Early December, 1879
Eleven-year-old Andi Carter bounded into the ranch house after school and straight into her mother’s arms. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever! Guess why.”
“Because it’s going to snow for once?” Her big brother Chad quipped from behind their mother.
Andi gave him a you-can’t-tease-me look and rolled her eyes. “That would be nice, but no. Something much better than snow.” Although, she admitted to herself, a rare snowfall in the California foothills would be most welcome.
Mother smiled. “I see you’re bursting with news.”
“Spill it before you explode,” Chad said.
Andi untangled herself from Mother’s embrace and stepped away. She clasped her hands behind her back as she would for an important recitation and said, “Out of all the girls—even beautiful Mary Sue Evans and ladylike Priscilla Johnson—Miss Hall chose me.”
She bounced up and down on her tiptoes. “Isn’t that the most extraordinary thing you ever heard?”
“Depends on what she chose you for,” Chad said. “To clean the blackboards? I wouldn’t consider that much of an honor. In fact—”
“Chad, please.” Mother waved his jibe away. “Let her finish.”
Andi ignored Chad’s kidding and burst out, “I’m to play the part of Mary in the Christmas pageant at school on Christmas Eve!” She chattered with excitement. “I was sure Mary Sue would get the part, on account of her name and how pretty she is. Or Priscilla, since she was Mary last year—and the year before.” Andi twirled. “But Miss Hall chose me.”
Andi still couldn’t believe her good fortune. Last year she’d played the part of a shepherd boy. Her head covering had come unbound during the pageant, and all her dark hair tumbled down, exposing her as a shepherd girl. Oh, the shame!
Two years in a row before that Andi had been cast as an angel—one of many. Johnny Wilson said they put all the leftover kids in the angel choir. “Leftover” didn’t sound very nice. But then, Johnny was never nice. He always took the role of King Herod. He came by the king’s meanness naturally.
Usually, the oldest girls in school vied for the coveted role of Jesus’ mother. When Miss Hall announced, “Andrea Carter will be Mary this year,” Andi nearly keeled over in shock. Priscilla looked just as surprised to learn she would be Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and not Mary. Priscilla had boasted at recess just that morning that she would play Mary again this year.
“Congratulations,” Mother said softly. “It is quite an honor to be chosen to portray the mother of our Lord. I know you will do your best.”
“And who will be your devoted husband?” Chad asked. His blue eyes teased.
Andi reddened. “It’s . . . it’s Cory.” Then she brightened. “The oldest boys begged Miss Hall not to have to play any parts this year. They said they’re too old and would rather haul in the hay and the animals for the backgrounds.”
Thank goodness! Andi would die of embarrassment if she was matched up with fifteen-year-old Thomas Paine or Seth Atkins. She might get teased about Cory playing Joseph, but at least she could look into his face while she held Baby Jesus and not feel mortified if she blushed.
Speaking of Baby Jesus . . .
“And guess what else, Mother? Mrs. Samuelson is letting me hold her Richard. He’s one month old and perfect for the Baby. She says he sleeps all the time.” Andi let out a deep, satisfied sigh. “I will never forget this Christmas, not for as long as I live.”
She threw her arms around Mother once more, let Chad ruffle her hair, and flew up the stairs to tell Melinda the good news.
The next two weeks passed quicker than a wildfire. Besides doing her schoolwork—which Miss Hall said no one could shirk, even if they had a major role in the pageant—Andi feverishly memorized her part.
Between what she must learn for the angel Gabriel’s visit and the words she would speak to “cousin” Elizabeth, there were too many lines to count. “But once I get through Mary’s magnificat, at least I won’t have to say anything more,” Andi said at supper one night. “During the manger scene, Miss Hall says I just need to gaze down at Baby Jesus and act . . . well . . . her exact words were ‘blessed and serene.’”
“I look forward to seeing how you pull that part off,” Chad joked.
Andi ducked her head while the rest of the family chuckled. Even Mother and Justin were smiling. That will be harder than learning my lines, Andi agreed silently.
