Edith gazed into the stillness of the river and combed her grey curls."Still got it old girl ,"she said to her reflexion. With a laugh she splashed her face with the cold liquid and shivered. She didn't care if this was Florida,it was a cold December morning. She fought back the vision of smiling children around a sparkling Christmas tree and climbed back up the steep incline under the bridge. Memories hung like spanish moss in the oaks around her. Alfred was hanging strips of aluminum foil on the girders. "Look Grama,it's just like tinsel,"he said happily.
Edith liked to be called Grama by everyone.It made her feel like she was still part of a family.She brushed away the memories and concentrated on her friend Alfred . He ran to her and hugged her tightly. He was twenty six on the outside but only six on the inside. She loved him for his innocent joy and sweet nature. He had used his broken crayons to decorate their cardboard boxes with candy canes and bells.The work was equal to any Christmas card she had ever seen.
"What nature takes away it replaces with another kind of gift,"she thought to herself. "Go down and wash Sweetheart,and Grama will make breakfast."she said kindly. Alfred loped off down to the Cotee River while Edith checked their stash for food. New Port Richey was the friendliest town she ever knew. From under the bridge she could see children playing at Sims Park. It was a day care group and they would leave good pickings for Alfred. She would send him later to check that out. She took two pages of yesterday's St.Pete Times and portioned out their meal on them.The dumpsters yielded great finds. Picnickers tossed away half a box of jelly donuts,an unopened sandwich,three yellow apples and most of a bottle of orange soda. Edith placed Alfred's meal on the comics.He loved to look at the pictures even though she read them to him last night before bedtime. It was a routine started long ago with her beautiful cherubs.They loved their bedtime stories and sometimes they floated just behind Alfred's head while she read to him.
Sometimes they whispered to each other,words she could not quite understand but she knew they were excited about getting a tree. It was in their eyes,the Christmas glow. She would try to find one today to make them all happy. Alfred could decorate it with all the special things he collected. She knew the girls would be happy when the tree was up. Alfred sat down to eat his meal when up on top of the bridge,a group of boys began to rip garlands off lamp posts.Tommy,the youngest hesitated. "Come on chicken,"Brett,the oldest taunted,"Toss 'em in the river and watch the dummy try and snag 'em as they go by."
Under the bridge,Alfred looked up to see silver streamers flying high in the sunshine.He jumped up and ran down to the edge of the stream. "Ooooh,pretty,"he crooned and tried to reach them when they landed in the stream. Edith yelled for him to be careful. She knew he could not swim and she was afraid. At that moment,Brett spotted a little calico cat in the bushes at the end of the bridge.He chased it down and held it up in the air. "Who dares me?"he yelled as he held it squirming out over the railing. "Don't do it! "yelled Tommy."Please don't do it!"he cried. The other boys cheered and hooted and egged Brett on. Down below,Alfred stared up at the kitten and screamed "No,no,no,Grama make them stop."
Brett looked down into Alfred's face and laughed. He threw the cat out in a high arc . For a moment time seemed to slow down and the terrified animal hung suspended above the crystal river. Before it hit the water,Alfred dove straight out as if to catch it in mid flight. In another second they were both floundering in the icy current. Edith scrambled down the cement bags falling and scratching her hands in her rush to save Alfred.On the bridge,Tommy watched the gangly man going under trying to grab hold of the cat. "Help,help!"Edith screamed."He can't swim.Someone please help him. Tommy kicked off his shoes and dove from the railing.The other boys jeered and ran away.Tommy was only twelve but he was an excellent swimmer. He grabbed Alfred under the chin and headed for the shore.The cat twisted and scratched but Alfred would not let go. Man,boy and cat made it to shore to Edith's joy and amazement.
"Take kitty."Alfred begged Grama. She grabbed the trembling cat and wrapped it tightly in an old woolen sweater. The boy was shaking with cold and excitement. "Are you alright mister?"he asked in a shaky voice. Edith got her own blanket out of her cardboard box and wrapped him snugly before she said, "Thank you child.Thank you so much. What's your name sonny?" Edith asked.
"My name's Tommy,"he answered."Mom and I just moved here last week . I didn't know those boys were so rotten. Do you live in those big boxes?" "Yes,honey we do for right now."she laughed and sat down close to comfort Alfred. Alfred reached over and took the kitty from her hands. It snuggled up under his chin and began to purr. "Kitty loves Alfred."he said with a big smile on his face.
