The sights and smells of Christmas had invaded Mrs. Keplar’s kitchen. Gingerbread men lined up at attention on the counter next to a forest of green iced Christmas-tree cookies. The scent of cinnamon and vanilla filled the room. Mrs. Keplar hummed tunes of the season that came out in La-di-di-da’s and Fa-la-la’s as she busied herself with holiday preparations. Christmas being near at hand, there was much to do to make the time special for her family and friends.
Several months earlier the last of the coal mines had closed, which, in one way or another, affected most of the people in Haughter’s Valley. The community had always depended on the mines for its livelihood and now there was no promise that the mines would ever re-open. The families that could, moved away looking for other work; the ones that stayed behind had little means to afford Christmas.
In early November, Mrs. Keplar had organized her sewing group. “We’ll make a Christmas for ourselves,” She had declared. “We’ll all work together and have us a merry time.”
Mrs. Keplar set aside the cap she was knitting and went to peep into the oven. “Mmmmm,” she said as she pulled out the big pan of apple dumplings. “Those folks at the community center will really like these, won’t they, Snowflake?” The white cat looked up, delicately licked at a paw, and then curled into a ball to continue her winter afternoon’s nap. “Lazy old cat,” Mrs. Keplar laughed.
Mrs. Keplar pulled on black arctic boots and a heavy coat then wrapped her head in a long knitted scarf. “Snowflake, I’m going to check the spring,” she called over her shoulder to the lazy, white cat.On the back porch, Mrs. Keplar picked up a bucket of shelled corn and a garden hoe.
Going down the path to the spring, she reviewed her Christmas plans; she did not dare forget anything. The cookies, the knitted caps and mittens would have to do for the children’s presents. There was no money for toys for the children or gifts for the adults. The party would have to suffice for them. Mrs. Keplar did regret that there was nobody to play Santa Claus. None of the local men could do it–their children would suspect and goodness knows the magic was going out of the children’s lives fast enough without losing Santa.
At the spring, Mrs. Keplar scattered the corn at the base of a nearby tree, then went to work breaking up the ice in the spring pool. A blue jay flew to a low overhanging branch nearby, cocked his head sideways and called to Mrs. Keplar.
“Well, hello there, Blue Boy. Have some corn,” she encouraged her blue-feathered friend. A flock of sparrows flew in to help themselves to the corn. Squirrels scampered about the tree, chattering all the while.
“Don’t get in a push. There’s plenty for everybody,” Mrs. Keplar scolded good-naturedly. “Here,” she reached deep into her coat pockets, “I nearly forgot the nuts.” She tossed walnuts in the squirrels’ direction.
Lucille McKennon gave them to me for Christmas. Humph–thinks I’m after that ugly old boy friend of hers. Well, I like that. Who’d want old Saul Borders, anyway? He’s not my type.” She underscored each of the last words with sharp chops on the ice. This done, the ice gave way to a pool of sparkling water. Mrs. Keplar leaned on the hoe handle. “Whew, critters, I’m not nears’s young’s I used to be. You know, Blue Boy, when you hit my age, you can’t be wastin’ time.” Then she said in a near whisper,” Oh, my. Looky over there.” Not far from her, at the edge of the woods, stood two deer.
“Come here, little sweeties,” she held out her hand, clucking.” Just come over here to Granny.” The deer perked up their ears and made ready to run. “Don’t be ‘fraid. Come on over here.” Mrs. Keplar kept up a steady stream of soothing chatter. “There’s fresh water here. Come on over.”
Slowly, tentatively, first one and then the other deer took a few steps forward. Mrs. Keplar held her hand outstretched and steady lest she frighten them.
“That’s right, keep a-comin’.” The pair were within a few feet of the spring when they spooked and ran off into the woods. “Oh!” Mrs. Keplar followed the deer with her eyes, watching the white bobbing tails as they bounded out of sight. When she turned back to pick up the hoe, a man stood where the deer had been.
By the way he was dressed, he might have been a hunter. He wore a green and red plaid shirt, dark green trousers and brown boots laced nearly to his knees. A red hunter’s coat covered his outfit. He held a flat-brimmed black hat in his hand.
Mrs. Keplar silently took him in. A little on the stout side but not fat. Sturdy she would have said. He appeared to be neat and clean if his snow-white beard and hair were any indication of his personal habits. All the same, Mrs. Keplar’s right hand tightened on the hoe handle.
“Who are you?” she demanded in her best authoritarian voice.
“Just a friend.”
“I usually pick my own friends, mister.”
“Now, now, Edie, don’t be alarmed.”
“How did you know my name?”
“Let’s just say a little bird told me.”
“Well, if that ain’t original.”
He laughed a deep, jolly laugh. “Oh, Edie, you are a delight.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I heard you had a Christmas wish, and I came to see what I can do to help.”
“My Christmas wish. I haven’t told anybody that.”
