A true Christmas story from Richard Paul Evans.
I didn’t really want to visit Leah. It’s not that I had anything against her, truth be told, I didn’t really even know her, which, I suppose, was the problem. Leah Perry was an elderly widow in my neighborhood I had never met before. I had committed to my church to visit her at least once a month, something I regretted just a few minutes into my first visit.
I introduced myself at her doorstep and, after looking me over, she reluctantly let me in to her tiny front room. The dark room had aged, goldenrod colored shag carpeting and a well-worn, oxblood red sofa with green and gold piping. The central feature of the room was, I was to learn, Leah’s pride and joy–a behemoth pneumatic player piano that looked as old as its owner. Next to the piano was a wooden cabinet filled with long, rectangular boxes of paper music rolls for the piano.
That first meeting I sat across from Leah, sunk into the couch, struggling to find something to talk about. Finally she attempted to break the awkwardness by playing a song on her piano. She sifted through her rolls of music selecting a song from her youth, Moonlight Becomes You. A player piano is a remarkable feat of engineering. Right above the keyboard is a cabinet where the paper music roll, strategically perforated with holes, is locked into place like a roll of toilet paper. The open end of the roll is connected to a hook that pulls the music roll over a tracker board which reads each hole as a note.
I politely listened to the old song. Then, when the music had ended, the piano noisily rolled the paper back up. I thanked Leah for the visit and hurried off.
That’s pretty much how things went the next few months. At least until December. At least until Christmas Eve. The month was almost over and I still hadn’t made my obligatory monthly visit to Leah’s, which weighed heavily on my mind. I had a little time before our Christmas Eve family dinner party and my wife, Keri, had baked loaves of pumpkin bread as neighbor gifts, so I decided to drop off a loaf of bread to Leah. I informed Keri of my plan and told her that I would meet her at her parents’ house for dinner.
“Would you mind taking Jenna with you?” she asked.
“Love to,” I said. With my five-year-old daughter in tow, we drove to Leah’s house. As we pulled into her driveway the home was dark, not even lit by a porch light.
“It doesn’t look like she’s home,” I said.
“No,” Jenna agreed.
“Let’s check anyway. We can leave the bread on the porch.”
We walked up and knocked on her door. All was quiet. I set the bread on a small table near the door and we were about to leave when a light turned on inside the house. Then I heard the familiar sound of Leah’s walker scooting across the parquet floor to the door, followed by the release of a deadbolt and myriad chains. The porch light turned on and the door opened. Leah stood there behind her walker, in the darkness, wearing only a robe.
“Hello,” she said.
“Merry Christmas,” I said. “Keri made some pumpkin bread.” I handed her the loaf.
“Thank you.” She took the bread in her arms then just looked at me, her expression as somber as her home’s atmosphere. “Is this your little girl?” she asked.
“This is Jenna,” I said.
“Hello, Jenna. I’m Leah.”
“Hello,” Jenna said back sweetly.
“So, do you have plans for tonight?” I asked.
Leah looked back up. “Oh yes,” she said. “My son’s coming to get me. I’m having dinner at his house.”
“Great,” I said. “Actually, we have a dinner too. We were just on our way.”
“Okay,” she said softly. She looked back down at my daughter with a sad, wistful expression.
Eventually the silence turned awkward. “Well, we better let you go so you can get ready for your party. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” she said. “Thank you for coming by with your little girl.”
Leah slowly shut her door. As we turned to go we heard the deadbolt and chains lock back up. Then the porch light went out as Jenna and I returned to the car. I sat in my car for a moment then looked over at Jenna who was just quietly looking at me.
“I don’t think Leah really has plans tonight. Do you?”
Jenna shook her head.
“No one should spend Christmas Eve alone.”
Jenna again shook her head.
I took a deep breath. “It’s not right. Come on.” We got out of the car and walked back up to the door and knocked. A moment later the light turned back on again and we heard the familiar scuff, followed by the locks. Leah opened the door, looking at us in surprise.
“Did you forget something?”
“I’m really sorry to bother you,” I said. “It’s just…” Then the words came. “… Jenna’s never seen a player piano before. I was wondering, if it’s not too much trouble, if she could see yours.”
Leah’s face lit up. “It’s no trouble at all.”
Jenna and I walked into the dim room and sat down on the familiar red couch while Leah went through her box of music.
“I have a lot of Christmas songs. Would you like a Christmas song?”
“A Christmas song would be great,” I said.
“I have Winter Wonderland. Silver Bells. Rudolph the red nosed Reindeer. I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas…”
Jenna looked up at me and smiled.
“Let’s listen to that one,” I said. “That was a favorite of mine when I was Jenna’s age.”
Leah pulled the roll from its box and clipped it inside the piano. There was a hiss of air as the instrument breathed to life, filling the quiet room with the bright strains of Christmas music. Jenna watched in amazement as the piano’s keys depressed, as if a ghost were playing the song.
