Returning to Star Mountain for one more Christmas story.
Rocking Horse Christmas
Little lights twinkled in the darkness up on Star Mountain as Grandma rocked in the rocking chair that had put many a child to sleep. She hummed and rocked as the embers of the evening's fire glowed in the hearth. Jesse snuggled up on Grandma's lap. The gentle swaying motion was taking effect.
Jesse's head popped up, "Ride horsey."
Grandma soothed his head back to her shoulder, "Not now, little boy. It's time for sweet dreams. Lucy and Charlie have been asleep for hours. It's time for you to go to sleep, too." She continued to rock in the den lit only by the dimming embers.
Jesse sighed. His head rested heavier on Grandma's shoulder. He popped up again, "Horsey story."
Grandma shook her head. Memories of Jesse's father at this age unfolded in her mind's eye. She whispered, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." She sighed, "Alright dear boy, put your head down and I'll tell you the story of that old rocking horse that you love so very much."
She rocked and looked over in the corner where Jesse's favorite play thing was sitting, quiet and still. She rested her head upon Jesse's soft blonde curls as she rocked. She hummed a few more bars of the lullaby while closing her eyes and traveling back in her memories of times long past.
"It was a long time ago, Jesse boy, so long ago, I wasn't even born yet. There was a little cabin up on Star Mountain and that is where it all happened." She closed her eyes and rocked replaying the images her grandfather had conjured while telling her the story. Grandma's imagination had taken flight just as it had when he'd rocked her so many years ago. In her mind she could hear his smooth baritone voice, telling the story once more.
"I was really little when Pa left for the Great War. Ma took over caring for the farm. Sis and I helped her every day.
"Sis and I learned how to milk ol' Bessie. I don't know why, but we always had to put Ma's bonnet on before she'd let us come near her.
"We'd take the milk bucket and Ma would skim the cream. It was our job to churn the cream into butter. We'd wrap the butter and store it in the spring house, where it was cool and safe from critters.
"Sis and I would look after the chickens and that silly old rooster Preacher Man. That was the loudest rooster God ever put on the face of the earth. I bet Pa could hear him on the other side of the Atlantic.
"We'd all carry buckets to slop the hog. It's probably a good thing, Sis and my bucket wouldn't have fed him enough to fatten him up.
"Every week, Ma would harness Bill up to the wagon. We would head into town to sell the butter and eggs. That was all the money we would have. It wasn't much, but we made do.
"Pa had already plowed and planted the garden before he left. It grew all summer. My sister and I helped with the canning and preserving for our winter stores. Sis strung beans, hot peppers, and herbs to dry. I wasn't very tall, but I'd climb up in the rafters to hang them. We worked all spring and summer, setting aside for the cold winter months. Ma said we were just like that ant in the Aesop's fable. It was really important to be prepared since nobody knew when Pa and the other men from the village would come home.
"Every Saturday night, Ma would heat the water and pour up our baths. We'd get a good scrubbing with the soap we'd help Ma make. We were spit shine clean for church on Sundays. Ma said it would make Pa proud to see how much we'd grown and how hard we were all working around the farm. I'd always sit a little taller, knowing how much our help meant to her. The whole village would be at Sunday services. Preacher always had tidbits of news about the war from the newspaper that he'd share after the service. Everyone would stick around to hear the latest, hoping for information about their family members and news that the war would soon be over.
"It wasn't all work. Sometimes, Ma would have the ladies over for a sewing bee. They'd work together, piecing quilts or working on mending clothes for all of us. Times were tight in the little mountain village. Everybody worked together just to make ends meet. Sis and her friends would tie up corn husks to make dollies, while my friends and I would have corn husk fights. If it was really hot, all of us kids would head down to the spring and play in the creek that ran through the valley. The water was so cold, nothing felt better on a hot summer day.
"Once in a while, the mail man would bring a letter or post card. Pa would write that he was alright and hoped that everything was peaceful and calm on Star Mountain. He'd always sign it with x's and o's and lots of love. Ma would always clasp it to her chest and sniffle when she was done reading. It was really hard on her, running the farm and all while Pa was gone.
