One Cookie at a Time

Thank you for reading, my dear friends. I pray this year’s fictional Christmas story blesses you. And I pray you have a blessed and very Merry Christmas as you remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ who came to save us all.

One Cookie at a Time

I nibbled on stale candy corn while my fingers hovered over my laptop. I hesitated to send the email, knowing it would make everything so final. But the truth was, the numbers were bad, and I’d already lost hope in my bakery. There was no point in dragging out the inevitable. I had to tell my faithful client list I would be closing at the end of the year. And I had to tell my daughter, Jenna, there would be no business to return to after graduating from college. I just couldn’t hold on anymore.

It was Christmas Eve, and it took everything I had not to close my doors permanently tonight, to hold out and wait for a miracle. But I knew that stuff only happened in Christmas movies to happy people with happy lives. Not the kind of life I’d lived—an ugly divorce, bankruptcy, and struggling to make a fresh start with only a dream and a box of my own recipes.

“It’s freezing out!” Jenna said, the bakery door jingling as she came in blowing on her hands.

I closed my laptop.

“Are you ready to go? The snow is really coming down.”

I sighed. “I’m ready. I just need to grab these last few boxes.”

“Deliveries?”

“No. Cookies that didn’t sell. No one will want to buy stale Christmas cookies after Christmas.”

“Mom, what have you always told me? ‘Pray and trust.’”

I couldn’t tell her I was too tired to pray, and I didn’t know how to hold onto trust when it seemed like grasping at sugar in a sandstorm. So instead, I put on a smile for my daughter, knowing when the time came to tell her the truth, maybe then she’d understand.

We loaded the white boxes onto the backseat of Jenna’s pickup and climbed into the cab. With my laptop and unwanted cookies in tow, I turned to see my bakery, dark and shrouded in a heavy snowfall. I was thankful the wind was bitter—it could explain the tears in my eyes.

Jenna steered away from the curb and whispered something.

“What was that?”

“I was praying.”

At least I’d done something right. Train up a child…

As we headed across town, the snow stopped falling, leaving the sidewalk as a satin ribbon of white. Evergreen wreaths dangled from the streetlights as their timid colored lights cast a glow into the night.

“Look over there,” Jenna said, motioning to a church parking lot with people spilling out of the building.

She pulled the truck over, reached around to the backseat, and lifted two boxes. She hopped out and handed one to a man and woman with three small children—all with scarves covering most of their faces. The other box she handed to an elderly couple. Their words of gratitude floated in the night air in a puff of white as Jenna returned to the truck.

“Come on, Mom. We’ve got more deliveries.”

“What are you talking about? It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Exactly.”

I tried not to laugh as my twenty-year-old daughter bent over the steering wheel with fierce determination like she’d done when she’d first learned to ride a bike.

“Over there.” Jenna gave a nod before parking at the community center. A man had just stepped out, silver keys shining in his hand.

She grabbed more boxes, jumped from the cab, and hurried to the man who chuckled at her offer while rubbing the back of his neck. She followed him inside and moments later, returned without the boxes. She hoisted herself into the truck, giggling.

“What in the world are you up to?”

“The community Christmas dinner is tomorrow. He told me donations were low this year, and they need cookies.”

My mouth slipped open. “Really?”

“Uh huh.”

Moments later, Jenna steered onto a dimly lit street. The stretch of houses, lonely without Christmas lights hanging from the porches or inflatable snowmen waving in the yards.

“I need your help, Mom. Take a box and leave it.”

I turned to inspect the backseat. “But we only have a few left. And leave it where?”

“At each house. Until we run out.”

I did just that, feeling a surge of adrenaline each time I bent to leave a box of cookies and hurrying away before anyone spotted me. As I was about to leave my last box on a dark porch, a light came on and the door creaked opened. I stepped back when a woman glared from her screen door. A little girl in pigtails ran to her side, but after spotting me, hid behind the woman’s leg.

“I’m sorry to bother you. I was leaving a box of Christmas cookies. I own the bakery down the street, and, well, I have enough to share.”

The woman reached out to take it, the hard lines of her face softening. “Thank you.”

I smiled, and as I turned for the truck, the woman gasped.

“Is something wrong?”

The little girl ran off to another part of the house, her feet thumping on the floor, while the woman gently held the opened box to her chest.

“It’s been a rough year,” she whispered. “A really rough year. My husband lost his job. Two weeks later, my sister passed away. I prayed God would help. Just give me a word to hold onto to get through everything, you know? Just a word. I wanted to believe He was going to help us, but it’s hard to believe when things seem so dark.” She paused to stare into the box. “But then you brought me this.”

I didn’t understand. They were just sugar cookies – frosted stockings, Christmas bulbs, and snowflakes with assorted sprinkles. That sort of thing. Nothing special.

The woman’s eyes filled as she carefully lifted one of the round bulbs from the box. It was frosted in red with white sugar crystals like a gentle dusting of snow. And written in the center in gold was one word: Believe.

I’d forgotten each Christmas bulb proclaimed that word like the angels announcing Jesus’ birth. Or maybe I’d forgotten the word altogether because I’d also found it hard to believe. It was hard to believe God hadn’t given up on me when everything seemed to be falling apart. I’d lost hope in so many things this year. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I’d even lost hope in Him.

