Catherine’s Castle - The Story
The continuing adventures of the Colorado Girls.

Chapter 4

Catherine’s Castle © Linda Pilkington

Catherine’s Christmas


That Christmas was the first that Catherine had ever spent away from home. Sometimes she thought of this change as another of the varying experiences in life, and sometimes it seemed one more break in the ties that bound her with home and her childhood.

 She was happy that her roommate was flying home for Christmas- it would be good to have some time alone after working in a busy office all day. She needed some quiet and rest. Both were rare commodities when you shared an apartment with somebody as noisy and busy as Brittany.

 School was out for Winter Break, she had no papers to prepare or classes to attend. Other than working, she could get some rest, and sometimes dress-up and go out with Liam.

 Catherine had managed not to look too delighted when Liam told her that he couldn’t afford to go home for the holidays. She sympathized; he had accepted her comforting words, and then smiling, they went out for an early Saturday morning coffee and planned their Christmas schedules together.

 As they walked to Liam’s chorale practice they felt as if the best Christmas they had ever known- was not in the past, or even in the future-, that this promised to be their happiest Christmas.

 Catherine went to bed that night planning what she would wear when she walked along with the chorale group as they caroled outside of the churches the following Sunday.

 She smiled with contentment and thought, “He has a wonderful voice- he has been taught enough for discipline- but not so much that he’s forgotten the joy of singing.” And then the wicked thought occurred, “which could also be said for his kissing.”

 For several days they went on with their plans, twice meeting in tiny restaurants that matched their own tiny budgets, and being served tiny meals that seemed plentiful to them because they were too full of happiness to want anything more.

 They each had been expecting a Christmas package from home- and so they made a date to open those packages together- some evening after work. They decided to save the presents that they had bought for each other- to open with their Champagne at Christmas dinner.

 They met as arranged on a cold Friday evening in Catherine’s living room. Liam carried in a huge box that made Catherine’s modest pile of presents look meager.

 He smiled apologetically, and said, ” My mother is a compulsive wrapper. She imagines any package that she mails to me being caught in fires or floods, and she’s bound and determined that they will come through it.”

 And then, “Your Christmas tree is great!”

 “It is- isn’t it? It’s not real, my mother worries. She wouldn’t sleep a wink if she thought that I was alone in an apartment with a real tree. She would imagine headlines like, `Real Tree causes Christmas Tragedy’.”

 Catherine’s tree was pretty; it was a very small artificial tree- covered in tiny lights and without other ornaments. The glow of lights and the beauty of the tree brought a bit of elegance to that awkward room.

The tree was placed on a table just large enough to accommodate the tree but too small for any of their presents; these they had placed on the coffee table.They sat for a few minutes looking at the tree, at their presents and at each other, savoring the minutes together– until Liam realized that he was due at Chorale practice in a little under an hour.

 Catherine opened her packages first, and found a tiny bottle of good perfume from Melinda, some powder in the same fragrance from Gwynie, and a card and a check from her father.

 From her mother there was a picture of their house at Christmas and a book of poetry.

 The picture had been attached to a mat- that opened as a Christmas card. Across the bottom of the picture her mother had written, “Christmas at our Little Castle in the City.” And inside she had written, ” Happy Christmas Catherine, and remember to: `Treasure every gift- for you don’t know what its cost has been. ‘ Love, from Mother”.

 For just a minute, Catherine had needed to turn away. She turned back, still blinking back tears, and then smiling through them as she waved away Liam’s comforting words.

 “Later, I’ll tell you what the words in my mother’s message mean. But not now. And Liam, don’t offer me tender words or I will cry. I’m like that. Kind words at vulnerable moments bring on the flood. And believe me, I look awful when I cry. If you want me to be able to go to practice with you- do not be nice- because I can’t handle it right now.”

 Liam, obediently and silently, looked at Catherine’s card from her mother, and then began the slow work of unwrapping the gift from his family.

 It was soon apparent that this was to be one of those box, within a box, - joke kind of gifts. Running out of patience and out of time- Liam shook his head, ” This has got to be the work of my brother and my Father; they think this kind of thing is hilarious.”

 One final flat box contained an envelope. He opened it, and both he and Catherine sat staring with dismay at an airline ticket.

 “Oh no!” Liam groaned for both of them. And then, slowly, almost against his will- he picked it up and looked at the departure and return dates.

 ” I wondered why my mother and father were so interested in what my work schedule was over the holidays- they must have been planning this for weeks.”

 And then with a serious look on his face he said, “They can’t afford this, Catherine.”

