It was a dark and stormy night. I know, that’s what they all say. Still, the rain pelted the bare trees unmercifully, and the streetlights had been on since three in the afternoon. There was no other way to describe it.
Well, I could also say it was cold. The wind that blew the rain in nearly sideways gusts was a typical moist Mid-Atlantic howler, the kind that makes you feel like your parka is a colander, and your thermal underwear might as well be cheesecloth. But I couldn’t really feel the chill, squashed as I was in the back seat of Dad’s hatchback with my little brother, Jimmy, my big brother, Matt, and Rolf, the German exchange student. Our breath was steaming up the windows, and the air was stale with sweat. Didn’t Rolf ever use deodorant?
I could also say it was Christmas Eve, but that would give you the wrong impression entirely. There were no snowflakes, no sleigh bells, and there was precious little goodwill in the back seat of that car.
“Matt’s on my side,” Jimmy whined.
Dad sighed. “Can’t we all be on the same side?”
Usually, when we all went out together, we took Mom’s Oldsmobile. Jimmy had to sit in the middle of the bench seat in front, and I was stuck straddling the hump in the back. We had clambered into the Olds that evening, laden with plates of cookies that we weren’t supposed to eat, and dutifully buckled up.
“Is everyone buckled?” Dad called, then turned the key.
“Oh, no.” Dad tried again.
“Do we need to jump-start it, dear?” Mom asked.
“No, it’s the starter. This car is not going anywhere tonight.”
Matt started to look hopeful.
“Then we’ll have to take your car,” Mom decided.
Jimmy couldn’t sit on the gearshift, of course, so he squeezed into the narrow confines of the back of the Honda with the rest of us. It was sort of a relief whenever the car stopped and we spilled out into the rain, sloshing up to someone’s front door to give them our goodies. I would have been just as happy to not stand there in the rain, singing, before we handed them over. That was our tradition, though. Rolf loved it, and sang loud enough to cover for a couple of us, so Matt kept his cracking voice down. I was just lazy, and mumbled along.
Except for a certain amount of stinking, Rolf was all right. He could juggle a soccer ball with his knees longer than anyone I knew. He taught me some words that sounded really insulting, but didn’t actually mean anything bad. I secretly didn’t mind giving up my room for him, because I got to play with Jimmy’s toy cars when no one was looking.
We had been going to museums a lot more than usual since Rolf had come, so he could have “cultural experiences.” Some of them were pretty dull, like the National Archives. Who wants to look at a bunch of old pieces of paper? But some places had cool stuff, like the light-up map at the Gettysburg battlefield. The National Air and Space Museum was the best. I could have stayed in the old Skylab module for hours, pretending I was an astronaut, all by myself in an alien world.
I wonder if Rolf ever felt that way.
Rolf came to church with us every week, as another cultural experience. The first Sunday I watched him as we drove there in the Olds. There were two or three other churches on the way, and he looked more disappointed as we drove past each one. When we parked at our meetinghouse, he looked upward in dismay.
“What sort of church is this?” he whispered as we followed my parents inside. “Where is the cross?”
“Um. . .” I had never really thought about it before, but I got a clue when we stepped through the double doors. “Jesus was resurrected, right?” I pointed at the painting over the couch in the foyer. “So we don’t put up crosses.”
Rolf considered the picture of Jesus and Mary outside the empty tomb, and gave a small nod. But his face fell again when we walked into the unadorned chapel.
The talks that day were about marriage, which didn’t really relate to us kids. The high council speaker was pretty funny, though. When he joked about having his wife iron his socks, I glanced over at Rolf to see if he got it. Rolf glared back at me. I guess he didn’t.
When Mom asked him what he thought about church afterward, he politely said it was nice. I followed him upstairs, though, to see what he really thought.
“You laugh during sermons, and leave Christ out in the hall. What sort of church is it? Heidnisch!” He shut my door in my face.
I looked it up later. “Heathen.”