“Are you ready, Mom?” Jenna asked from the sidewalk.

“Thank you,” the woman whispered. “Thank you for bringing me hope.”

The words I wanted to say lodged in my throat, so I simply nodded as my eyes began to fill.

I started for the truck, willing my tears to stop, as I peered down the street. We were able to leave a box of cookies at each house. It didn’t make sense. We didn’t have that many to share.

Later that night, Jenna curled up in the living room to watch a Christmas movie with a bowl of popcorn in her lap while I sat at the kitchen table. Reluctantly, I reached for my laptop to finish the email to my customers—those faithful clients who’d been so supportive but also struggled this year.

But when I opened my email, a message appeared in my inbox from the mayor, thanking us for sharing hope with so many—he was amazed the cookies had reached from one end of town to the other.

But we didn’t go that far.

Suddenly I remembered the One who multiplied a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread to feed thousands. And tonight, He’d multiplied hope and stretched it clear across town at a time when we all needed it. When I needed it. God wasn’t far away. He hadn’t given up on me or any of us. He was still the God of godly miracles and mighty rescues. Even if it meant using one cookie at a time.

I smiled and closed my laptop without finishing the email to my customers, knowing I needed to pray and trust. Even though things seemed dark, I found myself believing God still had a plan for us. And I couldn’t wait to see it light up the world.     

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to read another one of my Christmas stories, you can click on A Touch of Fiction at the top of the page, and you’ll find more of them there.

As I do every year, I’d like to bless someone through this Christmas story, but I’m doing something a little different this year. I’d like to give a shout-out to a local bakery owner, Amanda, at Ginger’s Bakery in Uhrichsville, Ohio. If you are blessed by this story, maybe you can give this wonderful bakery a shout-out of your own by ordering some of their delicious Christmas cookies – everything is made from scratch! To order, call (330) 691-7201. Thank you!

Merry Christmas!

          

A Star Shining in the Night

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A Star Shining in the Night

I never liked the shed next to our house. Mom kept it locked with a silver padlock like there was something valuable inside, something worth protecting. But it reminded me of a slouching old man with a silver tooth, the peeling blue paint revealing gray slats underneath like gray stubble on his face.

“Run out to the shed and see if you can find some wrapping paper,” Mom said as she knelt on the carpet in the living room. “And don’t go rolling your eyes at me. You may be sixteen but…”

I walked out before she could finish telling me that I still needed to respect her even though I was a teenager. I’d heard the same sentence at least a thousand times since my thirteenth birthday; the birthday I celebrated at home without any of my friends because Mom said we didn’t have enough hamburgers to feed anyone other than my two brothers and me. I felt bad that she ate peanut butter again, and I offered to eat it too if I could at least invite Shay over. She still said no. I quit asking after that.

I stepped outside, the cold air taking my breath away like it did when I went swimming with Dad at the lake before the water warmed up. I wrapped my arms around myself, hoping to shield my body from the wind and the fat snowflakes, not wanting to go back inside for my coat; I was sure Mom’s lecture about respect was still dangling in the air like a cobweb I wouldn’t be able to escape.

Surprisingly the shed wasn’t locked; an open invitation to any thief walking by who might want to go through Mom’s secret stash. I pulled the door open and tripped my way through large coffee cans and cardboard boxes. Sitting on the table Dad used to keep in the garage at our old house were stacks of shoeboxes, each with their own assortment of costume jewelry, socks, or toy trucks and dinosaurs. Resting on the rusty metal chair Mom snagged from the dumpster at work was a brown paper bag holding a couple of curtain rods and a single roll of wrapping paper with red and pink hearts. I wished she could wrap Christmas presents in normal paper like everyone else. Last year she’d used wedding paper covered in doves with the word “love” written in silver. Aunt Rebecca had smiled at me when I handed it to her like it was completely normal to get a snowman mug wrapped in holy matrimony paper.

Everyone knew we were broke and that Mom visited every garage and rummage sale within a twenty-mile radius all year long to stretch her single paycheck. I liked it better when we could buy new things at the store before Dad died, before we had to move into our house with the slouchy old man shed and his fancy tooth.

“Hurry up!” Mom yelled.

I grabbed the wrapping paper, closed the door, and left it unlocked like I’d found it; maybe someone would steal the whole thing. As I hurried through the cold, I noticed the neighbor lady, Mrs. Switch or Fitch or something like that, staring at me from her window. She waved at me like she wanted me to come over, but I ignored her when Mom yelled again.

I rushed inside and stepped over my brothers who’d stretched out in front of the door to make paper airplanes from the coloring pages they ripped out of a snowman coloring book. I handed Mom the roll of wrapping paper.

“I thought you fell asleep out there.” She unrolled it and cut a section of the paper and started to wrap a gardening book she’d bought at the library book sale for a quarter and a pair of fuzzy socks for Aunt Rebecca. “I’ve got to get this done, so I can get ready for work.”

“I thought you were off today.”

“I know. But they offered us overtime.”

I sighed. “It’s Christmas Eve.”

She pulled a piece of tape from the dispenser. “I should be home in plenty of time to tuck you guys in.”

I crossed my arms. “I don’t need tucking in.”

“Somebody’s here!” Brady yelled, lifting off of his belly to sit on his feet while Brandon focused on perfecting his airplane.