 He opened the Christmas card, and Catherine-kneeling on the rug beside him, could see the message,

 ” Son, we know how hard you have been working- and so we all went together and bought you this: Christmas at home this year. We miss you- and your mother is baking every kind of Christmas cookie. She keeps saying, `Just one other kind, because this one is Liam’s favorite’. Merry Christmas and we will see you soon. Love, Dad.”

Looking at her stunned face, Liam said, ” I haven’t told them much about you, Catherine. Everything about us has seemed too private and too important to share with anyone. But don’t worry, I’m not leaving you at Christmas. I’m returning the ticket. I’ll make it up to my parents.”

 For a minute joy rose in her heart that she meant so much to him. But somehow, and from some point of maturity that Catherine didn’t know that she possessed came the right feeling and the right words.

 ” Liam, you can’t. You can’t return something that means so much to them, and then try to make it up to them -later. They didn’t know about me, or about our plans- they just wanted you to be with them at Christmas.”

 “Then you have to go with me,” he said. 

Catherine knew that was more feeling than logic.

 “You know that I can’t go. I’m here because of my job- if I leave work when they are depending on me- then I leave the job. And I need the job or I don’t have the money for school.”

 And so it was decided. 

They had two more days, and then he was gone.

And almost immediately, Catherine wished that she could call back the words and that moment of generosity and sacrifice, and have Liam back with her for Christmas.

 She was busy working and she had little time to feel sorry for herself, but when she had the time she used it well- and was selfishly, splendidly, and impressively sorry- thinking of what it would mean-being alone at Christmas.

 Her rational brain told her that: she had seen her family, and she had not been gone long enough to miss them. That she had had her fun and now she must buckle down and work. And that there would be other- more wonderful Christmases ahead for her and Liam. But sensible thoughts made no difference in her attitude.

 She, like most people- whether young or old- faced Christmas with the spirit and the attitudes of a child- sometimes, a very spoiled one. Catherine felt possessed by the desire to have everything that she wanted and a feeling of loss when that desire was frustrated.

 For awhile the only comfort that she had allowed herself were the memories of those last few minutes at the airport.

 As he held her Liam had whispered, ” It’s so hard to leave you. Promise to write me a letter before Christmas, and write me a Christmas story that I can read to myself on Christmas morning. I’ll read it after I have opened my gift from you.”

 Then Liam kissed her, waved goodbye, and left carrying her small Christmas gift in his pocket- rather than packing it away in his carry- on bag.

 At first, rather than warming her heart, these memories made Catherine more gloomy. It was even worse when she thought about the plans that they had made.

 She thought about what might have been: She imagined going to his Christmas concert, and looking up at him as he sang. She imagined how she would have smiled at him; how that smile would have rattled him, making him lose his place in the music.

 She thought of the little restaurant where they had made their Christmas reservations. She thought of the candlelight and the music and wondered what he would have said to her when they exchanged gifts.

 But finally, the better part of her nature triumphed- and she stopped regretting, and imagining. And just as Liam had thought that she would, Catherine began to plan the story he had requested, rather than spending her time in missing him.

 On Christmas morning, after breakfast and a walk with his parents Liam went back to his room and turning on the Bach Chorale-CD that Catherine had bought him- finally allowed himself to open her letter. That letter had arrived the previous morning, but he had been determined to wait and open it at just the right moment.

“Dear Liam,

 I have spent several sulky days since you left.

 I must disguise every feeling-especially the unhappy ones- when I am at work, - the people in this office attack at the first sign of weakness.

 I am fine, but I will be glad when you return.

 The story- or I should write – stories- because there are two (one within the other), - are sentimental, which is out of style since the days of O’ Henry. But what else could they be?

 After all, it is Christmas-a time when we are allowed a bit of sentiment. One of the stories is my mother’s story. You will know that it is sentimental when I tell you that my mother cries when she sees Christmas lights shinning bravely and brightly from some poor looking house.

 Which causes my practical sister, Melinda, to say grumpily: “You don’t know who lives in that sad looking house. They probably are not good or courageous. I bet that it’s someone with more money than we will ever have; more than likely it is some miser who lives there in order to stash every cent away.”

 The other story is mine, but it is sentimental too- because I am as guilty as my mother is. More than once Melinda has pulled us away from the Christmas card aisles where she has found us sniffling over some touching card.

 I’m afraid that the story has both a touch of “O’Henry, and a moral; both of these are out of date.

 If I had more time to edit, and more writing skills I could have cut them both out.

