A Sister's Christmas Gift by Marta Perry
Chloe watched as her elder sister, Lydia, heavily pregnant with her third child, effortlessly settled a dispute between her two little boys and sent them off happily to do their chores in the barn on this cold December day.
“I don’t know how you manage them so easily,” she said as the door banged behind the boys, leaving Lydia and Chloe alone in the warm farmhouse kitchen, redolent with the aroma of the snickerdoodles they’d been baking. “You could negotiate peace treaties between warring countries.”
“Ach, it’s nothing,” Lydia said, laughing. She put one hand on the table, as if she needed something to prop her up. “Settling quarrels comes natural to a mammi. And Amish kinder must learn early that we don’t settle disputes by fighting.”
Chloe nodded as she hurried to take another tray of cookies from the gas oven before Lydia could bend over. Lydia might feel her gift was normal but Chloe wasn’t sure how natural she’d be at anything to do with being a mother.
Her two sisters, Lydia and Susanna, had an advantage over Chloe in that regard. The three of them had been separated after the deaths of their parents, but while Lydia and Susanna had gone to Amish relatives in central Pennsylvania to be brought up as their own children, she had been raised by their English maternal grandmother in Philadelphia.
Gran had done her best, Chloe knew. But the vision of child-rearing held by a wealthy Mainline Philadelphia matron was very different from that of a typical Amish farm family. Chloe hadn’t even known about her siblings until six months or so ago.
Now…well, now her life was completely changed, living in this peaceful valley in central Pennsylvania within easy reach of her two sisters and their families. And she was in love. Her lips curved as she thought about Seth, and Lydia noticed.
“You’re thinking about Seth, ain’t so? Only a few more months, and you’ll be married.”
Chloe nodded, but a flicker of doubt flared up and wouldn’t be doused. She concentrated on moving the cookies to the cooling rack, not sure she wanted to let her sister see her face. Lydia seemed to have the ability to look right into a person’s heart.
“Seth would like it to be sooner, but…well, I’m trying not to upset Gran any more than necessary. She needs time to get used to the idea that I’m marrying someone who grew up Amish.”
“But Seth is as Englisch as can be now after living and working in the outside world for so long,” Lydia pointed out.
“In some ways, he still thinks Amish,” Chloe said, remembering a certain conversation they’d had which had ended in an unsatisfying way. “For instance, he’d be happy to have a houseful of children.”
“But…don’t you want kinder?” Lydia sounded as shocked as if Chloe had admitted to robbing banks.
Chloe shrugged. “I’ve never thought much about it. I’m not sure I’d be a very good mother. After all, I haven’t actually had one.”
“I’m so sorry.” Lydia put her arm around Chloe, her voice warm and maternal. “I wasn’t thinking, that’s certain sure. Susanna and I were lucky in our families, having mammis who loved us.” She gave Chloe a squeeze. “But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t make a wonderful fine mammi. Being a mother comes naturally. You’ll see.”
They were standing so close to each other that Chloe actually felt Lydia’s belly tighten even before she heard her catch her breath.
“Lydia?” Now it was her turn to put her arm supportively around her sister. “You’re not—that wasn’t a contraction, was it? The baby isn’t due for another two weeks.”
Chloe couldn’t help the edge of panic in her voice. Lydia’s husband had gone off for the day to an auction—that was one reason Chloe was here. Adam hadn’t like the idea of leaving Lydia alone with the boys, even though Lydia laughed at his worry.
“No, no, it’s nothing.” Lydia’s face smoothed out. “It’s normal to have those little practice contractions as the time approaches. Now, let’s get busy on the pfefferneuse. I promised I’d teach you all the traditional cookies, and we have to make those.”
At about the time they had the spicy cookies ready to slide into the oven, the back door slammed. Daniel and David rushed inside, bringing a wave of cold air with them.
“Mammi, Aunt Chloe, it’s snowing outside. It really is—look at it!” David, six, jumped up and down in his excitement.
“I thought we should get the snow shovels ready, Mammi. Just in case it’s deep enough to shovel.” At eight, Daniel always seemed older than his years, Chloe thought. He automatically assumed responsibility, while harum-scarum David plunged ahead with no thought for consequences.
They both had such loving hearts, though. They accepted her as a part of their family without question. Even now, David came to tug at her hand.
“Komm, Aunt Chloe. You want to see, ja?” He pulled her toward the door.
“Sure I do.” She smiled into his round blue eyes. “But I’ll just look from the porch, because I don’t have my jacket on.”
Luckily she’d worn ankle boots this morning. That should suffice to get her to the car when it was time to leave. This snowfall couldn’t amount to anything. It hadn’t even been mentioned in the weather report she’d watched this morning.
