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Memory for the New Year

During times of struggle, the smallest treasure can re-inspire.

I stood at our picture window on a January night last year. A strong west wind was bending the branches of our birch tree, sending swirls of snow across the lawn. I touched my fingertips to the icy glass, closed the drapes, then sat down on the couch, wrapping myself in my new Christmas robe.

I had gone to bed earlier, but after tossing and turning for an hour, I had finally given up and come into the living room to think things out. That afternoon at the office we’d been told that several employees would be laid off. Those of us affected would be notified at week’s end.

I fretted over the pile of bills that had accumulated and wondered how we would manage if I lost my job. “Don’t worry,” my husband, Del, had insisted. But I couldn’t help it. As I hugged a sofa pillow and prayed, Lord, help me trust in your care, I recalled a treasured memory of 40 years earlier.

It was our first January together. We were so young, 19 and 20 years old. Married for only 10 months, our first baby coming in April, we had dreams and plans, but none were working out.

Del had a job washing windows, but the starting salary was barely enough for us to live on. My difficult pregnancy prevented me from working. Our home was a small trailer parked in a mobile home court on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington. Sparsely furnished with a drop-leaf table, a folding chair, the backseat from a car and a small bed, the trailer had belonged to a hunter and bore the scars of many trips. It lacked a bathroom, so we had to use the shower and restrooms in a laundry house nearby.

Nevertheless, we had managed to have a happy Christmas. We bought a little tree and trimmed it with handmade decorations and popcorn. On Christmas Eve we went to our church for the candlelight services, savoring the scent of freshly cut evergreens as we sang carols. Back home we sat on the car-seat couch, drinking hot chocolate to stay warm while we picked names for our baby.

January arrived with bitter cold and snow. Del would go off to work shivering in a light jacket and worn boots, while doctor’s orders confined me to bed. Then one freezing morning shortly after Del left for work, the flame in our temperamental fuel-oil heater went out. The winds rattled our flimsy home, blowing through every crack. I put on a coat, wrapped myself in two blankets, and counted the hours until Del came home.

By the time he did I was half frozen. Immediately he began working on the old heater. The cold and our frustration set off an exchange of angry words until, at last, the only sound was Del tapping and adjusting the heater.

At 10:00 p.m. he finally got it going again.

For a late supper we ate boiled cabbage and stale bread. Without feeling very thankful, we bowed our heads and said grace. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I picked up my fork, forcing myself to eat. Del sat across from me, looking thin and tired. We barely said a word to each other. I knew he was worried about me and our baby. I wanted to reach out to him, to tell him everything would be okay, but I was so filled with self-pity I couldn’t.

Just then we heard footsteps on the wooden crate that served as our doorstep. Who would be coming to see us at this hour?

We waited for the knock. Instead, we heard a child singing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” The clear, sweet, pure notes came from just outside the door. It was so startling, so comforting, neither of us moved. “Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild.” The cold, our meager dinner, the ramshackle trailer, none of it mattered. We listened to the angelic tones that floated through the night air. “Sleep in heavenly peace.”

Then there was silence. Del and I jumped up at the same time, with the same thought: Why was a child out so late in the cold?

Del opened the door carefully so as not to scare whoever it was. Light spilled onto the wooden step. Fresh snow covered it and an untouched white blanket buried the path to our door. Where was the child?

Without even grabbing our coats, we raced outside and walked around our trailer and the homes nearby. Most of them were dark; everyone was inside, asleep. Driven indoors by the cold, we returned and stood in the middle of the trailer amazed.

We had both heard the unmistakable sound of feet on our wooden step and a child’s voice lifted in song. Life was hard at the moment, but we knew we would be okay. Del opened his arms and held me close. “We’ve got each other,” he said, “and someone is watching over us.”

A few days later Del’s supervisor gave him a raise and offered him overtime hours until spring. The additional income allowed us to move to a small house, and when the baby arrived we managed our medical bills just fine.

Now, four decades later, I began to take stock. We had a beautiful family and a fine home—God had given us so much to be thankful for. We would make it through this crisis, even if I lost my job. All I needed was to have faith.

I went back to the window, opened the drapes and looked at the sky. The clouds were drifting apart, letting the stars shine through, and in my mind I could hear the pure voice of a child singing on the doorstep about heavenly peace, just waiting for me to let it in.

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