fiction

The Christmas Ornaments (Part 2)

Each December, I take a break from my normal style of writing and write a Christmas story. Today you will find the second installment of this year’s story. If you missed part one, you can find it here. If you’d like to read the Christmas stories from previous years, you can find them all here. And now, here is Part 2–

      The following December found Julie at a much different place. Oh, she was still in the old brownstone struggling to make ends meet, but life had sure changed in other ways. It really all began with the tiny snow globe from the anonymous sender. As Julie pulled it out of its careful wrapping, she reflected on this.
      A couple of weeks after she had met Ted and Maggie at the restaurant, she had been true to her word and she had gone to their church. They had greeted her kindly and invited her to sit with them. Their genuine kindness met a need deep inside her. But the pastor’s message met a spiritual need that she didn’t even know she had. As she had listened to the pastor speak about sin and how no human can do anything to merit salvation on their own, she grew slightly uncomfortable. This was unlike any other message she had ever heard.
      She thought back to her own childhood, where she attended a church that taught that the only way to be saved was to be morally good. And, while she did try to be a good person, she grew tired of the hopelessness and eternal striving to be perfect. She walked away from that church and never looked back.
      But now here was this preacher telling her that it wasn’t even about works. This lit a fire in Julie’s heart and the Lord was surely drawing her to Himself. She went home and started reading her Bible—something she had never done before. She asked questions to Ted and Maggie, who patiently answered and never made her feel foolish. Within a few months, she had come to the understanding that Christ alone was her salvation. He had died for her sins and covered them with His blood. A newfound peace filled her heart and a deep love for her Savior grew.
      Over the course of that winter, Ted and Maggie “adopted” Julie into their family. She became Auntie Julie to their two girls, three-year-old Lucy and one-year-old Ava. She started spending each Tuesday evening with them, eating and talking and helping with the girls. As Julie’s only remaining family lived a thousand miles away in another state, she grew to consider them as her family.
      When springtime arrived, it was with a newfound enthusiasm for life. With a spring in her step and a brighter smile on her face, she had served the customers at Gunderson’s Diner. Suddenly her life, which had seemed so hopeless a few months before, was full of hope and joy.
      Of course, her money troubles didn’t go away just because she was now saved and, sometime in the summer, she started thinking about changing jobs. Mrs. Gunderson had started talking about selling the Diner and Julie finally felt like she could leave. But to where? To do what?
      She thought about the money she had tucked away in savings last Christmas. Quite suddenly, a thought came to her: Perhaps she could start taking classes? The thought grew like a flower within her and soon it was fully blossomed. Yes! That is exactly what she would do.
      She had poured over the catalog of the local community college and finally settled on nursing. Perhaps she could get her degree in nursing, one class at a time. She met with an advisor and was soon scheduled for two classes during the fall semester—both paid for by the generous Christmas benefactor.
      Sometime in October, Jack had entered her life. Thinking of Jack made Julie pause in her reflection temporarily as she glanced down at her watch. He was picking her up for a Christmas concert in a few minutes and she wanted to be ready. The watch indicated she had ten more minutes, so she let her mind wander back to when she first met him.
      Jack was the younger brother of Ted. He had grown tired of city life and longed to be closer to his family. And so he had found a job in their town, packed his bags, and moved into a condo a short distance from Ted and Maggie’s neighborhood.
      With Jack came fun and laughter and yet he had a serious side, too. When Ted and Maggie had introduced them, they quickly realized they were kindred spirits. They became good friends immediately and, within a few weeks, they started dating. Julie lingered on her thoughts of Jack. She never dreamed that she would meet someone like him. He was kind and generous and, most important of all, he loved the Lord. God had been so good to bring Jack into her life. It was hard to imagine life without him already, although it had only been two short months.
      Suddenly, she heard a knock at her door. She opened it to Jack’s smiling face.
      “Look what I found in your mailbox,” he enthusiastically tossed a package to her. Julie had enjoyed a long, lazy Saturday in her apartment decorating for Christmas and had asked Jack to get her mail on his way up.
      “This looks very similar to the one from last year,” she mused as she began to open it.
      A few moments later she was pulling out a beautiful hand-made wooden cross ornament along with a thick wad of cash.
      Jack’s eyes widened as he whistled long and low, “well, look at that.”
      Julie carefully hung the beautiful little cross on her tree and then counted out exactly one thousand dollars. A little note accompanied it: Merry Christmas! I continue to pray for you.
      After the concert, as Jack and Julie lingered over coffee, they talked about who could have sent the package. Not just once–but two years in a row. But not even one of their ideas seemed plausible.
      “Maybe it’s a rich relative,” said Jack.
      Julie furled her brow. She remembered that she did have a great aunt in Boston. And she thought there may be a couple of great uncles down south somewhere. But she couldn’t imagine them sending money or –even more strangely–praying for a girl they hadn’t seen since she was five. But she supposed stranger things had happened.
      Julie discussed it with Ted and Maggie, her adoptive family, Mrs. Gunderson, her boss, and Mrs. Bailey, her favorite customer. They all offered helpful suggestions but to no avail.
      The sender remained a mystery.

      
      
      

The Christmas Ornaments (Part 1)

In 2016, I started a little tradition here at the blog of writing a five-part Christmas story during the holiday season. While this does not appeal to all my readers, many of you have shared with me that you look forward to these stories each year. I really enjoy writing fiction and this is a bit of a way to stretch myself and my writing skills. And so I will take a little break from my normal style of writing over the next five weeks and will instead post a part each week to this year’s Christmas story: The Christmas Ornaments. I hope you enjoy it!

      Julie sighed. Pulling her frayed sweater around her shoulders, she trudged on through the slush. Sleet fell hard on her shoulders as she walked down the street to her tiny apartment on the upper floor of an old historical brownstone. Adding a bright note to the dreary night were twinkling Christmas trees in the windows and Christmas lights strung from porch roofs and wrapped around lamp posts.
      Biting her lip with worry, she wondered how she would pay the rent this month. Things were so tight. Waitressing just wasn’t providing her enough to live on. Especially now that they had cut her hours back. She thought of poor Mrs. Gunderson who had lost her husband a year ago. The restaurant was sorely missing its owner and manager. The owner’s wife seemed to be doing all she could, but it just wasn’t working. Mr. Gunderson had been the face of the Diner. He had been the reason for his establishment’s success. His fun, lively spirit and excellent management, along with a caring heart had made him one of the town’s favorite people. Some people you just couldn’t replace.
      Julie knew she should get another job and yet thinking about leaving Mrs. Gunderson in this difficult time just seemed cruel. She sighed again as her options—or lack thereof—trailed through her mind.
      “I’m too tired to think about it tonight,” she thought as she climbed the porch steps of her apartment building. Entering the huge foyer that served as an entry way, she stopped to check her mail and found an unexpected surprise: A small nondescript, brown package.
      Curious, she put it, along with the bills and flyers in her box, in her tote bag and went up the stairs to her apartment. Putting the key in the old wooden door, she heard it creak just a bit as she opened it. Oh, it was so chilly! She turned up the heat a bit, trying not to think about the extra expense, while Mr. Tibbs, her orange cat, rubbed against her legs.
      “Hello there, my big fellow,” Julie reached down and picked up Mr. Tibbs and cuddled him. She wasn’t really a cat person, but Mr. Tibbs had shown up in the yard downstairs one day and no one wanted him. After some effort to find his owner, Julie had eventually claimed him, growing quite attached during the process.
      But there were matters more pressing than cuddling Mr. Tibbs and she put him back down and took the mysterious package over to the table. A scissors quickly opened the box and there, in a soft bed of bubble wrap, lay a miniature snow globe. A ribbon was attached, indicating that it was a Christmas ornament. She shook it up and down and watched the snow fall on the tiny Christ child who lay in a miniature manger with His parents close by.
      She reached her hand into the package to look for a card. Finding an envelope she pulled it out and opened it. Her eyes widened in great surprise as she pulled a wad of bills out of the package. What in the world? She wondered. She counted them and found ten one hundred dollar bills along with a small post-it note that said only these simple words: Merry Christmas! I’m praying for you!
      Julie thought through all of the people she knew and realized she didn’t know even one who could afford to send this kind of cash. Who could it be?

