I have a tradition. I write a Christmas story for my family almost every year. I read it on Christmas Eve or on Christmas night. Tonight (Christmas 2005) after everything else was over we all sat down and I read the story for this year.
After the story we had pumpkin pie. It was a beautiful day. I have included the story here, Brad’s Christmas Prayer. I hope you like it. The next post is last year’s story, Highland Park
Brad’s Christmas Prayer
Brad is alone on Christmas Eve for the first time in years. He was on the road. In a few hours, depending on weather, he would be home but when he got there he would still be alone.
There seemed to be no way to brush off the oppressive feelings that pressed down on his chest as he guided his brown Dodge truck between the snow banks on either side of the road. He turned on the radio to check the weather. Christmas music of some variety played on every station, but it did nothing for him but deepen his discouragement. To fight off sleep he turned the radio up and the heat down. He needed a stout cup of coffee if he was going to keep it between the lines tonight. He peered through the white curtain of falling snow to watch for a diner. If he could find one open he would down four or five quick cups of coffee mixed with ice and he would get home.
His windshield wipers rhythmically pushed back the snow collecting on the glass. There was a time when the snow and the music and the lights and festivity would have filled him with childlike enthusiasm. But this year he had no Christmas spirit. He didn’t expect he would ever have it again. Life had gotten to hard to fight off the pressure of the cynicism he felt crushing his spirit.
He felt as if he had been forsaken by family, friends, and God himself. A year ago he had a prosperous business, a modest home, a wife, and children. This year the only thing he knew he had was the brown Dodge truck. He was two payments behind on the house, and competition was strangling his business. It had gotten to him. He worked late and came home with an attitude every night. At first his wife, Nancy was sympathetic hoping he would come out of it, but after a few months she tired of his silence and sullen behavior. Now she was gone with the children and she let him know that she might just spend Christmas with her mother this year. She wasn’t happy with things the way they were. She needed time to think.
“Maybe we need to get apart and think about things for a while,” Nancy had said, as she coldly slammed the car door and drove away without looking back. The words rang in his ears and the looks on his children’s faces dug into his soul. It was too much to expect for him to have the Christmas spirit when so much of his life had come unraveled in one short year.
The road was deserted and he dreaded losing his footing. If he went into the ditch tonight on this deserted stretch no one would find him until after Christmas. He wasn’t sure he cared. He wasn’t sure anyone did. The snow thickened and started blowing sideways across the road. Small drifts started to blow across the narrow opening. In his mind he tried to calculate how long until he reached home at the thirty miles an hour he could milk out of his worn truck.
He was relieved to find a shabby little restaurant waiting just off the road within a few miles. He left his truck alone in the parking lot and made his way toward the light. He took a chair at a table by the window where he could keep an eye on his truck. The waitress was chatting with the short-order cook as if she didn’t see him come in. He was almost the only one in the restaurant. The cook had a radio tuned to a country station playing old Christmas songs.
His mind wandered back over the years to Christmases he remembered with fondness. The ones that stood out to him always involved his grandfather’s farm in some way. It was always a challenge and an adventure to get to the farm, but the modest farmhouse was always warm with love and aglow with light and there was always plenty of food even if it was simple.
He remembered a Christmas when his Grandfather drafted him to help decorate the fir growing on the banks of the creek out in front of the house. Every year it was a little more of a challenge as the tree grew, but it was an annual tradition. The tree was the first thing that would come into sight as you rounded the last turn before descending into the little valley where the farm was nestled.
There were years they were able to decorate it with the help of a simple six-foot step ladder. That year they had to put a longer ladder on the bed of the wagon to reach the top. His grandfather had said, “While I hay the cows I want you to get a ladder and climb into the loft in the shed and get down the lights. They are wound around an electrical spool. You should be able to get it down by using some bailer twine and lowering it from the loft. Without waiting for an answer his grandpa turned up the collar of his coat, started his Ford tractor and drove away.
Stirring his coffee Brad remembered going into the dark shed. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he found the light, turned it on, got a ladder and leaned it up against the loft. He climbed into the loft and looked through all the paraphernalia his grandfather had stored there over the years. He located the spool wound with huge Christmas lights over in the corner by the window. Fresh snow had blown through the cracks around the window across the floor of the loft. He brushed away the snow and picked up the spool. It was heavy and bulky. He would not be able to carry it down the ladder. He rolled it over to the edge of the loft and went down the ladder to get the twine, but he could not find any in the shed. He trudged across the yard toward the barn where he knew the bailer was stored. He lifted the hatch in the back of the bailer and found a spool of twine.