“Didn’t you want a Santa Claus for the children in the valley? Some new man in the area who…”
“All right, all right, you know about that part.”
“That’s a place to start. Do you want to hear the rest?”
“No, that’s enough for now. How did you know about that?”
“Like I said, a little bird told me. Didn’t you, Blue Boy?” He held up his arm; the jay flew there and perched. The man winked a twinkling blue eye at Mrs. Keplar.
She was impressed. After all, she’d been trying to coax Blue Boy into her hand since he’d first appeared at the spring.
“How’d you do that?”
“Dear lady, let’s just say I have a way with animals as I believe you do.”
Mrs. Keplar firmly believed that animals could be trusted to judge a person’s character. If Blue Boy trusted this man then why shouldn’t she? As she began to warm to the stranger, she relaxed her grip on the hoe handle.
“Now, about your need of a Santa Claus?”
“Well, you look close enough to the real item.”
“Madam, I am the real item.”
Again her hand tightened on the hoe handle. “You’re tellin’ me that you are Santa Claus?”
“Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle–all the same. But what do you think?”
“You’ll do in a pinch.”
“Thank you. I am flattered.”
“Would you like to come into the house? I’ll put the kettle on for tea and there’s fresh apple dumplings.”
“Yes, that sounds very good indeed.” He waved his arm to send the jay back to the tree branches, picked up the empty bucket and offered his arm to Mrs. Keplar.
“So what should I call you?” she asked.
“I’ve been called many things. Why don’t you just call me Nick?”
“Nick.” She tried his name and nodded. It would do. “Most folks call me Granny.”
“I know, but why don’t I call you Edie?”
Mrs. Keplar felt like a shy young girl at a first dance. With a blush she answered, “I think I’d like that, Nick. I really do.”
In her warm, cheery kitchen, Mrs. Keplar fed her new friend, and then showed him her Christmas preparations. “We’re going to have a big party tomorrow night–everybody’s pitchin’ in. My whole sewing circle is workin’ on cookies and knitting. I got them all together. Everybody’s bringing what they can. My daughter Elaine’s cookin’ two big turkeys. Some folks’ll bring instruments and play music for us to dance. We’re gonna have the best time we can afford.”
“You’re a caring woman, Edie?”
“I try to be but, you know, I like a good time same as anybody else.”
“Indeed you do,” Nick laughed. “I can see it in your eyes. My wife always did, too. Oh, the preparations she used to go through for Christmas. She got such pleasure out of her creations. Sang over her work. I miss hearing her bright voice.”
“You been alone a long time?
“Too long, dear lady, too long.”
“I know. I been a widow five years myself. Oh, I got my daughter Elaine and her family, but having someone that’s all mine,” she sighed. “I do miss that.”
“Well,” he said clearing his throat, “I didn’t mean to put a damper on our little visit. We got a party to get together. I said I’d help with your wish.”
“Yes, my Santa Claus. I figure you’ll do all right. You can give out the things we got.”
They planned the time and place of meeting for the next evening, and Nick went out. Mrs. Keplar watched him head back towards the woods beyond the spring.
When Elaine came to pick her up at five the next afternoon, Mrs. Keplar bubbled over with the news of finding a Santa Claus for the children. “He looks like the real item,” she told Elaine. “In fact, I fancy him really being Santa.”
“Oh, Mother!” Elaine laughed. “You’re more of a kid than the children are.”
Mrs. Keplar tidied her coat lapels and gloves. “It’s Christmas, dear.”
“Mother, you’re such a fun person. We’ll have to find you a special friend.”
“You mean a man?”
“Well, yes. Seventy isn’t so old that you couldn’t enjoy a companion. Daddy wouldn’t want you to be lonely.”
“I’m not lonely. I got my animals and friends and, of course, you and Roy and the kids.”
“All the more reason, don’t you think? You wouldn’t be taking just anyone out of desperation.”
“I agree with you totally.”
The community center was decked in holiday finery. The children had decorated a large tree with homemade paper ornaments and strings of popcorn.
“See our tree, Granny Keplar?” children called to her. “See our tree?”
“My, my, isn’t that just the prettiest. You’ve all been so creative and such good boys and girls. Santa will be very pleased with you.”
There ain’t no Santa Claus.” Charlie Perkins grumbled.
“Now don’t you say such things,” Mrs. Keplar scolded.
“I’m too old to believe in that nonsense.” The boy folded his arms stubbornly.
“You listen to me, little boy. I’m an old woman with grandkids older than you, and I still believe in Santa Claus. Why, I just talked to him yesterday, and he’s likely to show up any time.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Charlie stood firm.
“You’re a tough little nut, aren’t you? Go play.” She playfully swatted the seat of his pants. “You’ll see, I promise.”
The folks enjoyed the meal. While they ate the last of the apple dumplings, Mrs. Keplar sneaked off to meet Nick. He was waiting in the pantry where she’d stashed the sack of presents.
“Are you ready?” she whispered.
“I’m always ready for presents and children.”
