Christmas In An Unlikely Season

How could my children and I share in the joy of the season during a time of terrible sadness?

William H. Armstrong from the book Through Troubled Waters Published Dec 25, 2020 15:39:04 IST
Christmas In An Unlikely Season ┬ęGetty Images/istockphoto

That  21st of November was grey and overcast. One best remembers such a day if he watches it, as I did, after a sleepless night. There is time to watch the day build up if you have to stay in bed. That was where the doctor was keeping me. Mumps is no lark at 43.

Outside my bedroom window, I could hear the sheep going down the hillside to the lower pasture. Five of the sheep were belled, each with an individual tone. On this particular morning, they seemed to make music.

Just a week before, the last of my many big jobs around our farmhouse had been finished. A strong wire fence now surrounded all the land. The sheep were secure from dogs.

I didn’t mind much having to take some time off from the all-boys boarding school where I taught. September and October are hellish months, getting schoolboys adjusted and organized, so I needed this rest.

I really would miss only five days. This was Saturday. Thanksgiving would be next week, and the students would go home for the holidays. I could lie here and dream.

I felt a warm sense of security now that our home was completed. My wife, Martha, and I had first looked at this rocky Connecticut hillside when the old apple trees were in bloom. Could we buy it? We wondered. Standing 400 feet up on the bony ridge, we looked down the Housatonic Valley. The sound of rapids from the river in the valley came up to us. How many nights their gentle roar would lull us to sleep.

I decided to build the house myself from trees on the property. Could trees be cut and sawed, and lumber piled to dry? Could stone be hauled in for chimneys and terraces? Sometimes people planted seeds of discouragement.

I smiled, remembering those early days that had seen me rush from school, dash to our apartment, grab a crosscut saw and hurry to the woods. I found that getting logs off rocky mountainsides is the hardest job one can tackle. But we persevered, and the doubters had long since been silenced.

It had been three years and already the house looked lived in. Someday I would put the baseboard in the downstairs closets and line the window seat in our room with cedar. Then everything would be finished. Then we would do all the things I’d promised my wife all these busy years.

It was time Martha and the children were up. My door opened gently. Martha looked in.

“I have been awake most of the night,” I said. “My temperature is high, I think, but the doctor said to expect that.”

“I’ll keep the children quiet so you can rest,” she whispered. The children looked in, but were hurried away. Martha went about her morning’s work. Then she brought in her coffee and sat with me. She talked of our going to Maryland for Thanksgiving  with her father. I told her I was sorry to have ruined the plan. She said it was all right. Routine filled up that day. The shopping was done. The invitations for Mary’s birthday party were brought home and put in the top drawer of the sewing table. The boys went to play with their friends. My temperature rose slightly. The sheep went past to graze.

The evening was a quiet one. Martha arranged the things I would need for the night. Afterward she went upstairs. I could hear her going from room to room, tucking the covers snugly about three innocent worlds of dreams. Another November day had drawn to a close. 

book-excerpt_1_122520033623.jpgThe Armstrong family in 1950, after moving into their new house: (left to right) Martha, Kip, Mary, David and William. Photo courtesy of Armstrong Family

Into the Lap of God

Before turning in that evening, Martha sat on the edge of her bed, took out her diary and made her usual entry.

“Kip and D. B. [David] went to the Greiners’ for the day. Mary went to Molly’s this afternoon and to dinner. Evening of relaxing. Funny attack in the throat.”

Near midnight Martha came quietly down the stairs. She mentioned the strange choking sensation in her throat. I told her to call our doctor, but she hesitated. She hated to bother him at such an hour. I insisted, though, and she did call.

After he arrived and examined Martha, the doctor was concerned enough about her condition to phone my school infirmary, telling the nurse there to fix a bed. Martha didn’t want to go, but the doctor explained that it would be wise. He didn’t want me to get out of bed in case she needed something during the night.

An assistant came and helped the doctor bundle her up to go. When Martha insisted she must get in touch with someone to teach her Sunday-school class, the doctor jokingly assigned his assistant the job.