"Weeks turned into months, months into seasons. We'd pray every night that God would watch over Pa and keep him safe."
"All the kids on Strawberry Pike walked to school each morning. Carl and George started the daily trek. They were the furthest up Star Mountain. They'd stop at each house along the Pike, picking up a kid or two as they went. By the time they got to the school yard, they usually had eight kids in tow. Sis joined the daily parade every morning and afternoon.
"After lessons the parade started back up the mountain, but there was always one stop before they headed home. Every day, the motley crew, stopped at the train station to see if there was any news from the front. Sis and Carl would take turns reading the latest post.
"I'll never forget when all the kids came running up the Pike, hooting and hollering like some kind of spook was on their tails! Ma grabbed Pa's rifle and I grabbed the broom and we flew out of the house, not knowing what was going on. Shouts of 'It's over, it's over!' echoed off the mountain side.
"Sis flew into the yard, grabbed me and started swinging me around. She was laughing, yelling and spinning until she ran out of breath. I thought she was having some kind of fit. Once she let me go, she started in on Ma.
"Maybe I wasn't as smart as the older kids, but I still didn't know what was over. Whatever it was, it sure made Ma happy, too.
"I must have had a puzzled look on my face because big ol' Carl pulled me over, 'Don't you get it? The war is over! Your Pa's gonna' come home!'
"The great news was followed by more waiting. While the war might have been over, it still took time to get all the solders home. Weeks passed and still no word from Pa. Other fathers started arriving home on the train. Every Sunday the church was a little fuller. Ma would seem a little sadder on the way home.
"It was almost Christmas, when Mr. Jenkins came to call. He brought back a package and letter from Pa. He said Pa was fine. He was just biding his time, waiting his turn and all. Mr. Jenkins didn't stay long, but you could see the relief on Ma's face as he talked about Pa. After he left, Ma opened the letter and read it to us.
I'm writing this post in quite a hurry. It's such a small world, meeting Samuel at lunch today, I couldn't believe my luck. He's headed home in the morning, so I don't have much time. In the box there is a gift for each of you. I've missed you all so very much.
Lucinda, I don't know if I will make it home in time for Christmas, but surely it won't be long before my return.
"He signed it with x's and o's and all his love, just like always.
"The box sat on the mantle untouched until Christmas Eve.
"Ma, Sis and I had just returned from the yearly Christmas Pageant. Almost all of the men folk had returned. Pa's seat on the bench next to Ma was still empty.
"The evening was filled Christmas Carols, laughter and good ol' Saint Nick paying a visit, just like always. Saint Nick had penny candy, an orange and apple in sacks for all the good little girls and boys. It was late in the evening when we finally headed back up to the little cabin on Star Mountain.
"Sis and I got ready for bed while Ma stoked the fire and warmed up the cabin. She gently touched the box sitting on the mantle, a tear rolled down her cheek. Sis and I knew she was really missing Pa. When we said our prayers that night, we prayed that he would be safe and hurry home to us.
"I'd just gotten to sleep when I heard it. It was faint at first, but you could tell it was getting closer. I quickly grabbed my pants, and woke Sis up. Sis thought I was crazy at first, but then she heard it, the faint tinkling of bells. We looked out the window. The full moon illuminated the little valley as it slept under a blanket of pristine snow.
Our breath fogged up the window. Sis rubbed a spot clean and whispered excitedly, "Look! Over there, see it?"
I peered through the spot. In the dead of night, someone was coming up the mountain. We watched as the wagon drew closer, and finally vanished into the tree line as it drove up Strawberry Pike.
"I don't know about you," I whispered, "but I'm going to sleep!"
"I don't know who jumped into bed faster, Sis or me. We pulled the covers up under our chins, and closed our eyes tight and willed ourselves to sleep. It didn't work, but we tried. The tinkling bells grew louder and louder. Then they stopped. It sounded like they were right in front of the cabin. We could hear the horses snuffle, and then a deep voice. We knew immediately.
"Simultaneously, Sis and I threw back the covers. Ma was standing wrapped up in her downy quilt by the opened front door, with her hand over her mouth. She was crying, but she didn't look sad.