Every Sunday after that, Rolf smiled tolerantly at the giggling girls in the hallway, shook hands with the bishop, and tried to sing the hymns. But he spent most of the three hours at church reading his German Bible.
As Christmas approached, Rolf took a special interest in the mail. Every day he asked if anything had come for him. Every day Mom displayed more cards we received from friends and relatives, or hid packages in her closet, but said, “Sorry, Rolf, nothing today.”
We were playing Parcheesi in the living room the day before Christmas, when Rolf spotted the mailman in his yellow slicker, coming up the walk. Rolf met him at the door, gleefully shouting, “It’s here!”
He gathered Mom and Dad and made a little speech before opening the box. “It is the Christmas schmuck from my Oma. Every year she sends. This year, she sent for you, too.”
“Schmuck?” Dad repeated. Mom wrinkled her nose.
“Schmuck for the tree,” Rolf tried to explain. He handed us each a wad of tissue paper. “Open, open.”
Mine was a thin wooden disk with a star design cut out of it. The loop of thread at the top gave it away. “Ornaments?”
“Yes, ornaments. Please hang them on the Tannenbaum.” Glad that we understood, Rolf turned his attention back to the box.
“Your grandmother is so sweet, Rolf,” Mom said. Then made a face when she thought he wasn’t looking. “They don’t really fit the theme this year,” she murmured to Dad.
It was true. She had outdone herself with big, shiny, brightly colored ornaments. Instead of balls, there were onion shapes and long, twisting tubes. Coordinating strings of beads twisted around the cords of jumbo lights. Mom smiled weakly, and placed two of the new ornaments on the side of the tree, nearly out of sight.
Personally, I preferred the wooden silhouettes to the schmuck Mom had put on the branches. “Thanks, Rolf,” I said loudly, and hung my star smack in the middle of the tree. Not that he was paying attention to our little drama. After unloading a cookie tin and a wrapped gift that looked awfully sweater-shaped, he picked up one more hunk of tissue paper. As he unwrapped the ornament, his eyes started looking suspiciously bright. He gave his face a rough swipe with the back of his hand, and stuffed the disc in his pocket.
I wondered what was so special about that ornament as it dug into my hip in the back seat of the car. Jimmy poked Matt again, and Matt elbowed him back. Mom started singing, probably hoping to calm them down, or at least drown them out.
“Oh, little town of Bethlehem,” she sang in time with the windshield wipers, “how still we see thee lie. . .”
There wasn’t much traffic on the wet streets. It was about as still as you could get in these suburbs.
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth–“
“–the endless traffic light,” Dad interrupted.
Matt and I sniggered.
“Can I have a cookie?” Jimmy asked. “There’s only one plate left.”
“Don’t touch those cookies. They are for Sister Larsen.”
“Oops,” Matt mumbled. It sounded like his mouth was full.
“Sister Larsen?” I asked. Singing to the cantankerous widow didn’t sound like my idea of an exciting end to the evening. “Won’t she be with the Blakes? She usually sits with them at church.”
“She and the Blakes have had a, well, misunderstanding. I’m afraid she’ll be alone tonight,” Mom said.
Jimmy groaned. “Oh, no. Is she going to adopt us next?”
“She has no grandchildren of her own, so she needs some company. Try to be civil, boys,” Dad said firmly. He flipped on the blinker.
“She lives here?” Matt asked. “‘Whiskey Bottom Apartments.’ Classy name “
“That’s a geographic term, you know. ‘Bottom’ refers to the land around a river,” Dad explained.
“Yeah, but look at the sign.” Matt reached across me to nudge Rolf. “There’s a big bottle of whiskey and a big–“
“Matthew!” Mom couldn’t deny the sign, but she tried to change the subject. “What shall we sing to Sister Larsen?”
Soon we stood in the dingy stairwell. I counted how many times the fluorescent light flicked off. Matt kicked at the steps.
“I don’t think anyone’s coming,” Jimmy said. Just then we heard the rattle of a chain, and the door opened a crack.