Chloe stepped out onto the porch and stopped, blinking. Had she thought the snow couldn’t amount to much? It was coming down fast and furious right now—huge flakes, descending so thickly she could barely see the barn.
“Look at it!” David jumped off the porch and spun around, arms extended to grab the fat flakes that starred his jacket sleeves. “I love snow.”
Daniel followed him. “Mammi says we can play in the snow, but we’d best get the shovels out first, so they’re ready. I’ll race you.”
The two of them ran off, laughing and jostling each other. Chloe was smiling as she turned to the door, but the smile began to ebb as she looked at the snow beginning to cover the surface of the farm lane. If this kept up, she’d be lucky to get home tonight.
She went inside, shivering a little. “They’re so excited.”
“The first snowfall of the year,” Lydia said, smiling. “They’ve been waiting and waiting for it. I’m glad it happened on a Saturday instead of a school day. Most likely it will peter off soon, but at least it looks like enough to make a snowman.”
Chloe nodded, but she stared out the window at the whirling whiteness, she felt a quiver of unease. What if it didn’t stop soon? Adam was clear over in Oyersburg at a farm auction. An easy half-hour journey by car if the roads were clear, but she hadn’t gone through a central Pennsylvania winter yet.
“If Adam had a cell phone I could call him,” she murmured, half to herself.
Lydia’s eyes widened in surprise. “Whatever for? I’m perfectly fine, and even if the snow gets worse, he knows we’re safe.” She chuckled. “We’re not like the Englisch, so dependent on the electric and their electronic gadgets like that cell phone of yours. We’ll be warm and safe, with plenty to eat. You might enjoy being snowbound with us.”
Chloe didn’t miss the faint questioning note in her sister’s voice. Their relationship was still new. She sometimes wondered whether her Amish sisters understood her, and no doubt they wondered the same about her.
“I’d love to be snowbound with you,” she said. “I was just thinking that Adam would be worried about you.” She nodded toward her sister’s belly. “And the baby.”
Lydia patted her stomach. “He or she is fine.” Lydia was always careful to use both pronouns when she talked about the baby, but Chloe felt sure she was hoping for a little girl after the two boys. “Komm, let’s have a cup of tea while this batch bakes. I’ll make hot chocolate for the boys when they get tired of being out in the snow.”
“That won’t be soon,” Chloe said, glancing out the window. “They’re starting to build a snowman.” Apprehension deepened when she saw how the snow was piling up. She leaned closer to the window, feeling the cold, and her breath made a cloud on the glass. “Maybe I should call Seth.”
Lydia set the brown pottery teapot on the table and added a few warm snickerdoodles. “Not even your Seth can do anything about the snowfall,” she teased. “Snow is a force of nature, like last summer’s flood. Here on the farm we spend all year getting ready for winter.”
Chloe had never thought of it that way, but she supposed her sister was right. All of the growing, picking, canning, even the apple butter she’d help make, were part of ensuring that the family would have plenty to eat over the cold months.
She slip into a chair and picked up a cookie. The cinnamon sugar goodness seemed to explode in her mouth. “Nothing’s better than a fresh-baked cookie—“
A gasp from Lydia interrupted her. Lydia bent over, grasping the back of a chair.
Chloe was out of her seat in an instant. “Lydia?”
Her sister tried to manage a smile. “It’s passing now. But it was plenty strong.” She smoothed her hand over her belly. “I think this little one has decided it’s time.”
Chloe grabbed her cell phone. “I’ll call 911.”
Her sister’s hand closed over hers. “Ach, don’t be ferhoodled. It’s a long time between the first contraction and having the baby. They would laugh at the idea of calling now.”
Chloe put the phone down slowly. She’d still rather ask for help, but her sister’s voice was firm. “Suppose I phone Seth? That’s all right, isn’t it?”
Smiling, Lydia nodded. “It’s always all right to check in with him, ain’t so?”
The instant she heard Seth’s voice from his new office in Oyersburg, Chloe felt warmed and reassured.
“Is it snowing there?”
“Just starting,” he said. “Why?”
“I’m at Lydia’s.” She walked away from her sister, who was pretending to be absorbed in stirring her tea. “We already have over an inch, and it’s mounting up fast. Adam went to a farm auction somewhere near Oyersburg. And Lydia is having contractions.”
Seth took a moment to absorb her words, as he always did. She supposed his calm, sensible attitude was a heritage of his Amish upbringing.
“Did you call paramedics?”
“Lydia won’t hear of it. She says it will be a long time yet. But if the snow keeps up the way it is…”
“Right. Suppose I go find Adam. There can’t be many auctions this late in the year. Once I reach him, I’ll call you back to see what the situation is.”
