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Friday, September 1, 2017

Sacking the Muse



Too many great books have never been penned because their writers were held hostage by waning inspiration. It’s time for a deliberate approach to creativity. It’s time to sack the muse.

Artists of every genre feel the pain of low ebb; it’s a debilitating condition. And some of the blame can be pinned on those noble Greeks and their belief in the muses - a sisterhood of goddesses who inspired artistic creativity in humankind. To be fair, the ancients did put flesh on the philosophy with the splendor of their columns, temples, sculptures and heroic literature. And even their word muse has been adapted into modern language in the form of music, mosaic, amuse and museum. It’s easy to see that in each of these derivations is the seed of their theory.

Still, were every artist totally dependent on the whim of an ethereal force, many magnificent works would be missing from cultures of every generation. And though giftedness cannot actually be learned, it is undeniable that any artist can learn to nourish her creativity in practical ways. What the Greeks attributed to mystical energy may be initiated by planning and resolve.

Writing is similar to other art forms in that it is soulful expression. As such, it requires a certain framework - focus, setting, and mood - in order that beauty may be brought forth.

The writing brain craves an intensity of focus so that the gathering thoughts may be marshaled and examined, shined and arranged. Word-crafting happens best in the vastness of silence – both in actual physics and in the field of the mind. Yet being especially visual, the writer-artist often needs something both restful and stimulating on which to rest the eyes. Perhaps that is why many writers are drawn to nature’s vignettes because in the waving plain or billowing sea or soaring peaks, the vision is filled and yet strangely still seeking. But a high-rise studio can yet offer an invitation to the writer who discovers how best to nourish her inner muse. It might be a framed landscape or abstract on the desk, it could be a particular type of sonata in the background or a certain sort of latte in hand that casts an inspirational glow over the laptop or steno pad.  Whatever sparks the mind’s eye becomes the incubator of creative thought.

But most vital for any writer is that combination of attitude and discipline that form the necessary perimeters of creativity. Being willing to slip into the writing mode and start tapping away at the keyboard is half of the battle. For when all is said and done, giving life to words is a process which demands hard work. And when the birthing pains are past and the muse has seemingly evaporated into the murk, the writer who has learned well her lesson can focus her gaze and once again feel the stirrings of creativity within her soul.


Fare thee well, fickle muse; visit when thou can. For me, the words await, and I must write.   

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Unexpected Gifts, Part 4

Unexpected Gifts

(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 4 - the end
       Valorie Bender Quesenberry 

He strained his eyes to see anything other than whipping snow. Turning around 180 degrees on the spot, he began to walk, his arms out in front of him. Surely, they’d miss him soon and come out and bang a pot or shoot a gun or something.

But in just a few minutes, his hand hit a wall, a wooden wall, a barn wall. Putting both hands on the boards, he slid them along as he walked until he came to the door. His hands were so cold that it took him a few minutes to make the latch work, but finally he got it open and stepped in.

The damp warmth of barn air greeted him. He stood for a moment, glad to have a haven, his eyes getting used to the darkness. Then, over in the corner, he saw the light of a lantern.

Quietly, he approached the stall toward the back. The door was open and he could see Janie down on her knees beside a little kid goat. She was holding its head in her lap and singing to it, so engrossed in her task that she didn’t see him.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head. The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”

Her hand was rubbing the goat’s floppy ears as she sang.

He cleared his throat, and she looked up. “Hi.”

“Hello, is this where you sleep at night?”

Janie laughed. “Oh no, I just come out here to sing to Joyful before I go to bed.”

“Is that her name, Joyful?”

The little girl nodded. ‘Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes. I must say I’ve never heard of a nicer name for a goat.”

“That’s because it’s a Christmas name.”  She patted the goat’s head. “I love Christmas.”

He squatted down beside her and stroked the goat’s head. “Why?”

“’Cause it’s the time of year when God showed us His love and sent baby Jesus. Do you know about that?”

“Yes, I’ve heard that story.”

“Oh, but it’s more than a story, Mr. Lewis. You see, God wanted to help us, and the best way He could do it was to send His very own Son to come down here and show us what He meant. And He was born on Christmas, just like Joe David.”

“Who is Joe David?”

“My little brother. You didn’t see him yet. He was sleeping upstairs. He had oleo and now he can’t walk.”

