On the Monday after Thanksgiving I presented Part 1 of this year’s Christmas Story, “Meeting Ella”. Look for the final installment (Part 5) of this story in a special post on Friday. Today, I present Part Four–
Ella sniffed a bit and then stared at me with her bright blue eyes. I felt completely out of my element. I had little experience with children and even less experience with such unexpected happenings like this. I gave her hand another warm squeeze and then dropped it and told her to follow me upstairs. Soon she was sitting at the table with a cup of hot cocoa and some of Mrs. Miller’s cookies.
“So, Ella, how did you happen to choose my house to visit?” It seemed like a silly question but I didn’t even know what else to ask. I didn’t want to be too blunt, but I have to admit that curiosity was just about killing me by now. And she was so quiet. This did not look like it was going to be easy.
Should I call someone to help me? Should I take her somewhere? What does one do in a situation like this? I told myself to just relax and give her a moment.
She sat there a few more minutes, drinking cocoa and petting Charlie.
“What’s his name?” she finally asked, ignoring my question.
“His name is Charlie. It suits him, I think. Do you agree?”
She soberly nodded and went back to her cocoa.
“So how did you get here, Ella?” I tried again.
With a catch in her throat, she started. She finally seemed ready to share and, with a few questions from me, she told me her whole story. She had grown up with her single mom, Melanie, in a little town about an hour away. When Melanie had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, she had finally shared the story of Ella’s father. She had told Ella how she had been lonely and sad, working in the office of a local mechanic. Thoughts of marriage had long since departed and her life was unexciting. One day, a handsome, older man had come to have his pick-up truck serviced. The two had hit it off immediately and were soon spending lots of time together.
Marriage was promised and so Melanie had let her guard down and soon became pregnant. But before she could let the man know he was going to be a father, he had disappeared out of her life, making it clear that it was over. She had resigned herself to her new life as a single mom and had made the best of it. Little Ella had filled Melanie’s life with love and sunshine, despite the circumstances of her birth. Melanie had always hoped deep down inside that the man would return and they could be a family but then a few years ago she had found out that the man had died. Melanie had cried when she told that part of the story to Ella and then had grown very serious as she had explained that she was not going to recover from her illness and Ella was going to need someone else to care for her. And, although Ella’s father was no longer living, his mother—Ella’s grandmother—was still alive and residing in a great big farmhouse all by herself.
Melanie, feeling alone and desperate, told Ella she was going to take her to her grandmother’s house to live. She had met the woman a couple of times and she was quite confident that this was the best and safest place for Ella. Uncertain of what welcome she would receive as the mother of Gus’s illegitimate child, Melanie had decided to carefully draft a note of explanation and had tucked it in an envelope along with Ella’s birth certificate. Trying to spare her daughter the horror of watching her mother die and assuring her that her grandmother would be overjoyed to have her there, she had given Ella the envelope and simply dropped her off at the farm one Tuesday, without even so much as a knock on the door and drove away.
Unbeknownst to Melanie, Hattie Barnwell had passed away several months earlier and so Ella had been greeted by an empty house rather than the warm hug of her grandmother. Not quite knowing what to do, she had walked around the house until she had found the open basement window. She had climbed in and had been eating from Gram’s full pantry and sleeping in the tiny sewing room ever since. From what I could gather, Ella had arrived only three or four days before I did.
She was finished and expecting my response. I was still reeling from the fact that Gus had a child he had never met. Serious and shy Uncle Gus. It just didn’t seem possible. But Ella’s eyes were all the proof I needed. There was no doubt that she had Uncle Gus’s distinct, cobalt blue eyes. How did I not notice how much she looks like him?
“So I guess we are cousins!” I said, trying to inflect a happy tone into my voice in the midst of my bewilderment.
She gave me a tired, tentative smile.
“Well, there isn’t much we can do about this situation tonight, so how about I tuck you into bed?” I gave her a warm smile as I tried to remember something about little girls and bedtimes. The only thing I could recall is that Gram had always read to me. Was Ella too old to enjoy a story? It couldn’t hurt to ask. “Would you like me to read you a bedtime story? I am sure Gram has some storybooks around here somewhere,” her eyes lit up at these words as she nodded her head.
An hour later, she was sound asleep, her blond hair fanned out against the pillow and a fisted hand next to her cheek. I was completely unprepared for the maternal feelings that had welled up in me as I had helped this small, defenseless girl prepare for bed. Snuggling together while reading to her from the red-covered book of Christmas stories had given me unexpected joy and pleasure. I had never even thought about children before. I had alway been driven by my career.
As soon as I walked into my bedroom, I realized that my blankets were still outside on the wash line. I sighed and turned to Charlie, “Come on, boy, we have one last thing to do before we can go to bed tonight.”
Charlie wagged his tail and followed me.
“You know, it’s been quite a day for you, hasn’t it, boy? Lots of adventure. I can promise you that every day won’t be like this one,” I leaned down and petted his head as we walked out into the beautiful night together to pull the blankets from the line. Gram’s light spring jacket that I had grabbed from the hook in the mud room wasn’t keeping me very warm against the chill in the air, but I had to stop for just a moment to look at the stars, twinkling and shining in the black sky. You sure didn’t see such a sight in the city. There were far too many man-made lights for that.
“What do you think, Charlie? Maybe this is where we are supposed to stay for good,” I stood there praying for a few moments, asking the Lord to give me direction and wisdom, not only for my uncertain and murky future, but maybe even more importantly for the future of the sweet little girl that had literally been dropped in my lap.
“Please show me what to do,” I whispered.
Grabbing the blankets, I headed inside.
Find the beginning of this story here.