Jamie was the oldest of six children in the Piper family. He had four sisters—Trudy, Marie, Sally Anne, and Eva. The youngest was his brother Theodore.
It was decided that Jamie should have his own room where he could entertain his friends. The attic would be the perfect space for a growing boy and his buddies.
The one condition was that Jamie and his friends would have to clean out the attic and do a spiffy job of it. So, Jamie recruited his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Thompson, and Bobby Owenby, who had just moved to Temperance in late summer with his parents Robert and Carolyn Owenby. Robert was an accountant working in the Ballew Savings and Loan.
When the three boys ascended the spiral staircase to the massive oak attic door, they knew an adventure waited for them. Since the Pipers had moved into Gladys Winslow’s house several months before, no one had opened the attic door.
Charles and Mary Piper had checked with Betsy Tarrwater, the caretaker of her Aunt Gladys Louise’s house, to make sure it was acceptable to her if Jamie could use the attic. She thought it was a wonderful idea, especially for a growing boy. She was very fond of Jamie and Thomas. She had not met Bobby yet.
Tommy and Bobby felt that Jamie should be the first one to open the attic door. Attics were not places where boys should be bold and courageous.
Switching on the solitary light, the tungsten light globe flickered for a few moments before the room became luminous from the dangling bulb. As the boys’ eyes adjusted, they beheld a treasure trove of cobwebs, cedar chests and boxes of every shape and sort—wooden, metal and paper.
“Wow,” Tommy said.
“I see the arachnids have been busy,” Bobby asserted.
Jamie and Tommy looked at him with puzzled expressions. There was a gleam in Bobby’s eye, and he proceeded,
“Arachnids are animals not insects like most uneducated adults believe. They include spiders, ticks, scorpions.” For the next five minutes Bobby expounded on the arachnid culture.
What Jamie and Tommy appreciated about their new buddy was that he was like a walking Encyclopædia Britannica. In visiting Bobby’s house they had noticed that he had more books in his bedroom than there were in the public Carnegie Library, which had been built a few years ago in the classical revival tradition.
Bobby’s pride and treasure was the Eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. As his family and siblings listened to radio dramas, he would stay in his room and read from the 29 volume series.
He loved the touch of the India paper. He was determined to read the 28,150 pages ( 44,000, 000 words ) before he turned 13.
Bobby’s recitation was broken when Trudy appeared at the door with a pail of old rags, two brooms and dustpans. “Momma said she will bring up the Regina vacuum clearner when you boys are ready for it.”
She turned and went down the stairs with a slight giggle. Bobby watched her disappear. Jamie and Tommy both laughed because they knew Bobby really liked Trudy, and Trudy found Bobby very charming and witty.
The boys began the task before them. Both Tommy and Jamie had helped their mothers clean their houses, but this was a new experience for Bobby who was a bookworm and did no chores around his house, except his parents loved to listen to him recite the various facts from his reading. His siblings found doing chores much more to their liking than listening to their older brother. He did not know how to use a broom.
After a few minutes dusting and the continual coughing from Bobby, Jamie said, “Bobby, when you dust, just hold your breath until you are done. The coughing will stop.”
“Thank you, my good man,” Bobby responded as he held up his dust rag and watched the loose dust fall to the floor in the tungsten light.
After an hour Trudy reappeared with the vacuum machine. Bobby asked if he could operate the newfangled apparatus. Trudy handed the machine to him.
Placing the machine down, he took Trudy’s right hand and kissed it. “Thank you, Mademoiselle Piper.”
Trudy smiled and ran down the stairs with a giggle. Tommy and Jamie stood there wondering why any guy would want to kiss a girl’s hand. “Gees,” they said in unison and shook their heads.
Bobby on the other hand turned toward them and sighed, “Such an ephemeral moment which I will treasure in my memories.”
After another half-hour the attic was cleaned as much as three boys could muster. Spotless might be reserved for a kitchen, but an attic bedroom was a whole different story.
Trudy reappeared at the door. “Are you boys done cleaning?”
Jamie said yes. Trudy walked in and looked around. “Good job!”
She walked out and down the stairs. In a minute or two, Elias Williams, his sons, Patrick and James, and Roscoe Smith came up the stairs carrying an innerspring mattress set.
“Wow!” Jamie exclaimed.
“Where do you want us to set this up, Jamie,” Elias asked.
“Between the windows.” They did as requested.
Roscoe Smith looked each of the oval windows and said, “Jamie, you get to go to sleep each night with the stars as your canopy. Beautiful, just beautiful.”
After the men were gone, Bobby walked over and examined the bed. “Excellent choice, my good man. Sealy is the mattress of choice. Do you know what Earl Edwards wrote about Sealy?”
