I know it’s a little too late or much too early, depending on how you look at it, but here’s another Christmas story. This is the first of three tales I’ve written about the Johnson family. One year at Christmas when I was still single, I received a collect call from someone named Michelle. As it turned out, she was looking for Al Johnson. She kept calling collect, and every time, I told the operator she had the wrong number. Just when I was considering the possibility of complaining to the phone company, she stopped calling.
I couldn’t help wondering why Michelle was so desperate to talk to Al Johnson that she kept calling me, even though I wasn’t related to or didn’t know him. One possible answer is in the story below. You can also read this on my Web site.
“This is MCI with a collect call from” said the automated voice.
“Michelle,” said a young woman’s voice.
“To accept charges, press 1. To deny charges, press 2. For operator assistance, press 0.”
It was definitely a wrong number, Ruth thought, as she pressed 2. “Who was that, honey?” asked her husband Al, as she walked into the dining room.
“Oh, just a wrong number,” said Ruth, as she sat at the table and put her napkin on her lap. “Someone named Michelle was trying to call us collect. I denied the charges, of course.”
Ruth thought she detected a startled look in Al’s eyes, but it disappeared, and he smiled and said, “It’s probably some college kid calling to tell her folks to meet her at the
bus station when she comes home for Christmas.”
The phone rang. “Oh for Pete’s sake!” said Al, throwing his napkin on the table. “I’ll get it this time. You stay put.”
In the hall, Ruth heard Al lift the receiver and say, “Hello.” After a short pause, he said, “Operator, I don’t know anyone named Michelle.” After another pause, he said, “Well, I’m Al Johnson, but I don’t know this young lady. She has the wrong number.” After another pause, he said, “Thank you.” Ruth heard him replace the receiver in its cradle.
“Damn phone company,” he said, as he strode into the dining room. “Can you believe that operator put me on hold twice while she told Michelle she had the wrong number?”
Who was Michelle? Was there a look of recognition on Al’s face, or did Ruth imagine it? A week later, their son and daughter, Scott and Kate, returned home from college and there was last minute shopping to be done and the tree to be decorated. Their friends often visited, and the house rang with their laughter.
Al felt it necessary to make himself scarce since there was an important court case scheduled after the first of the year. Despite pleas from Ruth and the kids that he join in their festivities, he spent many nights working late at the office. Although this was a regular occurrence, it bothered Ruth that it happened during the holiday season.
Christmas Eve was no different. That morning when Ruth told Al she planned a quiet family dinner with no guests in attendance and begged him to come home early, he said, “I’m sorry, honey. This case is very important to me, and I can’t afford to take time off right now.”
“What about tomorrow?” asked Ruth.
After a brief pause, Al said, “Okay, tomorrow, I’m all yours. That’s a solemn promise.”
Ruth and the kids resigned themselves to spending another evening without Al. After dinner, they settled in the basement family room to watch television. An hour later, Norah, the family’s Irish setter, jumped to her feet and ran upstairs barking. “Someone must be at the door,” said Ruth in surprise, as she rose from her chair and followed the dog.
“Hush, Norah. Stay back,” Ruth said, as she opened the door. The girl who stood there didn’t look familiar. Certainly not one of Scott or Kate’s friends, Ruth
thought. She was short and thin, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Although it was
snowing and the temperature was falling fast, she wore only a light jacket with no hood and tennis shoes. The girl was shivering, and moisture from her soaked feet dripped onto the
“Come in out of the cold,” Ruth said. As she closed the door behind her, she said, “Good heavens! Where are your boots and your winter coat? Here, let me take your jacket.”
As Ruth draped the girl’s wet coat over the second floor staircase banister, the girl turned her attention to Norah, who stood next to her, her tail wagging. “Oh, what a sweet dog!” she said, as she threw her arms around Norah, and the dog licked the girl’s face.
“Who is it, Mom?” asked Kate, as she came into the front hall.
The girl straightened, and as Norah sniffed her, she extended a hand and smiled at Ruth and Kate. “Hi, I’m Michelle, and I really need to talk to Al Johnson. I called collect last week, but he wouldn’t accept charges.”
“Michelle,” said Ruth in astonishment. She’d almost forgotten about the mysterious girl who called the week before. She noticed that despite her weak smile, the girl’s eyes looked troubled. “Al’s not here right now,” she said. “But take off those wet shoes and socks, and let me find something warm for your feet. Surely, they’re soaked.”
“Thanks,” said Michelle, and as she sat in a nearby chair and bent to untie the shoes, Norah licked her face.
“Norah, come here,” said Ruth.
