A Pleasant Valley Christmas
By Marta Perry
“Have you talked to Daad about it yet? Matthew, Leah’s oldest stepson, was a gangling eighteen now, a far remove from the child she’d met in her schoolroom so many years ago.
“Not yet,” she said, feeling guilty. “Tomorrow is Christmas. I think it best to wait until after the holiday to bring it up, don’t you?”
Matthew’s straight brows, so like his father’s, drew together. “The job won’t stay open forever. Joseph will be wanting an answer.”
“Ja, I know.” And they both knew how Matthew’s daad was likely to respond to the idea that his oldest son should become a junior partner in Joseph Beiler’s machine shop. Daniel had his heart set on the boy taking over the dairy farm he’d worked so hard to build up. “But he’ll wait until after Christmas, surely.”
Matt’s face set in his stubborn look, again much like his father’s. “I should talk to Daad myself. I’m a man now, ain’t so?”
He was a man, capable of making his own decisions. The problem was that Daniel had trouble seeing him that way. “Just let me speak to him first,” she said. Maybe she could explain it in a way that wouldn’t have these two bull-headed men clashing horns. “I promise. Soon.”
Matthew might have continued to argue, but Rachel Anna tore into the kitchen at that moment, Jonah in hot pursuit. With the ease of long experience, Leah caught one with each hand. “Komm, now. No running in the house.”
“She took my new yo-yo.” Jonah made a grab for the bright red yo-yo Rachel Anna held in her hand. “Gimme.”
“Jonah said I could play with it, but he grabbed it back before I could start.” Leah’s five-year-old produced a formidable pout.
“She was tangling the string. And it’s mine.” Jonah looked about ready to stamp his foot.
Leah suppressed a sigh. Jonah was seven years older than Rachel, but sometimes he acted as if he were five, as well. Maybe it was because he’d been the baby of the family before she married Daniel and together they’d produced their little girl.
“Rachel, give your brother back his yo-yo. It belongs to him. Jonah, put the yo-yo away for now. I’m sure you both have chores to do, and there are snickerdoodles in the oven for when you’ve finished.”
The reminder of chores sent them both scampering, as she’d known it would. Matthew, with a quick nod that seemed to say he wouldn’t forget her promise, grabbed his jacket and went out the back door.
Leah paused, watching him from the window. It had been snowing all day, with the wind sending it into drifts against the barn. Matthew grabbed the snow shovel from beside the back door and began clearing the path again.
“What are you looking at, Mammi?” Elizabeth, her step-daughter, came to stand next to her and peer out.
At fifteen, Elizabeth was nearly as tall as Leah was, and the realization gave her heart a little kick. The children were growing up so fast.
“Just looking at the snow. If it keeps going this way, folks won’t be able to make it here for Christmas dinner.” Christmas in an Amish household might seem quiet to the Englisch world, but Leah cherished her traditions. It was her year to host her daad, her brothers and sister and their families for Christmas dinner, and she’d been preparing for it for weeks.
“That might be nice not to have a crowd around for once.” Elizabeth’s normally sunny expression had been decidedly moody lately.
“Elizabeth, they’re not a crowd. They’re family.”
Elizabeth turned her face away. “Not really my family.”
The words were like a blow, and Leah had to push her own feelings aside to deal with this behavior. “That is unkind,” she said firmly. “And untrue besides. Your aunts and onkels and grossdaadi love you nearly. The fact that you came into the family through my marrying your daad makes no difference at all to them.”
Elizabeth’s only answer was a mulish expression, so unlike her that Leah was tempted to give her a shake.
“I understand you’re unhappy about Thomas Esch, but he is too old for you—“
“You don’t understand anything!” Elizabeth burst into tears and fled from the kitchen.
Teenagers. Leah’s own mamm had always said that having a teenager around was like having a two-year-old again, except that a quick swat on the bottom didn’t cure their misbehavior. She’d also said that a mother was only ever as happy as her most unhappy child, and Leah had begun to see how right she’d been.
The smell of burning cookies had her racing to the oven. What had happened to the lovely Christmas she’d been planning?
Leah could see the moment she brought up the subject of Matthew’s goals that Daniel wasn’t going to be receptive.
His face tightened. “Did Matt ask you to talk to me about it?”
“No, for sure he didn’t,” Leah said quickly. “I just thought it was best if you heard it from me first.” She put her hand on his arm, feeling the tension in his muscles. “He has his own goals, Daniel. We should respect that, ain’t so?”