He carried it back to the loft thought, “If I can carry this spool of twine up the loft I should be able to carry the spool of light down, but I can’t.” He didn’t know what to do. Redbirds outside the shed window caught his attention and he went to the window to watch. They were beautiful against the snow. He wondered why they didn’t go south for the winter like other birds. He would ask his Grandpa. Grandpa was a student of nature and never lacking for information about birds and fish and flowers and other natural things.
Little Brad stood fogging the window with his breath for a long time without realizing it until his daydream was interrupted by the sound of the tractor sputtering to a stop in front of the shed.
“You got those lights ready, Bradley?”
“I couldn’t get ’em down grandpa,” He said.
“Why didn’t you lower them with twine?”
“I couldn’t carry the spool up the ladder.”
“You didn’t have to carry al the twine up. You could have cut off a big piece and put in your pocket. You could have left the spool down here.”
Grandpa put his arm around his shoulder and said, “Let’s go inside and talk about this. Do you remember last summer when you were going to make a treehouse. You gathered all the things you needed and then you couldn’t get them into the tree? What did you do then?”
“I gave up.”
They walked silently through the snow toward the farmhouse.
“Do you remember when you were first trying to ride Lucy and she threw you? What did you do then?” Grandpa asked.
“I quit trying.”
Finally the waitress finished her conversation with the cook and came over to interrupt Brad’s Christmas memory. “Whatcha’ need,” she said, putting her weight on one leg and cracking her gum.
“All I want tonight is black coffee with a large class of ice on the side, and if you can, stand by to refill it three or four times quick so I won’t have to spend Christmas Eve in the ditch.”
“You got it, sweetheart. If you throw back four cups of the industrial waste that passes for coffee here you will be awake ’til New Years. I’ll bring you your own pot, but you have to promise a generous tip.”
She brought the pot of coffee and a pad and set it right on the table with a big class of ice and a bowl of creamers.
“I don’t need the creamers, thanks.”
He filled his cup and his thoughts went back to the farm. He remembered trudging through the snow with his grandpa’s hand on his shoulder.
When Brad and his grandpa reached the house they took off their coats and hats and gloves and hung them on wooden pegs on the enclosed back porch and stepped into the kitchen. Warmth and the smell of coffee met them there. Grandma was in town doing some eleventh-hour Christmas shopping. To her it wasn’t about getting things, she just loved being out there shouldering her tiny frame through the crowd and enjoying the bustle.
Brad almost smiled at the memory of his grandmother. They called her Tiny, but nobody got in her way.
Striding across the kitchen, Brad’s Grandpa said; “Get a ginger ale, son. I’m going to have a mug of your grandmother’s awful coffee. This stuff is like rocket fuel.” Brad didn’t feel like a cold drink. He wondered when he would be old enough to have coffee.
“No, thank-you,” he said.
His grandfather pulled his favorite mug from the collection hanging on hooks over the coffee maker. It was the one he always used. It was an oversized, thick, cream-colored, ceramic mug with “Owens-Corning Fiberglass” in bold, red letters.
Grandpa read his mind. “Hey, How would you like me to fix you my old Seabee Mocha?”
“What’s that, grandpa?”
“When I was in the Navy I was in a group called the Seabees. The coffee was pretty rotten so we mixed it with cocoa and it was pretty good stuff. I’ll make you some. I can’t quite describe it, you’ll just have to try it. If you do you will never get it out of your system.”
He got a cup from the rack and held it up and looked at it. “That’s just not going to do for what we need,” he said and set it down. He took his big Fiberglass mug, poured out the dark brine and rinsed it out in the sink. We’ll use this, it’s bigger.” Brad was thrilled. He always wanted to drink from that mug but it he knew no one ever did but grandpa.
He put four heaping teaspoons of chocolate drink mix in the cup with some cream and filled it with strong black coffee from the coffee-maker. He stirred it up and then put it up in front of his bearded face and took a long whiff. “Ahhh. Just perfect, if I say so myself. It’s almost ready.” Then he got a can of spray whipped cream made a huge snow-drift of whipped cream on top of the mocha.
As Brad ate the whipped cream off the top of his mocha his grandfather said; “When I was your age we farmed with horses. One day dad was trying to get me to ride a new horse and it kept throwing me off. After a half-hour I wanted to give up and Dad said; “I’m going to teach you the secret to breaking a horse. You have to get off one more time than he throws you off. That’s all you have to do.”
“Brad, it’s the same with a lot of things. You will be surprised what you can do if you just make up your mind you are not going to quit. If you know it’s something God wants you to do, don’t quit no matter how many times you have to try again. There is always a way to do what God wants you to do.”
Grandpa dunked some day-old donuts in his coffee. Brad savored his Old Seabee Mocha down the bottom of the cup. When he was done he sat back and sighed a satisfied sigh.
“Give me that mug Bradley.”