As the dog came to stand beside Ruth, Kate said, “She can wear a pair of my old slippers. I’ll go upstairs and get them.”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” said Ruth. “While you’re up there, please call your father and tell him Michelle is here, and he needs to come home right away.” Turning to Michelle, she asked, “How about some hot chocolate?”
“Thanks,” said Michelle. She removed her shoes and socks and Norah sniffed them. She bent and stroked the dog’s shaggy head. Ruth picked up the wet shoes and socks and laid them on the rug next to the front door and hurried to the kitchen to make the cocoa. When she returned to the living room a few minutes later, Michelle was settled in an arm chair with Norah lying at her bare feet.
Kate emerged with a pair of slippers and a disgusted look on her face. “I called Dad at the office. He said he doesn’t know anyone named Michelle, and you should send her away.”
Michelle burst into tears. Ruth set the cup of hot chocolate on the table next to her and took the weeping girl into her arms.
“I could drive her to Dad’s office,” Kate said. “Then, he would have no choice but to see her.”
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question,” said Ruth. “It’s snowing pretty hard, and she has no proper winter clothing. Why don’t you go downstairs and watch TV with Scott? I’ll stay here with Michelle until your father comes home.”
“Okay,” said Kate. She placed the slippers on the floor near Michelle’s feet and left the room. Ruth handed Michelle a Kleenex and after the girl blew her nose, she gave her the steaming cup of cocoa. “Drink this,” she said. “It will make you feel better. I’m going to get myself a cup of coffee, and then I’ll join you.”
A few minutes later, Ruth returned with her cup of coffee and sat in a nearby arm chair. Norah was still stretched at Michelle’s feet. Despite the calm scene, the girl still looked upset. As an advocate at the local women’s center, Ruth dealt with many like her. “Would you like to talk about it?” she asked.
Michelle only hesitated for a moment. She looked straight at Ruth, took a deep breath, and said, “I know this sounds weird, but Al Johnson is my father. My mother died a couple of weeks ago in a car accident, and I have no one now.”
Stunned, Ruth almost dropped her coffee cup. “Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me the whole story,”
“Well,” said Michelle, her voice almost breaking. “About twenty-four years ago, Al Johnson and my mother Jane Barker were seniors in high school in Casper. They fell in love and as a result, I came along.”
“Mom told Al she was pregnant, hoping he would marry her, and they would live happily ever after. But Al didn’t want to have anything to do with her or me. He had big dreams of being a lawyer, and he wouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in his way.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Mom told me about Al when I was in high school. She didn’t want me to make the same mistake she did, but she said that if I did, she would still love me, and she would never do to me what her parents did to her.”
“What did her parents do to her?”
“They cut her off completely. When she told them she was pregnant and that she was going to keep me, even though Al wouldn’t marry her, her dad said it would be over his dead body. Luckily, she had a drama scholarship at the university of Wyoming. She was a pretty good actor in high school, you see. So she just packed all her belongings in the car her parents gave her as a graduation gift and moved to Laramie. Instead of starting in the fall as she’d planned, she was able to get into the summer session.”
“How soon after that did you come along?”
“I wasn’t due until January. Mom was able to complete the summer and fall semesters, but by the time I was born, the scholarship money had run out, and
since Mom’s folks had cut her off completely and the financial aid department at the university
was of little help, she had no choice but to quit. She found work in a nursing home doing activities with the residents.”
“How interesting,” said Ruth.
“Yeah,” said Michelle. “It was only part time, but it gave her more time to spend with me. What was so neat about it was the day care center right there in the building. So even when Mom was working, I often saw her. She even got us kids involved in activities with the residents.””
“That’s wonderful. I’ve read that being exposed to children can work wonders with nursing home residents.”
“Being around the residents was good for me. Some of those old people were like grandparents. Of course, it’s a fact of life in that kind of place that old people die after you get attached to them.”
“I know. How long did your mother work there?”
“Until a couple of weeks ago, when she was killed in a car accident,” answered Michelle. “I was working there, too.”
“Really,” said Ruth. “What were you doing?”
“I wasn’t lucky enough to get a college scholarship, but by the time I graduated from high school, Mom had become the activities director. Although she couldn’t afford to put me through college, she was able to pay for my training to be a certified nursing assistant.”
“I see. So you worked as a nurse’s aide from the time you got out of high school until your mother died a couple of weeks ago?”
“Yeah,” said Michelle. “It was hard work, but it was so cool. When residents first came, and they couldn’t walk, after a few weeks of physical therapy, I watched them walk right out the door, with a cane or walker maybe, but walking all the same. Also, a lot of the residents who couldn’t do anything for themselves anymore smiled or said nice things to me when I helped them get dressed or eat or something like that.”