"There was a thud on the porch, like somebody dropped something heavy. Then two arms wrapped around Ma and we saw Pa's face in the fire light.
"I've yet to figure out how Sis and I both got down the ladder from the loft. We were just there all hugging Pa and crying. I never knew what tears of joy were until that Christmas morning.
"Pa waved to the driver of the wagon and he drove off into the night, yelling Merry Christmas to you all!
"Ma and Pa both hustled Sis and I back to bed. With kisses and prayers we snuggled under our quilts and tried to get back to sleep.
"Next thing I remember was waking up to the smells of bacon and coffee wafting up to the loft. It seemed like a dream Pa getting home late Christmas Eve, but when I looked over the loft there he was stoking the fire and helping Ma with breakfast.
"Sis and I welcomed Pa home again with big hugs.
"Ma shooed us off to get ready for breakfast, and the family sat down and held hands. Pa said grace and we hungrily stared at the Christmas breakfast feast Ma had prepared. We ate and laughed at some of the tall tales Pa told of his time overseas.
"Pa excused himself from the table and went to the mantle. Smiling, he handed the box to Ma.
"Ma untied the ribbon and opened the lid. Inside there were three parcels. One labeled for Lucinda, one Sis and one for me.
"Ma's package held three silk handkerchiefs. Her fingers caressed the soft silk fibers. She hugged Pa and told him she'd never had anything so nice.
"Sis's package held a hand full of pretty satin ribbons for her hair. She beamed.
"I ripped the paper open, inside there was a little wooden rocking horse. It just fit in the palm of my hand.
"Pa mussed my hair. I saw a big one in a store window, big enough to ride on. I whittled that when I was in the trenches. Maybe, one day, we can make a big one.
"I studied the rocking horse. It wasn't painted, just plain wood that had been carved with such detail. The harness had balls, cut like jingle bells. The bridle and bit were decorated with holly leaves. The hair on its mane and tail were etched with smooth fine strokes. Its saddle, right down to the buckle, was fashioned with intricate strokes.
"Pa sat back in his chair, sipping his coffee, enjoying his time with his family. Ma brought us back to reality, saying that Bessie needed milking, and the chores didn't take the day off. Pa laughed as she shuffled us out the door.
"Sis and I rounded the house. Those tinkling bells were back. But this time, they were getting fainter. Sis and I just caught a glimpse of the wagon as it turned at the bend on Strawberry Pike. I didn't recognize the wagon, or the driver. It was a mystery to me, but we sure were happy about the Christmas gift he'd brought home to us. It was great having Pa home.
"We headed for the barn, bucket in hand, bonnet on Sis's head. Bessie was at the barn door waiting to be milked.
"I slid the brace, and pulled open the door when Sis hollered just like when she hollered with the war was over. Bessie went back toward the pasture. I think Sis scared her to death. Pa and Ma came running out of the house to see what the ruckus was all about.
"There in the barn, in the stall where Bessie should have been standing, it sat. Not one of us had a clue about how it got there. I reached into my overall pocket and pulled out the rocking horse Pa had made for me. I looked at it and to the rocking horse sitting in the stall.
"Pa's mouth was hanging open. He shook his head and blinked hard. He looked at Ma, just as puzzled as I was. She shook her head and raised her shoulders.
"Sis walked around the beautiful rocking horse. Her fingers slid over it with the lightest of touches. It was almost like if she touched it, it would disappear.
"We all walked around the rocking horse admiring the beautiful detail work that had taken someone days and days to accomplish.
"Pa said it looked just like the one he saw in the shop, only better because that one had a broken leg and rocker.
"Pa carried the rocking horse in the little cabin. In the distance the tinkling bells were ringing. He looked towards the sound, and then looked at me.
"You don't think? He stopped with a puzzled look on his face and scratched his forehead, squinting hard to see that wagon and driver. Then shaking his head from side to side said, "Naw, it couldn't be. He continued to walk into the house with the rocking horse.
Grandma slowed her rocking, and sighed. "That horse has been ridden by many a child, grandchild, great grandchild since it was first found in the barn that special Christmas, the Christmas when Great-Great Grandpa came home."