Frank hid a smile. “You say he had polio?

She nodded emphatically. “That’s right. It’s a bad disease that twisted his legs all up.”

Frank wondered at her matter-of-factness. “Does he have a wheelchair?”

“Uh-huh, but he can’t play in the snow with it. And he really wants to build a snowman. But the doctor said he needs an operation to make his legs work better.”

“Is he going to have the operation?”

“He can’t until Mother works some more. She’s saving up for it.”

“I see.”

Janie kept stroking the goat’s head, her touch as gentle as a mother. “Do you have a family, Mr. Lewis?”

“Yes, but I don’t see them very much.”

“How come?” Her big eyes wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“I guess it’s because there have been some sad things that happened in our family and when we’re together, we think about it more.” Frank thought the words sounded lame even to a child.

Her brows wrinkled. “Oh. Well, we had sad things too. My Daddy went away and isn’t coming back ever.”

“I know.” Frank patted her head. “I’m sure you miss him.”

“Yes.” She sighed. “Sometimes it hurts really bad. Love does that, doesn’t it?”

“I think you might be right.” Frank’s eyes felt misty. Was he missing something here? Could Sammy’s death be about more than loss or an unknown grave on foreign soil? Was there a gift in his sacrifice?

Janie looked up at him and held a finger to her lips. “See? Joyful is asleep. Be quiet now.”

She laid the goat’s head down carefully and stood up. Together, they backed out of the stall and carefully closed the door.

“Shall we go back to the house now?”  It had been a long day. Frank was feeling the effects of the emotional exertion.

“Okay, but we have to be careful. There’s a rope that you can follow with your hand. Gramps is waiting for me in the kitchen. If I don’t get back soon, he’ll come get me.”

“Well, we’d better not make him worry.”

Frank took the child’s hand in one of his and opened the barn door with the other. Sure enough, tied to the front was a thick rope. He put one hand on it and kept Janie tightly on his side. Together, they walked step by step until they reached the farmhouse.

----------------------------

When Jacquelyn opened her eyes the next morning, her first thought was that she was cold. Then she noticed the storm had stopped outside the window. In the early dawn, the sky was a glowing mix of lavender and pale blue, the snow turned to fairy colors by the coming light.

Dressing quickly, she hurried down the stairs as quietly as possible. Pop Benson was pulling on his boots and Mother Benson was rattling pans on the cookstove, making their Christmas morning pancakes.

“Good morning, honey. Are the children still sleeping?”

“I think so, but probably not for long.”

Gramps stood up and winked at her. “Guess they’ll be surprised.”

“What do you mean, Pop? You know I didn’t have the money to buy them a lot of presents.”

“Maybe not, but your faith must have multiplied somehow.”

“Huh?”

He waggled his finger at her. “Come take a look.”

Tiptoeing lest she wake the children, Jacquelyn followed him into the front room where a fir tree stood by the picture window, its branches hung with colored paper rings and red and green lights.
She looked where he was pointing and gasped. Under the tree there were presents, quite a few of them. She walked over and looked at the tags. To Janie, said one. Another was marked for Joe David. And another, and another. She looked up at Pop Benson, her throat starting to ache.

“Officer Lewis?”

“Had to be.” Said Pop. “When I got up this morning, he was gone, and these things were here. ‘Course, it didn’t take too long to follow his tracks out to the road. Somebody else must have helped him move that car. Just a big bare spot in the curve where it had been.”

Pop reached into the branches of the tree and pulled out an envelope. “This is for you.”

Jacquelyn reached for it, her eyes wide. Opening the seal, she pulled out a single sheet of note paper and started reading.

The tears were falling before she finished, and she sat weakly down on the floor.

“What’s it say?” Pop wanted to know. “Martha, come here.” He called to Mother Benson in the kitchen.

