How brilliant the sun shown on the snow that covered the branches of the pine trees from top to bottom, as if the latest winter storm had wrapped them in a thick winter coat. The newly fallen snow under my feet was deep—so deep that if I had not bloused my pants with rubber bands, the snow would have packed the open crevices of my boots. The woods—with its clean, crisp cold smell; its holly berries clinging to bushes, splashing red against the snow; its chickadees and blue jays pleasantly scolding each other and flying here and there, knocking snow to the ground—was thick with the pine trees. Their scent filled the air with Christmas as my sisters, my brother, my foster parents, and I tromped through the woods looking for that perfect Christmas tree.
Almost everyone has that one Christmas memory that is held close to the heart, the one carefully put away and unwrapped only for special occasions. I’ve unwrapped this memory more often lately; I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and am becoming more sentimental (or just plain sappy, I suppose), or perhaps it’s simply because it was the last Christmas I spent with my siblings before our lives were forced in different directions. In three short months, we would be torn apart and placed in different foster homes. So that last Christmas together was the best gift I could receive.
When we had arrived at this foster home after being taken from our mother three months earlier, Betty and Harry opened their home to all five of us children with ease. It was the grandest house that I had and have ever seen. Well over 100 years old, its two-story massive wooden structure, nicknamed the “Club House,” sat well off the road at the edge of the wood line on the lake. Outside were several outbuildings; I can only guess what their purposes once were. Nearby were various sized cottages that were houses themselves—probably for guests or even servants of long ago. We slept in the largest of these cottages, along with Betty and Harry. I never did know why they didn’t sleep in the Club House.
The Club House was stately. The entry opened into a large foyer, and to the left of the foyer was a great wooden staircase that curved as it reached the second floor. Upstairs were fourteen bedrooms and several bathrooms. Downstairs, the formal dining room held a table that sat twenty-two people comfortably. This room led into another huge room that could have been the setting of a sports lodge: fox, bob cats, deer, and a variety of birds and other animals were mounted to the walls as if ready to pounce, spring, or fly away. Bear rugs (with heads) and zebra skins were scattered about. It was fittingly called the Club room. Several windows on the right offered a clear view of the beach and lake waters. At the far end, a stone fireplace seemed to span the length of the room. This room was my favorite—it offered a quieting comfort I craved.
Christmas at the Club House was one that could only be imagined. Betty and Harry— particularly Betty (a born craftswoman)—brought such spirit to decorating the house. Tromping through the woods that bright wintery afternoon, we found the perfect Christmas tree, and when we arrived home from school the next day, Betty had spray painted the tree a gleaming gold and stood it next to the fireplace in the Club room.
In the days that followed, the Club House was transformed into a Christmas House. Betty adorned the banister with a mixture of pine and holly from the woods, adding red ribbon and white lights. With the leftover sprigs, she fashioned centerpieces for the tables, doors, and mantel. She taught us to make 10-point stars in various sizes from colored strips of paper, dipped in wax and sprinkled with glitter. These we hung on the tree, along with paper chains, cranberries, and colored popcorn. Betty crafted a partridge in a pear tree from a tree branch with handmade ornaments representing the 12 days of Christmas. As we helped cut and glue the pieces, she taught us to sing the 12 days of Christmas. Glistening garland and sparkling lights were strung everywhere.
The kitchen was warm with the smells of Christmas—cookies, cakes, and breads always seemed to be baking. One evening, Betty had us in the kitchen helping her make hard candy. She brought each batch of the sugary concoction to a boil, added a flavor of cherry, orange, mint, root beer, or anise (a licorice flavor), and poured it onto the table over powdered sugar. Then everyone, armed with scissors, cut the rapidly hardening candy into bite-sized pieces until our hands and fingers hurt.
Betty and Harry filled our last Christmas together with such spirit and love. Their kindness was a gift beyond compare. They gave us a Christmas memory that I treasure—one that I can unwrap and rewrap for all Christmases to come.