Christmas with Charlie


There’s one Christmas I recall in more detail than others because it was so different. I’m not sure of the year, but I know my children were home from the university, so it had to be after 1937, because that’s when my daughter Hettie graduated from high school. It may have been the last year we were all together. 

In those years before the war, Winkler was a lot smaller than it is now, with the mines still closed and only one major employer, the clothing factory owned and managed by Glory Bell, my husband’s niece. In the most prosperous days of the factory, Glory employed nearly 80 women and men. But that was later, during the war, when they were making uniforms. 

The success of Glory Wear, which we sometimes still called Glory’s sewing shop, meant we also had electric service. The new power plant was fueled not by sawdust, as in the days when Winkler was a sawmill town, and not by coal, as in the days of the coal mines, but by oil that came to us by rail. Yes, remote as we were, trains still came to Winkler; they just didn’t come every day.

Because of Glory Wear and a private investment in the electric plant, the town hadn’t died when Randolph Bell’s coal mine finally shut down. Our population had drastically shrunk, but we’d kept the hospital and school, our doctor had stayed with us, and there were still a few small businesses like Townsend’s General Store and Townsend’s Gas & Oil, both owned by Barlow, my husband.

In the years of the town’s decline we’d learned to respect how our enterprises and institutions relied on each other. I was proud that their support came from people who’d risked their livelihoods and their savings to keep the community we loved from becoming one more abandoned town. Winkler was quieter in those years, and without the grit and dust of the mines it was cleaner, though it never was one of those lovely picture-postcard little towns. Still, I liked our town, because most of the people I loved were there. 

The Christmas I am remembering stands out from the others because it was infused with our concerns for Charlie. He’d caused me a lot of worry over the years, starting when he’d run away from his father’s home when he was about nine years old. Then when he was 15 and living with me in Fargo, he’d left to follow his dream of being a cowboy and we’d had no news of him for a decade. After he returned to Winkler and became a deputy sheriff for the county, we got used to the fact that he seldom told anyone anything about himself, not even when he was still living with his wife, Blanche. He never seemed comfortable in our homes, but though he was unsociable, he had a spirit of helpfulness. Both as a deputy and as a breeder of horses he was respected by everyone. 

Charlie’s family requires some explanation. His only living blood relatives were his sister Glory and her son, Johnny Bell, and Otis and Wanda Rose, the children of his deceased brother, Will Herff. As sometimes happens in poor families, Charlie, Glory and Will had not grown up together. Glory became a Townsend, adopted when she was just a toddler by Hester, my husband’s spinster sister. That’s why Glory was Barlow’s niece though her brothers were not his nephews. Blood doesn’t always make a family. The Herffs and Townsends were family for other reasons.

Charlie had come to Fargo with me, but Will had chosen to stay with their father. Years later, he married my stepdaughter Wanda, at the time a young widow with a daughter. At the Christmas I’m thinking about now, Will had been dead several years. Once upon a time he’d saved Winkler too, but that’s another story. I guess Will was our inspiration. He died too soon, but everything he did for his community was destined to last for generations. 

Here’s something I’ve learned: no matter how happy and well-known a family may be, there’s always a lot of hidden sadness and a lot of hidden history.

In his way, Charlie loved us. I figured he’d lay down his life for Glory or Wanda or any of us, and he still called me “Ma,” though not very often. Charlie didn’t talk much unless it was about horses. I’d given up trying to understand why he wouldn’t come to our family gatherings. 

That year he’d promised to be with us on Christmas day, so that was different. I remember the weather was mild for December. On the last day of school before the holiday the children had run out for recess without their coats, and after school I’d driven home to the boardinghouse with the car windows rolled down, refreshed by a pleasant breeze. I remember the weather because in my mind’s eye I see the young people of our family arriving home for the holidays, none of them wearing coats. It’s odd how one memory triggers an image, then another memory, and so on. When so much has changed, it helps to go over our memories again and again. 

At times we still referred to home as “the boardinghouse”, though we hadn’t taken borders for several years. The house had become the permanent home for Tom and Dessie Thomas, old friends and our former cooks. Tom now managed Townsend’s Gas and Oil, so Dessie was home alone most days. With her bad knees, she had a hard time getting around, but she pitched in and did what she could. 

After we stopped taking boarders, our house also became home for Wanda and her two younger children, Otis and Wanda Rose. Otis was at the university in Morgantown, that year, along with our Freddy and Hettie. 

Wanda Rose rode home with me, that last day of school before Christmas, but before we got there she asked me to drop her off at Piney’s. I loved how dutifully Wanda Rose visited her mom’s Aunt Piney, who was sweet as ever but increasingly mixed up about things. 