Jacquelyn cleared her throat and read aloud.
“Mrs. Benson,
I am making an appointment for your little boy with a specialist in the city. The operation he needs will be paid for. It so happens that the Policeman’s Benefit Fund now has a special account set up in my brother’s name, and Joe David will be the first beneficiary. I am honored that Sammy was privileged to serve with a fine man like your husband; I hope I can show my gratitude by helping Joe’s son have the chance to walk. And I’m especially grateful to your family for reminding me that love sometimes bears unexpected gifts, even in loss. I wish you all many happy returns of the season.
Your faithful servant,
Sergeant Frank Lewis”

------------------------------

Janie looked out the window and saw the feather-flakes coming down again. But this time, they were gentle, settling down on the farmyard like soft kisses. Her plate was piled high with ham and sweet potatoes and green beans. And there were even pumpkin pies and fruitcake for dessert. Around the table sat Gramps and Granny and Mother and even Joe David, though it had been hard to pull him from the fire engine that was now sitting beside the Christmas tree.

She glanced at the sofa for another look at Merry Carol, her doll. She was the most elegant doll ever, her golden curls bunched on her shoulders and her pink, porcelain cheeks turned in a pretty smile. And Janie was certain no doll ever had a more Christmasy name.

Gramps had just laid down the serving fork and was preparing to return thanks when there was a knock at the door. Mother looked at Granny who raised her shoulders questioningly.  Mother got up quickly to answer it.

Janie heard a deep voice talking to Mother and then Officer Lewis stepped into the kitchen, hat in hand.

“Here I’ve interrupted again.” He said, though Janie thought he didn’t sound very sorry.

“We’re so glad you did, son.” Gramps stood up. “Have a plate with us. Give us a chance to tell you how grateful we are.”

Officer Lewis waved his hand. “I’m the one who’s grateful. Best flat tire I ever had! I actually came back because I had a delivery to make.”

“A delivery?” Granny asked as she brought another plate and silverware to the table.

“Yes, Ma’am. Do you all know a Billie Sue Beadle?”

Mother smiled delightedly. “Yes, I ride to work with her.”

“Well, I found this package addressed to you when I got back to the station this morning.” He handed Mother a large bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied with a bit of twine. Sure enough, a hand printed card read “Jacquelyn Benson.”

When Mother ripped open the string, out fell a soft gray coat. Mother let out a little cry and hugged it to her. “Oh, that crazy, sweet girl. She shouldn’t have.”

Gramps piped up. “Aw, don’t worry none about that Billie Sue. She’s probably trying to bribe you into helping with her wedding finery.  I hear old Pete was workin’ up his nerve to pop the question.” He shook his head. “Poor fellow, bet he doesn’t know she’s already got the drop on him with her wedding plans!”

They all laughed a little, and Gramps went on. “Now that’s enough glad-crying, Jackie. I’m about to starve sitting here eyeballing this ham. Let’s eat before the taters get cold, shall we?”

Mother smiled then and hung the coat over the side of the sofa. “Okay.”

And so they all sat down to their Christmas dinner. Bite after bite, they ate and ate and Janie looked around at the faces and thought about the many good days to come.  Just then, she felt a tug on her braid and Officer Lewis leaned down to whisper in her ear, “How about we visit Joyful after lunch?”

Janie nodded happily. 

And in the hallway, Daddy’s picture smiled at them all while outside the feather flakes kept falling on the patrol car parked in front of the farmhouse.

the end 
 Merry Christmas





Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Unexpected Gifts, Part 3

Unexpected Gifts

(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 3
-         Valorie Bender Quesenberry 


When Billie Sue pulled into the circle in front of the farmhouse, the snow was laying so deep that Jacquelyn was afraid she might miss the road altogether. It was hard to tell where the
gravel was and where the yard was supposed to be. Not that it mattered really in the winter, but she would hate for Billie Sue to get stuck.
“Guess they weren’t kidding about the storm.” Billie Sue stopped the car by the kitchen door.
“Maybe you’d better stay with us tonight, Billie Sue. It has gotten so much worse in just the last half hour. I’m worried about you getting home.”

“Posh. You know I’ve been driving in this white stuff since Pop put me on the tractor.” Billie Sue grinned. “Besides, I have to be home for Christmas. I’m thinkin’ it might be special.”

“You think Pete is going to ask you?”

“Well, who knows? He’s the sweetest mechanic in the whole world, but he’s never been accused of being in too big a hurry!” Billie Sue winked at her. “But I’m sure gonna make it easy for him if he’s having any inclinations toward that end!”

Jacquelyn giggled. “You’re awful! But I hope you’re right.”  She opened the door and the snow gusted around her. “Thank you for the ride, Billie Sue.  Have a Merry Christmas!”

