The Snow Globe

Her husband’s final Christmas gift is more than just what is in the box.

Closeup of a snow globe that displays a family riding a reindeer-drawn sled.

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“I don’t know why I am doing this,” Katherine said as she pulled on her heavy boots. It had snowed again last night, and the additional accumulation combined with below-freezing temperatures would make it a miserable walk to the bus stop.

She ought to stay home. She ought to wash clothes or wipe down the kitchen cabinets. Or pack away Robert’s things — no, not that. She wasn’t ready yet. Maybe after she finished acknowledging the sympathy cards and scheduling the Masses the more religious ones had requested.

That’s what she ought to do. That’s what she had planned for today until the phone rang while she was washing up her breakfast dishes.

“Is Mr. Tracy available?”

Although it was almost a month since Robert died, hearing someone ask for him hurt as though it had just occurred.

“No,” she said, her voice uneven, then cleared her throat. “May I take a message for him?”

“This is Tom from Apple Tree Gifts calling to let him know his snow globe is in. He can get it today, but we’re only open until three since it’s Christmas Eve. Or we can ship it to him,” and he read off their house number and street. “That’s his address, correct?”

“Yes,” Katherine said, although technically it wasn’t. Not anymore. “No, don’t send it. I’ll pick it up. Where are you located?” and she noted down the information he gave her.

But now, several hours later, she was debating the wisdom of her decision. On the one hand, the bus stop was just up the street, and the ride to the store shouldn’t take more than a half hour. If she left at two, she could get there and back while it was still daylight. Katherine didn’t like being out in the dark. It was hard enough getting used to being alone in the house. Coming home in the winter darkness with no one there to greet her was just too much to handle.

But it still took all she had to convince herself to go. And it wasn’t just the idea of going out that deterred her. Seeing the snow globe would be a painful reminder of what she had lost — whom she had lost. But it was Robert’s last gift, after all. She had to retrieve it, even if, once she brought it home, she was just going to pack it away with all the others.

But despite leaving enough time for the journey, it was early 3:00 before Katherine reached her stop, due to all the passengers who were also out on Christmas Eve. Once she disembarked, she looked for the shop, not sure which direction to go. Katherine had never gone there before. That was Robert’s task — the one concession to the holiday that Katherine had allowed after Michael died.

Before that had occurred, it was Katherine who handled all the seasonal responsibilities. She wrote the cards, neatly addressing the envelopes and signing “Merry Christmas from Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tracy” inside. She decorated the three-foot artificial tree with the ornaments Michael had given them, in age order: the kindergarten ones near the top followed by those from his school years below and then the ones he sent from foreign countries during his deployments — a hand-carved nutcracker from Germany, a delicate pagoda from Japan, a ceramic cityscape of Rome.

And she baked: the kugel from her mother-in-law’s collection, the pfeffernüsse cookies Robert ate by the handful, and the cutouts that she would send to Michael along with dozens of others. By Christmas Eve, the house would smell like an old-fashioned bake shop, and every time Robert came in the door, he’d stop, take a deep breath, and say “Smells good!” as though he hadn’t been inhaling the same aromas for the past month.

But after the military chaplain came to the house that October morning, after they had brought her son’s body back home, after the funeral, the idea of celebrating anything, especially Christmas, seemed impossible. She had left the holiday decorations in the storage room, and when, a week before Christmas, Robert asked if he should set up the tree, she just shook her head, unable to speak.

That’s when he started the Christmas Eve tradition, she recalled. After midnight Mass, he had given her a small box, and when she opened it, she found a snow globe with a tiny house and a snowman in the front yard inside the glass orb. And when she shook it, silver glitter fell onto the roof. Every year after that he gave her another snow globe — some traditional, like the tiny Christmas tree with a cardinal perched on the top, some silly, like the floppy-eared beagle chewing on a red stocking. Robert would set the new one in the center of the dining room table and then arranged the others around it.

“That’s number eleven,” he had said last Christmas after she had unwrapped the newest one, and then he kissed her on the cheek. “Almost an even dozen.”

Eleven snow globes, and this year it would be twelve — one for each year without Michael. And the first one without Robert.

There was no point in dwelling on that, Katherine told herself firmly. She needed to find the store and return home. Looking across the street, she caught sight of the Apple Tree Gifts sign and crossed the intersection. Once inside the store, she said to the young man behind the counter, “Someone, Tom, I think, called this morning and said my husband’s order was in.”

“That was me.” He smiled. “Mr. Robert Tracy, right?” When she nodded, he rummaged under the counter and brought out a box, labeled with her husband’s name and address.

“Here you go. It’s all paid for so just sign this slip and you’ll be good to go,” pushing a paper across the counter.

Just for a moment, Katherine hesitated, then she wrote her name on the line while he placed the box in a bag and handed it to her.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, and she nodded, unable to answer, the bag as heavy as if it held all the grief she felt.

