Sketches by Virginia Souza
Christmas Eve was over. Sheila was curled up in front of her electric fire with a nice cup of tea reflecting on the hectic evening at her daughter’s house. Her son-in-law had come to fetch her early so she could watch her grandchildren open their presents. By the time she had arrived the eager had open some of the presents, shoved those aside and were busily tearing the wrapping off more presents. There were so many presents they gave no more than a short glance to each until they moved on to the next one.
Sheila wondered if the children really enjoyed any of the gifts. While she was there the book about lighthouses that she had given each of them was not even inspected after being hurriedly unwrapped. They were good children and she knew they appreciated what they got but they just had too many. Maybe too many gifts was just as bad as not enough presents.
Not enough presents triggered her recollection of Christmas 1942. Her father was lighthouse keeper on Small Island on the west coast of Britain. She was ten years old and was counting the days until Christmas. Her parents had warned her that because of the war Christmas would be different this year. Sheila understood how war could change things. Her house, instead of being painted bright yellow and white, was now a dull dark grey. The beacon was turned off and curtained in the tall tower that Sheila had lived beside all of her life. Every night before dark they pulled dark heavy draperies across the windows so no light would escape from the house. Having done all of these things, the tower had been fired on by Germans airplanes twice on moonlit nights.
Christmas Eve had arrived. Sheila had been busy in the last two months making special Christmas presents for her parents. Town was far away so she could not go buy something. Even if she could she had no money. But a ten-minute walk from her house was a wonderful shop operated by the ocean where everything was free. Every day she walked down to the beach and carefully inspected what the ocean had delivered the night before. She found a small purple glass bottle for her mother, which she had filled with wild flowers and grasses she gathered. For her father a giant scallop shell would make a perfect ashtray for his pipe. Her top find was a small-unmarked life ring. She had covered it with the most beautiful shells she could locate to make a wreath. A piece of dark green rope washed up one day she had carefully unravelled to make ribbon to wrap her gifts and a festive bow for the seashell wreath. She had even made a trip to the beach today to see if there would be any last minute items but had not found any.
As she thought about what Christmas would be like her mother interrupted her thoughts’s calling “Sheila come here.”
“Sheila, I have just sliced the smoked salmon for our appetizer for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner. Would you like to take the scraps to give to Heathcliff for his Christmas?”
“Oh, that is a wonderful idea. I did not know what to give that bird.” Sheila answered as she took the dish of scraps and rushed outside to find the herring gull she had adopted three years ago after nursing him back to health when he hurt his wing.
As always, Heathcliff was sitting on top of the roof of the lantern room of the lighthouse. When he saw Sheila he swooped down to sit at her feet. Being a normal herring gull, Heathcliff would have preferred to gobble down all of the salmon, but it was Christmas and Sheila wanted to make it last so she slowly gave the bird the pieces from the bowl.
Returning to the kitchen Sheila asked her mother what else beside smoked salmon they were having for Christmas dinner. “You know we have a shortage of things because of rationing. I have done my best with what we have here. Smoked salmon and pickled herring are the appetizers; the main course is roast leg of lamb accompanied by turnips, potatoes, onion, and carrots from the walled garden. For desert, I have made a rhubarb pudding over which we can pour thick cream. I know you tired of lamb but that is the only meat we have.” Her mother sadly replied.
Sheila was tired of lamb and also fish but she knew her mother was doing the best she could so she replied. “But, rhubarb pudding is my favorite and if I have a big helping with lots of cream I will not even care that we are having lamb.”
“A big helping of rhubarb pudding it is then. Would you help me dish up our evening meal so we can open our presents?” Her mother laughingly replied with a twinkle in her eye.
Quickly Sheila helped her mother serve the simple meal of dried fish and potatoes. While they did the dishes her father went in and started a peat fire in the fireplace. The fire was a special treat, as they had none since the war began as the planes could spot smoke. Since it was Christmas Eve maybe the Germans were celebrating too and so the risk was slight.
After the dishes were done, the three of them gathered around the bright sweet smelling peat fire. Sheila was so excited so she immediately gave out her presents. Her mother loved her vase of flowers. Sheila's father lit his pipe and laid it in the large shell before carefully hanging the simple shell wreath in a place of honor above the fireplace. Sheila was proud her parents liked what she had made.
Now, it was Sheila's turn. Her parents told her to close her eyes. It seemed like forever before she was allowed to open them. When she did sitting in front of her was a magnificent immense teddy bear sitting in its own rocking chair. Sheila was afraid to touch the bear it was so stunning with its blue coat and hat. At her mother’s urging she picked up the giant bear to find even though he was big he was light, soft and cuddly.
“He is a real Small Lighthouse bear because he is made from everything grown here. He is stuffed with fleece I cleaned, washed and carded last summer. His fur is felt from our neighbor brown sheep and I embroidered his face with yarn pieces left over from spinning. I used this year’s finest wool died blue with local plants to knit his coat and hat. Your father gathered driftwood that he carved and polished to make the bear chair. We wish we could give you more but with the war this was the best we could do.” Her mother explained.
Sheila sat the bear back down in its beautiful chair and ran to give her Mom and Dad a great big hug. “Oh, thank you, thank you. He is the most wonderful bear I have ever seen and I couldn’t possibly want anything more as it will take all of my love to care for such a large bear.” She cried.
The telephone ringing brought Sheila back to the present. It was her daughter telling her how much she loved her and that her grandchildren had requested they be read their lighthouse books before they went to sleep. Sheila realized it did not matter how many presents you got—many or few. What mattered was the love involved in giving and receiving them.
This story appeared in the
December 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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