Please enjoy this vignette from an unpublished work, “Journey Home”, which is the prequel and “side-quel” to 1932, my debut novel. It’s the story of Georgiana, the sister of one of the main characters, and tells how she rebuilds her life after tragedy befalls her. When this Christmas scene takes place, Georgiana has returned to her brother’s house with her girls in tow, but all is still not right…
December 24, 1931
The front door slammed and a cold blast of winter wind entered the parlor, causing the flames in the fireplace to dip and swirl. I heard a softly growled “Damnation!” from the foyer, and a little grin spread unbidden across my face. Maggie, my three year-old, turned from her tea set in the corner of the room and ran to the door. She whirled back around to look at me, her eyes wild with excitement.
“Uncle’s back with the Christmas tree, little darling.”
She nodded enthusiastically and scooted back from the doorway when an eight-foot evergreen walked into the room. A dark head poked out from behind it.
“It took me two hours to find this thing and drag it back here,” my brother grumbled.
“I told you we could have bought one in town. Mr. Jennings is selling them.”
“Hmmph. This one’s better.”
I smiled to myself. William was enjoying the Christmas spirit more than he wanted to admit, the old Scrooge!
“Did you find the lights?” he asked.
“Yes, they came in last week. Mrs. Reynolds stored them in the back room. I found the old ornaments too, up in the attic. Didn’t you use them last year?”
“What did you decorate the tree with?”
William leaned the tree against the wall and assembled the tree stand. “Didn’t have a tree.” He grunted as he lifted the tree and inserted it in the stand.
“Is this straight?” he asked.
I tilted my head and looked at the tall evergreen. “A little to the right I think.”
He disappeared under the lowest boughs again and made a few adjustments.
“There, that’s better,” I replied.
The sound of a baby crying disturbed the bustling quiet of me unwrapping ornaments and William fiddling with the tree.
Maggie came over and tugged on my sleeve.
“Yes, darling, I hear her. I’m on my way up there.”
“Where’s Mrs. Reynolds?” William asked, looking around for our grey-haired but still spry housekeeper.
“She went to visit her sister in Franklin. She’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.”
“You stay there and finish unpacking the ornaments. I’ll get the baby,” he volunteered.
“She’ll probably need a diaper change,” I warned him.
“I can do that.”
“Don’t poke her with a pin.”
He rolled his eyes. “I have changed her before.”
William disappeared and returned a few minutes later with my blue-eyed cherub in his arms. Her white hair swirled around her head like a halo, and she was rubbing her eyes to wipe the sleep out of them. She gave me a shy smile and tucked her head against her uncle’s shoulder. He kissed her hair. William sat down on the sofa and cuddled her in his arms so she could see the room, nestling her head beneath his chin.
“William, you’re so good with children; you’d make a wonderful father.”
He smiled to acknowledge me, but didn’t respond.
I persisted. “I would have thought you’d have married and had a family of your own in the years I was gone.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Why haven’t you?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“I did try once, if you remember.”
I winced. How could I not remember about Anne? God rest her soul. “I’m sorry. It was just so long ago, and I …”
William’s voice was low and reassuring. “It’s all right.”
We sat in silence as I unpacked more ornaments. “Oooh, look!” I held up a sparkly angel, dressed in ivory moire taffeta with spun gold hair and translucent wings. “I remember this one!”
He gave me a quizzical smile.
“Mother’s Aunt Sophie sent this one Christmas. Goodness, I couldn’t have been any more than six years old. Don’t you remember?”
“I’m afraid I don’t. I haven’t looked through those in some time.”
I brought the angel down to my lap and looked directly at my brother. “When was the last time you did put up a tree?”
“Probably the last year you were home from school. No reason to go through all this trouble, just for me.”
My expression must have shown my sympathy, because he frowned at me. My brother never wanted anyone’s pity.
“What? Don’t look at me that way. Not having a tree wasn’t really a deprivation. Mrs. Reynolds went to see her sister on Christmas Day every year, and I went to Bowling Green and spent Christmas with Aunt Catherine.”