“I imagine that any kind of work with nursing home residents can be very rewarding. You said that back in high school, your mother first told you about Al.”
“Yeah,” answered Michelle. “In fact, when it was time for their twentieth high school reunion, she tried to track him down. She called his parents in Casper, pretending to be on the committee that organized the reunion, and they gave her his address and phone number here in Sheridan. I found that in her address book after she died. We even thought of taking time off from work and going to the reunion. Wouldn’t that have been a surprise for the rest of her classmates?”
“I’m sure it would have. Al never said anything to me about anyone calling him. I always wanted to go to his high school reunions, but he didn’t seem interested. I realize now that he was afraid I would find out about his relationship with your mother. I guess that was a source of embarrassment to him.”
“You’re probably right, but the way Mom saw it, if he wanted to punish her for not giving me up, that was fine, but I didn’t choose to be born so it didn’t make sense for him to push me away, too.”
“He didn’t see it that way. He told Mom that he still didn’t want to have anything to do with her or me, and if she continued calling him, he would seek a restraining order against her.”
“Any excuse to be in a courtroom,” said Ruth. “That sounds just like Al.
Michelle smiled and said, “When Mom died a couple of weeks ago, my life sort of fell
apart. I ended up selling most of our stuff including my winter coat and boots, to pay her funeral
expenses. We had a nice service for her in the chapel at the nursing home. Some of the staff and
residents’ families chipped in, but it still wasn’t enough to cover everything.”
“”That’s too bad. I suppose your mother’s parents didn’t even come
to the funeral.”
“Nope,” said Michelle. “I called them when she died, but her dad said that as far as they were concerned, they didn’t even have a daughter named Jane.”
“After the funeral, I tried to get time off work so I could think things through, but they wouldn’t let me do that. So I just quit. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in
Laramie. There are too many memories there.”
“I decided to try calling Al. I didn’t choose to be born so he has no right to push me away. I don’t want to ruin your Christmas, but one way or another, I’m going to make him acknowledge me.”
“You’re not ruining anything. Let me be the first to welcome you to our family.” Ruth and Michelle stood and embraced.
A car turned into the driveway. “That would be your father,” said Ruth. “He’s home early for once. Sit down, and I’ll go talk to him. I’ll make him see sense.”
Ruth hurried to the kitchen and stood by the back door. Al was determined to ignore Michelle. When Al made a decision, it was almost impossible to change his mind. But Ruth needed to try, for Michelle’s sake.
The kitchen door burst open and Al hurried into the room, closing it behind him. He wore a broad grin despite the fact that in the short walk from the garage to the house, he was already covered from head to foot with snow. As he stamped the snow from his boots, he said, “I do believe we’re going to have a white Christmas this year.”
“Al, how can you smile at a time like this?”
“You didn’t send her away, did you?”
“Of course not,” said Ruth.
“I didn’t think you would. Honey, It’s time I faced up to what happened twenty-four years ago. It was as much my fault as it was Jane’s. I’m assuming she told you about Jane.”
“Yes,” said Ruth. “Her mother died in a car accident a couple of weeks ago. That’s why she came here. There’s nothing for her in Laramie now.“
“Oh, God,” said Al, his smile fading. “Besides that damn case, she’s all that’s been on my mind this past week. That’s why I’ve been staying at the office so late. I wanted to bury myself in my work so I wouldn’t have to think about her. When Kate called tonight, that
was the breaking point. I had a good cry. I realized that Michelle would never go away, no matter what I did. I stopped off on my way home and bought her a little present.”
“Oh, Al, I love you!” said Ruth, as she embraced his snowy body and he pulled her to him.
After a moment, Al said, “Let’s go talk to my daughter. Where is she?”
“She’s in the living room,” said Ruth, stepping aside for him to lead the way.
As they entered, Michelle stood and Norah leapt to her feet. The dog danced in joyous circles around Al, leaping high in the air, barking, and wagging her tail. “Hush, Norah,” Ruth said and the dog fell silent.
“Dad, is that you?” asked Michelle, gazing in bewilderment at Al’s smiling face.
“Yes it is,” said Al, extending his arms. As father and daughter embraced, Scott and Kate hurried into the room. “Dad,” they shouted in unison. They stopped short and stared in astonishment at Al and Michelle as they embraced.
With his arms still around Michelle, Al turned to them. “Scott, Kate, I have a very special Christmas present for you this year. I would like you to meet your sister, Michelle.”
Abbie Johnson Taylor
Author of We Shall Overcome