“You too!” Billie Sue lurched the car forward into the darkness. And Jacquelyn could hardly see the tail lights disappear, the snow was falling in such a thick swirl.

She turned and quickly walked up to the back porch, stamping her feet on the steps as she reached the door. Inside the porch, she heard voices from the kitchen. Jacquelyn unwound her scarf and removed her boots before going inside.
-----------------------------------
“Mother, you’re home!”

Jumping up from the table, Janie ran to help her mom take off her coat and gloves and hang them on the rack beside the door. Then she took her hand and pulled Jacquelyn to where the others were seated. “We’ve got company!”

“So, I see.” 

The officer rose as she took her seat and nodded. “Ma’am.” His cap was hung up on the peg with his overcoat. Janie thought he looked friendlier without it.

Gramps piped up. “The officer here got his patrol car stuck down in McCutcheon’s curve. We were gonna pull it out, but by the time I got the tractor out and ready to go, she was already coming down so hard it was no use trying. Guess we’ll have to wait ‘til mornin’.”

“I’m very sorry to put you folks out like this.” The officer’s face looked like a little boy made to eat peas, Janie thought. And she almost giggled thinking about it.

“Nonsense,” said Granny. “What’s Christmas without an unexpected guest or two?”

“After all,” said Gramps. “That’s pretty much how the first Christmas went, wasn’t it?”

Officer Lewis shrugged. “I guess I’m not very religious, but it sure is nice of you all to take it so well.”

Religious? Janie hadn’t heard that word in the same breath with Christmas. Religion was what the tent preachers brought to the county, Gramps said. Why Christmas was about Jesus, everybody knew that.

Gramps was talking. “Fact is, we’re kind-of glad you had to stop in on us, son. You see, we’re used to having another chair round the table at Christmas dinner and that spot won’t look so empty with someone a-sittin’ in it.” He was looking far off as he said it.

“I saw the star in your window, sir.” Officer Lewis said softly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. It’s a comfort knowing he died serving this great country and that he was with his best friend too. ” Gramps had a watery, shiny kind-of smile on his face. “Joe was a pilot, the best they had.”

Janie saw a funny look on the Officer’s face. He looked around the table at their faces as if he was counting them. She saw his jaw moving like Daddy’s used to when he was upset about something. Then all of sudden, he said. “It can’t be.”
---------------------------
Frank Lewis was surprised by little; being an officer of the law made sure of that. But here he sat in a country farmhouse shocked right out of his socks, so to speak. This was the family of Sammy’s best friend, Joe? These people were the loved ones of the pilot whose plane had gone down in flames, taking his little brother to his death?

He swallowed. “I, uh, I didn’t know that Joe Benson was your son, sir.”

The old man didn’t bat an eye. “I know that, son. The grief is too bad for you to see much. You’re hurtin’, just like us.”

Frank glanced at the young widow. Her eyes were close to brimming over, but she remained composed, her hands clutched tightly in her lap.

He choked back his anger. “I don’t want to seem unkind. Your family has suffered too. Yet, I can’t help wondering if this war is worth the lives of so many young men. It seems such a waste for your son to die for others who don’t even know his name and may not even appreciate his sacrifice.”

The farmer nodded slowly in agreement. “It sure does, sometimes. But, at this time of year especially, we’re reminded that great gifts cost greatly. A son is the most valuable thing a father can offer.” Mr. Benson paused and swallowed.  “If I coulda saved him, I wouldn’t have chosen to let Joe die for others, but there’s another Father who did. Knowing about that Son gives us a reason to celebrate, even without Joe.”

The kitchen was quiet except for the hum of the icebox. But the pressure in Frank’s chest was so tight he could barely breathe.

 He stood up. “I, um . . . I need to get some air, if you don’t mind.”

The man nodded. “Yep, you go right ahead. Just stay close. It’s a mite harder on people than cars out in this weather.”

Pulling on his overcoat, Lewis opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, carefully closing the door so it didn’t bang behind him. He walked into the yard, silently cursing himself.

Of all the places to have to hole up in a storm, he would have to pick the farm owned by Joe Benson’s parents! Many was the night that he’d lain awake, angry with the pilot who hadn’t brought Sammy back. Sure it was irrational, he knew that. War brought casualties. Good men died. But he also knew pilots and their daring in the face of danger. And from what Sammy had told him, the missions they’d flown hadn’t been the milk-toast variety.

