Grandpa's Harmonica

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Chapter 23

Monday morning, Sam came to school with a stack of typed pages with Mr. Jorgenson following her carrying a box. She put the pages on Miss Kuelmann’s desk while Mr. Jorgenson set the box on the floor and then waved as he left. Sam pointed at the box and said something to Miss Kuelmann making them both smile. After the Pledge of Allegiance, Miss Kuelmann announced they would practice the Christmas program that morning.

At recess, Miss Kuelmann asked Homer to tell the story and when he finished, Sam, Homer and Jamie played Jingle Bells. All the kids liked the story and the song and wanted them to do it again, but Miss Kuelmann asked them to wait.

She lifted the box from the floor and set it on her desk. “Sam has an idea for our Christmas program and I’ll let him explain it.”

“Homer’s going to tell the story while you act and sing Christmas carols. But this year we’re going to have a band.”

Over the excited murmuring of the kids, Miss Kuelmann said, “That’s right. It’s called a rhythm band. I learned about them in teacher’s training, but never organized one. Sam played in one at his school in New York and he and Mr. Jorgenson made instruments for you.”

Sam opened the box and handed out instruments. The littlest kids got pairs of big sticks and blocks of wood with handles on them. Terry Smith wanted the hand drum and the older girls got triangles and the washboard with thimbles for their fingers. Ken got sleigh bells, Keith got a pair of cymbals made from old, large pot lids and Doc asked for the stump fiddle, which was an old broomstick with bottle caps and big washers loosely nailed to it so they’d ring when he thumped it on the floor.

Sam said, “Playing is easy. All you have to do is keep in time with the music. Try it.”

Jamie and Sam played Jingle Bells again while the kids sang and played their instruments. They weren’t very good, especially the first and second graders, who didn’t have much sense of rhythm. Miss Kuelmann said she’d work with the little kids while Sam, Homer and Jamie concentrated on getting the story organized.

At noon recess, they practiced the carols they’d use in the show. When they finished, Miss Kuelmann said, “The three of you play together well. Sam, would you like to come to my class at the Lutheran church with Homer and Jamie and play your recorder?”

“I’d like that. Do you have music? I can’t play by ear the way Jamie does.”

“I have books with the music in them. The class starts at seven o’clock. Can you get a ride or do you want me to pick you up?”

“No thank you. I can ask Mr. Jorgenson to drive me there. It sounds like fun.”

On Wednesday, the kids sang better than ever and on the way home, Jamie’s grandpa said, “I ain’t never heard one of them recorders before and it sounded real good. We’ll all have to get together and practice some before next week.”

Every school day, they worked on the show and as it took shape, nobody got tired of it as they had in the past. Instead, they worked harder and longer, practicing every recess and coming to school early, even Homer.

Between practices, they had Explorer’s Club meetings. Terry Smith’s father worked for the county and he brought maps to school and showed everyone how to use a compass. Jamie borrowed Sam’s survival kit and asked his grandma to sew bags like it for everyone in the Club. Jamie, Sam and Homer had never been so busy or happy.

The week before Thanksgiving, Jamie’s grandpa came down with a cold so Homer, Sam and Jamie went to Miss Kuelmann’s class without him. They played well, but they missed him.

On Saturday, Jamie’s grandpa had to go to the hospital to get oxygen because it was so hard for him to breathe. He came home Monday and said he felt better, but he still spent the next few days in bed. Thanksgiving Day, he let Jamie’s dad carve the turkey for the first time that Jamie could remember and then didn’t eat much.

On Monday, Miss Kuelmann gave everyone class time to practice because she said learning music and acting in a play was educational. The show was in three weeks, but even as hard as they were working, Jamie didn’t think they’d be ready. During the last week of school in December, they spent all day Monday and Tuesday practicing, decorating, finishing costumes and getting everything set up for the program Wednesday night.

Jamie’s grandpa was getting weak and losing weight because he wasn’t eating much anymore. He stopped going to Miss Kuelmann’s class and asked Jamie to tell him about everything they did.

At supper the day before the Christmas program, he announced he was going. Everyone stopped eating to stare at him. Jamie’s grandma said, “Do you think that’s wise? You shouldn’t get too tired, you know.”

“Humph! I oughta, you been tellin’ me enough. I ain’t never missed one of Jamie’s Christmas shows and I ain’t about to miss this one.”

Jamie’s grandma and mom didn’t look happy and Jamie expected a big argument, but to his surprise, they didn’t try to talk him out of it. For the rest of supper, his grandpa told funny stories about things that had gone wrong in previous shows—most of them involving Homer.

