“All aboard!” A gruff voice sounded above the hustle of the train station. The December air was frigid, and many people suspected the winter of 1905 would be a cold one.
“I’m going to miss everyone.” Millie broke the silence, referring to her parents and five other siblings.
Just then, the train lurched forward, and the girls waved goodbye to their parents. After they enjoyed the train ride for several minutes, the sisters decided to find something to do. “We can’t just sit here in a downcast mood all day. Mother said we are riding this train for several hours today. We won’t arrive in Aunt Edith’s town until nightfall.”
“Tickets please.” A smileless face approached them; the same conductor with the gruff voice.
“Good afternoon. Here’s the ticket,” Eliza said.
As soon as the conductor left, the girls returned to their conversation.
“I’ve got it!” Eliza announced.
Minutes later, the girls were writing on small slips of paper. They had decided to try to cheer up the conductor with the sour mood, and they were busy writing encouraging messages on slips of paper for the conductor to find.
“What if another conductor finds the slip of paper, or even one of the passengers?” Millie asked.
Eliza reassured her little sister, “Don’t worry. Anyone could use some encouragement.” Millie nodded with agreement.
“Detroit, Michigan. Detroit, Michigan.” A loud voice was heard throughout the train. Many people left the train as the girls continued their project.
Eliza and Millie wrote a message that read:
You are loved by God.”
Meanwhile, working in the front of the train, was Harold Smith, the gruff conductor. “Blow the whistle, Harry.” Timothy, another conductor, ordered.
“Yes, sir.” Choo Chooo! The noise was almost ear-splitting.
“You’re off duty here for now. Rick needs your help in the caboose.” Harold slowly walked to the caboose. His slow pace quickened as he noticed a slip of paper on the ground. His curiosity took over, and he completely forgot about his sour mood...for a moment. He read the message, amazed at what he saw.
“Who, me? Loved?” He barely whispered, so no one could hear him. Thinking back to years in the past, he remembered previous years before the Civil War when he had his family. After the war, no one was left.“No, no one loves me anymore.” He decided. And besides, was there a God anyway? He folded the piece of paper twice, and walked away.
“ Do you think he liked it?” Millie was obviously bursting with excitement, her blonde curls bouncing.
“I’m not sure, but hopefully it was a comforting message. Let’s leave another one for him.” With that, the girls set to work yet again. Little did they know how much these notes would really mean to Harold, and what pain he had felt in his life.
Three hours later, Harold was still working in the caboose. Even though it was three o'clock in the afternoon, it was time for his lunch break. Harold left to find his lunch in the front of the train, where he began work that morning. Without a word, Harold trudged back.
“He’s coming! Drop the paper!” Eliza exclaimed. Just in time, the paper was thrown into the middle of the aisle. As he walked into the train car, a second slip of paper caught Harold’s eye.
“Again?” At first he sounded mad, but then he knelt down to finger the paper. This time it read:
As we said before, God loves you. We’d also like to add that in a special book God inspired others to write, the Bible, it says to give all your worries to God, because He cares for you. We are leaving your train tonight, but wanted you to know you are special.”
“Humph. I don’t know a God anyway.” For just a moment, Harold paused. Maybe...after all these years, there was a God…Thoughts about the mysterious papers would have to wait for now. Lunch break was almost over.
Night was approaching. The girls were gazing out the window, enjoying all the scenery that passed by as the dim twilight hour came upon them. “It’s sad to think we won’t write any more messages. I feel sorry for the man in a way.”
“Me too,” Eliza paused. “You know, that man is sort of like a puzzle with a missing piece. Did you hear what he said about God? He said he didn’t know any God. Even though we are leaving, I think we should pray for him.”
“Let’s pray now.” Eliza and Millie spent the remaining time on the train praying. Soon it was time to leave the train. Millie was especially nervous because she didn’t remember meeting Aunt Edith as a baby. Aunt Edith was a special member of the family since Mother didn’t have many family members left. She had her sister, Edith,but she never knew what happened to her father after her Mother died following the Civil War.