_______________________________________

      The next day she awoke to the pleasant realization that her rent was no longer a problem. The gift she had received yesterday would more than cover it. In fact, she could put several hundred away and still have a bit to spend on Christmas. She couldn’t remember the last time she had even a dollar that could be spent frivolously. She didn’t go to work until the dinner shift that evening and so she decided she would go have some fun. She hadn’t planned on getting a tree but now that she had this little ornament, perhaps a small tree was in order.
      The crisp, bright weather outside seemed to understand her mood. The sun shone brightly from the blue sky as she walked into the city to do a little shopping. Beginning at her favorite department store, she found a small artificial tree for her ornament. She bought a few other ornaments and some mini-lights to complete the tree. Her heart welled up with excitement at the thought of decorating it. It had been so long since she had even celebrated Christmas. She hadn’t realized how much she missed it until she received the ornament.
      Next, she went to the pet department and found some toys for Mr. Tibbs where she purchased a cloth mouse that squeaked and two little tinkling balls in bright colors.
      The women’s clothing department was next on her list and there she picked out a new soft and thick heather gray sweater. She even found a much-needed winter coat on sale. It was a bright pink color—most likely the reason it was on clearance—but she bought it anyway. It was five times warmer than the thin, worn out coat she had had since she was a teenager.
      Within a couple of hours she had made her purchases and was struggling to carry them home. She should have thought about that, she berated herself. The bag with the ornaments kept falling.
      “Here let me help you with that,” A young man jumped to her aid just as the bag was getting ready to slip again.
      “Oh, thank you so much!” She laughed as she accepted his help. She liked his warm brown eyes.
      “Where are you headed?” He asked in a friendly manner.
      When she told him her street, he whistled, “That’s a long way with a load this heavy. Why don’t I flag a taxi for you?”
      “Oh, no, I’ll be fine—” and then she remembered. Just this once, she could afford a taxi. And so she told him to go ahead.
      Within a few moments, she was cozily settled into the taxi with all of her packages.
      “Thank you!” she said to the nice man but he had already turned and was walking away.

_______________________________________

      A few hours later, she was at work. But, unlike the previous days, there was a spring in her step and she hurried to the booth where her favorite customer, Mrs. Bailey, sat.
      “Good evening, Mrs. Bailey!”
      “Good evening, dear. So nice to see you.”
      “Where is Mr. Bailey tonight? Still under the weather?”
      “He still has that cold. He just can’t seem to shake that awful cough. His nurse seems worried. I left him in her care and thought I’d come out for a quick bite to eat.”
      In the four years that Julie had worked at the restaurant, Mrs. Bailey had been joined by Mr. Bailey faithfully until the past three months. He had caught a terrible case of bronchitis and his 89 year old body was having a very hard time recovering. The Baileys had never had kids and had expressed how lonely they were. In this, Julie had felt a kinship with them and they had developed a relationship that went beyond just a few meals at the restaurant.
      “Please let him know I asked after him.”
      “I will surely do that, dear. You should come and visit when you can. I know that would cheer him up.” the Bailey’s lived in a tiny apartment in a nice neighborhood just a short walk from the restaurant. Julie had been there often.
      “Yes, I will have to do that,” she smiled, “now what can I get you?”
      A few moments later she carried out a steaming bowl of creamy potato soup along with a cup of coffee for her friend. Behind her, at a nearby table, someone sat watching.
      “Well, that looks delicious. I think I’ll have the same,” said a slightly familiar voice.
      Julie turned and, surprised, saw that it was the friendly man from earlier that day. He sat with a pretty blonde woman.
      They were sitting in her section and so, smiling, Julie walked over to the table with her pad in hand, ready to take their order.
      The man gave a big grin and said, “Well, if it isn’t the girl with too many packages from earlier today! What are the chances?”
      He introduced her to his pretty wife, who was as friendly as he was. It was a slow evening at the restaurant and this gave her an opportunity to talk with the young couple. She found out their names were Ted and Maggie. Before they left, they extended an invitation to come to the young people’s meetings at their church. When they explained where it was, Julie realized that Grace Bible Church was not too far from her house and decided she would go. It was time to try something new.

Mending Fences (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of this year’s Christmas story. You know, we can find forgiveness from God for the most horrible of sins, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still deal with the consequences. One of the most devastating consequences of sin are destroyed families. And they are all around us. Join me today as we continue the story of two sisters who are struggling through this very thing. (If you have landed on this story for the first time today, you can find Parts 1 & 2 here.)

