Unexpected Gifts

(an old-fashioned Christmas story)
Part 1
         Valorie Bender Quesenberry

The snowflakes looked like a feather storm. Janie thought about the day old Blue pulled Granny’s feather tick off the line and tore a hole in it. Feathers were everywhere then, swirling through the air. Granny had been so mad at the old dog; she’d chased him out of the yard, waving her broom. Then she and Janie tried to pick up as many feathers as they could, but of course, they couldn’t get all of them.
Janie wondered what it would be like to catch the snow falling down now. She put out a hand, feeling the wispy coldness as the flakes brushed against her palm. If Joe David were here, he’d try to catch them in his mouth, laughing all the while. But Joe David didn’t know any better cause he wasn’t grown-up yet.
Janie stuck her hand back in her coat pocket and turned toward Mr. Haskill’s store window. It was still there, even more beautiful than she remembered. The dress was all lace and ruffles, the hat had a big rosette on the side, just like the one Mother wore to work in the newspaper office. The shoes were black Mary Janes and the face had pretty pink, porcelain cheeks and a tiny red mouth turned in a demure smile. What fascinated Janie the most though were the long golden ringlets clustered on the doll’s shoulders. Never had she seen such beautiful hair. Not even Susan Marie Downing at school had hair like that! Maybe, thought Janie softly, if she’d had pretty hair like that she could have sent a lock of it to Daddy when she wrote him.
It was too late now, though. He wasn’t coming back. Now Mother worked in the newspaper office, typing all day long and she and Mother and Joe David lived with Gramps and Granny on the farm. Not that she minded the farm; it was kind–of nice and safe-feeling there. But deep down, she’d have traded that feeling if Daddy could live with them again in their little house in Prattville. To hear Daddy’s laugh and have him pull her braids, even if they were a muddy brown color and not golden, would be all the Christmas she’d need.
But Daddy wasn’t here. All they had of him was a flag the soldiers gave to Mother and the letters that he’d sent them. Sometimes, Janie still got hers out and read them to herself. But it mostly made her cry and so she didn’t do that too much.
Mother needed her to be strong and helpful; that’s what she’d said. It was Janie’s job to do all she could to help Granny in the house while Mother was away, working in town. And then there was Joe David. He was only three. Mother said his job was to be sunshine for them all. And he did that. His smile made everyone feel better.
Janie knew she needed to go. Gramps had let her tag along since he was coming to town to buy feed; he understood that she needed to look at something different. Daddy had said that she and Gramps were alike; they were dreamers. It wasn’t that they couldn’t put in a hard day’s work. It was just that they needed a little inspiration to make the day more livable. Every once in a while, Gramps would crook his finger at Janie and whisper in her ear, “Want to go to town?” And then he’d wink at her like they had a great secret.
And Janie always wanted to go. Granny would roll her eyes at Gramps like she knew he was up to something, but she’d let Janie go, finding some small item for her to get at Haskill’s Dry Goods store. And most days, like today, Janie would get what Granny needed and then go outside and look in the store windows, wishing and hoping.
Across the street, Janie spied Gramps putting sacks of feed into the back of his pickup. She stepped into the street and walked over to him.
“Is it time to go?”
“Almost, young’un. You through with your window shoppin’?” He tweaked her nose.
“I guess.” Janie said. “Do I have time to wave at Mother?”
“Go ahead; I’ll pick you up at the newspaper office.”
“Thank you, Gramps!” Janie looked for cars in the street before she dashed off.
Mother worked for Mr. Jerome Townsend at the County Herald and Reporter office. Janie had heard folks say that she was the best typist the newspaper ever had. That was a good thing since they needed the money. She’d also heard people say that Mr. Jerome was “sweet” on Mother. Janie thought she knew what they meant, and that was something she didn’t like. Mr. Jerome was nice enough, but he didn’t laugh like Daddy. And even if he had a new Oldsmobile and a big house on the hill, Janie wasn’t at all interested. And she hoped Mother wasn’t.
The part of the building where Mother worked had a window and sometimes Janie could catch a glimpse of her and wave to her. She always came by whenever she and Gramps came into town, just in case.

