Emma’s Christmas Wish
by Sallyann F. Murphey
Outside, snow tumbled down, piling against gates and doorways, obliterating the road, and filling the old farmhouse with opalescent light. Inside, all was quiet—except for the whisper of voices upstairs: “Rosie, please…We must have Christmas, and how can we do that without the Christmas book?”
“But Dad told us we couldn’t this year. No Christmas, no cookies, no carols, no…anything…” The seven-year-old’s bottom lip began to quiver.
The owner of the first voice sighed. She was an attractive thirteen-year-old, with a mane of tawny curls and bright green eyes, which now gazed compassionately at her small sister.
“That’s not what he said,” Emma corrected her gently. “What he said was that Mom won’t be coming home.”
The past few weeks had been hard on both girls. In early November their mother, Jan, had taken to her bed. Just before Thanksgiving, she’d been whisked off to a hospital a hundred miles away for what Dad mysteriously called “tests.” They hadn’t seen her since.
“Rosie’s too young to visit,” Ben Metcalfe had explained, “and I’m relying on you, Emma, to look after her while I’m gone.” Then yesterday he’d delivered the bad news: Their mother was very sick and might not be back for months.
“I think Dad’s wrong,” Emma said now. “I’m convinced that we can get Mom home.”
Her sister looked at her with huge eyes.
“Last night, I dreamed we were having Christmas like always, except we were doing the work—not Mom. We did everything just the way she likes it. Then, on Christmas Eve, we heard a voice saying what good children we’d been. It was her, Rosie–and she told us that our work had made her well. I’m sure that if we can pull Christmas together, Mom’ll be here to enjoy it.”
The little girl nodded solemnly. “OK. Where do we begin?”
“Well, let’s start by finding the book.”
As the sisters searched through dusty attic boxes, Emma tried to cheer Rosie along. “Remember last year—when Mom was making gingerbread?” she reminisced. “The air was this wonderful mix of smells: pine needles, spices, warm sugar….”
“…and don’t forget Mom’s scent,” Rosie added.
Emma smiled. It was their mother’s only indulgence—a carryover from her big city beginnings as a career woman in a business suit. These days, Jan Metcalfe dressed in sneakers and jeans, but she couldn’t give up that daily dab of perfume.
“I can just see her,” Emma mused, “dancing between bubbling pots and all those bowls, mixing and stirring, checking her recipes again and again…”
“Those recipes….” Rosie echoed. “Emma!” she burst out, “I bet the scrapbook’s in the kitchen!”
The girls flew downstairs.
The family scrapbook, or album, had been started six generations before, when their great-great-great-great-grandmother Marianne first wrote in the ledger she had brought with her from France.
She did this in 1835, when the family was living in the log cabin that once stood where the farmhouse stood today. The circumstances were a matter of record because Marianne had included a diary entry about her new home, preceding some instructions for wheat bread. Since then, all Metcalfe wives had taken their turn, contributing favorite recipes and crafts and short paragraphs about their lives. Their mother added to it often and, as the girls now discovered, kept it in a kitchen drawer.
They settled down to read it, passing over yellowed pages until they came to their mom’s distinctive scrawl. Then Emma found what she’d hoped for—Jan’s “Countdown to Christmas: A Guide to Holiday Plans.”
“Here it is,” she said. “A blueprint we can follow.”
The moment they finished school, the girls began working through their mother’s list. Step one was to “give everything a thorough cleaning,” and they went at it with a will. In the evenings, they gravitated to the kitchen where they used the album to put together their Christmas menus.
Some dishes, they learned, were decided on generations back. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, for instance, had been the main meal at Christmas since Nana Jessie arrived from Britain after World War II. The little crocks of rumtopf (fruits preserved in liquor) that were prepared each summer for use as Christmas gifts were a custom that their great-great-grandmother Anna had brought with her from Germany in 1889. She had also given the family their treasured recipe for christollen bread. The onion soup they still ate on Christmas Eve had been invented by Great-Grandma Kathleen during the Depression, when that was all the food they had.
“I’m glad she did,” Rosie exclaimed. “Can we have it again this year?”