“Look, your mother’s here,” I said, when I stopped our Ford in Piney’s lane, for Wanda’s old coupe was parked there. Wanda hurried toward us from the barn, waving her arms. When Wanda wasn’t working at the hospital, she often wore Will’s old shirts and pants with the cuffs rolled up and the waist bunched in with a belt. Today she also wore a long butcher’s apron.

“I can’t find Charlie,” she said, coming to my window. “Do you know where he went?”

Naturally I did not.

“I phoned but he didn’t answer,” she said. “I don’t know why he has a phone when he’s never there to answer it. So I drove over there and saw old John Johnson in the field, breaking out bales of hay for Charlie’s horses. John said Charlie went somewhere day before yesterday but was supposed to be home by nightfall. John hasn’t seen him since. John said he was wearing his badge and took his rifle, so he figured the sheriff had sent him to some trouble.”

I dared not imagine what kind of trouble. Charlie never seemed to understand that because he told us nothing we worried more.

“What’s happening? Is Piney okay?”

“It’s that heifer,” Wanda said. “Piney’s as mixed up as ever, and Blanche is down sick with a cold. She phoned me about the heifer, poor thing’s been trying to have her calf since yesterday. That’s why we need Charlie. The calf is turned backwards.”

Wanda Rose and I got out of the car and hurried after Wanda to the barn. 

Wanda bent and wiped her hands on clean straw. “I put my hand in there to see if I could turn the calf. I’ve seen Charlie do it, but I’m not strong enough. Anyway I think now is too late to turn it. The back hooves are sticking out.” 

I gasped when I saw the tips of those small black hooves protruding from the heifer’s backside. She was breathing hard, clearly restless and uncomfortable. 

“I once saw my uncle put a chain around a calf’s hooves and pull it out,” I said.

“Yeah, that works fine when the front feet are coming first. This poor baby’s gonna have to be pulled, but turned wrong like it is means trouble. Pulling too hard and quick could crush its ribs. Anyway the three of us together won’t be strong enough to do it.” 

The heifer was a pretty Jersey, the breed Piney and her late husband had always favored because Jerseys gave rich milk. 

“Could Dr. Madison help?” 

Wanda shook her head. “I don’t know if he’s ever pulled a calf but I know for a fact he’s tending to a lot of sick folks.” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Shouldn’t our kids be getting home from Morgantown about now? Otis could help, or maybe the farm boys will know what to do. One of you go home and see if you can catch them.”

I hurried to my car, and Wanda Rose ran to Piney’s house to alert Dessie to our current need. By “farm boys” Wanda meant Bertha and Jonah Watson’s son, Jonah Jr., and Lou Graves’s foster son, Parker, also students at the university. Today they were giving a ride home to Otis, Freddy, and Hettie.


I remember how relieved and happy I was when I turned into our lane and saw that Plymouth parked in front of the house, all four doors standing open, and Otis and Freddy transferring suitcases to the porch. At that moment I wasn’t thinking about the heifer and her calf. My spirits soared because I hadn’t seen our young people in months.

Beside the car, Hettie and Jonah Jr. stood close in conversation. Apparently their interest in each other had not changed. I liked this young man and his family, and I felt sure Hettie would never find anyone better, but I still had trouble acknowledging that my little girl had grown-up feelings. I had no idea about my son’s feelings. In matters of love, Freddy was as hard to read as his father.

I stopped my car, blocking the drive, and got out, waving both arms.

“Mom,” Hettie called. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, welcome home! It’s wonderful to see you, but I’m afraid we’ve got an emergency. Piney’s heifer has a calf coming backwards and Wanda needs help to pull it. She thought some of you might have done this before.”

“Lead the way,” Jonah Jr. said. All of them got back in Parker’s car and followed me to Piney’s. 

Sure enough, when they reached the barn, Jonah Jr. and Parker took charge, agreeing with Wanda that the calf had to be pulled slowly. Wanda and Otis quickly spread a thick mat of clean straw behind the heifer, because the floor was a smeary mix of mud and manure, along with blood and slime from the straining heifer. 

I stood out of the way with Hettie, admiring her and the other young people, so ready for action. Hettie looked different, her face thinner. Her hair was different too, the dark ends curling on her shoulders. Her eyes looked tired, but maybe they were only anxious, focused on Jonah Jr., who’d fastened a chain on the calf’s hooves. There was little I could do, and I wasn’t eager to witness the poor heifer’s distress, but leaving would feel like deserting the ones who were trying to help.

Jonah Jr. and Parker had rolled up their sleeves, but in their white shirts and ties, argyle sweater vests and slacks, they were dressed too nicely for this task. Never a farm boy, my Freddy stood in the open doorway, looking as uneasy as I felt. Otis and Wanda Rose stood closer, watching attentively. Both hoped to be doctors, though Wanda Rose admitted she might have a better chance of being accepted to nursing school. 