I stepped over the coloring book pages and opened the door. It was the neighbor lady Mrs. Snitch or Twitch holding a plate of cookies covered in plastic wrap.

“Hello, dear. I tried to get your attention earlier. I’ll be leaving in the morning to go to my son’s, but I wanted to give you these cookies I made for you all.”

My brothers jumped up like someone lit a bottle rocket underneath them.

“How thoughtful! Thank you so much, Mrs. Fitch,” Mom said, abandoning her wrapping.

At least now I know her name.

“Just a little something I like to do,” she said, her cheeks pushing up her glasses when she smiled.

“I’ll take a few with me to work.”

Mrs. Fitch’s smile faded. “You’re not working today, are you dear?”

“Yes,” she said, shooing both boys away from the plate of cookies.

“But that snow is really coming down, and the man on the weather program said it’s going to get a lot worse. And these backroads of ours can be dangerous. They already canceled the Christmas Eve service at church.”

“I’ll be careful,” Mom said, taking the plate. “Thanks again for the cookies.”

“You’re welcome, dear. I’ll be praying for you.”

Mom stopped and for a second I thought she was going to say something, but instead she smiled one of her fake smiles, giving Mrs. Fitch a nod. I tried asking Mom about God one time after Dad died, but she locked herself in her bedroom and cried for half the night. I stopped asking her about God after that.

Mrs. Fitch left and before long Mom was wearing her work clothes and buttoning her heavy coat. “Now don’t forget there’s leftover spaghetti for dinner in the fridge, and put the load of whites in the dryer for me. And I want you to go to the shed and find something nice for Mrs. Fitch.” She pulled on her boots. “And I want you to wrap it and take it to her before the weather gets worse.”

I sighed, knowing not to argue. After she kissed the boys goodbye and made her way to the car, I threw on my coat and crunched through the snow that was quickly piling up. I knew I was losing daylight and needed to hurry or I might blindly grab a book about windsurfing or a pair of socks with chickens on them. I made sure the shed door was wide open to let in as much light as possible before digging into a shoebox. The first one I opened was full of ornaments. Jackpot. I fished through a few bulbs without any hangers, tiny book ornaments, a cloth candy cane that was torn, and a star. I lifted the star to inspect it. It looked like a cookie cutter filled with pinecones and tiny red berries, and on the top, a piece of twine to hang it. If she didn’t like it, she could always tear it apart and use it to make her cookies.

While the boys were busy building forts out of a deck of cards, I wrapped the star and started outside again. The snow would have been pretty if it wasn’t so scary. I could barely see Mrs. Fitch’s house, and I wondered how Mom was able to drive. I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I realized I didn’t hug her before she left. I didn’t even tell her goodbye. I knew she was working overtime for us. I wished I would have hugged her and thanked her.

As I kept my head low to keep the snow out of my eyes, I did something I hadn’t done since I was little. I prayed.

“Please, God, help Mom to be okay.”

I stepped onto Mrs. Fitch’s porch, knocked, and waited.

“Oh you sweet child,” she said, barely opening the door while pulling a shawl tighter around herself. “What are you doing out in this weather?”

“Mom wanted me to bring you this.” I handed her the package covered in hearts.

“What lovely paper.” With her frail hand, she took it and started to unwrap it. She gasped, and I worried one of the pinecones had fallen out.

“It’s a star,” she said. “Oh, it’s just perfect.”

I wondered if she needed new glasses.

“It makes me think of the star that led the way to Jesus. You know about Jesus, don’t you?”

I nodded but something lodged in my throat. It had been a long time since I’d heard someone say His name like that. In such a kind way.

“I’ll hang this on my tree right now. Thank you so much.”

I cleared my throat. “You’re welcome. I better get back to my brothers now.”

“Of course. Of course,” she repeated. “Be careful, dear.”

I trekked home through the blinding snow just in time to see my brothers demolish their forts with the paper airplanes they’d rigged to drop pennies.

While heating up a large bowl of spaghetti in the microwave, I stared out the kitchen window but couldn’t see anything in our backyard. With heavy snow falling and no moonlight, there was only a thick darkness. I wondered how Mom would find her way home.

As I set our plates on the table, I heard something. At first, I thought it was a snowplow clearing the road, but when the lights pulled into our driveway and lit up the living room wall, my stomach twisted and my legs felt weak. I’d seen plenty of movies to know when someone unexpected shows up in your driveway in the dark that something was probably wrong. Did something happen to Mom?

“Somebody’s here!” Brady yelled.

Before I could tell them not to open the door, it was already opening. It was Mom.

“It’s Mom!” Brady yelled as if we needed him to tell us.

She closed the door and stomped her feet, snow landing on the floor. “It’s terrible out there. I couldn’t even make it to work. And then I didn’t know if I could make it back home. I couldn’t see a thing. I went off the road twice.”

The boys busied themselves at her feet, picking up the snow and forming miniature snowballs to throw at each other. But I stepped around them and hugged her.

“What’s that for?” she asked.

I felt something in my throat again, making it hard to talk. But I managed to say, “I’m glad you’re home.”

She smiled. “So am I. And I’m glad Mrs. Fitch has the star on the top of her house lit up tonight or I might not have made it. I couldn’t even see the road. That star led me home.”