 Liam, this envelope contains too much: a story within a story, an explanation of the stories, a critique of the stories, and finally, a wish for “A very Merry Christmas, Liam”- all jumbled together.


 P.s. I have been studying people. Some are quite well off, but not very happy. They buy piles of gifts each Christmas, but they get so much- that none of it brings much delight or pleasure to them. In order to feel pleasure- they must keep buying more every year.

 I believe that people with less are able to enjoy and appreciate the gifts that they receive more fully. And sometimes, Liam, especially at Christmas, I feel rather sorry for the jaded rich.

The Christmas Tide

Catherine Emerson

As the first child in my family, older by four years than my sister Melinda, and older by twelve than my sister Gwynie, I lived for a few years- the privileged existence- of an only child.

My parents never had much money, but they lavished as much as they could on me. I had every material gift that they could give me. I went to the ballet, to movies, and to any cultural event that my parents could afford. My mother enrolled me in all of the enriching activities that I was willing to attend, and that she thought might be an advantage for me.

However, as a child- I didn’t care much about those intangibles.

 My favorite times were the bountiful, glowing, rich Christmases that we enjoyed. I remember the trees covered all over in the richest of ornaments, and the floor beneath them covered in presents wrapped in colors to match the tree. We would go out to a fine restaurant-my parents always feeling lavish at Christmas from their high hopes of what the new year might bring.

But they were serious parents, and later, when I was older, each Christmas Eve they would come into our rooms and bring us our first gift. This gift was a simple one-a very plain little gift. We would get to play with it for an hour or so, and then they would come back to tuck us in to sleep.

I can remember, that on those Christmas Eves-my mother would talk to us about our new toy- tell us a story, and try to explain to us that the simple things can be the best things of all in life. Then just before she turned out the light, my mother would remind us, “Remember this inexpensive gift on Christmas day, even if you receive gifts that you like better tomorrow.”

 Then she would say, ” Treasure every gift – for you don’t know what its cost has been.”

In spite of those solemn words, I enjoyed those “rich Christmases,” first as an only child, and then for several years with my sister Melinda.

 Then, reality, and my sister Gwynie arrived- abruptly and together- and the character of the Emerson Christmas Tide changed- almost completely.

And now, “Dear reader, you must be imaginative. Imagine me as an “Emma Woodhouse” type- a privileged, happy character in a funny and pleasant novel, by Jane Austen. Then imagine that some earthquake had shaken the Library shelves down- and caused a fire- leaving only a few hundred pages of the book, of my happy story unburned.

Imagine that after such a fire (of course, you must also imagine that this is the only copy of the book in existence, and that some misguided anthropologist- coming along centuries later is trying to find the other pages and piece the book together).

 Then, imagine that the anthropologist, as I think they so often do- gets it all completely confused.

He is able to find only a few other books, of the era, and one of those books seems to him, (crippled by the passage of time, and with little knowledge of the actual plot of my book) to be part of the book that I had lived in.

So, he pieces the happy and the sad parts of the different books together. He presents the tacked together pieces to the world as one book and so makes a mistake that changes the history of fiction. 

And -the heroine (me) if she could have come to life- would have been totally out of place-and miserable at the changes in her book and in her happy story.

 That is how it was for me, and to a lesser degree for my sister Melinda. Our lives had changed. There was too much contrast between rich and poor, happy and sad.

 We were young and we adjusted. We accepted the changes in our lives. Actually, we accepted the sacrifices that we had to make in our daily lives, but we were still brats when it came to Christmas.

 At Christmas, I usually put up a show of acceptance- but Melinda the practical one- complained bitterly. I told her that what she said hurt our parents, and so she reigned herself in and limited her complaints to me.

 That Christmas, I was in a play on Christmas Eve, and so we decided to hold our Christmas Eve tradition on the night before. And, after we had received our “simple” Christmas Eve gifts, we had all gone into Gwynie’s room for the Christmas Story.

 That year Mother retold an old story about her own father at Christmas.

It was during the Depression, he was young, with a house-full of sick children and he was out of money and down on his luck.

He had an offer for a job that would be opening up in a matter of weeks. It was in another town, just a few miles away. But now his decrepit car wouldn’t start and he didn’t have the money to take it to a garage.

 He told my Grandmother, “Unless I can get this car running good enough to get me to work- that job might as well be in Timbuktu for all the good it will do us.”

