This is a work of historical fiction with emphasis of the historical. All references to letters and jour-nals are accurate, though I have taken liberties with the dialogue and some events.
The greatest festivals of our lives
It took them all Christmas Eve morning and part of the afternoon to clean the cabin, first folding all the clothes hanging up to dry. “Just because we won’t have any presents ourselves, we still need to make sure Mr. Olson gets some.” Rockwell reminded his son. “This has to be a special Christmas for him.” They both had done some drawings as gifts for the Swede, but Rockie wanted to know about Olson’s other presents. “A few things I picked up in Seward,” his father told him. “But what?” Rockie asked. “You’ll just have to wait and see,” was the answer.
They stuffed their shelves with all kinds of odds and ends and put things on the bed – even the artist’s easel. Rockie hauled in an extra supply of wood and stuffed the logs behind one of the stoves. Rockwell showed his son the stash of spruce and dense hemlock boughs he had hidden behind the cabin, and they decorated the inside roof timbers. When they were done, Rockie flopped down on an open corner of the bed, closed his eyes, and inhaled the bracing scent of spruce and hemlock. Now at two o’clock in the afternoon, they were famished. Rockwell cut slices from a wheel of cheddar cheese and made sandwiches using some recently baked bread. The mild weather forced them to keep their door open, but they closed it with the sudden strong wind-driven rain.
“Why did Mr. Olson try to sneak away to Seward this morning?” Rockie asked his father.
On their way to invite the old man to breakfast, they caught him dragging his dory down to the shore. “Just goin to wait for the mail ship,” he told them. “But you said you were coming for Christmas dinner,” Rockie countered. There had been a few tense moments. Olson didn’t seem himself, but Rockwell convinced him to stay at least a few more days. With some reluctance, at Rockie’s request, Olson even agreed to dress for Christmas dinner.
“I don’t know why he did that, son,” Rockwell said. “It’s not like him. Something’s on his mind. Something about Christmas, I think – from his past.”
“What?” Rockie wanted to know.
“He’s hinted at it before to me, but it’s his private business. We need to just let it be.”
“Okay,” Rockie said. But he still wanted to know. He’d never seen Olson so mad and upset as he had been that morning.
By late afternoon, their small Fox Island cabin seemed so much larger and open with everything stowed away. In a way, the nine-foot-tall spruce Christmas tree stood humble in its unadorned nakedness.
Well, I guess we’re ready for Christmas, Rockie thought.
They had a simple supper of beans, rice and carrots, but Rockie knew there’d be a special dinner with Mr. Olson. He had helped his father prepare some of the offerings. That evening after supper amid two glowing lanterns they both wrote letters and sketched silently for a time, then Rockwell again read his son “Big Claus and Little Claus.” Rockie didn’t laugh so much this time. His father had always read the poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” to his children on Christmas Eve, but not this night. It wouldn’t be fitting. Rockie knew the merry old elf had no plans for visiting Fox Island. And his mother and sisters wouldn’t be with him to hear the poem.
Rockwell was ready for Christmas and pleased with himself. How strange, he thought. We really need nothing from outside – not even illusions – to make our lives full and meaningful. All that’s required is mystery and expectation to create an intense thrill, especially for children. Rockie seems somewhat downhearted, he thought – but that’s normal. Though this is no ordinary Christmas, he seems to know something unexpected is coming, but doesn’t know what. Well, he’ll be surprised. Same with Olson. The day won’t come and go as just an ordinary day because it’s what we make of life that counts. With our will we can defy our circumstances and create significance. Yes, he thought, the greatest festivals of our lives are those at which we dance ourselves.
They slept in late on Christmas morning. Rockwell added wood to the stoves to get them started. Both would burn hot all day for cooking with the cabin door open. The weather was mild. Outside a warm rain had melted every patch of snow except on the mountains. They stripped and dashed into the bay for a quick bath, then warmed up and dressed in the cabin. No need to rush. Olson said he’d skip breakfast with them today. Christmas or not, the old man said he had work to do.
So, after a leisurely breakfast of waffles and blueberries, Rockwell and his son, sweating by the hot stoves, prepped their special dishes. The kettle boiled for tea. Every so often they’d go outside to cool off and check for a steamship. After a quick lunch of cheese and bread, the real cooking began. The beans stewed, the bread browned, the rich pudding sauce foamed perfectly, and the side dishes sat ready for serving. By three o’clock darkness began to fall.