On her way out Martha told me whom to call to get things started in the morning, and where to find the boys’ Sunday shirts. “Good night,” I whispered.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said. And they were gone.

The right side of the heart pumps blood into the lungs; the left side of the heart receives the blood from the lungs. If something happens to the left side of the heart, there is “a funny attack in the throat”. Martha had gone to sleep at the infirmary. And the blood rose higher and higher. It rose slowly; there was a whirling, gentle and silent. She did not move or waken. Her heart was failing. There was a faint gurgling swallow; then she breathed no more. The flood slowly whirled her downwards—into the lap of God. 

Barely an hour after Martha left, a car came up the hill. They have forgotten something, I thought. The front door opened. Silhouetted by the dim light that came from the end of the hall stood the rector. The doctor was with him.

“Bill, I have some bad news for you,” the rector said.

I started to turn on the light, but he stopped me.

“Martha is gone. I know it sounds so terribly trite, but she went as peacefully as one can go, while she slept.”

As my world slipped away, the rector’s voice rose, calm and strong, while he prayed, “Let thy light eternal shine forever upon her. And through the rivers they shall not overflow thee.” In the semi-darkness of the room, a flood tide whirled in silence.

The doctor sat on the edge of my bed. He didn’t say anything.

After a few moments both left. They would have stayed through the night, but they knew it was right for them to go. When a man prays, he prays alone; and when he curses God, he curses God alone. All I could think was: Martha made the world better. Doesn’t God want the world better?

What were the last words of one who had spoken only of kindness and love? What were the last words of one who had loved God and all his children? “I’ll see you in the morning.”

I felt the tomorrows for which Martha and I had prepared were gone. Suddenly, I was an old man. I would make no plans. Through soundless hours I grieved, until darkness gave way to a dawn shadowed by sorrow.

Finally, I heard footsteps upstairs. A door opened. I knew it was Kip— Christopher actually, but he preferred to be called Kip—going to his mother’s room. The long night was ending. Now Kip, David and Mary would be pulled into the turbulent waters.

Little Hearts Break

Were this an ordinary morning, Kip would go from room to room to see that everything was where it should be. If he found a book open, turned face down on the night table, he would mark the page with the flap of the dust jacket and put the book exactly at the corner of the table. In Mary’s room, he would pick up her blue blanket from the floor and put it back on her pillow. In David’s room, he would rearrange his plastic Indians—white horses and black Indians on one side, blue horses and brown Indians on the other. Next he would come downstairs and announce proudly at breakfast, “I have straightened up the house.”

David was a year-and-a-half younger than Kip; he would be seven soon. He usually slept longer. And Mary, whom the boys fondly call Sis, would be the last to awaken. She would soon be five.

Kip was coming down the stairs. I called to him. A woman who worked at my school had come in to prepare breakfast. The children must not see her before I talked to them.

“What’s Mommy doing up so early?” Kip asked.

“Kip, go up and get David and Sis,” I said. “There is something I want to tell you.”

Seconds later they were coming down the stairs, innocently laughing and racing. We had always saved pleasant surprises for the morning. If there was a trip or an invitation, we waited to tell them the same day be-cause little minds magnify excitement until sleep is pushed far away. So I understood the laughter.

They pushed through the door. There was a long silence that reached to the ends of the earth and back again.

I didn’t want to tell them. How could I take out of their lives something for which there is no substitute on earth? Mary spoke. “We’re going to Pittsfield to see Uncle Andy and Aunt Margaret?”

“No,” I replied. “Last night Mommy got sick, and the doctor took her to the infirmary. She went to sleep, and she died in her sleep. She has gone to heaven, and we won’t see her again for a long time. But we will see her again in heaven.”

Kip cried, then spoke for all. “We want Mommy.” David’s heart seemed to break so quickly there was not a single tear. Only the draining of colour from his face showed me the thousand shattered pieces.

