It's been a while since I've had a visit with Jessilyn and Gemma. What better time of year to do that than the Christmas season? And who better to share it with than the loyal readers who have made this writing journey of mine so incredibly special?
Wishing you and your loved ones a beautiful time of celebration and a blessed new year ahead.
"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).
A Calloway Christmas
Any time of the year I can’t go barefoot makes me cranky. Anybody who knows me knows that. Winter in the south may not be much to speak of to folks up north, but when creaky wooden floors send shivers through my toes I know I’m getting ready for a long haul.
Miss Cleta remedied that every December by knitting me a pair of socks so warm you could hatch an egg in them, but no amount of warmth could keep me from sliding across a bare patch of floor practically every time I slipped my feet into them. Woolen yarn does nothing for traction. You can ask Luke about that. It’s a good thing he’s handy because he’s had to fix a thing or ten I’d taken out coming around a corner too fast.
“Jessie, ain’t you never heard of walkin’ indoors ‘stead of runnin’?” He’d asked me that a hundred times in the nearly two years I’d spent as his wife.
And my reply was always the same. “I waited so long for you to come around, I ain’t got patience left to mosey through life.”
But this year was different. This year I had a little extra Christmas gift taking up residence in my tummy, and there was no way on God’s green earth I was sticking my feet in those pink and blue death traps Miss Cleta had gifted me this time around.
I was sitting on the sofa marveling at how perfectly they were knitted together by hands so worn by time when the front door opened followed by a shout.
“I’m in the den.” I tossed the socks onto the footstool and smiled as the pitter-patter of little feet sounded around the corner. “Hey there, baby girl.” I grabbed Gemma’s toddler and kissed the top of her head. Opal climbed clumsily up beside me, but I pulled her into my lap. “Let’s make some room for Momma.”
Gemma stood at the doorway, laid eyes on the footstool, and clucked her tongue. “Miss Cleta tryin’ to kill you again?”
My foot crept over and nudged the slippers in her direction. “Wanna have some fun? You can have ‘em.”
She shook her head and plopped down beside me. “No thank you. I like to stay on my feet.” A bit of curl fell over her forehead when she nodded in my direction. “Don’t let that littl’un squash you. There’s a head in that area somewhere.”
“She’s fine.” I turned her over and gave her ribs a tickle. There’s nothing like hearing that child laugh. “Opal won’t squash Aunt Jessie, will she?” Gemma rolled her eyes at my sloppy tone. She didn’t believe in baby talk. Neither did I when it came down to it, but every time I laid eyes on those chubby cheeks, that baby voice just popped on out. “Course you won’t squash her. No. You love Aunt Jessie too much to squash her.”
“You feelin’ okay?”
“You call livin’ off crackers and tea okay, then I’m doin’ just fine.” Opal stuck a foot in my thigh trying to stand up and see outside the window behind me. Her momma saw my wince and swept her off my lap.
“Child, you’re gonna stomp on your cousin so much he’ll whack you the first chance he gets after he enters this world. Gonna be bad enough with your bossy self tellin’ him what to do all the time.”
“Well, she’s your momma’s namesake. She knew how to tell us what to do, sure enough. And what’s all this ‘he’ and ‘him’ stuff? You got wind of news I didn’t?”
“Gut feelin’.” She set Opal down beside me, wandered over to the mantel and fingered the silver filigree surrounding my grandparents photograph.
There was a certain something hanging in the air, and I knew this was more than just a social call. But Gemma says what Gemma’s ready to say when Gemma’s ready to say it. I knew that good and well. I continued to shower Opal with all sorts of sloppy nonsense, glancing at her momma every now and again, until I could tell by the set of Gemma’s shoulders that she was ready to speak her piece.
She turned and leveled a determined glance in my direction. “I want the box.”
Now, nobody outside of our family would have a bit of an idea what she was talking about. The world holds millions of boxes full of all sorts of things that don’t matter much, but in our family there’s only one box.
