The Voice on the Phone

The fragrance of gingerbread always makes me think of Suzie * and the year I was going to have a perfect Christmas.

During past Christmas seasons, I had always been too busy to create the Christmas traditions I felt would build a lifetime of memories for my family. But that Christmas was going to be different. That year my time was my own, and I meant to make every minute of the holiday season count. I would make handpainted ornaments, home-sewn gifts, beautiful decorations, artistically wrapped packages, and baked goods to fill a freezer. I was baking gingerbread men for the tree the day my nine-year-old daughter brought Suzie home from school.

“Mama, this is my new friend, Suzie,” Debbie announced, presenting a rather chubby, cheerful-looking little girl. Suzie reminded me of a California poppy, with her red-gold mop of curly hair and a freckled nose that twitched eagerly as she breathed in the spicy fragrance.

I took two warm gingerbread men from a pan and gave them to Suzie and Debbie. Soon the two girls were helping my seven-year-old son, Mark, hang gingerbread men on the tree. (Of course, the cookies never stayed long on the tree. The children and their friends ate all of them every few days, and we replenished the supply weekly. As a result, our house smelled gingery from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.)

Later, Suzie’s mother telephoned, and in a tired-sounding voice, she asked me to send Suzie home.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I was still working on my perfect Christmas. I had decided to mail my Christmas cards early, and so I had spread the dining room table with Christmas cards, address books, stamps, and green- and red-ink pens with which to address the envelopes. I was all set to start when Mark came in.

“Mama, we talked in Primary today about helping other people,” he told me. “Our Primary teacher said a lonely lady in our ward needs help.”

“Oh? What’s the lady’s name?” I asked, wondering if I had met her.

“I can’t remember … something long and hard to say,” Mark said, “but Sister Jones wrote it on the blackboard, and I’d remember it if I saw it.”

He went to the desk drawer and pulled out the ward list. After a moment he gave a shout of triumph. “Here it is!” he cried. He thrust the page under my nose, and I glanced at the name by his finger before turning back to address my Christmas cards. The name was difficult to pronounce.

Mark borrowed my pen and drew a green circle around the name in the ward list before putting it back in the drawer.

“I want to go visit that lonely lady and take something to her. Can we make something for her now?” Mark wanted to know.

“Not today, Mark. It’s Sunday, and I don’t bake on Sundays. Besides, this lady doesn’t even know us. Surely she wouldn’t want a visit from strangers,” I explained. “Today we are going to start addressing our Christmas cards. For once I’m going to get our cards mailed before December twenty-third. If you want to help someone, you can help me.”

In the days that followed, Mark persisted in reminding me about the lonely lady. Twice he asked to make something for the woman, but both times I was involved in other projects.

One Tuesday afternoon Suzie again came home with Debbie. That day I was putting together my specialty: a gingerbread train. Each car carried tempting cargo such as breadsticks, candy canes, and cinnamon bears. Suzie’s eyes sparkled when I gave her a few chocolate-chip cookie wheels to “glue” into place with frosting. She ate one of them.

“I wish my Mom made gingerbread trains,” she said. “Last year she made a neat gingerbread house, but this year she said it was too much work.”

“It is a lot of work,” I agreed, remembering the year I had been too busy with church and community duties to make my gingerbread train. The children had been very disappointed that year, but not this year. This year everything would be perfect.

A week later Debbie came home from school just as I was taking a fresh batch of gingerbread men from the oven.

“Too bad Suzie isn’t here,” she said, biting off one cookie foot. “Suzie loves our gingerbread men. She wasn’t in school today, though.”

Debbie set down her cookie, suddenly serious. “They said Suzie’s mama took too many pills, and she’s in the hospital. She might die.”

“Oh, Debbie, are you sure?” I asked in dismay.

Debbie nodded. “Sally Miller told me Sister Miller was at the hospital with Suzie’s mama all night,” she said. Sister Miller was our Relief Society president.

