A Christmas tree for Mrs. Mueller

Linda Bleck
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Mrs. Mueller lived next door. She was a widow with no children or relatives. Early one December, she went into the hospital. My sister and I wanted to give her a Christmas gift.  

Our sixth grade class was having a drawing for the tree we’d decorated. As I put my name into the box for the drawing, I whispered to my teacher, Miss O’Keefe, that I really hoped I’d win because Laurel and I wanted to give the tree to our neighbor.

Why We Wrote This

To be empowered to give is the best gift of all, and that generous impulse to share happiness often attracts unexpected allies.

My heart was pounding the day Miss O’Keefe reached into the box and drew out a name.

“Holly Wheeler has won the tree,” she said. 

I was ecstatic! Mom was dumbfounded. We went home and set up the tree in Mrs. Mueller’s living room.

When Mrs. Mueller arrived home, our family hurried over to greet her. When she saw the tree, she looked surprised. Then she smiled, and tears filled her eyes. She turned to us and softly said, “Thank you.” 

That was one of my happiest Christmases. 

It was years before I realized that while Miss O’Keefe announced my name, she never showed anyone what was written on the paper.

The black-and-white photograph of Mrs. Mueller that I took with my Brownie camera captures her seated on the sofa in our living room, smiling shyly. Mrs. Mueller was our next-door neighbor when my sister and I were growing up.

We got to know her after her husband died. She didn’t have children of her own and no relatives that we knew of. She was gentle and kind, and Laurel and I considered her our special friend.

Early one December, Mrs. Mueller went into the hospital. Laurel and I were busy making Christmas presents, and we pondered what to make for Mrs. Mueller. It dawned on us that she would be coming home a few days before Christmas to an empty house with no holiday decorations. We lit upon the idea of decorating a small tree that would greet her with lights and cheer. We were wondering how to carry out our plan when the answer appeared.

Why We Wrote This

To be empowered to give is the best gift of all, and that generous impulse to share happiness often attracts unexpected allies.

I was in Miss O’Keefe’s sixth grade class that year, and we had trimmed a small tree with paper-link chains and ornaments we’d made in art class. It was beautiful. Best of all, it had to be removed from the classroom before Christmas vacation. 

Miss O’Keefe said there would be a drawing for the tree. We’d each write our name on a piece of paper and put it through the slot in the shoebox she had decorated. On the last day of school before vacation, she’d draw a name from the box, and that student could take home the tree. 

As I put my folded piece of paper into the box, I whispered to Miss O’Keefe that I really hoped I’d win the tree because my sister and I wanted to give it to our neighbor.

I was beside myself with excitement! In vain my mother pointed out there were 30 children who might win the tree, but I was certain I would get it because our cause was good: We wanted to make Mrs. Mueller happy.

The day before vacation finally arrived. Laurel and I usually walked to and from school, but I was so sure I’d win the tree that I persuaded Mom to pick us up in the car that day.  

Late that afternoon, Miss O’Keefe announced it was time for the drawing. My heart pounded. I held my breath as she took the lid off the shoebox, closed her eyes, swirled her hand around in the box of folded pieces of paper, and drew one out. She opened her eyes, unfolded the paper, looked at it, and proclaimed, “Holly Wheeler has won the tree.”

I was ecstatic! I’ll never forget my mother’s face as I raced to the car when school was out and told her I’d won the tree. Some of my classmates carried it to our car and put it into the trunk carefully so the ornaments wouldn’t get knocked off. 

Mom had a key to Mrs. Mueller’s house, and that evening, my mom, dad, sister, and I carried the tree next door and set it up on a table in the living room.

It looked beautiful.

The next day, when Mrs. Mueller’s car turned into her driveway, we hurried over to welcome her back. We followed as she slowly made her way into the house and turned on the lights. Then she saw the tree. First, there was a look of surprise. Then, a sweet smile appeared, and tears filled her eyes. She turned to us and softly said, “Thank you.” 

Laurel and I excitedly recounted the story of the tree, and then we all had milk and Christmas cookies.

My parents had told us that making others happy would bring us more true joy than a pile of presents under the tree ever could. And one of the happiest Christmases I recall is the one when we got a tree for Mrs. Mueller.

Many years later it dawned on me that we might have had more help with our scheme than we realized. While Miss O’Keefe had announced my name, she never showed anyone what was written on that piece of paper.

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