She hadn't been born on the high plains of Wyoming. In fact, even now, after all these months, she still called Pennsylvania home. She was only here because in 1923 that's what wives did: They followed their husbands. And her husband had a powerful yen to homestead in the West. So here she found herself, on the lonely plains of Wyoming.
For the most part, Grete Klein had made friends with the land. Well, maybe not friends, but she was learning its ways and that was the first key to survival in this harsh country. She had even learned to accept her "new" house, but the drafty tar-paper shack rattled with each gust of wind.
The wind. The ever-blowing, good-for-nothing, bitter Wyoming wind. The thief that puffed away the few autumn leaves before she had a chance to savor them. It robbed the children of pleasant play and stole the moisture from the crops.
Grete sighed and stoked the fire in the black majestic cookstove. She smiled as she recalled her mother saying, in heavily accented English, "If you vant to get rich, mein daughter, you must schtrike those matches tvice!" Rich? Hardly. Even her mother would be amazed and impressed at the ways Grete found to economize. Corncobs for fuel. Flour sacks sewn into underwear. Cardboard insoles to cover the holes and extend the life of the children's shoes.
And now Christmas was nearly here. Not that the landscape gave evidence of that. In the predawn light, Grete pushed aside the gunnysack curtaining the kitchen window and gazed out. No soft December snow blanketed the bare dirt. Instead, grim skies of gunmetal gray hovered while the wind howled in swirls of dust. Its icy fingers clawed at the flimsy door, while its frigid breath seeped around the crooked window frames. And all the while, a lone cottonwood tree -- their only summer shade -- batted its skeletal arms in a field dotted with tumbleweeds too stubborn to blow away. Shivering, Grete turned away.
Christmas. And we can't even spare a tree for the children.
Her children were so young. She knew they carried no memories of holidays back home. Of stately evergreens brushing the ceiling. Of Grossmutter's fine, hand-blown glass icicles dripping from its full branches. Of visits from the Weihnachtsmann, Father Christmas. Or of a table groaning under the weight of tasty traditional delicacies. Roast goose with potato dumplings. Sauerkraut and noodles. Apple strudel.
Oh, and don't forget all the home-baked desserts with their old-world names. I must teach them to the children.
Names like Pfeffernusse, Lebkuchen, and Blitzkuchen. Nusstorte, Apfel Pfannkuchen, and Schnitzbrot. Like taking roll call, Grete whispered her favorites one by one. The familiar German words rolled from her tongue, comforting her with their rhythm and taste.
Schnitzbrot. Fruit bread. Hmmm...maybe if I made some substitutions, altered the proportions....
With an excitement she hadn't felt in a long time, Grete pulled out a saucepan, a wooden spoon, and a large tin bowl. She reached for the carefully hoarded currants and dried peaches. Since the fruit was sweet, maybe the children wouldn't notice that she would have to skimp on sugar. She could spare two eggs and felt lucky to have fresh milk from the cow. But Schnitzbrot needed yeast. Grete hesitated.
Do I dare?
She dared. Grete lifted the crock of sourdough starter, her old standby. She had tended it faithfully for months, stirring for four days, adding exact amounts of milk, flour, and sugar each fifth day. It was the foundation for their regular fare of bread, johnnycakes, and biscuits. Why not Schnitzbrot? Grete could almost hear her mother say, "Ya, that's right, mein Grete. Lean into the vind and you vill arrive vit ease."
Humming "Stille Nacht" under her breath, Grete set about stewing, draining, and chopping the fruit. She measured. She mixed. She kneaded until the dough was soft and firm. Grete divided the dough into balls and rolled them like clay between her palms. Instead of the customary loaves, she would make a festive fruit bread wreath for each child. She braided the strips and shaped them into small circles. Covering the dough rings with dishtowels, Grete set them aside to rise near the radiating warmth of the cook stove.
Now, if only the children could have a tree. It would seem more like home. Then I think I could be satisfied.
A Christmas tree. No amount of wishing, no amount of dreaming, no amount of wanting would make it so. Of course, there was still prayer. Doubtfully, Grete closed her eyes and paused a long, silent moment.
Realizing it was nearly time to wake the family, she grabbed her long woolen coat and headed for the door. Let them sleep. She would see to a few outside chores first.
Grete lowered her head to shield her face from the grit of whirling dust. She leaned into the breath-stealing wind, headed toward the barn, and -- she gasped when she felt it. As sharp as needles, spiny tentacles pricked her stockings, scratched her legs. Tumbleweeds. Thorny, branched tumbleweeds. Those last, stubborn thistles had finally broken loose in this gale and rolled right to her feet.
With a hoot of laughter, Grete plucked them from around her ankles. She gathered tumbleweeds and carried them gingerly to the house. Already she could imagine her children giggling and stacking to make a towering tumbleweed tree. An answer to prayer. A gift from the fickle Wyoming wind. Who would have thought!
Remembering Grossmutter's heirloom icicles, she felt a fleeting tug of regret. But she shrugged and turned her thoughts toward tissue paper, shiny ribbon, and scraps of cotton batting. The children could string popcorn and make paper chains. Together, they would create new traditions. Perhaps, with a few clicks of her knitting needles and a little more thought, she could even arrange some small gifts from Father Christmas.
And at that very moment, Grete swore she heard her mother whisper, "Yust think, mein daughter. First sauer Schnitzbrot. And now a Vyoming Christmas tree. Vhat a vonderful place is home." -- By Carol McAdoo Rehme
Want to read about the joy of giving? Go to "The Christmas Angels" on the following page.