“I didn’t know Suzie was a member of the Church,” I said, surprised. “I’ve never seen her at meetings.”

“Suzie said they used to come all the time before her dad died,” Debbie said. “He got killed in a car accident this summer.”

“Poor Suzie!” I said. “Her poor mother! And I don’t even know her name.”

I called Sister Miller to see if I could be of any help in caring for Suzie during the crisis. I also asked for Suzie’s mother’s name. When she told me, it sounded vaguely familiar. I hung up the phone repeating the name when a devastating thought struck me. With a sinking feeling, I took the ward list from the desk drawer and turned some pages. Yes, there it was, circled in green ink—the name of Suzie’s mother, the name of Mark’s lonely lady whom I had never found time to help.

Suzie was with us that night when we received word that her mother had died.

I asked myself over and over: What if we had gone to visit her when Mark first wanted to? Would it have mattered that we were strangers? Would she have been a little less lonely, a little less desperate? I thought of the tired voice on the telephone, asking me to send Suzie home that first day we made gingerbread.

When Suzie went away a week later to live with her grandparents, we gave her our gingerbread train. The bright eyes that had sparkled as she helped make the train had lost some of their glow, but Suzie managed a little smile and a thank-you.

A gingerbread train. A very small gift. Too little. Too late. As Suzie took a half hearted nibble from a breadstick, I saw more than a saddened little girl holding a cookie train. I saw myself with painful clarity: a woman so involved with the things of Christmas that I had lost touch with the very spirit of Christmas, without which there can never be a “perfect Christmas.” I would never again forget.

Every holiday season since then, the fragrance of gingerbread reminds me of Suzie … and I cry.

  •   *

    All of the actual names have been changed as well as identifying details concerning Suzie and her family.

  • D. M. Brown is a member of the Tucson Twentieth Ward, Tucson East Stake, and serves as in-service leader in the stake Primary.

    The Christmas We Gave Away

    What a year we had had! A new baby daughter, a job promotion for my husband, and a brand-new home were among many blessings we had received and for which my husband and I were grateful.

    We wanted no gifts for Christmas, because our cups were running over. But we knew our children still anticipated Christmas morning and gifts from Santa. We were concerned about giving the children too much. How could they learn to appreciate what they had if they just kept receiving more?

    At family home evening we talked about doing something special for someone else at Christmas. Our oldest son said, “Why don’t we find a family who needs help and give them presents?”

    Soon all of us were excited about the idea. We decided to do our project anonymously. We didn’t know exactly how we would find our “Christmas family,” but we did know we wanted to help.

    The next morning I made calls to friends who might know of someone in need. That evening at dinner I described the family I had found. The father was a carpenter and out of work. They had three children, one the same age as our new baby. Their baby had been undergoing many tests as doctors tried to determine why she wasn’t developing properly. Because the family had no insurance, their savings were gone, and with those savings had gone the prospect of having gifts at Christmas.

    “Can we give them some of our clothes?” asked our daughter. We all agreed that her idea was good, and so the children ran to their bedrooms and began sorting out the clothes they had outgrown. But my husband and I knew that clothes were not enough.

    The following day my husband asked the children if they would like to buy a special present for each member of our Christmas family. Excitement reigned as we departed for an evening of holiday shopping.

    By family home evening the following week, we were ready to deliver gifts, clothing, and oranges to our Christmas family. But before we left, my husband gathered the children and said, “It sure is great to see all of you so excited to share your Christmas. Do you realize that by buying these gifts and this food, you are giving up part of your own Christmas?”

    The children had not thought of their project that way before. Their eyes widened as their father took out a crisp, 100-dollar bill.

    “Do you think we should give this money to the parents so they can buy other things they need?” he asked. “And do you understand that your Christmas will be very small this year because you are sharing it?”

    Each of the children grinned and nodded. We tucked the money into a Christmas card and addressed the envelope to “Our Friends.” Then we were off to deliver Christmas to our special family.

