After the unexpected death of her husband, Joanne Huist Smith had no idea how she would keep herself together and be strong for her three children--especially with the holiday season approaching. But 12 days before Christmas, presents begin appearing on her doorstep with notes from their "True Friends." As the Smiths came together to solve the mystery of who the gifts were from, they began to thaw out from their grief and come together again as a family. This true story about the power of random acts of kindness will warm the heart, a beautiful reminder of the miracles of Christmas and the gift of family during the holiday season.
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The First Day of Christmas
Just before dawn on December 13, my daughter Megan tugs at my nightshirt.
“Mom, we missed the school bus.”
Disoriented and still half asleep, I start calling commands to my children before my feet hit the floor.
“Splash water on your face! Get dressed! We’ve got bananas and granola bars in the kitchen for breakfast. I’ll get the car heated up, but we have to leave in ten minutes!”
Megan dashes off as directed, while I rouse her less cooperative brothers.
When I hear movement in all of their bedrooms, I take a two-minute bath, swipe on makeup, and pummel my hair with baby powder to give it poof. A dark suit hanging on the back of the bathroom door becomes my ensemble for the day. The vision in the mirror is not enchanting, but at least my red eyes and rumpled clothes seem to match.
“I dare anyone to criticize,” I say, pointing at my reflection.
I check on the readiness of my three Smiths--Megan, ten; Nick, twelve; and Ben, seventeen--dig car keys from my purse, and toss four coats onto the couch.
“Two minutes,” I holler. “Everybody outside.”
I whisper a plea for even a few weak rays of sunshine as I open the front door, but instead I meet typical weather for Bellbrook, Ohio, less than two weeks before Christmas: gray, wet, and cold. It has always been the warmth of the people, our neighbors, the community, mooring us to this southern suburb of Dayton. But this December, I only feel the chill.
In my haste to heat up the car, I nearly knock over a poinsettia sitting outside our front door. Raindrops on its holiday wrapper sparkle in the porch light.
“What the heck?”
Megan peeks around me, and her face lights up.
“It’s so pretty!”
That’s my Meg: ever hopeful even after we’ve been through so much. I wish I could be more like her, but then again, I’m not ten.
“Yes, real pretty. Where are your brothers? Get your brothers.”
“Where did it come from, Mom? Let’s bring it in.”
I stand at the door watching the cold rain beat down on the plant’s four blood-red blooms. For me, bringing the flower into the house offers as much appeal as inviting in a wet, rabid dog for the holidays. I absolutely understand Scrooge now. I want to go to bed tonight and wake up on December 26. No shopping. No baking. No tree with lights. I’m not in a mood to make memories. The ones I have just hurt; I can’t imagine new ones will feel any better. I don’t expect to avoid the holiday altogether. I merely hope to minimize the affair as much as possible. Christmas is supposed to be about family, and ours has a larger-than-life-sized hole. The flower can’t fill it.
I imagine my husband standing next to the closet he lined with shelves last December. Beside him, our fully trimmed Canadian fir stands in a growing puddle of pine needles.
“You’re killing the Christmas tree,” I scolded, pointing to the mounting evidence on the floor. He tested my theory with a whack of his hammer on the closet shelf. Needles pirouetted from the branches.
“At least these shelves aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “Neither am I.”
So why am I alone?
I search for him in the shadows of the house in the hours between good night kisses and the morning alarm, even though I know he’s not there. My back throbs from the continual jabbing of a broken coil in the sofa, but I can’t bring myself to sleep upstairs in the bed we shared. I won’t even shift to his side of the sofa.
The space Rick filled, it’s empty.
Megan needs Christmas, but I’m not ready to descend into fa-la-la land. The appearance of this flower is sure to jump-start the nagging about buying a Christmas tree and scavenging through boxes in the basement for our collection of Santa Claus figurines. I consider asking Rick’s brother Tom and his wife, Charlotte, to let the kids spend the holidays with them, just a day or two. I could hide from the season while they shower my children with gifts and stuff them with turkey and banana pudding. The kids would only be a few miles away if I got needy, but I could delegate the Christmas trimmings to Tom and Char. Delivery of the idea will be tricky. I can hear the chorus of “No way,” and recognize my voice as the loudest. I don’t want the holidays, but I do want my kids home with me.
The clock on the mantle chimes seven a.m., and I snap back into my “single mom with children nearly late for school” mode.
“I don’t know where the flower came from, Meg. But I’m not bringing it in. It’s wet, and the potting soil looks like a mudslide.”
“But, Mom, it’s a Christmas flower.”
