by Barbara Schlichting
Here is another Christmas short story for your holiday reading-this one has just a bit of mystery! More to come between now and Christmas. It has never before been published.
Maggie and I had been friends for over twenty years. Our moms were friends; they went shopping together, taking Maggie and me along. Our families lived side-by-side in a working class neighborhood in south Minneapolis, until the day that turned my life around. That was the day my parents were killed in a car accident. I went to live with my grandparents, Marie and August Ott, and fortunately, they lived nearby, so Maggie and I could still be friends and go to the same schools. We graduated and still do everything together.
Maggie’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stordahl, were dear to me. They were like the parents that I lost. The invitation to have tea at their house was an event they knew I wouldn’t pass up. I loved Mrs. Stordahl’s melt in the mouth cakes and cookies. Mr. Stordahl always looked on the bright side of matters. Both of them cheered me up. Yes, I still had that much respect for them as people and as surrogate parents, that I still called them mister and missus, however, many years ago they asked me to refer to them with their first names. I couldn’t do it though, and I’m still their little Livvie.
To everyone else, I am known as Olivia, Liv to my friends, Reynolds. I own the White House Dollhouse Shop in downtown Minneapolis, where I was getting ready to close up for the evening. After straightening up the miniature dolls of Mr. and Mrs. President through the ages, plus setting up any tipped furniture inside the dollhouses, I went to find my sole employee, Max. He was in the back room sanding a miniature of Edith Roosevelt’s head, which meant I’d better get busy and sew her inaugural gown to wear when on display in her White House dollhouse.
“Hi Max, I’m getting ready to leave,” I said, peering over his shoulder. “Your techniques get better and better. You’ve got magic fingers. When this girl gets painted, she’ll look almost real.”
“Thanks. Does this mean a pay raise in the future?” Max said, and his eyes twinkled.
“As soon as my bank account says I can,” I smiled. “I’m invited to Maggie’s parent’s home for tea. I have a strong inclination that it’s important. Will you be here to tend the store?”
“On that wonderful thought, I’ll leave. See you in the morning.”
I raised my hand for a wave as I walked away. Homemade apple pie? Could I be that lucky? My heart went pitter-patter, and I imagined the sweet scent of pie baking. The late fall scent of spices and cinnamon. Warm apple pie at the Stordahl’s brought with it abundant memories of playing together as kids with dolls and dollhouses. As I donned my coat and took my purse and keys, I hurried out the backdoor to my car.
Once the engine was started and the windows cleared of frost, I began my journey to the Stordahl home at 39th Avenue and 36th Street in south Minneapolis. Before turning to cross over the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, I glanced over to see the Stone Arch Bridge which James J. Hill built for his trains to connect his railway system with the Union Depot. Minneapolis was once known as the Mill City, the railroad brought grain to the flour mills. The bridge has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1971. The bridge was built over the confluence of St. Anthony Falls and the Mississippi River, making it a majestic walk for sightseers and bikers alike.
Crossing the bridge, I turned onto Washington Avenue where there once was a viaduct for trains serving a nearby Burlington Northern depot. The depot was now used for many other activities. The world renown Guthrie Theater was also nearby. I soon entered what was once called Seven Corners because there actually were seven corners that met in one location. It was an area where many Swedes and Norwegians migrated and began a life in the old, new country. Cedar Avenue brought me to 38th Street, and soon I passed by my elementary school, Howe, and headed toward the Stordahl house. I loved the old neighborhood. My best memories of growing up were with Stordahl’s or when Maggie was at my house. Grandma and Grandpa were good to me, but no one could replace my parents.
I parked behind Maggie’s little red car, alongside a large, old oak tree that had lost its leaves for the year. I grinned as I climbed from the car, snatching my purse as I did. I crunched as many leaves as possible on the sidewalk until arriving at the backdoor.
“Hey you!” Maggie said, opening it. “I’m barely ahead of you.”
“Do you know what this about?” I drew in a deep breath and smiled from the delicious aroma. “Ahh…Max was right. Homemade apple pie. Your mom’s the best baker in town.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Maggie said. She shook her head. “Well, I’ll let Mom tell you.”
