It was September when they moved in. I remember because summer heat clung to the apartment house like honey to a spoon. I was watering my African violets and the sudden noise—feet racing, doors slamming, voices shouting—came through my open window. I slammed it down loudly and suffered with the lack of ventilation, hoping they’d heard the sound of my displeasure. If so, it had little effect on the noise level.
I stumped around the apartment, fuming as I thumped needlepoint pillows and moved china figurines away from the edges of shelves. This had been a quiet apartment house, mostly older folks who kept to themselves. Old Mrs. Sakovich had been the perfect upstairs neighbor—quiet, with hardly any visitors. When the family who’d never come to visit put her in the nursing home I’d held my breath, wondering what my new upstairs neighbor would be like. I’d never expected an invasion.
As the month went on I gradually sorted out the noises. The O’Meara family (their name was on the mailbox) had four children. Imagine—four children! And in a two-bedroom apartment! I tried complaining to the management, but they said I’d soon get used to the noise.
Luckily three of the children were in school. Lucy, the teenager, escorted Brian and Todd down the stairs every morning at 8:00, loaded with backpacks, lunches, and (horrors) musical instrument cases. Their father followed at 8:30. A blessed silence was mine then, except when the baby was cross, until 3:10 when they’d all come roaring up the stairs, seemingly recharged by their encounter with education.
Then Lucy would be practicing the flute, or playing tapes of … well, I suppose she thought it was music. Sometimes the ceiling would shake over my kitchen, and I’d know she was dancing. Todd and Brian raced cars, making the appropriate sounds, and the baby screamed. Then pots and pans banged as Mrs. O’Meara encouraged family participation in preparing dinner. Even when Mr. O’Meara returned to the hubbub, the noise remained steady until bedtime.
When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I’d bring out the broom and thump on the ceiling. This usually earned me about 15 minutes of unfamiliar silence before the noise began to build again. Sometimes I’d tromp upstairs and pound on their door. Mrs. O’Meara would promise to keep the noise down, but I could see the doubt in my eyes reflected in her own.
I’m sure her children thought I was the wicked witch of the West, especially with the broom thumpings. Still, they always smiled when I met them in the hallway or on the stairs. It didn’t make any sense.
Mr. O’Meara smiled too. He insisted on bringing my garbage down to the dumpster every morning on his way to work. Lucy opened doors for me and helped me upstairs with my groceries whenever she got the chance. I suspect she was the one that left the cookies on my doorstep the morning after what must have been a teenage birthday party (or a demolition derby). Still, I would have given anything for a little peace and quiet.
Then came Christmas. Now, instead of one child at home there were four. So much for my peaceful mornings. The family bellowed carols at any opportunity, and when I met them in the hallway they giggled with Christmas secrets.
Bringing my mail up one day, I met Todd on the landing.
“Look!” he said, proudly. He was holding some unknown childish creation. “We made it in kindergarten!”
It was a lopsided thing of egg carton and foil, hanging on a long string.
“It’s the star of Bethlehem,” he explained earnestly. “For Christmas.”
“It’s very nice,” I said insincerely, stepping around him.
“Merry Christmas!” he exclaimed as I closed the door behind me.
I made my traditional sweet bread to give to neighbors. I even hauled two loaves upstairs to the O’Meara apartment on the day before Christmas.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, in a grudging display of holiday cheer as Lucy opened the door, letting a blast of sound and cinnamon loose in the hallway. I thrust out the loaves.
“Why, Mrs. Johnson, how kind! Mother’s bathing the baby, but I know she’d like to thank you herself. Won’t you come in?”
Hardly, I thought, looking past her at the whirlwind of activity going on. “No, thank you. I need to get back downstairs. Nice wreath.” I turned to go.
“Don’t you have a wreath?”
It was Todd, peeking under Lucy’s elbow. Before I could answer, he was gone. Seconds later he returned dragging a piece of green construction paper that had been folded into a tube, clipped, flattened, and adorned with red construction paper holly berries.
“For you!” He thrust it into my hand and dived back into the holiday turmoil.
I looked at Lucy. She was smiling. “You’d better take it,” she advised. “Todd thinks Christmas isn’t Christmas without sharing. He must really like you—that wreath is one of his prized possessions. He was going to hang it on the tree as part of our Christmas program tonight.”
A sudden idea seemed to occur to her. “Mrs. Johnson, how would you like to spend Christmas Eve with us? We always have a family program, and I know Mother would want to invite you.”
I made my excuses—too old, too tired—then, clutching my “wreath” I headed downstairs again.
Christmas program! It seemed that even on Christmas Eve I wasn’t going to get any rest!
My own family was grown and far away. They’d call tomorrow, but tonight they were busy with their own families. I usually went to bed early on Christmas Eve. Memories were depressing when there was no one to share them with.
Darkness fell and I looked out on streets abuzz with Christmas cheer. Everyone, it seemed, had a place to go. I longed for the oblivion of sleep, but from upstairs I could hear the sound of chairs being rearranged and children giggling.
Oh no. Now we’ll hear those noisy Santa Claus songs and the sound of over-stimulated children preparing for the next day’s toy frenzy. I got out the broom and braced for the worst.
When it began, I hardly recognized it—the silver sound of a single flute playing “Silent Night.” I stood, transfixed. On the second verse the flute was joined by soft voices, young and old.
The sound was so gentle. I pushed up the window, hearing it squeak in protest, and leaned out, looking up. I was afraid the sound would silence them. After all, I’d yelled up from the window often enough. But the singing continued.
Then the flute led them into “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” and suddenly I knew how the shepherds felt that night long ago when unexpected joy came from above. I was startled to hear my own rusty voice joining in.
Then the star appeared. Yes, really. It was lopsided, made of egg cartons and foil, and dangling on a long string. Something was attached to the string.
I reached out and drew it in, removing the note. I read it and smiled.
Why choose the loneliness of old memories when there are new ones to be made?
I listened a moment longer to the angel voices from on high; then I released the star and saw it drawn gently upward.
Grabbing my wreath, I hurried out the door and followed the star.