      “Good morning, Mom! Didn’t you ever go to bed?” Greta said brightly, waking me up with her words.
      I groggily looked around me and realized that I was still on the sofa where I had relived those awful years over again in my mind the night before. I smiled at that baby girl, who was now so grown up.
      “Good morning, sweetheart. What’s on your schedule today?”
      “I have two classes and then I will be at work for the dinner shift. I’ll just study at the library in between classes today.” Greta was in her second year at the community college nearby and also worked at a local restaurant.
      “Hope you have a wonderful day!” I gave her a big hug as I raised myself out of the comfortable corner of the couch that had been my bed the night before.
      “You, too, Mom. What are you doing today?”
      “That’s a good question,” I laughed. I had off work today and I was still thinking through what I wanted to get done.
      Greta headed out the door and I walked to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Still in my clothing from last night and looking rather rumpled, I looked rather like a vagabond.
      After breakfast and a shower, I decided I’d go see my mom. She lived in an assisted living community nearby. She had never really recovered after Dad died 15 years ago. She had never been that strong and his sudden death from a heart attack had left her heartbroken and in a weakened physical state. About eight years ago now, I had arranged for her to go to Good Shepherd Assisted Living.
      It was around that same time that I started attending Trinity Bible Church, located a couple of blocks from where we lived. I am not sure what drove me to go to church on that particular Sunday but I knew I needed something to help me with the horrible guilt I had lived with since that fateful night. It had weighed me down like a million pound rock!
      It was through Pastor Jack and his wife, Patty, that I would find out about God’s forgiveness. They opened the Bible and showed me from its pages how Jesus had died for me and that no matter what sin I had committed, forgiveness was available for me. It had taken me several months to actually believe that I could be forgiven for something so awful. But when I finally repented and surrendered my life to Jesus that million pound rock rolled right off my shoulders! I hadn’t even realized how heavy it was until it was gone.
      Greta was saved just a few months after I was and then Mom shortly after that. All three of us had been going to TBC ever since and, within a year, that small church on the corner was like the extended family we never had. It was there that we grew in our faith through the expository preaching of the Word and the discipleship of those who were more mature in the faith. I thanked God most every day for His kindness in leading me to that truth-teaching church and showing me the way to salvation.
      Since coming to know the Lord, the one thing that had really been on my mind was my sister. A few years after I was saved, I read Romans and came across this small, powerful verse towards the end of chapter 12: If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. And I found myself wondering if I had done everything possible to be at peace with my sister?
      This time of year was especially hard. October was when we’d have so much fun preparing for the holidays in Dad’s store. Every year I thought about reaching out to her and every year I chickened out. I just knew she would reject me again and I wasn’t sure I could bear it.
      California had treated her well. She had a great job and had ended up marrying a guy named Mark. They had had three kids. Two boys and a girl. I only knew this because she communicated occasionally with Mom. But poor Mom had never even met her grandkids. Their happy faces were in frames on the wall of her small apartment but she had never heard their voices or put her arms around them.
      I felt responsible for this, too. Evie was still so angry with me that she hadn’t even brought her kids to meet their Grandma. Oh, the burden was so hard to bear. The Lord, in His awesome grace and mercy, had taken away the guilt and the shame, but I still lived with the pain and the devastating consequences. They would always be with me, I imagined. The only good to come from that awful time was Greta. Oh, how I thanked the Lord for my precious daughter. She was the one and only bright spot in the whole affair.
      What if you would just try just one last time to reach out to Evie?
      The thought came unbidden and totally unexpectedly. Could I risk it? But what was I even risking? She couldn’t reject me any more than she already had. Surely, it would be worth at least trying—if not just for Mom’s sake.
      Yes. I would try.
      “But it won’t work,” my mind insisted.
      The memory of the last time I had tried to apologize came rushing back. It was shortly before Dad had died. I had called her for the third and final time in my efforts to make things right. But before I could even get one sentence out she had firmly said in a stone-cold voice that she would never, ever forgive me and to never call her again.
      I never had.
      But that was fifteen years ago now. Since that time, she had gotten married and had three kids. Would she see things a little differently now? Since Bryce had been born she called Mom a lot more often. Maybe she was changing, too. Like I was.
      I decided to sit down and write her a letter before I lost my courage. I called Mom and told her I’d be a little later than I had planned and then sat down to write. I read and re-read the letter. I erased and re-wrote. I crumpled the first and then the second and third drafts in my hand and threw them in the trash. But, finally, I had penned this letter–

Dear Evie—

I have been wanting to write this letter for such a long time now. Nineteen years ago I sinned against you in a way that is truly unforgivable.

I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have wished that I could go back and change what happened. But, to my great sorrow, I can’t. I can’t fix it. I can’t change it. I can’t undo it.

But I want to ask you just one last time to forgive me. I beg you to forgive me for betraying you. I sinned against you in one of the worst ways possible and I have regretted it every single day since. But I love you, Evie. I always have and I always will. It would be my greatest desire to be sisters again.

Love,
Your sister, Eliza

      I sucked in my breath as the tears rolled down my face. One of them dropped on the letter, smearing the E in my name. Should I write it again? I sighed and realized that I didn’t have the emotional energy to write it again. I shrugged my shoulders and folded up the letter. I stuck it in an envelope and then popped it into my purse. I needed to get her current address from Mom.
      I didn’t even have my sister’s address. Oh, what a sad and sorry state of affairs. But with God’s help, perhaps we could start rebuilding this family. And maybe it would start with my letter.

 

 

Mending Fences (Part 2)

This is Part 2 in this year’s Christmas Story. Sometimes life throws curve balls at us. And sometimes those curve balls are caused by our own choices. Are we resigned to live with the consequences of our sins? Well, to a certain extent the answer may be yes. But we serve a great God who can heal even the most broken of relationships. This is the theme of this year’s story. (Find Part 1 here)

      As I sat on the sofa, my mind went back to that first time I saw Rick. Evie’s best friend, Monica, had introduced her to Rick at a football game and it didn’t take them long to become inseparable. After just a few weeks she asked if she could bring him around for dinner. Mom had prepared her delicious roast beef and made-from-scratch mashed potatoes in Rick’s honor. For dessert, she had made a chocolate cake with a thick coating of peanut butter icing. Isn’t it funny what you remember about certain moments?
      Evie was 23 and had just settled into a good accounting job upon her graduation from the local university the preceding May. And she was ready to get married. It didn’t take her more than a few weeks of dating to believe that Rick was her future husband.
      I was 21 and working at Dad’s store while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Dad and I got along well and it seemed like the perfect fit for the time being.
      Our whole family loved Rick from the very beginning. He was laid back and funny and had twinkling blue eyes that lit up when he talked to you. By the end of the evening, my dad had offered him a job at the store and I…well…I had fallen hopelessly in love.
      For the next year, I put on a pretty good act. No one knew I was head over heels in love with my sister’s handsome boyfriend. Well, Mom might have figured it out but if she did she didn’t say anything.
      But working together at the store had given us a special, albeit platonic, relationship. We had a lot of fun together. He teased me and I teased back. I think he enjoyed my lightheartedness and love for fun in comparison to my very serious-minded sister.
      One day, my sister came home with a ring on her finger. How it is possible to be so happy and so heartbroken at the same time is truly a mystery, but as both emotions washed over me, I told myself that I must move on. Rick was Evie’s. He would never be mine. I must resign myself to that.
      My mom caught my eye as I hugged Evie tightly and wished her the best. It was then that I realized that Mom most certainly did realize how I felt about Rick. I gave her a wry smile and went to my room.
A little later she came to talk to me. She told me she knew this was hard for me, but that I must be more careful with Rick now that he was engaged. She realized he treated me like a little sister, but I must be careful not to show my true feelings. For Evie’s sake and for Rick’s.
      I told Mom I understood and she left. And I really did understand. Of course, I didn’t plan for anything to happen between Rick and me. What loving sister ever would? I knew what was right. But, of course, one rarely does plan for these types of things.
      One night, a few weeks after my conversation with Mom I found myself in an undesirable situation. Christmas was always a busy time but this particular year it was extra busy because Dad was opening a second store in a nearby town. This demanded a lot of Dad’s time and so I was left to run the store many times on my own. Thankfully, it was always with one of the local high school kids that helped us out, as Dad had Rick at the new store more often than not. I found this a huge relief and honestly believed that my feelings were waning and I was ready to move on with life. But then, just a week before Christmas, came that one unexpected and dreaded night. Dad, completely unaware of my feelings, left Rick and me alone at the store.
      As we were closing for the night, we ended up in the back store room together. I had tried so hard to avoid this moment, always being so careful to not be alone with my sister’s fiancé. But when the moment finally presented itself, I caved. I am ashamed to admit it, but all of those feelings hid deep inside rushed to the surface and I caved.
      I am pretty sure Rick didn’t mean for it to happen, either. Although I have always wondered about that. I guess I’ll never know.
      My face grew hot as I remembered the rest of that night. What had I been thinking? My parents were very moral people. We didn’t go to church but I was raised right. I definitely knew the difference between right and wrong and that this was so wrong. How in the world could I have sacrificed the friendship of my sister and destroyed my family for a few stolen moments? I realized the sheer stupidity and blatant immorality of it all immediately afterwards.
      But it was too late. Within a year, life had utterly and completely changed forever: Evie had sworn she would never forgive me and moved away to California. Rick disappeared from the scene altogether and none of us ever saw him again. And I was a single mom to a baby girl who looked an awful lot like Rick. I named her Greta.
      
