The Maple Tree Inn started life as a rich man’s farmhouse. “Old Nick’s a rich man, indeed,” my father told me. “He won’t eat hot dogs.”
We lived over the ridge from Nick and there was a rolling pasture where I’d train my binoculars on Nick as he hobbled about on his cane. One day he limped up the field to me. “What’s your name little girl?”
“Would you like a peppermint, Jenny?”
I liked peppermint and soon learned Nick kept a pocketful in his old red coat. When he was able to get around, we’d share a peppermint and talk about horses. Every year before Christmas Nick went down to his horse farm in the south. “The sun is warmer on my bones there.” Then he’d give me this enormous bag of peppermints to last until spring. But the last year he hunched down close to me, “What do you want for Christmas, my Jenny?”
I closed my eyes and saw something glowing and bright. “Something wonderful,” I whispered.
Nick winked as he patted my head, “I’ll remember.”
Sadly, Old Nick died before the next spring. The farmhouse was converted to The Maple Tree Inn. That summer, I watched the proceedings. “It’s a rich man’s inn,” my father told me. “They won’t serve hot dogs.” By late fall, the wonderful old house looked grand, indeed.
The first Christmas they wrapped tiny white lights around the huge old maple tree and put candles in the windows. They held a wonderful party. I trained my binoculars as the ladies arrived in elegant dresses. The men wore handsome tuxedos. Laughter and music floated across the fields. Wood smoke curled from the grey stone chimney, and the Christmas tree stood clear to the ceiling!
In the cold, dark night, I vowed to grow up rich, elegant, and fine. I’d walk in The Maple Tree Inn and spend some time there.
As the years passed, my visits back home became rare. Still, at Christmas, I’d cut through the woods and look down. The inn had weathered with time. Gone were the elegant parties, yet the maple tree still blazed in the night. “The years have humbled them,” my father told me. “They might serve hot dogs.”
“Why don’t we see?”
Dad shook his head, “No need to start now.”
The day came, though, when my father went to live at the Ogden Nursing Home. Our little house was sold and in order to be near him at Christmas, I made a reservation at The Maple Tree Inn.
It was a cold, grey Christmas Eve when I turned off the main road and headed toward the inn. I’d had a long drive, a difficult visit with my father, and now the winter trees stood in an odd pink sky. Wind gusted across my windshield and it snowed – gently at first – then hard and blinding. In seconds, the windshield wipers whipped against a blizzard.
Yet, the maple tree stood bright in the swirling snow. My heart beat high with this wonderful hope as I opened the old door and stood there breathless. A warm fire burned in the fireplace. The Christmas tree glowed. There were apples baking, this warmth of welcome I’d always dreamed of.
“Come in from the cold,” a man said as he waved me inside. He wore old jeans and a reindeer sweater; his eyes were so familiar I felt I knew him. “I’m Dan,” he said and something inside me relaxed. Then he grinned like a school boy with great delight, “You have Old Nick’s room at the top of the stairs.”
“Old Nick who used to live here?”
“He’s still with us – but he’s friendly.”
I breathed in this wonderful thrill. And just as I started the stairs, there was this tiny jingle.
Old Nick’s room was under the eaves. The maple tree blazed outside as the gas fire purred. Little lamps glowed; there was a bowl of peppermints! I crawled under worn quilts and felt a peace I’d wanted for a very long time. Just as I drifted off to sleep, I heard, “What do you want for Christmas, my Jenny?”
And there was my same warm dream, my golden brightness. “Something wonderful,” I whispered.
The Christmas Eve Supper at The Maple Tree Inn was held at seven o’clock. I wore my emerald green dress that shimmered. Carols floated on the air as I stepped into the dining room with high hope, but it was completely empty except for a bedraggled little family: a tiny baby in his mother’s arms, a small boy and girl, and a drooped down father. Dan swung through the swinging kitchen door with a tray of hot soup and they all sat upright. Dan said, “Supper’s ready.”
My heart dropped.
“Everyone’s cancelled because of the blizzard, including the help.”
I ached at the pea green soup straight out of a can. So, when Dan went back to the kitchen, I followed him. Warm pies sat on the counter, but the rest of the kitchen stood empty. “Where’s the supper?” I asked.
“There’re four ladies. They cook everything at home and bring it. They couldn’t get here because of the snow, but neither could anyone else. This family got stranded.”
“This is it then?” I rummaged through the pantry, then the refrigerator. You guessed it – hot dogs – roasted over the open fire, a very big hit with the family.
“Apple pie for desert,” Dan swung through the swinging door.
All warm with vanilla ice cream and the kids spooned in big mouthfuls as they watched the windows. “Daddy, will Santa find us?”
Daddy looked broken.
Dan patted the little shoulder, “Santa knows right where you are. He hones in on the maple tree and never misses.”
The little faces smiled and soon we had them bundled into an upstairs bedroom. Then Dan and I went on a scavenger hunt and found an old sled, a rag doll, an outrageous assortment of presents and wrapped them in front of the fire.
Dan poured me a glass of wine and it danced in the firelight. The fire sent up a shower of peaceful sparks as we talked and the maple tree blazed in the soft pink light. Dan put his arm around me gently, “Merry Christmas.”
It took me a long time to get to the Maple Tree Inn, but once there – my dears – I’ve never left it. It’s a golden adventure, warm, wonderful and bright. Old Nick got it right.
The Maple Tree Inn is written by Suzanne Mays.
Suzanne Mays is a novelist and short story writer. Her stories are about women in search of land, family, and peace in themselves. Usually set in the mountains, they possess a quiet humor. Her novel, The Man Inside the Mountain is the story of Essie Bell, a woman who believes her son has survived the Civil War and is hiding in the mountain behind her farm.