    We parked the car up the street from the house and planned our delivery strategy. Within seconds, it was all accomplished. We pulled away just as the door opened.

    That evening, as we said our family prayer, our minds and hearts were truly one. Christmas was still a week away, but we felt we had just had ours.

    The next morning the phone rang. “Just thought you’d like to know about a family that received a special gift last night,” my friend said. “They had been wondering if they should use their last twenty dollars to pay their tithing, or if they should keep it, because Christmas was nearing and they had no more money. They decided to pay their tithing. Last night their doorbell rang, and when the husband opened the door he found packages of clothes, gifts, and food. The next morning they noticed a white envelope on the floor, and when they opened it, a 100-dollar bill fell out. They know it was the Lord’s way of blessing them for paying their tithing, and their hearts are full of gratitude.”

    I tearfully related the message to my husband and children. We felt we had already been blessed just by giving. To know that we had been the Lord’s instruments for a moment that special evening made us realize the true value of our Christmas project. Though the gifts under our tree were few, we had never been blessed with such abundance at Christmas.

    Reluctant Scouts

    Each year the rescue mission in our town provides a Christmas Eve dinner for needy families and those who have no families with which to share a meal. I had become acquainted with the director of the mission and greatly admired his work. He was a nondenominational minister who had devoted his life to building and maintaining a shelter for transients and for local people in need.

    One holiday season, as my thoughts turned to service to our fellowmen, I approached this director with a plan. I was serving as Scoutmaster at the time and wanted the boys to have an opportunity to give service to the disadvantaged within our community. Perhaps, I thought, the Scouts could help prepare and serve the Christmas Eve dinner.

    The director was delighted to have our help. The overworked mission staff needed a boost. For my part, I was happy that the Scouts would have an unusual opportunity to help those in need. I convinced five of them—and their parents—that this would be a worthwhile and rewarding activity, and a few hours before the dinner I began picking them up.

    But my excitement waned as we journeyed to the mission. The materialism of the season had a perceptible hold on most of the boys; they were not overjoyed to interrupt their holiday festivities for another service project. Because I had been looking forward to spending time with my own family as well, I couldn’t really blame them.

    As we approached the mission, driving past bars, abandoned railcars, and junkyards, I began to question my decision. Was it wise to expose our young boys to the company of these men, some of whom might be criminals and drug abusers? As we walked to the front door, I noticed a number of very rough looking characters hanging about, no doubt waiting for dinner to begin. Their haggard faces made me a little nervous.

    When we entered the dining room, the delicious smell of roast turkey was in the air. The mission cooks, most of whom had been “down and out” themselves at one time, were busy putting the finishing touches on the dinner. The boys and I began setting tables, filling water pitchers, and assisting the cooks.

    As we were busy with these chores, the director came into the room and announced that, because the dining room was large enough to serve only thirty at a time, the dinner would be served in shifts. Families with children would be served first.

    “Families with children?” I thought. “Surely there won’t be many in that category.”

    But when the doors to the dining hall were opened, a little crowd of disheveled children scrambled in and raced to the tables to find seats. Most of them were accompanied only by their mothers.

    After the blessing, we began to serve the crowd. We were surprised to serve three or four shifts of mostly women and children before the men had their turn. The men and women, the young and old polished off their helpings almost as fast as we served them. They were obviously unaccustomed to such a well-prepared and delicious meal.

    As the meal progressed, I noticed a very real change in the attitudes of my Scouts. One or two had been reluctant about participating in this project; now their hearts were noticeably softened as they served these hungry people. They seemed delighted to go out of their way to help clean up a spill, or to refill an empty water glass. They felt comfortable, even eager, in serving dinner and talking to some of the roughest-looking men there.

    Then I felt the Spirit speak to my heart, and a scripture I had often heard came into mind: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)

    There, among a group of individuals that some of us would have preferred to avoid, I felt the Spirit as strong as I have felt in any testimony meeting. I knew that the boys felt this same spirit, too. As the mission staff expressed their gratitude for our help, we were sure that we had come away with much more than we had given.

