It was the worst Christmas ever.
Eight-year-old Chris Hunter was facing the first Christmas without the person he loved most in the world, his Grandpa Malcolm O’Brien. His grandfather had died two months before from a heart attack.
His grandparents lived in a large, two-story stucco home on East Ardennes Avenue, one of the oldest streets in Stonegate, a close-in suburb of St. Louis. Built in the 1910s, the house had tall ceilings and Frank Lloyd Wright-type mantles, lighting, and overall design. It was utterly unlike the large, contemporary ranch home his own family occupied in Woodfield, a far western St. Louis suburb some 20 miles from Stonegate and 35 miles from downtown St. Louis.
Chris loved exploring his grandparents’ house. From the attic to the basement, the home was filled with boxes, trunks, and old wardrobes full of magic. At least, that’s what his grandfather always told him. Magic was everywhere. And he’d let Chris loose to search, and sometimes join him, for the leprechaun’s pot of gold.
Since the time when Chris was old enough to listen, his grandfather had told him stories about the leprechauns, the small little people who loved to commit mischief and kept a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Together, Chris and Malcolm would search the lawn for shamrocks and especially the four-leaved clovers. His grandfather would read stories about leprechauns.
Of the three Hunter children – Ross Jr., Emma, and Chris, the youngest – it was only Chris who would listen avidly. The two older Hunter children would roll their eyes and slip away, looking for something else to do. Chris alone would stay, grinning and laughing at the Irish accent his grandfather affected when reading the stories
“This is our secret, Chris,” his grandfather would whisper. “You and I are the only leprechauns left in St. Louis, and we have to find our pot of gold that someone’s hidden from us.”
In looking for the gold, they’d find old clothes, books, toys, and photographs from decades earlier. Each new find prompted new stories from Grandpa Malcolm. And Chris was captivated.
Ross Jr. was older by six years, and Emma by four. Ross Jr. was tall and blond, like their father. Emma and Chris looked more like their mother’s side of the family. His father often called Chris “Little Malcolm,” which Chris wouldn’t understand until years later. The youngest Hunter strongly resembled his grandfather, with black hair and brown eyes so dark and deep they looked almost black. He didn’t know why, but Chris knew that his father and his grandfather did not get along. The boy wasn’t quite sure what to make of his father’s regular references to “Little Malcolm,” but knew his father didn’t mean it in a nice way.
The annual Christmas feast was always held at the O’Brien’s house. Chris’s mother was an only child, so the celebration would usually be his grandparents and his family. The Hunters would arrive by noon, everyone would open presents, and then they’d eat at 2 p.m. sharp. Chris’s mother and Emma would help in the kitchen, Ross Sr. and Ross Jr. would head outside to throw a football or play basketball at the hoop Grandpa Malcolm had had installed for Ross Jr. in front of the garage. Chris had once asked to play with them, but his father said that he was too little, and he could watch them.
When his father had told Chris he could watch but not play, Grandpa Malcolm had frowned. He took Chris by the hand and led him back inside the house. “I have a story to read to you,” he’d told the boy. And that started the leprechaun stories.
Grandpa O’Brien would read from the big book of Irish folklore he kept on the shelf in his study. Except at Christmas, when he would read an original leprechaun story he’d written himself, with the main characters being Chris the Leprechaun and his sidekick Old Malcolm. And every story was about Old Malcolm always getting them into trouble, and how Chris the Leprechaun would rescue them from a fate worse than death.
Whenever Chris was at their home in Stonegate, he and his grandfather managed to find the time to explore for that mythical pot of gold, which Grandpa O’Brien insisted was hidden somewhere in the house. They never found the gold, but they would often find peppermints, candy bars, and packs of gum. Once, on Chris’s seventh birthday, they found two silver dollar coins, which Grandpa O’Brien said meant they must be getting close to the gold. “And that’s one each for Chris the Leprechaun and Old Malcolm,” he’d said.
