Monday, November 25, 2013
Sgt. White's Christmas Visit
By Gayle Hayes
t was the week before Christmas and more hectic than usual for everyone in the household except Granny Allen. Lisa helped her to the chair in front of the bay window after insisting she was too tired to help in the kitchen. Granny knew she wasn't too tired. Lisa was tired of her. She'd taught her daughter-in-law how to make her son's favorite Christmas cookie. Now, it seemed she sprinkled too much colored sugar in the wrong places and too late to please Lisa. Granny brushed a small amount of red and green sugar from the front of her blue sweatshirt with the birdhouse and red cardinal on the front. After her stroke, Granny Allen could no longer shop for presents or decorate the tree. Now, it seemed she couldn't help with the baking, either. She watched the snow progress from flurries to a blizzard and wondered why she was still alive. She seemed to have no purpose any longer.
The school bus arrived at the curb and the doors opened. Jared ducked through the door and walked off the bus sideways while talking to someone whom Granny couldn't see. She twisted her handkerchief between her hands anxiously. Jared was packing his letter jacket in this weather and taking his sweet time getting to the house. He'd catch pneumonia if he wasn't careful. Then she heard him burst through the back door while talking to someone. He dropped his backpack in the hall and bent to hug Molly, roughing up her golden fur as she licked his face. He looked for the TV remote and held his cell phone to his ear. Granny was prepared to give him a wave, but he was so preoccupied that he did not look her way. It was the same routine every day, but Granny felt especially sensitive that day. She'd been thinking about someone she knew years before she was a granny, mother, and wife.
The car fishtailed and headed into the driveway. Taylor's friend was going too fast on the icy street. It was no use to mention it again. Her granddaughter would just remind her that she was seventeen and could take care of herself. Taylor's feet slid out from under her as she got out of the car, but she kept her balance and laughed it off. She brushed her long, dark curls from her face. A girl who'd been in the backseat got out and took Taylor's place in the front before the car slid down the driveway. Once on the street, the driver regained control and disappeared into the blowing snow. Taylor checked the mailbox. Then Granny lost sight of her until she came into the house. Taylor waved a cookie at Granny and then took the stairs two at a time.
Granny closed her eyes and dozed. She was more bored than tired. She awoke after her son, Mike, parked the SUV in the driveway and began scraping snow from the front steps. She wondered why he didn't give Jared the job of shoveling the snow, but he hadn't liked it when she mentioned it the first time. Maybe he resented that his father had expected him to do certain chores around the house. "You're only young once, Ma," he'd said when she tried to give advice about the children. At least Mike would give her a peck on her cheek when he came inside.
It was too dark to see outside now, so Granny swiveled her chair around to look at the tree. Jared had plugged in the lights. The living room was lit only by the large screen of the TV and the red, green, blue, and white lights of the tree. To make Granny feel part of the festivities, Mike had dug out the decorations she'd always used from the attic. She'd packed them away carefully. She was surprised Taylor and Jared liked them. The satin balls were the same colors as the light globes. This year the family had even hung the tinsel she'd saved instead of draping the usual garland. It had been a delightful day with eggnog and Christmas carols while they decorated. Taylor had asked Granny about a few of the photos in the old album. For that one day, Granny felt she was really a part of this busy household.
Lisa stuck her head into the living room long enough to ask Jared to order pizza for their dinner. She was in the middle of fixing a fancy dessert for her club's Christmas party the next day. Jared teased her.
"Why would anyone want to eat a moose?" he asked.
"It's m-o-u-s-s-e, idiot," Taylor said.
Jared was licking the spoon with chocolate and brandy on it along with some egg and other ingredients.
"You're not supposed to eat raw egg. You're hopeless," Taylor said. She replied to "a very important text" and plugged in her phone before sampling another cookie.
Jared was looking for something to eat while he waited for the pizza to be delivered. Mike tried to squeeze through the bottleneck created by Jared and the refrigerator.
"It's freezing out there. What's for dinner?" Mike asked.
"Pizza. It's on the way," Jared said.