The next morning at school, they finished the last details and went home at noon. Everyone had to be back at five o’clock to get ready for the show at six, which would be followed by a hotdish supper. When the parents finished socializing and everything was cleaned up, it would be about nine o’clock and school would be out until January.

Parents started arriving at about five-thirty and moms began organizing the supper. Homer, Sam and Jamie got the kids ready on the stage behind curtains made of sheets hung on wires strung across the room. A semi-circle of chairs for the band was beside the stage.

The schoolhouse was packed by six o’clock and just before the program started, the door opened and arm in arm, Jamie’s grandpa and grandma came in. He wore his red and white Santa’s hat and carried a bulging flour sack. People shook his hand and smiled and waved.

He asked Jamie, “You don’t mind none if I join you?”

Jamie grinned wide. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without you playing carols, Grandpa.”

His grandpa sat down, stuffed the flour sack under his chair and pulled out his harmonica.

When Miss Kuelmann got the excited, nervous kids settled, the show began. It was fantastic. Jamie couldn’t think of a better word to describe it. Homer told the story at just the right pace as the kids acted or played in the band or sang carols. After each song, Homer had to wait while parents clapped and cheered before continuing. The final carol was Silent Night and Sam played the last verse solo.

Standing alone in the middle of the stage, eyes closed and playing his recorder, Sam made the music so hauntingly lonely and so perfect to end the show that women were dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs and men were clearing their throats.

While everyone cheered and clapped, Miss Kuelmann had all the kids take a bow, even Jamie’s grandpa.

When the noise died down, Miss Kuelmann got everyone’s attention and announced, “We have one of Santa’s helpers with us tonight and he’d like to give small gifts to the children.”

Jamie’s grandpa pulled the flour sack from under his chair, reached inside and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in Christmas paper and tied with a ribbon while Miss Kuelmann guided Tanner Smith to Jamie’s grandpa. Tanner knew all about Santa Claus so he climbed onto Grandpa’s lap and listed the things he wanted while everyone listened, smiling and laughing. Miss Kuelmann, Sam and Jamie lined up the little kids and each one got a chance to sit in Grandpa’s lap and receive a gift.

Maryland Ball said, “You’re awful skinny for Santa.”

Grandpa laughed and pointed to the metal stovepipe on the wood burning stove. “I’d have a hard time gettin’ down a chimney that small if I was fat, now wouldn’t I?”

Her eyes got big and round and she said, “Ohhhhhhh,” as Grandpa gave her a gift and everyone laughed.

After the little kids received gifts, Grandpa pulled Jamie onto his lap. “Well, now, Jamie. What do you want for Christmas?”

Jamie didn’t know what to say, so he just gave his grandpa a big hug. When he let go, his grandpa smiled and gave him a gift.

When Jamie got up, his grandpa grabbed Sam and then Homer, which looked like so much fun, the older kids made a line to sit in Grandpa’s lap too. Then parents joined in. They didn’t quite sit on his lap, but he treated them the same as the kids, asking them what they wanted for Christmas and then giving them a gift. Everyone laughed at the things parents wanted and Jamie decided Santa was going to need an awfully big sleigh this year and a few more reindeer to pull it.

Jamie stood against the wall with a big smile on his face and opened his gift. Inside, he found a stack of his grandma’s Christmas candy. He munched candy, laughing and clapping along with everyone else as he watched his grandpa be Santa Claus to their neighbors.

Without warning, his happiness vanished. Now he understood why his grandpa was so determined to come tonight. He was saying goodbye.

The candy didn’t taste good anymore so Jamie wrapped it up and stuffed it into a pocket. He slid along the wall behind the crowd to the side door, slipped out and climbed to the top of a small hill overlooking the school. An almost-full moon lit up the empty countryside and in the pale light, Jamie’s little schoolhouse seemed to float on a glistening ocean of snow. With its windows glowing gold, it looked as if it was the only place in the world with light and warmth and people.

In a few minutes, Jamie got cold, but couldn’t decide what to do next. Then he remembered what Grandpa had told him about spending time and not being able to get any more once it was gone. He didn’t know what his grandpa meant then, but he did now. Grandpa was spending the last of his time with his family and friends and doing his best to make them happy.

Jamie got mad for being outside feeling sorry for himself when he should be inside with Grandpa. He marched back to the schoolhouse and went in.

Sam was waiting for him. “That was a wonderful show. Your grandpa added a lot to it.”

“Yeah, he did. People will talk about this one for a long time.”

Tipping his head up so he could look into Jamie’s eyes, Sam said, “I understand. I’ll help all I can.”

“Thanks, Sam. You’re a great friend. Let’s go talk to Grandpa.”

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