The Last Straw
Everyone, unfortunately, was cooped up in the house that typical gray winter afternoon. And, as usual, the four little McNeals were at it again, teasing each other, squabbling, bickering, always fighting over their toys.
At times like this, Ellen was almost ready to believe that her children didnt love each other, even though she knew that wasnt true. All brothers and sisters fight sometimes, of course, but lately her lively little bunch had been particularly horrid to each other, especially Eric and Kelly, who were only a year apart. The two of them seemed determined to spend the whole long winter making each other miserable. Give me that, Its mine! Kelly screamed, her voice shrill. It is not! I had it first. Eric answered stubbornly.
Ellen sighed as she listened to the latest argument. With Christmas only a month away, the house seemed sadly lacking Christmas spirit.
This was supposed to be the season of sharing and love, of warm feelings and happy hearts. A home needed more than just pretty packages and twinkling lights on a tree to fill the holidays with joy.
Ellen had only one idea. Years ago, her grandmother had told her about an old custom that helped people discover the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps it would work for her family this year. It was certainly worth a try.
She gathered the children together and lined them up on the couch, tallest to smallest: Eric, Kelly, Linda and Mike. How would you kids like to start a new family tradition this year? She asked. Its like a game, but it can only be played by people who can keep a secret. Can everyone here do that? I can! shouted Eric. I can keep a secret better than him, yelled Kelly. I can do it! chimed in Lisa. Me too. Me too. Squealed little Mike. Im big enough. Well then, this is how the game works, Ellen explained. This year were going to surprise Baby Jesus when he comes on Christmas Eve by making Him the softest bed in the world. Were going to fill a little crib with the straw to make it comfortable. But heres the secret part. The straw we put in will measure the good deeds weve done, but we wont tell anyone who were doing them for. The children looked confused. But how will Jesus know its His bed? Kelly asked. Hell know, said Ellen. Hell recognize it by the love we put in to make it soft. But who will we do the good deeds for? Asked Eric, still a little confused. Well do them for each other. Once a week well put all of our names in a hat, mine and Daddys too. Then well each pick out a different name. Whoevers name we draw, well do kind deeds for that person for a whole week. But you cant tell anyone else whose name youve chosen. Well each try to do as many favors for our special person as we can without getting caught, and for every good deed we do, well put another straw in the crib. Like being a spy! squealed Lisa. But what if I pick someones name that I dont like? Kelly frowned. Ellen thought about it for a minute. Maybe you could use an extra fat piece of straw. And think how much faster the fat straws will fill up our crib. Well use the cradle in the attic she said. And we can all go to the field behind the school for the straw.
Without a single argument, the children bundled into their wool hats and mittens, laughing and tumbling out of the house. The field had been covered with tall grass in the summer, but now, dead and dried, the golden stalks looked just like real straw. They carefully selected handfuls and placed them in the large box they had carried with them. Thats enough, Ellen laughed when the box was almost overflowing. Remember its only a small cradle.
So home they went to spread their straw carefully on a large tray Ellen never used. Eric, because he was the oldest, was given the responsibility of climbing into the attic and bringing down the cradle.
Well pick names as soon as Daddy comes home for dinner, Ellen said, with a smile at the thought of Marks pleased reaction to the childrens transformed faces and voices, filled now with excited anticipation rather than annoyance.
At the supper table that night, six pieces of paper were folded and shaken around in Marks furry winter hat, and the drawing began. Kelly picked first and immediately started to giggle. Lisa reached into the hat next, trying hard to look like a serious spy. Mike couldnt read yet, so Mark whispered the name in his ear. Then Mike quickly ate his little wad of paper so no one would ever learn the identity of his secret person. Eric was the next to choose, and as he unfolded his scrap of paper, a frown creased his forehead. But he stuffed the name quickly into his pocket and said nothing. Ellen and Mark selected names and the family was ready to begin.
The next week that followed was filled with surprises. It seemed the McNeal house had suddenly been invaded by an army of invisible elves. Kelly would walk into her room at bedtime to find her nightgown neatly laid out and her bed turned down. Someone cleaned up the sawdust from under the workbench without being asked. The jelly blobs magically disappeared every morning. When Eric was brushing his teeth, someone crept quietly into his room and made the bed. It wasnt made perfectly, but it was made. That particular little elf must have had short arms because he couldnt seem to reach the middle. Where are my shoes? Mark asked one morning. No one seemed to know, but suddenly, before he left for work, they were back in his closet again, freshly shined.
Ellen noticed other changes during that week too. The children werent teasing or fighting as much. An argument would start, and then suddenly stop right in the middle for no apparent reason. Even Eric and Kelly seemed to be getting along better and bickering less. In fact, there were times when all the children could be seen smiling secret smiles and giggling to themselves. And slowly, one by one, the first straws began to appear in the crib. Just a few, then a few more each day. By the end of the first week a little pile had accumulated.
