“Grandma, please tell me a Christmas story.”
Sheila Kerrigan put down her knitting and looked thoughtfully at her perky 12-year-old granddaughter, Megan. Then she said: “Would a true story do?”
“A true story?!? Were you there at the Nativity? Were you the first – like – female shepherd or something?”
Sheila laughed and patted the spirited child who had curled at her feet with one of her unsolvable math puzzles. “I’m old, Dear, but not that old. But if it’s a Christmas story you want, I’m going to tell you a doozy. Are you ready?”
Megan put her math puzzle aside, leaned back, and said: “Fire away, Grandma.”
“Well, as strange as it may seem to you, Megan, once upon a time I was actually your age, and I was hopelessly in love with knights in shining armor. I had read everything by Sir Walter Scott, and I had my heart set on marrying my own Ivanhoe. But my mother, God rest her soul, told me that short of inventing a time machine. I was going to have to settle for a modern knight in shining armor. And so she got me a book on the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and said those cadets were our modern knights in shining armor. Mother said that maybe someday I would meet and marry just such a handsome West Point cadet. But I didn’t, did I?”
“No, because Grandpa didn’t go to West Point, did he?”
“No, but he served in the Army just as well. Even if he wasn’t an officer, he was he was my knight in shining armor. Anyway . . .”
“Okay,” Megan interjected, “you didn’t meet and marry a West Point cadet, so what’s the point?”
“Well, I took that book about West Point home from the library, and I looked at it for hours and hours and hours, and one day I noticed there was an address for West Point. And so I just got out a piece of paper and wrote a letter to ‘Cadet Smith’ and sent it off to him.”
“Cadet Smith?!? Who was Cadet Smith?!?”
“Well,” Grandma explained, “I picked the name Smith, because it’s a common name, isn’t it? Anyway, I reckoned that there had to be at least one cadet at West Point named Smith. And when I sent that letter addressed to: ‘Cadet Smith, West Point, New York,’ I found out there was just such a cadet.”
With that Sheila Kerrigan resumed her knitting and didn’t say another word until her granddaughter poked her in the knee and exclaimed: “Grandma!”
“Finish the story! What did you write in your letter to Cadet Smith, and what did he write back? What happened? Come on!!”
Sheila Kerrigan put down her knitting, yawned and said, “It’s almost past my bedtime, so I suppose I’ll wrap up this little Christmas present of a story. No pun intended, of course.”
“Of course! That’s what you always say, Grandma. So wrap up the story before it’s past MY bedtime.”
Sheila Kerrigan settled back in her chair and wrapped up the story with these lilting words: “Well, child, what I wrote in my letter to Cadet Smith was simply that I would greatly enjoy making his acquaintance, and by return mail – return mail, mind you – a real-life Cadet Smith wrote back and said he would just as gladly favor making my acquaintance. He added, however, that such a meeting would most certainly have to occur at West Point itself, owing to his inability to, as he said, ‘get away much.’
“And to sweeten the deal, he threw in a photograph of himself in his dress uniform. And, oh my, Megan, I blush to even think of it now. The pure handsome, magnificence of the young man! I was bowled over. Positively bowled over.
“But, of course, there was absolutely no chance whatsoever that I was going to ever travel to West Point to meet Cadet Smith, because – well – because it was the middle of the Depression, after all, and because I was a mere slip of a girl. Only 12 mind you, but . . .”
“Grandma, I’m 12, and I can already drive! I don’t have my license yet, but I know I could drive if I had to and . . .”
“Yes, I was just like you, Megan, when I was your age. Top of the world. Knew it all. But I knew of no way whatsoever that I was going to go to West Point and meet this tall, dark, and handsome knight in shining armor named Cadet Smith.”
“So,” Megan asked, “what happened?”
“So what happened was the most amazing Christmas present ever, and it came from my Aunt Brigid O’Malley. She was my father’s older sister, and she had married a certain Michael O’Malley who took her off to Texas to work in the oil fields, and, well, he was killed in a horrible accident before they could have any children of their own. But his company took very good care of my Aunt Brigid, and so she decided to take even better care of her nieces and nephews, and I was her favorite because I had her green eyes and flaming red hair . . .”
“No way, Grandma! No way did you ever have flaming red hair!”
“Oh, but I did.”
“Then how come there aren’t any pictures of you with flaming red hair?”
“Because all the pictures were in black and white. Now let me finish my story, or I won’t get my beauty rest.”