Once outside the store, she glanced at her watch. The next bus wouldn’t be along for at least an hour, and it was too cold to stay outside at the stop. She’d wait in the coffee shop at the corner, she decided, heading in that direction. At least there she would be warm.

“Happy holidays and welcome to Benny’s Bake Shop!” The young waitress, wearing a bright red mistletoe corsage on her uniform, came up to Katherine as soon as she entered. “I’m Janet and I’ll be taking care of you! Table or booth?”

“Table, I guess,” said Katherine, and followed her to one by the window.

“Coffee?” Janet asked and Katherine nodded.

“And a muffin, too — a raisin one, if you have it,” Katherine added, and in just a few minutes, she was enjoying her first dessert in — how long had it been? For that matter, how long had it been since she was in a restaurant? Not since Robert died. Sitting alone in public surrounded by other people just emphasized that there was no one in the empty chair across from her.

Instead, she took her meals at home, sitting on the sofa instead of at the kitchen table, and watched the news — the voices filling the silence in the house.

“Like a fill-up?” and when Katherine said yes, Janet carefully poured the coffee and then set down a few extra creamers. “There you go!” and then she turned at the sound of the door opening. “I’ll be back again for another top-off in a bit” before leaving to greet the new arrivals.

Katherine stirred her coffee, half-listening to the Christmas music in the background. Robert loved the holiday songs, and would play them nonstop from December first until New Year’s Day. His favorite was “Silent Night,” but he would reserve that hymn for Christmas Eve while she unwrapped her gift.

So many things he had done to help her cope with the loss of her son, their son. And only now, when it was too late, she wondered what she had done for him. What comfort had she given him? Or had she been so focused on her pain that she had overlooked his?

Her unwelcome thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the bus pulling up to the stop.

“Oh, no!” Katherine threw a few bills on the table and hurried out the door, making it just in time, but when she reached home, she realized her package was missing.

Where was it? Had she left it on the bus? In the coffee shop? She didn’t have the restaurant’s phone number, and if the bag was on the bus, someone had probably taken it by now.

Robert’s last gift — and she had lost it. And the enormity of her loss — of all her losses — overwhelmed her. She sank into Robert’s old easy chair and sobbed in a way she hadn’t even when she learned her son had died in a battle half a world away, even when what her husband thought was just indigestion — “Too much pumpkin pie,” he had said in the ambulance. “There’s no need to go to the hospital” — turned out to be a massive heart attack.

Katherine might have wept all evening if it wasn’t for the sound of her doorbell. Who could be there, she wondered, wiping her eyes. It was dark, nearly seven o’clock. A burglar? But that’s silly, she told herself as she came in the front hallway. A burglar wouldn’t ring the bell! And when she turned on the porch light and looked out the window, she recognized the young waitress from the coffee shop, holding a bag with the Apple Tree Gifts label.

“You left it behind and there was a sticker on the box with an address so I decided to drop it off on my way home so you would have it for the holiday,” Janet explained when Katherine opened the door.

“Come in, come in,” and Katherine led her inside, taking the bag from her and setting it on the side table. “I really appreciate — it was so kind of you — so thoughtful,” and she started crying again. What was wrong with her? She hated crying, especially in front of strangers.

At Michael’s funeral, she hadn’t cried. At Robert’s funeral, she hadn’t cried. Instead she had stood there, stoic and stone-faced, afraid that if she let one tear escape it would turn into a flood that would drown her in grief.

“Here, don’t cry,” and Janet reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a crumpled tissue.

Katherine took it gratefully and blew her nose. “Thank you so much — Janet, right?” and the girl nodded. “Thank you, Janet” and then looked past the girl out the window, where the gusts were whipping the falling snow into silvery whirlwinds. No car. Janet must have walked in the darkness and cold from the bus stop.

“Would you like some hot chocolate to warm you before you leave? Or maybe not. It’s Christmas Eve and you must be wanting to get home to your family.”

Janet shook her head. “Not really. There’s no one waiting. I’ve been on my own since Mom died last spring. It was just the two of us — my father left when I was a baby — so this year is my first — ” and she stopped, looked away, and then finished, “my first holiday by myself.”

She said it very matter-of-factly, but Katherine could recognize something behind the words, the sense of loss, of hurt, of pain.

“Then you must stay. I insist.” Before Janet could refuse, she relieved the girl of her coat and hat and ushered her into the living room.

“Here, have a seat,” and she settled her on the sofa. “I’ll be right back” and then went into the kitchen to warm the milk for their drinks. It only took a few minutes and then she was back in the living room with two mugs. “Here you go,” and she handed one to Janet, adding, “I’m sorry I don’t have anything to go with it.”

“No, this is fine,” said Janet gratefully, taking a sip. “Oh, I nearly forgot!” and she set her mug down and reached into her backpack to pull out a small bakery box. “I noticed you liked the raisin one but I brought a few others, too — just a little Christmas present,” and she handed the white carton to Katherine.