Megan presses her plea for the plant, as Ben walks up the steps from his basement bedroom. I know he was out until nearly three a.m., and I’m not fool enough to believe he was studying. He doesn’t give me a chance to say good morning or to question him about the missed curfew.
“I don’t see why I have to go to school. Most of my friends have already left town for winter break.”
The thought of having this conversation, again, makes me weary. I want to crawl back under the covers and tell him to do the same, but it’s not an option for either of us.
“Just get your coat. You’ve already missed too many days of school.”
Megan stands between us.
“Look, Ben. Look what we found on the porch.”
I’m not sure why or exactly when, but she has become the peacemaker of the family in the last two months.
“Where’d it come from?”
Ben moves past me to retrieve the flower. I put a hand up to stop him.
“Whoa.” Ben throws his arms up in surrender, but his eyes warn me a battle is brewing. I know there are words to soothe him, but they aren’t in my vocabulary this morning.
“Please, just go get your book bag.”
Ben disappears back down the basement stairs just as Nick leaps down three steps at a time from his bedroom upstairs. Megan draws him into the poinsettia debate.
“Mom doesn’t want to bring it in, but I think we should. It’s too cold outside for a such a pretty little flower.”
Nick glances out the door and immediately loses interest.
“Better not bring it in,” he whispers to Meg. “Might be a bomb disguised as a flower. Yeah. It’s probably okay as long as it’s outside where the temperature is nearly freezing, but bring it into a warm house and kaboom!”
Megan jumps, “Mom!”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll bring it in.” I acquire several fingernails full of wet potting soil, and muddy raindrops mark a trail across the living room carpet to the kitchen.
“Don’t say that,” Megan scolds. “Hey, there’s something else.”
Megan follows me into the kitchen carrying a plastic bag with a homemade Christmas card inside. The note is written on yellow parchment with ripped edges, giving it an aged look. Someone has penned the message in an elegant cursive hand and sketched a holly leaf in the corner. The verse is a familiar one, though some of the lines are different:
On the first day of Christmas
your true friends give to you,
one Poinsettia for all of you.
Megan converts the note to song and starts dancing around the kitchen. Our blue-eyed Siberian husky, Bella, begins howling in unison. Nick grabs the parchment.
“What friends? Was it Aunt Char? Uncle Tom? Someone from school? A teacher maybe?”
I can’t answer him.
Right now, I don’t feel as if we have any friends. Telephone calls to chat and make plans for weekend gatherings have stopped. There are no Christmas cards in our mailbox, only bills.
Ben takes advantage of the commotion to announce he is not going to school.
“I’ve got a headache. I’m going back to bed.”
I want to put my arms around Ben and tell him that I understand his need to banish that song and everything relating to the holidays from our lives, but I don’t have the energy. Instead, I think of their father’s voice, bellowing the loudest when we sang that same carol as he drove us to a Christmas tree farm just outside of Yellow Springs.
After nearly twenty years of marriage, I had grown accustomed to Rick’s often off-key chorus, but still I had been grateful for the closed truck windows. At the tree lot, we had meandered down rows of Scotch and white pines, Canadian firs, and blue spruce. Megan begged for one of each. Nick set his heart on a fifteen-footer, though our family room is only twelve feet tall, floor to ceiling. Ben’s only request was that the tree branches be sparse near the bottom.
“More room for presents,” he had explained.
Together, we had selected the perfect tree, then Rick had shooed the kids and me back into the warm truck to share a thermos of hot chocolate that I’d made for the occasion and brought with us. He alone braved temperatures in the low twenties, chipping away at the stubborn tree trunk with a dull ax. Wearing a red-and-black flannel shirt, dark jeans, and knit cap, he had looked like a lumberjack as he dragged the tree to the truck, strong, healthy, and rugged but with adorable rosy cheeks.
That was my man.
Standing six feet five, with wavy black hair and hands large enough to schlep an eight-pound infant in his palm like a pizza, Rick had reveled in his role of protector, provider, “the Big Dad.” He always had his huge arms wrapped around us.
The clock on the mantle chimes again, reminding me how late we really are. Meanwhile the poinsettia is creating a puddle of dirty water on the counter, forging a channel down the kitchen cabinet onto the floor. I pick up the pot, shiny paper and all, and toss it into the sink. It topples and splatters damp potting soil on the clean dishes left to drain after last night’s dinner.
“Shit. Shit. Shit. Everybody in the car,” I shout.
“Mommy . . .” Megan huffs, stomping her foot on the floor.
“I know. I know. Don’t say that.”
Megan straightens the plant before collecting her backpack and heading out to the car. Her brothers and I follow. The car is cold.
