February 2024

The Boy Who Loved Christmas

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Charles Cooke ran his long, slender fingers through his chestnut hair and closed his eyes.  It was a gesture he absently reverted to whenever he was lost in thought.  Despite the warm lights in the room, the images that danced through Charlie’s head were of a cold, distant prairie almost a half century ago.

He heard the deep, stern voice of his mother rise an octave in fear as she frantically ran through the snow looking for her three-year-old son. Kate had been baking in the kitchen, when she noticed that Charlie was not on the floor playing with his toys.  She called his name loudly and flung open the back door, racing down the steps and into the small, fenced yard.  But the boy was nowhere to be seen.  She hurried back into the house, striding through the kitchen and hallway calling his name. There was still no answer, but as she rounded the turn into the living room, there, tucked away in the corner,  sat Charlie on an, old, battered Windsor chair, legs folded beneath him, elbows resting on his knees, head in hand, and staring wonder-eyed and mesmerized at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree as it revolved round and round.

“Charles Cooke!!  You will give me gray hair yet!  What are you doing on your naughty chair, and why didn’t you answer when I called!” Kate sputtered.

The boy looked up and smiled sweetly, his thin bow shaped lips widening into a huge smile.  “I wanted to watch the lights.  This is the best place, Mommy. It’s like magic.”

In Charlie’s reverie, Kate sighed a deep sigh of relief. And he, Charles Cooke, exhaled, as well, and opened his eyes. He was standing in one of their upstairs bedrooms – “the Princess Room” as they dubbed it – enjoying a quiet moment among the holiday decorations that were his and Martin’s handiwork.  Before him stood the Disney Princess Tree, one of his elaborate Christmas designs.   The two-tier base with small diorama settings for each of the Disney heroines rotated slowly, while on the tree the delicate Victorian ornaments complemented the vintage beauty of the room. He had designed this tree and the entire installation in this and every one of the other twenty rooms in the stately Lancaster home he shared with his husband, Martin Rosen.  He had a passion for design, for making every inch of living space beautiful and meaningful in a personal way and for sharing that beauty with those he loved.  In fact, tonight’s party to which Charlie had invited all his and Martin’s theatre friends – fellow actors, producers, directors, dancers – was Charlie’s way of sharing the magic of the season with those closest to him.  Nothing made him happier than to create a palpable sense of joy in those around him.

Charlie glanced at his watch, ran his fingers through his hair once again, straightened his bow tie, and smoothed his tuxedo jacket.  He turned to go when Martin entered the room.  “Hey, sweetheart, we better go down. The guests are starting to arrive and the photographer from Interior Design Magazine is here.”

The couple  descended the stairs.  Martin stood at the door welcoming their friends, while Charlie introduced himself to the photographer and offered to give him as quick tour and then let him explore on his own.  They paused in the parlor to take in the silver and white splendor of the tall tree commanding the room. “This is our Silver Symphony,” Charlie commented, as he indicated the mantle decked with fresh white peonies in cut glass vases interspersed with crystal pine trees. They moved into the dining room with its magnificent Victorian Suite of trees laden with red and gold, ribbons, feathers, traditional ornaments, and a profusion of angels. Crossing the hall they lingered a moment in the vast, wood-paneled library to enjoy the trees and corners of the room dedicated to the Nutcracker and the Wizard of Oz with figurines from every part of the globe.  And nestled among these two iconic stories, Charlie and Martin had secreted a little vitrine dedicated to Treasure Island, the subject of their musical which they had written together and had produced last season. 

As the guests continued to pour in, the pair passed through the foyer with its elegant Golden Rod tree stretching up to the ceiling and plethora of poinsettias. On the second floor Charlie quickly guided the photographer through the bedrooms, where in the King Bedroom the Peacock Tree with its brilliant azure feathers, birds nestled in the branches complemented the blue and white of the companion Wedgewood Tree, while in the adjoining Queen Bedroom Waterford shimmered on the centerpiece tree. A symphony of angels, harps, and period ornaments outfitted the Abundant Angels Tree in the Prince Bedroom, while the stark, white walled office came to life with Teddy Bears and Disney characters. Charlie pointed out the bathrooms- also decorated each with an individual theme - as they passed and whisked the photographer through the Princess Bedroom and up to his and Martin’s third floor Master Bedroom Suite where white and gold of the tree complemented the ivory, crème, and beige of the décor. 

Hastening down the stairs to the foyer, Charlie directed the photographer: “There’s more in the basement, too – four more rooms with lots of fun trees and themes…so feel free to start there, perhaps, and work your way up.  I am going to greet our guests, but don’t hesitate to find me or Martin if you need anything.  And be sure to have some champagne and something to eat.  We really appreciate your doing this.”  He clapped the man on the shoulder, gave him one of his irresistible smiles and swung into the throng of guests.  

As he made his way into the living room, he spied his mother, ensconced in an armchair near the fireplace, sipping her tea and talking animatedly to a small group of neighbors she knew well from her visits.  She was revelling in the opportunity the evening gave her to reminisce. “When did Charlie become so fascinated with Christmas, Mrs. Cooke?” Rosemary asked. 

