A Different Kind of Christmas
by Littke, Lael J.
Martha had tried to ignore the approach of Christmas. It was fairly easy, what with all the work to do around the cabin—the meals to prepare, the rugs to braid to cover the earthen floors, the lye soap to make, the snow to keep cleared away from the door, and the myriad of other things necessary to sustain life in the bleak valley. She would have kept it almost entirely out of her thoughts if Jed had not come eagerly into the cabin one day, stomping the snow from his cold feet as he said in an excited voice, "Martha, we're going to have a Christmas tree this year anyway. I spotted a cedar on that rise out south of the wheat field, over near the Norton's place. It's a scrubby thing, but it will do, since we can't get a pine. Maybe Christmas will be a little different here, but it will still be the kind of Christmas we used to have."
It was a two-day journey from their home on the floor of the wide valley to the mountains where there were pine trees, and none of the settlers felt they could spare the time that busy first year to go after trees. Besides, the snow was too high to do any unnecessary travel.
As she shook her head, Martha noticed that Daniel glanced quickly up from the corner where he was playing, patiently tying together some sticks with bits of string left over from the quilt she had tied a few days earlier. She drew Jed as far away from the boy as possible.
"I don't want a tree," she said. "We won't be celebrating Christmas. Even a tree couldn't make it the kind of Christmas we used to have."
Jed's face set in lines that were becoming familiar.
"Martha, we've got to do something. For the boy, at least. Children set such a store by Christmas."
"Don't you think I know? All those years of fixing things for Maybelle and Stellie. I know all about kids and Christmas." She stopped and drew a deep breath, glancing over to see that Daniel was occupied and not listening. "But I can't do those things for him. It would be like a knife in my heart, fixing a tree and baking cookies and making things for—for another woman's child when my own girls are back there on that prairie."
"Martha, Martha," Jed said softly. "It's been almost a year and a half. That's all over, and Danny needs you. He needs a Christmas like he remembers."
She turned her back to his pleading face. "I can't," she said. "Besides, what could he remember? He was only a little more than five when his own mother died, and I don't think his pa did much last Christmas."
Jed touched her shoulder gently. "I know how hard it is for you, Martha. But think of the boy." He turned and went back out into the snowy weather.
Think of the boy. Why should she think of him when her own children, her two blue-eyed, golden-curled daughters, had been left beside the trail back there on that endless, empty prairie? The boy came to her not because she wanted him but because she couldn't say no to the bishop back in Salt Lake City last April before they came to settle in this valley. Bishop Clay had brought Daniel to her and Jed one day and said, "I want you to care for this lad. His mother died on the trek last summer and his father passed away last week. He needs a good home."
Jed had gripped the bishop's hand and with tears in his eyes thanked him, but Martha had turned away from the sight of the thin, ragged, six-year-old boy who stood before them, not fast enough, however, to miss the sudden brief smile he flashed at her, a smile that should have caught her heart and opened it wide. Her heart was closed, though, locked tightly around the memory of her two gentle little girls. She didn't want a noisy, rowdy boy banging around, disturbing those memories, filling the cabin with a boy's loud games.
Yet she had taken him, because she felt she had no choice. Faced with the bishop's request—more of an order, really—and Jed's obvious joy, she couldn't refuse.
He came with them out to this new valley west of the Salt lake settlement and had proved himself a great help to Jed, despite his young age. Sometimes Martha felt pity for him, but she didn't love him.
With Jed it was different. He had accepted Daniel immediately as his own son and enjoyed having the boy with him. They had a special relationship, a secret sharing that sometimes shut Martha out and made her wonder once, when she could bear to think of it, how Jed had felt about somehow seeming to be just outside the charmed circle she and her daughters had formed. Not that she really resented Jed and Daniel's relationship—she was glad Jed gave the boy some attention since she so often ignored him—but sometimes she felt that Jed had grown to love the boy more than he did her. She told him as much one evening after the man and boy had come laughing together into the cabin only to sober up when they saw her, but not before one of those quick smiles from Daniel, the smile she was never sure had actually been there, it was gone so fast.
When Daniel went back outside for a bucket of water, Martha spoke to Jed." Seems as if you enjoy the boy's company more than you do mine these days."
Jed didn't look her quite squarely in the eye. "That's not so, Martha."
"The two of you laughing together all the time. You never laugh with me anymore."
His voice was quiet. "You don't seem to find much to laugh about lately, Martha."
It was true, of course. When the girls were with them they had been a happy family, laughing at humor and hardship alike. It just seemed as if all her laughter had also been buried on that grim morning back on the desolate prairie.
"I'm sorry, Jed," Martha said. "I just can't seem to forget my girls. I can't feel that close to that boy. He's always so serious around me. Almost like he's afraid. Calls me 'Aunt Martha.' I notice he calls you 'Pa.' Did you tell him to call you that?"
"No. He just started doing it. He's just a little fellow, Martha, but he knows how people feel about him. He needs more than just a full stomach and a place to sleep."
"I know," she said. "I know." She was ashamed that she could deny love to a child. Any child. She tried harder after that, but she found she was always comparing him with her daughters. They had been soft and yielding, a pleasure to hold close. Daniel was bony and wiry, and his small body was hard-muscled from the work he did with Jed. The girls had been golden-curled and had taken pride in keeping their little pinafores neat and clean. Daniel was always grimy; he seemed to attract dirt, and his shirt always hung out from his overalls. The girls had liked to play quietly in the house with their rag dolls. Daniel preferred the outdoors, where he had full-scale, one-man battles, playing the parts of both settlers and Indians and making enough noise for any real fight.
It seemed as if he was always doing something to plague her. Not intentionally, to be sure. At least Jed said not. Just the high spirits and imagination of a boy, Jed said. There was the time he took her best tied quilt outside to build a tepee by the creek bank. By the time she found it, it was muddy and bedraggled and had to be laboriously washed.
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