“And for that alone, I’m sorry I left,” was my sarcastic reply.
William’s lips quirked into a sardonic smile. “Aunt Catherine’s not that bad.”
“I’m glad you think so. I invited her for Christmas Dinner tomorrow.” And that certainly took some courage!
He raised an eyebrow.
“Even though Mrs. Reynolds threatened to stay in Franklin with her sister if I did.”
“Gi…” he began.
“Oh, Mrs. Reynolds was teasing, of course.”
“You didn’t have to…”
It was my turn to shrug sheepishly. “Catherine’s our family, and she’s all alone except for that butler of hers. I invited him too. Poor Louis. He worships the ground she walks on, and she treats him like dirt.”
“She will probably say something to you about your… situation.”
“Yes, I know. But I’m so glad to be home, I think I can even take that.”
“I won’t let her insult you in your own house.”
“I’ll give her a wide berth. She won’t be too harsh if you’re around anyway.”
Maggie had been sitting beside me, helping unpack ornaments—holding them up for me to see and waiting for the oohs and aahhs I voiced for her. She got up now and walked over to stand in front of William, watching him sit with Ruth in his arms and playing patty cake. She stared at him steadily until he noticed her.
“Hello there, Maggie Moo.” It was a precious little nickname he’d given her, one morning while we were walking around the farm, trying in vain to get her to say something, anything. She’d made so much progress since we’d returned to my childhood home after fleeing the girls’ father. How I wished she would make a full recovery and resume talking!
He extended a hand to her. She stared first at his hand, then back at him, all without moving a muscle herself.
“If I’m so good with children, how come I can’t get this one to even talk to me?”
His comment distressed me, but I tried to keep my voice light and hopeful. I parroted the children’s doctor we saw in Nashville. “She’ll come around eventually.”
William got up and leaned over to hand Ruth to me. Then, he pulled out his pocket knife and opened the brand new box of lights.
“How about we get these lights on the tree?” he asked Maggie. He had taken the doctor’s advice to heart and talked to her about everything they did together, never once demanding a response that she was either unable or unwilling to give.
She approached him, watching as he drew out the string of bulbs.
“And let’s hope they all work. If one goes, they all go,” he muttered under his breath. He plugged in the string and glowing spheres of red, green, yellow and blue appeared, casting warm, colored light on the floor and walls around them.
William and I both looked at her to make sure she wasn’t frightened, but all we saw was her rapt expression of wonder.
“Now, I’ll unplug them and put them on the tree,” he explained. She looked up at him and nodded.
He walked around, arranging lights on cedar-scented branches. I handed Maggie the ornaments one by one, and she carried them to her uncle. He continued engaging her, putting them on the tree under the direction of her pointing finger. Sometimes I gave my two-cents worth on where they should go, more expensive or sentimentally valuable ones were placed out the reach of little hands, for example. But mostly, I let them decorate together while I played with Ruth.
We were sitting in the parlor after dinner, admiring the tree and listening to the radio, when William got up and walked into his study. He returned with a few wrapped packages and began handing them out.
“William, what is this? Christmas isn’t until tomorrow.”
“I didn’t want Saint Nick to steal my glory,” he grumbled. “We’re opening these tonight.”
I laughed as I took a small square box from his hand, remembering he never could keep presents a secret for very long. “Thank you.”
He placed a soft, oddly wrapped present next to Ruth, who was sitting on the floor beside me. Next, he went to Maggie and set two packages in front of her. He had learned she rarely took anything directly from his hand.
I helped Ruth open her teddy bear and glanced over at my older daughter who was tentatively tearing the paper on her package.
“Open yours,” he urged me.
I ripped off the paper with enthusiasm. A red, cloth-covered box was underneath. I opened the hinged lid and gingerly touched the necklace resting inside.
“Oh! It’s beautiful.” I lifted it out of the box and held it up to the light. The charm was a silver cross, entwined with flowers and leaves. “Thank you so much!” He looked so pleased at my gratitude, it made my heart melt. I couldn’t imagine how lonely he must have been while I was gone.
