The tiny child huddled in the worn armchair, her feet drawn up under the too-large flannel nightgown. From her vantage point in the dark living room, she watched the house across the street through the large window.
Marta Ross entered from the hall. “Why, Mary Lynn, why are you sitting here in the dark?” Although she spoke softly, the small girl jumped. “It’s all right, sweetie. If you want to sit in the dark, that’s just fine.”
Mary Lynn ducked her head, laying her forehead against her raised knees as the woman settled herself in a rocking chair facing the armchair. The elderly woman glanced out the window. “Oh, I see the Thomas family has been decorating for Christmas. Was that why you were in the dark, so you could see the lights better?”
The woman could barely hear the muffled, “Uh-huh,” from the child. Gently rocking the chair, the woman talked almost as if to herself. “Every year, the family over there decorates their house and yard. I like sitting here and watching the lights twinkle. Each year they do something different. Last year they had what looked like Santa Claus upside down in the chimney.” She chuckled. “Two of his elves were trying to pull him out.”
“He was in the chemaney?” The girl wiggled off the chair and moved to the window, pressing her nose against the glass. “Where?”
“He’s not there this year. I’m sure they will have old Santa somewhere though.”
“What’s a Santie?” The hesitant voice caused the elderly woman to sigh.
“Mary Lynn, why don’t you come sit in my lap?” Marta offered. When the girl cringed, she added, “It will be fine. I just like to hold children when I answer questions for them. Will you let me hold you while I tell you about Santa Claus?”
Eyes large in her heart-shaped face, Mary Lynn studied the woman for a few minutes before creeping to stand beside the rocking chair. “You want ta hold me?”
“Oh, yes, sweetie, I really do want to hold you.” She helped the little girl into her lap, but Mary Lynn sat stiff and straight as the woman started gently rocking again, her arms loosely around the child. “Didn’t anyone hold you and rock you before?”
“Momma useta did.” The too-large eyes turned toward the woman holding her. “Momma had ta work lots.”
“But Grandma must have rocked you and told you stories.”
“Gramma tole me to get in my room an’ leave her ‘lone.” As the chair moved back and forth, Mary Lynn began to relax against the pillowy body holding her. “Are you my gramma, too?”
“I’m your great-grandma.” At the frown that crinkled the girl’s forehead, the woman added, “You can call me Nanna, like your mother does, if you want to.”
“Nanna,” Mary Lynn sampled the word.
“That’s right. Your grandpa was my son. When he went to the war and didn’t come back, your grandma took your momma to live far, far away.” She ran a trembling hand down the silky, dark hair now against her arm. “I missed so much.” Too much, too much, most of my granddaughter’s life, the first three years of you . . . her thoughts tumbled in her mind.
“Yes, yes, sweetie.” Marta brought her attention back to the girl in her lap.
“What’s a Santie Cause?” Mary Lynn squirmed until she could see out the window again, but she also snuggled closer in the arms holding her.
“Ah, yes, Santa Claus,” Nanna whispered against the head now on her breast. “Many, many years ago, in fact a very long time ago, a special baby was born. God wanted people to know how much He loved them, so He sent His son as a baby to live here.”
“God lives in hebben. Momma said so.” The three-year-old twisted around to face her great-grandmother. “Did Gramma go to hebben?”
“Ah, well, I’m not sure how . . .” Not wanting to discuss that subject, the old woman hesitated before continuing her story. “Uh, now, about Santa Claus. God sent His son to be a baby and to live with parents here on Earth, Mary and Joseph. Angels sang to shepherds to tell them about the baby in the manger.”
“Ohhh,” Mary Lynn sighed, “I singed ‘bout that when I goed to sunny school.” The small child leaned back against the woman’s breast and half whispered, half sang, “ ‘way in a manger, no crib for a bed, the liddle lor Jesus laided down his sweet head . . . I don’t remember any more.”
“We’ll learn the words after while because that’s a very good Christmas song, and you sing very well.” Nanna hugged her great-granddaughter closer. When Mary Lynn gave a soft giggle, Marta realized she hadn’t heard the little girl laugh until then. “After the shepherds came to see the baby, three wise men came and brought presents.”
“I got a present onest,” Mary Lynn offered. “My momma got me a doll.”
With the mental picture of the ragged stuffed doll lying on Mary Lynn’s bed, the woman asked, “Your Janey doll?” Feeling, rather than seeing, the head against her nod, she sighed. “I think you’ll have more presents this Christmas.”
“I love Janey, like toys, too.” The little girl slid off Marta’s lap, rushing to the window. “Ohhhh, is that a Santie?”
As her eyes followed Mary Lynn’s pointing finger to the stuffed figure in a red suit lying on top of the roof across the street, Marta answered, “That’s a big doll, like your Janey, that looks like Santa Claus.”