“Yeah, this has to be slow and gentle,” Parker said. “Can someone find a glove or a piece of leather or a stout stick to help us hold this chain?” Wanda and Otis searched a nearby workbench and found two new hammer handles. Wound in the ends of the chains, the handles offered a better grip. 

“This is gonna get messy,” Wanda said, taking off her apron and tying it around Parker. “May Rose, see if Piney has another apron and maybe a couple of old shirts.

I was glad to get out to fresh, open air. Piney met me at her kitchen door. In everything except comprehension, she seemed just the same, her face pretty and smooth, and her hair blond with only a few streaks of gray. Today, her hair was loose and uncombed, probably because Blanche was too sick to tend to it. 

“Blanche doesn’t feel good,” she said. “Do we have company?”

“The children are home from university,” I said. “They’ve come to help Wanda.” I didn’t mention the heifer’s ordeal. “Wanda wants to know if we can borrow a couple of aprons or old shirts.”

“There’s shirts and aprons somewhere,” Piney said. “Take your pick. Do you need me to help?”

“Not yet. Wait here until I come for you.” I took a bib apron from a hook in the pantry and two of Simpson’s old shirts from the closet in Piney’s room. Back in the barn, Hettie tied the apron on Jonah Jr. and we helped him and Parker into Simpson’s shirts.

It was now approaching five o’clock on the shortest day of winter and Piney’s barn had no electric light. “Mother,” Freddy said, lifting a rusty lantern from a nail near the door. “Can you find more of these?” 

I went back to the house and asked Piney if she had lanterns somewhere. She said she didn’t know. 

“Is it all right if I look for them?”

“Take anything you want,” she said. “We have cookies.”

I found two lanterns on a top shelf of Piney’s pantry. She wanted to accompany me to the barn.

“It’s getting dark, and someone needs to sit here and listen in case Blanche calls for help. Wait for me–I’ll come for you as soon as the calf is born.”

“Blanche is sick,” she said.

“Yes, she can see the calf tomorrow. I won’t be gone long.”

In the next hour I went back and forth from the barn to the house, peeking in on Blanche and assuring Piney all was well. In the barn the heifer struggled to push the calf out, Jonah Jr. and Parker assisting gently, their feet braced in the straw, with Otis and Freddy behind them for support. Parker said sweat was running into his eyes, and Hettie stepped forward and blotted his forehead with her handkerchief.

“When we see the top of the calf’s tail, we’ve only got a few minutes to get it out alive,” Parker said. “Pop says when a calf comes backwards like this, its cord gets cut soon as the hips are free.” 

He and Jonah Jr. agreed with Wanda–if they pulled harder they risked crushing the calf’s ribs. “The poor cow,” Hettie said. 

“Wait till you see she’s having a contraction,” Wanda said. “Then pull.” 

I thought I was going to faint. I closed my eyes but opened them when I heard everyone sigh in relief. The calf’s chest slipped out, then right away its head, followed by its front legs. When it dropped to the ground the heifer turned and nosed it. We watched as she began to lick it. “Good,” Wanda said. “A first-time ma doesn’t always know what to do.”

“It’s breathing,” Parker said, wiping his face with his sleeve. “Somebody see if its nose is clear.” 

Otis stepped forward and used his white handkerchief to clean mucus from the calf’s nose. 

“It’s a bull calf,” Wanda Rose said, proud as if she’d produced it herself. 

The mother butted her head aggressively toward her helpers, who decided it would be best to leave her and her baby alone for a while. 

“You-all can go to the house and have a wash,” Wanda said. “I’ll watch here to make sure it gets up to suck.”

Inside, I re-introduced the young people to Piney. “Aunt Piney, you have a new calf,” Wanda Rose said.

“I do? Does Simpson know?” 

“I’m sure he does,” I said. Some days Piney cried because her husband had passed away, but often she thought he was still with her, just out of sight. “Wanda Rose will take you to see it.” 

Before going upstairs to check on Blanche, I used Piney’s phone and called Bertha Watson, Jonah Jr.’s mother, to say we’d enlisted the help of the boys in the calf emergency and they’d soon be on their way. As an afterthought, I asked if she or Lou had seen Charlie. Lou was Bertha’s brother and Parker’s foster father. Charlie bought hay from Lou, who might have been the closest thing he had to a friend. 

“I’ll ask,” Bertha said. I don’t think Charlie’s been around for several weeks. Are you worried?”

“He’s off on deputy business but he was supposed to be back a day or two ago.”

“You know Charlie,” Bertha said.

“I do.” Even our friends knew Charlie was unpredictable. By this time I should have learned not to worry. Still, I couldn’t stop feeling like an anxious mother.

“Jonah Jr. and Parker saved Piney’s heifer and her calf,” I said.

“Ah,  Jonah and Lou will be proud.”

Bertha thanked me for letting her know the boys would soon be home. “Charlie will turn up,” she said.

“I know.” He always had.

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