Stephen rolled his cookie dough carefully, trying for just the right thickness for his angel cookies. His mother, with flour on her hands and a smudge of it on her nose, helped his little sister, Carolyn, roll hers out nice and even. Pale, wintry sunlight sifted through the kitchen curtains onto the table.
“What did you say your cousin’s name is?” Stephen asked, remembering the conversation that they’d had last night at family home evening.
“Everene, and she’s really my grandmother’s cousin.”
“That’s a funny name,” Stephen said.
“It’s just old-fashioned,” his mother explained.
“She must be awfully old. Your grandmother is already dead.”
“She is old, almost ninety, but she can still talk and laugh just like you. I’m glad that she’s been moved to a rest home near us. Now you children can get to know her.”
Stephen placed his cookie cutter on the dough and pressed firmly. “Some old people act very strange,” he said, “like Mrs. Anderson down the street. She talks to herself when she works in her roses, and her head always bobs up and down. Will Cousin Everene be like that?”
Mother looked at him and smiled. “When we get old, Stephen, our bodies don’t work as well; they don’t always do what we want them to. But inside we’re still the same person we always were. You’ll be old someday too.”
Stephen looked up at his mother. “I don’t think so,” he said firmly.
His mother laughed. “It doesn’t seem possible to you now, when you’re eight, does it? But unless you die because of an accident or disease, you will be old one day. And,” his mother added, “it seems to me that I’ve heard you talking to yourself when you’re playing alone.”
Stephen smiled sheepishly.
“I like Mrs. Anderson,” Carolyn said. “She gave me a flower once.”
“Will Cousin Everene be deaf like Mrs. Simmons?” Stephen asked. “Will we have to shout?”
“No,” Mother replied. “Her hearing’s not bad. Just don’t mumble or look away when you talk.”
Stephen sat for a minute with his chin in his hands. “We’ve always had just our family on Christmas Eve. It’s kind of special with only the four of us when we read the Christmas story.”
“Don’t you want Cousin Everene to come, Stephen?” his mother asked.
“I’m glad she’s coming,” Carolyn piped up. “I’m going to give her some of these cookies that I’m making.”
“Well, I’m glad too,” Stephen said. “It’s just that sometimes I don’t know what to say to old people.”
“Why not ask her a question?” Mother suggested.
“What kind of a question?”
“Oh, like where she lived as a child or what Christmas was like then. People like to tell things about their lives.”
On Christmas Eve, Stephen and Carolyn knelt on the couch and watched out the window for Dad to bring their special guest.
“They’re here!” Carolyn shouted as the station wagon pulled into the driveway. Dad helped Cousin Everene out of the car. When she stood up, Stephen couldn’t believe how tiny she was. And she was so stooped that her face was toward the ground.
“Is she a dwarf?” Carolyn asked.
“I don’t think so, just small. Mom says that old people sometimes shrink a little.”
“From too much washing?” Carolyn asked.
“Of course not. It’s from … well, just from getting old—like apples that shrivel up after a while.”
“Oh.” Carolyn jumped off the couch and ran to open the door.
Cousin Everene came in leaning on Dad’s arm. She stood for a moment, looking around the brightly decorated room. Stephen ran and plugged in the tree lights, and they glowed softly in the dim afternoon.
“How lovely!” she said. “Let me sit down and enjoy all this.”
Dad took her coat and hung it up while she eased herself onto a straightbacked chair. “I like a chair that I can get out of,” she said. “Now, let me look at you two.”
Stephen and Carolyn went and stood in front of her. Stephen saw that her skin was deeply wrinkled. The skin of her neck hung like a turtle’s, and stiff gray hairs stuck out from her chin. But when Stephen looked into her eyes, they were a soft gray like pussy willows and made her look very kind.
“Stephen and Carolyn …” she said thoughtfully. “Carolyn, you look a lot like my little cousin, Emily, your great-grandmother, did at your age.”
“My great-grandmother was your little cousin?” Carolyn asked.
Stephen blurted out, “If you were older, why did Great-Grandma die before you?”
Cousin Everene laughed and put her hand on Stephen’s shoulder. “That’s one of life’s little surprises,” she answered. “We never know how long we’ll live. That’s why it’s important to live every day the best that we can—and enjoy it.”
When dinner was over and the dishes were washed and put away, everyone gathered in the living room around the tree. Mom let the children put on their pajamas and slippers, and they sat on big cushions on the floor. Stephen felt warm and cozy. The fire in the fireplace crackled and hissed behind the glass, and the room glowed with soft light from the lights and the candles and the fire.
When they knelt for family prayer, Cousin Everene stayed on her chair. She said that her knees didn’t obey her anymore but that her heart was kneeling. Then, while Dad read the story of Jesus’ birth, Cousin Everene learned forward in her chair, listening intently, her eyes shining in the firelight. Somehow the story seemed more wonderful to Stephen than he had remembered it.
Afterward, Stephen asked, “What were Christmases like when you were little?”
Cousin Everene learned forward again, smiled, and said, “Well, I’ll tell you about my favorite one. …”
Stephen moved his cushion closer to her chair. He had a feeling that this would be one of the special Christmases that he would tell about when he was old.