Mike stopped long enough to give Lisa a quick kiss, and then he walked into the living room. He picked up the remote, found the news, and gave Granny Allen a kiss on her forehead, as usual, before plopping into his recliner. For a brief moment, Granny entertained a thought that caused her to smile. Maybe tomorrow she'd let Molly sit in the chair and wait for Mike to give her a kiss without paying any attention.
The next instant Granny was sitting in the dark.
"What the…," Mike began as he got up from his recliner and tried to remember where he kept a flashlight.
"Oh, no! Not now! I've got a mousse in the oven," Lisa said.
"At least we'll have pizza for dinner," Jared said.
"Don't count on it, son. If we're in the dark, Pizza City's in the dark, too. I found the flashlight, but the batteries are dead. I'm going upstairs for the other one. Lisa, do you still have those fancy candles? Jared, stay with Granny," Mike said.
Granny Allen wondered if Mike even remembered her name. She'd been Granny ever since they sold most of her things and moved her into the bonus room off the kitchen. Most of the time, she felt invisible. Sometimes, she felt as if she were a child again. Better to be seen and not heard. She thought it must be the bleakness of the day that caused her to feel so dejected. Usually, she thought she was more fortunate than her friends who'd been stashed in an old folks' home.
Lisa found a basin in the master bathroom and filled it with her nicest candles that she kept around the tub for luxurious evenings of aromatherapy. Mike loaded the downstairs flashlight with new batteries as Taylor held the working light for him. Then he added logs to the fire, moved Granny closer to it, and covered her with the afghan she'd crocheted long ago.
With the fire and candles, the room seemed cozy. Mike's phone was still charged, so he opened Facebook and checked the page for the local sheriff. Several trees had come down in the wind. People should stay inside and stay warm. It was too soon to tell how quickly the community would have power. Mike asked Jared to turn off his phone, so they would have a backup if the blackout lasted for hours. Lisa and Taylor took one of the flashlights upstairs to dress in warmer clothes.
Once the family was in the living room and wrapped in blankets, quilts, and afghans, Granny thought it was the first time she could remember when they sat in the room together without the television as the center of attention. Instead of texting, scrolling, or chatting on their phones, the family was talking. After two hours, Mike checked his phone for an update. The crews were still working to restore power. It could be several more hours. Jared groaned.
Lisa made peanut butter sandwiches by candlelight. Eating helped everyone's mood except for Jared. He'd never wanted pizza as much as he did then. Taylor tried to sleep, but she couldn't turn off her mind. What if the blackout lasted for hours? Lisa tried not to think about the mousse she'd invested so much time and expensive ingredients to make. It would be ruined. Then she wondered if she'd even get to the club party the next day. The storm must have been bad. Mike had planned to work on a legal brief that evening. He tried to organize his thoughts, but he was too worried. It was up to him to be calm and reassuring for the family. He needed some reassurance himself. The family sat in a gloomy silence for some time.
Then Granny suggested they pass the time by telling stories. No one was in the mood for storytelling. Sitting in front of the fireplace because they had no other choice was not as much fun as sitting around a campfire in the woods. Granny thought a story was just what everyone needed. She thought of several stories about her own life, but she decided they would not be interested in a story about her. Perhaps, it was a good time to tell the story about the soldier who vanished into thin air after the big storm. It was so unusual to hear Granny's voice that the family was curious. Then they were caught up in her tale.
It was during World War II and shortly before Christmas that the Big Storm of '42 wreaked havoc on eastern Montana and left many people changed forever, but none more than Grace. She was only seventeen, and she did not like being alone. She'd read stories of heroic young women in her American Girl magazine, but Grace had never done anything as courageous as the heroines in the stories she read. She did not think she was brave. Her father had died that spring in an accident, and her mother was in Billings to help her older sister after the birth of her first child. One brother was overseas in the war, and the other, Bill, was going to town for supplies. He was running the ranch now, and he told Grace what to do if the weather turned bad before he returned home. She'd begged Bill to let her go with him so she would not be alone at the ranch. He said she would be safer at home, as long as she did not open the door to a stranger. She was on his mind when the howling wind blew snow sideways and through the door of the Bear Paw Mercantile.