      

Mending Fences (Part 1)

During the holiday season, I like to step away from my normal type of post once each week and share one part of a 5-part Christmas Story that I have written. It stretches my brain to write in this different way and hopefully provides you with not only a little escape from the busyness of the season but also challenges you in your own walk with the Lord as you reflect on the story. And, so, with that brief introduction, I present to you this year’s story, which is called Mending Fences

      I don’t know when it happened but I couldn’t remember what she looked like. Not that it mattered. She probably had changed, anyway. And it wasn’t like I was going to see her anytime soon. But it still filled me with sorrow that I couldn’t remember her face.
      I sat on my front porch, deep in reflection. The smell of autumn was in the air and a cool wind had forced me to don a light sweater. This time of year always made me nostalgic. It brought memories of school days, football games, and the much-anticipated preparation for the holiday season at Dad’s store.
      My thoughts turned back to my sister. I squinted my eyes as I tried to recollect her features. I remembered that she had straight brown hair. And greenish eyes hidden by rather thick glasses. But the rest just disappeared into the vague recesses of my memory.
      How could I have forgotten what my sister looks like? The thought startled and scared me at the same time. A part of my past was escaping my memory and it deeply saddened me.
      I went back into the house and climbed the stairs to the attic. I turned on the light and started making my way through the collection of boxes kept there. There was a photo album from my past somewhere in all of those relics. I finally spotted the gray container that held all my old albums. I found the frayed, green photo album I was looking for as soon as I opened the container.
      I sat down on a box and started paging through it. Ahh, there she was. My beautiful, green-eyed sister with the tortoise shell glasses and thick brown hair that fell just a little below her shoulders. The perfect nose and high cheek bones gave her a special type of beauty that I had not inherited.
      I wondered if she still wore her hair like this? Did she still wear glasses or did she have contacts now? It had been fifteen years since we had laid eyes on each other. Could it have really been that long?
      It was with great regret that I remembered that we hadn’t even talked to each other that last time. The awkwardness of Daddy’s funeral came back in a rush. The great efforts we both made to try and avoid one another. The rapid heartbeat and eyes on the ground if she got too near. The lack of desire to even speak to her. Her lack of interest in Greta, her only niece. I could remember it all like it was yesterday.
      But one does a lot of growing up in fifteen years. And now I found myself wishing I had done a lot of things differently. If onlys plagued me.
      If I had to do over, I would change things. I really would. But I recognized the futility of that thought.
      “Mom?” Greta stirred me out of my reverie.
      “Up here, honey! I’ll be right down!”
      Sighing, I placed the photo album back into the box and placed the lid on top. A few hours later, our Friday pizza and movie night was over and Greta was sleeping soundly in her room. As I sat on the sofa in the family room, my mind went back to the past.
      Life has a way of stealing our happy endings. And so it was with me. But maybe I had short-changed myself. I was simply reaping what I had sown. Perhaps I should start at the beginning. That would help all of this make more sense to you.

      Once upon a time (don’t all stories begin this way?) there were two sisters. Evie, the firstborn, was shy and quiet. Her younger sister, Eliza, was boisterous and outgoing. But the two were inseparable from the very beginning.

      Doesn’t that sound nice? Just like a lovely story you might read in an actual book.

      Except that the lovely story ended up not so lovely. I’m Eliza. The younger sister by only 15 months. And Evie and I were best friends. Together we navigated playgrounds, middle school, and teen-aged angst. Together we weathered broken friendships, boyfriend break-ups, and frustrations with Mom and Dad.
      Memories started flooding my mind as I recalled those days. Like the time when Marcy, my best school friend of several years, just decided one day that she liked Lauren better than she liked me. From that time on, I watched the two girls eat lunch side-by-side, climb the monkey bars at recess, and sit beside each other at every opportunity—all while I sat alone and uninvited to their circle. Oh, how I had cried. It was Evie who comforted me. Evie who wrapped her small arms around me so tightly and said, “now, don’t you worry! We love you and family is what matters.”
      I felt my eyes start to burn. Oh, the turns that life takes. I wondered what would have happened if Rick had never set foot in dad’s store? How would our lives have been different?
 
 

Meeting Ella (Part 5)

MeetingElla

This is the final part of this year’s Christmas story. I hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it! I have included some author notes below, so hopefully you will take time to read them, as well. Merry Christmas!