“All right,” I said. I removed my shoes and slid into the pair of red, knit slippers Mrs. Stordahl gave me for Christmas.
“Help yourselves, girls,” Mrs. Stordahl said. “Liv, come here and give me a hug.”
“Of course! How could I not, with homemade pie staring me in the face and smelling so good? It sure brings back memories.” I gave her a big hug and kissed her cheek.
“While you two girls eat, I’ll explain what this is all about.”
Maggie dished up my pie, and I poured us each a cup of tea.
“Go ahead, Mom,” Maggie said.
“It’s like this,” Mrs. Stordahl said, looking toward the far front window. “The mystery started many years ago. Your uncle John had given your brother, Mike, an ornament that looked like a marionette marching soldier. Maggie was a young girl. It’s been lost for many, many years.”
“I think I remember it,” Maggie said, between bites. “I used to play with it because it reminded me of a puppet. I’d have it dance across my dresser, bed, even on this coffee table. Whatever happened to it?”
“And that’s the mystery,” Mrs. Stordahl said. “Since your dad passed away, Maggie, I can’t find it anywhere. Do you remember when you last saw it?”
“It’s been at least ten years,” I said. “This pie is delish, by the way.” I set my empty plate down on the table. “Why is it so important?”
“Oh boy,” Maggie said. “I bet I know the answer to that question.” She set her tea cup down and blinked back tears.
“You see,” Mrs. Stordahl said, “since Mike’s death, I’ve often thought of that ornament. I’m not sure why, but I’d like to have it returned for the season, so it can hang in its rightful place on the tree. You see? It was those horrible chemicals he was exposed to in the war, that took Mike’s health away. It’s a memory of Mike that I want back.” Mrs. Stordahl sniffled. “It’s also a memory of my brother. John loved that ornament, but Mike liked it so much, that he gave it to him. John purchased it when he was stationed overseas. He was so much fun to be around. He was a good older brother to me. They’re gone now, and I’d like to see the ornament once more on the tree.”
“Oh Mom,” Maggie said. She went to her mother and gave her a big hug. “We’ll do what we can to find it. Won’t we, Liv?”
“Of course. I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Stordahl. I gave her a hug and kiss. “We’ll locate it for you, just you wait and see.”
“Mom? I didn’t know you’ve been thinking so much about the ornament, or I would’ve looked for it,” Maggie said.
“Would you please write down a few contact names and numbers? It’ll give me a place to begin my search,” Liv asked. “Friends and family.”
“Sure,” Mrs. Stordahl said.
While Maggie and her mother wrote the contact names, I thought of the many times that we had played with the missing Christmas ornament in each holiday season as they came and went. Once I had the list in hand, I bade them farewell and left.
During the drive home, I thought about Mike. It saddened me to think of him. Why is Mrs. Stordahl concerned about the ornament? It was very possible, but maybe she just wanted another memory of her son.
After turning into our development in north Minneapolis, it took but a moment before I drove into our opened garage door. I pressed the button for the door to lower, grabbed my purse and went into the kitchen using the inside door.
When my heavy coat and shoes were removed, I slipped into my comfortable slippers. A cup of something hot sounded good to me, and so I microwaved an instant cup of hot chocolate, and lit a spicy candle.
With the hot chocolate in hand, I went to the living room and turned on the television. I flipped through the stations, stopping at a Christmas Hallmark movie. My thoughts went to my own ornaments. Mom had saved all the silly ones which I’d made in grade school, and Grandma gave them to me once I married.
The Christmas ornaments were still packed and in the basement. I took a sip of the hot chocolate before heading to the stairs. I flipped the light switch on and went downstairs. The ornaments were in the back corner. I opened the two boxes and thought of the missing ornament. After admiring the ornaments for a short moment, I repacked them and went back upstairs to my hot chocolate and program.
My phone was handy, so I found the list of names for contacting. There were five of Mike’s friends named, and then his ex-wife, Caroline. It seemed to make sense to begin with her. I pressed the buttons and waited for an answer. As I waited, an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” began. It had been my favorite program as a child. I thought about Pa and his fiddle and Laura and Mary watching him play with a huge smile on their face.