My throat constricted so tightly it took me two swallows to ask my next question, and it wasn’t much of a question to speak of. “What’s that you said?”
“I want it.”
“But nothin’. It’s been long enough. I got a husband and a child, and nothin’ to tell them about our family. It’s time to face up to the past so my child someday gets to know she’s even got one.
“Did you ask Daddy?”
She just shook her head.
“Want me to do it for you?”
This time I got a nod.
Another nod. That was about the best I could expect considering the topic of conversation.
I laid a shaky hand on Opal’s head, and then headed to the kitchen where I picked up the phone, waited till there was an answer, murmured a few words, and then returned to Gemma’s side, sliding an arm around her shoulders. “He’ll be over soon. I’ll make some tea.”
“Coffee’d be better.”
She followed me into the kitchen with Opal in tow and sat down at the table Luke had made out of Mr. Poe’s cottonwood tree after a windstorm took it down in 1939. There wasn’t much noise in the room while that percolator did its job; not unless you count my fingernails doing a tap dance on the countertop. By the time I’d poured two cups, I was about ready to jump out of my skin. My mind was bursting with questions and holding my tongue had never been a strong suit, but I’d learned a thing or two as I’d grown older, and how to keep silent when necessary was one of them (though Luke would maybe tell a different story).
I’d stirred the life out of my coffee by the time she opened her mouth. The unexpected sound of her voice made me jump, sending a slosh of ebony liquid onto my saucer and down the side of it. I started to wipe it up with a nearby dish towel, but she stilled my hand with one of her own.
“I’ll be fine, Jessie. Promise.”
“You sure about that?”
“I ever lie to you?”
I leaned back in my chair and twisted that dish towel up into two tight knots. “Lyin’ about somethin’ and guessin’ at somethin’ you ain’t sure of are two different things.”
“It’s the right time, is all. They’ve been gone a long time now. Pain like that don’t go away, no doubt, but it hurts less and less with each new year. And I want to know more… not just for Tal and Opal. For me, too.”
A knock on the door followed the sound of Daddy’s boots crossing the porch. His hat was tipped over his eyes when he cracked the door open and peered cautiously into the kitchen. “You girls okay in here?”
Gemma slipped out of her chair and traded Opal for the box in his hands. “I’ll be fine in a little while.”
Daddy laid his hat on the countertop and leaned down to kiss Opal’s cheek. “Grandad’s on duty. Y’all take your time.”
Before I knew it my hand was clasped up tight in Gemma’s, and I was dragged unceremoniously out of my chair and into the bedroom. I closed the door tight and leaned on it for a few seconds before taking a seat on the bed next to her. One of Luke’s boots peeked out from under the bed, and I gave it a swift kick before lifting my legs up and crossing them like they were lucky fingers. I figured we could use all the good fortune we could get.
We stared at the package on the bed between us as though it belonged to Pandora. In a way, maybe it held the same mythical power to change the world as we knew it… and not so much for the better. For in that box, weathered with age and smelling of mothballs, sat the only items that had escaped the ashes of Gemma’s house the day she lost her parents and I gained a sister.
For all those years past Gemma had refused to even hear of looking inside it. There’s a sort of pain I didn’t know of that I could see in Gemma’s haunted eyes at times… a pain I hoped I’d never know. And it was for that reason I never pushed her to face what lay inside. Momma and Daddy had asked her once and only once, and after that Daddy toted it up to the attic, placed it gently in its own special place, and never spoke of it again.
Until this day.
I sat there in that cross-legged position until my legs cramped up so much I started to wish I didn’t even have them anymore, but the way it felt in that room just then it almost seemed wrong to breathe much less to move.
Then, all of a sudden, Gemma’s hand shot out like a scared rabbit and pulled the lid from the box.