PART 5

      The next morning, I was awakened by the little patter of feet. I lifted my head and saw Ella enter my room, carrying the Christmas storybook. Charlie lifted his head and wagged his tail against the comforter. (Against my better judgment, he had ended up on my bed last night. I just couldn’t resist those big brown eyes!)
      I had slept so much better than the night before but I wasn’t quite ready to get out of bed so I patted the spot beside me and told her to climb up next to me. She was soon snuggled in between Charlie and me, paging quietly through the book. I tried to close my eyes again, but the strangeness of having a little girl beside me kept me from sleep. In only a moment, I opened my eyes and sat up.
      “Are you hungry?” I asked.
      “Yes! Can you make pancakes?” She hopped out of bed with enthusiasm and started out the door, Charlie following close on her heels.
      I followed after her, trying to reconcile this bright, talkative girl with the somber, quiet one from last night. She obviously had started to feel comfortable around me.
      Suddenly, I realized that it was Christmas Eve. With everything going on, I had completely lost track of the days. I tried to think of a course of action for Ella. The first thing I knew I had to do was to find out if her mother was still alive, no matter what day it was.
      I made some pancakes and we ate them amidst her happy chatter. After breakfast, I sent Ella up to get dressed. Meanwhile, I pulled out my laptop and tried to locate Melanie. Ella had told me that her last name was Erikson. Putting “Melanie Erikson” into the Google search box, I found a home address as well as a short article about a charity project she was part of at a Baptist church in her town. I called the church, not really expecting an answer because of the holiday but was pleasantly surprised when the pastor picked up with a warm greeting. As I explained to him what had happened, he listened quietly and then told me that Melanie was in a local hospice facility and didn’t have very long to live. And then he said sadly that when he had stopped by to visit Melanie yesterday, she was in terrible sorrow over not knowing if Ella was ok. She was heartbroken over not being able to say one final good-bye. He was amazed that I was calling so shortly after he had had this conversation with her, as he had been praying just this morning about finding Ella for Melanie.
      I knew what I had to do. I thanked him for the information and turned to Ella, who was now dressed and quietly playing on the floor with Charlie.
      The living room, with the twinkling tree lights and the cozy fire, set a nice atmosphere for us to talk about her mom. Ella, her arm around Charlie, listened intently as I explained that her mother was growing sicker every day but that she had changed her mind and really longed to say good-bye to her. Could she be brave and strong?
      Ella’s face grew pale but she sat up a little straighter and her eyes brightened at the prospect of seeing her mother, “When do we go? And what happens after that? Can I stay here with you?”
      I knew that question was going to come and I had thought of little else since I had found Ella the evening before. I had decided that if Ella wanted to stay with me and if her mother was in agreement, I would offer her a home with me here at the farm house. This was a big part of my reason for finding Melanie. I knew that Ella would be thrown into the state foster system if I couldn’t get some kind of signed, legal document from her mother.
      “Ella, would you like to stay here and live with me at the farm house?”
      “Oh, yes! Please!” Only three little words, but the passion in her little heart glistened through her amazing blue eyes.
      “Okay, then. I would love to have you here with me. Let’s see if we can make that happen,” I smiled at her as the ramifications of what I had just said filled my head. Instant motherhood. Was I really ready for this? But I knew I had to take care of this dear little cousin of mine. She had no one else in the world. And then it dawned on me—neither did I. We were perfectly suited for one another.
      I put Charlie in his crate and we started out. Ella was mostly quiet on the drive, probably thinking about her mother. In a little over an hour, we were pulling into the parking lot that stood in front of a pretty stone building with wreaths in the windows.
      A kind lady directed us to Melanie’s room and we were soon at her door. I took a deep breath and knocked.
      “Melanie? Are you up for visitors?” I hesitantly pushed the door open.
      I am not sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t this shell of a woman who looked like she weighed less than 90 pounds.
      I could see the question in her eyes and then she saw Ella. Her eyes, dull and lifeless a second before, suddenly lit up the whole room.
      “Ella? Is that my baby? Am I dreaming?”
      Ella walked over to her mom and leaned over to gently kiss her.
      “No, Melanie, you aren’t dreaming. Ella is here to say good-bye.”
      “Oh, my baby, my baby,” Melanie moaned, “I can’t believe you are here. I didn’t want you to see me like this, but I am so glad you are here.”
      I quietly moved back to a dark corner of the room to let them have a few moments alone.
      They talked in low tones for a while and then I heard Melanie, with a desperate note in her voice, ask, “Ella, are you okay?”
      “Yes, mom, I am fine. Libby is taking good care of me.” I was so glad that she didn’t expand on all she had been through.
      “Who is Libby? Where is your grandmother?” The question was expected and I stepped up to explain.
      “Melanie, I am Libby,” I introduced myself and then continued, “I am Ella’s cousin. Gus was my mom’s brother and my uncle. Our grandmother died a few months ago and, of course, you didn’t know that. But no need to worry, I can care for Ella. Would that be okay?”
      I recognized even as I spoke what a vulnerable place Melanie was in. She didn’t know me at all. She didn’t know if I was telling the truth. She was literally putting her daughter in the hands of a stranger. And she didn’t have the strength or the resources to even check my story. With this in mind, I gently held Melanie’s hand and looked her in the eye.
      “Melanie, I promise to love Ella as my own. I know you don’t know me but I want to assure you that you can trust me. I will care for her.”
      I saw two tears make a path down Melanie’s cheek and then she breathed out words I wasn’t expecting.
      “I have regretted my decision to drop off Ella every minute since I left her. I knew her grandmother would take care of her–I had no doubts about that—but I should have stayed. I should have asked. I wasn’t thinking. I was scared. I couldn’t think beyond the pain and desperation.”
      “It’s okay. You don’t have to explain,” I could see how difficult this was for her, both physically and emotionally. Every word seemed laborious. But she continued.
      “No, let me finish. Now, as I approach the end, I mostly sleep. But any moment I am awake, I have prayed, begging the Lord to assure me that my baby will be okay. You are the answer to that prayer. I am sure of it. I know that God has sent you here with Ella as an answer to my prayer. And I am so grateful.”
      Right at that moment, I was in awe over God’s sovereign plan for all of us. I knew God would work out every detail somehow. But I also knew that I had something that had to be done.
      “Melanie, do you feel well enough to sign a letter that would give me custody of Ella?”
      “Yes, yes, of course, it must be done,” she struggled to sit up.
      “No, no, not yet. I am going to go call a friend of mine. Ella will stay here with you and visit. I’ll be back.”
      I went out to the nurses station and asked for paper and a pen and then lost no time in calling Kate.       Mrs. Miller had only said that Kate was in grad school, but Kate told me yesterday that she was actually in law school. She had laughingly said her Grandma could never remember that. I knew she could help me.
      Soon I had a letter drafted that would hopefully hold up in court. Melanie gladly signed it and, with tears streaming down her face, said her final good-bye to Ella. I offered to bring Ella back for another visit but she lifted a weak hand in protest and said, “I won’t be here much longer now. I’m going home soon.”
      As we prepared to leave, she reached for my hand and said the words I will never forget, “Thank you, Libby, for taking care of my little girl. Please teach her to love Jesus with all of her heart.” And then she dropped her hand, exhausted, and closed her eyes. I could see she was spent. We probably had stayed too long. We were all crying but Ella was sobbing almost uncontrollably. I put my arm around her as we slowly walked away. I am not sure I have ever done anything so hard as leave that room.
      I asked a nurse to check on Melanie as we left, letting them know that she may be upset. The nurse smiled and told us that we were the best medicine she could have ever had. Apparently the nursing staff knew her story and had been praying, as well, for a miracle. One nurse had even started a search for Ella and had planned a trip to our town tomorrow in order to find her.
      It was pretty amazing to be part of a miracle.

      A few hours later, Ella and I were sitting alongside the Millers in a church pew. I think we both were overwhelmed at the changes in our lives over the past few days. There was so much to take in. Both mourning and joy were part of what we were feeling. All that we had lost was competing with the newfound joy of having found each other. What a Christmas! As the congregation started to sing “Joy to the World”, I grabbed Ella’s hand and squeezed it. She looked at me with a bright smile and I knew we would both be okay. We had both found a family this Christmas. An unexpected little family that we both had needed so desperately. God had taken such special care of both of us and I knew He would continue to do so. I moved my thoughts back to the service and joined the singing with gusto. Joy to the world, the Lord is Come!

 

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Author Notes:  I started this story without knowing the ending. I spent what felt like hours trying to come up with a plausible plot. Finally, one day, I shared my dilemma with my mom and she helped me sort through it all. I want to publicly thank my mom for her help!

Also, I want to talk a bit about the spiritual lessons of this story. In some ways, I struggled because I know that in real life, the knots and bumps of our own stories don’t always work out so neatly. Sometimes–ofttimes–there is no happy ending. But, on the other hand, sometimes we watch God work things out in ways that are far beyond anything we could have ever dreamed. It was my hope to remind you that we serve a big God and He does sometimes work things out in amazing ways. But, more importantly, I wanted to remind you of two things–

1. We were lost and alone, without hope, and God made a way for us to be reconciled to Him. Like Libby giving Ella a home, God took in the poor orphan (me!) and gave me a home–a citizenship in heaven. I found safety, security, and rest in Him. If you aren’t saved, I hope that this story may be used to encourage you to read the Bible and find out more about the God who loves you so much that He sent His Son to die for you so that you, too, might know that you are eternally safe and secure in God’s sovereign hands.