I deposit the still grumbling Ben at the high school and navigate through a jumble of parent traffic at the junior high that Nick attends.
“Learn something,” I call as he slams the car door. He just keeps walking.
Megan, who attends the intermediate school, starts classes later than her brothers, so she and I sit in the car for twenty minutes practicing her spelling words, all holiday related, of course.
“Ornament. O-r-n-a-m-e-n-t. Ornament. Poinsettia. P-o-i-n-s-e-t-t-i-a. Poinsettia. Do you think . . . do you suppose Daddy could’ve left it for us, Mom? You know, the p-o-i-n-s-e-t-t-i-a.”
She looks at me with chocolate eyes so like her Dad’s, but there’s a new yearning haunting them that wasn’t there until two months ago. I want to tell her that his love lingers all around us, but how can I say that if I’m not sure it’s true? Do I lie? It’s easier to stick to safe topics like school, basketball practice, and her Girl Scout troop.
She needs reassurance from me that we’ll be okay, but I’m not sure we will.
“What I think is that it’s time for you to go to class and earn a few A’s,” I say, pulling up the zipper on her bright yellow jacket. I plant a kiss on top of her head.
“Put your hood up, because . . .”
“Body heat escapes off your head.” We say it together and laugh.
She starts up the sidewalk toward the school but turns and runs back to the car. I check the seat to see what she’s forgotten, but it’s empty. Megan presses her nose against the car window just as I am about to roll it down. Her breath leaves a puff of steam on the glass.
“Can we get a Christmas tree this weekend, Mom? Please? Okay, great,” she says, without waiting for an answer.
“Maybe once you clean your room!” I call after her weakly, but she is already running toward the school. She waves before disappearing inside, taking what’s left of my heart with her.
Before I get the car into gear, tears are blurring my vision.
On my way to the office, I weave through town past Christmas decorations dangling from lampposts in the shopping plaza. By the time I reach the entrance ramp to the interstate, I feel like screaming.
I pound the steering wheel and accidentally hit the horn. An elderly gentleman in a black sedan pulls over into the slow lane, and I speed up guiltily. I am ashamed of my actions now, and of the sense of panic that moved into our home when Rick left us.
I am terrified of the growing cache of bills stowed out of sight in the kitchen drawer. The electric company has demanded a deposit, even though Rick and I have had an account with them for twenty years. The account, of course, was in his name. My name was unknown to most of our creditors, but they are learning it now.
My friend Kate tells me Rick is at peace. He is in a place where there is no pain, no worry, no angst, but I imagine Rick crazy angry with God. That steel-melting emotion burns in me, too. I can’t explain to the kids why this has happened, why other families have fathers and theirs doesn’t. I can’t tell them that I wish it had been me who died because Rick would know how to help them through this.
A driver hardly old enough to have a license lays on his horn, and I realize my car is straddling the dotted line between two lanes.
“Jesus, Jo, pay attention,” I say to myself, then mouth “sorry” to the kid, who responds with a flash of his middle finger. I consider returning the gesture, but my heart isn’t in it. I am grateful to him for riveting my attention back to the road.
By now I can feel warm air shooting from the vents of the car heater, but I am still shivering.
What would happen to the kids if something happened to me?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to fear every pain and sore muscle. Sometimes, I get nervous just walking the dog.
“You’re being paranoid,” I say out loud, and then realize I am still talking to myself. I think the driver in the tan truck in the lane to the left notices.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Seldom do you learn how hard it is for a young mother with three young children who has just lost her husband, especially when it is just before Christmas, to cope with all the seasonal happiness and keep up with her work duties and family duties. The loss has to be greater than most of us realize. Joanne Huist Smith has captured the reality of it all in her unique Chistmas story that puts everything in perspective. We laugh and cry with her and suspensefully wait for each new gift left on the family's front porch. It will capture your heart and let you see how people can help and hinder one another. The blessings of one can help heal the loss of another. A true Christmas is one of sharing and caring. Don't miss this one. It's a keeper. One to read and pass on to someone else you know. Let the chain of goodwill live on...Thanks Joanne.
This book was a nice holiday read for my book club. I thought it may be too sad for this time of year but it wasn't. I'm not sure the odd (I thought) gifts would have had the same affect on me but whatever works for a family in need . . . it had the desired outcome.
