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Once upon a time

Christine McKerrell Published on 01 December 2014
Christmas in my Heart

One of the world’s oldest Christmas stories is that of Babushka, the woman who was too busy with housework to join the Magi in their quest for the Christ Child. But what possible relevance could that story have today, 2,000 years later?

Let’s find out.

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The children pressed closer to Miss Lauren as the young teacher settled herself in the story corner and smiled down at them all.

“Another Christmas story today, children.” She opened her cupped hands to show them a brightly coloured round wooden figure. “All about a little old lady just like this one.”

The children looked on, immediately interested.

“What do you think this is?” Miss Lauren asked.

“A doll,“ Polly Mitchell announced. “My granny’s got one like that.”

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“Ah.” Miss Lauren smiled. “Then you know the secret, Polly.” She laid a finger against her lips. “But don’t say anything yet. You’ll spoil the surprise.”

“What kind of doll is it, Miss?” a boy piped up.

“It’s a Russian doll, Josh, a very special one. And the story today is about a little old lady who lived deep in the heart of a forest. Her name was Babushka.”

“Babushka,” the children repeatedly softly, enjoying the sound of the word.

Nicky Todd listened intently. Story time was his favourite part of the day. At home, his mummy read to him every single night before he went to sleep. Daddy used to tell him stories, too, but Mummy said he was working so hard these days, and Nicky would just have to make do with her. She said it with a smile, but Nicky knew she wished Daddy wasn’t away so much.

“Babushka was busy one evening in her cottage,” the teacher began, “when a knock came at the door. It was late, but she wasn’t afraid. Babushka opened the door, and who do you think was standing there?”

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“Santa Claus!” Polly cried.

Miss Lauren smiled. “That’s a good guess, Polly. But it was a gentleman. In fact, there were three of them. Now who can think of their names?”

“The three wise men,” Nicky whispered hoarsely. He was remembering the story his mummy read to him every Christmas Eve.

“That’s right, Nicky. And what do you think they were looking for?”

“Baby Jesus!” the class chorused.

Miss Lauren nodded. “They were tired and hungry. Babushka invited them into her tiny cottage. She gave the wise men some soup and let them sleep by her fire. It was very cold outside, you see. Snow was falling.”

“I like snow,” Polly whispered, and the others nodded.

“Yes,” Miss Lauren agreed, “but it made the wise men’s journey very hard. They had to stay with Babushka till it stopped snowing. When they left, they were so grateful to the old woman that they asked her to go with them.

“‘We are going to see the new King,’ they told her. ‘He will be born in a stable. All we have to do is follow the star.’ As they said it, they pointed into the night sky.

“‘Ah, yes.’ Babushka had noticed the new star that was brighter than all the others. ‘But I’m too busy to come with you now. There’s the house to tidy and the beds to make. I must pickle some cabbage. Oh, and the chimney needs to be swept.’

“Well, class,” Miss Lauren, continued, “the wise men couldn’t wait, could they?”

The children shook their heads.

“What did they do?” Nicky asked.

“Why, they went without her.”

“Ah,” the children chorused.

“But before they left,” Miss Lauren reassured them, “they made Babushka promise to follow just as soon as she got all her work done. ‘For this Baby is very, very special,’ they told her.”

Nicky stared in disbelief at Babushka’s smiling face. He couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to clean their house instead of riding on a camel to see Jesus with the ox and the ass and the lambs the shepherds brought. Nicky knew them all from the picture book his mummy kept especially for Christmas.

“At last,” Miss Lauren went on, “the day came when Babushka couldn’t find anything more to do in the house. ‘Now I will go and look for the Baby,’ the old woman decided.”

“Did she find him?” Josh asked, unable to contain his excitement.

Miss Lauren shook her head. “I’m just coming to that, Josh. When Babushka reached Bethlehem, she found the stable – but it was empty.”

“Were the wise men there?” the children wanted to know.

“No one was there,” the teacher told them. “Only the animals – and they couldn’t tell the old woman anything, could they?”

The children solemnly shook their heads.

“Then Babushka knocked on he door of the inn to ask where the Baby was. The innkeeper scratched his head, looking very puzzled. ‘There was a baby,’ he remembered. ‘But that was a long, long time ago.’

