Tiny and underweight, she is always lost in the shuffle in the family of six. Born on December 23rd, the second of four children, the oldest of which was a girl, there is nothing special about little Annie Hale.
Most years, because her birthday falls two days before Christmas, she received one gift. To make matter worse, the tag read Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas. Unfair? Maybe. It’s called poverty, and she lives it every day. Every Christmas the children received only one present and a stocking filled with an orange and walnuts. Homemade decorations, paper chains, and popcorn strings adorned the tree. However, this holiday something different was afoot.
Late last night, after all the children had long since gone to bed, Annie awoke to a mysterious commotion of whispering, thumping, and shuffling of feet. This was particularly troublesome because Annie slept alone in the upstairs bedroom, and the noise came from down the hallway of the old two-story farmhouse.
For the first time, she didn’t share a room with her older sister. Her father finally found a house with five bedrooms. The downside? Sleep became non-existent for Annie. Fear snaked its way to her room at night—fear of the dark, the branches scratching the window, the closet. Her sister had her own room now, and her parents said Annie was big enough to sleep alone. She didn’t like it.
She lay in her bed, blankets up to her chin, quaking. What could it be? But, wait. Is it Father’s voice? Mother’s, too? A shot of courage coursed through her small frame, and she dared to lift the covers and touch her bare feet to the cold wooden floor. On tiptoes, she scampered to the door and put one eye to the keyhole. Yes, there they were, Mom and Dad, coming toward her room, a key swinging from the keychain.
What could be so important to lock away? Then, it dawned on her—Christmas. Would this year be different…a real Christmas? The voices sounded louder. She hurried back to her bed and hid under the covers. While she waited for her parents to descend the stairs, Annie planned how she would find out. Early in the morning, before anyone awoke, she would hurry down the hall and peek through the keyhole of the locked room. Sleep overcame her as the plan ran through her mind, and before she knew it, the morning sun streamed through her window. I must hurry. I can’t let anyone see me. The door creaked slightly, but no one stirred. She padded down the hall and pressed her eye to the keyhole. Oh my! There in the corner of the large room sat a brand new, red Huffy bicycle and behind it, she could see the fender of another. She scanned the rest of the room. On the other side, by the closet, she saw the back wheel and fender of a blue bike. She could hardly contain herself. We’re all getting bicycles for Christmas!
The next few days went by in a blur. All she thought of was riding her shiny new bike. She dare not tell the others of the good fortune and risk discovery. Nothing so grand had ever been a part of their holiday celebrations. Her sister rode an old hand-me-down bicycle given Father by a neighbor. The seat had broken off, and he said he would fix it when he had time. He never had time.
This must be the solution. Buy the children new bicycles. She could hardly wait.
Christmas morning dawned early for the children, and the noise of a thousand elephants thundered down the stairs. Annie was on the heels of her three siblings, wanting to see their faces. She felt so smug. She knew about the wonderful presents and they didn’t. The squeals and shouts of delight didn’t disappoint as each child rounded the corner of the living room and glimpsed the wonderful treasure displayed by the tree. The clamor was deafening.
Except for Annie. You see, only three bicycles stood by the tree. Her sister claimed hers, a shiny blue. Her brothers had identical red bikes. On the coffee table, with a big red bow around its neck, sat a stuffed red and white poodle. Annie’s name was on the tag, the familiar tag read Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas. She looked around, saw her parents beaming faces as the others hooped and hollered over the bikes, and tears filled her eyes.
Her mother looked at her and poked Father in the ribs. “Oh, Annie, we could only afford three bikes this year. Your sisters’ old bike is perfectly fine, and I’m gonna fix that seat on it. So, you see…you got a new bike, too. Maybe next year we can….”
“Dad, dad, let’s go outside and try out them out,” her brother shouted, and they all trooped out the door in their pajamas to give the bikes a spin in the yard.
No, Annie never received a new bicycle while she lived at home. No, Dad never fixed the seat on the old one, either. She rode with the other kids, standing up.
The stuffed poodle remained a constant companion for many years and kept the monsters away at night. Annie found a strange comfort in its presence. Bitterness could have found its way into her heart, but it never did. Strangely, she understood. She simply was lost in the shuffle.
Annie knew if life were to treat her with kindness, it would have to be of her own making. One day, after graduation, she left home and enrolled in college two thousand miles away. She worked, married, and raised two sons…and then divorced. Again, lost in the shuffle. Annie stayed the course, even though it wasn’t easy. Worked two jobs and pinched pennies until the day came when her boys left to make lives of their own. End of story? Hardly.
A man entered her life. A good man, a quiet man. They courted and eventually married. A good life unfolded for them. He was kind, generous, loving, and so very, very thoughtful. He listened with patience and understanding. The pain of the past melted away in the glow of this new beginning, and Annie gave thanks for her good fortune.
The year of their second Christmas together, a rare and wonderful thing happened. Annie rose early on Christmas morning to start a special holiday breakfast. She stumbled into the living room on her way to the kitchen, eyes still heavy with sleep. A voice called to her from beside the Christmas tree. “Merry Christmas, Annie! I love you.”
Her husband stood in front of the tree, grinning from ear to ear, and beside him stood a beautiful, red bicycle.