Grace had watched the storm move in over the prairie. Snow like goose down floated through the air. She made sure the small animals were inside with food and water and that doors were latched shut. Then the wind picked up, tossing anything not tied down and hurling tumbleweeds against the outbuildings. Before long, it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of her. Grace had never seen snowflakes so large. They fell like rain and covered every flat and slanted surface with mounds of white. Dusk came earlier than usual.
The blizzard that was just arriving in Bear Paw had dumped several inches of snow on the ranch and drifted against the door to the house. Grace shoveled the snow aside and stamped her boots on the rug inside the door. She hung up her wet coat and hat by the fire and stirred the coals, placing several logs over them. She watched as the fire caught and then roared to life. Then she rubbed her cold hands together, moved closer to the fireplace, and removed the pins from her curly dark hair so that it fell around her shoulders. She played Christmas carols on the piano, hoping to distract herself from the wind that caused the old house to groan with each gust.
Once the storm had passed by, Grace made several trips to the wood pile to be sure she had enough fuel to get through the night. On her last trip, she thought she saw someone walking up the trail that led from the main road to their ranch. Bill had tried to get his father to gravel the makeshift road, but with the war, nothing was done unless it was essential. She stopped to look again and decided it was just swirling snow and her overactive imagination. She pulled the curtains in the living room, but doing so just made her wonder what might lurk unseen on the other side. It did not help to hear the eerie whistling of wind through drafty windows. Bill promised they'd install storm windows before next winter if a peace was signed. The news was not promising. Gasoline rationing had just begun in the United States. The country had recently marked the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and now the cruiser, Northampton, had been sunk by the Japanese Navy.
Grace was practicing shorthand from a lesson in her Gregg textbook and trying not to bite her fingernails. Blowing snow pelted the windows, and she was sure the front door would burst open with the next blast of wind. She felt chilled, put the kettle on for tea, and then poked at the fire. She hurried to the kitchen when the shrill whistle startled her. She was sure she saw someone in the window over the sink. Then the lights went out. She stopped moving for a moment until she adjusted to the dark. She walked slowly by the flickering light of the fireplace and tried not to spill the tea.
Grace was on her way back to the kitchen to find the box of candles when she heard a thud. Then someone began pounding on the back door. A prickly sensation crawled up her spine and through her hair. She could not move.
"Help me, please!" he said.
"What are you doing here?"
"My car ran off the road. I hurt my leg. Please let me in."
Grace thought it would be terrible not to help someone in need, but she was alone and afraid. She remembered that Bill had said she'd be safe if she did not open the door to a stranger.
"I'm sorry. My brother says I can't open the door if I don't know you. Go away."
"I'm hurt real bad. I won't make it through the night if you don't let me in."
Grace thought the man sounded desperate. She summoned her courage and lit a candle. She held it to the window of the door and saw a soldier wearing a garrison cap above a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his head.
"I know your brother. I'm a soldier, too. Here. I'll slide my dog tag under the door."
Grace picked up the dog tag. She read his name.
"I hope I don't regret this, but I'm letting you in, Matthew."
He put one arm around Grace as she helped him hop to a chair in front of the fire. She took his coat that was soaked with melting snow and hung it up to dry. Then she elevated his leg on a footstool and tucked a red and green quilt around him before fixing him a cup of tea.
Grace's brother was also in the Army.
"How do you know my brother?" she asked.
"I don't really know him. I'm sorry. I thought you might not let me inside."
Grace hoped she could trust the soldier, but he didn't appear to be in good enough condition to do her any harm. He told her he was trying to get home for Christmas, but he was afraid he wouldn't make it.
They passed the evening talking about their childhoods and adolescent dreams. He wasn't much older than she was. She thought his were the most unusual blue eyes she'd ever seen. When he looked at Grace, his eyes seemed unfocused as if he could see beyond her and the small living room to some infinite place in the universe. He refused to talk about the war.
As the night went on, Grace was less worried about Matthew and more concerned about her brother Bill. She hoped he was safe in Bear Paw and would be able to drive home in the morning.