“Of course!” Emma assured her. “Remember, for this to work we have to stick to Mom’s plan.”
“I know, but we’ve also got to make macaroons, vanilla fudge, marzipan, Turkish delight, coconut ice, and peppermint creams,” Rosie declared. “And don’t forget the sugar cookies, shortbread, and Nana Jessie’s Battenberg cake.”
“Rosie, we’ve got only three weeks!” Emma reminded her. “And we need time for the gingerbread village.”
“You’re not going to try that?” Rosie was incredulous.
“Why not? Mom makes one every year,” Emma replied.
For the next few days, the kitchen came alive with the sounds of clinking bowls, crashing pans, and bursts of helpless giggles. Emma was a good cook—she had won a fistful of ribbons at the county fair—but the girls still had their share of disasters. Pastry burned, sponge cake sank, and the christollen bread almost blew the over door off.
“Watch out!” Rosie shrieked. “It’s going to explode.” Both girls stared at the balloon of dough that hissed and heaved against the oven window.
Emma scratched her head. “I followed the instructions.” She went over to the book and rechecked the recipe. “See…..exactly as it says.”
“Not quite,” Rosie pointed out, peering over. “You’re supposed to split it into six loaves.”
Throughout it all, Ben came and went, too tired to notice the strange fragrances or a sprinkling of flour. The man had exhausted himself juggling work, home, and the 200-mile round-trip to the hospital each day. The doctors had discovered what was wrong—Hantavirus, they said, an illness new to America—but they had no medicines to offer. His wife’s body had to fight this off on its own, and all that Ben could do was watch, consumed by his own worrying.
Then, one afternoon he came home to find the girls garlanding the stairs.
“What are you two up to?” he asked mildly amused.
Rosie looked guilty, and Emma looked resigned.
“Dad, I know what you said,” she began, “but we thought we should go ahead with Christmas, in case Mom’s home in time. We’ve done most of the work already. We haven’t made a mess.”
“I can see that,” he nodded, glancing around. The windows glittered, the floors shone, and a freshly made holly wreath hung above the mantelpiece. “You’ve been busy,” he murmured.
“And that’s not all,” Rosie burst out. “We’ve made the Christmas food, too.”
She took him by the hand and led him to the kitchen, where Emma opened the pantry door. Her father stood there, speechless. Across the countertop and along the shelves were boxes, baskets, jars, and plates, all filled with seasonal goodies. The sisters had outdone themselves. There were cookies and candies, plates of fudge, and carefully wrapped cakes—and in the center of it all, a wobbly gingerbread village which lovingly echoed their mother’s design. Ben reached out and touched a lopsided roof. His eyes were damp.
“You must have worked very hard,” he said in a strangled voice.
“Just wait till you see the freezer,” Emma replied.
A teasing smile flashed across her face, and Ben’s heart lurched: She was so like her mom. He had assumed that he was being strong—shouldering the situation all on his own—but now he realized his children had shown the true courage by never giving up hope.
“I have been a fool,” he whispered, beckoning to his daughters with both arms open wide.
The following evening, Ben called them into the living room. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” he announced. There, standing in its traditional corner, was the tallest, bushiest blue spruce they had ever seen. It was the girl’s turn to be speechless.
“Well—don’t just stand there,” Ben said. “Let’s decorate.”
As they worked, he reported on his visit to the hospital.
“I told Mom about your efforts, and she spoke for the first time in days.”
“She did!” Emma exclaimed. “What did she say?”
“Good children…” Ben reached up to fill in a blank spot. “She said what good children you’ve been.” He turned away too quickly to notice Emma’s shocked look. “I was thinking that, if she continues to improve, the hospital might let you visit for the holidays.…”
Emma’s eyes hardened and she changed the subject.
“By the way—are you visiting her on Christmas Eve?”
“I thought I should. Why?”
“Well, I was hoping you’d have time for a small celebration before you leave,” she explained.
“Not a problem,” he said, intrigued.
“Good!” Emma looked pleased. “One more thing: Do you have anything you could do away from home that day?” Ben’s eyes twinkled.
“I could probably find something. What time am I expected back?” he inquired.