“Here’s the red Santa suit.”
“My dear lady, I refuse to put that on.”
“Why the children expect Santa to look like Santa.”
“I look like Santa. The look of Santa has changed over the years. This is the new Santa look. I don’t want to parade around in that fat man’s suit. I’ve trimmed down a few pounds, and I want to show off my new physique.”
“Physique, huh?” She looked him up and down. Perhaps he’d pass. “Well, times awastin’.”
Gently, Nick placed his hands on Mrs. Keplar’s shoulders.
“Edie,” he began, “you’re a very special woman.”
“Thank you, Nick. I like you too.”
“I’m hoping you’ll let me continue to see you through the holidays and after.”
“I think I’d like that myself.”
Elaine called from the doorway, “Mother, the kids are getting wild. Do you have your Santa ready?”
“Are you ready, Nick?” Mrs. Keplar asked.
“Yes, dear lady, I’m ready.” He picked up the pack, laughed jovially. “We’ll continue our talk later.
“Now, Nick, can you do some hearty ho ho ho’s–for the kids?”
“Ho. Ho,” he said without much enthusiasm.
“Put a little more heart in it. You know, HO! HO! HO!”
He tried a hearty Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“Yes, that’s more like it.
Nick was a hit with the children. The children had the gifts of cookies, caps and mittens, but then Nick pulled a second sack of gifts from behind the tree. The bag was nearly overflowing with brightly wrapped packages. Nick handed a package to each child. The opened presents revealed a gift that was age and interest appropriate for each child. Every child greeted the toys with glee.
“Santa, it’s just what I wanted! How did you know?” came from each child.
However, when Sally Perkins unwrapped a package that held a blue and yellow dump truck, Mrs. Keplar worried. She caught Nick’s eye with a questioning look. A dump truck for such a delicate little girl?
“Oh, Santa!” Sally exclaimed. “It’s just what I wanted. It’s just like the one that Mommy used to drive!”
Mrs. Keplar thought that it would take a real Santa to know the secret desires of anyone’s heart at Christmas time.
“HO! HO! HO!” Nick said looking into Mrs. Keplar’s eyes.
“You really are Santa,” she mouthed at him. He smiled at her and nodded agreement.
“I think that’s the man for me,” she whispered to Elaine.
When all the gifts were gone, the people who’d brought instruments tuned up and began to play some lively dance tunes. Mrs. Keplar danced with Nick. The years fell away; arthritis didn’t bother her that evening. When she looked into Nick’s eyes, she blushed and stepped a little higher as they danced around the floor. They only stopped once when Charlie tugged at Nick’s sleeve.
“I believe in you, Santa. You’re real just like Granny Keplar said. You gave my sister her dump truck, and I’m the only one knew she wanted that.”
“I believe in you, too,” Mrs. Keplar whispered in Nick’s ear.
He let out a merry, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” as he led her into the next waltz.
The evening ended with the singing of holiday songs and wishes of happiness to everyone in the new year. Nick said good-bye before Elaine called to her mother that it was time to go.
“Dear lady,” he said as he took Mrs. Keplar’s hand, “you’ve made an old man very happy.”
“And you’ve sparked things up for me a bit, too. Seeing those children so excited just warmed me up all over.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, but what about you? We have to think about your Christmas wish.”
“This was it, and you’ve made it all come true.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see. I have to go away for a few days to take care of my business. But I’ll see you by Christmas.” He helped her on with her coat.
“That will be just fine, Nick. Just fine.”
On Christmas eve, Elaine, her husband Roy, and their two children gathered in Mrs. Keplar’s living room. Suddenly, outside on the lawn, bells rang and a whoosh of air stirred through the house.
“What’s that?” the children cried.
“Stay put. I’ll go see.” Mrs. Keplar was outside before Elaine or Roy could object.
“Nick! Nick!” she called to the man who climbed out of the sleigh. She ran straight into his open arms.
“Come share Christmas with me, Edie”
“Yes. Yes. I will.”
“Mother, you’ll catch cold.” Elaine came out of the house carrying her mother’s wrap and boots. “What the dickens?” Her mouth dropped open.
“It’s Santa Claus, dear. He’s come to give me my secret Christmas wish. Someone of my very own.”
“Are you ready to go with me, Edie? I have a tight schedule to keep.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, Mother, put on your coat and boots.” Elaine helped Mrs. Keplar on with her things. She wrapped the scarf around her mother’s head, and then kissed her cheek.
Hand in hand, Nick and Mrs. Keplar ran to the sleigh where the reindeer stood pawing the snow covered ground, eager to begin the night’s work.
Nick took up the reins, called a sharp, “On there, friends.”
Elaine stood astounded as the sleigh lifted away into the night sky.
“Mother, are you eloping?” she cried out.
“I’m not sure, dear. I’ll be back soon to tell you. Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”
The sleigh whizzed away leaving only the echoes of a hearty “HO! HO! HO!”