Anne Cutter Mikkelsen
After ringing the doorbell, they waited a few minutes until a shadow covered the peephole. Clair guessed that the woman behind the door was peering at the strange creatures standing in the hallway of her apartment building. A tentative—even frightened, “Yes?” came from behind the door.
Rex stood in front of the rest of the kids. His mop of dreadlocks almost filled the peephole. He wore his signature black leather jacket. His tongue and ears were pierced. A spiked dog collar gripped his neck. What the woman couldn’t see was Rex’s torn jeans hanging precariously below his hips with chains dangling down to his knees.
“Can we come in and sing for you?” Rex asked, using his best musical voice.
Behind Rex the other kids waited with anticipation. They were pumped after all the success they’d experienced earlier in the evening. Josh’s black mohawk twitched back and forth as he snapped his fingers to his inner rhythm. Black eyeliner circled his big brown eyes making him look like a raccoon. On this night, Mandy sported three celebratory hair colors—red, green, and blue. “Christmas lights,” she said, flipping her locks.
“Ah . . . no thank you,” the woman said weakly, and the peephole went blank.
The kids at the youth center had asked Clair to find places for them to sing Christmas carols, “people who were sad and alone.”
“Well,” Clair suggested, “how about some senior citizens?”
“You mean old people?” Eva asked, in a baffled tone. “Aren’t they kinda weird and grumpy?” She asked. “Besides, where would you find them?”
At five o’clock on Christmas Eve ten kids met Clair at the youth enter. They rehearsed their songs, with Rex playing the guitar and Eva the violin. Others used bells and kazoos.
“This is kind of scary, isn’t it?” Eva said. “I mean, I’m nervous. I don’t know any old people, Clair.”
“We’re going to start with my friend, Irene. She’ll give us suggestions of people she knows who’d like us to visit and sing.”
Irene was an 85-year old friend of Clair’s. Even though Irene’s husband, a Lutheran minister, had died the year before, Irene remained a typically proper minister’s wife. She never quite understood why Clair was so driven to work with these kids, but she cherished Clair’s friendship and any youthful presence in her life. She was a good sport and willing to learn something new every day.
Out of respect for Irene and the kids, Clair had made an appointment with her so she would be prepared.
“What if they don’t like us?” Mandy asked, during the rehearsal.
“They’ll love you,” Clair assured them, hoping she was right. “Remember you guys voted on this event and you all agreed it fits your mission—to give power and voice to youth and to create a caring community. That’s exactly what we’re going to do tonight. Let’s get busy.”
There was a full moon and the stars were brightly shining. The lightest snow was falling outside the youth center when the kids, still singing, loaded into Clair’s van with boxes of Christmas cookies they’d made for the old people.
Irene greeted them with wide eyes at the door of her condo. They filed into her warm kitchen where she had created a delicate buffet of traditional Norwegian Christmas confections surrounded by glowing candles on lace doilies and glass punch cups arranged around a bowl of hot cider.
Clair recognized some surprise in Irene’s expression when the kids walked in, but she quickly rose to the occasion without any sign of judgment. “Would you all like some cider?” She asked. “And, please help yourselves to the cookies and treats on the table.”
The kids thanked Irene and helped themselves politely to the Christmas treats. Irene joined in when they played their music and sang Christmas songs, ending with a robust, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Irene had tears in her eyes as she thanked each of the performers. “I’ve thought of another person who would really appreciate seeing all of you, especially tonight,” Irene said, handing Clair a couple of possibilities. “This woman is not on my list but please try to visit her. She lives alone in the apartment building across from the high school. I’d call her, but she probably wouldn’t answer her phone. Just take a chance and go over there, second floor apartment 203. Her name is Charlotte. You can tell her Irene asked you to sing her a Christmas song. Promise me you’ll try?”
The kids looked at Clair for confirmation and Rex answered for them. “Yes, we will try to find her.”
Back in Clair’s van, the kids were joyful and energized. “Wow!’ Eva said, “Irene’s really cool. She made all those cookies from scratch. Who does that anymore? The ones with the pecans on top were awesome. Why can’t I have a friend like that?”
Smiling to herself, Clair thought You can have a friend like that, Eva. Maybe that will be your next project.
She drove to the second stop, Mr Bondy, a widower and retired music professor. He complimented Rex and Eva on their musical skills. “I hope you continue with your music when you graduate from high school. You’ll never regret it.”
Clair checked the clock in the van. Two more stops. She was thinking about her children, home from college for Christmas. She’d asked her daughter to put the standing rib roast in the oven at 6 p.m. so they could eat dinner at 8. Even from downtown, she could almost smell the garlic, the rosemary and thyme roasting on top of that big hunk of meat. Her stomach growled as she thought about dinner. She imagined her husband and children out there in the country keeping the fire going, hanging the stockings, decorating the Christmas tree and wrapping the presents while they waited for Clair to come home for a festive Christmas Eve dinner.
