The Last Straw
It was another long, winter afternoon with everyone stuck in the house and the four McDonald children were at it again -- bickering, teasing, fighting over their toys. At times like these, Mother was almost ready to believe that her children didn’t love each other, though she knew that wasn’t really true. All brothers and sisters fight, of course, but lately her little lively bunch had been particularly horrible to each other, especially Eric and Kelly, who were just a year apart. They seemed determined to spend the whole winter making each other miserable.
“Gimme that. It’s mine!”
“Is not, fatso! I had it first!”
Mother sighed as she listened to the latest argument coming from the living room. With Christmas only a month away, the McDonald house seemed sadly lacking in 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 or twinkling lights on the tree to fill it with the Christmas spirit. But how could any mother convince her children that being kind to each other was the most important way top get ready for Christmas.
Mother had only one idea. Years ago her grandmother had told her about an old Christmas custom that helped people discover the real meaning of Christmas. Perhaps it would work for her family. It was worth a try. Mother gathered her four little rascals together and sat them down on the stairs, smallest to tallest -- Mike, Randi, Kelly and Eric.
“How would you kids like to start a new Christmas project this year?” she asked. “It’s 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, wildly waving his arm in the air.
“I can keep a secret better than he can,” yelled Kelly, jumping up and waving her arm in the air, too. If this was a contest, she wanted to make sure she beat Eric.
“I can do it!” chimed in Randi, not quite sure what was happening but not wanting to be left out.
“Me too, me too, me too,” squealed little Mike, bouncing up and down.
“Well then here’s how the game works,” Mother explained. “This year we’re going to surprise Baby Jesus when he comes on Christmas eve by making him the softest bed in the world. We’re going to build a little crib for him to sleep in right here in our house, and we’ll fill it with straw to make it comfortable. But here’s the catch: Each piece of straw we put in the manger will represent one kind thing we do for someone between now and Christmas. The more kind things we do, the more straw there will be for Baby Jesus. The secret part is -- we can’t tell anyone what good things we’re doing and who we’re doing them for.”
The children looked confused. “How will Baby Jesus know it’s his bed?” asked Kelly.
“He’ll know,” said Mother. “He’ll recognize it by the love we’ve put into the crib, by how soft it is.”
“But who will we do the kind things for?” asked Eric.
“It’s simple,” said Mother. “We’ll do them for each other. Once every week between now and Christmas, we’ll put all of our names in this hat, mine and Daddy’s too. Then we’ll each draw a name and do kind things for that person for a whole week. But here’s the hard part. We can’t tell anyone whose name we’ve drawn for that week, and we’ll each try to do as many favors as we can for our special person without getting caught. And for every secret good thing we do, we’ll put another piece of straw in the crib.”
“But what if I pick someone I don’t like?” frowned Kelly.
Mother thought about that for a minute. “Maybe you could use extra fat straws for the good things you do for that person, because they might be harder to do. But just think how much faster the fat straws will fill up our crib. Then on Christmas eve we’ll put Baby Jesus in his little bed, and he’ll sleep that night on a mattress made of love. I think he’d like that, don’t you?”
“Now, who will build the crib for us?” she asked.
Since Eric was the oldest, and the only one of the children allowed to use tools, he marched off to the basement to give it a try. For the next couple of hours loud banging and sawing noises came from the basement. Then for a long time there were no noises at all. Finally Eric climbed back up the stairs with the manger in his arms. “Here it is,” he grinned. “The best crib in the world! And I did it all myself.”
For once, everyone agreed: the little manger was the best crib in the world. One leg was an inch too short, of course, and the crib rocked a bit. But it had been built with love -- and about a hundred bent nails -- and it would certainly last a long time.
“Now we need some straw,” said Mother, and together they headed out to the car to go searching for some in the nearby fields. Surprisingly, no one fought over who was going to sit in the front seat that day as they drove around the countryside, looking for an empty field. At last they spotted a small vacant patch of land that had been covered with tall grass in summer. Now, in mid-December, the grass had dried down to yellow stalks that looked just like real straw.
Mother stopped the car and the kids scrambled out to pick handfuls of the long grass.
“That’s enough!” Mother finally laughed, when she saw that the cardboard box in the trunk was almost overflowing. “Remember, it’s only a small crib.” So home they went, where they spread the straw carefully on a tray Mother had put on the kitchen table. The empty manger was placed gently on top, and the straw hid its one short leg.