After watching a few moments, Mary Lynn returned to her great-grandmother’s lap without being asked. “Telled the story, Nanna.” She wound her thin arms around Marta’s neck for a quick hug, then sat where she could look out the window again.
Marta placed a kiss on Mary Lynn’s head before continuing, “Where was I? Oh, yes, then after Jesus, yes, that was the baby’s name, grew up and did what He was supposed to do, God took Him back to heaven to be with Him.”
“But did Santie know Jesus?”
“In a way, sweetie. You see, people wanted to celebrate Jesus' birthday even though He wasn’t here, so they decided to give presents to each other. Then someone wanted to give presents without anyone knowing who they were from. As more and more people gave presents on Christmas, stories started being told about this spirit of giving.”
“What’s a ‘pirit, Nanna?”
With a chuckle, Marta murmured, “And I thought you were too quiet.”
“I sorry, Nanna. I be quiet.” Mary Lynn started to wiggle away.
“Oh, no, I don’t want you to be quiet. I like to hear you talk and giggle and ask questions.” Marta pulled the girl back against her. “Now, let’s see if I can find answers to your questions. Hmmm . . . a spirit. . . A spirit is something that can’t be seen but is, uh, well, sweetie, in this case, it is something that is believed very strongly. People had a belief in giving gifts to others.”
“Peoples gived presents for Jesus’ birthday?”
“Yes, exactly. Then stories started being told about a special Spirit of Giving, someone who went around giving gifts to children while they slept.”
Mary Lynn twisted around to face her great-grandmother. “Is that Santie Cause?”
“Yes, that’s Santa Claus. Only in some countries he has other names like Father Christmas and Kris Kringle.”
“Nanna, will Santie come see me sometime?” Scooting off Marta’s lap, the little girl wandered back to the window. She stared at the multi-colored lights, the elves, and Santa Claus, the trimming and trappings so unknown in her life before.
Marta felt her heart jerk as she heard the yearning in Mary Lynn’s voice. “Yes, Mary Lynn, Santa will come see you before too long. But, surely he came to see you before.”
The little girl’s head started shaking no when she whirled from the window. “Momma comed home!” She ran toward the hall before the sound of a car door closing reached Marta’s ears. When the front door opened, the child threw her arms around the legs of the young woman who entered. “Momma!”
Abby Ross dropped the bags to the floor as she bent to scoop her daughter into her arms. “Hi, Pumpkin. Have you been a good girl for Nanna?”
Mary Lynn pulled her face away from her mother’s shoulder to glance at Nanna standing in the door to the living room. “Yes, Abby, she has been very good,” Marta answered.
After another hug, Abby kissed Mary Lynn’s cheek. “Shouldn’t you be in bed, honey?”
Again Marta answered, “I told her she could wait up until you got home from work. I hope that was all right.”
With a soft groan Abby stood, carrying Mary Lynn with her. “That’s fine, Nanna. I just didn’t want her to be too much for you.” She hugged her daughter close. “It hasn’t been very easy. She’s just a baby and doesn’t understand . . .” She bit her lip.
Marta moved to wrap both her granddaughter and great-granddaughter in her arms. “I’m sorry I wasn’t with you all these years. I don’t really understand what all you and Mary Lynn have endured, but I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“Nanna, it wasn’t your fault. Mom . . . well, she just didn’t seem . . .” When Mary Lynn squirmed, Abby closed her lips into a soundless whistle.. “I can’t talk . . . Maybe later.”
“You shouldn’t be standing here in the hall talking anyway. I saved you some dinner. Let’s go back to the kitchen.”
“You didn’t need to do that. I could fix . . .” Her voice stilled when her grandmother placed fingers to her mouth. Together the three made their way to the kitchen, large shopping bags still sitting on the floor by the door.
Although she insisted she wanted to help, Abby sat at the table with Mary Lynn in her lap. After refusing any assistance, Marta scurried around the kitchen, preparing a plate of food and popping it in the microwave.
“Momma, Nanna tolded me ‘bout Santie Cause.” Mary Lynn whispered loudly in her mother’s ear.
“What?” Abby turned worried eyes toward her grandmother. “Uh, oh, that’s nice, honey.”
Marta dropped into a chair at the table. “Apparently I shouldn’t have, huh?”
“Well, I . . . I guess she had to hear somewhere, but . . .” Her daughter’s anxious look caught Abby’s attention. With a wan smile, she told Mary Lynn, “I’m sure Nanna told you a nice story about Santa Claus.”
The little girl nodded her head as she explained, “Uh-huh. Santie Cause is ‘pirit of giving. He knowses Jesus.”
