The Christmas Gift
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 25, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
I was nine years old and I had decided I needed an angel for Christmas. In the 50's the mountains of southeast Kentucky were usually covered in snow by Thanksgiving, so I was no longer climbing mountains with my great Aunt Bett on a search for plant remedies of one kind or another. I was outside as often as allowed, though, so it wasn't as if I didn't have much to do. When the snow was deep enough I would sled down the holler just like everybody else. If I took a run and go from the top of our slanted driveway, I could easily round the next bend in the road in the blink of an eye.
And I built snowmen, wonderful snowmen all decorated in old clothes that I found in a wooden box in the attic. Sometimes I built snow women, too, with scarves and broaches and heavenly hats on their heads. Branches from the maple tree worked wonders for arms, and there were carrots from the root cellar that I could use for noses. I took the dyes that Aunt Bett had taught me to make and painted pokeberry rouge on their cheeks and lipstick on their lips. I used blue dye made from blossoms of spiderwort and painted blue dots for their eyes. I placed walnuts down their fronts for buttons, and I draped muslin scarves that I had dyed in stripes around their shoulders. And my snow women always wore a dried rose from summer in their old black felt hats that had netting covering one eye. Snowmen got dried roses in their lapels, too. Sometimes if the weather stayed cold, my snowmen would last from one weekend to the next, and if it snowed again, I just added a snow dog at their feet. Buckeyes were great for snow dog's noses.
In the evenings I read everything I could find to read, from The Little Colonel to Nancy Drew, and I dreamed about Christmas. We didn't have much money, but my mother could always come up with exciting gift ideas. We baked cookies using dried fruit that I had prepared, then delivered them to everybody that we knew. I took great pride in those cookies. I cracked walnuts and then we made the best walnut fudge ever. I embroidered tea towels and aprons for my Granny Ninna, Gramma Ell and Aunt Bett, and I always was sure to embroider a flower on everything, whether the pattern had one or not. I had perfected petals and leaves with just a simple embroidery stitch, and truthfully flowers were the only things I was allowed to embroider. I wasn't very good at following patterns.
One year Aunt Bett had taught me to hang roses upside down in the heat of the attic. They dried pretty quickly, and she gave me some small round tins that she used for salve. For Christmas, I shredded some of the petals of the dried roses and sprinkled a little of Mom's favorite perfume on them. I left them out on my dresser top to dry and while they were drying, I borrowed Mom's bright red nail polish and painted the top of the tin. When everything was dry, I stuffed the tin full of rose petals and put the bright red top on it. It was going to be a gift for my mother for Christmas.
So I had been very good, and only asked for an angel. We cut the cedar tree as we always did. Mom and Dad put the lights on it and I got to hang the ornaments. The gifts were placed around the tree, and I wrapped mine to place there as well. I had been as good as gold, and I really wanted an angel.
We were getting ready to go to my Gramma Ell's house for Christmas Eve supper. I was checking the gifts under the tree, but everything that was wrapped for me seemed to be clothes or books, I didn't think an angel would come in a square flat package. Hidden behind the tree was a package about the size of a shoe box, wrapped in what looked to be a wrinkled brown paper sack, and it was tied with a piece of twine. It had a dried sprig of mistletoe as its only adornment. It had my name on it, so I pulled it from behind the tree and shook it. It rattled. If it was an angel, it must be broken, I thought, and besides, angels wouldn't be wrapped in an old wrinkled brown bag. There was no name on it except mine, but I decided it wouldn't be very interesting if it were broken, so I put it back behind the tree.
"Who used all my red nail polish," my mother yelled from the bedroom. I didn't say a word, just sat there on the floor beneath the Christmas tree. My mother came stomping out of her bedroom. "Sharon, did you use my nail polish, how many times have I told you to ask before you used my things, and I can tell some of my perfume is gone, too. Let me see your hands." I held out my hands and she checked out my walnut stained fingernails. I kept my mouth shut. My mother stormed out of the living room and I heard her mumbling something to my dad. I could not tell her about her Christmas present, I just didn't know what to do. But I was sure that now there would be no angel for me for Christmas.
We went on to my grandmother's house for Christmas Eve supper, but I had no appetite, and said very little to anybody. Aunt Bett was there and she came to sit beside me after supper. "Did you open any presents yet, little girl?" I told her no, that I guessed I had been bad so I didn't expect very much for Christmas. I whispered to her about the dried flowers and the perfume, and the fingernail polish on the lid of the tin, and I told her what my mother had said just a few hours earlier. "That ain't bein' bad, Sharon. You were givin' somethin' from your heart, and that ain't never bad," said Aunt Bett. The tears started, and my nose was dripping by the time I got home and into bed. I could tell my mother was still angry because she didn't come tell me good night. Just as I drifted off to sleep, the thought that I might have to run away from home flitted through my mind.
Christmas morning came and we gathered around the tree to open our gifts. My mother liked her tin of rose petals, and in front of Ninna, Aunt Bett, my little brother and my dad, she apologized to me for being upset about her nail polish and her perfume. Aunt Bett and Ninna loved their embroidered tea towels, and I opened my books, my games, my clothes, my set of paints, a chocolate bar, and my brand new gold watch, but there was no angel. Oh, I smiled, and I said all my thanks, just as I was supposed to do, but there was no angel.
All the wrapping paper was put away, the gifts were in nice stacks, and I had a new book in my hands when Aunt Bett said, "Sharon, I reckon you musta missed one present," and she handed me the box wrapped in a brown paper sack. I carefully opened the package, saving the sprig of mistletoe that was knotted into the twine, and sure enough, it was an old shoe box. I lifted the lid, and found tins of dried plants and salve that Aunt Bett had made, all loose and rattling around together. Beneath the tins, though, was something wrapped in another paper bag, and I lifted it out of the box. I reached inside the bag, and pulled out an old fashioned doll, all dressed in white, the fabric looking much like that of curtains, and she had wings that were made of wire covered in another sheer white fabric. Her body was soft cloth, but her head, her arms, and her legs were china. She was strewn with dried loose rose petals. She was the prettiest angel doll I had ever seen with her painted hair and features. I hugged Aunt Bett, and then she said this: "Honey, I ain't got the money to buy you a store bought angel, but this doll belonged to my mama, and then to me, and even if she's old, I wanted her to belong to you." Even now, I have tears.
A few years ago, I took my little angel with her age shredded clothes and her rusty wire wings to a doll restorer. She became very excited when she realized the doll was made in the 1700's, and in a moment of insanity I agreed to let her restore it in the fashion of that time. She said the doll was in perfect condition and she only needed to be cleaned and to have new clothes. My angel came back to me dressed as you see her now, but in my heart, I can still see her as she was on that rose petal scented Christmas morning in her white dress and wire wings that Aunt Bett had made for her.
Sometimes angels come in strange packages.
May you have the blessings of angels on this Christmas Day.
All photos are from my own collection. The Christmas card in the first image was from Aunt Bett, the tea towel was one that I embroidered, the wrapper was indeed from one of the candy bars that I received years ago, and my angel doll is as you see her today.