Word Count: 3150
“Joe! Hoss! Have you found them yet?” Ben shouted impatiently, grasping hold of the wooden railing; his eyes searched up the large staircase, to the second floor of the ranch house.
Sighing, Ben mumbled with disapproval, “If you want something done, you should do it yourself.”
A smile forming on his handsome face, Adam let a chuckle escape as he adjusted the wire holding the magnificent tree towering before him.
“Come on Pa, why don’t you give me a hand with this.” Adam requested calmly, offering Ben the hammer in his outstretched hand. Every year his Pa was the same before the big party. He’d worry about the decorating and fuss about the food. A few hours before the guests arrived, Pa and Adam would work on getting the tree set up, while Hoss and Joe retrieved the crates filled with Christmas ornaments and decorations from the attic. And every year Adam’s two youngest brothers would get distracted with their task. Then Pa would get angry and annoyed and Adam would have to redirect him so a shouting match wouldn’t ensue. Though most years it worked, this time it seemed to only aggravate Ben Cartwright even more.
“Those two…” Ben sounded off, shaking his head as he handed the tool back to Adam. Glancing over at the grandfather clock on the opposite wall Ben complained angrily, “They know the guests are arriving in less than two hours. Well, guess I’ll have to head on up there and hurry them along some.”
Deciding it was definitely time to do some more of that redirecting, Adam jumped in, suggesting, “Why don’t you leave them alone a bit, Pa.” Smiling at his father, he shared with amusement, “It’s finally quiet down here for the first time all day and I’d hate to spoil it.”
Stopping abruptly, Ben turned toward Adam and upon seeing his face, the annoyance and impatience clouding him all day melted away to be replaced by laughter as Ben joined Adam by the fireplace. As he placed an affectionate arm around Adam’s shoulder, Ben took a deep breath and took a moment to admire the beautiful tree.
Upstairs things were “moving” more slowly than planned, but that didn’t bother Little Joe Cartwright. At twenty-one, he was every bit the man, but here, this one time during the year, he allowed himself to step back in time and become a boy again. As Joe brushed the cobwebs away from in front of his face, he heard a loud sneeze and laughed at his brother Hoss’ string of complaints about the dust and filth surrounding them. Every year since their mother’s death, the two younger Cartwright brothers had been given the chore of searching through the dark and dusky attic for the wooden boxes that held the treasured Christmas decorations and ornaments for the holiday tree. It wasn’t a chore, really, but more of an adventure for Joe, and one he found he treasured more and more as the years passed. You see Joe loved the attic. Even as a child it was a special place for him, and after his mother’s death, it became one of refuge and comfort. Here Joe could come and search for pieces of his mother that he could hold onto, like the smell of perfume on her dresses packed away in Pa’s old sea chest. Or Joe could pretend to be a ship’s captain in his Pa’s worn sailing clothes or play with discarded toys of Hoss’ and Adam’s. Yes, this attic held lots of wonderful memories, ones Joe couldn’t get enough of around the holidays. He shook his head, grinning with delight as his eyes fell upon another wooden box holding a small toy soldier. I wonder what else I’ll find, Joe thought. I could stay up here forever, and then …bang…a sharp pain and…
“Ow! Darn it! Stupid dang wall! Dumb toys …..” Joe cursed loudly and it was Hoss’ turn to laugh and receive a scowl from Joe in return. Joe had been so preoccupied in his nostalgia that he hadn’t seen the beam above him which had just met the back of his head.
“Joe, let’s grab them boxes and get! This place gives me the creeps.” Hoss expressed urgently as he turned toward the door. He had to duck too, almost catching his head in the same spot as Joe had earlier.
Not one to miss an opportunity of besting Hoss, Joe looked up at him and teased, “What’s the matter, Hoss? You scared?”
Hoss’ reaction affirmed Joe’s belief and Joe pressed on, “You still believe in that old ghost story brother Adam told us when we were little, don’t yah?”
Caught off guard, Hoss was suddenly speechless, so he tried forcing a smile in an attempt to hide the uneasiness and embarrassment he felt in front of his devilish youngest brother. Shaking his head “no”, Hoss tried his best to pretend nothing was wrong but his expression told an entirely different story.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if Adam, having heard most of the conversation between Joe and Hoss, hadn’t come up sneakily, behind the big man and resonated in his low deep voice, “Woooooooooooooo!”
Well, Hoss jumped a foot in the air, lost his balance and landed with a loud thud on the floor right above Ben.
“What in the world?” Ben questioned out loud, as Hop Sing, hearing the loud sounds too, rushed frantically into the large main room.
“Sons no help father. Too busy play around!” Hop sing ranted as Ben started up the stairs with a mix of anger and concern.
More sounds followed: Little Joe’s infectious cackle; Adam’s deep laughter; another deafening crash which sent the distressed cook into another tirade as he yelled, “You go up stair and stop Hoss from come through floor. Boys always kiddy, kiddy, kiddy……”
And the rest Ben couldn’t understand because Hop Sing had changed to finish in a string of Chinese.
