Remembering Wheatfield Bridge – Read the First Chapter!

Remembering Wheatfield Bridge

by Joni VanNest

Copyright © 2016 Joni VanNest  All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1540683826   ISBN-13: 978-1540683823

 

Prologue

Have you ever wondered where literary characters go when you are done with them, when they are left to the devices of what remains of their own reality? You probably think it an odd question to ponder as heroes and villains are merely contrivances of someone’s vivid imagination, not born of flesh and bone. How could they go anywhere or do anything? Their existence is solely at the behest of the one experiencing the story, and when the story is over, THE END become final words on the subject.

 Rhetoric asks, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Philosophy and science both attempt to answer the question, however unsatisfactorily to the other side. Truth is parochial. We believe what we want to or are able to believe.

 And I am no different. I, too, weigh the great themes of life, occasionally to much success. Other times, not so much. Like with the sound of the tree, or lack thereof, it is a quandary that will haunt each new freshman academic until thought is no more. But, of one thing I can vouch for with unwavering certainty: that now and some other time aren’t the only planes of existence.

 

CONNIE ANDERSEN

The alarm sounded, an annoying high-pitched repetitive beep. The first time I heard it, it sent an already weakened heart into an overtime it could scarcely afford. Was something wrong? “Nurse, NURSE.” Back then the words came out much stronger than they do now. I hit the call button too—appropriately, the big red cross in the middle of the speaker clipped to my pillow—like I was going for a world record on the panic button. My heart jumped from my chest to my throat where I felt it pound out my life’s rhythm. Shallow, rapid-fire respirations failed to produce the consolation of a refreshing breath.

A second alarm sounded, followed by a woman in flowered scrubs who appeared in the doorway. Her first glance was at me—conscious—her second glance at the monitors.

“What’s up sweetie? Your bp is through the roof.”

Did I really have to tell her? Couldn’t she hear? Her calm approach and relative comfort with my predicament did little to still my nerves. Between breaths I managed, “Lots – of – beeps. What’s – wrong? Make it – stop.”

“Just the IV monitor telling me your drip is done.” She hit a button to silence the initial squawk. I must have visibly exhaled a sigh of relief. “Is that what has you all stressed out?” The hint of a southern drawl was evident in how she turned stressed into a two-syllable word: stray-essed. She also couldn’t hide a small, yet perceptible smirk at my ignorance. I tried to manage a conciliatory smile as my breathing came into a more regular pace, quieting the second alarm. She placed a diamond laden hand on my arm, probably the promise of an overworked doctor. “Don’t you worry about that alarm sweetie; nothing bad is going to happen to you because of a silly old bell.”

The next time it happened a different nurse took her leisure to check in on me, as it was only one alarm and obviously not an urgent matter. I had no choice but to wait. Of course, I’m sure she had more than her fair share of patients. They do seem vastly outnumbered, a nurse/patient ratio designed to make sure employees do not have a moment to waste corporate healthcare dividends. The diagnosis the second time: “Oops, a little snag in the line. Nothing to worry about.” After that: “Battery’s low. Someone forgot to plug it back in.”

So it was that my life had become a series of bells and beeps.

Betsy (bless her heart) came in to switch out my drip. “How are you doing, Miss Connie?”

It surprised me she would really ask that question. As if the answer would ever be different, more positive or hopeful. Still, I suppose they have to keep tabs on changes, good or bad.

In truth, I was tired, cold, in pain, struggling for air. The prongs of the cannula were annoying me. I tried wriggling my nose to make it better only to feel a trickle of mucus make its way down the chute. My arm, like lead, barely budged when I tried to adjust it. I resigned myself to live with a soggy nose for the time being. “Couldn’t be better.”

There must be some innate trait in good nurses deep in their DNA that allows them instinctively to know their patients’ needs. Betsy’s diamond studded hand reached for a tissue, wiped my runny nose as gently as she would a newborn’s, then reset the oxygen tube back in place. She patted the y-joint for good measure. “There.”

I was not a child being tucked into bed, I was a grown woman; yet that was how her actions made me feel – placated, dealt with. I’m certain she meant only to comfort me. That knowledge did little to appease my spirit. I closed my eyes and tensed, opened them again. “Thank you.” The breathy exasperated word moved off my tongue and dissolved into thin air like cotton candy.