Even though she appreciated Seth’s calm, she couldn’t help thinking he ought to share her apprehension. “You make it sound like having a baby is an everyday event.”
His chuckle was warm and low in her ear. “It is, isn’t it? Don’t worry. Lydia has done this before, remember? You’ll both be fine. I love you.”
“Love you, too.” In spite of her concern, she was reassured.
But an hour later, that reassurance had vanished. In the midst of asking her to call the boys inside, Lydia gasped, sinking onto her chair.
“The pains are getting closer already,” she said, unable to hide the anxiety in her eyes. “Labor didn’t go near this fast with the other two. Maybe…maybe you had better call for help.”
Chloe punched in the numbers, her thoughts racing. Surely Seth had found Adam by this time. Why hadn’t he called back?
The 911 operator answered immediately. On hearing why Lydia was calling, she seemed to hesitate, and then Chloe could hear her muffled voice, apparently consulting with someone in the background.
“I’m connecting you with the paramedic closest to you,” she said.
Another pause, longer this time, and then finally she was connected with the person who could do something. She explained quickly.
“You hang in there.” It sounded as if the paramedic was pulling on clothes as he spoke. “The roads are getting pretty bad here, but I’ll get through to the station somehow for my gear. Don’t worry. We’ll reach you if we have to commandeer a snow plow.” There was a smile in his voice. “I’ll call you back once we’re on our way.”
Thanking him, Chloe clicked off. She went to the table and put her arm around her sister. “They’ll come as fast as they can.”
Lydia nodded. “It will be fine. We’re in God’s hands, ain’t so?” She pressed her hand over Chloe’s. “I’m wonderful happy you’re here.”
Going outside to call the boys in, Chloe was buffeted by the wind. The snow blew into her face, chilling her. In other circumstances she might have enjoyed it, but not today. She rounded up David and Daniel and swept them back into the house despite their protests.
“Your cheeks are red as fire,” she said, “And I’ll bet your fingers are frozen. What were you doing?”
“Shoveling the path to the barn,” Daniel said. “We have to be able to get to the animals, ain’t so?”
“If Daadi doesn’t get back in time, we’ll have to milk the cows, Daniel says.” David clapped his mittens together. “That will be fun.”
Chloe could only hope she wouldn’t be included in the milking party. Much as she wanted to fit in with her Amish kin, that was one thing she hadn’t attempted yet. She ushered them into the house, not knowing what she ought to say about their mother. Probably nothing—Lydia would handle that subject the way she wanted to.
The cell phone rang while she was pulling off wet mufflers, and she grabbed it, her heart beating faster. “Seth?”
“I found Adam.” He didn’t bother with preliminaries. “We’re on the road now, but the plows and salt trucks haven’t gotten through yet. What’s happening?”
She told him quickly about the decision to call the rescue squad. “I should get off the phone,” she added. “He’s going to call back.”
“Wait. Adam wants to say something to Lydia.”
“Okay.” She handed the phone to Lydia, smiling. “Adam, for you.”
Lydia’s eyebrows lifted, and Chloe understood her surprise. Adam was conservative about technology, and she doubted he’d ever used a cell phone before.
She turned away, busying herself with the boys while Lydia had a low-voiced conversation with her husband. Once the boys were settled with hot chocolate in front of them, Lydia sat down between them.
“Your baby brother or sister may be coming soon,” she said. “After you finish your snack, I want you to work on the Christmas cards you’re making. Aunt Chloe will be helping me.”
Two blonde heads nodded solemnly. “Is everything all right, Mammi?” Daniel eyed his mother when she stiffened with a contraction.
“Everything’s fine,” Chloe said, rubbing his back lightly. “Having a baby is hard work, and it will make Mammi feel better if she knows you’re doing as she says.”
They both nodded again, and Chloe’s heart filled with love for them.
Lydia caught her eye. “I think we’ll go to the bedroom now.”
Grasping the phone with one hand, Chloe put her arm around her sister’s waist. Please. Her thoughts were so chaotic she could barely form a prayer. Help us.
A half hour later, the bed had been prepared and Lydia sat in the bedroom’s rocking chair, insisting she was better upright. Chloe stared at the phone. Why didn’t it ring?
Even as she thought it, a call came through. She thanked God at the sound of the paramedic’s voice and gave him a quick update on Lydia’s condition.
“Change of plans,” he said, and she could hear the difference in his voice. “That baby sounds determined to arrive fast, so I’m not waiting for the plow. I’ll borrow a snowmobile and be with you soon.”
“If the baby starts to come—“ she began.
“Just do what your sister says. I’ll be there before you know it.”