“Why?” He hurled the words into the night, shouting at the top of his lungs. But the wind snatched them away and carried them into nothingness.


There was no answer for him. And so Lewis turned to go back to the house. But though he knew he hadn’t gone more than a few yards from the house, all he could see around him was white.  Great. Now not only would they find his car piled into a snowbank, they’d also find him stiff as a board the next morning. Ironic, he thought, that he’d come out to grieve his brother and end up freezing himself.             

To be continued next week . . . . . 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Unexpected Gifts, Part 2

Unexpected Gifts

(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 2
   Valorie Bender Quesenberry 



Jacquelyn Benson stuffed her hands into the pockets of her blue serge coat and shivered. Of all days for Billie Sue to be late picking her up! Of course, things were likely much more hectic at Haskill’s Dry Goods, this being Christmas Eve. And at least Billie Sue had a dependable car. Jacquelyn was very thankful for the ride. That old truck of Pop Benson’s would never make it into town every day.
She supposed she could have waited inside the newspaper office, but after Mr. Townsend’s words today, she felt a little awkward being around him. Oh, he was a perfect gentleman, of course, but his offer to help her with Christmas for her family just didn’t set well. Probably it was more the way he looked at her than the words he said. She’d sensed that he was interested in more than a good employer/employee relationship, and she wasn’t ready for that. Maybe she never would be. And she didn’t think she could ever see him in that way for that matter.

So, Jacquelyn stood on the sidewalk and shivered for a few minutes before she realized that she could just walk over to Haskill’s and wait there for Billie Sue to finish her day. The snowflakes were falling faster than they had been while she worked this afternoon. They were starting to accumulate in the waning light. It really would be a good idea if they got started for home soon; the country roads were bound to be treacherous if this continued.

Pausing in front of Haskill’s store, Jacquelyn looked at the displays in the window. It was crammed full of toys – red wagons, bouncy balls, teddy bears, shiny fire engines and electric trains, and of course, several dolls.

She’d love to get one for Janie. She imagined her little girl’s delight and it almost hurt. The paycheck just didn’t stretch that far; the little tea set she’d selected from the catalog would have to do. Maybe there would be a doll next year. But, as she turned away from the window, her disappointment squeezing the breath from her, she knew next year was another step away from little girlhood. Janie was growing up so quickly; soon she wouldn’t even want dolls. Still, it took all of them working to keep the farm going and food on the table. It was taking the whole family to replace Joe. And yet, they couldn’t really even do that. He had been so many things to all of them, and now there was only emptiness in his place.

Jacquelyn straightened her back and turned the knob to Haskill’s, walking inside to the jangling of the bell on the door. Billie Sue looked up from behind the counter.

“Hey, Jackie. I’m just counting what’s in the cash drawer. I’ll be ready in a jiffy.”

“Oh that’s okay. I decided to walk down here instead of waiting at the office.”

Billie Sue sighed. “Has it been busy here! You’d think nobody shopped for Christmas until the day before!” She grinned. “Of course, we all know that’s exactly what a lot of them do!”

Jacquelyn smiled back. “I suppose you’re right.” She fingered the sleeve of a soft gray coat. It was beautiful and looked so warm. She glanced at the tag and let the sleeve drop. The blue serge would have to do for a while longer.

Billie Sue was pulling on her coat and scarf and gloves. “You ready then? We’d better move; I hear there’s quite a bit of weather coming.”

-----------------------------------------
Sergeant Lewis was going to kick a fuss when he got back to headquarters. The police car was not only cold; it was also in great need of new tires. Supposedly the department kept up with the maintenance on the cars, but Frank Lewis was sure someone wasn’t doing his job. Of course, it could always be a shortage of supplies. Rubber was at a premium for war material; new tires were probably hard to come by, even for the police department.

As he skittered and skidded down still another country lane, Lewis blew on his hand to try to warm it. He leaned over to flip the heater switch again. No use. The heater wasn’t going to give in.

He beat his hand on the steering wheel, momentarily distracted when he heard a loud pow. He touched the brakes to prevent losing control from the blowout, but the road curved sharply to the right and in his moment of frustration, he hadn’t maneuvered correctly. With a sickening thunk, the vehicle dropped over the edge of the road deep into the ditch. Snow enveloped the windshield as the car sank down into the drift.


