A Christmas Story for young and older
Ronald Burke lay on his bed, watching the sunlight play across his ceiling. It was Saturday, which meant he didn’t have to walk to the end of Primrose Street and wait for the school bus. Ronald hated the school bus. He hated school too. He especially hated walking down the hall with Mrs. Cole, who made him work all by himself in her small room. He never got to use the same books as the other kids. They would tease him when he came back from working with Mrs. Cole. “Grade four is too hard for Ronald. Maybe he should go back to kindergarten.” Everyone would laugh and point. Ronald hated school.
But Ronald loved his house and the huge backyard. He loved the tall maple tree that stood in the yard just outside his bedroom window. He called her Maple, and she was his friend. Grandma Cora had big maples outside her house. She loved her maples as much as Ronald loved his. He could tell Grandma Cora about his tree. She understood when he told her. The leaves would waltz into his window on morning breezes, coaxing him to come and play, teasing him with floating leaves that dipped down to tickle his cheek. Come, try to climb into my tip-top branches, she would whisper. He’d imagine himself tucked high amongst the leaves, closer to the stars and far, far away from the school bus. He loved to look at the stars at night through his bedroom window. Grandma Cora had given him a small telescope one Christmas, and he peered at the stars.
Ronald slid out of bed the next morning, waiting until his feet touched the floor, stuffed his legs into crumpled pants, crunched his feet into waiting shoes, ran into the kitchen, and hoped he was big enough to reach the cookie jar on the counter without standing on a chair. He reached and stretched, but it was just out of his grasp. He went to get the chair. His tree was waiting for him. He had to find a way to the top. He just had to.
In spring, he would lie underneath her large limbs, waiting for buds to burst into cool, green leaves, studying the angles in the branches overhead. For a small boy, he had big pockets of patience.
In summer, he would sprawl in her cool shade, munching on watermelon slices, looking up and making plans for how he would one day reach the top. Maybe he could nail wooden boards onto the trunk to help him climb up. Nails. It would make it easier to climb, but he didn’t want to hurt Maple. As he lay in the soft grass, gazing up, he could almost see himself moving up the bark, pausing for breath, climbing higher and higher until her canopy was reached. He would make it up there one day, he was now determined.
In autumn, he would rake and rerake the colourful leaves, making piles of fun over and over again. When he got tired of raking and jumping, he’d lie back and watch as Maple shook herself free of summer, preparing for her winter clothes.
In winter, she looked cold and hard and slippery and taller than ever. The tree was now bare, but Ronald began to wear more and more layers of clothing as snowflakes fell. He made elaborate snow forts around her trunk, and Maple would sprinkle him with snowflakes and ice crystals. He laughed and threw snowballs back, decorating her bark with splats of snow frosting.
Winter was long and cold. It was sometimes still dark as he stood at the end of the lane, waiting for the school bus. Mrs. Cole had more work each week. If he didn’t always get teased, he would rather have stayed in the classroom with Mrs. Rothwell. She was the only good thing about going to school. She’d give out suckers if the class tried hard. She always smiled when he did his best, and it made him want to do better. He didn’t know why he had to go to Mrs. Cole’s room. He hated her and her tests and fake laugh. The other students, who got to stay with Mrs. Rothwell, always seemed to be having fun. Ronald wondered if winter would ever end.
Then one April morning, as he started to get out of bed, his feet touched the floor before sliding down! Maple’s spring leaves, fandango’ing through the open window, tickled him around his ears. Right then he knew he was big enough to climb the tree… and to reach the cookie jar.
It wasn’t an easy climb, but his arms were stronger now; so were his legs and his resolve. It was really hard getting up the trunk, since he kept slipping and sliding, so he went to get his dad’s ladder and propped it up against the tree… one last push and he could reach the first big branch. He looked up and kept going. He got caught up on branches, bloodied his elbow and cut his lip, but he pressed on, grabbing, grasping, and scraping all the way up into those tip-top branches.