His parents thought his grandmother, still grieving her loss, might skip the Christmas feast this year. After the funeral, she spent several days with the Hunters at their home, usually with Chris by her side. He had her smiling and even laughing when he read the Christmas stories to her, using an Irish accent like his grandfather, and told her the stories of their escapades searching for the pot of gold.
But she insisted that the Christmas feast at her house in Stonegate would continue. The only change was that they ate at 1 p.m. and would open presents afterward.
They arrived at 11. Ross Sr. and Ross Jr. went straight to the basketball hoop outside. Chris followed and watched them for a time, but then went inside. Emma was helping his mother and grandmother prepare the meal, so he went exploring on his own. But it wasn’t the same without his grandfather. No new leprechaun story. No searching high and low and finding something sweet to eat. No pulling of pranks on the rest of the family. The boy felt almost desolate.
They ate their dinner, with dessert being the favorite of Grandpa O’Brien and Chris – mincemeat pie with a big dollop of whipped cream on top. Then it was on to the Christmas tree and opening presents.
Even that wasn’t the same without Grandpa O’Brien. Chris liked his presents, mostly toys and books, including a set of Hardy Boys mysteries. But he could remember sitting next to his grandfather, listening to him utter a smart quip about each present. And smelling the ever-present Old Spice aftershave.
“Well,” Grandma O’Brien said, “we’re done. Anyone for coffee or tea?”
“Wait,” said Ross Jr., sitting closest to the tree. “There’s one more.” He reached underneath and retrieved a smallish present, wrapped in a dull green paper and green ribbon. “It’s for Chris. And there’s a message. It says, ‘Look Hard.’” He handed it to his brother.
“What on earth,” Grandma O’Brien said to their mother. “I don’t remember you handing it to me when I put the presents under the tree.”
Chris’s mother shook her head. “We didn’t bring it. I’ve never seen it before.”
“It wasn’t there,” Emma said, somewhat red-faced. “I looked at all the presents before we ate. It wasn’t there.”
Ross Jr. handed the present to Chris. “Well, open it up and see what it is.”
Chris looked at the present in his hands. He handed it to his grandmother, pointing to the gift sticker.
Grandma O’Brien gasped. “That’s Malcolm’s handwriting. I’d recognize it anywhere.” She handed the present back to Chris.
The boy carefully removed the ribbon and paper, and then he opened the plain cardboard box.
Inside was a small metal kettle with a lid. Chris lifted it out of the box and removed the lid.
The kettle contained several chocolate coins wrapped in the gold tinfoil. Chris stared in wonder, and then grinned. “It’s the pot of gold, the one Grandpa and I were always looking for.”
He looked closely at the candy coins. He pulled out one, and then he saw something else glinting among the pieces of candy. He pulled it out and held it up between his thumb and index finger.
“It’s a gold coin,” he said. “A real one.”
“What?” his mother said.
“Let me see it,” Ross Sr. said, and Chris handed it to him.
“It’s a $2.50 gold coin,” his father said, “with a Liberty head, dated 1842.”
“There’s another one,” Chris said, extracting a second coin. He emptied the kettle on the floor, but no other coins were mixed with the candy.
Ross Jr. was looking at his mobile. “I googled it. People are selling them for anywhere from $2,000 to almost $100,000, depending upon the condition and where it was minted.”
“Did you say 1842, Ross?” Grandma O’Brien said.
“That was the year the O’Brien family came to America, fleeing the potato famine.”
The family stared at each other.
“And there are only two coins?” Ross Sr. said.
Chris examined the coins again and looked at his father. “Just two.” And then he smiled, remembering. “One for Chris the Leprechaun, and one for Old Malcolm. They always split whatever they find.”
The worst Christmas ever had become one of the best Christmases ever.
Top photograph of a leprechaun via Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission.
Photograph of shamrock by Amy Reed via Unsplash. Used with permission.