A scatter of photographs lay on top, still smelling of the char that crisped the corners. I don’t think that smell ever goes away. Or maybe the memory of that day got so stuck in my head I remember the smell more than sniff it up. Doesn’t matter so much because any which way there’s something about smells that make memories come alive, and that smell of smoke and soot transported me right back to that night in the truck watching my daddy’s lips form the syllables that told the awful truth; to the moment I wrapped that blanket around Gemma to help with the shakes that came more from terror than cold.
I could see by the way Gemma’s face creased that the smell did the same for her.
But if life’s taught me anything about my Gemma it’s that no amount of this crazy life can take the tough out of her. She’s just plain old built of strong stock. She sifted through those few images atop the box and gently lifted one out. I recognized it right off even all these years later. That fragile photograph had kept its place atop the mantel in the Teague household from the time I could remember. The smiles her parents held on their wedding day told a short but compelling tale of the many ways they cared for one another.
When I was young, I read books like most people breathe, living my life through tales of mystery and mayhem in between chores and school. My favorites were the tragedies; the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching tales of love and loss. But those ideas changed the day that sort of tragedy became all too real to me. I found out overnight that those sorts of stories are only exciting when there are numbers printed at the bottom of the page.
While I watched Gemma gaze at the smiling faces of her parents I wished more than anything that I could simply turn the page and make it all disappear. But life had put the bookmark in place and no matter how hard we hoped nothing and nobody could take it out again.
Gemma used her sleeve to wipe the salty tears away from her eyes and then set the photo aside, running one finger across the top as though she could feel their skin on hers. One by one she filtered through the last few remnants that remained inside, placing them aside with honor and reverence resting on her fingertips.
All that was left of Gemma’s past was neatly contained in a ten-by-twelve inch box.
It doesn’t take long to walk through bits and pieces of someone’s long ago, but it takes even less time for the sadness to set in. I was pretty sure it would take us days to shake that off. Gemma had set each piece of memorabilia on the bedspread, and when she was through she waved one hand at it all and shook her head.
“My daddy lived for forty years, Momma for thirty-seven, and ain’t nothin’ left to tell of themselves but a handful of photos, a jeweled brooch, two wedding rings, a coffee cup, and Daddy’s pipe.” Her voice cracked on that last one. If a girl’s got a daddy worth remembering, there’s nothing like his pipe to take her back there. Don’t ask me why. It’s just so.
I picked up her Momma’s brooch and examined it, mostly so I wouldn’t have to look Gemma in the eye. “Daddy says they scrambled to get a few things out for you to remember by. The front room was the last to go, and that’s where the pictures were. Got ‘em out in the nick of time. The coffee cup and the jewelry… they just managed to make it out okay somehow.”
Gemma nodded, leaned back on my pillow, crossed her wrists over her face and sighed one of those broken sighs that sounds like heartache slowly leaking out of a body’s soul. She stayed quiet for a few minutes while I quietly placed her fragmented past back into the box, and then she sighed again before sitting up sharply. Her whole body spoke of determination. If you could take someone brushing their hands together in one of those that’s all there is to it ways and make it into an attitude, you’d have Gemma just then. Before you could blink she’d switched gears from tragic melancholy to workaday complacency.
“Best get on home,” she said, like we’d just spent the past half hour talking about compost heaps. “Got laundry stacked a mile high.”
“Gemma Teague Pritchett, you do beat all.”
“Ain’t no use whinin’ over spilt milk.”
“What’s expected of you ain’t whinin’.” I pointed to the box and finished, “And this ain’t spilt milk.”
She squeezed that space between your eyes where sadness always seems to settle in and cause a headache. “I know. I know that, I do. It’s just… there ain’t no use in gettin’ worked up over somethin’ I can’t change. Later tonight maybe I’ll fill buckets, but right now I’m… confused, is all. I’d hoped to find more, and I don’t even know how I feel about anything yet.”
“Oh, Gemma. I know. They tried to collect what they could.”
“And I know that.” She sat down next to me and squeezed my hand tight. I know your daddy and Luke tried to do their best for me. Always have. Always will. But all these longings I’ve had lately about knowin’ more about me, about where I come from… those longings still don’t have answers. And no amount of worry or grief over it will change it.”