Grace tried her best not to sleep, but she caught herself dozing from time to time. Matthew slept soundly in his chair. She had never known anyone to sleep as deeply as he did, almost seeming not to breathe at all sometimes. In spite of herself, Grace could not resist the urge to sleep. She did not wake up until she sensed daylight and opened her eyes to see a bright blue sky and sunshine.
Then she realized Matthew was not in his chair. She called his name and looked for him everywhere. His coat and boots were gone, so she bundled up and went outside, calling his name. He was nowhere to be found.
Grace trudged through deep snow until she was satisfied that the ranch had come through the blizzard unscathed. She returned to the house, half expecting to see Matthew when she opened the door. She could not explain how he could have left in his condition, but she was too hungry to spend much time thinking about it. She prepared a bowl of hot oatmeal, poured cream over it, and sprinkled a bit of sugar on top. She was enjoying her last bite of toast and jelly when Bill returned. She left her breakfast and went to the door to help him with the supplies he'd purchased in Bear Paw.
Grace prepared breakfast for Bill and sat with him while he ate. They compared notes about the storm. Grace was afraid Bill would be angry with her for letting Matthew come into the house. Before Grace could decide whether or not to tell Bill about the soldier, he told her about someone he'd met in Bear Paw.
"I went into the train station to see Alice, but she left early. I didn't notice him when I walked in, but when I turned around, a soldier was sitting on a bench with his leg outstretched. His head was wrapped in a bandage soaked with blood. I thought he looked like he'd been discharged from the hospital too soon. I told him I had a brother in the war, and a sister who was holding down the fort during the storm. He tried to tell me that you'd be fine, but I felt real bad because you were alone. Anyway, this guy had to catch his train. He was on his way home for Christmas. He asked me to mail his dog tag if I found it. He said he only had one left. I promised him I'd look for the dog tag, and he promised me you'd be all right. I helped him up the stairs to the train. He was the nicest guy, Grace. I wish you could've met him."
Grace had been listening to Bill and growing more interested in his encounter with the soldier. By the time he finished his story, Grace knew she would have to tell him about the stranger who'd come to her door during the storm.
"Did you get the soldier's name, Bill?"
"White. Matt, I think. He said he was trying to get home for Christmas, but he was afraid he wouldn't make it."
Grace remembered that Matthew had said the same words to her. She told Bill about the soldier who had passed the previous night in their home. From her description, Bill was almost sure he was the same person. He couldn't explain how the Matt he knew could have gotten off the train and driven the opposite direction with a head wound and bum leg to spend the evening with his sister. Then Grace reached into her pocket and retrieved the dog tag slid under the door by Matthew the previous evening. She showed it to Bill, and he looked at it in stunned silence.
"Sergeant Matthew P. White. Blood Type O," he read.
"Do you know what NO means?" Grace asked.
"It means he has no religious preference. It has to be the same guy, but Matt was in no shape to drive anywhere. He told me he only had one dog tag left. I didn't think about it at the time, but he should've had two. Every soldier is issued two identical dog tags. If he dies, one of them stays with his body and the other marks the grave."
"What if Matthew only had one tag because the other one was on his grave?" Grace asked.
Bill laughed. "No wonder you don't like being alone. You've got one heck of an imagination, Grace. There must be a reasonable explanation, but I don't have one right now. We better keep this between the two of us."
Grace would have liked to tell her friends the story of the mysterious soldier. What really mattered was that she knew she was courageous to help the wounded soldier when she was alone. Courage to face big fears made interesting stories in her magazine, but courage like that comes from facing small fears. She hoped Matthew was able to make it home for Christmas.
For a short time after Granny finished her story, no one in the family spoke. Then Jared told her it was a cool ghost story. He asked if she'd tell the story to his friends. Taylor's eyes were moist with tears for the soldier. She was sure he hadn't made it home for Christmas.
Then the tree lights came back on, the television blared, and the cell phone notifications beeped, whistled, and chimed to life, as if by magic.