“Matthew should respect his father’s opinion,” he retorted. “Many young men would give anything to take over a dairy farm. What have I worked so hard for, if not to have something to leave our kinder?”
“No one works harder than you.” Leah kept her voice soft. “But that’s partly because you love it, ja? Matthew loves machinery, and this chance to go in with Joseph Beiler in the machine shop is his dream. Don’t you see that?”
But Daniel was already halfway out the back door, shrugging into his jacket. “I let him help out at Beiler’s because I thought the work would be gut for him. But I don’t want him making a mistake that would affect the rest of his life.” The door closed emphatically on his words.
Leah stood at the window, watching his figure be swallowed up in the swirling white, and her heart sank. Why couldn’t she find the right words to show him the truth? It wasn’t Matt who was the born farmer, it was Jonah. But Daniel was so blinded by the plans he’d made years ago that he couldn’t see it. And her well-intentioned meddling had just made things worse.
The snow continued to fall throughout the afternoon, making the world outside the farmhouse still and hidden. Leah had chased Rachel and Jonah outside to play in the backyard so that she could put the last few stitches in the clothes for the doll she was making for Rachel’s Christmas gift.
When Elizabeth came down the stairs, Leah found herself stiffening, and that was no way to respond to a dear daughter. But gentle, biddable Elizabeth seemed to have turned into another person as her rumspringa grew near, and this crush she had on the Esch boy was all the worse for being impossible.
But Elizabeth smiled when she saw what Leah was doing. “Remember when Grossmaami made a doll for me for Christmas?”
“I do, indeed.” Leah still missed her mother, especially as the holiday drew near. “She loved you from the very first.” Even when she couldn’t have known that Leah would marry Daniel and become a mother to his three children, her mother had had a special place in her heart for Elizabeth.
“I miss her.” Elizabeth pulled the footstool close to Leah’s chair and sat down.
“Ja, I do, as well. Your grossmammi seemed to understand things without having to be told.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I’m sorry I was rude.”
“It’s forgiven and forgotten.” Leah patted her hand. “I’m sorry I was sharp about Thomas.” A young girl’s first crush was a sensitive subject. She should have remembered.
Elizabeth turned her face away, as if unwilling to discuss that particular subject. “Maybe I’ll make another batch of cookies, ja? Even if the others can’t make it tomorrow, Grossdaadi and Onkel Levi and Aunt Barbara and the boys will komm.”
It was an olive branch, Leah thought, and she nodded, accepting it. True enough, the family on the adjoining farm would be here, even if they had to pull the young ones on their sleds.
“That’s a fine idea, Elizabeth. Denke. That will give me a chance to finish this sewing before Jonah and Rachel come in.”
But no sooner had she said the words than she heard the thud of footsteps on the back porch. She tucked the clothes out of sight in her sewing basket.
“In already?” she called, heading for the kitchen with Elizabeth.
But it was Rachel alone, her face frightened. “Jonah says komm schnell,” she gasped. “Something is wrong at the barn.”
Leah ran toward the door, grapping her jacket as she passed the hook where it hung. “Stay—“ she began, but Elizabeth was hurrying after her, and maybe she would be needed.
Together they ran toward the barn, snow blowing in their faces, with Rachel trudging after them. Thank goodness Daniel and the boys had been keeping the path shoveled all day.
Daniel. Her heart seemed to stop. What had happened? If Daniel was hurt—
They burst through the barn door at a run, and one quick glance showed Leah what had happened. The heavy snow had brought down a section of the roof. Snow and timbers formed a cliff and under it a half dozen of the milk cows huddled.
Her breath caught. One heavy timber hung precariously over the cows, and that was Daniel’s snow-covered figure holding it up while Jonah tried to lead the cows out of the debris.
Elizabeth darted to help her brother, while Leah rushed to Daniel’s side, bracing her palms against the wood in a futile effort to ease his burden.
“Don’t,” he grunted, face taut with strain. “Too much for you. Matt! Drat the boy—he should be here.”
Matthew was as tall and strong as his daad. He was the one needed now. The wind gusted, setting the timber shivering. The roof creaked dangerously. Her breath caught. Daniel—
“I’m here, Daad.” The voice came from above them. “Hold it another minute.”
Matthew sounded remarkably calm. In an instant he dropped into view from the upper rafters, dragging the hook they used to lift hay bales to the loft.
“It won’t work.” Daniel seemed to force the words out. He was tiring, and she couldn’t do anything to help.
“It’ll work,” Matt said. “The pulleys are in the wrong place, but I threaded the rope another way.” He was almost directly above them now, and he lowered the hook. “Can you grab it, Mammi?”