The sisters stepped into the crowd. The gruff conductor was hurrying many people out of the train. “Oh! There’s Aunt Edith.” Eliza practically dragged her sister along. They could scarcely see where they were going; the crowd was dizzyingly large.
“How do you know it’s her?” Millie asked.
“She has the same features as Mother.” Sure enough, they were soon chattering away as if they’d known her forever. Just as the train was about to leave, Aunt Edith looked back in the direction of it, and gasped.
Seconds, which felt as if they were minutes, passed slowly. When she couldn’t bear it any longer Millie burst out, “What is it, Aunt Edith?”
“Let’s go talk to the train station manager.” The girls were absolutely puzzled at their Aunt’s response. Minutes earlier their Aunt was very talkative, and suddenly she was very quiet. Wind began to blow...just barely, which almost added to the mysterious air. Soon, they found themselves in a tight, stuffy area with a desk.
“How can I help you, Ma'am?” A man in a uniform asked.
“Good afternoon. When will the train number thirty-five return?” Aunt Edith asked, almost choking on the words as they left her tight throat.
“In two days… the twenty-third of December, around this time.” The man was as puzzled as the girls were, and wore a skeptical expression.
“Thank you. I believe I saw someone that I haven’t seen for years when the train was leaving. Is there someone named Harold Smith working on the train today?” Aunt Edith asked, almost anxiously.
“Yes, he works every day. I’ll see you in two days, then. Good afternoon.” With that, the man quickly ushered them out of his office. Aunt Edith was visibly emotional as her guess was confirmed.
A little while later, they were all seated in a carriage, on their way to Aunt Edith and Uncle Albert’s house. Conversation was very limited, with only the occasional remark. The girls spent most of the carriage ride pondering about what had just happened.
The night at Aunt Edith and Uncle Albert’s house was delightful, and the girls thoroughly enjoyed knitting by the fire after supper with their Aunt.
After a restful night of sleep, soft, morning sunlight poured into the room the girls were sharing. “It’s later than I expected to wake up.” Eliza admitted, and climbed out of bed to get ready for the day. Millie only groaned and rolled over.
“Good morning, Eliza.” Aunt Edith cheerfully smiled at her niece as she entered the room.
“Good morning.” Again, conversation was scarce, and Eliza ate breakfast in silence, with only the occasional chirp of a bird outside.
The next evening, the girls were seated at the table for supper. Aunt Edith was serving supper, and Uncle Albert was nearby, asking them about their day. Soon the familiar quietness set in, and Millie ventured to ask the question... “Aunt Edith, who is Harold Smith?”
A deep breath from across the room left Millie hoping she wouldn’t regret asking the question. “Oh my dears, if your mother was here she would be ever so excited. Harold Smith is our father.”
“Then...our Grandfather?” The girls asked. “He has been missing for such a long time! Mother thought he died in the war, and had given up all hope.”
“So, you must know some of the background history, then?” Aunt Edith asked.
“A little, but not much.” Eliza responded.
“In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, your Grandfather joined the army. Your mother and I were at home with your Grandmother. For many years we heard from father by mail. We were hiding slaves in our home, but we had to move since our house was very close to the battle grounds. We told Father, through letters, and then in 1865, when the war ended, we waited for his return. He never returned. A cholera epidemic broke out in our town, and Mother died. By the time she died, it was 1880; I was married the year after. Your mother was married a couple years after that, but Father still never returned. His name was Harold Smith, and I saw him on the train yesterday, just as it was leaving. Tomorrow I hope we will have the chance to find him.”
The next day, Christmas Eve, was full of excitement and treasured moments with Aunt Edith and Uncle Albert. Uncle Albert was working on the farm, so he only joined them for a brief lunch break. He promised to accompany them on the adventure to the train station later in the day.
After supper, they nervously prepared to leave, and anticipated the excitement of meeting their Grandfather. Questions swarmed their minds …would Harold recognize his daughter? What was Harold Smith like? Would the train be later than expected? They didn’t have to wait very long, for when they reached the station, the train was also pulling in.