Review: The 13th Gift (Smith ISBN 978-0-553-41855-2) October 2014 This book is packaged like a holiday chicklit novel, but is actually a true story of a grieving family machining it through the first Christmas after the death of their father/husband. The author is a reporter in Dayton Ohio, and her skill at developing a story and sprinkling in just enough detail to make it authentic is noticeable and appreciated. After reading the book I found myself wanting to know more, so went against my usual habit and read the afterward, too, to find out what happened next. I suggest this as a holiday endcap title in a bookstore, a church book club title, and even as a gift to an older teen. Use it to open discussions: how can we look up out of our own pain, life, habits, routine, and find a way to help others? Even a small, thoughtful act done with love can make a big impact on others. (This title was provided in exchange for a fair and honest review.)
Just about everyone has heard of the Secret Santa tradition. One where we get together. give gifts anonymously, and throw an office party. But this Secret Santa was something really special and very unique. They reached out to a family falling apart. A family that didnt seem like it was going to survive through the Christmas season without some very serious emotional fallout. When gifts start showing up at their doorstep (along with cute little verses that I lvoed), the mom is initially quite upset. Upset in a way that I really didn't understand until about half way through the story. These gifts from strangers brought a holiday to her that she was trying desperately to erase from her life. A holiday that brought so many bittersweet memories with it. Thankfully, her youngest won't let her throw the gifts away, and even manages to make a game of trying to catch Santa in the act. Slowly but surely these gifts - one for each of the 12 days before Christmas - begin to draw the family not only into the holiday spirit, but it brings them back together. For the first time in a long time, they find themselves working on a common project - a who-dun-it (in a good way) type of mystery. In the end, things are still not normal, but the family has learned to come together to deal with all the things life throws at them. They have also built some amazing memories together that they continue to share through the years. This is what a Christmas story should be all about.*This book was received in exchange for an honest review*
I love Christmas stories and that is probably why I got this book several months ago. I just got around to finally reading it and I hated to put it down. It was inspirational in that it proves how we all can help in little ways when friends (or strangers, too) have to deal with grief during holiday seasons. In this particular case, it helped the family to change focus from bottomless grief to a way to deal with upcoming Christmas and resuming life when a major life character is gone. It was an enjoyable read and I hope the inspiration lasts in me for a lifetime.
This is a wonderful look at the special love and miracles that a family Christmas is all about.
Every year, I choose one book to read to put me in the holiday mood. I read this book in two days. I was grabbed from the first chapter by the events in this book. I couldn't put it down. It was excellent. I would highly recommend reading this book, not only at the holidays but all year round. It will give you ideas for acts of kindness in your own community and restore your faith in humanity, especially during the hoiday time of year which can be difficult for some people.
Wow I loved this book such a wounderful warming feeling each page you read. This is a must read for anyone. such a true blessing.
Easy, good book for Christmas reading.
This book is one that I will pick up every Christmas to read again. The lessons learned (for children as well as adults) would help all of us to better live together on this planet. The writing is easily read quickly and kids would benefit from this being read to/for/with them. Happy New Year, Avid Reader
Love that it's a true story...so very heartwarming. Nice to know there are such people in the world; people who will go out of their way to help brighten another' day and lighten their burden of sadness.
This was a fantastic book of healing through the spirit of gift giving at Christmas time.I recommend this book for you as a friend to buy and give as a gift to someone who has suffered a loss.I read it and bought another for a friend .
What do you do when you've lost someone you love, and it's almost Christmas? Sometimes a little help is needed to bring you back to where you can enjoy life again. I'm glad to say that this inspiring story is true.
It's a great and easy read, an inspiration for everyone.
This is a true story and you will cry! But you will also rejoice in this wonderful, powerful story. If you think doing something nice for someone will not make a difference, if you think you have to spend a lot of money on gifts then you need to read this book. Losing a loved one anytime is hard, but to lose them so close to a holiday (especially Christmas) is beyond hard, especially when you have 3 kids. I could not put this book down, it pulled so many emotions out of me and that is what a good book is supposed to do! Thank you Joanne Huist Smith for sharing your story with us.
Excellent read and story of compassion
Loved this book
Joanne Huist Smith’s husband passed away a few months before December. Depressed and unable to participate in the Christmas cheer, her youngest of three children worries that there won’t be a Christmas this year. One night, a mysterious package arrives on the doorstep, a gift from some their True Friends. Each night, a small present arrives in tune with the classic song, “12 Days of Christmas.” The blessing she receives from her anonymous friends, allows her to come to terms with the Christmas spirit, and to not only accept happiness, but also to look forward to participating in the excitement of this holiday. Readers, especially those who have suffered loss, will be able to relate to the author’s desire to stay in bed and shun the happiness in the world. It isn’t a desire to hide from loved ones, but more a need to hide from the cheeriness of the universe. Kind of like the gift givers choosing the “12 Days of Christmas,” readers will want to take time to absorb the words and value each lesson, by reading only a chapter or two a day. This is the kind of book that helps restore the faith in humanity. Notes: This review was written for Sasee Magazine and My Sister's Books. This review was posted on the Ariesgrl Book Reviews website.
