Which I have loved long since and lost awhile.’
She sat in the parlour of the old rectory and stared round at the meagre fire, the layers of dust, the shabby furniture. Did no one ever sit in here now? There had always been a huge fire to warm the room, flowers to lighten up the dark corners and her mother’s loving presence to welcome you. No one ever noticed the shabbiness. Now, its heart was empty! Tears blinded her. How different this Christmas would be. But no one else seemed to care! Two of her brothers had homes and children of their own, and she scarcely saw them. Simon, the youngest brother, was down from university for the holidays, but was always out. Her father spent most of his time with his parishioners.
There was no Christmas tree reaching up the ceiling, no holly decorating mantelpiece and picture frames, no mistletoe in the hall, no tall candle in the window to welcome the Christ Child. Her mother had adopted that custom from one of her Irish friends, and it had been such a welcome sight when one reached home. The church would be decorated, courtesy of the parishioners, but here…. Her shoulders slumped. She had pleaded with her father to let her have a tree, even just a small one, but he had looked at her with sad, weary eyes.
“What would be the point, dear? There’s no one to see it.”
“There’s you, and Simon… and me. Isn’t that enough? John and Peter usually call with their families, and some of Mother’s friends might drop in…..” She curled up on the floor at his feet. “I could decorate it myself, if you dig out the baubles. I don’t know where Mo… Mother kept them.”
He tilted her face up. “It won’t bring her back, Hilda,” he said softly.
“But Jesus will still be born in the stable, even if Mother’s not here. Don’t you want to make the house fresh and pretty to welcome Him, just as you ask us in church to renew our hearts and spirits and make them fit to welcome Him?”
He drew her up into his arms. “Dearest Hilda, you make me ashamed, but I’m not sure I can find it in my heart to do all we used to when your M….”
“You don’t need to, Father. I’ll do it all myself. I’ve helped Mother every year, so I know…”
“But you’re only a child,” he sighed, stroking her cheek.
She knelt up straight, her head held high. “I’m fourteen, Father – old enough to do at least some of what Mother did.”
“Fourteen?” he muttered in surprise. She was growing up and he hadn’t even noticed. “When did that happen?”
She looked away from him as she recalled the awfulness of her last birthday, her fourteenth, when not one member of the family had written to her or marked the day in any way. She had felt so alone. Her mother would never have forgotten. But instead of crying - for what would have been the point - she had reverted to her rebellious ways and upset several people. However, her Headmistress had seen and had understood. She had invited Hilda to tea, and there had been cake, and a small gift, and an encouragement to go to her when the grief lay too heavy. The kindness had broken through Hilda’s shell, and she had wept bitter tears that night for the comfort of her mother’s arms.
Her father watched her, wondering what she was thinking. “I’ll think about it, Hilda. Can you wait until later for an answer?”
She nodded, but how long would she have to wait? It was Christmas Eve the next day. He saw her disappointment, but kissed her and left the room. Her heart smote her when she saw how bent his shoulders were. She laid her head on her arms on the chair seat and cast her mind back to happier times. A sob escaped her. Christmas without her mother seemed impossible, unbearable…. but still she wanted to make it a special time. She hid her face in her arms.
Help me, Mother. Help Father, as well. We need you so much. Show me what to do. If we had a tree, and the house looked pretty, it might make us feel as though you were still here, loving us.
Without warning, a memory came to her, and it brought such comfort. When she was very young, her mother had cuddled her and whispered a secret in her ear. ‘We all have angels in Heaven who are constantly sending us messages, little love notes, and if we listen carefully, especially at Christmas, we will hear them whispering to us, ‘Merry Christmas, dear one……I love you with all my heart.’ Just as I love you, dearest. The trick is to listen with your heart, and believe.”
She turned her head and stared into the bleak little fire. Every year she had believed, but this year there had been nothing in her heart. Now, though, she was filled with new determination. She must have heard the voice for a reason. She sat up, her heart thumping. An idea sprang up from nowhere. Could she? She jumped to her feet, ran upstairs to her room, collected what she might need and ran down to the kitchen.
“Mrs Mason, do you have any spare paper doilies?” She explained why, and the cook’s eyes grew soft as they rested on the sad face.
“In the top drawer over there. Take as many as you like. Here, have a couple of jam tarts, as well, dearie.”
Back in the parlour, she pulled a small table close to the fire, nibbled her jam tarts and set to work. Her mother’s words cheering her on, she did her best, although she was no artist….
When her father returned, he found his daughter kneeling by the fire, sobbing her heart out.
His own heart broke at her distress. Kneeling down, he took her in his arms. “Sh, Hilda, sh! If it means so much to you…”
“I wanted to make the room look pretty,” she sobbed out. “But it’s hopeless…. I’m not good enough….”
“Not good enough for what, dear?”
“That!” She pointed at the mantelpiece. What he saw brought tears to his own eyes. Angels! Four of them! With white robes and blonde hair and lopsided wings constructed from doilies. He noticed several discarded angels lying on the floor. Tears running down his face, he held her closer and rocked her as she wept. She was every bit as loving and determined as her mother, he realised, and he took comfort from the thought.
“You shall have your tree, little one. We’ll go out right now and get it. We’ll root out the decorations and make everything as beautiful as we can. We’ll even have candles on the tree if that would please you. But - why angels?”
She leaned her head against his chest and poured out her secret. More tears ran down his cheeks. He’d struggled so much with his own grief that his poor daughter had been neglected in her loneliness and hurt.
He dropped a kiss on her hair. “I love you, child, and I’m sorry I hurt you about the tree. But we’ll make everything as wonderful as we can – and your angels shall have pride of place, for they were made with so much love. Will you make some more? After all, the angels were the ones who first brought the Good News to earth, so we must have lots of them.”
Hilda looked up with starry eyes. “Mother was an angel, wasn’t she? You just couldn’t see her wings.”
They held each other tight and stared at the ungainly angels, both of them seeing in their minds a true angel, one who had folded them in her sheltering and loving embrace for so many years.