“Go tell Olson to come for dinner,” Rockwell told his son. “But try to delay him for fifteen minutes before you leave his cabin. I want to set the table and do a few other things. And knock before you come back in.” For the first time in days, Rockwell saw a huge smile emerge on Rockie’s face, as off he scampered down the beach in the darkness and light rain. That gave the artist time now to place the presents, crudely wrapped in old newspapers, under the tree. He had hidden them with other surprises in his steamer trunk. Around the presents he scattered two bags of penny candy he had bought in Seward. From the same stash he grabbed precious tinsel and the popcorn he had strung, and he quickly decorated the tree. Then he hung several candy canes and set on the branches a dozen small candles. He carefully lit them and stood gazing at the tree and the cabin. As a final touch he attached a cardboard tin-foil star to the tree’s top. Rockwell quickly set the table and beside each place setting he laid an elegant, hand-written menu.
He stepped out the door and wandered to the beach. To the north he could see Olson and Rockie on their way – his son scampering ahead of the old man, then going back to grab him by the hand, dragging him forward and urging him to hurry up. Rockwell went back in, closed the cabin door, and sat on the only free corner of the bed. Soon came the knock, whispering voices from outside and a, “May we come in now, Father?” The artist rose and slowly opened the door. The expression on Olson’s and Rockie’s faces told the whole story. The Swede looked twenty years younger, and his son gazed at the scene with open eyes and a look of wonder and amazement Rockwell hadn’t seen on that face since the boy was three or four years old. Rockie ran in with a “Wow!” Olson stood in awe on the threshold.
“Come in, Mr. Olson,” Rockie urged, leading him by the arm.
“It’s wonderful,” was all Olson could utter. Rockwell handed cups to the Swede and his son.
“A toast, Lars. Here’s some special Christmas cider I made.”
“Milk?” Rockie whined, examining his cup.
“Fine, fresh goat milk from our guest. Right, Lars?”
“I can tink of nothin to say.” For a moment they all stood in silence.
“I miss Mother and Kathleen and Clara and Barbara,” Rockie said.
“To Mother and the kiddies,” Rockwell said lifting his glass, “and Lars, to all those who can’t be with us today.”
Rockwell and Olson downed their cider. Rockie sniffed his milk and took a sip.
“I’d give everything I have in the world, if you could have your wife and other children with you now.”
“So would I, Lars.” Rockwell poured them another shot. “Cheers.”
Rockie sighed and set his glass on the table. It was only then that he noticed all the presents and candy under the tree. He grabbed one and handed it to Olson.
“Here, Mr. Olson. A picture I drew for you. I wrapped it in old newspapers. Open it up.”
“Well, don’t tell him what it is before he opens it, Rockie.”
“You made a present for me? Oh, look at that. Is that me? Yes, it is. And my goats and my cabin. I’ll put it up on my wall, far away so Billy won’t eat it.”
“Here’s a painting I did for you, Lars -- of you feeding your goats.”
“Ah, Billy -- stealing the food as he always does.”
“And here’s a kitchen set for you,” Rockie said. “A knife and fork and can opener. From Brown and Hawkins.”
“How’d you know about that?” Rockwell asked.
“I saw you buying it. Ha!”
The artist handed another package to Olson. “And here’s a new pocketknife. I’m always borrowing yours.”
“All this for me? But... I have nothing for you two.”
“You’ve given us your friendship, Lars, and your hospitality. And plenty of goat milk, right Rockie?”
“I like it for the junket but not instead of cider.”
“And tows when our engine breaks down.”
“And all the stories you’ve told us,” Rockie added.
“And the Schmier Kase you made us.”
“And the Salmon jerky.”
Rockwell could see tears forming in the old man’s eyes “But what about the boy?” the Swede said. “He has no presents.”
“It’s okay, Mr. Olson. Father told me not to expect anything because the steam ship didn’t arrive on time. I’ll get some presents when it comes.”
“How about right now, young man,” his father said, grabbing and tossing him the first present. The boy quickly ripped away the newspaper wrappings as they all arrived.
“Wow! The book about indians I saw at Brown and Hawkins. But I thought it was too expensive.”
“Mr. Hawkins gave us a special discount. How about these?”
“Two National Geographic magazines.”
“This, too. From your mother. She sent it in October.”
“A fountain pen. A real one. Just like yours. Wow! May I have some of your good drawing paper?”
“After dinner. Here’s one more.”
“Another present. What’s this? Wow! A real pocket knife. Just like Mr. Olson’s.” The boy sat on the bed examining all his gifts.