He walked over to the counter pulled open a drawer, took out a marker and wrote on the bottom of the cup on huge black letters, BRAD. “From now on this cup will be here for you when you come and work the farm. You’ll be around here a lot. I’ll need haying help and you are going to need some college money. We’ll keep the guest room ready and your cup on this hook.”
Whenever he came to visit the farm he got his cup off the wall. When he was in high school and helped during they haying weeks, the cup was always there. When he came home from college the last year before the farm sold and the cup was there waiting for him. Brad drank his third cup of coffee quickly and he remembered. His grandpa was good as his word. There was always work for him. Grandpa never paid him but when he enrolled in college he sent regular checks to the finance office and long as his grades showed that he was diligently working at this education.
The farm sold his junior year of college and grandma and grandpa moved to town. In October of his senior year grandpa went into the hospital and never came out. He’d gone back to the farm to visit and set on long October afternoons in a tree stand watching his last autumn. By Christmas he was in heaven.
“Anything else you need dreamer?” The waitress interrupted his Christmas memory and reality came pressing back in.
“No, I’m in good shape, thanks.” He tossed a five-dollar bill in the table and half-heartedly said, “Merry Christmas.”
The Dodge was white with snow and it looked lonely in the parking lot. It was the only car there, but Brad didn’t feel alone. He walked across the lot, his boots crunching the cold snow. The flakes were so big he could hear them hit the ground. He had no time to waste but he felt his eyes pulled upward toward the sky.
Prayer came hard to him but he was getting desperate. He stopped. Looking upward words came out of his mouth; “God, I don’t need a miracle but I need to know I’m not alone. I need to know I’m not on my own. I can’t go on anymore without hope.” But the sky is as silent as it was cold and there was no audible answer. He stood silently as if he expected God to answer back but the only sound was the whisper of falling snow.
Suddenly his heart leaped at a voice nearby. “You ain’t’ goin’ West are ya’?
Brad had no idea where he came from, but standing less than ten feet away was a man dressed in a long, shabby brown coat with a ball cap pulled over his ears. He had a duffel bag thrown over his shoulder.
Recovering from his start Brad answered; “As a matter of fact, yes. I am going west from here. Quite a way west if the weather will allow.”
“You mind givin’ me a lift?”
“Might as well.” Brad thought; “If the guy is a homicidal maniac it will just solve my problems. What do I have to lose?” Beside that he really did feel alone.
“What are you doing out alone on Christmas Eve?”
“I’m coming back from the flea market in Utica. I got a check from my aunt in the mail today. It wasn’t much but I thought I could pick up some cheap gifts for the kids and my wife there,” He said, gesturing toward the worn duffel bag on the floor at his feet.
“I didn’t have enough money for gas so I just bummed a ride to town. Thanks for giving me a lift back.”
They drove on silently until they reached the road where he lived.
The thanked him and started to get out of the car. Brad felt a tug on his heart. “Hey, how much would it cost you to get some gas in your car and get into town for some food?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Ten bucks would do it, I guess,” the stranger said looking back at Brad.
Brad took twenty dollars from his wallet. “Here,” he said, “If the roads clear in the morning that diner where I picked you up will be open until noon tomorrow. They should be able to fix you up for lunch.”
“Listen,” the man said sincerely, “I’ll get you back for this when I can.”
“Don’t worry about it. I live a ways away from here. Just help somebody else when you can.”
“Well, here, let me give you a Christmas present.” He rooted in the bag and drew out a worn box about eight inches square and tossed it on the seat. “Here is a little something I picked up for myself at the flea market in Utica. I want you to have it. Merry Christmas stranger. Thanks.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too.”
Then he got out, lifted his duffel out of the car and began trudging down the road.
Brad remembered the old grain elevator in Utica. It was just few miles from the grandpa’s farm, but gray thoughts pressed back in on him. The snow slacked and he drove on quickening his pace. Finally his road came into view and he pulled into the driveway of his dark house.
When he woke up on Christmas morning it took him a while before he could get acclimated to where he was and what was going on in his life. He expected a warm presence beside him or the aroma of frying bacon and fresh coffee wafting in from the kitchen. But the house was quiet and the bed was empty and he would have to get up, brew his own coffee and fix his own breakfast.
“This is some Christmas morning,” he thought. “I don’t have a family, I don’t have a tree, I don’t even have a Christmas gift.” The simple gifts he had been able to afford for his children were not wrapped. Then to himself he said, “The only Christmas gift I’m going to get today is the one that tossed in the truck last night.” The thought made him curious. I pulled on his jeans and boots and a sweatshirt. He grabbed a cap and jacket from the front porch and stepped out into the new snow. It covered the world. In spite of himself he couldn’t deny it was one of the most beautiful Christmas mornings he had ever seen. Red birds played at the feeders and all else was white. The sky was clear and snow blew off the outbuildings and the roof sparkling in the sunlight. Tree limbs were blanketed with snow.