He had done it. HURRAY!!! HURRAY!!! He settled into one of the broad and comforting limbs, feeling like a king, reaching into his pocket to pull out a cookie he’d taken from the jar in celebration. A strong breeze moved the branches back and forth, and he felt like his friend was giving him a cheer.
It was the tallest tree in the world, he was sure of that. He could see over the roofs of neighbouring houses. As he squinted, he could see even farther. He could see all the way over to Main Street and Graham’s shop. He loved going there; Graham always had some treat for him. Sitting up in his tree, he could see Grandma Cora’s house.
As he proudly perched, gazing into the distance, he leaned his head back, looked up, and got an idea. This was much higher than his bedroom window. Stargazing would be so much better from here… maybe he could see Venus or Mars from the tree — or maybe Santa and his reindeer! They would have more lights than just Rudolph’s nose; there would be eight bright night-lights. They would be the brightest lights in the sky on Christmas Eve. YES!!!!
Now Ronald had a real project, better than anything at school: to see Santa’s sleigh ride on Christmas Eve.
That night, after dinner, Ronald asked his dad how to make a rope ladder. He had decided this was better than nails or a propped-up ladder. His dad asked why he needed a rope ladder, and Ronald told him his plan. He was so excited, pointing up to the branches, showing his dad the cut on his lip like it was a badge of honour. “I don’t really know how I’m going to do it yet, Dad, but I really want to try.”
His dad was happy to see Ronald so excited. They went to the workshop and started to find bits and pieces that could be made into a ladder. Mr. Burke was surprised at how quickly Ronald learned to use a measuring tape and how accurate he was at drawing his lines and marks. He always seemed to struggle with every subject at school. Maggie Rothwell was a good teacher. She seemed to understand Ronald and had given him a lot of help. He made a note to tell her about this project of Ronald’s.
That weekend they worked together to get the rope ladder in place. It was quite a job bringing his small telescope up the tree into the highest branches. When he dropped it, pieces would chip off as it crashed into branches on the way down. A few times Ronald almost fell out of the tree trying to catch it. He needed a plan.
Ronald started to make drawings of a platform in the tree and a place where a box could go to hold his equipment. He showed his dad, who looked at him with great surprise. That evening Ronald learned to use other tools.
That summer, he and his dad worked together and began to build his platform. Ronald used the power saw, and nails and a hammer. His dad watched with pride how careful Ronald was and how well he followed instructions. Ronald had found a book at the library about making treehouses. He showed it to his dad and read him a part about how they got big pieces into the tree. Mr. Burke was amazed at how well Ronald could read. He was also impressed with Ronald’s idea for moving the finished platform. They created a pulley system to get the finished product up into its place between two big branches, halfway up.
When they finished, they sat under the tree together, and Ronald eagerly showed his dad the books about stars and telescopes. His mother brought them a tray with two lemonades and some watermelon slices.
Mrs. Burke leaned down and gave Ronald a kiss on the head. His dad lifted his glass of lemonade toward Ronald. “Cheers, my boy. To your project and a job well done.” Ronald lifted his own glass and clinked it with his dad’s. They each took a long drink and smiled at each other.
After that, Ronald spent all his time up in the tree. Only lightning storms could keep him away, and that was only because his mother told him it could be dangerous and wouldn’t let him climb up.
And then autumn leaves began making space for the cold winds of a Canadian winter, and climbing became tricky at best. That winter, unless there was a rip-roaring snowstorm with winds so strong Ronald might get blown right out of that tree, or a frostbite warning, each day after school he’d quickly do his homework, pack his cookies and hot chocolate into his knapsack, and make his way up the tree. In winter he’d climb and watch and plan. He was getting very familiar with the stars in the northern sky. He had scraps of paper all over his room with different pulley systems, waterproof box options, ladders, and different routes to the top, as well as books about telescopes and constellations.
That Christmas Eve he bunked down in the topmost branches and waited to see the magical sleigh and eight reindeer. His little telescope was not very strong, but Ronald was curious about stars he saw in patterns and how some were brighter than others. Those were the coldest days in the tree, when he needed extra hot chocolate inside his tummy and an extra sweater inside his coat.