It didn’t take Ben long to reach the attic doorway where Adam was avoiding Hoss’ attempts to grab at him. “My sons,” Ben whispered under his breath, while shaking his head in disappointment.
“What in blazes is going on here?” Ben roared. His proximity startled Adam, causing him to swing around and meet Ben straight on. Ben’s arms were crossed in front of his chest, his expression grim as Adam tried to explain why in his early thirties he was roughhousing with his younger brothers.
“Well Pa, I…” Adam began but was interrupted by Ben who looked beyond his usually mature eldest to Hoss and Joe who were sprawled out on the attic floor. Hoss was still rubbing his head as Joe, now looking quite scared as well as guilty, offered to help the brother he had been teasing only a few minutes ago to his feet.
Once Hoss was standing and for the most part unharmed, Joe stuttered nervously, “I’ll just get…get… the box of decorations, Pa…Pa…,”
“Yes,” Ben stressed sternly, “you’ll all get those decorations, you’ll follow me downstairs, and you’ll help me get this house ready for the party. Is that understood?” His voice rose in volume as he spoke.
“Yes sir,” the boys replied swiftly in unison.
Each son obediently took a box, and followed their Pa in a line down the hall and down the stairs to the main room. All, that is, except for Joe. As he bent over to pick up the wooden box at his feet, he noticed a small bundle between two boxes beyond him. How many times have I been up here and why haven’t I seen this before, he thought. Yet, here it was, plain as day. With Joe’s curiosity peaked, he stepped over the box of decorations and knelt down to carefully pull the small package out from its hiding place. It took a few gentle tugs and then it was free. The small bundle was lightweight and wrapped in some type of cloth, which was full of dust. Turning it over in his hands a few times, Joe blew on it, spreading the dust all around him. It looked as if the bundle was tied with string or ribbon and a small piece of paper was attached to the back.
“Joseph!” came Pa’s strong voice calling from the first floor.
Quickly, Joe remembered what he was supposed to be doing and stood, putting the small bundle on the top of the wooden box he was to carry downstairs.
Rather than give his Pa a chance to call him again, Joe yelled in reply, “I’ll be right there, Pa!” He scooped up the box and headed out the door.
A few minutes later….
“Bout time,” Hoss grumbled, still hurt by the earlier teasing.
Ignoring Hoss’ remark, Joe made his way over to the large round table to the left of the tree. His back to his family, Joe placed the box he held down with the others and reached in to it excitedly, examining his find.
By the light of the main room, Joe could see the cloth that was wrapped around the bundle which looked like a piece old flour sack, but the string holding the bundle together was a thin red hair ribbon. Wiping it off, Joe turned it over and saw that the small note attached to the back had delicate handwriting on it. Though the writing was smudged with age, Joe held it up close to his eyes, and was able to make out the phrase, “To Mon petite Joseph” and suddenly Joe couldn’t breath.
Unaware of Little Joe’s distress, Adam had walked up behind him and began to scold, “Joe, didn’t you hear Pa calling…” but stopped mid-sentence when Joe looked over at him. His youngest brother’s face was a mask of grief, his eyes filling with unshed tears.
“Joe?” Adam asked with compassion and concern, his voice gentle.
For some reason, Joe couldn’t speak but he was able to slowly hand Adam the small bundle he held firmly in his left hand and Adam took it, investigating the thing that seemed to cause Little Joe such upset. When his eyes recognized the familiar writing on the note before him, Adam couldn’t help but whisper the phrase out loud….
“To Mon petite Joseph”
The uncharacteristic silence on the other side of the room between Joe and Adam caused Ben Cartwright to look up with curiosity and worry. Something just wasn’t right and when Ben heard Adam whisper a phrase he hadn’t heard in almost fifteen years, Ben thought his heart would break with joy and despair.
On instinct, Hoss had dropped what he was doing and joined his two brothers near the round table. They weren’t sure what Joe had found but they all knew it could only be from one person — their mother, Marie.
Approaching his sons, Ben tried to steady his voice as he asked soothingly, “Joseph, son, what have you got there?”
Because Little Joe always wore his heart on his sleeve, Ben knew that finding this thing would be difficult for him, especially if this was what Ben had suspected — something left to him from his mother Marie. For that matter, it would be difficult for everyone, for Marie had been so full of life, her spirit sparkling this time of year. When Marie was taken from them so suddenly, it was difficult to adjust to that first Christmas without her and the loss of that joy, love, and laughter spilling from her presence. It took several years for all of them to feel that comfort and happiness in the house and to celebrate the holidays like a family again.
“Pa,” Adam started but was surprised when Joe interrupted.
“Pa, I found this in the attic, stuck between two boxes. Is it …from…Mama?” Joe asked his Pa tentatively.
For the first time Ben had a chance to hold the small bundle in his hands, turning it over in much the same way that Joe had when he first found it. Upon reading the small slip of paper neatly folded and wrapped within the bundle, however, he was sure there was no mistake. It was the handwriting of his beloved Marie.