Mike whispered to Lisa in the kitchen. They'd had no idea Granny was capable of telling such a detailed story since she rarely talked at all. They were more intrigued by Granny's ability to tell the story than by the story itself. Mike took a moment to give Granny a kiss on her cheek and pat her shoulder before he went up to bed.
"That was a terrific story, Ma. You really took our minds off the storm. I hope you'll join in more often. We've been worried that you aren't happy here. The kids are studying the war in school. I'm sure you could help them see how it affected ordinary people. Sleep tight, now."
Lisa dumped the mousse into the garbage and soaked the pan. Then she helped Granny brush her teeth. She seemed less impatient when Granny moved too slowly and couldn't remember the routine. She was in less of a hurry as she helped Granny into her nightgown and tucked her into bed.
"You never talk about the old times, Granny. The kids need to know where they came from. Maybe you can tell a story about your own life for Christmas Eve," Lisa said.
Granny lay awake for a time, thinking about how the storm had turned an ordinary day into something special. For a little while, she'd been the center of attention and, more importantly, she'd found her purpose by helping the family through a long, difficult night. She thought it was true that it was an ill wind that did not blow someone something good.
Shortly after Christmas, Granny's cold turned into pneumonia. When they knew she probably would not survive into the next year, Taylor typed the story of Sgt. White into her laptop at Granny's bedside so she could ask for details she'd forgotten. The entire family was with Granny when she passed away on another stormy night. For the first time in years, she was no longer Granny but the late Grace Allen.
After she was laid to rest, Lisa and Taylor sorted Grace's few possessions for the thrift shop. Taylor looked through her jewelry box for anything that might be a keepsake. Lisa was folding towels in the laundry room when Taylor came to the door with something she'd found among the jewelry. When Lisa unwrapped Grace's flowered handkerchief, she saw the dog tag and caught a breath. "Oh my gosh! Sgt. Matthew P. White. It wasn't just a story, and it happened to our Grace!"
Friday, November 1, 2013
From time to time, she'd think of the family and friends she'd outlived, but there was only one person who haunted her every day for the last thirty years. He'd been in and out of her life since she met him. She read again the angry letter she'd written and carried in her walker basket. Was he still alive? With a firm grip on the walker, she raised herself from the wing chair and slowly made her way down the hall toward the dining room.
She was the last to arrive at her assigned table after steering through the maze of walkers. One of the caregivers saw that she was wedged between a chair and walker and set down the scoop of potato salad to help. Once Maggie was settled in her chair, she placed the napkin on her lap and sipped a glass of water after tossing the small white paper cup of pills into her mouth. Maggie's eyesight and hearing were failing, but she knew her table mates by their voices, scents, and habits. One of them was patting her hand, as usual. Today she whispered about the new resident who'd arrived that morning. Another lady, wearing too much Chanel No. 5, muttered grace to herself. The third lady talked in a loud voice, because she was hard of hearing and assumed everyone else was.
Lunch included cold tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. The soup wasn't supposed to be cold, but by the time the kitchen help poured it into bowls while being interrupted by residents, it always arrived at the table that way. For the same reason, the grilled cheese was always burned. Maggie tore the sandwich into small pieces. Her arthritis made it difficult to use a knife, but she did not like to ask for help. Once everyone had been served, the caregiver in charge that day tapped a spoon against the water pitcher to get their attention.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new resident today. This is Ed. His family moved him into Catherine's old room this morning. I know you'll make him feel welcome."
"Did she say Fred?" asked the lady at Maggie's table in her loud voice.
Maggie strained to hear her other tablemate whose Chanel No. 5 seemed stronger than usual.
"She said Ed. The new guy is Ed. Got it?"
The residents applauded and continued eating. After everyone else had left, Ed slowly got up from his chair and made his way to Maggie's table by grasping the backs of chairs with one hand and his cane with the other.
"May I sit down?" he asked.
Maggie had been deep in thought and was startled by his voice. She did not answer. Ed pulled out a chair and sat down, hooking his cane on one arm of it. Maggie got up from her chair, reached for her walker, and made her way back to her room. She shut the door and lowered herself to the bed. Tears streamed over her cheeks and fell on the letter she'd removed from her walker basket.
