It was Christmas Eve and we’d all met at grandpa’s house. From his big rocking chair by the fire, grandpa presided over the exchange of small gifts, told jokes, and selected songs for us to sing. My gift was a plastic wallet with a horse’s head on the side of it. It was just about time for grandpa to bring out his homemade pink popcorn when my mother said, “Father, why don’t you tell the children about your Christmas cup?”
The smile on grandpa’s face changed to a look of quiet reverence. Then he rose from his chair and walked out to the kitchen. He stretched his large frame to the top shelf of the cupboard, and we could hear the clinking of glasses; then his big hands came back holding a small white cup.
Actually, it was more of a mug than a cup, and there was a small brown crack at the lip. As he walked past me, I could see yellowing stains of glue around the handle, extending almost to the bottom.
Grandpa moved back to his chair, and when he opened his hands we could see a small pink and yellow flower on the side of the bone-white china. He turned the cup slowly in his hands, and his eyes got misty beneath his grey-white mantle of hair.
“This cup was given to me many years ago,” he said, looking into the fire for a moment, “when I was a small boy.”
Then the words began to come easier, and as grandpa told us about his father, his deep rich voice carried us back to the time of sailing ships and steam trains, to the memory of horsecarts and cold, lonely nights by the fire. We crossed the Atlantic with him to America and watched his father fasten rivets in the boiler works of New Jersey. We saw the way the lead lining of those boilers poisoned and sapped my great-grandfather’s strength. We came west with great-grandfather as he lay strands of steel all the way to Utah; and having reached here, collapsed.
“Times were hard when I was a little boy,” grandpa told us. “I remember waking up one twenty-fourth of December and heating mother and father talking in the other room.
“‘But Ben, it’s five miles to town, and the snow will make it seem even longer,’ I heard my mother say.
“I looked out the door and saw mother hand my father the last dime we had and kiss his cheek and tell him to be careful. Then I went to the window and watched as father went out to the shed and got one of the old wooden chairs, flung it over his shoulder as a windshield, and started out over the snow-covered field. I watched as he sat by the fence at the edge of the field for a moment and let the snow swirl around him, and I wondered. Soon he picked up the chair and was gone, blending into the whiteness of the day.
“I did my chores that day trying not to think of Christmas, for I knew that St. Nicholas would not find our house that year. I went to bed wondering where father had gone, for he had not come home all day.
“But when morning came—” grandpa cleared his throat and was silent for a time. “When morning came I went out, and there, sitting beside the fire on that old wooden chair was my father. He turned to me and said, ‘Merry Christmas, son.’ And he handed me this cup.”
Grandpa held the cup high over his head.
We all sat still and looked for a moment, then one by one we edged up to grandpa and lovingly touched the Christmas cup.