December 9, 2019

No Footprints in the Snow

Christmas time: time for miracles.

Jeris Bragan

Early Tuesday afternoon, December 11, 1951, snow began falling heavily over the Hall farm, three and a half miles north of Lisbon Falls, Maine. It was a wet, wind-driven storm, blowing in from the ocean. More than six inches had accumulated when darkness closed in at 4:00 p.m.

Charley Hall, 59, a large, burly farmer, banged angry fists on the steering wheel of his 1939 Dodge panel truck as he drove recklessly through the storm toward home. Already close to blindness (one of the many things that had embittered him early in life), he drove the fishtailing vehicle over Bowdoinham Road more from memory than skill.

Laid off from the Bona Fide Linoleum Mill three months before, he felt trapped. The meager funds and food supplies he needed for his wife and five children during the winter were already running out.

He’d gone into town to beg for his old job.

“I’m sorry, Charley, but we just can’t put you back on the line, not with your poor eyesight,” his former boss had said an hour earlier.

He spun the wheel hard and turned into the driveway. The rear end of his truck slid on the ice and slammed into the mailbox. His face contorted in rage as he stomped on the accelerator. It was all her fault: Elsie, his 37-year-old wife, and her new religion. Everything had begun falling apart when she had joined that Christian church and started going with the kids every week.

Edie, the 7-year-old daughter, peered through the living room window and watched apprehensively as her father approached.

“Daddy’s home!” she shouted. Her tone was a warning, not an announcement.

Dropping the curtain over the window, Edie fled to her unheated room in the attic. This was the one place she could escape the violence below.

At 5:30 the family gathered silently, cautiously, in the kitchen for supper: corn chowder or tomato stew mixed with milk;  homemade toasted wheat bread covered in fresh butter churned on the farm. There was no conversation.

What About Angels?

An hour later, with the sound of popcorn popping in the iron pot in the kitchen, Charley tuned the dial on the old radio to begin an evening of listening to The Jack Benny Show and Our Miss Brooks, his favorite programs.

But this was no Norman Rockwell portrait of a poor family spending an evening together. Theirs was not so much a poverty of material things as a grinding poverty that lacked love and normal affection. They came together because the kitchen was the only warm room in the drafty old house.

Edie sat at the table, studiously biting her lower lip as she cut paper clothes out of a book to put on her cardboard dolls. Melvin, age 11, knew she wanted somebody to play with, so he sat down and offered to help.

“Only girls play with dolls,” Ben, 13, sneered.

Melvin blushed a deep, angry red. But before he could reply, his father slammed his meaty fist hard on the kitchen table. “Shut up so I can hear my programs!” he roared.

Edie blinked back a tear and looked at the Christmas tree standing near the front window in the living room. Most of the decorations were handmade: long strings of popcorn, slivers of tinfoil, colored snowflakes, and snowballs that Edie had made at school. The only commercial decorations were the bubbling lights and a few delicate balls their grandmother had given the family.

And one more thing: on top of the tree stood a ceramic angel with arms outstretched toward heaven.

“Do you believe angels really exist?” Edie asked Melvin in a whisper as she tried to break the sullen tension in the room.

Melvin shrugged. “I dunno. But they talk about ‘em in church, so maybe they do.”

A loud knocking at the front door interrupted their conversation.

A Late-Night Caller

“Charley, somebody at the door,” Elsie said.

“Well, go see who it is and get rid of them,” he snapped irritably. “Just leave me alone.”

A tall bearded man stood in the enclosed entryway. He smiled amiably when Elsie opened the door and peered at him in the gloomy darkness. Standing behind her mother, Edie shyly watched the stranger.

“I’m sorry to disturb you so late, but I need to speak with Mr. Hall,” the man said.

“Well . . . I don’t know . . .” Elsie said.

“It’s very important. Would you tell him I’d like to speak with him?”

Her shoulders slumped in resignation. “I’ll tell him, but I don’t think he’s . . . ah . . . up to talking with anybody.”

While he waited, the man hunkered down on one knee by Edie and pointed at the Christmas tree. “I’ll bet you made a lot of those lovely decorations,” he said.

“Yes, I did,” she admitted, pleased that he’d noticed. She liked the kindness in his eyes and the warmth in his voice. She wondered what it would be like to have a daddy like him.

His gaze went over the tree slowly and stopped when he saw the angel. She watched him studying the ornament.

“Do you believe in angels?” she asked shyly.

“Oh, yes indeed!” he said emphatically. “Don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted honestly. “I wish I did, though. I’d like to meet one someday.”

The man chuckled. “Maybe you have and just didn’t realize it,” he suggested.

She turned and looked into the smiling eyes. “How would I know?” she asked bluntly.

The question was interrupted by the sound of her father banging his fist on the table and shouting, “I don’t care if he’s the president himself—get rid of him!”

“Don’t you worry, Edie,” the man said as he stood up. “Angels always let you know in some way. It’s God’s way of sending you a personal note of His love.”

Her mother returned, tight-lipped. Before she could speak, the stranger reached into his new coat pocket and withdrew a plain white envelope.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed your family,” he said, handing over the envelope. “I just wanted to leave this with you and tell Mr. Hall to report back to work at the mill tomorrow. He’s got a new job there.”

He leaned toward the little girl, winked, and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Merry Christmas. And don’t forget what I said, Edie: Angels always let you know.”

No Footprints

“What a strange man,” Elsie murmured as she nervously tore the envelope open. The contents slipped through her trembling fingers and fluttered to the floor: three crisp $100 bills. For a long moment mother and daughter simply stared alternately at the money and the door where the stranger had stood moments before.

Edie recovered first, scooped the three bills up, and handed them to her mother. They both ran toward the kitchen.

“Charley, you’ll never believe what I’ve got!” Elsie cried.

“I don’t care what you’ve got. Will you please shut—”

“Don’t you dare tell me to shut up!” she interrupted. “Look at this!” The usually timid woman stood firmly in front of her husband and held the money out for his inspection.

Startled by the strength in her voice, he started silently at her in astonishment. Then he saw the money.

“What’s that?” he asked suspiciously, pointing at the bills.

“That is what the man at the door came to give you—along with some good news. You go back to work at the mill tomorrow,” she said as tears filled her eyes. “I told you God would take care of us.”

Charley scrambled awkwardly out of his chair. “Where’d the man go? Call him back so I can talk to him.”

“That’s funny; I didn’t hear his car leaving,” Edie said before her mother could reply.

“Get me the lantern!” Charley said. “He couldn’t have walked far in this snow.”

Edie had already run ahead and picked the glass-topped kerosene lantern off the hook near the front door. Her father struck a match, lit it,
and trimmed the wick for maximum light before stepping into the darkness.

“Hello!” he called. “Anybody there?”

Only a few flurries danced in the air.

“I don’t see anything,” the nearly blind man complained.

Edie pushed past her father. “Daddy, look at the ground,” she whispered.

“What do you see?” he asked anxiously.

“Daddy, it stopped snowing before the man came. But there are no footprints or tracks of any kind in the snow.”

Silently the family went back inside and closed the door. Elsie and the children looked at one another in confusion as Charley stood with his back toward them. He kept clearing his throat and rubbing the back of his weather-beaten hand over his eyes.

“I just don’t understand it!” he muttered again and again.

Edie tugged on her mother’s arm. “Mama, how did that man know my name?” she asked.

“I don’t know, dear.”

Suddenly, a broad, delighted smile spread over Edie’s face as she looked at the angel on top of the Christmas tree and remembered the stranger’s last words to her: Angels always let you know.

This story first appeared in the December 23, 1993, issue of Adventist Review.