I followed Mom into the kitchen. “I was really scared. I thought something might happen to you.” I paused. “I prayed for you. That you would be okay.”

Mom’s hand went to her mouth and the tears started to form. I didn’t know what to do. I prayed again, silently, that God would keep her from locking herself in her bedroom.

“You prayed for me?”

I nodded.

She sank down on the kitchen chair. “I’ve been so mad at God since your Dad…” she stopped. “But when I went off the road I realized I was in trouble. I needed Him. I wanted to get home to you and your brothers. I didn’t want something to happen to me too. So…I prayed. I told God how sorry I was. I told Him how much I miss Him.” She started to sob, and her voice cracked.  “I begged Him to please get me home to my children. And He heard me. I know He did. I felt such a peace in that awful snowstorm.”

The sound of the phone made me jump. Mom reached for a tissue to blow her nose, so I answered it.

“Hello, dear,” Mrs. Fitch said. “I just wanted to make sure you all are okay. I saw a car pull into your driveway.”

“Yeah, we’re okay. Mom came back home because the roads were really bad. She said the star on the top of your house led the way home.”

“My star? Goodness. I told my son to just leave it up there. But it hasn’t worked in years.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Oh my,” Mrs. Fitch whispered. “It sounds like God led your Mom home through the storm tonight.”

But when I realized Mom was smiling a real smile, even with her eyelids swollen and pink, I wanted to tell Mrs. Fitch it was more than that. God led Mom out of a much darker storm than any of us understood. And He brought her back home to Him.

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this year’s story. If you’d like to check out last year’s Christmas story, you can find it here.

Merry Christmas and God bless you!

(A big shout-out to pexels.com for another wonderful photo! Thank you!!)

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

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I’ll Be Home for Christmas

I hid in my pickup truck in the garage. I didn’t want to fall apart in front of Maddie. It was bad enough my daughter lost her mom so close to Christmas. I didn’t want her to think she was losing her dad to loud sobbing fits. I was supposed to be the strong one, the tough guy. But somehow I felt smaller than my five-year-old who played with baby dolls.

Leslie, my wife, always knew how to talk to Maddie. But since three o’clock in the afternoon two Wednesdays ago, after a horrible accident involving my wife’s minivan and a big rig, I was on my own to raise our daughter.

The truth: I was lost without Leslie. I was lucky I could get myself out of bed every morning and make coffee. And somehow I managed to wash our clothes and boil water for hot dogs. Other than that, I dragged myself through the dark nightmare my life had become. The only thing that brought me any light was when Maddie held my hand when we walked to her ballet class.

I wasn’t much of a praying man, but I found myself bent over the steering wheel and crying as my heart split open and the words spilled out.

Please help me, God. I don’t know how to go on from here.

More tears fell until I finally pulled myself together, blowing my nose on some napkins I found tucked in the glove box under a church bulletin. I hadn’t been much of a church goer since I was a kid, since accepting Jesus. I’d gone a few times to make my wife happy, but my dad always said, “Men that go to church are weak” and I had my “tough” reputation to uphold.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. Both of my eyes were swollen like someone had sucker-punched me. Oh sure. I’m a tough guy all right. I felt like a big fake.

I got out of my truck, slammed the door, and grabbed a screwdriver from my toolbox – my excuse for coming to the garage. I went into the house and found Maddie sitting in the middle of her bedroom floor with Sylvia, her favorite baby doll, resting in her arms. Maddie’s strawberry-blonde hair was the same as her mom’s, and I wondered if I would ever be able to braid it like my wife had done.

She stopped rocking Sylvia when she saw me. “Want to hold her, Daddy?”

I smiled. “Maybe later. Are you getting hungry?”

“I don’t want a hot dog.”

I chuckled, the sound startling me. “Me neither. Why don’t we go to town and get a pizza?”

Maddie smiled, revealing the tiny window where a front tooth had fallen out last week.

When we got back with a large cheese pizza, the house was completely dark. Quickly I turned on some lights and those on the Christmas tree. I couldn’t stand the darkness – there was enough of that inside of me already.

“Can we watch a Christmas movie, Daddy?”

She was the spitting image of my wife; those hazel eyes pleading to watch Christmas movies. I could hear my wife’s soft response in my ear, and I repeated it to Maddie:

“Only if you put on your PJs.”

She squealed, ran to her bedroom, and moments later, emerged wearing snowman footy PJs with Sylvia wearing the same.

“You have to wear yours, too, Daddy.”

“Maybe later. Why don’t you pick out the movie, and I’ll get us some milk to drink.”

After we finished eating a few slices of pizza and somewhere in the middle of Frosty the Snowman, Maddie fell asleep beside me on the couch – her head rested against my arm. Carefully, I scooped her up and carried her to her bed – it was one of a thousand moments that made my heart ache for my wife who loved tucking Maddie in at bedtime.

I pulled her covers up, turned on the nightlight, and quietly closed the door. I didn’t want to go back to the living room yet, so I went to our bedroom closet where Leslie had stashed some Christmas presents in a large garbage bag, those she’d already wrapped. I liked holding them, knowing her hands had been the last ones to touch whatever was underneath the red and green paper. I was sure there was a flannel shirt for me and an ornament for Maddie.