The faintness passed as Abby realized that Marta hadn’t planted any great expectations in Mary Lynn’s mind. “I’m glad Nanna told you about Santa Claus.” A slight smile brightened her face briefly as she turned to her grandmother. “Thank you, Nanna.”
Later, after Mary Lynn slept peacefully in her bed in the room that once belonged to her grandfather, Abby picked up the bags and carried them down the hall toward her room. Marta came from the kitchen drying her hands on a small towel. “What do you have, Abby?”
With a grimace more than a smile twisting her lips, the younger woman admitted, “This is my matched luggage. I went by the shelter and picked up the rest of our belongings.”
“I wish you had called me sooner, honey. I didn’t know that your mother had died, that you were homeless, nothing.”
Abby shivered as she considered the past few years of her life. “I didn’t know you would want to hear from us. I mean, Mom was so bitter. All my life she blamed me for being in the way, being no good. Then when I ‘proved her right,’ as she said, she did the same to Mary Lynn.” Tears filled her eyes as she faced her grandmother after they entered the bedroom. “I didn’t know that you would care either.”
With a deep sigh, Marta gathered her granddaughter in her arms again. Ginger Ross, you should be roasted. Aloud she told Abby, “I’m glad you finally called.”
“I . . . I managed providing for us with two jobs, but when I got pneumonia . . . lost my jobs. Then we ended up in the shelter . . . I knew I had to do something for Mary Lynn. I had to.” Abby’s voice sharpened.
“It’s okay. You have a home as long as you want it. Now, you need rest. I shouldn’t be keeping you up. You probably are exhausted after your first day back at work.”
With a sniff, Abby forced herself to smile. “I am a bit tired. But the job is going to be perfect. By the way, I won’t be so late most days.”
“That’s fine. I don’t mind if you need to work late sometimes. Mary Lynn and I have a lot of catching up to do.” Marta kissed Abby’s cheek. “Now, you rest. I’ll see you in the morning. Breakfast will be ready by eight so that you can be at work on time.”
“Nanna, you don’t need . . .”
“Hush, I know I don’t need to, but I want to. Now, goodnight, honey.” The older woman touched Abby’s cheek before turning and leaving the room.
Days passed with Marta providing home and comfort for her granddaughter and great-granddaughter. Abby’s job in an insurance office provided a welcomed steady income and potential for advancement. Mary Lynn bloomed under her great-grandmother’s love and attention.
A week before Christmas as Marta and Mary Lynn baked cookies, Mary Lynn asked, “Nanna, why don’t our house have detor . . . detor . . .”
“Decorations?” Marta suggested as she slid a sheet of cookies into the oven.
“Uh-huh, dec or a shun.”
“Well, sweetie, I have some decorations in the attic, and we will be putting up our tree tonight. Your momma is picking one up on the way home from work.”
A smile flitted across the girl’s face. “A Chrismas tree?”
“Yes, a Christmas tree. After we finish the cookies, we’ll go look in the living room and decide where we want it to sit.”
“Okay.” A frown crossed Mary Lynn’s forehead as she cut snowmen out of the layer of rolled cookie dough. She stood on a chair to reach the table and the dough. “But . . . but . . . Nanna, why don’t we have dec or a shun on our house?”
Marta rested her hands on the slight shoulders bent over the table. “Nanna isn’t able to do that kind of climbing and attaching anymore, Mary Lynn. And, your momma works hard all day. I’m sorry.”
With a glance over her shoulder, Mary Lynn replied, “Dat’s okay, Nanna. I like havin’ a Christmas tree.”
Patting her great-granddaughter’s shoulder, Marta turned to the oven to remove the finished cookies. “I tell you what, we’ll take some cookies over to the Thomases after while. Maybe they will let you look at their decorations up close. Would you like that?”
“Oh, yes, Nanna. Can we go now?” Her face beamed with delight, a smudge of flour on her nose matched the one on her shirt. “I like the pretty lights. Maybe I can see the Santie.”
Marta laughed, “Whoa, sweetie. Don’t you want to wait until it’s dark and the lights show up better? And, as far as seeing the Santa, you’ll just have to look from the ground. I don’t think we want you climbing on the roof.”
“Okay.” Mary Lynn sighed.
After dinner, Marta, Abby, and Mary Lynn, carrying the plate of cookies, strolled across the street to the Thomas house. The multicolored lights, tinting the snow-covered yard, twinkled above and around them as they walked up the driveway. Marta and Abby reached the porch before realizing that Mary Lynn was no longer with them.
“Look at that child,” Marta murmured as she watched Mary Lynn stand at the end of the drive, a plate of cookies across her arms, her eyes staring at the roof. “She is so entranced with that Santa on the roof.”
