As she has for the past 14 years, writer Gail Lowe offers her annual Christmas story to our readers. A healthy and peaceful holiday season to all!


The swirling aromas of cinnamon, cloves and ginger woke Ralph Morrison from a sound sleep.

Bree, his wife, had been up since early morning to bake cookies and pies for the Christmas dinner they would share with her side of the family three days from now. Ralph was in no mood to celebrate the holidays this year. He had barely tolerated Thanksgiving dinner with his in-laws and was now facing another meal with the same group of people.

What was it about them that drove him crazy? Well, for one thing, they were all do-gooders. If they weren’t talking about raising money for some charity, they were swapping stories about their mission trips. Ralph had no interest in what they talked about. He wanted to tell a few stories of his own, like how he had learned to outsmart the IRS, but he kept quiet about that.

Today was Saturday, and he had promised Bree he would go into the woods half a mile behind their home and chop down a fir for their family room. Bree and the kids could handle the decorations themselves. This time he didn’t have to take their son Jonathan, age 9, with him since the boy was down with the flu, and teenage daughter Sarah was too caught up with her friends to bother going with dear old dad to cut down the tree.

Ralph sat at the edge of the bed and stretched. The floor beneath his feet was stone cold. What had he done with his slippers? Or, more like it, what had Bree done with them? He went to his knees and looked under the bed. Not there. He crossed the room in his bare feet and opened the closet door. There they were, right where Bree had put them.

On his way downstairs, the whir of the vacuum cleaner threatened to derail Ralph altogether. He had just finished working a 70-hour week and all he wanted today was some well-earned peace and quiet. Maybe this afternoon he would sit in front of his computer and place some bets on various football games. Ralph welcomed weekends, looked forward to them the way some people looked forward to trips to Aruba or Hawaii. As far as he knew, the only chore Bree had for him today was to cut down a tree and get it into the three-legged stand he hoped was still in the loft of their garage. That’s where he had stored it last January when all the decorations were taken down and put away.

Ralph entered the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. He noticed that Bree had made a loaf of banana nut bread, and she had cut a nice big piece for him and left it on a dessert plate. While he sipped and ate at the breakfast bar, the noise of the vacuum cleaner continued. The family room was on the opposite side of the house, and he didn’t have the energy to seek out his wife to say good morning. As soon as she turned the machine off, he would call out a greeting to her. When she eventually made her way to the kitchen, he’d give her the expected peck on the cheek and let it go at that. If he were honest, he would admit that his ardor for Bree had waned over the years, particularly since the lovely Leanne joined the marketing staff at work. Already, he had taken her to lunch and had found her to be not only attractive but charming, too.

Bree came into the kitchen just as Ralph turned to the window overlooking their backyard. The sky was a dull New England gray so typical for this time of year. Winter had arrived early, and already the temperature had fallen steadily since early December. This week, the thermometer had dipped to below freezing for three nights straight.

“Hello, love. I hope you come home with a nice tall, bushy tree,” Bree said.

Ralph had not heard her approach, and her voice startled him. He gave a little jump. “I didn’t know you were there,” he said.

“In the flesh,” she replied, cheerfully.

“How’s Jonathan?” he asked.

“Still sleeping. At least he was last I looked.” Bree went on to tell Ralph that their son had put in another rough night and that she’d been up with him several times.

“I’ll take over tonight,” he said lamely.

“No. You just put in a long week. You need your rest.”

“Okay, then. Guess I’ll get dressed and go get that tree.”

“Yes. Tall and bushy. Please and thank you.”

Ralph set his mug in the sink and left the kitchen, forgetting all about that peck on the cheek. Ten minutes later, he reappeared, dressed in jeans, blue plaid flannel shirt and work boots. “Be back soon,” he said, grabbing his woolen jacket hanging from a hook by the door. As an afterthought, he cut himself a big hunk of banana bread and wrapped it in a napkin. “In case I get hungry,” he said, holding it up. Bree smiled.