Before she could thank him, he’d hung up. She relayed the information to Lydia, hearing her voice grow tight. Lydia just smiled, her face calm. “It will be all right. Having a baby is just…nature,” she said. “Like the snow. Don’t be afraid.”
Chloe found it hard to take that advice, especially as her sister’s contractions grew closer and harder over the next half hour. For Lydia’s sake she had to stay calm, but inside she was shaking. Lydia gripped her hands so hard she was surely leaving bruises, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that Lydia and the baby were safe.
Lydia gasped, her face contorting. “It’s coming…”
Please…Chloe murmured, and like an echo to her prayer, she heard the roar of the snowmobile engine, louder and louder and then cutting off sharply. Heavy feet stomped on the porch and the back door opened.
“Up here,” she called.
She heard the man exchange a few words with the boys and then come running up the steps several at a time. He burst into the room just as a warm, wet bundle began to slide out into Chloe’s hands.
“Well, there you are, then,” he said, and it was the voice from the phone. “You two ladies did it without me.” Pulling on a pair of gloves, he moved Chloe gently out of the way. An instant later a lusty cry echoed through the room.
Lydia’s face glowed, the pain of the past hours clearly forgotten so quickly. “Thanks be to God,” she murmured. “A boy or a girl?”
“A beautiful little girl.” He wrapped a towel around the baby and handed her to Chloe, whose arms curved naturally to receive her.
She looked down into the tiny face, so perfect and so alive, and her heart seemed to burst with joy. This was what it was like, then. Gently, she placed the precious bundle in Lydia’s arms.
On Christmas Day the farmhouse was filled to the bursting point with family. Everyone was eager to welcome the new baby, and the lane was lined with buggies.
Chloe carried a tray of meat and cheese to the dining room table, stopping to speak to people as she went. Astonishing, that she’d acquired so much family in such a short period of time, even more surprising that they accepted her so readily. This was very different from Christmases at the mansion in Philadelphia, where she and Gran sat solemnly at opposite ends of the long dining room table, eating the formal dinner that Gran considered appropriate to the day.
After depositing the tray, Chloe worked her way into the living room. Gran had hired a driver and come all the way from Philadelphia, and she was, Chloe saw, determined to make the best of the situation in which she found herself.
Gran’s first glimpse of the new baby had been enlightening. She’d stood for a long moment over the cradle, tears filling her eyes. “She looks so much like Diane,” she’d murmured. Diane, the daughter who had disappointed her so dramatically when she’d run off and married an Amishman, of all things.
She’d touched the baby lightly, and Chloe couldn’t help but wonder if she was feeling regret. If so, her code wouldn’t allow her to admit it, but Chloe had given her a gentle hug.
Susanna, newly married and filled with happiness, sat next to Gran, serving as an unofficial explainer of Amish ways. Chloe noticed how often her gaze sought out that of her new husband, and how Nate seemed so in tune with his bride’s every thought. Those two had been meant to be together, even though they’d had a difficult time realizing it.
Lydia caught her eye and gestured. When Chloe reached her, Lydia transferred a sleeping little Emma Diane to her arms. “You’ll put her in the crib for me, ain’t so?”
“I will,” she agreed. “But I have to hold her for a few minutes first.”
She slipped into the hallway, cradling the baby close against her. Seth had come out here a moment ago, and there was something she wanted to say to him.
Seth turned to her, seeming to have a sixth sense which told him when she was near. “Look at that little one.” His hand brushed Chloe’s shoulder as he bent over the baby. “How can she sleep with all this noise?”
“Maybe it sounds like music to her,” Chloe suggested. “The sound of a very happy Christmas, filled with family and hope. It makes her feel safe and loved.”
Seth’s hand moved to her cheek, his palm warm against her skin. “Are we talking about baby Emma or you?”
“Both, I think.” She could feel the tears of joy in her eyes. “I’ve never had a Christmas like this before, and neither has she.”
“There are a lot more of them coming for both of you.”
“Yes.” She looked into his eyes and read the loving and caring there. “And for all the children we’re going to have, too.”
Understanding dawned in his face. “You’re sure?”
She nodded. “Thanks to Lydia and this little one, I am. Lydia kept trying to reassure me about the idea of being a mother, but I wasn’t really convinced until I held little Emma in my arms. Now I know.” She lifted her face to his. “I want to have your children and know that we’ll raise them together in love.”
Seth kissed her, his touch very gentle as if he was mindful of the baby in her arms. “I think your sister has given both of us a wonderful gift this Christmas.”
Chloe smiled, her cheek against his. “Yes, she has. The best gift a sister could give—the courage to face the future with love and hope.”