“Ever since he was a toddler.  If I was looking for him, I always knew I could find him in front of the Christmas tree.  When he was three, he gave me such a scare.  I thought he had gone outside in the cold and then I found him tucked away in his naughty chair….”

“Not that story again, Mother,” Charlie protested, as he paused among her listeners.

“Why was it his naughty chair?” Deb persisted.

“Because whenever he needed a time out we would tell him to go sit there and think about what he had done.  But what I didn’t realize,” Kate continued, “was that at Christmas the chair had the best view of our tree, so Charlie loved sitting there.  It wasn’t a punishment at all!”

“And did you always love angels and nutcrackers and all these beautiful ornaments, Charles,” Michael asked.  But before Charlie could answer, Kate replied, “No, as a boy, his favorite toys were Johnny West dolls.  Mostly the horses, cowboys and Indians.  He would come downstairs on Christmas morning and head right to his presents.  We didn’t wrap them, so he knew right away which were his.  Go downstairs, Michael, and have a look.  They are all down there in the Poker Room.”

Charles  tried to extricate himself from the group.  He hated when his mother told childhood stories, and it embarrassed him to have his colleagues and friends  seem to hang on her every word.  Nothing extraordinary about those  holidays.  He was just a boy who loved Christmas… 

He made his way over to Martin on the fringe of the conversation and whispered in his ear. Martin smiled, excused himself, and went over to the grand piano. He sat down and began to play from memory, his fingers fleetly caressing the keys.  He played a few carols, and as he did, the conversation slowly came to a hush and everyone began to congregate around the piano.

“Sing something, Charlie,” a guest called out.  Martin nodded in encouragement and began “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Charlie set down his champagne and leaned into the curve of the piano.  His rich tenor filled the room in lilting phrases.  He spun the lyrics with a warmth and tenderness that seemed to embrace the entire room.  He finished with a flourish and Martin neatly segued into “O Tannenbaum.” Charlie joined him first in German and then in English.

As the guests applauded, Kate lifted her voice again.  “When Charlie was a freshman, he had a solo in the school concert.  It was “O Tannenbaum. “ But when he stepped out to do the first verse, he blanked out, so he very calmly stepped back into the chorus and let his mates sing the verse.  Then on the second verse, he stepped out and finished the solo.”

“Mom, you’re embarrassing me,” Charlie forced a smile. 

“But you did!  I was proud of you!!  How many kids would have had that presence of mind?”

Sensing Charlie’s discomfort, Martin suddenly launched into another composition – something he and Charlie were working on.  His fingers raced lightly over the keys in the haunting pizzicato of the overture to Sarah, the new musical they were creating about the strange life of Sarah Winchester. Then he began the introduction of the father’s song, “The Music Box.” Without a word Charlie seamlessly joined him, his voice plaintively soaring as the father urged his daughter to open herself to the music and rhythm of her life with love.  Applause greeted the big finish, and as Martin glanced around, he saw Sean Stevens had joined the group who had been listening.  Sean gave him the thumbs up sign and quickly vanished into the other room.  Martin turned to share the exchange with Charlie, who was once again doing his best to extricate himself from the little group still paying court to Kate. 

But no sooner had the song finished than Kate resumed her storytelling.  “We always told the four kids that Drew and I believed in Santa Claus and they all had to believe, too, or there wouldn’t be any Christmas gifts. The older kids were pretty good about playing along. They were teenagers when Charlie was a little kid, but they kept the story.  And Charlie was good about the tradition, too. If he knew it wasn’t true, he never let on.”

“I wanted those Johnny West toys,” Charlie chuckled, as he left the parlor to start saying goodbye to the guests who had begun to leave.  One by one Charlie and Martin hugged and kissed their friends and thanked them for coming.  The photographer shook hands with both of them.

“I think I got everything I need,” he said.  “Thank you for letting us cover this story.  What you’ve created here is truly unique!”

Among the last to go was Sean Stevens. He shook Charlie’s hand, thanking him, and as he did he pressed his card into Charlie’s palm.  “Be in touch, my friend,” he said heartily.

Charlie hugged the last of their friends and then closing the door, glanced down at Stevens’ business card. On the back, the producer had scrawled: “Sarah intrigues me.  Come see me next week in New York.  I’d like to talk about it.” 

Charlie turned on his heel and went back into the parlor.  Kate was still in her chair, her eyes bright with tears.  An evening filled with so many memories had overwhelmed the elderly woman.  She just smiled at her son, who put his arm around Martin and handed him the note from Stevens.

As Martin’s faced beamed with a hopeful smile, Charlie’s smile broadened into a grin. “Hey, Mom,” he sang out. “You know I still do believe in Santa Claus!”


For Curt and Marc, who are masters of the magic of Christmas,
and to Kaye for sharing her memories….


-Brunswick, Maine 2023


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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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