Sergeant Lewis sat in disbelief. One thing was sure; he wasn’t going to make it to the officer’s Christmas party. 

------------------------------------------------


Janie and Gramps were stomping around in the barn as they settled the sacks of feed. Since moving here in the spring, Janie worked a lot with Gramps, before and after school. Some people thought that barns were stinky and dirty, but Gramps had always told her that a barn smelled like Christmas. The baby Jesus was born in a barn, right there by the cows and sheep and donkeys. So there must be something special about being close to the animals, feeling their warm fur and watching them munch on the hay. Though Janie was glad she had a bed with a thick quilt to bundle up in at night, she was certain she could get use to a bed in the barn if she had to.

Gramps had pulled his old Chevy close to the barn doors and he was pushing the feed sacks out and Janie was trying to tug them closer to the pile inside. The sacks needed to stay dry during the winter, and Gramps was very particular about where they were stored.

She was leaning down to grab a corner of burlap when movement down by the gate caught her eye.
“Helloooooo. . .. “

A big man in dark clothes was walking toward them, waving his hand.

She cupped her hands. “Gramps.”

He looked up, panting from the hard work. “Huh?”

Janie pointed. “Somebody’s coming.”

Gramps held onto the side of the truck bed and jumped down to the ground. He brushed his pants off and straightened up to meet the stranger coming up to them.

Janie saw now that the man had on a police uniform. But he wasn’t one of the sheriff’s deputies that she’d seen around the county. She watched him go up to Gramps and put out his hand.

“Lewis, state police.”

Gramps shook his hand hard. “I’m Harry Benson.”

The officer nodded. “Mr. Benson, I wonder if you have some kind of vehicle to help me get my patrol car out of a drift. I had a blowout and wound up in the ditch. I’d be glad to pay you for your trouble.”

Gramps shook his head kindly. “No need to pay. Be happy to help you out. What do you say we go inside and have a cup of coffee, then I’ll see what I can do. You look a mite cold.”

The officer smiled. “You won’t have to ask me twice. Thank you. The car is having a bit of heater trouble too.”

“Sounds like you need more than a tow then.” Gramps turned toward the house and put his hand on Janie’s shoulder. “This is my granddaughter, Janie.”

“Hello, Janie.” The officer looked down at her. He was pretty tall, but he seemed nice, though to Janie, he looked a little sad.

 “Janie, run tell your Granny to put out two cups for coffee.”

“Okay, Gramps.” Janie scooted off toward the farmhouse. Wouldn’t Joe David be excited to see a policeman in their own kitchen?

To be continued next week . . . . 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Unexpected Gifts - Part 1

Unexpected Gifts

(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 1
         Valorie Bender Quesenberry

The snowflakes looked like a feather storm. Janie thought about the day old Blue pulled Granny’s feather tick off the line and tore a hole in it. Feathers were everywhere then, swirling through the air. Granny had been so mad at the old dog; she’d chased him out of the yard, waving her broom. Then she and Janie tried to pick up as many feathers as they could, but of course, they couldn’t get all of them.

Janie wondered what it would be like to catch the snow falling down now. She put out a hand, feeling the wispy coldness as the flakes brushed against her palm. If Joe David were here, he’d try to catch them in his mouth, laughing all the while. But Joe David didn’t know any better cause he wasn’t grown-up yet.

Janie stuck her hand back in her coat pocket and turned toward Mr. Haskill’s store window. It was still there, even more beautiful than she remembered. The dress was all lace and ruffles, the hat had a big rosette on the side, just like the one Mother wore to work in the newspaper office. The shoes were black Mary Janes and the face had pretty pink, porcelain cheeks and a tiny red mouth turned in a demure smile. What fascinated Janie the most though were the long golden ringlets clustered on the doll’s shoulders. Never had she seen such beautiful hair. Not even Susan Marie Downing at school had hair like that! Maybe, thought Janie softly, if she’d had pretty hair like that she could have sent a lock of it to Daddy when she wrote him.

