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by Michael Morse, contributing writer
They called it home, and it was, for now anyway. Cheap cedar shingles covering rotted 3/8 plywood, that nailed to 2 x 3’s, then a thin plaster job covering the studs. It was old, and decaying, and built in a different time, when even the destitute could afford a permanent place.
But at least they had shelter.
They huddled together in the great room, the only room, a 12’—14′ space with a couch in the center, taken from a trash heap, all coils and springs until John covered it with his blanket. The old folks, all three sat on it, the rest of them sat on the floor. There was no Christmas tree; they needed the wood that burned in the cast iron stove that took up a quarter of the room.
Christmas dinner came in a pot, the same pot that most of their meals came in, only on this day there were scraps of meat and a few carrots, some garlic for flavor and sweet potatoes; the weevils carefully cut out, and the ones that weren’t didn’t taste much different from the meat.
The feast was lively, and gratitude filled the air.
After dinner they sang the songs. Rare old mountain tunes, passed down for generations. The eldest began, his voice barely audible, the words difficult to understand;
O holy night,
Our feet are bare and frozen
But we dream, oh we dream
And pray for the time to come
When Christ returns
To take us home . . .
His mouth barely moved as he sang, his baritone voice a shell of what it was before the war. They inched closer, and listened, their bodies close, sharing what little warmth could be generated.
The ladies had their turn, and Margaret, who huddled close to Fred and shared the thickest, yet far too thin blanket they had, sang, her voice filling the space, enveloping her family with the softness of her voice;
Our lives are hard
But still there’s light
Bring our virgin mother to us
Bearing the savior
Whose words we must
Live by and find peace,
Live and love and peace . . .
The beauty of the song filled the room, and when she stopped the silence lingered, but in was a serene, comfortable quiet, and it covered them in warmth, their misery forgotten for the moment, as hope for salvation filled their hearts.
“Why do we sing these songs,” the youngest asked.
“So we won’t forget,” said Ellen, the little girl’s sister. “So we never forget.”
“Forget what?” asked little Mary.
Bill answered in song;
May I hold him, pa rum pa pum pum . . .¦
He is to be the King, pa rum pa pum pum . . .
To lead us from our sins, pa rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum . . .
He was a poor boy too, pa rum pa pum pum . . .
He had no food to eat, pa rum pa pum pum . . .
But he smiled at me, pa rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum . . .
He will come.
Song filled the little house as the family huddled together, and fed their little fire scraps of wood they had gathered throughout the weeks leading to this day. Blasts in the distance seemed farther away than usual, less frightening, less likely to land on them and bring an end to their Christmas celebration.
The little ones basked in the melodies that filled their world, cherishing the fleeting moments, knowing that on the morrow, the struggle for survival would begin again. They listened to the words from the songs sang that glorious day, and remembered them the best they could, for God willing, it would some day be their turn to share the gifts of Christmas.
The songs went on into the night, when darkness descended, and the candle wax melted, and they slept, huddled together, and Christmas came and went.
My little family survives Christmas Day, their gifts far different from what we know. But a gift is only as good as the happiness it brings to the giver, and the recipient. I think of the people in this story often; of how the spirit of the living can overcome all hardship, and beauty can be found in the simple sharing of space with the people we love.
I think our primary purpose in life is to help others by making our collective journey as kind, gracious and productive as possible, even when the best we can do is to sing a carol whose words have been long forgotten but carries forward the message of hope, love and salvation.
Michael Morse spent 23 years as a firefighter/EMT with the Providence Fire Department before retiring in 2013 as Captain, Rescue Co. 5. He is an author of several books, most offering fellow firefighter/EMTs and the general population alike a poignant glimpse into one person’s journey through life, work and hope for the future. He is a Warwick resident.
Michael….you brought tears to my eyes……such a nice tribute to our Hughes Family. Thank you so much…….MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY AND WISHES FOR A HAPPY HEALTHY NEW YEAR!!!!