At the faint, bell-like sound, Wanda’s eyes opened in the dark. She had been half-awake already, too excited to really sleep. But it’s too early to get up, she realized with disappointment. The family rule was that nobody was to get up before daylight and no gifts were to be opened before breakfast.
What a different kind of Christmas this will be, she thought sadly, listening to the steady patter of the California rain. For the first time since she could remember, there would be no snow and no sled to share with her three brothers. Maybe we’ll get a wagon this year, Wanda hoped.
Ping! Wanda sat up and clutched the iron armrest of the old-fashioned daybed. A drop of water fell on the back of her hand. Quickly she snatched her hand from the armrest and rubbed it dry on her flannel nightgown.
Ping! Suddenly she knew what caused the sound—drops of water falling on the metal.
It would be just like this old place to have a leaky roof and spoil our Christmas! she thought with disgust. Daddy had rented the house before he had sent for Mama and the children. It stood on a sandy plain near a shallow river that was hardly more than a trickle. “I know it’s kind of run-down and old,” Daddy had said apologetically, “but it’s all we can afford till I’ve been on this new job a while longer.”
There were two small bedrooms—one for Mama and Daddy and one for the three boys. Wanda slept on the daybed in the living room. She slipped out of bed now, shivering as she picked her way over the cold, bare floor to the window. She strained to see past the rivulets chasing each other down the windowpane and willed daylight to appear through the dark clouds.
Plink! A new sound joined the familiar ping! Another leak, Wanda realized. When she returned from the kitchen, where she’d gotten a couple of bowls to catch the dripping water, she bumped her shin on the table.
Do I dare turn on the light? she wondered, her shin still smarting. She hesitated for just a moment, then groped for the dangling light chain.
Click! The one bare bulb hanging on a cord from the ceiling shone dimly on the little Christmas tree with its homemade decorations. It wasn’t actually a tree, but a rubber plant Mama had gotten to brighten the room. “We’ve always had a Christmas tree,” Mama had declared, “and we’re not doing without one this year just because we don’t have much money.” Then, with a wink at Wanda, Mama had said, as she often did, “Money can’t buy everything.”
This year Wanda felt that she was beginning to understand what Mama meant. She remembered the fun that they had had making the tree decorations. While Wanda and the boys had worked with paper, scissors, crayons, scraps of cloth, fruit jar lids, and homemade flour paste, Daddy had transferred the rubber plant to a large tub of dirt and set it in a corner of the room.
A board creaked, interrupting Wanda’s thoughts. She stopped abruptly, listening for sounds of awakening from her parents’ bedroom. In the silence she became aware of a rhythmic orchestra of sound: ping! plop! plink! splat! Drops of water were falling in several places. Glancing up, Wanda was alarmed to see that the ceiling sagged noticeably just above the table where Daddy had stacked the presents when they hadn’t fit under their little tree. Most of the gifts had come in the mail from Grandma and Uncle Walt the day before. “Just in time,” Daddy had remarked, “to save us from a very skimpy Christmas.”
As Wanda watched, horrified, the bulge seemed to dip lower. The ceiling’s full of water! she realized. It could burst any minute and ruin all the presents! Uncertain about waking her parents, she prayed silently, then decided to wake her older brother, Blaine. He would know what to do.
She slipped into the boys’ bedroom and tugged on Blaine’s pajama sleeve. “Wake up, Blaine!” she urged in a hoarse whisper. She shook his shoulder. He moaned in his sleep and turned away from her. But when she said in a low, tense voice, “Merry Christmas, Blaine!” his eyelids fluttered open.
“Wake up. We have to do something. The rain’s going to ruin all our presents from Uncle Walt and Grandma!”
“What?” Blaine mumbled sleepily. He sat up and swung his feet to the floor.
“Shh! Don’t wake the other boys. And watch where you step. There are puddles everywhere.”
Blaine’s eyes widened when he saw the bulge in the ceiling. He was fully awake now and ready to take charge.
“First thing to do is to move this table. You grab one end, and I’ll take the other. Careful you don’t knock off any presents.”
“I can’t lift it!” Wanda wailed. “It’s too heavy.”
“OK, you drag your end, and I’ll lift mine. But we have to move fast.”
The table legs rasped against the floor as Wanda tugged. “Oh,” she gasped, almost in tears, “if that ceiling breaks, the whole house will be flooded!”
Suddenly Daddy appeared in the doorway. “What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Look, Daddy!” Wanda pointed to the sagging ceiling.
“Oh no!” exclaimed her father. “Blaine, bring that big bucket from the back porch. Wanda, get your mother’s canning kettle from the kitchen. I’ll go get my screwdriver.”
Wanda nested several smaller pots and pans inside the big canner, then hurried back to the living room.
Daddy held the bucket under the bulge and poked a hole in the ceiling directly above the bucket. A small stream of water shot into the bucket.
“That will relieve the pressure on the ceiling,” Daddy explained. He directed Blaine to watch the bucket and empty it outside before it got too full to carry. Wanda was to replace the bucket immediately with the empty canner.
“Larry and Andrew can tend the other pans,” said Mama, “and I’ll mop up the water from the floor.”
Wanda hadn’t noticed that her mother and the two younger boys had joined them. Already the smaller pans were positioned around the floor, catching drops.
Soon everyone was dressed and eating hot cereal between quick trips into the living room to check the pans.
Wanda helped Blaine carry the first bucketful to the back porch.
“We could have used a wagon for this job,” she grumbled.
“We should have asked for a boat instead,” Blaine joked as he emptied the bucket.
Then Wanda saw that the boardwalk leading to the woodshed was surrounded by puddles. Wanda’s sense of humor dispelled her gloom. “We don’t need a boat,” she said with a giggle. “Our house is the boat. It’s just like being on Noah’s ark, but without the animals.”
The presents were unwrapped amid general merriment as the family tried to avoid the wet spots in the room. Finally they took the presents into a bedroom to keep them dry.
The children played with their toys for a while, then Mother read the Bible story of the first Christmas—with frequent interruptions as someone raced into the living room to replace a full pan with an empty one.
As Wanda helped Blaine empty the canner for the third time into the “lake” outside, she realized that she had never thought too much about Jesus at Christmas. Other years her mind had been on Santa Claus and what he might bring her. Now, thinking of her family in this rundown house—in a city far from their old home—Wanda felt a kinship with the little family who had spent that first Christmas in a stable far from their home.
We didn’t really need the presents, she thought, to have a good time together.