“When can we pick names!” shouted the children.
“As soon as Daddy comes home for dinner,” Mother answered.
At the supper table that night, the six names were written on separate pieces of paper, folded up and shuffled around in an old baseball hat. Then the drawing began.
Kelly picked first and immediately started to giggle. Randi reached into the hat next. Daddy glanced at his scrap of paper and smiled quietly behind his hand. Mother picked out a name, but her face never gave away a clue. Next, little Mike reached into the hat, but since he couldn’t read yet, Daddy had to whisper in his ear and tell him which name he had picked. Eric was the last to choose, and as he unfolded his piece of paper a frown crossed his face. But he stuffed the name in his pocket and said nothing. The family was ready to begin.
The week that followed was filled with surprises. It seemed the McDonald house had suddenly been invaded by an army of invisible elves, and good things were happening everywhere. Kelly would walk into her room at bedtime and find her little blue nightgown neatly laid out and her bed turned down. Someone cleaned up the sawdust under the workbench without being asked. The jelly blobs disappeared magically from the kitchen counter after lunch one day while Mother was getting the mail. And every morning, while Eric was brushing his teeth, someone crept quietly into his room and made his bed. It wasn’t made perfectly, but it was made.
“Where are my shoes?” asked Daddy one morning. No one seemed to know, but before he left for work, they were back in the closet, all shined up.
Mother noticed other changes during that week, too. The children weren’t teasing or fighting as much. An argument would start and then suddenly stop for no good reason. Even Eric and Kelly seemed to be getting along better. In fact, all the children wore secret smiles and giggled to themselves at times.
By Sunday, everyone was anxious to pick new names again, and this time there was even more laughter and merriment during the picking process, except for Eric. Once again he unfolded his paper, looked at it, and stuffed it in his pocket without a word. Mother noticed, but said nothing.
The second week of the game brought more amazing events. The garbage was taken out without anyone being asked. Someone even did two of Kelly’s hard math problems one night when she left her homework out on the table.
The little pile of straw grew higher and softer. With only two weeks left until Christmas, the children wondered if their homemade bed would be comfortable enough for Baby Jesus.
“Who will be Baby Jesus anyway?” Randi asked on the third Sunday night after they had all picked new names.
“Perhaps we can use one of the dolls,” said Mother. “Why don’t you and Mike be in charge of picking out the right one?”
The two younger children ran off to gather up their favorite dolls, but everyone else wanted to help pick Baby Jesus, too. Little Mike dragged his Bozo the Clown rag doll from his room and proudly handed it over, sniffling later when everyone laughed. Soon Eric’s well-hugged teddy bear, Bruffles, joined the dolls filling up the couch. Barbie and Ken were there, along with Kermit the Frog, stuffed dogs and lambs, and even a cuddly monkey that Grandma and Grandpa had sent Mike one year. But none of them seemed quite right.
Only an old baby doll, who had been loved almost to pieces, looked like a possibility for their Baby Jesus. “Chatty Baby,” she had once been called, before she stopped chatting forever after too many baths.
“She looks so funny now,” said Randi, and it was true. Once while playing beauty shop, Kelly had cut her own blonde hair along with Chatty Baby’s, giving them both a raggedy crew cut. Kelly’s hair had eventually grown back, but Chatty Baby’s never had. Now the wisps of blonde hair that stuck out all over the dolls head made her look a little lost and forgotten. But her eyes were still bright blue and she still had a smile on her face, even though her face was smudged here and there by the touch of many chubby little fingers.
“I think she’s perfect,” said Mother. “Baby Jesus probably didn’t have much hair when he was born either, and I bet he’d like to be represented by a doll who’s had so many hugs.”
So the decision was made and the children began to make a new outfit for their Baby Jesus -- a little leather vest out of some scraps and some cloth diapers. Best of all, Baby Jesus fit perfectly into the little crib, but since it wasn’t quite time for him to sleep there yet, he was laid carefully on a shelf in the hall closet to wait for Christmas eve.
Meanwhile, the pile of straw grew and grew. Every day brought new and different surprises as the secret elves stepped up their activity. The McDonald home was finally filled with Christmas spirit. Only Eric had been unusually quiet since the third week of name picking.
