Chapter Seventeen


Moses’ Last Christmas


Winter seemed colder that morning than any other in the Virgil's young memory.  The ground was its hardest and the leaves sure seemed their crackliest and frost piled on piles of fallen pasture grasses.  Ice clung for its life to the rocks along the creek and in the bullpen the calves belched huge, blue-gray clouds of smoke.  The fog lay heavy over the creek, melting into it.

He hardly noticed the gnarled old body curled in the shadows of the bearskin rug as he started the kindling in the stove. Moses snorted in his sleep and turned over, startling the boy. Virgil ran up the stairs.

"Mother, Grampa Moses is here."

"Yes, he’s come from Montague to live with us.   Uncle Moses died and Grampa has no one to look after him.  He’s almost ninety years old and winter is here.  We will take good care of him, and you, Virgie, you and he can spend all your time together - after school, that is."

"Well, there’s no school today,” rasped the old voice from below. It’s Christmas Day and I think it's time we scouted the creeks for signs of raccoon and fox.  It's going to be a good winter for pelts."  

The boy ran back down the stairs and jumped on his grandpa, almost breaking his ribs.

"Oh,” he winced aloud. "Oh, be careful Virgie, these old bones are brittle. Grampa’s like an old clay pot, easy to break and not so easy to mend."

"Merry Christmas, Grampa.  Guess what we're having for dinner?"

"A turkey?"


"A rooster?"


"A ham?"

"No," the boy said impatiently, "a goose!"

"A goose!   Well, who would have guessed,” exclaimed the old man in feigned astonishment.

"I didn't know you were coming to live with us, Grampa,” chattered the boy.

"I wanted to surprise you,” said his great grandfather. "I was going to climb down the chimney like St. Nick but I couldn't quite fit.” They all laughed.

"Get dressed while I make Grampa some coffee and hot cakes, Virgie,” said Aurelia.  The boy hopped and skipped across the room and up the stairs.

"You know, you're his whole world, Grampa,” said Aurelia. "He loves his brothers, but you're his father and grandfather, teacher and guiding spirit.  I’m so glad   you wanted to come and live here.  He’s lost without you. I don't know what he'll do after you're ---,” she caught herself.

"I know, I know, I don't have many more Christmases left, child." He reached across the table and held her hand.   "He’ll do just fine, I promise."

The kitchen door opened in from the morning darkness and a sharp chill shot   across the floor.  "Mornin', Grampa” said the boys. "Mornin', Mother."

"Good morning, boys," said Moses.

"All finished Alfred?" asked Aurelia.

"Yes," he said rubbing his hands over the stove.

"Is Virgie up yet?" asked Ruel.

"Yes, he's getting dressed," said Aurelia.

"Did he see you Grampa?" asked Julian.

"See me?   Almost broke my ribs,” he winced again and massaged his chest.

There was a scuffling in the room over the kitchen, mixed with muffled young boy's voices.

"Sounds like they're at it again," Alfred said.

Virgil came into the kitchen pouting,  "Milton and Austin are teasing me," he complained.

"What are they doing now?" asked his mother.

"They're making faces at me in the dark."

"Well, if it's dark, how can you see?"

"I can tell, that's how,” he answered, leaning his elbow on the kitchen table scuffing his toe across the floor, his finger in his nose.

"Stop that," said Aurelia, slapping his hand.

"Milton, Austin, get up immediately.   There's work to be done. Alfred, have   those two split some wood for the stove and fireplace. That should keep them out of mischief.  Laura!  Aurelia!  Come on.  It's almost six o'clock.  We have a lot to do before dinner.  Come on now."

"Coming mother," groaned the girls.

"Come on, Grandpa, let’s go scout the creek,” said Virgil impatiently.

"Now, I’m not like you, son.  I can't see in the dark.  Maybe we'd better wait for some daylight, eh?" said Moses.

Daylight came as usual.   And as usual all went about doing their chores in the house and around the farm.   Christmas or not, fences had to be mended, wagon wheel spokes replaced, the barn cleaned, and stock fed.   The girls fetched the dried fruits from the panty for pies, and the root cellar held the winters supply of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips and squash.   The root cellar was also an indoor springhouse. Their father, James, had built the house over a spring, which he excavated and lined with stone.  So they always had a fresh supply of water that never froze and never went dry.

Moses and Virgil ventured out for a short time only.  The biting cold hurt the old man.  It wasn't like before. It hurt deeper and it took longer to warm the bones. But they had seen some promising signs. It was going to be a good winter for fur, if he lived that long.

"Just in time, Grampa," said Laura.  "Dinner's almost ready!"

"See any Indians, Virgie?” taunted Austin.

Virgil ignored him.  He took off his boots and washed his hands and face without being told. Milton made a funny face at him. Virgil ignored him too.

"Does God punish mean brothers, Mother?" he asked.

"Why, do you know any brothers who need punishing?” she asked casually.

He looked at Milton and Austin.   They mocked silent laughter and made more faces.

"Yes!" he yelled.

They laughed out loud, only adding more to Virgil's fury.

"Shut up, you dumb heads," he screamed.

"Boys, boys, boys!  Please!" she implored.

The commotion subsided.  "Come on, everyone, dinner's ready."

The family gathered round the table in quiet earnestness.  Moses sat at the head with Aurelia opposite him. How much she looks like her mother, he thought, those beautiful eyes!  Just like my baby Laura. If honey had a cream, rich, dark, sweet, it would be the color of her eyes.  He closed his eyes while she said a prayer of thanks.

The glow of the flickering candles played tricks on him.   His mind swam in a sea of effervescent wine. The voices confused him. They all seemed so far away.

"Merry Christmas,” they seemed to say, so very far away.

* * * * *

Moses yelped an "Ouch,” as he jerked his hand off the steaming goose and sucked on his burning finger.

"Serves you right,” his wife admonished.   "You're worse than all the children.  Now wait until it's time to eat."

“But it looks so good, Olive."

"A fine example you are to your children.   Do you want to raise a bunch of heathens?"

"I just wanted a little taste," he insisted.

"See to the carving while I test the bread.  Laura, help the little ones."

Olive thumped the honey brown crusts with her knuckles.  They sounded hollow enough.   Moses looked over his shoulder to see if she was busy and quickly broke off a piece of crisp skin.   It was as tasty as it looked.  The dried black currants made a delicious sauce. 

"Father's eating the goose," chirped young Henry.

"Hush,” whispered the elder Moses, quieting the child with a little piece of skin.

The house hummed with the harmony of familial love.  How blessed I  am, he thought in silent thankfulness.   A loving wife and four beautiful children.  How blessed we all are.

Five beautiful faces beamed back at him from around the table.   He surveyed the feast before them, the biggest, plumpest goose God ever created, cranberries, candied yams, hot bread, squash, turnips and potatoes, and the pièce de résistance, a plum pudding, soon to be set ablaze with brandy.  It wasn't always like this. He remembered one Christmas in particular. It seemed like only yesterday.

"Merry Christmas, Moses," said Olive.

"Merry Christmas," said the children.

"Merry Christmas, my precious treasures."

* * * * *

"Grampa, Grampa, are you all right?" Aurelia said, shaking him.

"Oh, I was just remembering the last Christmas before your Grandma Olive died – in Montague, 1788, your mother Laura was only seven, all our babies, so little and so all alone.  The last happy Christmas we ever had.” 

“Tell us about the Christmas during the rebellion, Grampa, when you were with General Washington,” Virgil pleaded.

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