The next day Maggie stayed in her room during lunch, saying she was not hungry. The caregiver did her best to encourage Maggie to eat before she gave up and closed the door behind her.
Maggie was sitting in the wing chair next to the window in her room. She'd listened to the walkers make their way down the hall after lunch. Someone gave three short raps to the door.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"Ed. I was wondering if you're okay."
Ed waited a full minute for her to reply or come to the door. Then he turned the knob slowly and opened the door just enough to see her sitting in the wing chair.
"Close the door!" Maggie's voice was soft, but her tone was sharp, wounding Ed.
"I just…" he began.
"Close the damn door!"
Maggie was sure she'd made her point with Ed, so she returned to the dining room the next day. She was relieved when he did not approach her. Once she was sure he'd left the dining room, Maggie slowly made her way to the front porch. She was anxious to feel the sunshine after what seemed like an especially long winter. Colorful crocus had persisted against frost-covered ground, and the staff had hung a basket of bright red Martha Washington geraniums under the protection of the patio roof that morning. She waved at the crew that was building an addition to the home across the street. Then Maggie pretended to be dozing when she heard the front door open. He sat next to her on the glider. She felt the color rise in her face. Of all the indignities of old age, she most objected to the loss of her privacy.
Now that he was seated next to her, Maggie could see that Ed had changed. Age had a way of enlarging one's least attractive features, making smooth complexions coarse, and stealing the spark and color from the windows of the soul. His upper eyelids almost covered the intense blue eyes she remembered. His nose seemed larger, and his hairline had receded. His hair was white like hers. He'd lost weight since she last saw him. One thing had not changed. She'd never forgive him.
Ed waited for Maggie to wake up. He hoped she would not be angry with him for sitting next to her. He set the glider in motion and waited. Maggie opened her eyes. She stared straight ahead, but he was relieved that she did not order him to leave. After a few minutes had passed with the two gently rocking in silence, Ed cleared his throat and spoke.
"Maggie, I think I offended you. I'd like to apologize, but I don't know what I did wrong."
Maggie had waited thirty years to tell him off. Now, she lacked the energy required to do it properly.
"That's what disappointed me the most. You were so cold. I knew you thought your behavior was acceptable."
Ed struggled to understand. "How was it not acceptable?"
"You lied to me. If you'd just told me how you really felt, I would've been able to move on. Instead, I held out hope for months that you'd realize I was the one you wanted."
Maggie was crying softly at the memory of the pain, which seemed fresh in the retelling. Ed reached for her hand, but she pulled it away.
"I think you're mistaken…" he began.
"I'm not mistaken! You told me you lied because you didn't want to encourage me."
"Maggie, I'm sorry for your pain, but…"
"You're not sorry. You did it to get even with me. You meant to lead me on and then punish me for dropping you first. You were my first love. I trusted you with all my secret feelings. I thought we both finally realized we belonged together." Maggie was sobbing.
"Maggie, I'm sorry that you suffered, but I'm not the person you think I am." Ed reached into his pocket and handed Maggie his handkerchief.
When she was composed, Maggie collected what was left of her pride and did her best to raise herself up out of the glider without help. She steered her walker through the front door, down the hall, and into her room. She reached into the walker basket for the letter and tore it into small pieces, dropping it into the wastebasket. She'd said what she needed to say. It hadn't given her the satisfaction she'd hoped for, but Ed listened. Maybe she could forgive him, but could she ever trust him again? Her hand trembled a little as she drew the tube of red lipstick across her upper lip. She rubbed her lips together and then fussed with her hair. Then Maggie sat in her wing chair to rest. She hoped Ed would be in the dining room for Bingo.
Ed returned to his room, sank onto the bed, and stared out the window, not really seeing the flicker pecking at the suet feeder. He'd felt like a coward in the face of Maggie's tears. He'd never known what to say to a woman who was angry or crying. He wondered if he and Maggie could be friends. He'd do his best to convince her he was not the Ed she remembered. Then he opened the drawer next to his bed and removed the black and white photo. He'd changed the most. Maggie was still beautiful.