Christmas Miracle in the Andes (page 3)
Christmas Miracle in the Andes
page 1, page 2, page 4

     The tinge of sadness in his eyes leaves me touched. I rush to tell him my philosophical beliefs aren’t quite in harmony with the holiday back home. I’m very, very happy to be here, I say. He accepts this readily with a look of kind respect. “My family, we are Catholics,” Guillermo says, “so Christmas is very special to us. We also have this man Santa Claus in Colombia, but he does not come to our home.”
     Now I’m the one feeling a tinge of sadness. “Why not?” I ask.
     “Many years ago, when the children were very small, we stopped giving gifts in our family. We are a poor country. Even me, with the inn and the farm, I am a poor man. So the children know about Santa Claus, but they don’t believe in him because he never comes to visit their home.”
     I say nothing, trying to show him the same respect he’d shown me earlier. His voice trails off into the fireplace flames.
     It’s past dinnertime now, and I hear sounds of cooking in a back-room kitchen.
     “Could I order some dinner?” I ask. This strikes Guillermo as funny somehow. “There’s nothing to order,” he says, laughing heartily now. “There’s no menu! You’re a guest of my family tonight, not of the inn.” It has grown completely dark outside, and I slip out to view the Andean night sky. Christmas Eve has arrived in full, heralded by a billion bright stars. Only the sumptuous odor of good cooking inside finally lures me back. At 9 p.m., at a table set up by the fireplace, we sit down to eat. Guillermo’s daughter, Dorys, has been doing all the cooking. I still have not seen Guillermo’s wife, and there’s no place set for her now. I sense a sad story behind this somehow, and I decide not to ask.
     I survey the table and am incredulous. Dorys and Guillermo Jr. have covered each plate with a thick bed of yellow rice crowned by a large, roasted chicken breast. The breast is stuffed with minced liver and covered with a sticky sweet sauce. It is a fantastic feast by this family’s meager means, and I consider the thought that I’ve never been offered a more valuable gift.
     Guillermo says a short prayer, and we begin eating. The chicken is wondrous, and the accompanying red wine is quite decent. Dessert is a bowl of very sweet white-bean soup eaten only at Christmastime in Colombia. When I compliment Dorys on her cooking, she shrugs modestly. “These are recipes our mother taught me many years ago.” There’s an air of despondency in her expression that again keeps me from asking more. Guillermo, clearly, is raising these children alone.
     The children ask me various questions about America throughout dinner. At one point, 8-year-old Gemri says, “Tell us a Christmas story from your country.”
     I decide to steer clear of the Rudolph and Grinch stories, both of which end with children happily receiving mountains of gifts. In the candlelight of that table, I tell instead a simple story of a Christmas Eve when I was a child and times were hard for my family. My father was out of work, except for a low-paying job delivering newspapers. I helped him with his work on Christmas Eve morning so he could come home quickly. My mom and sister made hot chocolate for us when we returned and we spent the rest of the day arranging strings of popcorn across our Christmas tree. We all wanted very badly for it to snow that evening, even though it rarely snowed where we lived (Georgia). But that night it happened — there were snow flurries. The first time ever on Christmas Eve!
     “Un milagro,” Gemri says. “A miracle. They happen at Christmas if you really want them to. Papa says so.”
     “No,” Guillermo says quickly. “I said a miracle happened to me one time at Christmas when I wished for it.”
     I look at Guillermo quizzically. “Come,” he says, standing. “The children know this story. I will tell you outside while they clear the table.”
     We step out into the sparkling night air, and the stars are even more lustrous than before. Whole galaxies are visible, cloudlike and full of mystery. Guillermo and I walk toward the lake, happily full of food and wine, while he talks.
     “I tell you this story because, without it, you would have no place to stay tonight,” he begins. “Twenty-five years ago I had nothing. No money. No job. In these mountains, it’s hard to find work. My dream was humble: to have a little farm and a place for travelers to stay.
     “Then God helped me. It was Christmas Eve, 25 years ago — a starry night like this. We were visiting my wife’s family, who are city people. Her brother was very, very drunk that night and he asked me to help him walk home. I was upset by this, but he really needed my help. He staggered and swayed so much. One time he almost fell down on the sidewalk and I rushed to catch him and that’s when I saw it. On the ground, in the dark, was a little yellow bundle. I reached down and picked it up, not knowing what it was. Then I saw it was money. Lots of money. Ten thousand pesos [$600]! I had never held so much money in my hand in my whole life.
     “I was shocked. I looked around to see if anyone was looking for it, but I saw no one. It was so much money. For three days I watched this spot from a distance, waiting to see someone looking for it so I could give it back. But no one came.”
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