Every year, Leslie and I would pick out an ornament for Maddie, something she’d done or enjoyed that year. Last Christmas was the year she fell in love with eating ice cream from the cone, so of course we got her an ice cream cone ornament. This year, Leslie and I decided it should have something to do with dancing, although I hadn’t seen the ornament yet.

I returned the garbage bag to the back of the closet and opened my bottom dresser drawer where I hid Leslie’s gift.  I bought her a soft, red blanket because she was always cold and wanted nothing more than to cuddle on the couch and watch Christmas movies. It was folded and had a cardboard sleeve around it and snowflakes in all different sizes. Leslie would have loved it. I held it to my chest and lost it again, the blanket holding my tears and muffling my cries.

Christmas Eve, I sat beside Maddie in her velvety green dress and shiny black shoes, her feet dangling above the church floor. She’d begged me to take her, and I was glad I did. I found myself feeling closer to Leslie and when the choir sang “O Holy Night,” I found myself feeling closer to God, too. It had been years since I’d felt that way.

When we got home, Maddie kicked off her shoes and ran to her bedroom.

“I need to get Mommy’s present,” she yelled.

My heart hurt so much I thought I was having a heart attack. I took a few deep breaths and the pain went away. I braced myself for our little family tradition of opening one present each on Christmas Eve – the first tradition of many without my wife.

Maddie returned with two packages she’d wrapped with a little help from the Christmas Store helper at school. She handed me something skinny with a silver ribbon.

“I got this for you, Daddy.”

I knew better than to hesitate. When Maddie handed you a present and stared at you like she was holding her breath, it meant you needed to open it before she busted a lung.

I ripped off the ribbon and the paper. “It’s a tire pressure gauge,” I said. “Thank you.”

She jumped into my arms and kissed my cheek.

“Can I open Mommy’s for her?”

I didn’t know how she was handling it all so well. A lump had lodged in my throat so I nodded. She slid to the floor and shredded the Christmas tree paper.

I cleared my throat. “That’s a really nice candle you got for her.”

“It smells like coffee,” she said, sniffing it and smiling like this was the most natural thing in the world.

“Your mom would have loved…”

She jumped up. “Can I open mine?”

I was glad she interrupted me. The words seemed to stick in my throat like someone squeezed and held them there.

I nodded, went to the bag in the closet, and returned with a small package I was pretty sure was her ornament. Maddie stopped fiddling with my tire pressure gauge and clasped her hands together in front of her mouth like she could hardly contain her excitement – something her mom always did.

The gift barely left my hands before Maddie ripped off the paper.

“Wow,” she whispered.

Maddie held a snow globe ornament in her hands, staring into the tiny world like she could will herself to step into it. A girl wearing a long, silver dress and rosy cheeks stood in a field of snow with her head titled back and arms outstretched as if she were dancing.

Carefully, Maddie tipped it upside down, then right side up, and watched as the little flecks of white floated down, landing on the girl’s face.

Kisses from Heaven.

The thought startled me. I remembered the night I took Leslie to dinner while we were dating, and she stopped right in the middle of a crowd of people on the sidewalk when it started to snow. She stood there, looked up, and smiled. And when I asked her what she was doing, she’d said, “Someone is sending me kisses from Heaven, and I want to take them all in.” Funny, I’d forgotten about that until now.

“Daddy, don’t be sad,” Maddie said, noticing the tears I couldn’t stop. “People in snow globes aren’t stuck forever.”

I wiped my eyes. “What?”

“I used to be sad for the people stuck in snow globes, too. But Mommy said it’s like all of us on the earth. We’re sort of stuck here until Jesus says it’s our turn to go home. And Heaven is our real home. This is just where we have to stay for now.”

I nodded.

“Mommy said the earth can be pretty like a snow globe. But Heaven is going to be really, really pretty.”

It sounded like something my wife would have said.

“Daddy,” Maddie said, picking up Sylvia from the couch, “can Sylvia have some hot chocolate?”

“And watch a Christmas movie?” I asked.

She grinned and squeezed Sylvia.

While Maddie changed into her PJs, I retrieved the red blanket I’d gotten for Leslie. My heart began to ache again, knowing I would have given it to her tonight to cuddle with while we watched a Christmas movie. I decided to give it to Maddie to use, knowing Leslie would have loved the idea.

A Charlie Brown Christmas and two mugs of steaming hot chocolate were ready when Maddie flopped beside me in her PJs. I pulled the cardboard sleeve off the blanket and unfolded it, gasping when I realized there were words I hadn’t seen hidden in the folds.

“What does that say, Daddy?”

“I’ll be home for Christmas.”

Maddie smiled. “Mommy is home for Christmas. It was her turn to go home.”

I stared at my five-year-old. “How did you get to be so smart?”

“God. I talk to Him all the time.”

I smiled because I knew it had to be true.

“And He said you can talk to Him too, Daddy. He said He misses you more than you miss Mommy. He said He will help you not to be sad anymore. And He said you don’t have to be afraid of the dark. He’s going to bring you lots of light.”

I fought the tears, but they came anyway. “Did He say anything else?”

She nodded. “He said you should learn to cook something other than hot dogs.”

I laughed a real, honest-to-goodness laugh and it felt so freeing. And somehow, someway, I felt like my wife was with us, kissing my cheek and laughing too.

