Our families came to Colorado by twist and by turn. Sometimes it took a few generations to reach this land from the old country. Other times the first family members to cross the water made it all the way to the Rocky Mountains. There were always stops along the way. I can just faintly imagine the beauty and hardships that these folks experienced crossing the continent, living on the Great Plains a hundred years ago or more.
But I have heard them tell of it; this is one of those stories.
On a cold winter night, somewhere closer to Leoti, Kan., than to any other place, a child was born. In spite of snow drifts up to the horse’s belly, the doctor arrived in time.
The mother had a hard pregnancy. I believe that she was blinded by it, quite sick indeed. And she lost blood during the birthing.
If it was because the boy was a boy, or that he was breathing more than his twin sister, all energy seemed to drift to him.
The girl was so small that she was from palm to tip the size of her father’s hand. Someone wrapped her in linen and laid her on the table for dead. While most worked without success for the life of the boy, a neighbor lady, a grandma, saw the girl breathe. The grandmother gave her whiskey from an eye dropper and put the girl in the oven to keep her warm.
Helen Dolores wore doll clothes as an infant. As her mother was sick and exhausted by the ordeal of her birth, it was for her father, Tom, to care for her. The girl and her father bonded in a way that she and her mother would not.
Within a few years the family moved to Colorado and another child was born, a girl named Billie Louise. The pregnancy was healthy and the birth without complication. Billie was her mother’s daughter, and a joy to all in the family. About six years later, near the end of December, Billie caught a fever. She died on Christmas Eve.
I do not want to imagine what it was like for one of them to lose the other. Helen and Billie were as close as two people with that much life in them could be. They were sisters.
“Why Billie? Why Billie?” Helen’s mother cried out. I do not know that she meant one child over the other but I think that it was a painful tattoo upon Helen all the same.
Time passed and Helen had a family of her own. She lived for her children, she would say. Each Christmas in slacks, legs crossed, with cocktail in hand, she would tell them stories of an earlier Christmas, of brightly wrapped presents left unopened beneath the Christmas tree.
When Helen was older she would tell her grandchildren stories of being born in a blizzard on the high plains of Kansas, of the snow being up to the belly of the horse that the doctor rode. She told of a sister named Billie, of unopened presents, and a mother crying, “Why Billie?”
She told these stories not for pity but because of a graceful understanding of the gift of life. Helen was not born an only child. Whenever her grandchildren would fight in front of her she would threaten to knock their heads together to make them gratefully remember that they had each other, that they were family and that mattered more than jealous affections for a toy.
As her mind changed, some stories changed or finally fell out of a darkness that could no longer hold them. Helen told some of her grandchildren of lying in the open casket with Billie, a house filled with grief not noticing her, Helen not understanding cold death. And she told how her father Tom, who had red hair, finally consoled her, when no one else thought to know where Helen was, or how Helen was, though she was the child that lived.
This December, trees will be trimmed and presents will spill forth beneath them. Shiny new ornaments carefully selected from the 20-something themed trees available from your local retailers will gracefully hover above all of those things; the good deals and thoughtful gifts that hopefully someone can use or would want. But this year in spite of the promotions and marketing, of following on Facebook, of tweeting on Twitter, this year remember the child.
Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Nursery and Garden Café in Cortez, Colo.