The cold air slapped his face when he stepped outside. If this weather kept up, he’d be looking at sky high heating bills this winter. He wished Bree would get a part-time job to help with the finances, but she enjoyed being home too much to consider working even a few hours a week. Between her artistic endeavors and social circle, not to mention the kids, she was way too busy to entertain the thought of getting a job. Ralph had to admit that he enjoyed coming home to a hot meal at night and a clean house. He also liked that Bree was using the exercise equipment he bought her for Christmas last year. She’d added more than a few pounds over the years and was beginning to look matronly, in Ralph’s opinion, unlike Leanne who had the body of a goddess.

He went to the garage to get his axe and the tree stand. There it was, in the loft, just where he’d put it last January. Axe now in hand, he set out for the woods. He loved that the property he and Bree had bought eight years ago backed up to forest land. Ralph enjoyed going for long walks and looking for wildlife. He was no hunter, as he had a heart too soft for killing any kind of creature, but he thrilled at spotting a deer or pheasant or even a little red fox. He could still recall the time his father had taken him into the woods when he was 10, shotgun in hand. In what Ralph thinks must have been a sudden display of machismo, his father had raised the gun, pointed it skyward and pulled the trigger. What happened next still had the power to break Ralph’s heart. A yellow warbler had had the misfortune to be flying overhead at the same time, and the bullet had struck it. Ralph recalled watching in horror as the slain bird fell a hundred or more feet to the ground. He had cried all the way home.

Jonathan often accompanied Ralph on walks in the woods, and he had taught his son about nature and the gifts it gave to humankind. Bird calls, animal tracks and trees and bushes were among the things that Jonathan could now identify, thanks to his father’s teachings.

Soon, Ralph came to the edge of a small lake where he and Jonathan sometimes cooled off on hot summer days. The water had frozen during the recent cold snap and now had a nice, smooth sheen perfect for skating. For Christmas this year Jonathan had asked for hockey equipment and Sarah had asked for new ice skates. Both would be happy when they found what they wanted under the tree he had yet to cut.

While standing at the lake’s edge, he spotted a white-tailed doe attempting to cross. He stood there admiring the animal and her graceful beauty. She was holding her own at first, but when she was about 50 feet from shore the ice proved too slippery and her legs went out from under her. She fell hard and could not get up.

From the opposite shore, Ralph watched as she struggled. He knew he had to do something to help the poor animal, but what? Return home and call the Fire Department? No. There was that illegal fire pit in his backyard, the one Bree had been against. And he didn’t want to bother any of his friends over a busy pre-holiday weekend. They were probably all down at the club, enjoying a few beers. No one would care about a fallen deer. He would attempt a rescue on his own.

Ralph first tested the ice a few feet in from the shoreline. He was certain that the recent below-freezing temperatures had hardened the ice enough to support his weight. He ventured out further and listened for the telltale sound of cracking underfoot but heard nothing so he continued on, step by step. He was steadily gaining ground with the doe, now only about 20 feet away. She had given up the struggle and was watching Ralph with curiosity. As he drew closer, he heard her give a soft, low grunt.

“Don’t worry,” he said, loud enough for her to hear. “I’ll have you back on your feet in no time.”

Fifteen feet, 10 feet and…what was that? Ralph had hit a soft spot in the ice and in a matter of seconds he was submerged in the frigid water, shocking him both mentally and physically. He had once read that to survive a fall through ice one should not gasp for air, so he held his breath as he plummeted to the lake’s bottom. He tried not to panic but found it impossible. Eyes closed, arms flailing, legs kicking, lungs on fire, Ralph knew if he didn’t find the hole above him quickly he would drown. He could not die this way. There was way too much at stake. What would Bree think if she had to hunt around for their financial information and went to his phone and computer, only to discover that he had been living a secret life? Those names, phone numbers, trysts. And what about his glove box? Full of lottery tickets he had yet to scratch. And that little stash of opioids. There was no way he was going to drown in this lake. He forced his eyes open, only to see murk and detritus and vegetation in front of his face. He heaved himself upward with a single burst of energy, only to strike his head against solid ice. With all the life left in him, he used his hands to feel for the hole he had fallen through. There it was, just a few inches to the right. He grabbed the edge, but the ice broke off in one big chunk. In dire need to get his head above water, he forced himself to the surface just long enough to get a single breath, but his arms and legs were going numb from the cold. He had no choice but to let go. He did that now and sank to that cushion of calm where nothing is ever disturbed. “I’m so sorry, Bree. Forgive me,” were his final thoughts.