“Caroline,” I said once she’d answered. “This is Liv, Maggie’s friend. Do you remember me?”
“Of course. You own the White House Dollhouse Shop in downtown. I bought a house from you for my mother. What can I help you with?”
“I’m calling because of a request made from Mrs. Stordahl.”
“Oh? What’s this about?”
“Do you remember an old Christmas ornament that looked like a marching soldier? It had strings on it and made to look like a marionette.”
“Mike took it after the divorce. I haven’t seen it since.”
“Oh, well, it was worth a try. Thank you and Merry Christmas.”
I glanced at the time and realized that my police officer husband would soon be home from work. There was just enough time for one phone call.
“Ken?” I asked.
“Did you used to know Mike Stordahl?”
“Yes. What do you want to know?”
“I’m a family friend. His mother has asked me to locate a Christmas ornament that had belonged to Mike. Do you know anything about it?”
“Maggie, his sister, is my best friend. She always talks about him. If I read you a list of names, could you tell me if they’re still living nearby?”
“Sure! Go ahead.”
“Okay, here goes.” I read the names and contact numbers to him, and found that only two other vets still lived in the area. “Thanks for everything and happy holidays!” We disconnected and I glanced at the clock. Time to get supper prepared.
Grandma had sent over a pot of chicken soup, so it was heated on the stove and ready for when Aaron arrived home.
We ate our meal, and after cleaning up, it was time to watch a few programs on the television. As we sat, I called up the last few numbers and found them to be dead ends as well. I had not gotten off to a good start.
* * * * *
The following morning, I drove to work rather than walk the short distance. The cold was beginning to settle into the fall season, and the chilly air made me shiver as I rushed to the backdoor of my shop. I parked next to Max’s truck, so I knew that he’d be around shortly. He lived up above in the apartment. Since I owned the building, I was happy that I knew and trusted the renter.
After I hung my jacket and set my purse down on a counter, I went out to the shop front and my dolls. I especially loved the heritage White Houses in all their incarnations. After the White House had burned in the War of 1812, First Lady Dolley Madison rallied the citizens to make sure that it’d be rebuilt in the same spot, and it was. Thanks to her, our nation’s capital is still in Washington D.C. because without her support, it would’ve been placed in another location.
“Dolley, do you still chew snuff?” I asked while straightening her gown. I continued to circle the dollhouses and making sure that everything was in place before turning the front, ‘closed’ sign, to ‘open’. Afterwards, I started the computer humming and logged in.
The alone time gave me more time to think about where the ornament might be hidden. My gut instinct told me that it wasn’t lost for good, but where could it be? Where should I snoop next? I decided to give Maggie a call, and she answered immediately.
“Maggie,” I said. “I’ve called the numbers that your mom gave me yesterday and came up empty handed. Do you think I could go through all of Mike’s stuff?”
“Mom’s pretty well left his things as they were.”
“It hasn’t been touched? Even the wall posters?”
“Yep. That includes his trophies.”
“Wow! Well, I’ll give your mom a call. Thanks!”
Afterwards Mrs. Stordahl and I spoke and arranged a time for me to arrive and snoop through Mike’s belongings.
The clock seemed to never move. At last, I turned the sign around to ‘closed’. Max had been in and out all day, helping me carry two houses out and another time to buff the top of Mrs. Eisenhower’s head. I completed sewing her inaugural ball gown between customers. I slipped into my jacket and grabbed my purse before walking out the backdoor, locking it behind.
Driving through the downtown area took more patience than I had in surplus and boy was I happy to park my car, and get inside of the house. Aaron knew I’d be home later because of sending him a text message, so I didn’t worry about him.
Mrs. Stordahl met me by the door, and ushered me inside. I quickly shed my jacket and shoes, dropping my purse on the counter, right next to a plate of warm chocolate cookies. Boy, did the kitchen smell yummy.
“Grab a couple-a-cookies, and go on up to his room. You know where it’s at,” Mrs. Stordahl said.