I’m not much of a singer but, fortunately, most Christmas songs are pretty forgiving, and soon Leah and I were singing at the top of our lungs. When the song was over the roll released, flapping inside the cabinet. Jenna clapped.
“Would you like to hear another one?” Leah asked.
Jenna smiled. “Yes, please.”
For the next hour we went through Leah’s entire collection of Christmas songs, singing and laughing the whole time. By the time the last roll had played we had exorcised the room’s dreariness, replacing it with joy and light. I said to Leah, “I know you have dinner plans, but would you consider joining us instead? My father-in-law is Italian. He makes a great tortellini soup.”
“Can she come?” Jenna asked.
Leah slightly smiled as tears came to her eyes. She knew that I knew the truth, that she had no place to go that evening. “Thank you,” she said softly. “But I’ll be okay.”
I took a deep breath. “I guess we better go. Keri’s probably wondering if we’ve been in an accident or something.” Jenna and I both hugged Leah then drove off to our family’s party.
“Where have you been?” Keri asked frantically upon our arrival. “I was worried. You were supposed to be here forty-five minutes ago.”
“I was where I needed to be,” I said.
After that day Leah and I became close friends. I visited her every few weeks, not because someone had asked me to, but because I wanted to. She was quite lonely and enjoyed having company. I would sit there in her front room and she would talk and talk, sometimes for more than an hour. I learned that this was not wasted time, but, perhaps, my best use of it–validating the importance of another’s life.
Leah told me stories of her childhood and what Salt Lake City was like back then when trolley cars still snaked through the city streets. She smiled every time she spoke about her deceased husband Rod who always made her laugh and, she believed, still played pranks on her from ‘the other side’. And I intently followed her ongoing drama of the deficient lift-chair she had ordered from Sears that she could not get anyone to repair or replace.
One day, I went to visit Leah to find her in a melancholy mood. For the first time she didn’t want to talk.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m old,” she said. “So old.”
“No…” I started to say, but she stopped me.
“Richard, I’m very old.” She sighed. “This morning I was thinking about my childhood. Everyone I once knew is gone. I miss them. I miss my Rod. I miss my sister and my mother and father.” She looked down and said, “Did I ever tell you that I grew up next to the Salt Lake City cemetery?”
“You see things living next to a cemetery. You see sad things. There was a little dog whose master died. Every day that dog sat on his master’s grave. Then one day I came and the dog had died on top of the grave.”
“My sister and I used to play in the cemetery. My mother told us not to, but, you know, we were just children. One winter day we were playing hide-and-seek when it started to snow. As we started back to our house we heard wailing. My sister told me that it might be a ghost. We followed the noise. As we got closer we hid behind a tombstone and looked out to see a woman on her knees on the ground in front of an angel statue. She was clawing at the ground as if it held her from something she wanted more than anything. We watched her for nearly an hour until she finally went silent, completely covered by snow. Then she got up and walked away. My sister and I walked up to the angel. Carved in its stone pedestal were the words,
MY LITTLE ANGEL. 1902-1904.
“That night, as I got ready for bed, I told my mother what I saw. I thought she was going to get mad at me. Instead she just pulled me close and held me. Then she said, ‘you leave that woman be. She’s going through a difficult time.’”
Leah’s story had a profound effect on me. At the time I was finishing a little book I was writing called THE CHRISTMAS BOX. The story she had told me was exactly what my book needed. With Leah’s permission, I used the story of the woman in my book.
At the time I had no grand expectations for my story. I printed just twenty copies for my friends and family. I couldn’t have known that that little book would become one of the most read books of the century with more than eight million copies in print–or that it would become the most watched television movie of the year starring Richard Thomas and Maureen O’Hara.
A few years after my book become an international bestseller I took Leah back to the cemetery so she could show me the original angel statue. The monument was gone, destroyed in a flood. I’ll never forget Leah hitting a gravestone with one of her two canes and saying, “It was right here by Mr. Bean!”
My friend, Leah, has since passed away. But she lived long enough to see the Angel monument rebuilt in the Salt Lake City cemetery. There are now more than a hundred Christmas Box Angel monuments around the world, places of healing for those who have lost children.
Christmas is a time of miracles. And I have been the participant of a truly great one–a remarkable gift that came to the world from one small act of kindness on one Christmas Eve, to a lonely widow I didn’t even really want to visit.
Please feel free to share this story as my gift for the Holidays. (My sister-in-law just told me she plans to read it to her family on Christmas Eve.) I hope your family and friends enjoy it as well. Merry Christmas!
Richard Paul Evans is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Christmas Box and the Michael Vey series. His latest book, The Mistletoe Promise, is currently the #1 Holiday book in America.