It was too late now, though. He wasn’t coming back. Now Mother worked in the newspaper office, typing all day long and she and Mother and Joe David lived with Gramps and Granny on the farm. Not that she minded the farm; it was kind–of nice and safe-feeling there. But deep down, she’d have traded that feeling if Daddy could live with them again in their little house in Prattville. To hear Daddy’s laugh and have him pull her braids, even if they were a muddy brown color and not golden, would be all the Christmas she’d need.

But Daddy wasn’t here. All they had of him was a flag the soldiers gave to Mother and the letters that he’d sent them. Sometimes, Janie still got hers out and read them to herself. But it mostly made her cry and so she didn’t do that too much.

Mother needed her to be strong and helpful; that’s what she’d said. It was Janie’s job to do all she could to help Granny in the house while Mother was away, working in town. And then there was Joe David. He was only three. Mother said his job was to be sunshine for them all. And he did that. His smile made everyone feel better.

Janie knew she needed to go. Gramps had let her tag along since he was coming to town to buy feed; he understood that she needed to look at something different. Daddy had said that she and Gramps were alike; they were dreamers. It wasn’t that they couldn’t put in a hard day’s work. It was just that they needed a little inspiration to make the day more livable. Every once in a while, Gramps would crook his finger at Janie and whisper in her ear, “Want to go to town?” And then he’d wink at her like they had a great secret.

And Janie always wanted to go. Granny would roll her eyes at Gramps like she knew he was up to something, but she’d let Janie go, finding some small item for her to get at Haskill’s Dry Goods store. And most days, like today, Janie would get what Granny needed and then go outside and look in the store windows, wishing and hoping.

Across the street, Janie spied Gramps putting sacks of feed into the back of his pickup. She stepped into the street and walked over to him.
“Is it time to go?”

“Almost, young’un. You through with your window shoppin’?” He tweaked her nose.

“I guess.” Janie said. “Do I have time to wave at Mother?”

“Go ahead; I’ll pick you up at the newspaper office.”

“Thank you, Gramps!” Janie looked for cars in the street before she dashed off.

Mother worked for Mr. Jerome Townsend at the County Herald and Reporter office. Janie had heard folks say that she was the best typist the newspaper ever had. That was a good thing since they needed the money. She’d also heard people say that Mr. Jerome was “sweet” on Mother. Janie thought she knew what they meant, and that was something she didn’t like. Mr. Jerome was nice enough, but he didn’t laugh like Daddy. And even if he had a new Oldsmobile and a big house on the hill, Janie wasn’t at all interested. And she hoped Mother wasn’t.

The part of the building where Mother worked had a window and sometimes Janie could catch a glimpse of her and wave to her. She always came by whenever she and Gramps came into town, just in case.

Janie was panting a little from her run into town as she came to the office of the County Herald and Reporter. A wreath with a big red bow was hanging on the door and as always, people were coming in and out. Janie thought that when she grew up, she might become a newspaper reporter. It would be a fine thing, she decided, to write stories about faraway places.

But for now, she stopped by the plate glass window and looked for Mother. There toward the back of the office, she sat. Her eyebrows were pushed together while she concentrated on a paper she was reading while she typed. Her fingers were flying so fast on the keys that Janie could see only a blur of movement. But there was no mistaking Mother’s piled up curls and pretty skin. Janie watched her for a couple minutes, hoping she’d look up and see her.

She heard Gramps’ truck come whining up the street and knew it was time to go. And just at that minute, Mother leaned back to rub her neck and looked right into her eyes. She smiled and waved. And Janie waved back.

Then Mr. Jerome came over and said something to Mother. She looked up at him and got all serious. Janie backed away from the window, wishing she could hear what they were saying. She climbed into Gramps’ truck, shutting the door hard so it would stay closed. And she didn’t say anything for a long while.

Gramps just drove in silence until they made the turn off the main highway. Then he squinted up at the sky and said, “I think we’re gonna have a Christmas storm, Janie-girl.”

Janie was more worried about Mr. Jerome than the weather, but she asked anyway.”How do you know?”

“All the signs are there, Janie. When you’re as old as your Gramps, you learn to read nature. Why even the animals talk to me.”

She giggled. “Oh, Gramps. You’re so silly.”

“Well, maybe they don’t exactly talk.” He winked. “But I know what they mean!”
“Could Daddy read the signs?” Janie blurted.

Gramps was silent for a minute. When he talked, his voice was soft and sounded lumpy. “Yes, he could, Janie-girl. Your daddy would have been a first-rate farmer.”