 And, my mother told how, several months before, my grandmother had managed to hide away some money in a white envelope. She had placed the envelope in an old book for safe keeping. This was a secret. The money, saved for months, a few coins at a time, was her private Christmas fund to buy her children’s Christmas presents.

 She had decided that it was better not to talk about or even think about the Christmas fund, if she was going to avoid the temptation of using it.  Difficult weeks passed, and grandmother hadn’t thought much about the money or the book. But one cold early morning in December she decided that it was time to recount the money and to buy the gifts. She went to the cupboard, a smile of anticipation on her lips. She stretched up her arm and reached to the deepest and darkest part of the shelf. And she found, nothing but emptiness. The book was gone. 

She had searched the house through. Her knees shaking she dropped onto the rocking chair and searched her memory.  Had she changed her mind and hidden the book somewhere else? Or worse, could she have thrown it out, somehow, when she did the fall house cleaning? 

She felt the pain of the lost money everyday, but then, her children had gotten ill, and she had no time left to search. She comforted herself that the money would be found. That if she had some time to think it through that she would remember where she had put the envelope and the book.

 But then just as Christmas was approaching, and with sickness in the house, Mother told how her mother had searched again, at first calmly, and then frantically. How she had prayed desperate prayers for a Christmas miracle. How she searched repeatedly for that money because now it was needed, not for gifts, but to buy more medicine for her children.

Several days before Christmas, with no other choice- and not caring about his pride- my grandfather had gone to a friend and borrowed money for the medicine -wondering-even as he took it- how he would ever pay it back.

 Grandfather had walked to town early, purchased the medicine, and started home trying to find the courage to face the cold of the day and the comfortless Christmas in store for him and his family. 

He looked  around at the snowy afternoon and wondered that a man could feel so unhappy and desperate while surrounded by such beauty.

He straightened his shoulders and walked on his way. Ahead he could see a neighbor stopped next to his mailbox waiting to talk to him, and it took all of his strength to call out a “Merry Christmas!”. 

The neighbor had come for more than Christmas greetings. He asked my grandfather to come work for him for the next few days.

 My grandfather was too shocked to speak at first. But finally he accepted. And he swore afterwards that the church bells- back in the town, had started to ring just as he finished his walk home.

So, my grandmother doctored her children, my grandfather tinkered with the car, worked for his neighbor, and repaid his friend. And then it was the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

My grandmother was giving the old house a final cleaning, and thinking to herself that her children were better, and that even if there would be no presents, that she had a chicken to cook for Christmas dinner.

She was sweeping out the old sleeping porch when she turned and knocked open a cupboard door, and out fell a pile of bills, letters, old pictures and some books. She sighed and patiently started to put the things back.

As she finished, one of the books fell open, and there was the envelope with the Christmas fund. She stood and stared. And she remembered, now that she thought about it, how she had changed her mind about where to hide the book.

The joy that shone in her eyes and on her face were reflected back to her by an old mottled mirror on the porch wall. But the joy that she could see in her own reflection- was nothing compared to what she was feeling in her heart.

 As my Grandfather rushed in to tell her that he had managed to repair their car-, she rushed out to tell him about the Christmas money.

They met in the yard just outside of the house and told each other their news. Then they had hugged- right there in the cold- their children watching them from the window.

The children who had seldom seen any display of affection between their parents were startled and frightened- thinking that something awful had happened. The littlest one began to cry quietly, mopping her eyes with the sleeve of her pajamas.

 Then with careful instructions from my grandmother, and with a list to back up the instructions, my grandfather was sent to town-before the stores closed- to buy Christmas presents for the children.

That experience had caused my mother, the child who had cried at the sight of her parents embrace, and her sisters who had watched with her- to retell the story, and to say to their own children at Christmas, “Treasure every gift, for you don’t know what its cost has been.”

That night, after the story, Melinda and I went to my room while my parents tucked Gwynie into bed.

“Well, Gwynie might as well forget about Santa.” Melinda said in a gloomy voice- throwing herself down on my bed.


“Catherine, you just aren’t practical- haven’t you noticed? Whenever Manna tells that story about our grandfather-our own Christmas is always doomed.”

“She always tells a story and says, ‘Treasure every gift…’ that’s our Christmas tradition –and last Christmas was good- we got lots of gifts.”

“Well, last Christmas she told a more cheerful story. Mark my words, the story about our Grandfather is a bad omen.”

“On Christmas day we will be lucky if there are one or two tacky presents a piece.”

 Just then, a board creaked out in the hall, and we stopped talking, but everything was quiet, and soon Melinda went to her own room.

She was wrong about Christmas.

