(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
- 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 thegravel 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 . . . . .