    I have a hunch that the boys’ Christmas that year was different from any other they had experienced before. “Let’s do it again next year,” they commented as we drove away. Of one thing I am certain: Their Scoutmaster will never be the same.

    Sims W. Lowry is a member of the Oroville Third Ward, Gridley California Stake, where he serves as a counselor in the stake Young Men presidency.

    Mother’s Homemade Christmas

    “It snowed! It snowed!” shouted my sister. We jumped out of bed and ran to the window. Snow was rare in our little town of Thatcher, in southern Arizona, and on that Christmas morning in 1908, our excitement knew no bounds.

    Awakened by our chatter, Mother joined us. Together we stared at the beautiful sight, knowing that we would remember it for a long time. The full moon sat low in the west. Only a few clouds remained from the night’s storm that had clothed the earth in a beautiful white robe for Christmas.

    “You know,” Mother said, “I think Heavenly Father knew that Santa wasn’t coming to our house this Christmas, and he sent the snow to make this day special.”

    Each of us knew in our hearts that Mother was right. Our father, known to all of Thatcher as Bishop Moody, was far across the Pacific Ocean serving as a mission president. Of course, we had wanted to go with him, but because of the lack of schools, the primitive conditions, and the heat, our parents had decided that we should remain in Thatcher.

    This was our first Christmas without Father. In order not to let his absence cast gloom on our holiday, we had planned a very special Christmas just by ourselves. Not even Santa would be a part of our celebration. For weeks, secrets, whispering, and sometimes a “Don’t you dare open my dresser drawer” had permeated the house as we had made gifts for each other.

    Since a Christmas tree was out of the question, Mother had designated a special chair for each of us where our gifts would be placed. Accordingly, on Christmas Eve we each decorated our chair with strings of popcorn, paper chains, bright red bells, and other homemade decorations.

    On Christmas morning, Mother shooed us back into our beds while she made the fire and tended the babies. She told us to stay there until she called, but we eventually climbed out of bed, got dressed, and waited.

    What a sight met our eyes when Mother finally called us to come downstairs to the parlor! The chairs were arranged in a semicircle around our high-topped parlor organ and were loaded with exciting gifts and packages. Mother had placed a beautiful star on each chair with a name on it: Mama, Hazel, Ruth, Delia, Flora, Mabel, and Rupert.

    Mother must have worked for months. She had crocheted a cap and mittens with a matching scarf for each daughter, had renewed our last year’s doll and made it a new dress, and had even made each of the girls a rag doll with a painted face and yarn hair and a few baubles for baby Rupert. Somehow she had also managed to budget enough money to include an orange and a bag of candy and nuts for each of us. Along with Mother’s gifts, we had the simple gifts we had made for each other. Christmas had never been lovelier!

    We were so excited playing, trying on, and comparing that only with great reluctance did we leave our gifts when Mother called for family prayer. As usual, we began with a song. Mother sat at the organ, which she pumped with her feet, and we crowded around her. Our young voices sang out “Away in a Manger,” followed by “Silent Night.” Then Mother read the Christmas story to us from our big family Bible. She was a wonderful reader, and we could almost see the shepherds abiding in the field, the babe lying in the manger, and the angel. Then, as was our custom, we knelt around the organ stool, each placing our hand in the center of the stool, one hand on top of another. Mother thanked Heavenly Father for the peace and happiness that abounded in our home, for Christ’s birth, and for the love we shared. She prayed for Father and, as usual, ended with the words, “and bring him home in due time in safety.” There were tears in our eyes as we arose.

    After a warm breakfast of cereal with sugar and rich cream from our own cows, we went outside to play in the snow, wearing our new crocheted wraps. It was truly an inspiring Christmas, and all because of the courage, determination, and ingenuity of a dedicated mother.

    [illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull

    Ruth M. Ostegar serves as a visiting teacher in the Fair Oaks Second Ward, Carmichael California Stake.