“Aren’t you coming?” My mouth melted as I bit into the creamy chocolate cookie. “Nummy. Best yet.” I drew in a breath full of ecstasy before popping the rest of the cookie into my mouth.
“You go on, honey. I’ve been through it all, but maybe you can find it,” she said. “Besides, I’m pooped, and my show is on.”
“Okay!” I snatched a few more cookies, and briskly walked toward the stairs. The shivers sizzled through me when I reached for the doorknob. I stopped a second before turning it, and whispered, “Mike, help me find it. It’ll bring joy to your mom and sister.”
I opened the door and saw the room. All the memories of Mike on the bed reading, studying, flooded back, and surrounding me. The brown striped bedspread still covered the single bed. On his dresser was the picture of him in his band uniform plus of the jazz band he played in for a short time in high school. The blue ribbon from scoring so many goals in a game was draped over his framed hockey puck. The room hadn’t changed one bit. I scanned the room, looking for any hints of Christmas, even though I didn’t expect to. Not in a room like this! A room that’s never changed in years.
Searching the closet seemed like the place to begin. His high school letter jacket hung upfront, and took me by surprise. “Oh Mike,” I sighed. I began by digging inside of every pocket. Afterwards, I searched his shoes. He had books boxed and stacked in a corner. On the top shelf were old sweatshirts and tee-shirts. I removed them from the shelf and unfolded and refolded them. When I finished the closet search, I decided to check through his dresser drawers.
Nothing caught my interest. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I plunked on the bed and stared at the numerous Viking football posters on the opposite side. “Where to go next?” I wondered. “Mike? John? Your sister loves you. Help me out!” I chewed the last cookie and thought over what Mike truly treasured. As I glanced once more around the room, my eyes kept going back to his music trophy and pictures, and I wondered, where was his guitar?
Back down the stairs, I found Mrs. Stordahl snoozing on her chair. I turned on my heels and went down the basement stairs. At the bottom, I flipped on as many lights as possible. The area still had the Ping-Pong table. The washing machine and dryer were in the far corner with shelves up above. A storage room was on the left. I walked over to it, and entered.
The dusty guitar stood in the corner with the music stand beside it. “Mike. You brought me here.” The case was on a shelf, and I removed it. Carefully I set it down and opened it. There it was, under sheet music. The music was all holiday music, such as “Silent Night.” Near the top of the music, Mike had written, ‘Mom’s favorite.’ I placed the music and guitar back inside of the case and called Maggie.
“I found it. I’m at your mom’s. Get over here right away.”
I shut the lights off behind me as I walked up the stairs. A slight snore came from the living room, which I was grateful to hear, because I didn’t want to reveal the find until Maggie arrived. She lived within a mile, so I knew she’d soon arrive. I just hoped she didn’t have an accident or get a speeding ticket speeding over here.
When I heard the car door slam, I waited by the door to open it for Maggie.
“Is she sleeping?” Maggie asked.
“Not sure,” I said. With the case in hand, we walked into the living room.
“Mom?” Maggie said. She touched her mother’s shoulder. “Mom?”
“Oh!” She sat up and smiled.
“We found it, Mrs. Stordahl.” I leaned down and held her hand. “Are you ready?”
“Let’s see it.” She dried her eyes.
I opened the case. “First I found this music, and look what is written on the corner,” I said. I held it for her to see before handing the music sheet to her. “Underneath everything, I found the ornament.” I handed it to her. “It’s pretty special. Mike saved it especially for you with your favorite Christmas carol. I’m willing to bet that he practiced playing that carol every year for you.”
“I love you for doing this for me,” Mrs. Stordahl said. She dried her moist eyes. “I’ll never forget this. How can I repay you?”
“I’d like another handful of cookies, too.”
“Thank you, Livvie.” Mrs. Stordahl stood and walked over to the fireplace mantel, and placed the ornament in the front and centered it. “It’s beautiful.”
She hummed “Silent Night,” as we ate our cookies and drank our hot chocolate and watched the snow blanket the ground outside of the front window.
You can find other Christmas and Christmas mystery short stories in our Terrific Tales section, with more to come over the next week.