A dark cloud passed over the sun and a light rain began to fall. Cold wind swept a flurry of sycamore leaves up under the bridge. Edith's heart dropped. She wanted to find something to use as a Christmas tree for Alfred tonight. It was Christmas Eve but now everything would be soaked. Behind her eyes the faces of her daughters fell and pale tears ran down their cheeks."Now,now,Mother will find a tree somehow."she whispered. Deep inside she knew what mattered was that Alfred was safe.That was present enough for her but he loved Christmas so much.Her blue eyes filled with tears at the thought of his disappointment . In her pocket she had a crumpled dollar that Santa was going to leave him.She took it and held it out to Tommy. She would have to find something else for her Al.
"Here boy,I want you to have this reward for being brave and doing such a good deed. You saved two lives today and that's an old lady's Christmas miracle." Tommy looked at the crumpled bill in her hand and knew it was all she had. "Instead of the money,will you come home with me and explain this to my Mom?"Tommy pleaded,"She will never understand unless she sees Alfred and the cat." Edith and Alfred agreed so soon they all went walking off in the rain wrapped in their raggedy blankets and carrying a soggy cat.Tommy took them down a side street in the little town.There in the mist stood an old Florida style house with a porch all the way around it. The old house glowed with flashing lights that beckoned through the downpour. Red and green bulbs said Merry Xmas on the roof.
Tommy led the way up onto the front porch out of the rain. Edith stood still ,temporarily overcome by her phantom children.They laughed and ran away. "We'll be back for Christmas,"they called as they got into the car with their father just as they always did. That's when she always missed them most.That's why she could never go back. She had left the Christmas tree just as it was,with the gifts waiting for them and walked away from their home never to return.That was thirty years ago.Today was the anniversary of the accident that claimed the lives of her husband and children. It was Christmas Eve when they left with their father to buy something for the top of the tree. If only she hadn't broken the lovely crystal star they would still be alive. Suddenly she heard Alfred calling her name ,
"Grams,looky looky,it's Mrs.Santa". A short ,round little woman came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a holiday apron. She had flour in her dark hair and a look of astonishment on her pretty face. "Tommy! my goodness,what happened to you?"she cried. Then looking at the motley bunch she said,"And who are your new friends?"
Inside the room was warm and cozy with decorations everywhere. Alfred's eyes widened with wonder. He put down the cat who ran to bat around the lowest bulbs on a tall evergreen. An elderly gentleman came out of a back room pulling on his suspenders. He stood staring at the group dripping on the living room floor. "Tommy,"he said,"That looks just like the cat you had to leave when you moved here." Tommy took his blanket off and started to tell the story of the bad boys prank. Half way through,Maria,his Mother, stopped him and said,"Wait honey,let's get everybody dry and warm before you tell me the rest. "She could tell these people were homeless and in fact had seen Alfred searching through dumpsters down the back alley. Feeling the holiday spirit she decided to follow the sentiments of the church service they attended the day before.The preacher urged them to reach out and share with those less fortunate. Edith did not protest for she was glad to have Alfred in a happy place where he could enjoy a beautiful tree.
Maria asked Grandfather to take Alfred and find him something to wear. She sent Tommy to change and said with deep respect,
Abuella,Grandmother,may I please offer you one of my garments?" Edith laughed at the idea but went along with it. She learned long ago to graciously accept such kindnesses. When they were all dry and comfortable, Maria made hot chocolate and sat them down around the kitchen table to eat pumpkin pie. "I knew those were bad kids."Grampa snorted with hot chocolate in his moustache. He glanced over at Edith and said,"Mam you look lovely in that dress.It matches your beautiful blue eyes." Edith blushed and said"Why thank you Fred.You ain't so bad yourself." Everybody laughed and then Tommy helped Maria clear the dishes.When they were alone he told her where his friends lived .He told her about the refrigerator boxes with the Christmas crayon drawings and the rain and wind under the old bridge.Tears fell from her eyes and she took Grandpa aside to confer.In a few moments she came back to where they all sat in front of the tree.
"You are spending Christmas with us."she said."Now I don't want to hear another word about it." Edith sighed and said a silent prayer of thanks. Her sweet Alfred would have Christmas after all.That night Grandfather read "The Night Before Christmas to Alfred and Tommy but Edith's girls were thin and misty. She couldn't seem to hear them whispering . On Christmas morning Maria had presents for Alfred and Edith under the tree with Tommy's . Alfred sat on the floor,took a red bow off one of his gifts and tied it gently around the kitten's neck. He held it out to Tommy and said, "Merry Christmas Tommy".
Tommy let out a yelp and held the little calico cat close."This is the best Christmas ever!"he cried. Edith looked around at the sincere and loving faces and smiled .She felt as if she had surfaced from the deep after holding her breath for a long time.She gave Alfred the dollar and kissed his cheek. "For my Christmas boy."she said and behind him the phantom children smiled and faded away.She had finally found the true meaning of Christmas again after all those empty years. "Merry Christmas," she said and for the first time in thirty years she meant it.