The next stop was Jerry, an elderly single man, who was a welder and a Vietnam Vet.
He thanked the kids for coming. “Don’t get too many visitors especially on a night like this.”
Rex was interested in Jerry’s stainless steel sculptures. “Amazing work you do, Sir. Someday I ‘d love to learn how to weld.”
“Well, thank you Son,” You’re welcome to come over any time. I’ll show you how to strike a fine arc.”
Their last visit of the evening awaited them at the apartment building across from the high school. During the ride, the kids wondered out loud, “Why do you think Irene was so insistent about that particular woman?”
Clair parked the van near the door and the kids carried their instruments and merrily climbed the steps to the second floor. “Oh no!” someone shouted. “We’re all out of cookies.”
“Shush,” Eva scolded, “Be quiet! Remember, older people go to bed early.” It was hard to calm them down. They were on a roll and loving this night as they anticipated their next gig. Soon Clair could go home to her family.
Clumped closely together in front of apartment #203 with snow still on their shoulders and caps, they heard the woman say, “No thanks,” and their collective spirit drooped. Clair saw a bright side to the rejection, she could go home. But, that’s not what the kids wanted. Right now, they needed an advocate.
As Clair gave up the vision of getting home in time for dinner, she moved to the front of the pack and knocked on the woman’s door.
“Charlotte? Hello? My name is Clair. I’m a friend of Irene’s. She asked us to come over and give you a Christmas present—a song from Irene.” They watched the peephole and soon the shadow returned.
The kids huddled quietly, waiting to hear some movement behind the door. Clair held her breath.
Slowly, the door opened to reveal a small frail woman in her nightgown. Charlotte had a light sheet draped over her shoulders. She took in the whole picture of the young people—their colored hair, their chains, studs and leather. When her eyes rested comfortably on Clair, she said, “Irene is my dear friend. Please come in.”
The kids followed Charlotte back to a living room barely big enough for all of them to get in. Charlotte lay down on the sofa and covered herself with the sheet. The small room was uncomfortably warm and an unpleasant smell permeated the atmosphere. Maybe a mouse had died in the walls.
After a few awkward moments, Rex bent over the sofa and asked, “Is there anything we can do for you, Charlotte?”
“Oh my, yes there is,” Charlotte seemed surprised. “Do you see that tree over there?” she said, pointing to a two-foot high plastic Christmas tree. “The plug is under the table. Could you plug that in for me?” Rex’s chains rattled as he got down on the floor and crawled on his stomach under the table to plug in the little tree. Clair hoped to all that’s Holy that Rex’s pants would not move any farther down his body, as he squirmed around on the floor.
When twelve twinkling lights popped to life, Charlotte smiled and said, “Isn’t that lovely?” The kids agreed. They sang four songs ending with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and were going to stop but then Eva asked Charlotte, “Is there a song you’d especially like to hear?”
“Yes there is. Could you sing “Silent Night?”
When they finished singing the last verse, a soft voice from the sofa repeated the refrain, “Sleep in heavenly peace and thank you lovely children for coming here tonight. You have given me a real gift. There’s a plate of cookies on the kitchen table. Would you like some?” Each of the kids took a cookie and thanked Charlotte for listening to their songs.
Charlotte struggled to get up from the sofa, but she did so that she could hug each child and wish them all a Merry Christmas.
The teenagers were subdued when they walked down the hallway from Charlotte’s apartment and outside to Clair’s van. Clair didn’t notice until they gathered under the street light that some of them were crying. Clair had the same inexplicable feeling.
Mandy said, “Why does Charlotte have to be alone on Christmas Eve? What will she do tomorrow?”
Rex asked if we could keep going. “Let’s find more people like Charlotte. Let’s keep singing all night. Can we do that, Clair?”
In a way, Clair thought, they could, keep singing, but it would have to be their idea—done their way.
A month later, Clair received a letter from Charlotte’s son, Robert.
I am writing to thank you and the young people who came to sing for my mother, Charlotte, on Christmas Eve. At first she was nervous because of what the young people looked like. Then they lit her Christmas tree. She told me how much it meant to her to hear them sing beside her bed. She said it was the best Christmas Eve she could remember. The young people need to know that they will be rewarded for the good they do and who they are and not judged by their age or appearance. You never know when one good deed will change a person’s life.
My mother had cancer. She died in peace a week after Christmas.
At the next youth board meeting, the kids listened intently, while Clair read Robert’s message to them. She noticed that Eva and Rex wiped tears away.
Their Christmas Eve visits and the letter from Charlotte’s son sparked a new project for the youth center. To honor the memory of Charlotte and all the people they met that Christmas Eve, Rex, Mandy and Eva organized the First Annual Inter-generational Discussion and Dinner. They invited senior citizens and matched each one with a young person. During dinner the pairs examined pressing issues for youth and seniors and suggested solutions that would help create a more caring, compassionate community.