A GIFT OF LOVE
Christine Thompson stood in front of her parents’ Christmas tree and searched for a bare branch. The tree, a bushy Scots Pine, stretched its stubby arms wide as if flaunting its bright raiment. Flat circles beautifully trimmed with fancy laces and edging, some beaded, others embroidered, competed with the luxuriant excess of needles for space. These curious ornaments had two things in common, each was attached to the tree with a red velvet bow and each held the photograph of a girl. Christine’s lips curved upward, her eyes glowed as they swept over the bountifully covered tree to a vision beyond.
“The last one. It’s a sad moment.” Love and understanding softened her mother’s voice, but regret resonated through both.
“Now Anna.” Her father stabbed once more at the blazing fire, set the poker back into place with a clang and rose to wrap an arm around her. He flung his “talk to her, you know I’m no good with words” look at his daughter over his wife’s head.
As always Christine came to his rescue. “Could you check Adam for me, Mom. He’s started kicking his blankets off in his sleep.”
Her mother bent over the padded carry-all holding pride of place on the couch. “He’s just fine. You don’t need to worry. I put him into a warm pair of sleepers. Just look at those eyelashes, Frank.” She stroked a work-roughened finger across the sleep flush on the baby’s face.
With her mother distracted from the melancholy of her the photos, Christine went back to studying them.
“Who are they?” Her husband’s breath brushed her cheek. She shivered, feeling the still awesome excitement of knowing he was near. His arm slipped around her waist and his warm lips pressed against the side of her neck.
“My sisters.” Christine swiveled within his arms. She didn’t want to miss the look on her husband’s face.
Amazed, he bent closer to study the picture of a fragile Chinese girl, then touched the frame holding the smiling face of a teenage girl, her cast a prominent dot on her forehead. He turned to stare without comprehension at her father.
“No.” Christine laughed. “Dad’s extraordinary but he certainly didn’t father all these girls.”
“Then how can they be your sisters?” Jack turned back, a twinkle in his eye duplicating her father’s wink.
“My mother adopted them for me.” Love colored Christine’s voice with a rich hue and warmed her face as she turned a special smile to her mother. “Tell Jack about the first Christmas, Mom.”
Anna Wheeler turned from her grandson to her daughter. “It was twenty-five years ago.” She sighed, settled herself into the deep curve of the sofa and prepared to enjoy herself. “When Christine arrived ten days before Christmas, six weeks ahead of schedule, I don’t know which was stronger, my worry or my joy.”
“She scared the willies out of us.” Her father interjected. “Still trying to.” He squeezed his wife’s shoulder. “Right Anna?”
“Anyway.” She continued, after flashing Frank a scolding look. “I was so thankful, I wanted to do something special. The doctors had doubts that I could deliver a healthy baby you see, Jack. And when Christine was born they said no more. I thought of all the brothers and sisters I’d wanted to give her.”
“She was standing in front of the Christmas tree, wondering what to give me for my first Christmas.” Christine picked up the threads of the much repeated story. “And then she thought of giving me a sister through one of the International Foster Programs.” She grabbed Jack’s hand and dragged him over to the tree. “That was Rena. Where’d you hang her picture, Mom?”
Anna rose and moved to the tree. Soon the two women had Jack’s head swivelling back and forth as each found a picture that meant sharing a new story.
“This was the first frame Mom let me help with.” Christine lifted a small circle closer, so that Jack could see the childish printing that spelled `Lona’ done in gold liquid embroidery. She’s twenty-eight years old, a nurse in Cambodia and married with three children, now.”
“Look, here’s Samuta’s new picture. It just arrived yesterday.” Anna pulled Christine sideways to peer at the low hanging ornament.
“Oh mom, she’s grown so much!” Christine straightened, brushed a straight swathe of silken brown hair behind her ear and gave Jack a gamine grin. “I visited her when I was in Ecuador three years ago.”
“When you played house with that South American dictator for three months.”
“Fat chance.” She elbowed her mother and they both started laughing.
“Jack, our girl would never do anything like that. She was working.”
“If you where leading the pure life with your foster sister, it was only by choice, I’m certain there were several dictators just dying to get hold of you.”
“What a sweetie.” Christine wound her arm through Jack’s. “Isn’t he a sweetie, Mom?”
“Your Dad thinks so.” Anna grinned at her husband.