Of course Jamie and Tommy had no idea what a Sealy was or who the heck was Earl Edwards. Once again in unison they shook their heads no.
Bobby grinned boldly, “Sleeping on a Sealy is like sleeping on a cloud.”
Tommy replied, “That must be what Mr. Smith meant about the stars. If you are sleeping on a cloud, then the stars are right above you.”
“Correct, my good man,” Bobby responded. “The Sealy had its home in Sealy, Texas, where in 1881 Daniel Haynes was asked to make a cotton mattress.” For the next five minutes Bobby recited the history of the Sealy.
The mattress was a gift from Betsy Tarrwater. Elias Williams and Sons operated the local Sealy plant connected to their furniture store in Temperance.
Later, after all had departed, Jamie went to his bedroom and knelt down to pray. After his prayers, he crawled into bed and looked out the windows. The stars were in their full majesty with stardust whisking about the night clouds.
About an hour later Charles and Alicia Piper came into the room to check on their son. Jamie was sound asleep.
“The new bed was a surprise,” Alicia softly said.
“Truly,” Charles stated. “Miss Tarrwater has been very good to us. We need to find some way to repay her kindness since Christmas will soon be here.”
“Yes, dear husband, we do, but what.”
“Well, dear one, something will pop up, but let’s keep it in our prayers.”
Unknown to any of them, the one thing that Betsy Tarrwater wanted since she was a young girl was within their grasp in the attic. An old chest in the north corner held a precious treasure.
Betsy had never shared her secret desire with anyone, not even her sisters or elder brother. However, as a child she always placed this one thing on her wish list; each Christmas would come with its joys and surprises, but not the one thing that she wanted so much in this world.
As the late Autumn winds arrived from the mountains, snowflakes began their perennial dance. Christmas was in full swing in the valley.
Carolers were practicing. Sleighs were made ready. The churches were preparing special programs for both Christmas Eve and Day. The cooks of Temperance were busy preparing holiday treats for one and all.
Children played in the snow. Samuel Moody brought his reindeer from the farm to the stall prepared for them by the library for the children and grown-ups to come for a visit. Each animal wore wreaths of bells around their necks.
Nativity scenes dotted the churchyards and the courthouse lawn. Perhaps there was no other town where Christmas was appreciated and loved like Temperance.
Jamie, Tommy and Bobby were making the rounds of the town. Popping into the Ballew Savings and Loan, they were treated to hot chocolate made by Tess Ballew, Andrew’s wife.
As they stood by the warm wood fire, Bobby spotted an old key on the wall which he had never noticed before. Walking over to it, he asked, “Mister Ballew, what does that key go to?’
Andrew came over and rubbed his left sideburn. He looked puzzled, “Tess, do you know anything about this key?”
Coming over, Tess looked puzzle as well. “I’ve never seen it before.”
The other employees were asked, but they had no clue. The conclusion of the matter was no one had noticed the key before.
So Andrew gave the old key to Bobby. Old keys were treasures to boys. Little did they know what treasure the key would open.
During the next week Bobby kept the key in his coat pocket. There was something alluring about it.
After saying good-bye to Jamie and Tommy, Bobby was walking to his house when he decided to pay a quick visit to the reindeer. When he arrived at the stall, an elderly gentleman was there feeding the animals.
At first he thought it was Mister Moody, but this man was much taller and heavier. Coming near the stall, he reached out and began to pet the reindeer which had finished eating.
“How are you doing, young man?” The man asked seriously.
“Fine, Sir. The reindeer seem to like eating out of your hand.”
Laughing, he said, “They always do.”
“Do you have reindeer also?”
“Yes, I do on my farm, lad.”
“You are from Temperance?’
“Oh, no. My farm is very north of here and much colder. “
“How many reindeer do you have, Sir?”
“Too many to count. Are you ready for Christmas?”
“Yes, Sir, well maybe.”
“I got this old key,” Bobby said as he pulled it from his pocket. “I cannot figure out what it goes to. I looked in my books, but . . . .”
“Huh!” The man said as he looked at the key. “It isn’t a door key unless it’s a key to an elf house?”
“Elf house?” Bobby grinned. He had the urge to explain to the man that elves were not real, but something stopped him . . .
“You don’t believe in elves, my boy?” He asked with that serious tone again.
“Well, no Sir.”
“I see. Your books tell you they are not real?”
“Imaginary is the correct term.”
“Imaginary. Good word. I suppose you don’t believe in Santa Claus either?”
“No, Sir. He’s imaginary as well. Many believe the legend of Santa Claus originated with a 4th Century Bishop of Myra Nikolaos.” For the next six minutes Bobby expounded on the subject. The gentleman listened attentively to the young man. After Bobby was done, he said,
“You know I once knew a boy about your age who did not believe in magical creatures. When he got older with children of his own, one Christmas Eve he noticed how sad his children looked. He told his children a wonderful tale about magical creatures. Later that night as he stood by his study window, he found a secret of Christmas which very few adults or children see.”
