I think I really count my Christmases from the year Linda was eight. That is the year when "Peace on earth, good will to men" first began to mean something to me.

That was in '34, the worst year of the Great Depression, at least for farmers. Like many another, I had bought a quarter section, 160 acres, just before the market crash, and at much too high a price. Now, with farm prices at rock bottom, the prices of things we had to buy were rising. It took every cent we could scrape together just to pay the interest on the place.

That was the year we decided we just couldn't afford to buy Christmas presents. For ourselves- Jane and I- we didn't mind, but for Linda, we felt differently. Our only child, she seemed almost a baby. She was a serious-minded little girl, with a wealth of silky brown hair and a pair of enormous brown eyes, so warm they would have melted the heart of the legendary Snow Queen. We felt she was just too young to understand why there was no money to buy presents.

There was a beautiful red coat, just Linda's size, in the window of Lloyd's department store, in the county seat. Every time we'd go to town she looked at that store window to see if it was still there. But the price was an impossible $12.95! It might just as well have been $100. Jane went to great pains remaking a coat of her own, to fit Linda, and she wore it dutifully. But it could not take the place of the one in Lloyd's window.

In those days our nearest neighbor was Old Man Riggs, whose 500 acres lay between our place and the river. Old Charley Riggs was the stingiest man in three counties, with a disposition like a sour apple and an expression on his face that hinted his chief diet was unripe persimmons. He was reputed to have money, but you never would have guessed it. He dressed like a tramp, and he drove a broken down old Model T. He never put side-curtains on it, no matter how cold the weather. He'd sit bolt upright, his big, knobby hands holding the steering wheel in a grip like death. I never saw him wear a pair of gloves - not until after that Christmas.

One of the most pressing problems for a farmer in the hill country is water. If you don't have access to a spring or a stream, you must have deep wells to get it. And at that time, before electricity came to the hills, you pumped it by hand. And pumping all the water for all the animals on a farm is labor, indeed. I had been trying for years to negotiate a right-of-way across Old Man Riggs's place, to the river. Here I was, spending half my time pumping water, while across the narrowest point in Riggs's place, fifty yards from my pasture, was a whole river full! And it wasn't as if he needed it. He had over a mile of frontage and he wouldn't sell me an inch!

As Christmas approached, Jane was busy going through the attic, picking out things to make, or remake, and for materials to decorate with. Linda was an interested spectator. Then, one day, she came to me with a suggestion.

"I want to give Mr. Riggs a Christmas present!" she said.

I was thunderstruck! But I said, "What could you give Mr. Riggs, Linda?"

"I'd have Mother make him some mittens, like she makes for you," came Linda's confident answer.

"Why," I blurted, "the old man would be too stingy to wear them, if you did."

I saw at once that I had made a mistake, for Linda hung her pretty head, and began making circles with her toe, in a way she had.

"Mr. Riggs is my friend," she said. "He lets me eat pears from that big tree in his yard."

I wouldn't have been more surprised if she had said she had trained one of the local wild cats to catch mice in the kitchen. But, knowing her as I did, I shouldn't have been surprised, even at that. Myself, I wouldn't have given the old tightwad the time of day from his own watch, but I couldn't deny Linda anything, when she looked like that. Besides, I saw the hand of Jane in this, for Jane, the gentlest and sweetest of women, has an iron will that brooks no opposition in such matters. I went down on my knees beside Linda and took her in my arms.

"Aw, honey," I told her, "if you want to give Mr. Riggs some mittens, you go right ahead!"

Every winter Jane made several pairs of zero-mittens for me. These were mittens cut from the best parts of my worn out overalls, and lined with pieces of worn blankets. Then she would knit some cuffs of yarn, and sew them on. These were the mittens Linda wanted to give to the old neighbor. Jane cut out two pairs for Old Man Riggs, but she left the sewing to Linda. She cut one pair from overalls, but she found an old skirt in the attic, I think the brightest red I ever saw, and she cut one pair from this. When they were finished, they went into a box, along with some of Jane's molasses cookies.

Early on Christmas Eve, before dark, Linda took the box and left it on Riggs's porch. About eleven o'clock next morning, my chores done, I was sitting in the living room while Jane and Linda prepared our Christmas dinner. Suddenly, with a clatter like an earthquake in a tin shop, Old Man Riggs's Model T turned into our drive. He had his usual death grip on the wheel, but on his hands were the flaming red mittens!

He came to an abrupt halt just in front of the house and climbed painfully to the ground. He further mystified me by lifting a big cardboard grocery box from the rear seat. Then he marched right up to the front door, and knocked, holding the box under his arm. After the briefest of greetings, he asked for Linda. When she came in from the kitchen, he put his hand into the box and lifted something out. There, beautiful to behold, was the beloved, fabulous red coat!

Linda let out a cry of wild delight, and then, after the manner of womankind, she began to sob. Mr. Riggs put his hand caressingly on her head with remarkable gentleness.

"You know," he said, "I had a little girl just like you, once, a long time ago. Only her hair was red." He tried to say more, but only his lips moved.

A moment later, Jane came in from the kitchen. And piling surprise upon surprise, Old Man Riggs again reached into his box. What he handed Jane was a hand-tooled leather bag that must have cost fully as much as the coat! Riggs turned to me.

“I hope," he growled, "you won't mind if I give your wife a Christmas present, John."

It wasn't just a common courtesy that made me ask Riggs to stay for dinner. The old man began to stammer and make excuses. But Jane would have none of this.

"Nonsense," she chided, "we've got plenty for everyone, and it'll be ready in just a little while. "Anyway". She clinched her argument. "I've already set a place for you."

Poor though we were, we never went hungry. The farm yielded an abundance of food, and it was nourishing and good. And Jane was a cook who could make a feast out of the plainest fare. There wasn't a turkey, but there was a fat chicken from our flock, as well as a pair of rabbits I had shot the day before, served, of course, with plenty of Jane's good cornbread dressing. We didn't have tea or coffee, but there were cider and milk aplenty.

I could tell the old man enjoyed the meal. There was a kind of dreamy look in his eyes. Once he looked at Jane, sort of stammered, and then remarked, "A man sorter forgets about a woman's way with food, when he lives by himself."

After the meal, Riggs sat in the living room with me for a while, enjoying a quiet moment. But finally he put on his coat and started toward the door. "Gotta be about my chores," he explained. Then suddenly he turned to me and said, "You know, John, there's a place down at the end of my field close to the river, where an old road used to go through. If you'll fence that off, and run your stock down over it, it won't cost you a dime."

As he slipped through the door, he waved his red mittens and said, "Merry Christmas, Linda! If you will bring your basket to my house, I'll fill it up with some of them pears for your folks."

 

 by Hartley F. Dailey

 

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