Janie was panting a little from her run into town as she came to the office of the County Herald and Reporter. A wreath with a big red bow was hanging on the door and as always, people were coming in and out. Janie thought that when she grew up, she might become a newspaper reporter. It would be a fine thing, she decided, to write stories about faraway places.
But for now, she stopped by the plate glass window and looked for Mother. There toward the back of the office, she sat. Her eyebrows were pushed together while she concentrated on a paper she was reading while she typed. Her fingers were flying so fast on the keys that Janie could see only a blur of movement. But there was no mistaking Mother’s piled up curls and pretty skin. Janie watched her for a couple minutes, hoping she’d look up and see her.
She heard Gramps’ truck come whining up the street and knew it was time to go. And just at that minute, Mother leaned back to rub her neck and looked right into her eyes. She smiled and waved. And Janie waved back.
Then Mr. Jerome came over and said something to Mother. She looked up at him and got all serious. Janie backed away from the window, wishing she could hear what they were saying. She climbed into Gramps’ truck, shutting the door hard so it would stay closed. And she didn’t say anything for a long while.
Gramps just drove in silence until they made the turn off the main highway. Then he squinted up at the sky and said, “I think we’re gonna have a Christmas storm, Janie-girl.”
Janie was more worried about Mr. Jerome than the weather, but she asked anyway.”How do you know?”
“All the signs are there, Janie. When you’re as old as your Gramps, you learn to read nature. Why even the animals talk to me.”
She giggled. “Oh, Gramps. You’re so silly.”
“Well, maybe they don’t exactly talk.” He winked. “But I know what they mean!”
“Could Daddy read the signs?” Janie blurted.
Gramps was silent for a minute. When he talked, his voice was soft and sounded lumpy. “Yes, he could, Janie-girl. Your daddy would have been a first-rate farmer.”
Janie knew the story of her Daddy and mother’s meeting at a high school party and how they’d fallen in love and gotten married. Then they lived in Prattville where Daddy worked at the air field and Mother took care of her and Joe David. And they had been making plans to move out to the farm and take over since Gramps was getting older and the work was hard for him. But when the war came, Daddy became a soldier. Janie would never forget that night when he packed and left his bag sitting by the front door, waiting to take to the bus station the next day. Mother had cried, and Janie sat close to Joe David’s bed and promised herself that she would look out for them all. It seemed so very long ago now.
Gramps cleared his throat and patted Janie’s hand. “How about we hurry and put these sacks in the barn and then surprise your Granny by being on time for dinner?” And he tweaked her nose again.
Sergeant Frank Lewis of the Prattville Police Force was worried. If ever there was a setup for disaster, it was in the making now. He’d not seen a Christmas Eve like it ever. First of all, the department was way behind in the Christmas toy delivery so he and the other officers were going to be pulling long hours today to get it done. And on top of that, the radio forecaster was blasting out the news of a late storm, set to cover the county with whiteout conditions. Terrific. At this rate, he’d be spending Christmas on the side of the road, cuddling up to a teddy bear to keep warm.
The police car he was driving had a cantankerous heater; it decided to work sometimes and at other times, it decided not to. So, he kept an extra coat, gloves and quilt in the back. If he landed up somewhere in a snow drift, at least he’d have enough warmth to survive.
But the plan was not to pile up; the plan was to deliver the gifts and get back to Prattville as soon as possible. Maybe with some luck, he’d make the officer’s Christmas party tonight.
Turning down a bumpy gravel road, he shook his head. The roads were terrible, even without a snow storm. When would the county decide to fix them? But he already knew the answer to that. Every bit of material available was going into the war effort. The least the folks back home could do was put up with some potholes in the road.
That’s about as far as he let his thoughts go with the war. Sure, he was patriotic and all, but since Sammy had joined up and come home in a box, he’d didn’t feel like discussing it with anyone. It had about killed his folks and Sammy’s girlfriend had to be hospitalized; it wasn’t gonna be a fun Christmas. Sammy had been the life of any gathering anyway. Frank was a poor stand-in for his energetic younger brother; he didn’t think he’d even try.
Sergeant Lewis stopped at the first house on the list. It was a bedraggled white frame building, which in more prosperous times might have been used as a chicken coop. But beside the door leaned a sled and a spiral of smoke rose from the chimney so he knew a human family must inhabit the place.
He pulled three gifts from the load in his back seat and trudged through the slush to the door, banging his knuckles lightly on the frame. He heard running feet and a door opened, revealing a tired-looking woman with a baby on her hip. A little girl and boy hung onto her skirts from behind, eyes wide, faces lean.
He extended the gifts. “Ma’am, I’m Sergeant Lewis from the State Police. We’re delivering gifts to the children in the county.”
She shook her head. “Thank you, but my husband wouldn’t approve.”
“Please, ma’am, for the children’s sake.” He said it softly.
She looked around, seeming to search the landscape. “What’ll I tell him?”
“Tell him to make a donation to the Policemen’s Benefit Fund when he can.”
A tear dropped onto her apron. “I’ll tell him. Thank you.”  She took the bag, her weary face relaxing a little. “God bless you.”
‘You too, Ma’am. Merry Christmas.” Lewis touched his hat briefly, turned and walked back to his car.
He had to admit he admired the pride of the American spirit. It was something he himself had heard all his life. Work for what you get; save all you can, never use credit. He supposed others like him had a similar upbringing. When he and his fellow officers brought gifts to the door, it was hard for folks to accept them. Times were hard, but folks were determined to pull their weight. Many times, he carried the toys right back to the patrol car. Balancing tokens of others’ goodwill with the desire to provide was a struggle for most of the county families.
In previous years, Sammy had gone along to help with the Christmas giving. His good-natured smile had a way of opening hearts and doors. But this year, Sammy couldn’t help; he’d never deliver Christmas joy again. 
Clenching his teeth, Sergeant Frank Lewis climbed into his cold police car and started down the road to his next stop.     
To be continued next week . . . 

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