“That don’t mean you don’t feel anything. No good keepin’ things bottled up, and you know it.”
“You’re right, I do. But for now… just now I’ve got a lot of things goin’ through my mind, and I reckon I don’t feel much like talkin’ about it.”
Gemma and Opal left with Daddy and I on the front steps watching them go. Daddy had offered her a ride, but she said she needed the walk, and in my mind you don’t argue with a girl like Gemma when she says she needs to walk it off. That’s her way of saying she needs time to talk things over with God, and I well knew what some of that conversation would sound like. She was going to need every bit of the time that walk home would take.
Miss Cleta was feeling her oats that morning after I’d watched Gemma wander off lost in her thoughts. I could hear her complaining to herself as soon as I reached her front door.
“Jessilyn, just look at my poinsettia,” she complained the second she laid eyes on me. “Now you come on in and just take a look.”
I followed her inside and grimaced at the sorry state the once vibrant plant was in. “What on earth…”
“Imogene Packard’s Christmas punch, that’s what on earth! Christmas poison is more like it. Lands’ sakes alive, that woman means to kill the whole county with that infernal concoction.”
“How’d Imogene Packard’s Christmas punch get into your poinsettia plant?”
“Dang woman brought some over yesterday. Who in tarnation does a thing like that? You ever brought punch to someone’s door?”
I didn’t even get a chance to finish one shake of the head before she continued.
“Course not. Nobody with a lick of sense does something as hairbrained as that. But that woman’s got to bring it to my door because she’s bound and determined it’s the best punch this side of the Mason Dixon and has to share it so everyone will tell her what a wonder she is.”
“I poured it there!”
“Well, I wasn’t goin’ to drink it, now was I? And she never left me alone for two seconds, so my only choice was to dump it in the plant when she went fishin’ in her purse for her handkerchief. Heavens, if it hadn’t been for that tickle in her throat I’d still be standin’ here with the punch in my hand tryin’ to figure out a good excuse for not drinkin’ it.”
“Leastways your poinsettia would still be with us.”
The whack that landed on my arm belied her age, but there was a smile on both our faces when I gave it a rub.
“Child, there ever a day you ain’t full of vinegar?”
“Ever a day you ain’t?”
“Reckon not.” She waved me into the dining room and pushed a plate of freshly baked gingerbread cookies in my direction. “Have a sweet and tell me what’s on your mind. I can see by the look on your face you ain’t here just to chat about Imogene Packard’s murder contract on Calloway.”
“No ma’am, I ain’t.” I slid into a chair and broke the head off a gingerbread boy. “You figure on knowin’ anything about Gemma’s momma and daddy?”
“Like who they came from. Their family. Their past.”
“Honey, those two dear people came here from unhappy times, but I never knew what those unhappy times were. To be truthful to you, we didn’t have cause to mix much until they started workin’ for your momma and daddy. They’d be more likely to know somethin’ than I would.”
I took a sip of the sweet tea she’d poured for me. “They don’t know much.”
“Well, why the sudden interest?”
“It ain’t mine, it’s Gemma’s. She has a hankerin’ to know more about her past so’s she can tell Opal what she came from. And if you ask me, she wants somethin’ for herself that’ll tell her what she didn’t have time to learn. She didn’t get much time with her momma and daddy, definitely not enough time to know a whole lot about them.”
Miss Cleta shook her head slowly. “Poor child. I remember the day she told me they’d died knowin’ full well I knew all about it, but just havin’ to make those words form on her own lips to make sure she knew it for herself. Ain’t much troubles that weigh on a body more than all the things you wished you’d said and done after a sudden goodbye.” She slipped out of her chair as gently as her weathered bones would let her and dug around in a kitchen drawer. Then she returned to her chair and placed a photo beside my plate.
“It’s me and Gemma.” I smiled and wiped my hands on a cloth napkin before picking the image up to examine it more closely. “Nothin’ but little snips in this one. I’m maybe about five-years-old?”
