning and it will freeze in this bitter night," says Mama.
I shift from one foot to
another, knowing Mama would never tell Papa what to do, but this is her job in
our family. She is the budeie,
the caretaker of cattle, and like the other women in our community, she takes
Papa nods in agreement and
peers up at the thin layer of slough grass covering the pole shed. The roof started as a thick layer last fall,
but our cows have slipped their long, rough tongues between the poles many times
for a lick and sometimes come away with mouthfuls.
"Selma, go put some salt
in a pan and bring it here," Mama says.
"And be quick about it!"
My youngest brother Carl and I
run to our small log house, his short legs almost catching up to mine.
By the time I find the salt and
put it in a pan, my oldest brother Jens has unloaded a stack of firewood near
the stove. I order him to watch Carl and
bolt outside into the whirling snow.
Papa has a rope around Nellie's
neck. Together, the three of us coax her
across the yard by holding the salt pan under her nose. Once through the front door, we shove the
poor cow into my room and tie her to the bed post. Nellie and my bed fill the small room. Papa can barely get the door shut.
Snow Angels of San Marcial
The bus for Socorro rumbles off the
gravel onto the highway. Angelina’s mother waves from a foggy window, a small
brown face framed in a red woolen scarf. Another long day ahead at the pottery
plant and another long ride home at dusk await her.
Angelina shivers in the chill of a
December morning. Every day during her holiday break from school, she has
accompanied her mother to the bus stop.
The least she can do. This morning before they left the house, she gave
her own gloves to her mother so at least her hands would be comforted before
the wet pottery clay could take its daily toll.
Gathering her worn jacket around her,
Angelina starts back down the half-mile walk home, her thoughts filled with the
misery of the past year. If only her father hadn’t been laid off from the
factory the previous winter. He’d fallen into a depression from which he could
not escape. Sitting on the lumpy sofa and staring out at the arid desert
landscape, drinking at the town bar, wandering about the village was the sad
and useless way he’d filled his time. Until his kidneys failed. Stranded in San
Marcial with no car and no health insurance, he couldn’t get the right
treatment. Her brothers, Juan and Miguel, found him one afternoon in the alley
behind the bar, lying amongst the wine bottles and old newspapers. Asleep
Without much ceremony, they’d buried him
in the village cemetery. A visiting priest had given the last sacraments as
they laid him to rest near the ancient saguaros he loved. Angelina and her
mother had scattered desert flowers across a pine coffin.
This Christmas would be bleak. No
Christmas tree. “It would not show respect for your father,” her mother had
said just the other day. “Too much celebration is not a good thing.”
closed the car door and settled Skip into his stroller. His chubby fingers
grabbed for her loose hair and caught a fistful. "You're cute,
tadpole." She smiled, freeing herself from his grasp. "That's what
your daddy calls you." Tears pricked her eyelids. "Called you,"
she corrected herself.
Her lips pressed
together tightly as she looked into The Carpentry Shop window. Your daddy's
gone and he's never coming back.
It had been nine
months since Gary's telephone company supervisor called her at the office with
the terrible news. Gary had touched a live wire and fallen fifty feet to his
death. He’d left her with a special gift: their one-month-old son.
Skip and her
receptionist job at the real estate office had become her only lifelines to
Some days, Lauren
still couldn’t believe Gary wasn’t in the next room or lying next to her when
she awoke. They’d planned to build their dream home right here in this small
"No big city
life for my kids," Gary had said when they packed their belongings and
headed out of Denver just a year ago. "We'll move up to where the air is
clear and you can hear yourself think."
On the outskirts
of town, they rented a small but comfortable house. "Just down the road
from all those aspen. That's where we'll buy some land and build our
place," Gary had announced with infectious enthusiasm. And hugged her hard
after he said it.
A bell on the top
of the screen door jangled as Lauren pushed the stroller inside the shop. The
smell of linseed oil and furniture stain greeted her. Various pieces of
furniture filled the small interior.
The owner of the
shop, an auburn-haired man of about thirty, came out of the back room wiping
his hands on his faded jeans. Flecks of sawdust clung to his shirt and a
sprinkling of freckles paraded across his face. She’d seen him several times at
Skip’s daycare with his daughter.A spark of recognition brightened his gaze. "Something I can do for
"Yes,” she answered. “Can you make a crib
brown eyes in a laughing face captured Miriam’s attention. Lips curled upward
like a cupid’s bow. “You’re a handsome young man,” she declared above the
rumble of train wheels on steel tracks. She held Christopher steady on her lap
as he balanced on wobbly legs, trying to look out the window. The world outside
of dry winter wheat fields beneath cloudy skies was no doubt a complete mystery
to a curious six-month-old baby.
‘til Aunt Serena sees you,” she whispered into the swath of dark wavy hair near
Christopher’s ear. Not Aunt Serena. Soon her older married sister would
become Christopher’s mother. An immediate rush of excitement filled her. The
import of Miriam’s journey overtook her senses as it had this morning when she
and the baby first boarded the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe at Hutchinson. She
had been designated by her family to deliver Christopher to her sister in
Denver where he would begin his life anew. Three brothers would welcome him as
their youngest sibling.
telegram had arrived, confirming Christopher’s acceptance. The Cole family
rejoiced at the first uplifting turn of events since the recent passing of
their youngest daughter Beth from a virulent siege of influenza. Christopher’s
father was nowhere to be found, rumor having it that he’d up and run off to
live the cowboy life in Texas. Since Mrs. Cole, the matriarch of the family,
had passed on five years before, the only option for the child was to find a
qualified family member to take him in.
Christmas would take on a most special meaning
this year. For Miriam as well. After living all of her twenty-seven years on
the farm, except for occasional junkets to visit great aunts and cousins in
Topeka, she was venturing for the first time to Denver, a jewel of the western
state. The “Queen City of the Plains.” Denver promised scenic and social opportunities
nonexistent in Kansas.
of viewing miles of wheat fields in all directions, from Denver one viewed
endless snow-capped mountain peaks, she had heard. Fine restaurants were plentiful, theatrical
productions arrived monthly from the East. Not that she could afford to go to
such places. She would just like to see their fancy menus and read about them
in the newspapers. Perhaps window shop with her sister to see the latest
her traveling dress, a simple forest green wool with high-buttoned collar,
Miriam vowed to put her sewing skills to work on a new creation after she
arrived in Denver.
interrupted her thoughts with a lyrical babble then turned his head to gaze
across the aisle. Miriam glanced in that direction, noticing a gentleman
dressed in black, absorbed in his newspaper. She recalled he’d boarded in Great
Bend. Guessing his age to be a few years over thirty, she admired the fit of
his long winter coat beneath a clean shaven jaw, full mustache and long
sideburns. Most likely he was a rancher traveling to Colorado on business.
the front of the car came a whoosh of cold air as the conductor entered and
slid the door closed behind him. The sight of a revolver jutting out from his
hip holster sent a little tingle of apprehension down Miriam’s spine.