“You see,” Miss Lauren explained, “Babushka had spent so long cleaning her house that Jesus had grown up. She was too late! How do you think she felt, Nicky?”

“Sad,” Nicky said softly.

“That’s right.” Miss Lauren nodded. “Inside Babushka was very sad indeed.”

With a gentle twist, she showed them the second Babushka hidden inside the first. This one had a down-turned mouth and a large teardrop painted on one cheek.

“Oh!” the children chorused.

“I knew that!” Polly yelled.

“Yes, Polly, I know you did – and thank you for not spoiling the secret. Now, what do you think Babushka did next?”

Before anyone could answer, the bell sounded for the end of the afternoon school.

“Oh, dear.” Miss Lauren tucked both dolls into her pocket.

“Now we’re too late – just like Babushka. Go and collect your coats. I’ll finish the story first thing tomorrow.”

Miriam Todd stood by the school gate, hugging herself against the December cold.

She hoped Nicky wouldn’t be too disappointed. James had promised he would really try to get away early today, but something had cropped up at the last minute. She frowned. He was working far too hard these days.

Children streamed from the school, and Miriam smiled as she spotted Nicky and raised her hand to wave. She felt heartsore as she saw his face fall momentarily.

“Daddy got held up,” she whispered as she bent to kiss his cheek, thinking as she did so that the little boy looked flushed.

“Daddy works very hard,” Nicky muttered. “Just like Babushka.”

“Babushka?” Miriam smiled.

Nicky shrugged.

“It’s just a story. Will Daddy be home for tea?”

“I hope so.” His mother sighed. “There’s a chicken roasting. His favourite.”

Late that day, as James Todd battled his way through the rush-hour traffic, he wondered how he was going to break the news to his wife. “Are you sure somebody needs to go over there in person?” he’d asked his managing director that afternoon.

Alex Dunn had shrugged apologetically. “They’re insisting on it, James. Why not give young Samuels a chance? He’s more than capable.”

But James had shaken his head.

“No, I’ll go myself. It’s the only way to make sure it’s done properly. I just don’t know how I’m going to tell Miriam …”

Nicky was curled up in an armchair watching his favourite Thomas the Tank Engine video when his father arrived home. At any other time, the little boy would have run to meet him, leaping into his outstretched arms to be whirled round and round, laughing and shrieking.

But not this evening. His head was hot and his stomach ached, and besides, he could hear raised voices coming from the kitchen. His mother sounded very cross.

“James,” she was saying, “how could you? To go away just before Christmas!”

“I’ll be back the day before Christmas Eve,” Nicky heard his father protest.

“But you’ll miss the carol service at school. Nicky’s class is singing ‘The Little Drummer Boy.’ Nicky has to beat the drum!”

“Look, love,” his father was saying now, “I’m doing all this for you and Nicky. Jetting off to the States is the last thing I want at the moment – but there’s no other way.”

When Nicky’s mother called him into the kitchen for his tea, she was smiling again, but Nicky could tell she was still sad inside. Just like Babushka.

“Are you all right, love?” Miriam asked, a concerned note creeping into her voice. “You look a bit hot.”

She laid a cool hand on Nicky’s forehead.

“I hope you’re not getting this bug that’s going around.”

“Michael was off school today,” Nicky told her in a small voice. He was beginning to feel just a bit sorry for himself.

“Oh, dear.” His mother cuddled him close. “I think maybe we should get you to bed. You don’t want to be sick for the carol concert … who would beat the drum then?”

When Nicky woke the next morning it was still dark. He could hear voices downstairs as his father got ready to go to the airport.

“Kiss Nicky goodbye for me,” he heard his father say.

“Can’t you pop up and see him before you go?”

“Too late,” Nicky heard him reply. “The taxi’s waiting. See you Sunday.”

And then there was the sound of the front door closing and the noise of the taxi drawing away. Tears trickled over Nicky’s hot cheeks.

Babushka was too late, he thought miserably as he drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Miriam waved her husband off, concern replacing her annoyance of the previous evening. James looked so tired these days. She and Nicky hardly saw him anymore.

