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The Bayberry Candle // a Christmas story

She held the candle against her cheek feeling the waxy smoothness and sniffing the sweet, spicy odor. It had been a long time since she held a bayberry candle. The soft green color and the sweet perfume took her back to Christmas Eves many years ago when her mother would light a candle, put it in a window and tell them the story.

"The Christ Child looks for the light in the window of each house as He comes up the street," she said. "When the candle is burning, He knows it's a home where God is welcome and He enters and blesses all those living there. When the candle burns all the way down to a grease spot, it means the house will surely be blessed."

She looked at the candle in her hand. Why not? It can't hurt and we can certainly use God's blessing this Christmas.

She bought it and dropped it into her purse. This will be my secret, my own little bit of nostalgia.

A lot of love and understanding was going to be needed from all of them this Christmas. The Children's Agency had picked Christmas Eve as the day 10-year-old David would join their rather crowded family of three foster-daughters and their own son and daughter.

She prayed that she and her husband were up to the task ahead.

She wasn't worried about the children accepting David, as all five had voted "yes" at the family conference. But she sensed a reticence in 9-year-old Kenneth, who had often said, "Please get me a boy. I'm sick of girls. Don't they have any boys down there at that agency?"

She could understand Kenneth's complaint. He was the youngest of the children and the only boy. The four girls were a tight little sorority with secrets and activities that often didn't include him.

But David, the boy they were expecting, was a year older than Kenneth. Maybe Kenneth was afraid of being outshown or supplanted.

David came the afternoon of Christmas Eve with all of his possessions in a cardboard box. There was the usual sizing up of each other in small boy fashion, like members of opposing tribes. Then Kenneth led David off to their room to unpack.

Dinner was a lively time as the children competed to make David feel welcome. But soon it became rather uncomfortable. David seemed to have a superior attitude, especially toward Kenneth. Besides being older, he was taller and one grade ahead in school. That was tough on Kenneth, but when David became loud and boastful, Kenneth grew quieter.

She knew a change of subject was in order.

"Christmas will soon be here," she said. "We'll have to go to bed early."

"I'm getting a wrist watch," bragged David.

She gulped. "A watch, David?" They and the agency had gifts for all the foster-children, and they bought something for David when they knew he vas coming, but a watch?

"I'm getting it from my father," he said. "I wrote and asked him for one and I'm getting it."

His belligerent confidence disturbed her. The agency said his father was not in his life, never supported him or showed any interest in him whatsoever.

"Have you heard from your father?" Dad asked.

"He's busy; he has a very important job, but he's sending my watch." David crossed his arms, leaned back and stared at Dad.

The knowledge that Kenneth was getting a watch felt like lead in her heart. They had made a deal months before with their son: if he improved his math grades and saved half the money, they would add the rest and get him a watch for Christmas. He raised his grades and the watch was bought, wrapped and ready for tomorrow morning.

Kenneth will get his watch and poor little David will be let down, she thought. But how can we not rejoice in Kenneth's getting what he has earned?

Uneasy glances were exchanged between the girls. They were older and knew that anyone coming to a foster home would not be getting an expensive present from his father.

Even Kenneth looked uncomfortable. Later when bedtime came, he leaned close to her and said, "Mom, I don't think I like the boy you got me."

Her heart ached for Kenneth and his disappointment, but it ached for David too. He wanted so much for his father to care, he had made up this story.

She pulled her son close and whispered, "Give him time, Kenneth. Remember we talked about whistling in the dark when we're scared? I think David's scared and all his loud bragging is to cover up." She kissed the top of his head, "And Kenneth, there is no watch from his father, so we must be kind to him even if it's hard at first."

She had forgotten the bayberry candle until just before slipping into bed beside her husband. Last-minute things had kept her up longer and he was already asleep. She got the candle from her purse. She melted a little of the wax and stuck it onto a saucer.

She was again aware of the sweet bayberry perfume. She carried it to the window and placed it on the sill feeling a little foolish. Oh well, it does look pretty.

As she watched the flame flicker against the dark window, she couldn't help whispering, "God, help us deal with David's sorrow tomorrow, and God, help Kenneth to understand and accept this little boy."

Christmas morning was exciting as usual. They sat in a big circle. Dad was Santa, calling out the names and holding up the gift with fun and drama.

She watched David unwrapping books, clothes, games and wondered with a heavy heart how he could stand another rejection from his father and the humiliation before his new family. "Please, God, ... "

"To David from your Father," read Dad from the last package. His voice sounded strange.

There was a sudden silence and all eyes were on David as he jumped for the package. When they saw the red crayon printing scrawled on the paper as it fell to the floor, all eyes turned to Kenneth. David had the watch in his hand, and when Kenneth started to clap the girls joined in.

David's smile was as bright as the Christmas tree. When everyone admired the watch as David held out his arm, Kenneth's smile was just as bright.

No one in the family told Kenneth that they knew. They let him keep and cherish his secret. They never knew if David learned the truth. They didn't need to know.

Later as the two parents talked quietly about their Christmas, he said, "I think this has been a very blessed Christmas." She remembered the bayberry candle and went to the window. The saucer was empty except for a glistening streak of grease. Only the lovely scent remained.

Marian B. Findeison is a freelance writer who lives in Largo.

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