This wasn’t how we usually celebrate Christmas. And Harry’s request wasn’t really a carol. So why did it all suddenly seem so right?
I had my mother to thank that I was cooking breakfast for 120 elderly people on Christmas morning. Instead of Santa waking us, the phone rang with a call for help from the nursing home where I worked part-time. No one, the head nurse explained, had shown up for work, and they were desperate. Could I possibly come down for a few hours. My mom said we all would!
Morning is everyone’s least favorite time except for Mom, who managed to be extra coherent with Christmas spirit as she announced the news. “Get up! They need us down at the home. We’ll have our Christmas later. First, we have to go cook lots of eggs.”
“What about the presents?” Todd and Christine, my younger brother and sister, wailed.
“We’ve waited all night,” Christine pleaded.
“It’ll be here when we get home. Now get the lead out. Mom and Dad are serious about this,” I said without much sympathy.
Somehow we managed to pile in the car, and we drove the two miles in silence. The nurse met us at the door looking disheveled and frantic. “Oh, thank goodness,” she said. Not wasting any more time with gratitude, she pushed us towards the kitchen in unison. The only cook to show up that morning, Gladys, was rushing from stove to steam table, scooping out scrambled eggs and shouting orders to Frank, the janitor.
“Get moving on that O.J., will you,” Gladys said. She hadn’t noticed her bleary-eyed crew yet. “They’ll be down in 45 minutes, and I can’t find the bread, let alone the toaster.”
“Uhmmm, maybe we could be of help,” offered my dad, a bit reluctantly.
“We’re Diane’s family,” Mom introduced us, steering Todd and Chris over to the newly found toaster. “I think the children can make toast. Oh, by the way, I’m Irene, and this is my husband, Bill,” she pointed to Dad. “You know Diane, and the toast makers are Christine and Todd.”
“Hi,” muttered Chris and Todd together. They were thinking about opening presents, not about buttering toast.
Gladys stood in the middle of the kitchen supporting her latest batch of eggs. After a moment’s hesitation, she sized us all up and decided we’d do. Gladys shoved the bowl in Dad’s stomach, “Here, you look like an egg man to me. You can take over scrambling.”
Dad caught the bowl and his breath. “Sure, I can do that,” he gasped.
“And you, Diane,” Gladys turned me toward the hot cereal. “Oatmeal duty.”
We all set to work and before we knew it the breakfast rush was on, over, and breakfast dishes were just beginning.
“Mom, can’t we go home yet?” Christine whimpered, emphasizing yet. “It’s almost eight and every child in America, probably the entire world, has opened their gifts except us. Doesn’t that bother you even a little?”
Mom didn’t mince words. “No, not even a little, Chris,” she answered watching Dad and Todd squirt each other with the high powered hoses. “I know it isn’t easy to be here on Christmas, honey, but could we really be anywhere else?” When neither Chris or I responded, Mom started humming a cheery carol. “Let’s sing a song,” she encouraged.
I honestly wasn’t in the mood. Helping others was supposed to make a person feel good, but I was right there with Chris, wanting to be opening gifts and away from the smell of eggs and nursing home.
Mom continued without us, singing her favorite, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” At first she sang softly, but by the second verse she picked up the volume. Chris and I gave in, joining Mom, and sliding dishes down the metal chute on beat.
“Let’s sing ‘Rudolph,’” Todd shouted. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” it was, Dad leading the family along in a loud baritone. This might have ended our musical contribution on that unusual Christmas morning, if it hadn’t been for Brother Greenwall.
I turned to pick up one of the last dish stacks, and there he stood, listening at the kitchen serving window. Brother Greenwall had lived in our neighborhood and attended church with us until his wife passed away.
“Hi, Brother Greenwall,” I said. His lonely eyes stared back, not recognizing me.
My dad smiled over his shoulder and walked to the window. “Harry, how are you? It’s Bill. Did you hear us singing away in here?” Dad chuckled, “Hope we didn’t disturb you.”
Harry Greenwall smiled back at Dad. I wasn’t sure if he remembered him or not, but something had been triggered. “Just a minute,” he muttered, hurrying off to the TV lounge.
Dad watched him go. “I wonder what he’s up to,” he said as Harry returned with two or three friends and their chairs. Before we figured out what Harry had in mind, he’d pushed open the door and seated them by the stove, then hobbled back to the TV room.
Eyebrows raised, Mom checked out the three seated in the kitchen. “Well, Bill, do you think we’re supposed to keep singing?” When no one volunteered an opinion she added, “I think Harry wants a performance.”
“Oh, Mom, do we have to?” Todd groaned, blasting his dishes with an extra hard squirt.
Dad put his arm around Todd, “You’ve heard of singing for your supper haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but …”
“Well, you get to sing for your presents.”
Chris and I laughed. “Come on and give me a hand helping Brother Greenwall with his friends,” said Dad.
By now Harry had returned, cramming in seven more concertgoers. Eight more joined the group, bringing the crowd to about twenty. Fully staffed, the kitchen never held more than eight people.
Harry stared at us without recognition, interested only in the music. Mom and Dad exchanged their you’d-better-do-something look, and Dad picked up the cue. “Well, folks, Harry thought you’d all like a little Christmas music.”
We sang, starting with family favorites like “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” and “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.” Actually, “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” is Dad’s favorite. Mom says his eyes twinkle when he sings that song. I looked over at Dad to catch that twinkle, and its shine filled me with warmth. My voice cracked, and I stopped singing, bowing my head to hide the tears.
Looking down at the floor, I felt love for each of those people listening to my family sing. I tried to join in the music, but the same feeling came again, repeating the impression. This time I knew the Savior wanted them to know of his love. Doubting myself, I hesitated a moment and was overwhelmed for the third time with the same desire to comfort them.
My family finished the last few measures of music, and I began without thinking, “I just want to tell you I know Jesus lives. He is concerned for you and loves you. I didn’t really want to come here today, but I’m glad we did. Most of all, I hope you can feel the Savior’s love for you like I have. He really wants you to know this.”
Dad put his arm around me. “I couldn’t give any of you a better gift at Christmas than the knowledge that Jesus lives, as Diane has said.”
The kitchen was silent for a minute, the spirit of Christ in our hearts. “Let’s sing a carol together,” Mom suggested. “What one would you like, Harry?”
Considering all the carols available and Harry’s love for Christmas music, we should have been surprised when his choice wasn’t a traditional Christmas song.
“I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” he said.
Everyone sang his “carol,” filling the kitchen with the words, “He lives, my kind, wise heav’nly Friend. He lives and loves me to the end.”
That day became a treasure and started a family tradition of Christmas Day service we enjoy. And, out of all the carols we sing at Christmastime, Harry’s carol is our favorite and the finest way to get a twinkle in any of our eyes.
By the way, my dad says we still sound the best in kitchens.