But on that special night of peace, Ronald noticed more and more tiny night stars in the sky and felt a tingling kind of warmth deep inside. He peered through his tiny telescope for eight little lights in a row, but he couldn’t find them. It’s a big sky, he thought, I’ll just have to keep looking.
When he woke next morning, Christmas Day, there was a brand new big, waterproof telescope under the tree. He ran to hug his mom and dad. “This is awesome, just awesome!”
After the holidays, when he went back to school, he asked Mrs. Rothwell if they had any books on stars.
“Sure, Ronald, they have quite a few in the library, and we can find some websites too. Your dad was telling me about your tree project. It sounds very exciting.”
“It is,” he said. “Can we find those books now?” Maggie smiled and led Ronald to the library. There were at least five books that would suit, and Ronald was very happy. On one of the really cold days, too cold to go outside for recess, he sat at his desk, gazing at one of the astronomy books.
Another boy, Sherwin, stood beside him and said nastily, “Twinkle twinkle little Ronald,” but before he could start to laugh, Ronald spoke without looking up.
“That star is Venus, Sherwin. It’s not called Ronald. And it’s not little, it’s huge.”
Sherwin stood very still and was very quiet. For the first time, he had no answer.
Ronald’s project became more sophisticated the next summer. With his building skills and help from his dad, he had now put a waterproof box onto the platform so he wouldn’t have to lug his telescope up and down the tree each time. This was an expensive telescope, and he didn’t want to risk having it crash down the tree. He also had a little space inside his box for a thermos, his cookie jar, and a few books about stars.
During the day, he would read and plan and talk to the tree. “I’ll be famous, you know, when I see Santa’s reindeer and sleigh. They’ll bring cameras and TV crews. They’ll talk about me all over the world. They’ll probably even make a website. Everyone will want me as their friend. People will write blogs, send tweets…” He would go on and on.
When Ronald started back at school in the fall, Sherwin asked him if he wanted to work with him on a science project. No one had ever asked Ronald to work with them on anything. He asked Sherwin if he wanted to learn more about telescopes.
“Sure, that sounds cool.”
So they got to work finding books and websites all about telescopes, how they worked, which was the biggest telescope in the world, and how to make one. One day, Ronald told Sherwin about Maple and his plan.
“If we make a good telescope and it works, do you think I could come and test it out with you on your platform in your tree?”
Ronald smiled wide. “Sure, that would be the best place to test it.”
Then the winds began to change, birds gathered on the hydro lines, waiting to fly south together, and the Ronald felt he was ready. As the cold winds of winter began to blow, up he went, getting his super-spy station ready for his Santa watch.
That year, as he waited on Christmas Eve, his longer legs dangling down between those now snug tip-top branches, his thermos of hot chocolate steaming between his mitted hands, he saw a brighter light in the sky. Quickly, he sat up, put down his cup, and peered keenly through his telescope at those millions of night stars, Christmas lights all over the sky. Something was different; something was happening. And then he saw it… eight bright lights in a row with a bigger light at the front. He couldn’t believe it. He wished Sherwin were here to see this.
“Yes, yes… I knew it, I knew it was real. I found it, I found it,” he cheered as he hugged his tree, his breath hanging in the frosty night air like a shiny Christmas tree ornament. He grabbed his special camera with night vision (another Christmas present from Grandma Cora last year) that attached to the end of his telescope and took as many pictures as he could.
That Christmas Eve, he didn’t need extra hot chocolate to keep warm. He carefully put away his telescope, nimbly made his way down the tree, went into the house and climbed into bed to dream of the twinkling night sky.
The next morning, he came downstairs excited to tell his story, and there, under the family Christmas tree with a big red bow tied around it, was a framed picture of the eight bright night-lights he had seen just the night before… the picture HE had taken of Santa and his reindeer from the top branches in his tree. It was magic. The magic of believing. Christmas magic. Ronald sat down and hugged the picture to his chest. He had done it. He wondered what Mrs. Rothwell would say.