Mary, still so young, couldn’t understand the enormity of what I was saying. But when she asked, “When is Mommy coming back?” I saw the earth slip, too, from beneath her.

They did not believe. I heard the doors open and close as they searched the house for some familiar sign on the landscape of their lives that had suddenly become strange and unknown to them.

They came back. “Mommy is not here,” David said, but I could still hear doubt in his voice.

“Mommy’s spirit is here,” I explained, “and it will be here as long as we are. It will never leave us.” I knew he did not really understand. “Now, you must go to breakfast and then get ready for Sunday school.”

They needed to go to church, where they would again hear that God loves us. Would they believe it? Could I believe that God loves us? He had destroyed what he had given me.

“But Mommy isn’t here to take us.” “The Smiths will take you.” By now people had come to the house, wonderful people, trying to give back the love and kindness Martha had given them. They came quietly to the door and knocked. “Please let us know if we can help.”

How happy my wife had seemed when she left that night. How casually I had said good night. Why had God kept me at the last from taking her in my arms to tell her how much I loved her?

Great waves of silence and time made up the next night. Waves of doubt now beat upon me. What would I do? 

“I Fear No Ill”

Monday morning Kip and David went to school, and Mary went to nursery school. I sensed delay and confusion in their starting out. Before they went down the hill, Martha had always heard their morning prayers. I had heard their prayers only when Martha was off on a trip. Then they asked God to “help Mommy have a good time, come safely home and bring us something nice.”

Grief is a dark, heavy thing and hard to penetrate. David tried. When he returned home from school on Monday, he came in and stood by the bed. “Mommy will ask God to make you well,” he said, “and that’s what we want. When are you going to shave?”

As for Kip, he was busy getting ready for a Thanksgiving play at school. He said that he had asked his friends not to talk about Mommy being dead.

Mary brought a scarf into my room and held it up. “This is Mommy’s scarf. She is still in this house.” Many times in the days to come, she would tell me that Mommy was still present because her scarf was on the dresser, or her pen was on the desk.

As the grey November day folded, condensed and distilled into the night, a procession of the devout and the curious passed through our house. They were paying their respects to Martha for the last time, but I would go on seeing her forever.

After the children went to bed, the people in the house moved quietly. I had asked one of them to bring me the prayer book from the bedside table upstairs. Later I would tell my students that a time comes when we find comfort in something that we had once considered a little thing.

Tuesday, after the children returned home from school, they dressed for the funeral. I could not go with them; the doctor still would not let me out of bed. The boys put on their Sunday shirts. Strange hands braided Mary’s hair. Two kind people stayed behind to keep me company.

At the church, I was told, Martha’s friends and my friends gathered silently. The rector spoke in a clear and deep voice: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Christopher faced the front. He wanted no one to see him wipe away his tears. David faced the aisle but looked at the floor. He was fixed and motionless. Mary saw her nursery-school teacher across the aisle and managed a faint smile.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” the rector continued.

I believed Martha had used only a portion of her days; we had just celebrated her 43rd birthday the previous Thursday. I’d given her some teacups. Now they would gather dust in the cupboard. One day I would give them to Mary.

The voice of the rector drowned out David’s faint choking sob: “God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof rage and swell, and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.”

Martha’s friends sang one of her favourite hymns: “In death’s dark vale I fear no ill/With thee, dear Lord, beside me;/Thy rod and staff my comfort still,/Thy cross before to guide me.”

And on the day after Thanksgiving, Martha was folded into the hill that looks down on Rock Creek in Rockville, Maryland, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.” 

The Empty Chair

On the 14th day after I had been confined to bed, the doctor finally let me get up. I wanted to be alone with the children, to walk through the house by myself, so the last kind neighbour left us. A strange fascination sent me from room to room, looking for something to fill up the emptiness.

The children were silent. Why didn’t Mary talk to her dolls as she played? Why didn’t the boys start a fight in the basement? Now there was only the dull hum and rattle of the toy train as it went round and round monotonously.