The Story Behind the Christmas Stories

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I started writing fictional Christmas stories in 1996 just because I LOVED to write them.  And over time as I grew closer to God, the stories grew too, evolving from a fun tradition into something that deeply touches my heart and draws me closer to Him every year.

The stories began as printed and stapled copies I’d share with family and friends. (Hello to all of my P.C.C. friends! Thank you for the YEARS of support!) A few years later, I was hauling a bag of them around and recruiting my hubby and a few friends to help me pass them out in order to raise money for charity or families in need.

And by the grace of God, I’m humbled and so deeply honored to have seen them printed in The Outreacher for the past five years. Thank you to one amazing and lovely Editor/Publisher, Julie Schultz! And thank you to the talented Christy Bloom for layout and graphic design – you bring such visual beauty to my stories.

I’m truly in awe of God and how He takes these short stories to places beyond my own reach here at home and to various countries through this blog. Thank YOU, dear reader, for reading!!

I’d like to continue blessing others through these stories, but I’m doing something a little different this year. I’m giving a shout-out to a local bakery owner, Amanda, at Ginger’s Bakery in Uhrichsville, Ohio. If you are blessed by this year’s story, “One Cookie at a Time,” maybe you can give this wonderful bakery a shout-out of your own by ordering some of their delicious Christmas cookies – everything is made from scratch! To order, call (330) 691-7201.

And if you’d like to support The Outreacher as it takes the Good News of Jesus Christ into Tuscarawas County and beyond, you can email Julie Schultz at:  theoutreacher@hotmail.com.

Thank you!

I pray you enjoy this year’s story, “One Cookie at a Time.”

And I pray you have a wonderful and blessed Christmas as you remember and celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

A Gingerbread House: Under Renovation

If you’d like to read more on the story behind my Christmas stories, please click here.  Merry Christmas and God bless!

gingerbread no words

The last thing I wanted to do after work was stand in a long line at the store to buy a gingerbread-house kit hours before the contest, but Tommy was worth it.  I shifted the box in my arm, tugged at my scarf, and tried to hold my breath when I neared the case of cinnamon-scented pine cones.

“Rebecca?  Rebecca Trenton is that you?”

I hadn’t heard anyone call me that name in years.  I thought about ignoring it but decided eventually my home town would know I’d come back to live in my deceased parents’ house, so I gave in and turned to face my past.

“I thought that was you!” she squealed.  “It’s me, Mallory Westfield.  Spryer now.”  She held up her ring.  “We went to school together.  Remember?”

I remembered.  I remembered how she ruthlessly picked on me all through high school.

“You look so…different,” she said eyeing me up and down.

Of course I didn’t have a bit of makeup on and was wearing one of Greg’s old ball caps.  Wonderful.  I should have just written “total wreck” on my forehead to clear things up.  Mallory, on the other hand, hadn’t changed a bit: tan in the middle of winter, dark red lips, and enough flashy jewelry to blind you when she stood in the sun.

“I heard you got a…”she leaned in to whisper, “divorce.  Is that true?”

“Next, please,” the cashier said.

I shrugged at Mallory and placed my box on the conveyor belt.  I quickly paid, smiled when Mallory mentioned getting together, and bolted to my car feeling both exhaustion and relief.

Tommy was waiting at the door when I got home.  “Did you get it?”

I handed him the bag and smiled.  He was such a good kid, always positive.  No easy task considering the divorce and how he had to leave all of his friends behind.

I paid the sitter, took off my coat, and stuck a frozen pizza in the oven.  Guilt washed over me.  Tommy deserved better than eating cheap pizza with his mom, sticking candy to gingerbread, and hurrying off to some small-town contest.  I knew Greg would have planned more.  He would have taken his son sled riding or to see some extravagant Christmas lights.  Something grand.  Something more memorable.

“Can I start now?” he asked, his hazel eyes pleading.  The freckles on his cheeks made him look younger than his ten years while the braces on his teeth made him look like a teen.

“You better,” I said, noticing the time. “But you’ll need to eat dinner when it’s ready.”

He tore open the box and dug out the bags of assorted candies and gumdrops.  And when I returned from tossing a load of laundry in the washer, kicking it and begging it to run just one more time, he’d already covered a cookie sheet with tinfoil and was reading the directions.

I opened a bag of chips and cut the pizza when it was ready.  We ate off of paper plates and drank warm root beer from the cans.

“Did you read all of the directions?” I asked in between bites.

He shrugged and swallowed.  “Did you ever enter the contest when you were little?”

“Once,” I said, stopping there.  My pitiful gingerbread house with the tiny candy cane fence must have looked like a run-down garden shed next to the mansions some of the other kids built.  One girl even had a gingerbread town and airport using her brother’s toy plane.  Of course she won.  After that, I never wanted to do it again.  But I couldn’t tell Tommy that.  He’d been so excited to build one, especially when he realized the grand prize was three-hundred dollars.  I shook my head.  I should have bought another kit and made one myself.

The washer was off balance and rumbled.  I hurried to the basement, lifted the washer lid, and repositioned the load.  “Okay,” I said.  “Now one more time.”

Tommy had already wolfed down his dinner and was kneading the bag of frosting when I returned.