“Merry Christmas, Gi.” He cleared his throat and looked over at Maggie. She was holding the wooden box in her hand, looking at it and then at him. He said nothing, but reached out his hand, palm up. She put the box in his grasp and he turned it over.
“See, little one? It’s a music box. You wind it here…” He turned the little key on the bottom. “Now, open the lid and it plays music.” He held it out to her. “Go ahead. You open it.”
She lifted the lid, and a little ballerina stood up in the middle of the box. The tinkling sound of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” erupted from under the ballerina’s feet. Maggie looked at it in wonder and took it from his hand, examining the box, opening and closing the lid and looking underneath it.
“Open this present too.” He gestured toward the flat package sitting beside her.
“William,” I admonished. “You shouldn’t spoil her so.” His indulgence was endearing, but it could easily get out of hand, if I let it.
“This one is for all of us,” he said defensively. What could I say? He always had a reason for his gifts, which made it particularly difficult to dissuade him.
He helped Maggie tear the paper and carefully remove the present inside. He turned to me with an expectant grin on his face.
“Remember this, Gigi?” He turned the book so I could see the cover.
A flash of recognition bolted through me. “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ Is that the one…?”
“Yep,” he beamed. “That’s the one Father brought us from Nashville that winter. You remember? It snowed so hard, we weren’t sure he would make it back in time for Christmas Eve dinner.”
“Yes! And after dinner, he read it to us before we went to sleep.” I sighed. “That was a lovely Christmas.”
“It was.” William spent a few minutes lost in his memories, a ghost of a smile on his face. Then, he picked up the Courier-Journal sitting on the end table. Maggie sat cross-legged on the floor, looking at the pictures in the book while she gently turned the pages. Ruth was pounding her teddy bear’s head against the floor and trying to eat his paws. William sat down to read, looking every few minutes over his paper at our idyllic little scene. His expression shone with contentment, which was the best Christmas present I’d ever received from him.
That was when Maggie got up and walked over to me. Unbelievably, she whispered a question in my ear. She hadn’t spoken any words except for an infrequently whispered ‘Mama’ for eight long months!
“I don’t know, darling. Why don’t you ask him?” I replied, a frisson of excitement in my voice.
William looked down at the pat on his knee. He was incredulous; Maggie was holding the book out to him. “What is it, Maggie Moo?” he asked, out of habit.
“Read it, Unca.” Her little voice cut through the room like the peal of a church bell. William’s eyes opened wide in shock, but he took the book from her with slightly shaking hands. He looked up at me. I clasped my hand to my mouth to prevent a sob of joy from escaping; my eyes were filled with happy tears.
He cleared his throat. “Read it, you say?”
“Well, you better hop up here, so you can see the pictures.”
She climbed up on the sofa and lifted his elbow to settle herself on his lap in the crook of his arm. She looked over at me. “Mama.” She patted the sofa beside them. “Bring baby here.” She looked up and met her uncle’s dark eyes with her own. “Read it now.”
I scrambled up and practically dragged Ruth over to the sofa, barely able to contain my excitement. The baby struggled slightly, oblivious to the electric emotions permeating the air.
William cleared his throat again, opened the book and began…
“Twas the Night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…”
Maggie giggled. William looked over her head at me, and his dimpled smile lit up the room.
After he finished the book, Maggie took it from him and wriggled down to sit on the floor at his feet and look through the pictures again.
I stared at my brother in tearful awe. “It’s a miracle, a real Christmas miracle. I don’t know how to thank you.”
He shook his head in bewilderment. “I wish I could take credit for it, Gi, but somehow, I don’t think I’m responsible. It’s God’s work, not mine.”
I only nodded, unable to speak, and we watched my little girl look through the pictures two or three times before gathering our wits enough to announce that it was time to go to bed so Saint Nicholas could visit for real.
It was God’s work, I knew that, but my brother was God’s instrument that day. I would never forget this Christmas Eve – the night my baby decided she could come back to us.
I wish for each of you the happiest of holidays, a miracle of your own—even if it is a little tiny one—and a new year filled with blessings and joy!