Finally, I could stand the dark silence no longer. I walked to the edge of the sheep pasture and looked down into the lower meadow. It was a wet December day, and a white mist hung over the mountains. The sounds of the bells on the sheep came faintly up the hill. The heavy dampness of the earth and air seemed to soak up the very sound of them.

Standing on the hill, below the mist, I wanted to call forth a complete picture of all the happiness of the 12 years Martha and I had together. There was no total picture—only little fragments from time and space.

The memory of a brown thrasher, singing in the early dawn outside a hospital window, came back to me. Why did I remember this so clearly when I couldn’t even remember the words of the doctor who had told me that we had a son?

I recalled one moment when I sat in the back of the chapel and silently wept when Martha had played the part of Mary in a Nativity play. People had written her letters about how beautifully she had played the part.

I remembered how once, after Martha came to the door of my classroom for something, she had told me that the smile I wore in the classroom was the brightest she had ever seen me wear. She knew I loved my work.

A bright October day also came back to me. I called Martha from school and asked her if she would like to take a ride with me. I was going to look for some ewes that were for sale. It was only a 20-minute ride. I don’t know why I even thought she might like to go, but she was thrilled.

We enjoyed autumn at its best that day, going by the valley and returning by the mountain. I cannot even remember what we talked about. Was that morning something out of the ordinary? It didn’t seem so then, but it came back now and stood alone, apart from all the many rides and trips we had together. As I was leaning against a gate, those few minutes of seeming insignificance rose up from a dark void into brightness.

When I returned to the house, I moved on leaden feet. I knew that I must start my first meal for the children. What would it be like? What would I do wrong? I fixed baked potatoes and lamb chops, with green beans from our freezer that Martha and I had prepared.

While I moved between oven and sink, Mary walked into the kitchen. She looked around and said, “What can I do to help you?”

When I could finally speak without a quiver, I told her that from now on she would have the regular job of setting the table. She went about it with grace and efficiency, and in no time at all she announced that everything was ready. I looked at the table. She had set it for five people.

Martha’s chair was still at its usual place. At that second, the chair was an awful thing to see, and yet it was hard for me to pull it away from the table.

The meal was almost unbearably quiet. It is a terrible thing when children are quiet, for they are either very sick or very hurt.

During the weeks to come, I would painfully watch every mouthful of food and check carefully to see that the milk was drunk. I was continually speaking to Mary about her food. “Two pieces of this. You must eat that.”

Finally, I decided that I would try silence for one meal. She sat without touching her food. After a while she could stand the lack of attention no longer. “Daddy,” she asked, “aren’t you going to speak to me about eating?” After that we had no problems with her eating habits.

Conversation gradually came back, and even an occasional dart of sunlight pierced the grey mist of grief. Something I cooked would be as good as Mommy could do it. Some things would even look tasty. Slowly the children learnt again to romp their way to the table rather than walk aimlessly and silently as they had done those first dark days.

Signs of happiness from the children were long in coming. I appreciated the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s remark: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all, and to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares.”

For a long time Kip, David and Mary still expected Mommy to come back. Kip would search in silence. Many a morning I would hear his footsteps.

David would come up the hill from school, open the door and reflexively call, “Mommy!” Then he would go through the downstairs rooms, go upstairs and slowly, without a word, come down to the kitchen for his milk and cookies. Mary was also confident. “When is Mommy coming back?” she asked for many days.

Their sense of expectancy was contagious. In the long nights I would find myself thinking, It is Thursday, and she will be coming home from her bridge group. It is Tuesday night, and she will be coming home from her reading club. It is Sunday afternoon, and she will soon be down from her nap and take the children for a walk.

But all that remained was silence and a deep quiet. 

book-excerpt_2_122520033445.jpgDavid, Mary and Kip in the spring of 1956 next to the pool just down the hill from the house that their father built. Photo courtesy of Armstrong Family

Mary and the Elves

I know now why mothers are tired. The energy expended in watching over children is greater than in cutting down lumber, hauling stones and building a house combined. I learnt that if a day was to run smoothly, it had to start early. Besides seeing to the brushing of teeth, there was the before-school problem of inspecting faces, fingernails, hands and ears.