Everyone was anxious to pick new names, and this time there was more laughter and merriment than there had been the first time. Except for Eric. Once again, he unfolded his scrap of paper, glanced at it, and stuffed it in his pocket without a word.
The second week brought more astonishing events, and the little pile of straw in the manger grew higher and softer. There was more laughter, less teasing, and hardly any arguments could be heard around the house. Only Eric had been unusually quiet and sometimes Ellen would catch him looking a little sad. But the straws in the manger continued to pile up.
At last it was almost Christmas. They chose names for the final time on the night before Christmas Eve. So they sat around the table waiting for the last set of names to be shaken in the hat, the children smiled as they looked at their hefty pile of straws. They all knew it was comfortable and soft, but there was one day left and they could still make it a little deeper, a little softer, and they were going to try.
For the last time the hat was passed around the table. Mike picked out a name, and again quickly ate the paper as he had done each week. Lisa unfolded hers carefully under the table, peeked at it and then hunched up her little shoulders, smiling. Kelly reached into the hat and grinned from ear to ear when she saw the name. Ellen and Mark each took their turn and handed the hat with the last name to Eric. As he unfolded the scrap of paper and glanced at it his face crumpled and he seemed about to cry. Without a word he turned and ran from the room.
Everyone immediately jumped up from the table, but Ellen stopped them. No! Stay where you are, she said firmly. Ill go. In his room, Eric was trying to pull on his coat with one hand while he picked up a small cardboard suitcase with the other. I have to leave, he said quietly through his tears. If I dont, Ill spoil Christmas. But why? And where are you going? I can sleep in my snow fort for a couple of days. Ill come home right after Christmas, I promise.
Ellen started to say something about freezing and snow and no mittens or hats, but Mark, who had come up behind her, gently laid his hand on her arm and shook his head. The front door closed, and together they watched from the window as the little figure with the sadly slumped shoulders trudged across the street and sat down on a snow bank on the corner. It was dark outside, and cold, and a few flurries drifted down the small boy and his suitcase. Give him a few more minutes alone, said Mark quietly. I think he needs that. Then you can talk to him.
The huddled figure was already dusted with white when Ellen walked across the street and sat down beside him on the snow bank. What is it, Eric? Youve been so good these last few weeks, but I know somethings been bothering you since we first started the crib. Can you tell me, honey? Ah, Mom . . . Dont you see? He sniffed. I tried so hard, but I cant do it anymore, and now Im going to wreck Christmas for everybody. The little boy choked. You just dont know. I got Kellys name every time! And I hate Kelly! I tried, Mom. I really did. I snuck in her room every night and fixed her bed, I even laid out her crummy nightgown. I let her use my racecar one day, but she smashed it right into the wall like always! Every week, when we picked new names, I thought it would be over. Tonight, when I got her name again, I knew I couldnt do it anymore. If I try, Ill probably punch her instead. If I stay home and beat Kelly up, Ill spoil Christmas for everybody.
The two of them sat there quietly for a few minutes and then Ellen spoke softly. Eric, Im so proud of you. Every good deed you did should count double because it was hard for you to be nice to Kelly for so long. But you did those good deeds anyway, one straw at a time. You gave your love when it wasnt easy to give. And maybe thats what the spirit of Christmas is really all about. And maybe its the hard good deeds and the difficult straws that make that little crib special. Youre the one whos probably added the most important straws this year. Ellen paused, stroking his head pressed lightly against her shoulder. Now, how would you like a chance to earn a few easy straws like the rest of us? I still have the name I picked in my pocket, and I havent looked at it yet. Why dont we switch, for the last day? And it will be our secret. Eric lifted his head and looked at her face. His eyes wide, Thats not cheating? Its not cheating. And together they dried the tears, brushed off the snow and walked back to the house.
The next day the whole family was busy cooking and straightening up the house for Christmas Day, wrapping last minute presents and trying hard to keep from bursting with excitement. But even with all the activity and eagerness, a flurry of new straws piled up in the crib, and by nightfall the little manger was almost overflowing. A different times while passing by, each member of the family, big and small, would pause and look at the wonderful crib for a moment, then smile before going on. But . . . who could really know? One more still might make a difference.
For that reason, just before bedtime, Ellen tiptoed quietly to Kellys room to lay out the little blue nightgown and turn down the bed. But she stopped in the doorway, surprised. Someone had already been there. The nightgown was laid across the bed, and a small red racecar had been placed next to it on the pillow.
The last straw was Erics after all.
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