“Do you want some help?”

“No. You told me I could do this by myself.”

I held up my hands. “Sorry.  I was just checking.”

I finished my slice of pizza, stuck the rest in the refrigerator, and went upstairs to take a hot shower to wash off the grease from working as a fry cook all day.

Tommy was shouting for me to hurry when I finished blow drying my hair.  I spritzed a little perfume on, hoping I wouldn’t have another Mallory episode, and rushed downstairs and into the kitchen.

My heart sank and I tried to hide the look of horror on my face.  His gingerbread house was anything but a house.  It was a total wreck.  The walls were leaning inward, one caved in all the way as if hit by an earthquake.  The frosting looked as if it had exploded on the tilted roof and gumdrops were stuck together in a pile as if he didn’t have time to use them.  The colored candies were scattered like confetti in the wind all over the structure. More guilt came as I realized the ridicule that was to come.  I should have skipped showering and helped him build the thing.

“Come on, Mom.  I don’t want to be late,” he said zipping up his coat.

“Do you…”  I cleared my throat.  “Do you have a name for it?” The rule had always been that you had to name your gingerbread creation.  Some fancy lodge or ski resort name usually ended up winning.  Winter Crystal Chalet or something like that.

“I got it, Mom.  Can we please just go?”

I took a deep breath and silently prayed that the contest would be cancelled.

The community hall was packed and I felt the stares, heard the whispers, and even caught a few laughing as we walked by.  My face burned.  Not out of embarrassment but out of something else entirely.  I wanted to protect Tommy.  But once he registered his gingerbread house, it was too late.

He settled his dilapidated house beside a three story gingerbread restaurant, complete with sugar-glass windows.  And to make matters worse, the owner of the restaurant was Mallory’s daughter.

“My, is that…unusual,” Mallory said, holding her hand over her mouth as she stared at Tommy’s creation.  Her daughter stood quietly at her side, not cracking a smile but looking to the floor.

I ignored Mallory and sat on a plastic chair beside other parents as we watched the judging begin.  We were informed that each contestant needed to state his name, age, title of creation, and inspiration.  I wondered if Tommy were regretting his decision to be a part of this.

Mallory’s daughter began.  “I’m Sylvia Spryer.  I’m nine and my title is, ‘The Shimmering Chalet.’”

“And your inspiration?” the judge asked.

Sylvia shrugged.  “My mom.”

The judges took their time inspecting it and then moved on to Tommy.  I held my breath as he took the microphone from the judge.  A few parents around me snickered.

“My name is Tommy Sullivan.  I’m ten years old.  My title is, ‘The Master Carpenter’s Project” and my inspiration is Jesus.”

The judge asked, “Can you elaborate on that?”

“Sure.”  Tommy held the microphone boldly, like this was second nature to him.  His voice didn’t quiver but held solid as he said, “Our lives are like projects or houses in Jesus’ hands.  He is the Master Carpenter and He fixes what is broken and rebuilds us.  No matter what damage has been done and how bad things look,” he said looking at me, “Jesus can fix us.”

The whispering and the giggling stopped.  No one said a word. The microphone squealed when Tommy handed it back to the judge.  I did my best to stifle my tears but obviously failed when another mom seated beside me handed me a tissue, keeping one to dab her own tears.

As we walked to the car after the contest, Tommy said, “I’m sorry I didn’t win the money.  I really wanted to buy you a new washing machine.”

“Oh, Tommy,” I said, the snow falling gently around us.  “You gave me so much more than a washing machine.”

“What? A free large pizza for coming in second?” he said grinning.

I smiled back.  “You made me realize everything is going to be okay.  We’re just under renovation.  And we’ve got the Master Carpenter on the job.”

A Broken Christmas Bulb

If you’d like to read more on the story behind my Christmas stories, please click here.  Merry Christmas and God bless!

broken-bulb

After my husband Ted passed away, I started waitressing downtown at a quaint and cheery place that always smelled like coffee and fried potatoes.  I was thankful for the income to support Nick, our little boy, and I was deeply grateful for the way serving others filled this unfamiliar, empty part of my life.  It even seemed to stop the void from getting deeper somehow.  At least for now.

“Order up!”

I scurried to the window to pick up a plate of biscuits slathered in sausage gravy.  The cook scowled at me, his mustache twitching as if to warn me.  Obviously he still had issues about the bowl of tomato soup I dropped last week.

Carefully I set the plate in front of a customer who reminded me of Jimmy Stewart; tall and lean with that old-fashioned dreamy quality.  I wondered if he heard that a lot.

“That tree is a real beauty,” he said motioning with his fork to the Christmas tree in the corner decorated in large red bulbs, slivers of tinsel, and all sorts of angels.

“I guess the owner loves Christmas,” I said.

“What about you?”

“Me?  I don’t know.”  I didn’t want to tell this stranger that it would be my first Christmas without Ted and that Nick, who was only four, couldn’t understand why his Dad wouldn’t be there.  I glanced around to make sure the cook wasn’t glaring at me from the kitchen before I finally answered, “Christmas is okay.”

“Just okay?”

“Look, I better get back to…”

“Don’t look now but the cook is staring at you,” he whispered.

“What?”  I turned around anyway.  The cook’s back was to us.