“Four. And just as spunky as ever. Always gettin’ into some sort of mishap. But let me tell you, Gemma was always followin’ along behind to make sure to get you out of it.”
“Things ain’t changed much.”
Miss Cleta laughed and gave me a kick beneath the table. “Reckon not. Some things never change when they should and some things never change when they shouldn’t. This is the good kind of not changin’. Oh, you two have grown into fine young ladies and learned all sorts of things about life, but when it comes down to it you two are more sisters than any other two folks I’ve ever laid eyes on, no matter you don’t share blood or skin color. Sometimes in life, there are things that matter far more than what stock you come from. It’s who you are and why you are that’s important, and I think we all know what that means for you and Gemma. God couldn’t have knit you two together more tightly if He’d had you come out of the same womb.”
I’d known this lady my whole life, and I can’t count the times she’s given me a sweet and told me a story or two with some morals tucked inside. But I also can’t count the times she made me choke on one of her treats by bringing tears to my eyes. This time was no exception. I took a couple gulps of tea to help the cookie down and blinked back tears.
“You do beat all, Miss Cleta. Some day you’re gonna kill me by sharin’ wisdom right while I’m tryin’ to swallow. And you talk about Imogene Packard…”
“Can’t help it when my wisdom decides to come out. Has a mind of its own. So do you for that matter. Maybe you best get that mind of your own churnin’. It’ll come up with the answer for what ails Gemma.”
As usual, Miss Cleta was right. I grabbed a cookie for the road, thanked her up one side and down the other, and headed off down the road to the house Gemma and I had spent so much of that growing up time in.
Momma was putting the finishing touches on some gift wrapping when I walked in. “Good heavens, Jessilyn, it’s a fine thing you didn’t come a few minutes earlier while I was doin’ up one of your gifts.”
“I never was very good at waitin’ for surprises.”
“Well, you’re waitin’ for this one.” She tugged hard at the bow loops and pushed the package beneath the Christmas tree, then wrapped me up in her arms just like the paper on that gift. “You feelin’ okay? You’ve got more color than the other day.”
“Much better, Momma. But now I’ve got somethin’ on my mind that helps. Can I get up in the attic?”
Momma cocked her head sideways. “It’s cold and damp up there, girl. You don’t need to be climbin’ around there in your condition.”
“I won’t be long, I promise. I know exactly what I need.”
“Well, then why don’t you tell me what it is, and I’ll get it?”
“Because you don’t need to go climbin’ around up there, neither.”
She put one hand on her hip just like she used to when she threatened to whack my bottom with her wooden kitchen spoon. “Jessilyn, I got me just as much life left in my bones as ever. Don’t you go sayin’ I’m old.”
“I ain’t sayin’ you’re old, and you know it. Come on and climb up that ladder if you want to.”
We didn’t stop bickering about who would go up in the attic and how old folks were until we’d both been up and down that ladder with dusty items in our hands. Mommas and daughters may someday become friends, but daughters are still daughters and mommas are still mommas. I know we could bicker about a thing or two, but no matter how old I got and how much of a friend Momma got to be, I still knew right deep down where it counted that this woman was someone who had earned my honor and respect. Same thing was true about my daddy. And as I left the house that day with my treasures I stopped on the sidewalk and whispered my thanks for those two who had brought me through thick and thin without killing me first.
By the time Luke came home from his woodworking shop that afternoon I was knee deep in photos and family history. I heard him kick off his boots at the back door, stop at the bathroom to wash up, and then I leaned back into his grasp when he settled down on the floor beside me.
“What’re you doin’ down here? You wearin’ Miss Cleta’s socks again?”
I gave his ribs a shove with my elbow. “I’m workin’ is what I’m doin’ down here.”
“On Gemma’s Christmas gift.”
He watched me flip through the pages of a worn photo album and then kissed my head and stood up beside me. “I’ll let you work then and go look at the paper.”
“Don’t get too cozy. I got work for you, too.”
