Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Christmas 1964

December 6, 2023

Hillevi Peterson

We boarded the train around midnight from the old depot, a turn-of-the-century railway station that had seen little renovation other than electricity since it had opened in 1917. It was a cold, crisp Christmas Eve, the kind storybook memories were made from. The snow fell like glitter from the starlit sky. The bells from St. Paul’s Catholic Church rang in the near distance as Mass was being celebrated to honor the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

As I hummed Silent Night, the whistle of the nearing train matched pitches with my voice. The snow covered ground rumbled beneath my new Buster Brown shoes as I picked up my little Samsonite case and ran near the edge of the tracks. Dad pulled me back by the hood of my coat. “You’re too close,” he slurred, “What the hell is wrong with you, child?”

“Sorry,” I replied, sniffling the drip that was running down from my cold nose.

“You’re disgusting. Use a Kleenex!” scolded my brother. Thankfully, his lecture was cut short by the sound of the brakes hissing and screeching. The image of my angry brother disappeared in a cloud of snowflakes and steam as the train came to a full stop.

Earlier that evening, my brother Jody had picked me up after the Christmas Eve service at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. I climbed into the car, fresh from the scent of pine needles and incense. I was humming the melody from the solo I sang in the choir that night: 

Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,

Where a mother laid her baby,In a manger for his bed.

Mary was that Mother mild,Jesus Christ her little Child.

Everyone had said I had a strong, beautiful voice. They said they could hear me all the way to the front of the church.  Father Clark proclaimed I had the voice of an angel and my mother would be so proud. I asked him if he thought she could hear me and he told me that all of heaven could hear. I got tears in my eyes and he put his arms around me. Kitty Clark, his wife, came and wrapped her arms around me, freeing her husband to greet other members of the congregation. Knowing that I would be leaving town for Christmas, the Clarks had given me a beautiful new doll as a companion for my travels. Their daughter and my best friend, Megan, had gotten the same doll and we wandered about with our twin dolls through fellowship hall, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. I was completely unaware of the quiet murmurings regarding ‘poor little Hillevi Anne’ until I heard my name and saw the sympathetic faces watching me, a nine-year-old child who was experiencing her first Christmas after the death of her mother.

I quickly excused myself, tip-toeing back upstairs into the sanctuary. I stood alone, lost in the wonderment of the beautifully adorned church and drawn into the mysterious presence of God, comforted and unafraid. “Happy Birthday, Jesus,” I whispered. The eternity candle and a few dimmed lights were the only illumination. In their shadows I could see the fresh evergreen boughs that joined the pews, the red velvet bows that hung from the pillared candles lining the center aisle, and the white velvet fabric that draped across the altar, the pulpit, and the cross.

Tonight, this holy place had been filled with families dressed in their Christmas finest, all holding tiny white candles with tin liners as we passed a common flame. Our voices had filled the air with songs that called us to come and adore Christ the Lord. 

Had mama been there? Is she in heaven celebrating Jesus’ birthday too? Did she really hear me sing tonight? Is she with the angels now?

I remember feeling questions while being drawn to the front of the church. I knelt down on the soft cushion and laid my head upon the railing, staring at the eternal flame glowing within the red glass vase. I took a deep breath and inhaled the lingering scent of the Frankincense and Myrrh not knowing that it would embed itself in my senses forever. For the first time since my mother died, I felt God within.

Jody’s voice woke me out of my trance as he announced he would be waiting in the car and impatiently urged me to hurry up and get my stuff together. I loved my brother but I didn’t understand him. I was, after all, only 9, and he was 18. He hadn’t come to church on Christmas, even to hear me sing.  I knew why dad didn’t come. He was just too sad because it was our first Christmas without mama. Jody, on the other hand, was angry at everyone, including God.

Armed with cookies, my new doll, and my candle, I climbed into the Rambler station wagon that had been mom’s and now belonged to my brother. He informed me he was dropping me off at the Elks Club where dad was because he was going to visit his friends. He told me to tell dad that he would meet us at the train station and not to worry. I promised I would pass on the message.

My father always sat at his usual bar stool, not down on some corner, but smack dab in the middle of the bar, surrounded by the friendly older men I had seen there week after week.

“Hillevi Anne, play us a tune on the piano!” Dad raised his glass as he greeted me. 

I was always willing to entertain. Even at the ripe old age of 9, I learned that you could please a crowd with a song.

I skipped over to the old upright. The keys were yellowed not by age but by the smoke that permeated the air and gradually rested down upon the always-exposed keyboard. Cigarette burns decorated each end of the 88’s — probably from some happy drunk who had gotten carried away with an extra chorus or two.

I pulled over a folding chair that felt so cold when I sat down on it. My foot found the pedal and I curled my fingers over the keys, just the way my piano teacher taught me to do. Then I filled the air with a John Thompson Easy Piano arrangement of Little Drummer Boy, followed by an encore of Silent Night. The cheers went up around the bar as a second ‘kiddy cocktail’ with an extra cherry in it found its way over to the piano. Feeling the crowd was with me, I sang as I accompanied myself to the only other song I had memorized: Oh What a Beautiful Morning

Everyone cheered again as they patted my dad on the back. I heard him begin his recollection of Valparaiso High School’s production of Oklahoma!  All the holiday revelers agreed it was just as good as any Broadway show could be. Of course, the choreography was perfect, thanks to my mom. And my brother Jody was perfect as Will Parker. Yes sir, my brother was perfect.

One of the men at the bar drove us down to the train station where Jody was waiting for us. The man wished me a Merry Christmas as he placed a dollar bill into my gloved hand before he drove away.

We boarded the train around midnight and to this day I don’t remember where we went, but I do remember why. Dad had said that we just couldn’t be home for our first Christmas without Mom, it would be too painful for us.

My brother refused to acknowledge dad as we made our way through the aisles of the sleeper car. Once inside our compartment, my father kissed me goodnight before he stumbled off for a nightcap in the lounge car. Jody threw himself into the lower berth and announced that when Dad died I’d be an orphan. Then he snarled, “Merry Christmas, kid. This is as good as it will ever get.”

I climbed into my upper berth and was rocked to sleep by the clickity clack rhythm of the train upon the tracks. I remember feeling the cadence and softly singing myself into a Christmas sleep:

Come they told me, pa rum pa pum pum…  

The featured image, “A candle in the dark,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Ethan Hagen says:

    Thank you, Hillevi. This hits the heart and is very moving. God Bless.

  2. Laurine Gustke says:

    Absolutely beautiful story and beautifully written. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe started me on my relationship with Jesus too. So glad you shared this story, my friend!

  3. Beautiful story Hillevi. Heartfelt and heart wrenching. I didn’t want it to end.❤️

  4. Stephanie Scoville says:

    So beautiful!

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