Obediently five chubby hands reached into the bowl and drew out a slip of paper.
“The one that is left is for the baby.”
I had learned that there was a board and care home in our neighborhood. Trying to picture being old and removed from my family and home at Christmas, I realized what I would miss most about Christmas was hearing the children sing and seeing their excited, wonder-filled faces during the Christmas program.
There were only six residents, I was told. “Perfect,” I thought, “That will match up nicely with our family; six elderly adults, one for each of our six very young children.”
If these folks were taken away from their traditional celebrations, I reasoned, then we would draw names, wrap up a simple gift for the children to give to whosever name they drew, learn a few Christmas carols, and bring a Christmas program to them.
“What is this stuff?” Seven-year-old Philip was ok with the idea of wrapping a gift and bringing it to someone he did not know, but he wasn’t sure about giving out an unknown substance.
One of my Christmas magazines had said that one way to create an interesting and inexpensive gift was by baking pumpkin bread in an orange juice can, popping it out the end, wrapping the tubular bread by rolling it in Christmas paper and tying a ribbon on both ends. The picture in the magazine looked a lot different than my finished product. I’m not very good with crafts, nor am I much of a cook. (Although, when he was three-years-old our oldest son, Philip, had paid tribute to my efforts. “You’re a good cooker, Mama. You make good Cheerios and good toast.”)
“Don’t worry about it,” I reassured him. “We’ll take along a banana, too, so they’ll be sure to have something they recognize.”
Getting six children ages seven and under ready to go anywhere was a chore. In winter in Minnesota it was a monumental task. We only lived one block from our destination, but that didn’t mean a thing. Everyone still had to have boots, mittens, coats, and a way to carry their presents. By the time the first ones were dressed they stood in a sweaty group waiting for me to finish with the others.
“Are we ready yet?”
“Almost. Peter, don’t untie Matthew’s hood. I know he’s hot, but I’m just about done here. Stephen, put down that truck and give me your hands for your mittens. Is Paula’s stroller ready? Put some of the stuff on her lap. No, no, Paula. Just leave that on your lap for a few minutes. Do we have Marcus’ pacifier? Philip, get that banana from Stephen before he opens it. Matthew, put your mittens back on. I know you’re hot. Peter, go get your father and tell him we’re ready to go. Philip, could you please grab one of those bottles of juice out of the refrigerator, just in case Paula gets fussy.”
Exhausted before we even left the house, we continued on anyway. We knew very little about the board and care in our neighborhood. I had called ahead the week before and the owner had said sure, we could come. The house we approached was very large. You could see why someone might use it as a place to care for others. The owner saw us coming and met us at the door.
She welcomed us into a large living area where five people were gathered. The children, while game, were hesitant. They had no idea what to expect, but they were well behaved and for a moment just stood looking at the people who just sat looking back at them. The thing I noticed first was the silence. Perhaps that was because our house was full of noise and movement and chattering voices. It looked like a well kept place, but it did not feel like a cheerful place.
“I have a present for somebody.” Three-year-old Stephen didn’t seem put out by the strange looking package. He handed his slip of paper to the owner.
“Oh, that’s Charles. He didn’t want to come down,” she told him.
“We’ll go get him,” five-year-old Matthew and six-year old Peter exclaimed. And off they went, pounding up the stairs. They returned a few minutes later, chattering away, a smiling Charles in tow. Philip and Paul, my husband, helped the other children hand their gifts to the residents according to the names they had drawn, and then we sang a few songs. All of our children carried a tune at very young ages, and we sang a lot at home. They were Lutheran children after all.
After we were done singing Paul and the older boys chattered away with Charles and the other male resident, while Stephen regaled three ladies with one of his non-stop stories. Twenty-month-old Paula was overwhelmed by the attention her red hair always drew, so I handed 5-month-old Marcus to a silent lady sitting toward the back of the room. That way I could hold Paula instead.
Noticing my earlier attempt to converse with the quiet woman the owner had explained, “She’s new here. She’s only been here about a three months. She can’t hear and she can’t speak.”
For a few moments the woman gazed at the baby sleeping in her arms. Slowly she looked up at me and asked, “Boy or girl?”
“It’s a boy,” I replied.
“Oh, a little boy. How many children do you have?” she asked.
I glanced over and saw the owner’s jaw drop in surprise. This was the woman who could neither hear nor speak.
“ Six,” I answered.
“How many boys, and how many girls?”
“Five boys and one girl.”
I guess up until now she had had nothing to say.
The tiny lady sitting in a recliner in the corner asked to have our children brought to her for a blessing. Gripping each child above their elbows she shifted their little bodies directly in front of her chair and one by one, assembly line style, intoned over each of their heads in a shaky voice,
“May the Lord, bless and keep you for the rest of your life, little boy (girl).”
Then she would proclaim, “That’s a blessing from Grandma Conklin,” and proceed to move the next child into position for the blessing from Grandma Conklin.
The gifts distributed, the songs sung, the blessings received, we bundled back up amid the gentle chaos that accompanied us wherever we went. And as we left behind the smiling faces of those residents, we found ourselves carrying smiles of our own, and I thought, “What a cheerful place.”