 My parents had never shopped on Christmas Eve- day- if they could help it- the lines were too long and the traffic was too frightening, but that Christmas was different.

I was baby-sitting, but Melinda said that our parents were gone all morning. They came back, exhausted. She said that they had spent whatever part of the afternoon that they didn’t have to devote to Gwynie- in their own room- quiet as mice.

That night Melinda slipped out of bed, and met me on the stairs as I came in.

“I must have been wrong about the grandfather story- look under the Christmas tree,” she said.

We went in together, and from the streetlight shinning through the windows-, we could see the shapes of mountains of presents.

 That Christmas morning my parents seemed less relaxed, but much more excited than usual. Everything was perfect. My sisters and I had gotten most of what we had wished for, and they had bought themselves some beautiful gifts.

 Melinda and I hugged each other whenever we opened something wonderful, and we helped Gwynie learn about her toys.

My Mother and Father opened, and marveled over the softness of sweaters, and the gleam of appliances. But the gifts that seemed most important to them were the homemade ones-or the “tacky ones” (as Melinda said) that they gave to each other.

 My Father, who knew that my mother loved fresh flowers, had given her a small picture. It had a purple frame, with matting that framed silk flowers. The flowers were in a profusion of blues, purples, green and gold. The picture looked homemade but it was pretty.

 My mother, who is not a poet- who only uses her poems as the first burst of inspiration for the stories that she writes- had written my father a poem that was entitled: You longed to bring me Flowers.

These gifts they smiled at, touched gently, and lingered over-as if they were the only gifts that they had received.

 The other gifts that they had purchased for each other were soon carried up to their closet- put in a neat pile-with the homemade ones placed carefully on top, and then shut away “until I get time to put them away” –my mother said.

Melinda and I enjoyed that Christmas, but soon our gifts were put aside, or forgotten as we settled into the bleak days that were the best that January offered.

My mother and I have never liked January- we always felt that it is ordinary life gone to ruin- a dreary, dark month to get through after the lights and the delights of December.

Mother read more in January then she did at any other time. She read books that she had read many times before, as if a new book was too much effort- when what she wanted was the comfort of known plots.

But that January- like the Christmas that had proceeded it- was different. Although she usually disliked shopping, she wanted to go to the after-Christmas sales. And often, she carried with her one of their Christmas gifts that needed to be exchanged.

At the end of the month, after my mother had returned from another sale- I passed near the kitchen door and overheard my parents talking.

 “So it’s done. Well, My Lady, that was a mighty fine Christmas your Brave Knight provided for you.” My father said. His voice was a mixture of amusement and sadness.

“Jordan, you know that I didn’t want those stupid presents. And that was the most uncomfortable ‘shopping’ that I’ve ever done,” My mother said. Her voice was muffled as if she was pressed against my father’s shoulder.

 “Well, I know one thing- I’ll never let such a Christmas happen again. The look on your face- busily buying things for each other, things that you knew you would be taking back…”

“It was wrong, and probably didn’t do any of us any good. Good doesn’t come out of bad- at least not very often.”

My mother murmured something else, but I didn’t stay to listen.

Silently I ran up the stairs. I hurried into my parents’ room and opened their closet door. The shelves where their new gifts had been piled were empty. All of the beautiful Christmas presents were gone.

Well, actually, they were not all gone- two remained; my Father’s picture and my mother’s poem were still there.

Since then, I have wondered what it cost them in pride, money and in worry to buy us all of those gifts when they couldn’t afford them.

I suppose that it was out of character for my parents to buy with the guilty knowledge that they couldn’t afford what they bought for their children And knowing that what they bought for themselves must be returned.

What did they lose, or give of themselves so that their children wouldn’t feel guilty opening their own presents that Christmas? What had been the true cost of all of those gifts piled high under our tree?

Before that Christmas, we had learned that in order to afford to give gifts to others we usually had to give up something that we wanted ourselves.

 Often, we resented making the sacrifice.

But since then, I have come to think that in order for a present to become a real Christmas gift- it must in some way resemble the great gift that was given to the world on that first Christmas. That great gift- that sacrifice.

 Now I believe that a real Christmas gift always requires some sacrifice, of work, time and effort in order to purchase it.

But it was not until this Christmas that I realized what my mother’s words really meant.

Words are like that. You can hear them time after time, and then, suddenly, you grasp their true meaning. That happened for me that night when I read them in my mother’s Christmas card.

And so this Christmas, I urge you to, ” Treasure every gift for you don’t know what its cost has been.”