Inside were four muffins: one with raisins, another redolent with the aroma of cinnamon, a third topped with sliced almonds, and a fourth with chocolate chips. That would have been Michael’s choice, Katherine thought, while Robert would have picked the almond one.

Katherine swallowed, and then smiled at the young girl. “Thank you, my dear. That was so kind of you. Now, here,” and she held the box out to her, “you must have one, too,” and without hesitation, Janet picked the one with chocolate bits.

Perhaps it was the act of sharing a meal or just the Christmas spirit, but soon, the two of them were talking like old friends, Janet telling her about the night classes she was taking to become a beautician, the coffee shop regulars that she knew by name, and how nice her boss was.

“He doesn’t even mind if I have to leave before my shift is over to get to school on time. I hate to think I’ll have to find another place to work,” and when Katherine looked at her questioningly, she explained. “My landlord is raising my rent the first of the year, and my salary and tips just won’t cover it. And there isn’t anywhere cheaper to live — not where it’s safe, anyway. So I’ll need to find a better-paying job.”

She took another sip of cocoa before continuing. “But I’ll manage. My mother always told me to never give up, that no matter how hard things were, something good was always waiting for me just around the corner. I just have to keep looking for it.”

“She sounds like she was a wonderful person,” Katherine said, and Janet nodded, looking into her mug as if to find some comfort there.

“She was,” she finally said, softly. “I was lucky to have her,” no trace of self-pity in her voice.

Was it the recognition of shared grief that led Katherine to make the offer? Or was it because it was Christmas Eve, a time for giving, and she wanted to give something to someone who, like her, had lost someone she loved? Whatever the reason, the words came before she could change her mind.

“I have a spare room and you’re welcome to it,” Katherine said. “It was my son’s room.” She nodded toward the photo of Michael in his Army uniform on the mantel. “He died twelve years ago while in the service and his room has just been empty ever since.”

“But you don’t even know me!” said Janet in shock. “I mean, that’s awfully kind, and it would be wonderful, but— ”

“No buts,” Katherine said firmly. “If it makes you feel better, you can give me your references, but you’d be doing me a favor. The house is so big and it would be so nice to have someone here — ” and she stopped because Janet had rushed over to hug her, almost spilling her cocoa in the process.

“I don’t know how to thank you, and I’ll pay you rent and do anything else you need me to do and — oh, this is such a wonderful Christmas present!” And she kissed Katherine’s cheek, and for a minute, Katherine was reminded of how Michael used to kiss her when he would come home on leave.

“Just consider it a Christmas present,” Katherine said. “Now go sit down and finish your muffin while I’ll make more cocoa. Maybe we can watch some television, too — I think The Bishop’s Wife is playing.”

Janet smiled. “I love that movie! My mom and I used to watch it every Christmas Eve! But wait — you haven’t opened your Christmas present!”

She went out to the hallway, picked up the small bag from the side table, and brought it to Katherine.

“Don’t you want to know what Santa brought you? Or would you rather wait until tomorrow morning?”

Katherine took the bag and suddenly could feel Robert’s presence as clearly as if he was right there in the room with the two of them.

“No, I’ll open it now. It’s from Robert, my husband — my late husband,” she said, as she took the box from the bag. “He would buy me a snow globe every year, ever since our son died. And every year on Christmas Eve, he put the others out and then gave me the new one to open.”

When she saw Janet look around the room, she added, “I didn’t set any out this year. Actually, I didn’t do any decorating at all. You see, Robert died just a few weeks ago, and I just couldn’t,” and for a moment, her fingers tightened on the box.

Janet reached over and gently touched her hands. “I know how hard it is,” she said softly. “I didn’t know how I was going to get through this Christmas. But being here with you — well, that has made all the difference!”

The two women looked at each other and smiled, and then Katherine squared her shoulders. “Well, let’s see what he picked out for this year.” She opened the box, moved the tissue paper aside, and carefully lifted out the globe.

This one had a green-striped package with a large red bow on top. And unlike all the others, it was a musical one. Katherine turned the base and the strains of “Silent Night” filled the room.

They both listened in silence until the hymn ended and the globe stopped turning. Then Janet gently picked up the snow globe and looked at it, saying softly, “I wonder what’s inside that package.”

Katherine looked at the globe and then at the young girl, whom she would never have met if it hadn’t been for Robert’s gift, and smiled. “I know.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Thank you all for your kind words about my story. I have always believed that things happen for a reason and that accidental encounters may not be so accidental after all.
    As a side note, after my mother died, my father took over the task of buying cards for birthdays and anniversaries of family members. He would get them well in advance of the occasions, marking on the envelope who they were for. A few months after he died, I found them and sent them to the intended recipients on the appropriate dates, all of whom were touched to have one final card from their beloved Papa.

  2. This is a story not just to read, but to wrap yourself in and absorb its goodness. I lost my mother two weeks before Christmas, this story puts the world in perspective.

  3. A great story. Fashioned after the style of O Henry. Thanks for warming our hearts on a sleekly Christmas Day.


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