“Okay. So go ahead and finish up, or I won’t get my beauty rest either.”
“All right, then. So Aunt Brigid, God bless her and keep her, gave me the best Christmas present ever the year I turned 12 – a trip to New York just before Christmas on the 20th Century Limited. We had a first class bedroom on the train, and we stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, and we went to Radio City Music Hall and saw the Rockettes. And we went to the top of the Empire State Building, and we saw Santa at Macy’s. And we went out to Ellis Island and climbed up the Statue of Liberty, and – well, I could go on all night about all the wonderful things we did in New York that Christmas.
“But the best thing of all was a big surprise for me. Aunt Brigid got me up extra early that morning and said we were going to take a little field trip. She wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but I knew it was going to be special, because she had hired a motorcar, complete with a handsome driver in a snappy uniform.
“Well, off we went in that big, beautiful car, and suddenly we were entering the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy – West Point. And your great-great aunt Brigid, who was so much like you, took us right to this big important office, and – are you ready for this?”
“Grandma! Of course I’m ready. My brain is practically bursting with curiosity.”
“I can see. Well, Aunt Brigid, just as bold as she could be, told the handsome young man on duty that we had come all the way from Michigan City to see Cadet Smith, and could he please see if Cadet Smith might not be available for a short visit with his young, female admirer.
Megan was astonished. “Is this true?!? Really, really true?”
“Every word of it, and I can tell you, Dear, I was as flabbergasted as you were just now. And, before I knew what hit me, there was this tall, dark, AND handsome West Point cadet standing before me and holding out his hand to greet me. He said he was Cadet Smith and that my aunt had written him about our visit, and he was most pleased to make my acquaintance.”
“Grandma!! What did you do?!? What did you say?!?”
“I didn’t do anything or say anything. I just stood there turning the darkest shade of red that God ever created. All I remember is that Cadet Smith was so, so handsome in that uniform of his, and that Aunt Brigid had a pleasant conversation with him, and that was that.”
Sheila Kerrigan sighed wistfully and returned to her knitting.
Megan tapped her grandmother’s knee and said, “That’s not the end of the story, is it?”
Sheila knitted one, pearled two, and paused. “No,” she said, “that’s not the end of the story.”
“So tell me the end of the story. Please.”
Sheila rested her needles and said, “Well, as you know, I obviously didn’t marry Cadet Smith.”
“Obviously, since Grandpa was named Danny Kerrigan.”
“Yes, and your grandfather was closer to my age, and I wasn’t so shy when I met him seven years after I met Cadet Smith, and you know the rest of that story –“
“Sure, Grandma, but what about Cadet Smith? IS that the last you ever heard or saw of him?”
“Yes. But no. What I mean is that he wrote me after that visit at West Point, but I was way too embarrassed to write back. But your grandfather met him.”
“He did?!? When? Where?”
“In June of 1944. On what they called D-Day on the beach in Normandy, France. Your grandfather was a young private, and he was scared half to death as his company’s landing craft headed for the beach. All the men were. All except this captain. Captain Smith.”
“Captain Smith?!? You mean the one who was Cadet Smith at . . .”
“The very same one. And your grandfather knew because I had showed him the picture that Cadet Smith had sent me. He wasn’t really jealous, but he kidded me about it a lot. Anyway, Captain smith calmed your grandfather and the other men, and when they landed on the beach and came under heavy fire, that brave Captain Smith got everyone moving forward.
“Your grandfather tripped on something – he never said what – and those Germans up above were shooting right down at him. He could see the bullets hitting in the sand around him, but he couldn’t get up because he was carrying the ammunition for their automatic rifle, and it was so heavy, and then suddenly there was Captain Smith dragging him to his feet and helping him on his way and -“
Sheila Kerrigan shut down and wept.
Megan got up and put her arm around her grandmother. “Cadet Smith died so Grandpa could live, didn’t he?”
Sheila nodded. Then she fetched a worn photo album and pointed to a picture on the first page.
“This is your grandfather and me at Cadet Smith’s grave in France on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day.”
Grandma peeled the picture out of the album, handed it to her granddaughter and simply said; “Merry Christmas.”
Megan thought of all the electronic toys she had been hoping to get from Grandma for Christmas, but she let it all go.
And then she let the tears of gratitude flow as she hugged her grandmother and said; “This is the best Christmas present I ever got. Ever!”