It was after one o’clock in the morning when Mr. Jorgenson dropped Jamie off at home, but the kitchen windows glowed golden with kerosene light. He walked to the back porch, kicked off his boots and went in. His grandma had gone to bed, but his dad, mom and brother and his wife were sitting at the table drinking coffee. When he closed the door, they all stood.
Jamie’s dad cleared his throat and said, “Jamie, I’m sorry we didn’t pay attention to you at the hospital. We were so wrapped up in our own grief we forgot you had your own.”
His mom said, “We were worried when we couldn’t find you, but Mrs. Lily called to tell us you were there. She also told us about Sam’s father and mother and suggested we allow you and Sam time to grieve together. I know how close you were to your grandpa and I hope talking to Sam made you feel better.”
Then everybody was hugging Jamie and talking all at the same time. Afterward, they sat around the table and told stories about Grandpa. Jamie would always remember that night with his family as one of the best of his life, even though everyone hurt so much.
At dawn, he dozed off in his chair after eating breakfast. His dad carried him to bed and his mom tucked him in. As Jamie slid toward sleep, he thought he was too old for that sort of stuff, but he still liked it.
Jamie woke up at four o’clock in the afternoon in time to do evening chores and have a big supper. It was Christmas Eve, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open and went to bed after he helped his mother clean up the kitchen. When he woke up, Christmas Day sunshine came through his window. He yawned and stretched as he padded barefoot out into the warm kitchen where his mom and dad sat at the table.
He pushed the hair out of his eyes and sat down. “What time is it?”
His dad said, “Almost nine-thirty. I thought you were going to sleep all day.”
“Oh, no. I missed doing my chores. I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Don’t worry. You needed the sleep and Will was here to help. He and Suanne have gone home, but they’ll be back for supper. Grandma is still sleeping.”
Setting a plate and silverware in front of Jamie, his mom asked, “Are you hungry?”
All he’d done for the last day and a half was eat and sleep, but his stomach still growled.
His mom heard it and smiled. “I’ll make breakfast for you and then we’ll open presents.”
Every Christmas morning, Grandpa put on his red and white Santa hat and handed out gifts. Jamie was always excited and couldn’t wait to open presents. Today without Grandpa, he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Since his grandpa had told him to do what he normally did, he’d open his presents, but he’d have a hard time being cheerful as he did. Jamie and his mom and dad went into the parlor and when Jamie walked by the hat rack, he picked up the hat his grandpa had given him and put it on. Then he joined his parents sitting around their Christmas tree and the presents under it.
Jamie’s dad hesitated and rubbed his face with both hands. “I guess the honor of handing out presents is mine now.” Then he turned and looked at the Santa Claus hat hanging on the hat rack. He touched his hair and in a voice barely above a whisper, he said, “Maybe next year I’ll wear it.” He picked up the first package. “Jamie, this one’s yours. Merry Christmas.”
Jamie got bib overalls, some socks and underwear along with a small knife for his survival kit. The last gift under the tree was from Grandpa. When his father handed the wrapped box to him, he turned it around and around in fingers. Should he open it? There’d never be another.
Finally, he took a deep breath, carefully removed and folded the paper so he could save it and then lifted the lid. He smiled at the compass nestled inside while brushing away tears.
Jamie’s dad pointed under the tree. “Look there, clear in back. There’s one more.” He dropped to his knees and pulled out a box wrapped in beautiful, expensive paper. He read the tag and said, “I never saw this one before, but it’s got your name on it, Jamie.”
Jamie took it, but his mom stopped him from ripping the paper off, saying it was too pretty to tear. Getting a knife from the kitchen, she ran it under the tape. When Jamie unfolded the paper and saw what was inside, he laughed.
“It’s Sam’s store-bought lunchbox,” Jamie said, holding it up. “I gave him one of our old lard pails the second day of school and he never used this again.” He wondered how Sam delivered it without anyone knowing and was certain Grandpa had something to do with it.
It was heavy and when he flipped the lid up, he found it filled with colorful Christmas cookies wrapped in waxed paper. “Look what Sam gave me.” He passed the box around and everyone took a cookie.
His grandma got up later and she and Jamie’s mom started preparing the big Christmas dinner they always had in late afternoon when his brother and his wife came over. Jamie’s mom tried to convince Grandma that she should rest and not help this year, but she wouldn’t hear of it. They also began making pies and cakes for friends who would visit the next day.
Jamie and his dad went to do chores in the barn. There weren’t many, but they found things to do so they had a reason to stay away from the bustle in the kitchen.
When they came in, Homer called and tried to say something to Jamie about his grandpa dying. Since Homer had never said anything like that in his life, their conversation was awkward and had long periods of silence as each boy struggled to say something that would sound right to the other.
Finally, Homer swore and then told Jamie a story about Jamie and his grandpa organizing a school Christmas program where Homer would play the part of an angel. When Homer finished, Jamie was crying and laughing at the same time and thanked Homer for calling.
When they sat down for Christmas supper, seeing his Grandpa’s empty place at the table and his chair standing against the wall made Jamie aware of the space inside of him that Grandpa had filled for as long as he could remember.
After dinner, Jamie and Grandpa had always played Christmas carols on their harmonicas while everyone sang. But this year, Jamie knew they wouldn’t sound right if he played by himself. Their parlor seemed cold and dark without music as they tried to make conversation. It was a long day and Jamie and his family got through it as well as they could and went to bed early. When Jamie crawled into bed, he kept his hat on. He reached up and ran his fingers over the fabric while he thought about Grandpa. Any minute, he expected to hear him tap on the door, come in and sit on the end of his bed again. He slid his bare feet and legs around under his quilt to put them in the place where Grandpa always sat. The spot was cold.
The next morning, after chores, visitors began dropping in bringing cards and food. Jamie didn’t know most of them, since they were friends of his grandpa and grandma. By noon, his mom was making pot after pot of coffee while Jamie washed the silverware, plates and cups used by people who had left so there’d be clean ones for newcomers. Everyone sat or stood around in the parlor and kitchen talking about his grandpa and things that had happened before Jamie was born.
At one o’clock, the house was jammed full of people and his mom called, “Jamie, Sam’s on the telephone.”
Jamie squeezed between groups of visitors to the telephone and picked up the receiver. He leaned close to the mouthpiece and said, “Hi, Sam. Merry Christmas. Thanks for the cookies and lunchbox. I’m sorry I didn’t get you anything.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Jamie and don’t worry about not getting me a present. I thought I’d call and see how you’re doing.”
“Better. Aunt Lily said there’d be lots of people visiting and you might need a break. If you want, I can ask Phillip to come over and pick you up.”
Jamie looked at the crowd of people he didn’t know and sighed with relief. “Thanks, Sam. Just a minute and I’ll ask Mom.”
His mom saw how bored he was and said he could go. When Sam told him Mr. Jorgenson would pick him up in about fifteen minutes, he put on his coat, boots and hat and then went outside and sat on the front porch steps. As he waited, he glanced up at the hooks in the ceiling. Who’d put up and take down the swing now?