“What was that, Sir?” Bobby eagerly inquired.
“Each person must discover that secret for themselves, and it cannot be found in books because it is locked in a special place.”
“Locked? So my key might unlock the secret?”
“Perhaps. Oh my, I think I might have delayed you. I believe your mother is wondering where you are since it is suppertime.”
“Oh! Excuse me, Sir. I better get home.”
As he watched Bobby disappear around the corner, he stroked his white beard. He chuckled and went back to rubbing the reindeer’s noses.
The next several days went by with all the hustle and bustle of December. The weather seemed to know that snow was expected to blanket the town on Christmas.
On the morning of December 24 Tommy and Bobby were playing in Jamie’s room when the sun broke through the clouds and a single beam of yellow light fell upon the chest in the north corner. In fact the beam fastened onto the lock which caught Bobby’s ever-observant eye.
The words of the elderly gentleman came back to his mind. “Each person must discover that secret for themselves, and it cannot be found in books because it is locked in a special place.”
“Whiskers and Barbels!” Bobby exclaimed as he got up and walked over to the chest. Taking the key out of his pocket, he inserted it into the lock and turned it.
The chest opened. Tommy and Jamie came over and stood on each side.
“You should call your mother,” Tommy said.
Bobby looked at Jamie and said, “Not yet. Let’s see what treasure lies in this chest.”
Jamie looked at Tommy who was shaking his head no. He looked at Bobby who plowed ahead and opened the chest lid all the way back.
There was a beautiful red and green quilt with fir trees having white tips. Under the quilt was a package.
Bobby gently took it out and rubbed his hand over it. “I believe it’s goatskin.”
“Goatskin!” Jamie and Tommy said in unison.
“It appears to be several chagals sewed together.” Before Jamie and Tommy could ask, Bobby explained that chagals were goatskins used to transport water. “They do make a good protective covering for what may be inside.”
Tommy noticed there was some writing on the skin. “What does that say?”
Bobby and Jamie now saw it as well. The writing said,
“To my beloved niece Betsy.
These goatskins were used by me during my service in the French Foreign Legion, and your Aunt Louise sewed them together to enrobe this special Christmas present for you. Our hope is that this present will bring you joy for the years to come. It was a special gift given to me by my Commander Jacques Charles René Achille Duchesne during the Sino-French War. You know the story well.
“You should get your mother now, Jamie” Bobby said.
When Alicia Piper walked into the attic, her eyes fell on the open chest. She felt a bit horrified that the boys would open one of the chests without permission. Retaining her composed, she asked
“What’s the meaning of this, boys?”
They explain to her about the key in Ballew Savings and Loan; Bobby’s conversation with the gentleman at the reindeer stalls and the sunlight hitting the key hole. They showed her the package.
She smiled as she read the note etched on the leather. She took the package and asked Jamie to bring the quilt downstairs.
Betsy Tarrwater would be over around 4 p.m. with her Christmas Eve baskets. Alicia would have the boys present the package to her after they explained how they came to open the trunk.
At the Tarrwater Estate Betsy Tarrwater and her servants were busy preparing Christmas baskets. The cooks were preparing stollen, gingerbread, sweet potato pies, mince pies, and persimmon pudding.
A large number of hams had been cured. Jars of applesauce and apple butter along with jarred peaches were ready to be inserted into the green baskets decorated with red ribbons and candy canes. Pecan logs and assortments of nuts were placed in stockings for the children.
At 4 p.m. Betsy Tarrwater arrived with her train of goodies. Alicia Piper welcomed her with open arms. After a few minutes, she said to Betsy that the boys wanted to talk with her.
Entering the drawing room where the fire was blazing, Betsy realized that she had not yet met Bobby. When she saw Bobby a smile crossed her face. He reminded her of a special childhood friend.
Alicia urged Jamie to speak. He related the story about the attic and the mysterious key found at Ballew Savings and Loan.
Betsy asked Bobby if she could see the key. Examining it, she smiled. “You know after Aunt Louise passed to her rest, we searched for the keys to those chests. Each chest had its own special key. I have no idea how one of those keys found its way to the wall in Andrew Ballew’s Savings and Loans.”
Tommy bent down and picked up the quilt from behind the chair. When Betsy saw it her whole being evoked joy.
“When I was your age, Tommy, I helped my Aunt make this quilt for Christmas. I thought it was lost forever.”
“There’s more,” Jamie said as he urged Bobby to go get the package behind the tree.
Bobby handed the wrapped bundle to Betsy. “Mine! What can this be?”
“There’s a message etched for you on the top,” Bobby stated as she studied her face.