2. And I hope that this story encourages you to open your heart to whomever God puts in your path. There are so many lost and lonely people in this world. Let’s be encouragers! Sometimes that means giving them a home for a few months and sometimes that just means giving them a warm smile. But let’s open our eyes and intentionally reach out to the lost and lonely this year. They are everywhere, waiting to be noticed.

Thank you so much for reading this story. I hope that it was a joy to you this Christmas. Enjoy the holidays!

p.s. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about this year’s story! Comment below or email me at leslie {at} growing4life {dot} net.

Meeting Ella (Part 4)

MeetingElla

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.

Meeting Ella (Part 3)

MeetingElla

This is the third installment in this season’s Christmas story. Hope you are enjoying it!

      Morning came far too quickly after my restless night. Dragging myself out of bed, I got ready for the day and then made myself some toast. Last night’s events played through my mind as I ate my breakfast and, thankfully, my fears were considerably diminished in the bright morning sunshine. Of course, houses make strange noises—especially hundred year old farm houses. I would just have to get used to it.
      Perhaps a dog would help. It was so disconcerting being in this house completely alone—especially at night. I put my dishes in the sink and grabbed my coat, excited for today’s adventure.
      The first stop was the local Walmart to buy some pet supplies. The brightly colored collars and leashes drew my eye. I picked out a medium-sized, green polka-dotted collar, with a leash to match. That seemed to be the safest selection, as it could be used for a male or female medium-sized dog. My cart was soon loaded with dog food, dog treats, bowls, pet shampoo, and a big, over-sized dog bed. I walked by the crates and realized that this was probably going to be a necessity, as well. Who knew how well-behaved this dog would be? And so a medium-sized crate went in on top of everything else. I carefully wheeled my cart to the front and through the checkout. I watched as the the items began to add up to an exorbitant amount. Shopping sprees like this would have to be extremely rare these next few months.
      A half hour later, I was walking through the concrete hallways of the local shelter. There was certainly no dearth of dogs from which to choose. There were big ones and small ones, ferocious ones and friendly ones. How would I ever choose just one? And then I saw him. He sat calmly in the corner of his cage but as I approached his tail started wagging fiercely. He greeted me like a perfect gentleman—happily but without that over-the-top excitement that some dogs have. Short brown hair with a small white patch on his chest and medium-sized, I knew he was just right for me. His name was Charlie and it suited him perfectly. Charlie it was.
      Soon all of the paperwork was signed, the small fee was paid, and we were on our way home. Charlie was amazing right from the start. He sat quietly in the car looking out the window.
      As the car pulled into the driveway, Charlie’s tail started wagging as if to say “What an adventure!” He hopped out and excitedly started to explore his new home. He followed me into the house and happily continued his exploration. Finally, he flopped down beside me in the kitchen to watch me prepare my lunch. His brown, soulful eyes silently asked me to share.
      “Oh, alright!” I laughed as I threw a bit of cheese down to him.
      After lunch, I decided to decorate for Christmas. Sure, only Charlie and I would really appreciate it, but somehow it just felt like the right thing to do. And so, turning the switch on at the bottom of the steps, up to the attic I went. Charlie followed me up the narrow stairway, sniffing all the way. It was clear that he was overjoyed with his newfound freedom. I found the Christmas decorations in the back right corner of the attic, just where I had put them last year and the year before that and, well, for forever. There were boxes upon boxes. Gram sure had loved Christmas.
      I opened the first box and found the tree decorations. I pushed that box towards the staircase. The second held Christmas-themed linens and tablecloths. Deeming them unnecessary, at least for this Christmas season, I pushed that one to the side. Continuing on in this manner for another thirty minutes, six boxes were soon waiting at the top of the stairs.
      One by one, I lifted them and carried them downstairs to the dining room, almost tripping over Charlie a few times as he followed on my heels. But he was such a welcome addition to the house that I just couldn’t grow angry with him so I just laughed and gently scolded him.
      After all of the boxes were down, I made myself a cup of coffee and decided to sit down for a few minutes. My rough night soon caught up with me and I found myself dozing off. At least, until Charlie started barking at the sound of the doorbell. Who could that be? I peeked out the front window. Mrs. Miller stood there smiling, holding a candy-cane striped tin. Beside her stood a young woman with brown hair wearing a navy pea coat.
      Opening the door, I welcomed them inside.
      “Hello, dear! I hope we aren’t bothering you. I just couldn’t wait for you to meet my granddaughter. Katie, this is Libby. Libby, Kate. I am just sure you two will get along fabulously,” She gestured from one to the other as we gave each other tentative—and rather awkward—smiles.
      And then she continued, “And I just happened to do some baking this morning, so we brought some cookies along. They are the peanut butter kind with the Hershey Kisses on top. They are Jim’s favorite,” She winked as she handed me the tin and then started to look around, “Oh, so many memories here. We used to come and play games with your Grandma. I sure do miss her.”
      And then she spotted the boxes of decorations in the dining room, “Oh! Did we interrupt you?”
      “Well, I actually didn’t get very far yet,” I glanced at my watch and saw that it was already 3:30pm, “I will do what I can today and then finish tomorrow. There’s really no big hurry. Can I get you some coffee?”
      I saw Mrs. Miller turn to Katie and ask her a question before she turned back to me with a surprising question, “Libby, darling, could Katie and I help you decorate? We’d love to help and, besides, decorating by yourself is really not near as much fun as decorating with friends!” (She had such a warm and rather loud enthusiasm as she said this), “Kate assured me that she has a few spare hours. So why don’t you go make coffee and put on some Christmas music and we will have ourselves a wonderful time. What do you say?”
      Truth be told, I really wanted to decorate alone. I wanted to take my time going through the old, familiar things and I wanted to be able to cry if I felt like crying. But Mrs. Miller was a force to be reckoned with and so, hiding my disappointment, I pasted on a smile and told her I’d love to have their help. I put on some Christmas music and then went to the kitchen and made three cups of hot coffee and put a few of the cookies from the tin on a plate. Charlie quietly stared at me and rubbed his nose on my legs as if to tell me he understood and was sorry for how things had turned out.
      But, surprisingly, the next three hours flew by in a flurry of activity and merriment. First, we set up and decorated Gram’s three artificial trees–The old-fashioned one in the living room; the formal one, bedecked with gold and silver, in the dining room; and the smallest one, decorated with simple bows and silk poinsettias, in the foyer. Next, we filled the banisters and mantel with green garland, white lights, gold stars, and tiny crocheted angels. I pulled Gram’s collection of porcelain angels from their careful wrapping and set them around on every possible surface. Finally, we worked outside to put the garland and lights around the door. Kate had even helped me pull Uncle Gus’s manger scene out of the old shed. I stood back with a great sense of satisfaction. Mrs. Miller was right—it had been so much more fun to accomplish this with friends.
      Throughout the whole afternoon, Mrs. Miller was so wonderful—both sharing snippets about Gram and also letting me reflect in silence at times. And she was right about Kate and me. We hit it off immediately—like we had been friends our whole lives.
      As I waved good-bye to them, I smiled, so thankful for them. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad here, after all. Kate and I had already made plans to go Christmas shopping together. It was as I stood with my back against the door, thanking the Lord for His kind mercies to me, that I spotted it.
      I squinted to be sure I saw it correctly. Under the dining room table was a small red mitten.
      Where had that come from?  It had definitely not been there when I vacuumed yesterday.
      Picking it up and turning it over, I saw that it was a little girl’s left mitten.
      Startled, I began to suspect that the owner of the mitten and the owner of the purple sweater upstairs were probably the same little girl. And now I was beginning to wonder if the little owner might be in this house. That feeling of not being alone yesterday came to my mind. And, too, the odd open window last night. On a sudden hunch, I ran up the stairs to Gram’s sewing room.
      I was right. The purple sweater was gone and the rumpled covers on the bed were pulled up towards the pillow as if someone had tried to make it in a hurry. It became clear that I was not alone in this house.
      As I stood there for a few moments wondering what to do, Charlie was wildly sniffing around the room, as if to confirm my suspicions.
      My tummy growled, reminding me that it was long past dinnertime. I prepared a ham and cheese sandwich and put it on a plate with a handful of potato chips, all the while my ears listening for any possible sound. She had to be around here somewhere.
      After dinner, I decided to go on an all-out hunt for this little person. I checked in closets, under beds, and behind dressers. Overcoming my fear, I looked in both the cellar and the attic, moving boxes and crates. I couldn’t find anything. I didn’t even see any more clues that would verify her existence. Perhaps I was just dreaming this all up. I remembered Mrs. Miller saying she taught Sunday School. Perhaps she had had the mitten in her coat pocket for some reason, I rationalized.
      Feeling rather silly, I sat back down into the comfortable blue chair and turned on the TV. Soon I was engrossed in Christmas in Connecticut and forgot about my musings and speculations.
      That is until Charlie started barking like crazy.
      “Charlie! Stop!” Maybe a dog wasn’t such a good idea, after all. It was a little frightening to have a dog madly barking in an old house and having no idea why. I grabbed his collar and looked him the eye, “Stop!”
      He didn’t listen to me. In fact, he wriggled out of my grasp and ran to the cellar steps, growling and barking all the way.
      I opened the door and he rushed past me, down into the darkness. Flipping the switch, I saw that the basement window was open once again. How had that happened?
      And then I saw her. Standing at the bottom of the steps. She looked to be around nine. Soft, wheat-colored hair and pale skin. She had on a red wool coat that was stained and ripped at the hem and one red mitten. Tears welled up in her startlingly blue eyes as Charlie rushed at her.
      “Aw, honey, don’t cry,” I shushed Charlie away and then sat down on the steps, helplessly uncertain as to what to do. A million questions danced through my mind, begging to be answered all at once.
      I grabbed the girl’s cold, mittenless left hand and gave it a warm squeeze, before softly asking, “What’s your name?”
      She took her mittened hand and rubbed it across her face to remove the tears that had started a quiet trail down her cheeks. She took a deep breath and then said faintly, “I’m Ella.”
      Ella. So this was who I had been sharing my house with for the past couple of days.