The final night of name picking was also the night before Christmas eve. As the family sat around the table waiting for the last set of names to be put in the hat, Mother said, “You’ve all done a wonderful job. There must be hundreds of straws in our crib -- maybe a thousand. You should be so pleased with the bed you’ve made. But remember, there’s still one whole day left. We all have time to do a little more to make the bed even softer before tomorrow night. Let’s try.”
For the last time, the hat was passed around the table. Little Mike pulled out a name, and Daddy whispered it to him, just as he had done every week. Randi unfolded hers carefully under the table, peeked at it and hunched up her shoulders, smiling. Kelly reached into the hat and giggled happily when she saw the name. Mother and Daddy each took their turns, too, and then handed the hat with the last name to Eric. But as he unfolded the small scrap of paper and read it, his face pinched up and he suddenly seemed about to cry. Without a word, he ran from the room.
Everyone immediately jumped up from the table, but Mother stopped them. “No, stay where you are,” she said. “Let me talk to him alone first.”
Just as she reached the top of the stairs, Eric’s door banged open. He was trying to pull his coat on with one hand while he carried a small suitcase with the other hand.
“I have to leave,” he said quietly, through his tears. “If I don’t, I’ll spoil Christmas for everyone!”
“But why? And where are you going?” asked Mother.
“I can sleep in my snow fort for a couple of days. I’ll come home right after Christmas. I promise.”
Mother started to say something about freezing and snow and no mittens or boots, but Daddy, who was now standing just behind her, put 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 and no hat trudged across the street and sat down on a snowbank near the corner. It was very dark outside, and cold, and a few snow flurries drifted down on the small boy and his suitcase.
“But he’ll freeze!” said Mother.
“Give him a few minutes alone,” said Dad quietly. “Then you can talk to him.”
The huddled figure was already dusted with white when Mother walked across the street 10 minutes later and sat down beside him on the snowbank.
“What is it, Eric? You’ve been so good these last few weeks, but I know something’s been bothering you since we first started the crib. Can you tell me, honey?”
“Aw, Mom, don’t you see?” he sniffed. “I tried so hard, but I can’t do it anymore, and now I’m going to wreck Christmas for everyone.” With that he burst into sobs and threw himself into his mother’s arms.
“But I don’t understand,” Mother said, brushing the tears from his face. “What can’t you do? And how could you possibly spoil Christmas for us?”
“Mom,” the little boy said through his tears, “you just don’t understand. I got Kelly’s name all four weeks! And I hate Kelly! I can’t do one more nice thing for her or I’ll die! I tried, Mom. I really did. I sneaked in her room every night and fixed her bed. I even laid out her crummy nightgown. I emptied her wastebasket, and I did some homework for her one night when she was going to the bathroom. Mom, I even let her use my race car one day, but she smashed it right into the wall like always!”
“I tried to be nice to her, Mom. Even when she called me a stupid dummy because the crib leg was short, I didn’t hit her. And every week, when we picked new names, I thought it would be over. But tonight, when I got her name again, I knew I couldn’t do one more nice thing for her, Mom. I just can’t! And tomorrow’s Christmas eve. I’ll spoil Christmas for everybody just when we’re ready to put Baby Jesus in the crib. Don’t you see why I had to leave?”
They sat together quietly for a few minutes, Mother’s arm around the small boy’s shoulders. Only an occasional sniffle and hiccup broke the silence on the snowbank.
Finally Mother began to speak softly, “Eric, I am so proud of you. Every good thing you did should count as double because it was especially hard for you to be nice to Kelly for so long. But you did all those nice things anyway, one straw at a time. You gave your love when it wasn’t easy to give. Maybe that’s what the spirit of Christmas is really all about. If it’s too easy to give, maybe we’re not really giving much of ourselves after all. The straws you added were probable the most important ones, and you should be proud of yourself.”
“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 tonight in my pocket, and I haven’t looked at it yet. Why don’t we switch, just for the last day? It will be our secret.”
“That’s not cheating?”
“It’s not cheating,” Mother smiled.
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 not to burst with excitement. But even with all the activity and eagerness, a flurry of new straws piled up in the crib, and by nightfall it was overflowing. At different times while passing by, each member of the family, big and small, would pause and look at the wonderful pile for a moment, then smile before going on. It was almost time for the tiny crib to be used. But was it soft enough? One straw might still make a difference.
For that very reason, just before bedtime, Mother tip-toed quietly to Kelly’s 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 neatly across the bed and a small red race car rested next to it on the pillow.
The last straw was Eric’s after all.