Janie knew the story of her Daddy and mother’s meeting at a high school party and how they’d fallen in love and gotten married. Then they lived in Prattville where Daddy worked at the air field and Mother took care of her and Joe David. And they had been making plans to move out to the farm and take over since Gramps was getting older and the work was hard for him. But when the war came, Daddy became a soldier. Janie would never forget that night when he packed and left his bag sitting by the front door, waiting to take to the bus station the next day. Mother had cried, and Janie sat close to Joe David’s bed and promised herself that she would look out for them all. It seemed so very long ago now.

Gramps cleared his throat and patted Janie’s hand. “How about we hurry and put these sacks in the barn and then surprise your Granny by being on time for dinner?” And he tweaked her nose again.

-------------------------------------------

Sergeant Frank Lewis of the Prattville Police Force was worried. If ever there was a setup for disaster, it was in the making now. He’d not seen a Christmas Eve like it ever. First of all, the department was way behind in the Christmas toy delivery so he and the other officers were going to be pulling long hours today to get it done. And on top of that, the radio forecaster was blasting out the news of a late storm, set to cover the county with whiteout conditions. Terrific. At this rate, he’d be spending Christmas on the side of the road, cuddling up to a teddy bear to keep warm.

The police car he was driving had a cantankerous heater; it decided to work sometimes and at other times, it decided not to. So, he kept an extra coat, gloves and quilt in the back. If he landed up somewhere in a snow drift, at least he’d have enough warmth to survive.

But the plan was not to pile up; the plan was to deliver the gifts and get back to Prattville as soon as possible. Maybe with some luck, he’d make the officer’s Christmas party tonight.

Turning down a bumpy gravel road, he shook his head. The roads were terrible, even without a snow storm. When would the county decide to fix them? But he already knew the answer to that. Every bit of material available was going into the war effort. The least the folks back home could do was put up with some potholes in the road.

That’s about as far as he let his thoughts go with the war. Sure, he was patriotic and all, but since Sammy had joined up and come home in a box, he’d didn’t feel like discussing it with anyone. It had about killed his folks and Sammy’s girlfriend had to be hospitalized; it wasn’t gonna be a fun Christmas. Sammy had been the life of any gathering anyway. Frank was a poor stand-in for his energetic younger brother; he didn’t think he’d even try.

Sergeant Lewis stopped at the first house on the list. It was a bedraggled white frame building, which in more prosperous times might have been used as a chicken coop. But beside the door leaned a sled and a spiral of smoke rose from the chimney so he knew a human family must inhabit the place.
He pulled three gifts from the load in his back seat and trudged through the slush to the door, banging his knuckles lightly on the frame. He heard running feet and a door opened, revealing a tired-looking woman with a baby on her hip. A little girl and boy hung onto her skirts from behind, eyes wide, faces lean.

He extended the gifts. “Ma’am, I’m Sergeant Lewis from the State Police. We’re delivering gifts to the children in the county.”

She shook her head. “Thank you, but my husband wouldn’t approve.”

“Please, ma’am, for the children’s sake.” He said it softly.

She looked around, seeming to search the landscape. “What’ll I tell him?”

“Tell him to make a donation to the Policemen’s Benefit Fund when he can.”

A tear dropped onto her apron. “I’ll tell him. Thank you.”  She took the bag, her weary face relaxing a little. “God bless you.”

‘You too, Ma’am. Merry Christmas.” Lewis touched his hat briefly, turned and walked back to his car.

He had to admit he admired the pride of the American spirit. It was something he himself had heard all his life. Work for what you get; save all you can, never use credit. He supposed others like him had a similar upbringing. When he and his fellow officers brought gifts to the door, it was hard for folks to accept them. Times were hard, but folks were determined to pull their weight. Many times, he carried the toys right back to the patrol car. Balancing tokens of others’ goodwill with the desire to provide was a struggle for most of the county families.

In previous years, Sammy had gone along to help with the Christmas giving. His good-natured smile had a way of opening hearts and doors. But this year, Sammy couldn’t help; he’d never deliver Christmas joy again. 

Clenching his teeth, Sergeant Frank Lewis climbed into his cold police car and started down the road to his next stop.     

To be continued next week . . . 
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