“But what about you, Mr. Kent? What did you get for Christmas.”
“Well…” Rockwell thought a moment. “An end to the war. My art. A resurrected spirit on an island in Resurrection Bay. The great North Wind. A magnificent view of Bear Glacier. Freedom. Serenity. The wonders of Alaska. And my son…here with me.” He paused.
“And your friendship, Lars. I think I’ve been sufficiently blessed.”
They all sat or stood mute not knowing what to say.
“Now,” Rockwell broke the silence “Anybody hungry?”
‘I’m famished,” Rockie announced, setting his all his presents on the bed except for the fountain pen, which he put beside his silverware.
“I could eat a whole goat,” Olson said. “Not one of mine, of course. Well, maybe Billy. Sometimes I could strangle that beast…Notice my duds, sonny? I see you two are spruced up, like crows in a bowl of milk.”
“We’ve been saving these clean, white shirts for weeks,” Rockie said.
Olson countered, “I got on a new flannel shirt I was saving till spring, and my best trousers. Scrounged this old vest out of my trunk. Haven’t worn it in years.”
“But a silk tie, too, Lars? With a gold nugget pin?”
“I haven’t been shoveling goat and fox…stuff…all my life, ya know. I know how to clean up. Someday I’ll tell you the story of how I got that gold nugget in Nome.”
“Look Father -- He even shaved and clipped his hair. See – around the ears.”
“What’s the occasion, Lars?”
A moment of silence. “My first Christmas in many, many years.”
“I thought you said you never celebrated Christmas?” Rockie said.
“That wasn’t the whole truth. I did as a child, as poor as we were. But after…well…that was years ago…” Olson’s eyes watered. That’s one story they don’t need to hear, he thought. Especially the boy.
Rockie roused him from his past. “Look, Mr. Olson. We each have a menu. Father made them.”
“My, my. Look at this,” the old man said, then reading. “Fox Island, Christmas 1918.”
“Look what we’re having for dessert.” Rockie read hesitantly, “Plum Pudding Magnifique, Sauce a la Alaska Rum, and Demi Tasses with nuts and raisins and bon-bons.”
“Too bad WE forgot the fresh fruit in Seward,” his father interrupted.
“Fresh fruit? And you left it in Seward?”
“It wasn’t my fault,” Rockie insisted.
“Oh, yes, Lars. There were apples and pears and oranges – even some bananas. Mr. Hawkins gave us the box as a Christmas present last time we were in town. But SOMEONE forgot to remind me to pick them up before we left.”
“You forgot to remind me to remind you.”
“Well, dessert will come later, anyway,” Rockwell said. “Let’s start with the hors d’oeuvres, son. Pass the olives and pickles to our guest.”
“And then we’re having Spaghetti al la Fox Island, Mr. Olson, and Beans a la Resurrection Bay…with Murphies en Casserole and cranberry sauce,” Rockwell added. “And some Christmas cider. Remember that cold spell two weeks back, Lars?” Rockwell again filled his and Olson’s glass. “The jugs almost froze and burst, even though I set them right by the stove.”
“Another, toast then – To those we wish were here with us today.” Olson stood. “And to us – ‘The Three Moosekahteers.’” Rockwell Kent never shied away from a punning competition.
“Ohhhh,” he groaned. “‘Rack’ one up for Mr. Olson.” But the old man shot right back.
“Ahh. That’s just a lot of ‘Bull.’” But Rockwell was ready.
“There’s a ‘nugget’ of truth in all that. Your turn, Rockie.”
“I… can’t think… of one,” Rockie barely got out, choking with laughter.
“That’s okay son. I guess we’re in a ‘Rut.’”
The food was good and plentiful. The evening, long and serene, with special music by Rockwell on the flute. Only the Christmas candles were short-lived, extinguished early to save for another time. Olson left late midst expressions of delight and friendship. Rockwell and his son tumbled into bed early, leaving the dinner clean-up for the next morning.
As he dozed off to sleep, Rockwell Kent thought about the New Year’s Eve surprise he had arranged for Kathleen through friends. He wondered whether the letters and gifts they would hand her would help repair the damage he had done to his marriage.
Final – Part 5 – Next Week
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords,” and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska” published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996. Capra is writing a book about the American artist Rockwell Kent who spent the winter of 1918-1919 on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay. The draft of that book in progress can be found online at https://rockwellkentjournal.blogspot.com/.