Taking command of the situation, Ben came up behind Joe and put his arm on the back of his son’s neck, giving him a squeeze of reassurance as he instructed all of them, “Why don’t we all sit down so you can open it, Joe.” Ben almost choked on the words with the emotions they held, but he knew this had to be something that was left to Joe before Marie’s untimely death. It must have been a gift that Marie had bought early or made and then put away. She often did that, always trying to find the perfect gifts for her boys. Ben thought he had found all the gifts hidden away that first Christmas after her death, but this one gift must have been put in a special place or lost by accident until now. Now Marie’s “Mon petite Joseph” was no longer a little boy, but a grown man, who should be given the opportunity to open one last gift left to him by his precious mother.
Difficult as it was, Ben pressed on. “Joe,” he encouraged, gently handing Joe the small bundle, “why don’t you open it.”
From the background, the two older Cartwright boys’ eyes had filled with unshed tears too, as the memory the mother that knew them the best and loved them both with all her heart had suddenly come back to life, if only in a gift. Adam and Hoss looked to one another, their eyes locking in silent acknowledgement and bittersweet joy. For they too missed their Ma more than either could express but welcomed this angelic treasure from her.
Just like Ma, Adam thought, to step in and give us a reminder of just what this holiday is all about.
“You open it, Pa,” Joe told Ben quickly, “I want you to.” The pain of loss and longing radiated from Joe but he smiled, his bright eyes meeting his father’s lovingly ones.
Returning the smile, Ben affirmed, “Alright then,” determined to be calm and strong for all three of his sons. Yet as he began to slowly untie the ribbon binding the bundle, Ben couldn’t stop his hands from shaking.
Worried for his father, Adam was just about to ask if his Pa was okay when he watched him pull open the ribbon and unwrap the material surrounding the item. The gift had been carefully wrapped not in one but two layers of fabric, and it took Ben a moment to unbind it. When he finally did, he held it up for all of them to see.
It was a snowflake. A beautiful, delicate embroidered snowflake made from white lace material with crystal beading sewn into it in intricate patterns. The snowflake fit in Ben’s hand and had six arms, with a small white ribbon tied in a circle at its top. As the firelight reflected against it, the crystal beading gave the snowflake the impression of sparkling, shining snow.
The silence in the big room was deafening. Ben had lowered his head and was fingering the snowflake with both hands, unashamed of the tears that had formed and traveled down his usually strong, stoic face. Adam sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees and holding his chin in his hands. He was unable to move, overcome with emotion. Hoss was restless, uncomfortable with this wave of sadness that enveloped him, anxious for his Pa and youngest brother. Joe was just in shock. Never had he imagined the prize he found would be something like this. She must have made it and put it away for me for Christmas that year, Joe thought, a snowflake.Though tears fell from his eyes, Joe chuckled and this brought Ben and the rest of the family back to the present.
“A snowflake,” Joe repeated this time out loud. His voice wavering with emotion. “Mama knew how much I loved the snow.” Joe paused and stood, walking over to stand next to his Pa. “Still do.” Joe reached out and Ben took his son’s hand in his own, holding it tightly as a gesture of love and support.
Joe sniffed and wiped his eyes with his free arm as he declared with a smile, “Well this tree isn’t gonna get decorated by itself.” Squeezing his Pa’s hand one last time, Joe took the snowflake from him, and grasping the ribbon, hung the delicate ornament from one of the bare tree branches.
All of the Cartwrights sat in silent vigil, eyes fixed on the small white snowflake as it spun, danced, and glittered merrily, looking as if it was alive and falling from the sky.
The sounds of people laughing and singing drifted from the warmth of the ranch house and were a comfort to Little Joe. The afternoon had been a whirlwind of emotion and then the following hectic activity of preparing for the party gave him little time to think on the special discovery he had made today. He had tried to laugh, dance and sing, and enjoy the festivities but the pain was fresh again, new. The wetness on his cheeks was not a surprise and he chastised himself for letting it get the best of him but he couldn’t help it. It was who he was and then… he felt it — a wetness on his face. But it wasn’t his tears of sorrow. It was cold and light and white…snow.
Joe walked out into the middle of the yard, not caring that he had on his best suit and tie. Not caring that he must look silly and childish to his peers. No, he stood out in the yard with his arms outstretched, looking up to the night sky and opening his mouth to catch the snowflakes of the first snowfall of the year. And Joe thought and remembered about the woman who understood and loved him unconditionally and gave him one last memory to hold of her in his heart on this Christmas Eve.
Ben Cartwright stood in the doorway of the large house, watching his son. Ben’s heart was filled with pride and love at how truly remarkable his youngest was and how lucky Ben had been to be reminded of this today in such a special way — by his wife long past and one small crystal snowflake.
“Merry Christmas, Marie,” Ben whispered, before closing the door and rejoining the celebration.