The bent, silver-haired woman stood in the window and waved as her grand-daughter’s car crunched out of the driveway, diamond clouds of snow swirling in the headlights.
Through the darkened windows of the vehicle she could vaguely see her three great- grandkids in the back seat, tumbling over each other like puppies as they returned her wave. After the car drove away down rutted, ice-scattered avenues, the old woman settled herself in a comfortable rocking chair to watch the snow fall. Reflected behind her in the window-glass, a small Christmas tree stood in one corner of the candle-lit room as Christmas carols streamed from the speakers of a vintage floor stereo.
Almost overwhelmed by the weight of ornaments and colored lights, and draped generously with strings of popcorn and silver icicles, the tree had held a special fascination for her youngest great-grandson. Smiling to herself, the old woman remembered the boy reaching out with a pudgy finger to touch one particular decoration, and asking what that “funny one” was supposed to be. As she’d reached into a large shopping bag to hand each of the children a neatly wrapped gift, she’d patiently explained that the ornate iron skeleton key was the original key to their old farmhouse, which her husband had bought shortly after they were married and which they’d lived in for over forty years. She’d told them that after her husband’s health issues had forced them to move to town, he’d sprayed the key with gold paint and hung it on their Christmas tree each year with a red ribbon.
As the little ones had excitedly torn the wrapping paper from their packages and her grand-daughter had encouraged her to open the presents they’d brought her, the old woman had quietly added that she and her husband were still in their teens when they’d met at a party on Christmas Eve. She hadn’t mentioned that for every holiday season thereafter, he’d reminded her that her love was the best gift he ever could’ve received.
Now, as sporadic gusts of wind swept around the corners of the tiny house and the candles flickered slightly in a cool draft, the old woman turned through her memories as if they were the faded, beautifully-rendered illustrations in an antiquated book. She could still envision their gray-shingled, two-story farmhouse with the crooked, weather-beaten outbuildings behind it, and picture their children playing tag under the American elms and sugar maple trees in the front yard. She would never forget the sweet aroma of the honeysuckle vines by the back door, or the sight of her husband’s work-boots sitting on the porch, heavy with the rich, black mud of the Illinois cornfields.
Distracted from her thoughts by a silent interval between the songs on the radio, the old woman noticed that the snow was coming down more heavily now and that the street-light on the corner was shuddering in the cross-winds. Then the first strains of another Christmas carol filled the room, played on a violin and accompanied by a classical guitar, and her mind strayed to a fence-enclosed cemetery at the edge of town. As she pictured the deep, star-lit snowdrifts shifting across her husband’s grave beneath the frigid, dark-blue sky, a subtle but certain instinct informed her that before much longer, she would be joining him—and she was glad. Behind her, she imagined a multitude of ghosts from past decades shimmering transparently around the Christmas tree, and the presence of angels. Nestled in the pine branches, the sturdy iron key seemed to hang in a golden aura of peace and patience, as if destined from the very beginning to turn in the lock of some Heavenly door.