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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 . . . . 
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