He sighed and slid back down beside me. “Woman, you’ve always got work for me to do,” he muttered in that voice of his that’s more like a wink than anything else. “Every time I turn around it’s work, work, work. When I die young, you make sure my tombstone says I worked till the day I died.”
“I’ll do that.” I picked up a pencil and a pad of paper and started to sketch out the rough idea I had in my head. And by rough, I mostly mean the way my drawing looked. We all have our given talents. Art is not one of mine. But I knew if anyone could understand my scribblings it was one of the few people who could climb inside my head and heart like he could.
By the time Christmas Eve arrived, we’d spent enough time together on that project to have gotten to know each other all over again ten times, but it was worth every second. We were agreed upon that.
I was snuggled up close to Luke on Momma and Daddy’s sofa, mostly because if he didn’t keep his arm around me tight I squirmed like a five-year-old, anxious for Gemma to get around to opening a box that didn’t hold bad memories for her. We’d let Opal go first, of course, but after she’d finished Gemma looked at my face and read it like a grocery list. “Reckon I’d better go next before Jessie’s head bursts.”
“It’s my heart that’s doin’ the burstin’, but you’re right about the rest. Hurry up and open it.”
I’ll swear to my dying day that girl took extra time unwrapping it just to get under my skin, but by the time she’d lifted the lid, there was no procrastination when it came to tear production. She pulled the carved wooden piece from the box and ran her fingers across the branches Luke had so skillfully worked into the wood.
“It’s a family tree.” I scooted off the sofa and slid down onto the floor beside her, pointing to the photo behind the glass Luke had positioned on top. “There’s your great granddaddy and great grandmomma on Daddy’s side. And there’s the ones on Momma’s side. And it works all the way down…” I slid my finger from one frame to the next till it landed on two girls who looked for all the world ready to burst into giggles, and finished with, “…to us.”
Gemma took my hand in hers and aimed her glassy eyes my way.
“You’ve got us. Maybe we can’t know more about your momma and daddy, but they’re always a part of you in your heart. That won’t never change. But the way I see it, you’ve always been my family.” I circled her face in the photograph with my finger. “From the day I can remember.” I pointed to the words Luke had burned into the base of the tree. “ ‘God couldn’t have knit you two together more tightly if He’d had you come out of the same womb.’ Those are Miss Cleta’s words. And she’s righter than anything right in this world if you ask me. So what if we don’t look the same? We’re the same inside, and that’s what counts.”
Tal took out his handkerchief and wiped Gemma’s cheeks, but a few tears still found their way to splash gently on our clasped hands, and at least a couple of those were mine. I looked down at our skin and smiled. “Our tears are the same color even if our skin isn’t. I reckon our hearts are the same, too. So if you want to know more about your family, just look around at us. And look here at this family tree. Cause if there’s any truth I know of outside of who my God is, it’s that you’re my sister as much as if you’d come from the same place I did.”
“I reckon you did, after all.” Daddy said. “Ain’t really people who make people, anyway. We all come from the same Maker. It’s who He chooses to gift us to that’s different, and we thank the Lord every day that when you needed a new family, He chose us.”
Gemma laid that family tree in my arms and climbed over me to grasp my momma and daddy… just like a true sister would.
There are times you know life is just where it’s supposed to be. Not much of life is like that. In this world we’re faced with all sorts of hardships and trials; moments when our spirits feel out of sorts. We wonder what life holds and remind ourselves sometimes a hundred times a day that there is One who knows the answers and always has the best at heart for His children. And every now and again He blesses us with those moments where everything falls into place and makes sense so we can see how His hand is at work.
In the years ahead there would be more ups and downs for us than could fill a dozen novels. There was no way we could know that in just one short year we would be facing Christmas in a nation at war. But in that moment our hearts and minds were cushioned from the harsh realities of the future. In that moment we simply sat in awe of a God who had not only sent us Gemma but had sent us salvation in the form of His son.
No gift under the tree could ever surpass that one.