“Thanks, Annie.” Nathanael said as he entered. Annie was his endearing nickname for Annalisa since it was tough for him to say her name as a two-year old. But the name stuck. Nathanael would say years later that Annie’s facial expressions and smile were just like Grandma’s. He said the exact same thing to her twin sister Saleesa although they weren’t identical. But that was typical Nathanael though. He also had trouble saying Saleesa’s name, so he called her Sally instead. Nathanael jokingly claimed to forget each of their birthdays, as well. The twins missed Nathanael dearly including his teasing and dry sense of humor while he’d been away. The twins prayed for Nathanael daily because they worried for his safety, not being able to hear from him for long stretches of time.
Nathanael’s family moved back to the homestead about five years ago to manage the ranch and help the aging grandparents. So, coming home was a double blessing for Nathanael to meld the place of his childhood dreams with a place of refuge now for his weary soul. Nathanael plopped down into a thoroughly used cushioned recliner and rested his feet on its matching footstool. Easily the most comfortable chair in the house, yet an embarrassing eyesore as far as the twins were concerned.
From the safety of the cushioned recliner, Nathanael could safely feign falling asleep to avoid discussing the painful topic of Grandpa’s passing. Right now, Nathanael just wanted to be alone with his thoughts. But before closing his eyes, he took one more sweeping look at the photographs and Christmas decorations displayed on the fireplace mantle, stirring a host of peaceful fond memories.
Nathanael’s mind meandered from one treasured moment to another. Grandpa had a knack for turning everything into a fun adventure. Grandma wasn’t always quite so sure, but she knew how important those adventures were to both generations. For example, when it came time to search for a Christmas tree Grandpa would tell the kids it was “hidden among the wooded hills” located up in the foothills. Their job was to discover that hiding place. The tree’s height would be limited only by the room’s ceiling and by the strength of those pulling the rope-tethered sled used to haul it back to the pickup. Annie and Sally always rode the empty sled until a tree was found. Dad and Nathanael took turns pulling it, and Nathanael enjoyed informing the twins when the ride was over, grinning like Grandpa would, ordering them to Get off! Grandpa built the sled from various pieces of wood from his workshop.
Faking sleep was no longer necessary. Sally roused Nathanael from another deep sleep with a variety of playful techniques she had perfected over the years. Any other time, Nathanael would have retaliated with some of his own, but he barely noticed her attempts to awaken him.
Sally finally tapped Nathanael’s shoulder, pointed, and said, “Look over there!”
Nathanael sat up slowly, squinted a bit before focusing on a fully decorated tree in the corner. Sally told him about the hurried search for a tree that the twins had before his arrival. They didn’t even argue over who rode and who pulled the sled. This year, perfection wasn’t the goal. Instead, it was about finding a decent-looking tree even if they had to settle for a pine, with at least one good side, tying it down to the sled and skedaddling home as quickly as possible. What didn’t change were the traditional mugs of hot chocolate and plates stacked high with gingerbread cookies and fudge. And using Grandma’s own recipes made them even sweeter to the taste of childhood memories.
Nathanael asked Sally, “Do you know the story behind those two carved figures setting next to Grandpa’s and Grandma’s photo?”
“You mean the two figures that are lighter than those in the manager scene?” Sally responded.
“Yes, those two.”
Sally hesitated for a moment, holding back a flood of tears…
Now what? Nathanael thought to himself… what did I say?
“Grandpa brought some boxes of decorations down from the attic, including the usual miniature wooden manger scene figures on the mantle that he’d sculpted plus a small wooden box we’d never seen before… But he… he, never got to…” Sally sputtered, “He died before he could tell us about it.”
Sally’s voice trailed off again as Nathanael put a comforting arm around her crest-fallen shoulders.
She told him that neither she nor Annie knew anything about that small box or its contents. The twins thought it might help Mom and Dad if they got a tree themselves, decorated it… and set up the manager scene on the mantle, just like always hoping it might perk them up some. So, the twins did just that and placed those two additional carved figures up there next to the photo.
The twins asked Mom and Dad if they knew anything about the small wooden box or the designs engraved on it, but they couldn’t remember other than it had been lost for many years… and, how happy Grandpa was when he found it recently… in time for Christmas, knowing Nathanael was coming.
“Do you know the story behind it?” Sally asked Nathanael.
Nathanael nodded and agreed to tell the twins what he knew as he moved across the room to a warmer spot beside the fire. Nathanael motioned to them to come join him there. Annie mentioned a note was found in the bottom of the box, but the ink had faded so badly that they couldn’t make out what it said other than it was signed by somebody named Gustavo. Annie asked Nathanael if he had ever heard of such a person. Hearing Gustavo’s name again jogged Nathanael’s memory enough to recall some facts.
“Yes, I have.” Nathanael replied. Grandpa had told him about Gustavo during one visit here when Nathanael’s family lived in The Dalles…the summer he broke his arm falling out of the big locust tree.
“Is that why Daddy never let us girls climb that tree?” Sally demanded jokingly.
“Yes, that’s it!” Nathanael said, ignoring Sally’s remark, “I’m starting to remember now.”
So, for the next hour, the three siblings talked, laughed a little and occasionally cried together as Nathanael told what he knew about Grandpa’s friend Gustavo—taking Nathanael’s memory back a dozen years to Christmas 1933.