The next day, she read her lines over and over to Justin on the way home from school, until he said he could nearly recite them himself. “I’m proud of your resolve to do your best for this, honey. You are certainly giving it your all.”
“I’m going to be the best Mary ever, and make Miss Hall glad she chose me,” Andi said. When the buggy came to a stop in the yard, she leaped out and ran to the house. She flew up the stairs to her sister’s room. Every afternoon, Melinda helped her practice.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and . . . and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Andi took a deep breath and furrowed her brow. “For he hath . . . hath . . .” She scowled. “Oh, drat! This part always stumps me, Melinda. It’s like a bump in the road. Once I pass it, I can finish the rest.”
Melinda drew brows together in disapproval. “For one thing, I can assure you that Mary would never, ever say ‘drat’.”
Andi bit her lip. Losing her patience was not a good way to practice being “blessed and serene.” And she wanted to be, so very much!
“The next word is ‘regarded,’” Melinda prompted. “‘For he hath regarded the low estate of his—‘”
“His handmaiden!” Andi supplied. Picking up speed after her stumble, the verses rolled off her tongue, one after the other, with only a few more pauses for help.
Melinda praised her efforts. “You’re doing much better. By the time Christmas Eve arrives, you’ll know your lines perfectly.” She held up a piece of brown wool fabric. “Mother said I could stitch your outfit. Shall we try it on?”
“Johnny Wilson, stop that horseplay this instant and stand still.” Miss Hall sounded exasperated, and for good reason. Every time the schoolmarm’s back was turned, King Herod incited a riot between the shepherds and the angels. The little-girl angels shrieked when the little-boy shepherds whacked them with their makeshift staffs.
“For unto you is born this day . . .” Six-year-old Emily Sullivan screeched to be heard above the racket. She gave Toby Wright a shove. He fell into Mercy Thompson, who sent up a wail.
Miss Hall waded into the rumpus and sorted out the youngsters. When they quieted down, she brushed a strand of graying hair from her forehead and nodded at Emily. “Start over, please. From the beginning.”
Andi, holding a beat-up ragdoll in her arms as a prop, sat next to Cory and waited their turn to practice the manger scene. There were still ten days to go until the pageant, but today Andi had spoken her lines without a hitch. Well, almost without a hitch. Miss Hall on several occasions asked her to slow down and put more feeling into her words.
Andi wanted to put emotion in her words, and not just because Miss Hall asked. All week long she’d practiced her lines while pretending to actually be Mary. Mary, who had seen an angel! Mary, who would be the mother of the Saviour! Of course her soul would feel like magnifying the Lord.
Pretending to be Mary worked. Even Melinda told Andi she was putting her whole heart into the piece.
But on this particular afternoon, Andi wanted only one thing—to get those ten verses said as fast as she could so she could sit down. She’d felt poorly ever since Justin dropped her off at school this morning, and the long day had only made it worse. For the past hour Andi just wanted to go home.
Right now, her cheeks felt flushed. When the angels finished their lines and brushed by Andi on their way back to “heaven,” she shivered. They’d stirred up a draft. A wave of dizziness swept over her. She clutched the doll and bent over to steady herself.
“Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and . . .”
Andi barely heard the shepherds talking to each other.
“You feelin’ all right?” Cory whispered.
Andi nodded. “Just tired.” She glanced at the clock. “It’s almost four o’clock.” Maybe she’d feel better when she crawled into the buggy and could lean against Justin on the ride home. Ah, blessed sleep!
“Mary and Joseph!” Miss Hall clapped her hands. “Quickly, now. School’s nearly out. Come up here so the shepherds can visit the manger.”
Cory shot up and grabbed the sturdy oak branch he was using for a staff. When Andi didn’t move, he reached down and yanked her arm. “C’mon, Andi. Miss Hall means business.”
Andi rose and squinted at Cory through bleary eyes. A sudden fire ignited in her throat, and the world spun. “I want my mother,” she whispered before collapsing onto the floor in a noisy thunk.
Go to PART 2
Go to PART 2