Our neighbor John Burns stood with his head down and a worn suitcase in each hand. A young boy with brown eyes and dark hair stood to his right. A fair-haired young girl stood to his left.
“Wait, and I’ll get Ron,” I said.
A few minutes later, I found my husband out back pruning apple trees. “John Burns is at the door. You better come.”
When we returned, I said, “John, tell Ron what you told me. I haven’t said a thing to him.”
With head still bowed, the man explained once again, “I just went through a very bad divorce. I lost my job. And I seriously don’t know what to do.”
He paused and cleared his throat. “I was wondering if you would take Brian and Amy. I don’t want them to end up in foster care again, and I couldn’t help noticing that your kids seem real happy.”
In the silence that followed, the world seemed to stop and hold its breath. Our neighbor stared at the ground. The children’s big, sad eyes were glued on my husband’s.
It was 3 weeks before Christmas 1980. Oregon was suffering yet another recession, and this man wasn’t the only one who’d lost his job. Ron had been laid off just before Thanksgiving.
“Well, I sure don’t see why not,” Ron replied in his easygoing way.
I felt like someone was standing on my chest. My heart pounded in my ears. But I didn’t say a word.
After we finally got everyone in bed that night, I laid awake listening to the winter wind blow across our mountain. A lone coyote howled from the forest to the south.
I thought about the bear that came twice a year when the prunes were ripe. I thought about rainbows we often saw stretched across our orchard after a rain. I thought about how much I loved this place.
Then my thoughts turned to this unsettling day. How could John leave his children? Would he return? When? My mind raced with questions that I couldn’t answer.
Beside me, Ron snored peacefully in the darkness. He was a worker, not a worrier. He got up before dawn to care for our sheep or to work in the orchard before going off to haul mobile homes (when there were some to haul). When Ron got home at night, he’d eat a quick supper, then go off to fix fences, haul hay or repair equipment.
How could John leave his children? Would he return? When? My mind raced with questions that I couldn’t answer.
But the man always found time for his children. And regardless of whatever else you could say about John Burns, he had made a wise choice in asking Ron to take care of his kids.
The short days of December raced toward Christmas. Our kids, Nanci, 12; Randy, 11; and Melodie, 10, shared rooms, beds, clothes, toys and parents. They made the best of it, and we were proud of them.
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My mother always remembered us at Christmas, and her package arrived from Anchorage, Alaska, in mid-December. I opened the box and rewrapped the gifts, making five out of three.
I called Ron’s mother in Albany, about 40 miles away, to tell her we’d be bringing five children to her house for Christmas this year. She chuckled kindheartedly and said that would be just fine. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
On Christmas Day, Ron’s brother, Doug, met us at the door of their parents’ old farmhouse with a jolly, “Merry Christmas!” Inside, we were greeted with the cozy warmth of a woodstove, big hugs and laughter. Ron’s family welcomed everyone.
After dinner, we traded homemade scarves, caps and Christmas candy. Each child got a small toy. Ron’s dad insisted that Janet and Carol, the youngest aunts, lead the Christmas carols while Mom Roth played her old upright piano.
A few nights before, the wind had blown a branch off the fir tree by the driveway. Mom Roth placed it in the corner of their small living room and decorated it with ornaments.
The celebration was simple. It was about belonging. It was love.
All five kids fell asleep on the long drive home. As we turned onto the road to our small farm on Rainbow Mountain, we noticed a flock of Canada geese had settled on our pond for the night.
Snow fell in fat flakes so thick they sliced the beam of the car’s headlights like a curtain. Ron stopped to enjoy the beautiful, peaceful sight.
“This was all that I wanted for Christmas!” Randy exclaimed from the backseat. “Tomorrow we can get the old toboggan out of the barn. I hope it snows all night!”
I was hoping the water pipes in the house didn’t freeze, when a tear slid down my cheek. Why couldn’t we give our children nice Christmas gifts like bicycles and new sleds? It wasn’t fair. If only Ron hadn’t been laid off.
Just then, two little arms went around my neck. Nanci whispered into my ear, “I love you, Mom.” I looked over at Ron to find Melodie hugging him.
Brian and Amy were now awake and looking over the front seat as Melodie sang, “We wish you a merry Christmas…” and the other children joined in.
“That was a great Christmas!” Randy and Brian yelled in unison.
“Bro, give me five!” Randy laughed as the rest of us joined in.
Ron’s eyes met mine. He gave me a smile I’ll never forget, then we continued up our mountain, leaving tracks in the new-fallen snow.