Caught cooing baby talk to his grandson, he tried to regain his gruff persona. “He’s the only man you’ve dated who knows how to handle you,” he growled.
“Yes, he’s good at that.” Christine pressed her face into Jack’s shoulder, stifling a giggle.
Jack latched on to her chin and pulled her face into the open. They shared a delicious look that darkened Jack’s eyes to navy and made tingles race into the pit of Christine’s stomach.
“She’s off again.” Her dad harumphed. She’s had that ridiculous vacant look since she eloped. “Wonder what it means.”
Anna stared at him and shook her head.
“So, all these girls are your foster sisters. Twenty-five sisters!” Jack still seemed overwhelmed by the prospect. “Do they all come and visit you?” His adam’s apple moved up and down with a jerk.
“Three have managed to travel to Saskatchewan. Jasmine visited me in last year in Toronto when I did my second-year residency. She’s from Jamaica. Some I’ve spoken to on the phone. Several I visited in high school. Each summer I’d work for an international organization so I could travel to a country where one of my sisters lived.
“Rachael in Jerusalem, Mirela in Bosnia, Samuta in Ecuador,” Anna pointed the girls out to Jack.”
“I still write to and hear from all of them.”
“And this year there is no new sister to hang on the tree.” Anna’s voice was thick with unshed tears.
“No, Mom.” Christine crossed to her mother and wrapped her strong, young arms around her. She knew her mother felt she was failing her in some way. “This tradition will never come to an end. Now, my sisters will become an Advent celebration leading up to Christmas. We’ll set up the tree on the first of December and hang one picture each day up to Christmas. Twenty-five is a special number.”
Her dad chuckled and spoke to Jack. “I bet you’ve already discovered that our Christine likes to make everything last as long as possible?”
“I sure know she did when she was in labour.” Jack flashed Christine a smile. “I thought she was going to stretch that out forever.” He ducked out of reach of Christine’s swipe.
“Time for eggnog and my mince tarts.” Anna chimed in. “Though I don’t think I’m going to let you three have any rum in your eggnog. You’re punch happy, already.” Walking stiffly, she left the room.
“Twenty-five.” Bemused, Jack turned back to the tree. “Why is your mother stopping if it saddens her so much?”
“It’s become too expensive. By the time she’d fostered fifteen of the girls she had to nurse full-time to pay the monthly adoption fees. She had to quit work this year because of her back injury.”
“What happens to the girls? Surely they aren’t put back into their original circumstances?”
“No, Jack. We wouldn’t let that happen.” Christine’s father rose to throw another log on the fire. “Over half of the girls are grown and self-supporting, now. The others Anna will continue to sponsor. She’s finally allowed me to help. She’s stubborn and independent and this `back’ thing has been really hard on her. Makes her feel useless, she says.” He snorted. “As if my Anna could ever be anything but a whirlwind.” The last of Christine’s sisters will be on their own by the time we retire.”
“Don’t talk about the last of our girls. I can’t bear it.” Anna came back into the room, carrying a silver tray and set it on the table in front of the couch.”
“There can’t be any end, to my sisters. They’ll always be with us, we have our letters and memories and their dreams.” Christine spoke decisively. “Mom and Dad, before we have the punch will you bring Adam over here. I want to give him his Christmas present.” She squeezed Jack’s hand, almost dancing with impatience as she waited for the group to assemble by the tree. Slowly she withdrew the object in her pocket and dangled it in front of her son’s little face. He yawned hugely then focused on the whirling disc of gold. “Adam, meet your new brother Kemal. He’s six years old and he comes from Nicaragua.”
“You sneaky little devil. You never breathed a word of this.” Jack swatted her derriere, then pulled her into his arms. “What a clever woman.”
“Mom, will you do the honors.” Christine pressed the small medallion with the green velvet bow into her mother’s trembling fingers.
“I’d love to.” Anna reverently hung Kemal’s small frame.
“There you see, Anna. Not an ending at all.” Frank tucked Adam into his left arm and leaned over to rub his whiskers along Christine’s cheek. “You done good, Kid.”
“Another beginning.” ack pressed a kiss to his wife’s temple. “Another reason why I love you so much.”
Circled by the old and the new, comforted by tradition, stimulated by change, Christine reached for her tiny son. “Just think, all of this,” her hand swept over the twirling, gleaming medallions, “all this love … happened because of the birth of a baby. It’s hard to believe.”