“Oh, it’s you. Well, come in, then.” Sister Larsen shuffled back to her chair.
“Okay, ‘Joy to the World,’” Dad said. “One, two–“
“Stille nacht, heilige nacht,” Rolf stepped forward and sang in a surprisingly high voice.
“Alles schläft; einsam wacht,” Jimmy joined in. Surprised, I stared at him. “Learned it in school,” he whispered, and they went on. I started humming the familiar tune, and my parents added alto and bass parts. It sounded pretty good.
When the song ended, Rolf crossed the tiny living room with one step, and dug something out of his pocket. “I give this to you. Please take it.”
Sister Larsen held the ornament up to the light. A small building had been carved into it, with a pointy roof and a cross on top. The old woman looked up at Rolf in wonder. “Danke,” she whispered.
Immediately he knelt beside the chair and began pouring out his soul to her in German. Sister Larsen waved for us to sit down, and listened intently. Mom sat on the faded couch. Dad and Matt sat down too, and sank to the middle with her. Jimmy and I settled on the floor, and stroked the cats that came to investigate us.
“What is he so upset about?” Mom wondered.
I caught a couple of words. Kirche. Heidnisch. “He thinks we’re not very Christian, Mom.”
“What?” Her surprised look soon gave way to thoughtfulness.
Finally Rolf slowed down. He blew his nose on the tissue Sister Larsen handed him, then looked over at us. “I am sorry. She looks so much like my Oma. I think of home.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Mom said to Sister Larsen. “Rolf got carried away.”
“No, no, it’s all right. I understand.”
“Where did you learn German, Sister Larsen?” Dad asked.
“In Germany, of course, at my mother’s knee,” she answered. “When Jack brought me here after the war, I found that being German was rather unpopular. He took me to church and I learned to speak like an American.”
“I had no idea,” Mom said, as if she should have known.
“After Jack died in Korea, I managed to make ends meet. But I have never been able to go back to Germany. Thank you for this piece of home, Rolf.” She held his chin in her hand, and studied his face. “Now, tell me about your grandmother. What is her name?”
“I knew a Lilli, once. Bring me that picture, young man.” She pointed straight behind me. Turning around, I saw a framed black-and-white image of two young ladies wearing hats. I placed it in her wrinkled hands.
Rolf stared at it, speechless. Finally he whispered, “Oma has the same photo. When I asked about it, she only said, ‘Anna is gone, gone.’”
Sister Larsen reached for another tissue. “Is she still alive, then? After I married, I tried to send letters. They came back to me, long after I sent them. I did not know if the mail was bad, or if my family moved, or died . . . Lilli is my sister.”
Mom wiped her eyes on her scarf, and even Dad was blinking a lot. “Wow, what a coincidence,” Matt proclaimed in the silence.
“No, no, a blessing. See, Rolf, the Holy Ghost is with the Latter-day Saints, too. He brought you here tonight.”
“But,” Rolf started to protest.
“No, Christ is not in paintings or tapestries. He is in our scriptures, our prayers.” She handed Rolf a book bound in battered blue leather. “This is my gift to you. You need it more than I do, now.”
“Das Buch Mormon?” Rolf looked unsure, but he held it to his chest.
“Sit with me on Sunday, and I will show you Christ among the Latter-day Saints. Now, help me up, and let’s sing again.”
We all stood, and linked our arms like Rolfe and Sister Larsen did. They started to sway as we sang.
“How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.”
The stormy sky was still dark as we walked outside muffled in new hand-knit scarves, but I did not notice the wind or the rain. The back seat of the car held us in a brotherly hug. All the way home, all the way through Christmas, even, I felt warm from the inside out.
Critique: Uhmmm. Trying to think of something critical to say and the only thing I can come up with is I’m not sure how old the narrative character is or if it’s a boy. That needs to be more clear. But other than that, I loved it! The only perfect score from me this year and the only one that made me cry.
What I liked best: Loved the writing style and the message.
Publication ready: YES!!!