Everything needed organization now that Mommy’s touch was gone. Responsibility became part of their young lives. We organized the jobs that could be done after school. We wrote down the doctor’s number so he could be called if someone was sick.

Even routine matters were problems at first. A lengthy conference was necessary to sort through our first load of laundry. Whose socks are these? Are the red pyjamas yours? Whose is the blue shirt? Whose is the white?

We came up with a solution. David got green and blue socks when we bought some more. Kip got red and yellow socks. David got blue shirts; Kip had white. Kip learned to sort the laundry, and all three learnt to put it neatly away.

Everything required planning. While she was brushing her teeth at night, Mary learnt to think about what dress she would wear the next day. Precious time in the morning did not allow for these kinds of decisions.

The boys learnt to make their beds and competed for the weekly reward for the neatest bed and room. Mary could not manage her bed, yet she did learn very quickly to put her dirty clothes in the hamper and to hang up her dress after she came home from school. On Saturday morning, Mary emptied all wastebaskets, and Kip and David dusted the entire house. We learnt the value of time.

Sometimes great problems were solved so simply, I marvelled that there was ever a problem at all. The first night we were alone after Martha’s death, I studied Mary’s braids carefully while she was asleep. They were neat and tight. I wondered why Martha had bothered to braid them anew each morning. Surely they would hold for a few days until I could learn how to do them.

I went up to help Mary dress the next morning—and couldn’t believe my eyes. Her braids looked like a frayed rope. Strings of hair hung down in her eyes. I had learnt to splice a rope when I was a Boy Scout. Perhaps something of the same principle will work, I thought.

After breakfast I got started. It looked as if something or somebody had woven little webs into Mary’s soft and silky hair. We took the tangles out, and we began to braid, first with two strands. When we finished and se-cured the ends with rubber bands, the braids unwound like springs. My next try was with three strands. They held. Mary stood in silence for a while, and then she began to cry.

I hit on a solution to this trauma with a daily ritual. Together we made up a story to be retold each morning as I braided her hair. Through the bathroom window we could see an old butternut tree. Dead branches were caught amid living ones. It had grown over a limestone ledge, and there was an opening in the ledge under the tree. We decided no tree is more suitable for the home of elves than an old, worm-eaten, deformed butternut.

So, our story went: Two elves lived under the old butternut tree. They were good elves because they were weaver elves. They spent their time helping spiders weave webs to catch bad insects. Sometimes, because they loved their work, they would gather tiny dew-drops in their webs. In the morning, we could see the silvery webs along the fence that ran up the hill.

In winter the elves had no webs to make because all the bad insects, and the spiders, had curled up under the bark of the trees and gone to sleep. To keep their fingers nimble, the little elves came each night while Mary slept and wove little webs into her hair that we call tangles. They were not being naughty. They knew that if they did not weave, we would not brush and comb her hair properly, and it would not be soft and beautiful.

The days became weeks and months. Mary no longer minded when I fixed her braids. There were no more tears at braiding time. And best of all, her braids made her look like her mommy. 

Beneath Still Waters

A peach tree, Martha and I had planted in the garden grew so large that one of the branches hung over the pond. On a rainy December evening a few weeks after her death, long after the rain had stopped, I was outside watching droplets fall from the limb into the water. Moonlight, breaking through the clouds, spread upon the rippling circles.

That moment I remembered the line from Scripture: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martha’s world had truly been a world of light.

I recalled how one day a man, almost a stranger, waited outside of the grocery store for me. He began talking about Martha. “She was always so happy. Whenever I saw her, the car seemed to be full of smiling children. I miss her in the village.”

Shortly after Martha’s death a letter appeared in our village newspaper. “Dear Martha Armstrong,” it began. “What a heart-rending tragedy to have lost your life out of our lives while you were still so young and had so much to give, especially the dear, loving kindness you would have given your little children and all those who were near to you.”

