Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sharing the Joy: Weekend Lit - Barbara Briggs Ward's The Snowman Maker

More than Pine Boards Smelling of Lacquer
by Barbara Briggs Ward
Santa Claus knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 7 years old

The dining room in my grandparents’ farmhouse was on a slant-turning the room’s wood floor into a perfect slide when in sock feet and seven years old and told to stay out of the kitchen because my grandfather was making Christmas presents. I could hear his saw. I could see the sawdust come flying from underneath a door which had been in place forever in that old home-situated beside tall poplars lining the cinder driveway. Speckles of the stuff would get in my eyes but it didn’t matter. Christmas was coming and when you’re 7-anything can happen. And that year, it did.

We’d visit the farmhouse on week-ends and every week-end that year leading up to Christmas was full of extreme anticipation. What was my grandfather making? Even at a young age, I noticed his hands. They told his story-strong yet gentle; worn yet kind. He farmed surrounding fields yielding hay and oats. Relaxing to him was reading a Saturday Evening Post or Zane Grey novel. Grampie loved to read.

This particular Christmas he’d taken over the role of Santa Claus, spending whatever time he could creating in that large kitchen. After dinner was over and the dishes were put away, the dining room became a playroom for my cousins and me. Although we played very hard, our ears and eyes were geared to the commotion on the other side of that closed door with its marble handle.

I knew it was something made out of wood. Besides the saw, we heard the hammer. We smelled a heavy lacquer. I remember thinking there was nothing on my Christmas list that was made out of wood. The only thing I wanted was a little doll with small blonde braids all over her head. Maybe it was a doll bed! I convinced myself it was a doll bed. By the time I was finished it was doll bunk beds complete with little quilts made by my grandmother. If I was really lucky there’d be doll clothes too. I knew where I’d put the beds; to the right as you go down the few stairs leading into my bedroom. I didn’t tell my two cousins that I’d figured it out. One was a boy.

He probably wouldn’t care.

My mother always made oyster broth on Christmas Eve. She’d set the dining room table with linens and china, tall-stemmed, etched crystal glasses and a silver soup ladle. My grandparents would join us. I wasn’t surprised there were whisperings amongst the adults that year. I was on high alert, aware of fresh boot tracks leading from Grampie’s old pick-up into our side porch off the kitchen. We didn’t use that entrance much during the winter. But I guess when you’re Santa and your sleigh is a truck, you can bring doll bunk beds in any way you please. Besides, we didn’t have a fireplace.

To say the wait from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning was the longest wait ever in anticipation of the doll of my dreams does not suffice. It was sheer agony. I’d been so wrapped up in thoughts of this doll and her bunk beds that I hadn’t thought what else might be under that tinseled tree. That’s when I fell asleep.

I heard my brother race down the front stairway. I smelled cinnamon coming through the register near where the bunk beds would soon sit. The morning had dawned despite my doubting it would ever arrive. The moment had come. It was time to go down the stairs to see what had gone on behind that closed door.

I heard my mother telling my brother he had to wait for me. I heard my father walk in from the kitchen. And then it was quiet, except for the wind moving the snow into little heaps and the stairs creaking as I reached the bottom step. I stopped for a second. I knew when I turned my head it might be sitting there, waiting for me. Probably wrapped with a big, red bow I thought.

The smell of that lacquer convinced me of my suspicions. Slowly I peered through the archway. The tree was lit. The stockings were overflowing. Standing in a single line were three smiling faces. They didn’t say a word. They didn’t have to. I knew they were keeping the bunk beds from my view. Into Christmas morning I rushed. My brother was the first to move aside, and that was when my eyes became set on what has remained my most favorite Christmas present ever. There were no bunk beds. Not even a doll bed. It was a desk; a simple pine desk with a single drawer and a stool with a carved design.

Something happened to me at that moment. None of the other gifts mattered, not even the ones from Santa wrapped in red or green tissue paper and held together by stickers that never stuck. Slowly approaching my desk, I danced my fingers along the lacquered boards. Visions of my grandfather in that farmhouse kitchen measuring and sawing filled me with an appreciation of this labor of love. Pulling the stool back I sat down. Opening the single drawer, I found a pad of white, lined paper and one yellow, #2 pencil-sharpened. How did he know I wondered? How did my grandfather know that at the young age of 7 I knew I wanted to be a writer; that I spent hours cutting and folding paper into little books? How did he know that the smell of crayons and pencils and pages of words put together stirred my imagination?

I did get that baby doll with blonde braids all over her head that year-and the pine desk became the focal point in my bedroom, sitting to the right as you go down the little stairs. We became the best of friends.

My grandfather is gone now. So is that farmhouse with the slanted dining room. Over the years I’ve come to realize how that Santa with his old pick-up delivered more than just pine boards smelling of lacquer that year. It seems Santa knew what I really wanted, despite dreams of doll bunk beds with little quilts.

Barbara Briggs Ward grew up in the country surrounded by relatives and a backdrop made for inspiring a young imagination. Barbara and her cousins were constantly playing in their chicken coop clubhouse filled with the remains of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. It was in that clubhouse where Barbara read her favorite authors including Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder - and began writing her own little stories. When her grandfather made her "most favorite Christmas present ever" - a simple pine desk with a single drawer which held a pad of lined paper and a #2 pencil - Barbara knew she wanted to be a writer.

Barbara began writing for children, having been published in Highlights for Children and She is the author/illustrator of the Snarly Sally picture book series.

Barbara's writing took a turn in October, 2010 when she published, "The Reindeer Keeper", a heartwarming story of Family & Christmas chosen by both Yahoo's Christmas Book Club Group and Yonker's Riverfront Library Book Club as their 2012 December Book of the month.

Barbara's story, "In Anticipation of Doll Beds" was published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book, "Christmas Magic" October, 2010. In March, 2012 her short story, "A Brown Boy of Our Own" was included in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book, "Family Caregivers."

In October, 2012, Barbara released her first work of Amish fiction, "A Robin's Snow" on Kindle. The book was recommended reading by Amazon September, 2013. Barbara's second work of Christmas fiction, "The Snowman Maker," was released October, 2013.
Visit Barbara at her WEBSITE.

My thoughts on The Snowman Maker
Once again, Barbara has written a poignant and heartwarming tale. As she did with The Reindeer Keeper, she has illustrated the importance of families, especially at Christmas.

In The Snowman Maker, we learn about a family who is affected by a history of adoption. The story shows us how an orphanage can be like another family and that the relationships fostered there can be lasting. It shows us the importance of finding out where we come from and that it's never too late to forgive and make a new beginning. All of this mixed in at Christmas time brings even more magic to the season.

I love stories set at Christmas, especially ones about family and traditions. Barbara is a master at telling these stories and I eagerly await her next Christmas book.

Read my review of The Reindeer Keeper.

About the book
Over the years Ben and Ellie never had a problem communicating. So when Ben seems distant, Ellie's confused. Her instinct tells her it has something to do with the contents of an old cardboard box his father insisted Ben take before he passed away. With the children grown, Ben's evasiveness adds to Ellie wishing the holidays were over.

But it's Christmas-the season of hope and love rekindled-especially when going back to a wondrous place on a winter's night in the old sleigh decorated in pine boughs and silver bells-the very sleigh that carried a little boy and that cardboard box on a Christmas Eve journey so long ago.

Always in spirit....

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