Even thought his heart was heavy with despair and he felt as if he had been forsaken by family, friends, and even God, he could not imagine a world so beautiful and so complex and orderly without a God behind it. Lately when he prayed it seemed he was just talking to himself. As he walked to the truck and got the little square cardboard box off the floorboards. He stood for a while watching the beautiful world around him. He thought of the children all over the world that would be opening their gifts and the families that would be together laughing and feasting and pain shot through his soul. He didn’t know if he could stand being there alone all day on Christmas not knowing what was going to become of his life.
“God, help me,” he said quietly with deep earnestness, and then he heard himself praying aloud, almost shouting into the cold air, “I can’t go on alone. I need to know I’m not alone. If you care God, help me now. Help me somehow to know you care.” But there was no answer. He stood there turning the package over in his hand.
“Well, I might as well open my present,” he said with sarcasm in his voice. He opened the little box and it was a wad of newsprint. He tossed the box into the bed of his truck and pealed off the paper. What he saw made his heart beat fast. It was an over-sized, cream-colored coffee cup and on it in bold red letters were the words, OWENS-CORNING FIBERGLASS. He didn’t want to believe it but somehow in his heart he knew what he would see when the turned the cup over. On the bottom of cup in clear, but fadded letters was the name BRAD.
He sunk down to his knees into the snow. “Oh, God, thank you, thank you.” For a long time he knelt there in the snow hope flooding into his soul. He knew that having this cup returned to him after so many years was noting less than a miracle; it was the hand of God. In that moment he knew he would not spend Christmas alone.
He leaped to his feet and ran to the barn and got the tractor. Suddenly he was infused with Christmas enthusiasm. Laughing and singing carols to the top of his lungs his breath hanging in the cold air he put the tractor in road gear and headed for the little wood where he had spotted a small fir back in October during the bow season. He had forgotten about it until that morning, but it would make a good Christmas tree.
Within thirty minutes he was decorating the tree, playing carols on the stereo, wrapping the gifts, and planning for Christmas dinner. It would be grilled cheese sandwiches, he thought. His kids liked them better than prime rib. With them he would warm up some vegetable beef soup. He scrounged around to find a cake mix. Nancy liked carrot cake with sour cream frosting. He would get a cake in the oven.
As if on a pre-arranged schedule, when the presents were under the tree, the soup was warming, the grill was ready to start the sandwiches, and the cake was frosted, Brad walked over to stand beside the his little tree and look down the road. Redbirds frolicked in the shelter of the huge white pine the grew at the corner of the house. In the distance a car stirred up snow. Somehow he knew that it would be his family. It was. He burst from the house and ran toward the car. His family met him in the snow. At first Nancy stood back and children took turns hugging their Dad. “Merry Christmas Dad,” they each said. Brad turned from the children and looking at Nancy said, “Now, look here at what Santa brought me, a beautiful woman,” he reached her in two quick steps, threw his arms around her waist and lifted her off her feet. He looked directly into her eyes for what seemed like a long time and then kissed he tenderly. “I missed you, Nancy. Merry Christmas.”
She didn’t say a word but locked her eyes on his and kissed him back. Only then did she speak. “Merry Christmas Brad. Last night I got to thinking. When things get hard, that’s when we need to be sure we stick together.”
“Hey, kids,” let go in and take a look at our tree.”
Soon they were all chattering around the table. Brad stood where he loved to stand doing what he loved to do. Nancy’s smile had returned. She tuned the radio to carols and started to sing along. Brad’s heart lightened to her singing. It had been a long time. He buttered think slices of bread, added a slice of ham and a hunk of cheese and grilled sandwiches for his hungry family. They didn’t eat the cake because Nancy had prepared two huge pumpkin rolls at her mothers and brought them wrapped in foil like little logs. They were his favorite. When they finished eating Nancy said; “Why don’t you sit down in your recliner now and I will brew you some coffee and bring you some pumpkin roll. It turned out great this year.
“I woun’t argue with you about that.”
He went to the recliner. His daughter jumped into his lap and his son played with a car at his feet. Nancy puttered in the kitchen putting things away and humming. Soon the smell of coffee filled the house.
Nancy appeared at the doorway with a big mug in her hand. “Brad, where did this cup come from?”
Brad smiled and drew in his breath. Nancy, I got that cup on Christmas eve and as sure as you are standing there in the door that cup came straight from God. Nancy, maybe you should sit down now and I will make you a cup of Seabee Mocha. I have a story to tell you.
Riverfront Character Inn and International Conference Center
December 23, 2005