“Oh, about five would be fine,” she replied airily, skipping away before he could ask more questions.
At 5:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Ben Metcalfe found himself knocking on his own front door. He had a key, of course, but presumed that he should announce his arrival. Emma let him in. She was not the tousle-haired teenager he’d seen that morning, but a young lady dressed in a skirt, with tawny curls piled carefully on top of her head. Rosie stood behind her, shiny as a new penny, in the dress that Jan had made for her that fall.
“Well, look at you two,” Ben said appreciatively.
“Hungry?” Emma asked.
“Starved,” he admitted.
“Then let’s eat!” Rosie declared.
The three of them crossed the big hall to the dining room door. Inside, the room was bathed in light. There were candles everywhere—in the windows, along the mantelpiece, and lined up on the table. Their reflections leaped and flickered in the gleaming wood, bouncing off silverware and making the crystal sparkle.
“This is beautiful,” their father gasped.
He pulled out his chair, then stopped to survey the array of food in front of him.
“Em, how have you managed this?” Ben blurted out. “You can’t have learned all these recipes just by watching your mother?”
“Of course not!” she laughed. “I didn’t have to. She wrote everything down in the family album. We used her ‘Countdown’ as our guide and then tried some of the other stuff. In fact, there’s a dish here from every woman in the family. The wheat bread is from Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandma Marianne, and the herringsla’ is Great-Great-Great-Grandma Constance’s recipe. The onion soup comes from Great-Grandma Kathleen’s kitchen, and the potatoes are Mom’s idea. Great-Great-Grandma Anna provided us with the rumtopf for dessert, or you can have Nana Jessie’s lemon curd tarts.”
“You talk about them as if you know them,” Ben remarked.
“I do. They’ve each told me their stories in their own words—and none of this Christmas would have been possible without their help.”
For a moment, it felt as if there were five shadowy figures around them, smiling down at the table.
“Em,” Ben said gravely. “I’m very proud of you….”
After the meal was finished and Rosie was in bed, Ben headed back to the hospital.
“I’ll be home late,” he called out. “Don’t wait up!”
At the kitchen table, Emma opened the family Album. The very last entry in Jan’s “Countdown” read: “Prepare sweet rolls for baking in the morning.”
Emma could not imagine a Christmas that didn’t begin with this delicious breakfast and was looking forward to finishing her list. “Then I’ll be done,” she thought, “ and Mom will come home.” She flicked through Jan’s pages searching for the recipe. It wasn’t there. She scanned the entire book. There were no sweet rolls to be found. A lump formed in her throat. She could only guess that this was the one occasion when her mother carried the instructions in her head.
Emma slumped back in her chair, defeated.
“Who was I kidding?” she said bitterly: “It was just a stupid dream….”
The sunshine was streaming through her window the following morning when her father woke her.
“Merry Christmas!” Ben declared. “Come down and have breakfast.”
Emma reluctantly complied, knowing already what a disappointment the day would be. She put her robe on and crept downstairs. As her foot hit the bottom step, she stopped. What was that smell—the sweet medley of cinnamon and fresh yeast? Could it be…? She ran into the living room. There, on the coffee table, were cups and jugs and a large plate of sweet rolls. Emma pointed.
“How did you….? She sounded outraged.
Ben was smiling—no, grinning—for the first time in weeks.
“I’ve always made the breakfast,” he explained. “It was the one Christmas job that your mom would let me do.”
“Only because he wouldn’t give me the recipe,” said a voice from behind her.
Emma stiffened and almost didn’t dare to look. She turned slowly to find a pale but upright Jan standing by the door.
“Merry Christmas, my girls.” Jan held her arms out. Emma and Rosie flung themselves at her.
“You made me well,” their mom whispered, between kisses and tears.
Eventually, she let them over to the tree, where Ben stood with a scroll of paper wrapped in red ribbon. He gave it to Emma. “After all you’ve done, Em, I thought that you should record the recipe in the family book.”
As four sets of arms went around each other, Emma closed her eyes and drank in the fragrance of pine, warm sugar, wood smoke—and the faint whiff of perfume….