A split second later, Ralph raised his hand to block the intense light. He was lying on his back, the ice hard and cold beneath him. Someone was standing above him, hovering.

“What happened? Who are you?”

“You took a spill, through the ice,” said a voice. Ralph looked up but could not decipher who was speaking.

“How did I get out of that hole? I thought I drowned.”

“No, Ralph. You didn’t drown. You still have work to do.”

“But I was in the water,” Ralph said. “Who are you?”

“Who do you think I am?”

“I don’t know. Superman?”

The voice laughed. “No, not Superman. Let’s just say I AM. But let’s talk about you. You very nearly lost your life a few minutes ago.”

“I know. But how did I get out? Last I remember, I was drowning.”

“It doesn’t matter. Like I said before, you still have work to do.”

“What kind of work?”

“I think you know, Ralph. What were your very last thoughts when you were in the water?”

Ralph knew right away. He had apologized to Bree and asked for her forgiveness, but how did the voice know?

“Bree. My wife. I was apologizing to her.”

“So you remember. What were you apologizing for?”

Ralph hesitated. He didn’t want to talk about his shortcomings, but somehow the words spilled out of his mouth. “I haven’t been my best self lately,” he said. “I’ve become someone I don’t know. I feel terrible. What should I do?”

“You have been given a second chance, Ralph. You know what you should do.”

“I will. I promise I will!”

“That’s the spirit, except for one thing. Don’t promise me. Promise yourself, your wife and your kids.”

Ralph nodded. “I will,” he whispered. “I promise.”

And then Ralph was alone. All he heard was the rush of a sudden wind as it raced across the ice.

Ralph rose to his knees and looked in the direction of where the doe had fallen. There she was, at the edge of the lake. When he called out to her, she raised her elegant head for a moment before dashing off into the thick of the woods. He stood up, shaded his eyes and watched as she disappeared from view.

He became aware of something else that defied explanation. His jacket, shirt and pants were dry and so were his work boots. And there was no hole in the ice. He stood there in awe of what had happened and knew that he had experienced some kind of miracle. As he began his slow approach to the shoreline, he told himself it was all a bad dream and he would awaken at any moment. But in his heart of hearts he knew this was no dream. What he had just experienced was as real as the people waiting for him at home.

He kept up his steady pace, and when he was within 50 feet of the lake’s edge he saw a green bundle lying on the ground. He told himself it couldn’t be and that he was hallucinating. But this, too, was real. Once he was off the ice, he wondered at what was lying at his feet…a perfect fir, tall and bushy, just the tree Bree had hoped for.

Ralph knew he would not be in his office placing bets that afternoon, and he would not compare Bree to Leanne ever again. No, he had far more important things to do. Once the tree was in the stand and decorated, this time with his help, Ralph would spend the rest of the day deleting files from his computer and contacts from his cell phone. After finishing the job, he would suggest ordering Chinese takeout for supper. He would also make a big donation to a charity and suggest that the family go to church on Christmas Eve. And if Jonathan needed someone during the night, he would go to his son so Bree could have a full night’s sleep.

He would tell his wife how much he loved and appreciated her and how beautiful she was in his eyes. Ralph knew that Christmas presents didn’t always come in pretty packages. Sometimes they came in different ways, ways that were often miraculous. As he dragged the tree through the woods and into his backyard, he thought about these things and gave thanks for his life. Ralph Morrison was a changed man. The old version of himself had drowned in the lake. The new Ralph Morrison continued on. A few more steps and he would be home.