Find Part 4 of this story here.

Meeting Ella (Part 2)

MeetingElla

This is the second installment in this year’s Christmas Story. Hope you enjoy it! (If you’d like to read Part 1, you can find it here.)

By 7pm, the big house was feeling a bit more like my old home. I had even dusted and swept. I sighed with contentment. The fond memories of this place filled me with a peace I hadn’t known for quite some time. Of course, there was a big empty hole without Gram here. And something else was missing, too. What was it?
I walked through the house and made my way to the living room. Spotting the braided rug in front of the hearth, it came to me. It was Snoopy. It was just not the same here without the little black dog that used to follow me around everywhere I went.
With the flip of a switch a fire came to life in the fireplace insert Uncle Gus and I had talked Gram into buying awhile back. The comfortable overstuffed blue chair by the stone hearth was the perfect place to do a little day dreaming. I allowed my mind to travel back in time to that moment when Gram had finally allowed me to get a dog. Driving to the local shelter and giddy with excitement, I had found the happiest puppy there and named him Snoopy–after my favorite cartoon dog. From the beginning, our relationship was special. We became fast friends and were inseparable. I was heart broken when he died during my freshman year of college. I had longed for another dog ever since, but apartment living and a demanding job just didn’t make it possible. Of course, all that had changed now.
Wait! Yes, all that had changed! What was holding me back? I grew excited as I considered the prospect of owning a dog again. In fact, I could feasibly go back to that same shelter and find a new dog. What quicker way was there to shoo away the loneliness of this house than with a new canine friend? Tomorrow grew into an exciting adventure as I pondered this idea.
I was jolted back to reality as my mind turned to my job situation. That was of grave concern. I didn’t need to worry about it for a few months but those months would go by fast. I shook my head, as if to free it of the troublesome thoughts and grabbed my keys. That problem would have to wait until tomorrow as I had a much more important priority currently–a grumbling belly that was urging me to eat.
I drove into town and pulled into Martha’s Diner. As I munched on a hamburger and fries, I looked around, hoping to see a familiar face but saw not a one. It had been over ten years since I had lived in the area. Things do change.
Feeling rather lonely and out-of-place, I pulled out my iPhone and started scrolling through Facebook. The happy faces of my city friends provided a sobering reminder of all that I had given up. Photos of adorable children and beautifully decorated homes reminded me that I didn’t fit in with my married friends, either. In fact, I didn’t really fit into any world at the moment. It was rather disconcerting.
“Libby? Libby Barnwell?”
I glanced up to see a smiling, older couple staring at me.
“Mr. and Mrs. Miller? How nice to see you,” I gave the older lady a warm hug and then turned to Mr. Miller to shake his hand, but, he, too, pulled me into a big hug. This couple, dear friends of my Gram, provided just the dose of encouragement I needed. We chatted for several minutes about life and change and then they made me promise that I would be at church on Sunday.
“We will save you a seat, dear. We always sit about six rows back on the right and will look for you. And please plan on having lunch with us afterward. Our granddaughter, Katie, is living with us currently and I think you two would really get along. Don’t you think so, Jim? She’s in grad school at the local university so she is living with us for awhile,” said Mrs. Miller. And then with one final hug, they walked out of the diner.
Thank you, Lord. Thank you for bringing a familiar face. That was exactly what I needed.
I had one last cup of coffee and then paid my bill. Glancing at my watch, I saw that I had time to run by the grocery store to pick up a few things. My trip to the store didn’t take very long and soon I was back at home unloading my car in the bitter wind. Dropping the last bag on the table and locking the door behind me, I reached up to feel my cold cheeks. Winter had certainly arrived.
I quickly put everything away and then checked the clock above the sink. Only 9:30pm. The sound of the wind drew me to take refuge in my comfortable, childhood bed and so, grabbing a book from my backpack, I made my way upstairs and got ready for bed. I snuggled down into the blankets and down comforter and then sniffed. These would definitely need a good airing tomorrow.
Engrossed in my book a few minutes later, I froze when, suddenly, I heard a creak coming from the direction of the stairs.
I strained to hear anything further, but nothing came. After what seemed like hours (but was probably only a few minutes), I returned to my book. Wait! There it was again! Someone was definitely in this house. I immediately realized my vulnerable situation. No weapons. No friends. No family. I was quite defenseless. I didn’t even know a phone number of a neighbor, for goodness’ sake.
I started to panic. I tried to calm myself by remembering that old houses make noises. It was windy tonight. It was probably the wind.
It was just the wind.
I lay there for a few more minutes but couldn’t shake the idea that someone was in the house. I decided to go check. Anything was better than laying in my bed paralyzed in fear. I glanced around for some kind of weapon. The only thing I spotted was a small glass candlestick on the dresser. I picked it up and held it in front of me with one hand and opened the door with the other. I must have made quite a site, me tiptoeing quietly across the room in my snowflake print pajamas, polka-dot slippers, and carrying a glass candlestick as my only mode of protection against who knew what?
I peeked out of my room and looked both ways. Nothing. I cautiously stepped out into the hallway. I crept down the stairs and explored the first level. It didn’t seem as if anything had been disturbed. I hesitated at the cellar door. Even in the daytime, I hated the cellar. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t check it out and so I opened the door, switched on the light, and started down the steps. Halfway down the L-shaped steps was a window that stood wide open. Each gust of wind would cause it to move and creak just a bit.
An open window would definitely cause strange noises on a windy night. I sighed with relief and quickly shut and locked it. From my vantage point of the steps, I looked around the forgotten room. It was piled high with Gram’s stuff and someone could easily hide there. This thought gave me no comfort.
At that point, I realized that I had a decision to make. I could either trust the Lord to take care of me or I could choose to be fearful. God and I had a close relationship. He had saved me from my sins and He promised to care for me. My job was to trust Him and not cave in to fear. With a prayer for protection, I headed back to bed, trusting that He would keep me safe through the night.
A few minutes later I was tucked under the stale-smelling covers and, after an hour or two of laying there listening to the weird noises an old house makes at night, I finally drifted off into a troubled sleep.