Earlier that day, Harold Smith was told that someone was hoping to see him, and he had permission to see them at the train station that very night. Wondering who it was, Harold nervously stepped off the train. From afar, he saw four shadows.
“Father?” The voice was shaky, almost anxious.
“Edith? Edith, is that you?” Harold was running now. “After all these years?”
“Father!” The happy reunion was one greatly enjoyed by Eliza and Millie. The train’s light was on now, and the man’s face was almost visible. At first glance, the girls were astonished.
“Father, these are Bonnie’s children visiting Albert and I for a week.” Aunt Edith stepped out of the way.
“We have already met, but in a different way than you might imagine. You see, we saw this conductor was sad, so we decided to leave messages for him on the train.” Eliza explained.
“Those messages were from my granddaughters? Edith, I must go ask if I can spend the night at your house. We have so much to talk about. I’ll be back.” Harold trudged across the dirt path to the train, crunching the thin layer of powdery snow beneath his feet. Thoughts swarmed his head, and he longed to spend many hours talking to Edith. In only a matter of time, he was permitted time off. With almost a slight smile, Harold briskly walked back to the group waiting for his return. “Let’s go home and have a wonderful evening.” Harold joined them in the carriage, and the whole ride, Aunt Edith was talking more than ever before.
“Father, we tried to contact you by mail to tell you that we needed to move and we never heard back from you when we sent our letter. When the war ended, we waited and waited, but you never returned.”
“How can I ever explain? I never received that letter.” Harold began. “When I arrived home from the war, you, your sister, and Mother were gone. I chided myself for leaving you near battlegrounds, and I searched the town for you. Days turned into years, and I began to fall into a depressing time in my life. I started to work on the train, hoping it would distract me from my pain, but it didn’t.You see, I never received a letter. Days ago, I saw those notes. I began to question myself...I prayed to God, and I felt peace I hadn’t felt in years. I suddenly knew without a doubt that there was a God who cared. I prayed for a miracle...And...and I never would have expected this.” Harold felt tears forming in his eyes, but due to the darkness of night, no one could see.
“Grandfather,” Eliza said. Harold turned, stunned, because he had never been called “Grandfather” before.
He managed to ask amidst his surprise, “Yes?”
“God loves you.”
The next morning, Aunt Edith, Uncle Albert, the girls...and their grandfather took a train ride back to the girls’ home to spend Christmas there. Just as the group was arriving at the door, Bonnie, (Eliza and Millie’s mother), was sweeping in the afternoon sunlit cabin. A knock sounded at the door. “Come in,” she called, unprepared for the surprise that awaited her. The door creaked open, and Bonnie froze.
“Edith?” And then after a moment of silence, “Father...Father?” Bonnie’s confused voice turned to utter glee as she threw her arms around her father’s neck. “Edith, where did you ever find him?” Bonnie laughed and cried all at the same time.
“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Carolers outside the cabin joyously sang.
The children excitedly ran to their stockings, which were full. As Millie felt the bottom of her stocking, she fingered a miniature box entitled “crayons.” “What’s this?” Millie asked as the crayons spilled onto the floor.
Her Grandfather answered,“Ah! Crayons were invented around two years ago. They make color on paper.” He paused for a minute, thinking of a proper explanation for the nine-year-old as her younger sister sat on one of the crayons.
“No, no!” Millie had tears in her eyes. “Now I can’t make color.” She fondly picked up a broken gray crayon.
“I was a broken, gray, crayon.” Millie looked up, trying to comprehend the meaning of her grandfather’s words. “It still works, my dear,” he said.
“So, I can color even with broken crayons?”
Harold smiled, “Yes, broken crayons still color. Even something that seems broken, can be a part of something very beautiful.” Harold used Millie’s crayons on the to draw a rainbow peeking through dark-gray clouds. God can repair even the most broken people...Including me.”
As the family gathered near the fire, Harold gave a hearty laugh; it was the first time he had laughed for many years. The family agreed that this was the very best Christmas they had ever experienced!