She reached, missed, then reached again, and her hand connected with cold metal. “I have it.” She pulled the hook down around the beam.
“I’ll start pulling it up now.” The rope tightened. “Get back, Mammi.”
Matthew said the words with such authority that she didn’t doubt him. She took a step back and watched as the beam rose slowly, the weight lifting from Daniel’s shoulders. Finally he was free, and she hurried to help him out from under.
In moments Jonah and Elizabeth had led the cows to safety. Rachel flung herself at her father’s legs, sobbing.
“Ach, little one, stop.” Daniel winced a bit as he patted her head. “I’m fine. Everything is all right. Jonah, go and help your brother secure the timber. We’ll have a rebuilding job to do after Christmas, that’s certain sure.”
“Komm in the house and let me have a look at you,” Leah said, slipping her arm around his waist. Guiding him toward the door, she had to fight back tears of relief. There might be other problems yet to solve, but at least they were all safe. That was enough to be thankful for at the moment.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. The snow had stopped falling sometime during the night. Leah and Elizabeth, with some help from Rachel, got breakfast on the table while Daniel and the boys saw to the stock.
“I saw the plow go by,” Elizabeth announced. “The family will make it this afternoon for sure.” She was all smiles at the prospect, and Leah could only shake her head. With four children to get through adolescence, she’d best get used to the ups and downs.
She spotted Daniel and the boys heading in from the barn. “Hurry, they’re coming.”
“Presents soon.” Rachel clapped her hands.
“Not until you eat breakfast,” Elizabeth reminded her, setting a platter of steaming sausages on the table.
Rachel moaned as if that would take forever, but in reality it couldn’t have been more than half an hour before Daniel leaned back in his chair, lifting his cup for a refill of coffee. “All right,” he said, his voice teasing. “I suppose it must be time for presents.”
There was a grand scurrying into the living room, when the gifts had been stacked in the middle of the floor. Daniel put his arm around her as they followed the kinder.
“Your brother was over already to see about the barn. He and the others will be here ready to help day after tomorrow.”
“That’s fine.” She leaned her head on his shoulder for just a moment. “It could have been so much worse.”
“Ja,” he said, and she thought his gaze lingered on Matthew for a moment.
After all the pains everyone had taken over wrapping their gifts for each other, the paper was soon strewn over the floor, like multi-colored snow. Rachel greeted her new doll with hugs, and Elizabeth was momentarily speechless when she saw the blue dress that was the exact color of her eyes.
Jonah tossed a rolled up piece of wrapping paper at Rachel. Before Leah could chide him, he was shoving a gift toward his little sister.
“You have another present, Rach.”
Rachel seized it, pulling the paper off, and then stared, her eyes wide. It was the bright red yo-yo.
Leah suspected her eyes might be just as wide when she looked at their younger son. “Your yo-yo.”
Jonah shrugged, flushing a little. “She wanted it so much.” His words were cut off when Rachel grabbed him in a throttling hug, and in a moment they were tussling in the wrapping paper.
Leah exchanged looks with Daniel. It seemed their Jonah had a kind heart under all that teasing.
Daniel bent to push something out from behind his chair. “Here is something else for Matthew, too. Not a yo-yo,” he added, smiling.
Matt took it, looking wary. He pulled the paper off to disclose a wooden tool box and touched it lightly, as if he couldn’t believe the evidence of his eyes.
“It’s your father’s tool box, ja?” He looked at Daniel.
Daniel nodded. “I thought it right that you should have something that had belonged to your other grossdaadi. It will come in handy for a man who runs a machine shop, ain’t so?”
Leah’s throat was tight as she watched the interplay between her husband and son. So that was what Daniel had been doing last night after she went to bed.
“You mean it, Daad?” Matt’s voice was low.
Daniel clapped his shoulder. “I saw something yesterday, and it wonders me that I didn’t realize it before. When the roof fell, you went right into figuring out how to fix it, while Jonah ran straight for the animals. I guess that should tell me which of you will be the dairy farmer and which the machinist, ja?”
Jonah sat up, shedding wrapping paper, his face glowing as much as Matt’s was. “Really, Daadi?”
“Ja. This time I’m certain sure.” Daniel reached out to Jonah, hugging both his sons close.
Leah watched her family, her heart full. Someone else looking at them would see only an Amish family exchanging presents on Christmas. But far more had been given today than simple gifts. Her family was as it should be again, and she was content.
“Happy Christmas,” she murmured softly. “Happy Christmas to all of us.”
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