This is a truly unique and heart warming anytime read .
This is a book that will now be one of those I read EVERY December. I've been planning to read it since it came out last year, but it got lost in the shuffle of my TBR pile, so I saved it for this Christmas season. The fact that the author is a local resident was also a drawing point for me. This book deals with a family grieving the death of their husband and father, and their first holiday season without him. It is a very touching story, and shares the true spirit of the season. The gifts that show up on the family's doorstep each day not only help them to get the holiday spirit back in their lives, they also bring the family back together. I couldn't stop reading this book, wanting to get to the next chapter to find out about the next gift. By the end, you will realize that the thirteenth gift is the most meaningful one of all. I'm going to be recommending this one to everyone, and probably gifting it to people next year.
After the death of her husband, the author, Joanne Huist Smith struggled to stay strong for her three children. Their first Christmas after the loss would be very difficult. Twelve days before that Christmas small presents begin mysteriously appearing on their doorstep with notes from their "True Friends." These daily gifts in turn draw the family not only into the holiday spirit, but it brings them back together as a family. The book is subtitled "a true story of a Christmas miracle", with the focus of the story on the impact that human beings can make by being kind to one another. This is a nice heartwarming story of making a difference in other people's lives. Our Granby Library Book Group enjoyed "The 13th Gift" as our holiday read.
This is a true story of one families journey from heartache to Christmas miracle. Joanne's husband passed away in the sept and she feels they're doing okay. They're functioning. In the most basic way. But with Christmas approaching, the heartache at the loss is taking a toll and the last thing she feel capable of doing is celebrate the season. As a mother, Joanne is torn between the loss of her children's father and their need for this special season to be a celebration. To make new memories more than just get through the month. She's blind to the real problems. The family is pulling apart. Then something magical happens. Twelve days before Christmas gifts start showing on her doorstop. They are simple gifts with cards signed from your True Friends. The 13th Gift is a well written book about life. The audio version couldn't have been better. My opinion, the best narrator is generally the author. In this case, there could have been no one else who would have done it justice. Would I recommend this book? I have and do. Was there anything I didn't like about the book? besides the fact that it started with a tragedy, no. I was pulled in and forgot to look, yes writers often look for issues.
I am so jealous of the Smiths. No, wait, that came out wrong. The Smiths had a horrible, terrible thing happen to them when Mr. Smith died. Joanne is heartbroken and limp, unsure if she is even capable of continuing on without her husband. I don't envy that! But what I do envy is the joyous mystery of the Twelve Days of Christmas gifts. How exciting it would be to have a different kind gift show up on your doorstep the twelve days before Christmas! What a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit! And, of course, that's what the gifts were for. They were given because the Smiths were in mourning, and they needed some holiday cheer. And while Joanne may have begun the twelve days of Christmas covering her ears at the hint of a Christmas carol, she certainly ended them in much better shape. This book reads like fiction, and well-written fiction at that. Joanne is a reporter and you can definitely tell that she's got a way with words. She wrote this book almost fifteen years after the events it describes took place, so she had time to step back and analyze her own condition and the conditions of her three kids at the time, and portray them brutally honestly. That brings me to the children. I feel so bad for those kids! The youngest girl, Megan, was only ten when her father died. How horrible. She is actually the one who deals with it the best, though, as she gets wrapped up in the excitement of Christmas and acts as peacemaker between her mother and her oldest brother Ben. Ben was seventeen when his father died, and you can see how hard it was for him to lose his male authority figure at such a difficult time. He struggles to deal with his emotions, and (especially early in the book) winds up hurting his mother with his rebellious behavior more than he means to. Nick, the middle child, was so cute! He spent most of the book rotating between being a kid who just lost his father, and a kid who wants a new computer, a new bed, a new room, and a new video game console for Christmas. All three kids are drawn realistically with the eye for detail only a mother can furnish. A word of warning to those who want to read it for the heartwarming Christmas book that it is: there are, like, three instances of bad language in the book, all toward the beginning. I think there are two or so uses of the word "damn" and in one instance someone in the parking lot yells "a-hole" at a rude driver. I really wish she hadn't put these words in, because the book could have flowed just as well without them, and it makes me leery to wholeheartedly recommend the book to many people who would otherwise love it. Besides that, though, it's a beautiful story and a heartwarming read that I am very glad I was able to spend a few hours enjoying. If you don't mind the minor amount of language, then you should find nothing at all wrong with this story of love, loss, family, and Christmas. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.