Jimmy, or whatever his name was, laughed. “You’re awfully jumpy.”

“You don’t understand.  I need this job.  And I’ve already screwed up enough as it is.”

“I’m sure you’re doing fine.”  He wiped his hand on his napkin before extending it to me.  “I’m Bob.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said shaking his hand.  “I’m Clara.”

“Order up!”

I raced back to see a lineup of plates.  Some were for me, others for Rose, the jolly waitress who continuously hummed.  She wore her own frilly apron and called everyone “dear.”  I liked her instantly.

As I dropped off two burgers and fries for a man and woman who each had a laptop and paperwork spread out across the table, the bell over the door began to jingle so much I thought someone was playing with it.  A large group of children filed into the restaurant as “Silent Night” played from the radio.  I felt the color drain from my face and plop somewhere beside the many coffee stains on my sneakers when I realized they were heading for my section.  Three adults and eleven kids.  I started to sweat on the top of my head.

“I can help you,” Rose whispered.  “If you’d like.”

“Please,” I whispered back.  Rose knew I was nervous with big crowds and so many opportunities to spill things.

We pushed the three empty tables together that were near the tree in the corner.

“We’re on a field trip to see where baby Jesus was born,” a little girl wearing long braids explained.

“Remember, they’re acting like it’s Bethlehem,” corrected a woman wearing a furry vest. “So you can understand what it was like.”  Suddenly she yelled, “Dylan!  Don’t touch that tree!”

Dylan, a boy about six or seven with curly blonde hair, sank in his chair like the weight of everything he’d ever done wrong was tugging at him.  The angel on the tree behind him swayed gently.

After handing out water in plastic cups with lids, chaperone’s orders, I went around the table and wrote down each child’s order; either grilled cheese sandwich or hamburger, again chaperone’s orders. As I finished scribbling down the final order, the little boy beside Dylan slid his arm across the table and knocked Dylan’s drink onto his lap.  Thankfully it still wore its lid, but Dylan instinctively shot back in his chair and right into the Christmas tree.  One of the red bulbs fell and crashed to the floor.

“Dylan!” yelled the woman in the vest.

My heart literally hurt for him, as if he were my own Nick who was also followed by that menacing and capable shadow called “trouble.”

“That was me.  My fault,” I said before I realized what was coming out of my mouth.  “Oops,” I said to Dylan who was dumfounded.

I carefully picked up the pieces, cradling them in a napkin.  It didn’t hit me until I was almost in the kitchen that the cook may try to get me fired over this.  My stomach twisted into a tight knot at the thought of losing the only income Nick and I had to survive on.

I avoided the cook, deposited the pieces in the trash, and washed my hands.  I started for the front of the restaurant when I realized Jimmy Stewart, no, Bob, was waiting on me at the counter with his cup.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I had a little mishap and I…”

“I saw.”

“More coffee?”

He nodded and waited.

When I reached out to take the coffee pot from its warmer, I realized my finger was bleeding.  I must have cut myself on the broken bulb.

“There’s a first-aid kit on the wall in the kitchen.  On the left,” Bob said.

Without questioning how he knew that, I hurried off.

After taking care of the cut, I made another attempt to give Bob, who’d returned to his booth, some more coffee.

“Sorry,” I said as I started to pour.  “Guess I’m having a bad day.  A bad year,” I whispered.  The stubborn tears began to spill out.  I leaned back, hoping they wouldn’t fall in his coffee.

“It can’t be that bad,” Bob said.

I smiled through the tears, feeling ridiculous that I was opening up to a stranger and added, “I don’t know.  I guess I’m just feeling a little like that bulb.  Broken.”

“You know whatever is broken in your life, Jesus can mend it.  You just have to give Him the pieces.”

I nodded.  It reminded me of something I’d heard at Ted’s funeral service. Something I needed to hear again.

“And if I might add, what you just did over there for that little boy, taking the blame like that…that was really something.  Reminds me of what Jesus did for us.”

I wiped the back of my hand across my wet cheeks.  “What do you mean?”

“Jesus was innocent and took the blame for all of our wrongdoings, all of our sins.  Although He paid a much bigger price than a cut on his finger.”

“But I still might lose my job.”  I couldn’t believe I was comparing Jesus’ crucifixion to something so minor.  “I’m sorry.” I sighed.  “I didn’t mean…”

“I know.  But I can assure you your job is safe.”

“Oh really?  How can you do that?”

Bob stuck his hand out for the second time and said, “Bob Tranter, owner of this establishment and that bulb you claim you broke.”

My mouth slid open but no words came out.  I shook his hand again feeling foolish.

“Now I can’t offer you wholeness like Jesus can, but I can offer you a promotion,” he said.

“Excuse me?” I slid down into the booth across from him.

“My wife and I are planning to expand this business in a new direction.  A food truck to reach the needy.  We need someone with a compassionate heart to oversee it, to manage it.  Are you interested?”

More tears came and Mr. Tranter handed me a napkin from the holder.

“So does that mean we have a deal?” he asked.

I nodded with the wet napkin pressed against my face.

“Good.”  His eyes softened.  “And if you’re going to compare yourself to a broken bulb, Clara, just keep in mind that over time, those broken pieces will be mended in such a way that only the reflection of the One who restored you and made you whole will be visible.”