With a sigh, she set about clearing away the breakfast things and put out Nicky’s favourite cereal before she went to wake him for school. But one look at the little boy’s flushed face was enough to send her hurrying to the telephone.

“He has a temperature, doctor. And he says his stomach aches!”

“It could just be a bug, Mrs. Todd,” he reassured her. “But don’t worry, I’ll be over right away.”

In the cottage hospital, they were equally reassuring as Nicky was whisked into the operating theater.

“It was his appendix, I’m afraid,” the doctor explained.

“But we caught it in time. Don’t worry. He’ll be fine.”

As Miriam waited anxiously, the ward sister asked her if she wanted to contact her husband.

“James!” Miriam cried. “He doesn’t know.”

And then she remembered. By now he was somewhere over the Atlantic.

“There’s a possibility he might not be,” the sister said thoughtfully. “There were warnings of delays on this morning’s travel news. Fog, I think. Why don’t you call the airport and ask them to page your husband?”

Later, James and Miriam sat holding hands by their son’s bed.

“Thank heavens for fog!” James whispered to his wife. “I’ll never complain about it again.”

“What about the meeting?” Miriam asked softly.

He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Samuels can take the afternoon plane. It’s not too late.”

Miriam smiled. “You know, that’s funny,” she whispered. “Nicky kept muttering something about being too late. Or was it she’s too late?”

James sighed, blaming himself for not noticing how ill Nicky was. If only he’d taken time to say goodbye. They’d have spotted it earlier, and Miriam wouldn’t have had to cope alone.

The doctor said he was probably a bit delirious with the fever. Miriam agreed, “But I think it was more to do with a story Miss Lauren was telling the class yesterday.

“She called the hospital this morning to ask about Nicky. Wasn’t that kind of her? She said Nicky might have been thinking about Babushka.”

“Babushka?”

“You must’ve heard the story as a child,” Miriam insisted. “About the old Russian woman and the three wise men?”

James shook his head. “That one’s passed me by. Perhaps you’d better tell me, since it made such an impression on Nicky …”

When his wife had finished, James gazed thoughtfully at his sleeping son’s face.

“So she kept finding things to do until it was too late?” he said with a rueful shake of his head. “Maybe it’s time I asked myself what’s really important.”

Miriam gave her husband’s hand a squeeze. “It’s what I keep telling you,” she said. “It’s not about holidays and new cars, James. They’re only things.”

“You’re right. Poor Babushka. She didn’t get a second chance, did she?

“Look,” he whispered. “I think he’s beginning to wake up at last.”

Amy Lauren stood the huge get-well card on top of Nicky’s locker. “Hi, Nicky.” She smiled. “How are you today?”

“I missed the end of the story,” Nicky complained. “The one about Babushka.”

“Yes, you did,” she said. “But never mind, I’ve brought her with me today.” She reached into her pocket for the doll. “See? She’s wearing her happy face – just for you.”

“Is her sad face underneath?”

“Ah!” Miss Lauren was smiling. “That’s where we come to the end of the story.” She held out the doll. “Would you like to open it?”

Nicky nodded. Inside was a tiny figure with golden hair and a halo. She was smiling.

“Ooh!” Nicky breathed.

“When Babushka found the Baby had gone,” his teacher continued, “she wandered all over the world looking for Him. Everywhere she went, people told her wonderful stories of what He had done, until Babushka realized she need look no further.

The Baby was all around her, just as He is today, Nicky.” The young teacher smiled. “Which is why we celebrate His birthday every Christmas.”

“So Babushka was happy inside again?”

“That’s right,” Miss Lauren assured him, and the little boy heaved a great sigh.

He was still clutching the tiny doll when his mother and father arrived a short time later.

“Babushka wasn’t too late after all.” Nicky yawned as he drifted into sleep.

As James Todd bent over to kiss his son, he felt something suspiciously like tears start behind his eyelids. “Babushka and I had a lot in common, son,” he said softly with a glance at his wife. “And I intend to make sure it’s not too late for me, either.”  PD

Christine McKerrell writes from her home on the Isle of Arran, United Kingdom.

“Once Upon a Time” by Christine McKerrell was reprinted with permission from Joe Wheeler (P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433) editor/compiler of Christmas in My Heart, Vol. 22. All rights reserved.

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