I waited until the last droplet had fallen into the pond. Then I went back into the house to wrap packages, address cards and remember the 101 other things I would have to do during the last four days before our first Christmas without Martha.

So many things had happened already. A kind neighbour had Mary’s fifth birthday party for her. Kip and David were practising for the Christmas pageant at the church.

More than half of the 300 boys at my school had at tended a special requiem celebration of the Holy Eucharist for Martha on the morning of her funeral. Out of their weekly allowance, the boys saved $500 to buy a chapel window in memory of Martha.

In their school paper they wrote about Martha: “She was a soul possessed of a boundless love of God and all the people he made.”

When the day came for me to return to my classes, I found myself staring out of the window as I greeted the boys, choking upon every word. Their sorrow were in their eyes. Now and then, one of them, unable to stand it, would quietly leave the room.

But Christmas approached, and I realized that I must try to make the season a joyous time for Kip, David and Mary.

The things that people usually do at Christmas, we did. We mailed out the cards, which Martha had already started to address. We signed them Daddy, Kip, David and Mary.

In the midst of our deciding what to get for this or that friend, David paused and asked, “What can we give Mommy for Christmas?”

For Mommy’s Christmas, we built a prayer rail against one wall of the study. We used some pine boards left over from when the house was being built. We put her picture above the kneeling rail, and over the picture we put a light.

We said our prayers there in the morning, and at night when we asked God “my soul to keep”.

Putting up the tree on Christmas Eve after the children were asleep— once such a joy for Martha and me—now became a race against morning. It was hard to believe she wasn’t there. I kept thinking that surely she would come home from the midnight service to help arrange the gifts. And in the morning she would come downstairs to see the dancing eyes and to hear the exclamations of appreciation.

That Christmas Eve, as I walked from room to room looking at my children, I asked myself half-audibly, “Why can they not have their mother in the morning—of all mornings when their hearts should overflow with joy and happiness?”

Watching them sleep, I wondered if they felt a dark silence, or whether they dreamed the dreams of children. I prayed that somehow the gladness of the day could lighten the sorrow that had weighed down their young hearts.

It had turned very cold in the night, and when the sun rose over our mountain, we saw that all the raindrops were turned to silver and all the trees had become Christmas trees.

I listened as Kip awakened David and Mary. They all came down together. I saw the joy that danced in their eyes. For a while it trembled like a flickering candle, but it did not go out. And in that moment of thankfulness, I knew their joy was reflected in my own eyes.

Finally there came an end to winter. The crows gathered stubble in the fields and carried it to the mountains for nests. The chickadee began its two-note whistle. The sheep began to search the spots that thawed early for sprigs of new grass. The children brought their friends home to see the new lambs. The crust of the earth broke and the flowers bloomed.

Martha had loved the spring so much. The flowers bloomed untouched and died upon the stem. There was no one to bring them into the house. But Kip and David and Mary knew that she saw and enjoyed them, and she is in a garden where flowers neither wilt nor die upon the stem, and their brightness does not fade.

In 1996, William Armstrong wrote: “Many years have passed since Martha ceased walking the earth, but her legacy of love and faith has sustained us. As our children and I make our journeys through life, she is with us still.” Kip went on to teach, like his father, and Mary and David became artists. Indeed, a love of art runs in the family—both Kip’s daughter Rebecca and David’s son Chris also became artists.

William continued to teach and wrote many books, including the award-winning young adult novel Sounder. He passed away in 1999. The house in Connecticut remains in the Armstrong family. Katy, David’s daughter, lives there with her partner Tim and their sons Atticus and Willy.

Paintings, prints and drawings by numerous family members, including William and Martha, adorn the walls of the house that William built.

This article originally appeared in the December 1997 edition of Reader’s Digest.

From the book Through Troubled Waters by William H. Armstrong, reprinted with permission of Martha K. Armstrong. All rights reserved

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