Sitting down on the sofa, she studied the writing on the package. “Alicia, do you have a seam ripper.”
Alicia went to her sewing room and got one. Very carefully, Betsy removed the seams. When the last seam was loosed, the cover fell to the floor and she held a walnut covered box.
Tears began to roll down her face. Jamie and Tommy thought that she must be sad, but Bobby had another impression as he watched her hands gently rub over the wood top.
Gently opening it, 9 bells began to play a sweet melody. Bobby was studying it very carefully.
“If I may, Miss Tarrwater, the music box resembles ones made by George Bendon.”
“You have a good eye, Bobby. George Bendon made this box especially for Jacques Charles René Achille Duchesne of the French Foreign Legion. He gave it to my Uncle Howard after his service was up because he saved his life.
“As children we loved to sit around and listen to the 9 bells do their magic. To be honest, my secret desire for all these years was to rediscover this box and its many memories of my childhood. This is the best Christmas present that anyone could have given me. Thank you Bobby, Jamie and Tommy.”
She opened her arms and invited the boys over for a hug. She was so happy.
Bobby pondered on her words about a secret desire and how happy she was. He felt a bit strange in his chest.
Later as Betsy said good-bye and wished everyone a “Merry Christmas,” Tommy and Bobby walked home. When they got to Tommy’s house, Bobby said good night and headed for home past the reindeer stalls. He hoped to see the elderly man, but he was not there.
He petted the reindeer and noticed a green bag of oats. He scooped out a few handfuls and fed the animals. He liked the feel of their mouths.
There were carolers singing. The snow began to fall lightly.
The next morning as his siblings opened their presents, he watched the joy on their faces and their gleefull utterances. His parents’ faces beamed with joy as well.
After lunch he headed over to Jamie’s. He knew Mrs. Piper had made some fresh cinnamon rolls with a lot of icing made from heavy cream.
As he came around the corner, the reindeer looked lonely. There was another full sack of oats, but this time the sack was red. For the next hour he fed and talked with the animals. He explained to them their origins and how people over time have come to viewed them as magical creatures.
Arriving at the Pipers, he was given a warm cup of wassail and a sweet roll. Jamie had received a train set which he and Tommy had been working on, but the tracks were too confusing.
Bobby picked up each piece of track and examined it. Trudy sat nearby crocheting with several balls of yarns she had received for Christmas. From time to time she glanced at Bobby who also glanced at her from time to time.
Around suppertime Bobby headed home. He wanted to check on the reindeer.
When he got to the stall, the animals were gone. He stood by the feeding post feeling very sad.
“They had to return to their farm,” a familiar voice stated.
Looking up, Bobby saw the man that he had talked with. “Did you have a good Christmas, Bobby?”
“Well, Sir, I still am pondering on the key and the secret of Christmas.”
“Pondering is a good word also. I have a question for you, Bobby.”
“When Betsy Tarrwater was presented with the long-lost music box, what did you see? Ponder on it carefully as you remember.”
After a few moments Bobby replied, “She was so happy, so joyful at receiving the music box.”
“How did it make you feel to see her joy?”
“I felt strange right here in my chest.” Bobby placed his right hand over his heart.
“Oh! This morning when you watched you sisters open their presents, how did you feel?”
“I had that feeling again in my chest.” Bobby replied as a realization came to him.
“Whiskers and Barbels! I believe I figured out what you meant about keys and unlocking secrets, Sir.”
“Oh?” He smiled as he rubbed his chin. “What is the secret, Bobby?”
“I thought the key was meant for me, but it was meant for Miss Tarrwater. By finding the key and using it, I found something which brought her joy.”
“Joy is a very good word as well. So what is the secret?”
“Giving,” Bobby smiled.
“Bobby, giving is something that the human race over countless centuries of time has forgotten. To give is to tap into the secret of this planet traversing the cosmos. The greatest giving is to give oneself to another.”
“Like the Christmas story?”
“The Christmas story is the ultimate giving by a Father to a world spinning in darkness.”
There was a long silence. In the distance bells were jingling. The man turned his head toward the sound. “Well, I see my ride is almost here. Thank you, Bobby, for taking the time to feed the animals and talking to an old man.”
“Thank you, Sir, for helping me find the secret of Christmas.”
“Oh, Bobby, if only the people would find it so easily as you have, the world would be very different. Now, get along home before your mother sends out Sheriff Daniels’ hounds. Those poor dogs should not be out in the cold night air since they are not reindeer.”
Bobby laughed. “No, Sir, they are not.”
Bobby walked briskly around the block. As he saw the lights of home, the bells were jingling loudly.
Looking around he did not see a sleigh. Then he heard the man’s voice above him,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night, especially to you Bobby Owenby.”
G. D. Williams © 2013
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