Find Part 3 to this story here

Meeting Ella (Part 1)

MeetingElla

One of my favorite things to do is to write fiction, which doesn’t fit very well with the purpose of this blog. However, at Christmastime last year, I broke away from my typical posts and presented the story A Candle in the Window. I decided to do the same thing again this year. And so I hope you enjoy this year’s story, which will be presented on Mondays throughout this December. It is called Meeting Ella and here is Part 1, “Moving into the Farmhouse”

     I approached the front door with a combination of fear and nostalgia, the wind whipping my hair into my eyes. The front of the big farm house looked so forlorn. The last time I was here it was Christmastime. Garland with twinkling white lights had hung over the door. Big red pots that held miniature Christmas trees had sat like guards on each side of the steps. And out in the lawn had been the wooden nativity made by my Uncle Gus.
     I sighed with sadness as I pulled the key out of my coat pocket and placed it into the deadbolt on the door. What a difference a year can make.
     Had it only been six months since Gram had died? It felt so much longer than that…and so much shorter. My parents had died in a car accident when I was just a baby. My grandparents had raised me. Grandpa had died two years ago and Uncle Gus a year before that. I was truly alone now.
     I pushed in the big wooden door and hesitantly stepped inside to the entry way. The stale smell of an unlived-in house assaulted my nose. I walked through the familiar rooms downstairs, pulling sheets off the furniture amidst clouds of dust.
     I had called the utility companies last week to assure I would have electric and water when I arrived. Tomorrow I’d call about setting up wifi.
     I ended up in the kitchen, where I plugged in the refrigerator and stove and pushed them back to the wall, relieved to hear the hum of the refrigerator as it started up.
     The magnitude of what I was doing suddenly hit me. Did I know what I had gotten myself into?
     As Gram’s only living relative, I had inherited the house. My first thought had been to put it on the market immediately. But there was something that held me back. Maybe it was the memories. After all, it was the only home I had ever known.
     I decided to give myself a few months to think about it and during that time I had lost my graphic design job when my company was bought out. I remembered the conversation well. We are sorry, Libby. We treasure your talent and wish we could keep you but the other company already has a designer on staff and we don’t need two. Please feel free to ask us for a recommendation. We wish you the best. And that was that. I had worked two more weeks and then took my small severance package, packed up my office, and walked out the door.
     But what had seemed devastating at the time started to look like the purpose of God leading me back to this house. My job was the main thing holding me back from moving. Now I didn’t have any excuses left.
     And so I had sold my furniture, packed up what was left in my Jeep Cherokee, and traveled across the state to my hometown. And here I was on a cold, windy night in December.
     I shouldn’t have come back at Christmastime. I realized that now. Anytime would have been difficult but December was by far the worst. Gram had loved Christmas. It had been the most special time of the year. Even last year, when she was really slowing down due to her heart failure, I had hauled the boxes out of the attic and she had sat, her knees covered with a bright red afghan, and directed me with her smiley face and twinkly eyes.
     I sat down on a kitchen chair and laid my head on my arms. My shoulders started to shake. Christmas would never be the same again. Never.
     I must have sat there for fifteen minutes, sobbing, when suddenly I got the distinct impression that someone was watching me. My eyes scanned the nearby doorway and then moved around the room. I didn’t see anyone. I wiped my face on my sleeve, stood up, and looked around a bit before chalking it up to my imagination.
     I shrugged and decided to head upstairs, eager to see my old bedroom. As I walked up the creaky stairs, the strangeness and unfamiliarity of being in this big old house by myself assailed me. It was not a pleasant feeling. But I had sold everything now and didn’t have much of a choice but to stay here. At least for a little while, as I decided what to do next.
     I found my bedroom very much like I had left it, which was incredibly comforting to me. I sat down on the edge of my bed and sighed. I was home. Even without Gram, it felt like home. This feeling renewed my energy and I jumped from the bed to go get my stuff. I glanced in some of the other bedrooms on the way, just for old times’ sake. Uncle Gus’s room still had the plaid bedspread and dark oak furniture. And there was Gram’s room with the delicate floral wallpaper. I checked out the guest room, made up with one of Gram’s lavender quilts. And then, finally, headed down to the last tiny room on the right. I remembered that this room held a twin bed and Gram’s sewing machine. It was one of my favorite rooms in the house and I remembered many hours playing on the floor with my puzzles and dolls while she sewed and quilted there.
     However, I was not prepared for what I found in that room. The bed looked like it had been slept in the night before, unmade and unkempt. There was a small cup of water by the bedside, along with a girl’s sweater. I picked up the purple sweater and stared at it. It was a size 10, faded, with a tear at the elbow. Questions came to me in rapid succession. Had Gram had a young visitor here when she died? And who in the world had it been? And where was she now? And why hadn’t Gram bought her a new sweater?
     Oh, well. Those were questions for another day. For now, I needed to go get my stuff and move in. I ran lightly down the stairs and out to my car, ready to unload my things. Tomorrow I would get out the Christmas decorations. It was a good day.
     I was home.

 

Continue to PART 2

 

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