“Nanna, do you think that we might decorate the outside of the house next year?” Abby asked, her eyes on her daughter. “Mary Lynn would be so excited.”
“Of course we can.”
“Come on, Mary Lynn,” Abby called. “We need to deliver those cookies.”
With a final gaze at the roof above her, Mary Lynn trotted to join her mother. “It’s soooo pretty. I wish our house was pretty.”
When Mrs. Thomas opened the door, Mary Lynn handed her the plate of cookies. “We maded these. Can I see the dec or a shun, please? I like the pretty lights and Santie.”
“Mary Lynn!” Abby’s shock registered in her voice. “We . . . uh, please be polite.” She turned to the woman holding the cookies and biting her lip as laughter crinkled her eyes. “I’m so sorry. All she can talk about are your decorations.”
“Momma, I said please.” Mary Lynn turned worried eyes to her mother, then to Nanna. “I said please.”
“That’s correct,” Mrs. Thomas noted. “She did say please.” Kneeling to face the girl who now half-hid her face against her mother’s leg, the woman suggested, “Why don’t we go enjoy one of these cookies and some hot cocoa? Then we can go look at the decorations. Okay?”
One eye and then the other appeared. “I can see the dec or a shun?”
“If it’s all right with your mother.” Mrs. Thomas stood and smiled at Abby. “One of my sons would be glad to give her a tour. My two oldest and their father went to get some more bulbs. They’re still adding to the display. We would have time for a cup of cocoa and these luscious looking cookies.”
“Are you sure? I mean, well, Mary Lynn has never seen such a . . . a wonderland.” Abby stroked her daughter’s hair.
“I’m positive. Now, let’s take the cookies to the kitchen.” With another smile, this time for Abby, Mrs. Thomas turned to lead her guests toward the back of the house.
Nearly an hour later, Abby and Marta stood at the door of the Thomas home saying goodnight. “Thank you for making Mary Lynn feel comfortable. I’ll have to thank your husband and sons for taking her on a special ‘tour,’ too.” Abby shook her head. “I’ve never seen her so obsessive about anything before.”
“I’m glad she’s enjoying our project,” the older woman replied. “Ray and the boys do get a bit carried away with their ideas, but . . .”
A child’s scream pierced the air. The three women rushed through the door as one of the teenaged boys raced up the steps to the porch.
“Mom!” he panted, his face pale in the multi-lit night. “We didn’t know . . . She went on the roof . . .”
“Calm down, Jerry,” Marta’s calm voice contrasted with his frantic words. “Now, tell us.”
The other brother came into sight, carrying a sobbing little girl. “I . . . I caught her, but I think she hit her arm on something on the way down.”
Abby met the young man and her daughter at the bottom of the porch steps. “Oh, honey, what happened?” She gathered Mary Lynn in her arms, careful not to jostle the arm her daughter hugged close to her body.
“Momma, I hurt,” the little girl wailed. “I hurt.”
“Let’s get her to the emergency room,” Mrs. Thomas suggested. “I’ll get my car.”
Before she could move, the family minivan pulled from the garage, Jerry at the wheel. Her husband came from the house, her coat in his hands. In a matter of minutes, Mrs. Thomas, with the crying child and the worried mother and great-grandmother, reached the hospital. There, x-rays showed a crack in one of the bones of Mary Lynn's lower left arm, caused by her arm striking the rain gutter on her way down.
Satisfied that her daughter was safe and secure once more, Abby held her on the way home. “Mary Lynn, why did you go on the roof?”
“I want to see the Santie,” Mary Lynn stared at the pink cast on her arm.
“Did anyone tell you that you could go on the roof?” Abby’s heart jumped at thoughts that flashed through her head.
“If Bob Thomas hadn’t been there . . . If he hadn’t been able to catch you . . .” Her eyes closed against the pain that shot through her chest. “Sweetheart, you hurt your arm, but you could have been hurt much, much more.”
“I sorry, Momma.” Mary Lynn sobbed. “I sorry.”
Gathering the child closer, Abby told her, “I know, baby. I know. It’s going to be okay now, but you must not do anything like that again.”
As the minivan turned the corner to their street, a gasp from Mrs. Thomas caught the attention of the other occupants.
“Oh, my,” Marta breathed from where she sat in the front passenger seat. “Look, Mary Lynn. Look at our house.”
The house blazed with lights of every color. An evergreen in the front yard twinkled with lights while large, pretend Christmas presents nestled at its trunk. On the roof, Santa’s legs kicked from the chimney as two elves tried to pull him out. A man and two teenage boys stood waiting in the driveway.
Mary Lynn straightened in her mother’s arms to look through the windshield. “Momma, Momma, look! Oh, look. Santie comed to our house.”
© Copyright 2003 by Vivian Zabel