“Anything I can do, even little things like that, you just let me know.” She approached the bed and tilted her head toward me as if in confidence. “I know a lot of women relate to Ellen Steele or Kelly Loggins, maybe some even prefer Jodi. But I have to be honest, I really liked Jack Priestly; he was my favorite. I hope you don’t mind my saying, but I see a lot of him in you.” She thought about that for a moment. “In a good way, that is. A woman needs to be a little sassy from time to time, don’t you think? Where I’m from most folks appreciate the Melanies rather than the Scarletts. So I say, you go girl.”

My lips formed a weary smile. It would have been hypocritical to take offense. There was a lot of me in the character of Jack Priestly. It’s like bits of me flecked off and landed on the page comingling with his personality. I didn’t plan it that way, it just sort of happened. Nevertheless, it worked. Jack came to life sharing a small part of my soul.

Betsy pulled the blanket up to my chin. “You rest now, Connie.”

As if there was another option.

After she left the room I took her advice and sank my head deeper into the pillow. Bill came to mind. I think about him often, of the years together and the years missed. There was so much we looked forward to in growing old. Traveling. Experiencing new things. Enjoying grandchildren as they came along and grew. Even just sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch like a couple of fuddy-duddies. It’s funny, sometimes I have a hard time conjuring up a clear image of him in my mind, but I can still hear the sound of his voice, mellow and reassuring. I loved that voice. When he sat at the piano and sang a ballad just for me, peering into my heart with his song, there was no question we were meant to be together through all time. But alas, dreamy reflections have no bearing on life. And now I’m on the edge of that same deep dark river he crossed  without me, long before my personal schedule called for it. If I could, I’d employ the old deus ex machina and add several more chapters giving myself the opportunity to do some of those things, for Bill’s sake. But this book is already bound with no possibility to add any pages.

I watched the sun move quickly across the autumn afternoon painting long bands of faded light that crept up the wall, barely cheering its sedated neutral color. Greenish gray. Maybe a pale shade of blueish green. The debate kept me occupied until my eyelids failed me and I lay in darkness of the temporary kind, not yet ready to give in to a more permanent one.

 

William walked in right behind the kitchen worker who was carrying a dinner tray. Still in his suit, he hadn’t even taken the time to remove his tie after leaving the office. He looked so much like his father, reaching 6’2”, with a lean build. Blonde and fair, there was no mistaking his Andersen heritage. William. He always did go in for the formal rather than colloquial Bill or Billy, even when he was a boy. We knew we had an accountant on our hands when, as a child, he’d squirrel away most monetary gifts he’d received, saying, “Someday I’ll have enough money to buy whatever I want. Until then it stays in my pig.” The pig account ultimately grew into his first car – an old wood-paneled minivan with more miles than a Greyhound bus that earned him the nickname, Soccer Mom. He wore the title with grace and good humor.

“Hey, Mom.”

The attendant nodded a greeting and placed the tray on the wheeled bedside table then left without uttering a word.

“Hi. Where are…” I didn’t have to finish my sentence, airy as it was; he knew exactly what I wanted to ask and chimed right in. Thank goodness for small blessings.

“James is running a slight temp, so Molly thought it best for her and the kids to sit this one out.”

My head bobbed, I see.

He leaned in to give me a peck on the forehead then pulled the lid off the dinner tray. “Let’s check out the du jour. Shall we? Mmm. Something brown and squishy over tiny white pellets. A little green pile. Something in the corner that wiggles, presumably Jell-O. And tepid water pretending to be coffee. A meal fit for a queen.”

He certainly inherited my sardonic sense of humor. I suppose there’s still time for him to outgrow it. I made a face to match the food.

“Come on, Ma. Just a little?” He spooned a glob of the brown stuff and held it, pausing in reverence before delivery. “Father, bless this food to Mom’s body to make her strong.

“Now, open wide.”

I assumed he was no longer talking to the Lord at that point; heaven help him if he was. I stuck my tongue out and he couldn’t help but laugh. He was supposed to. I meant for him to do just that, while also letting him know I was not interested in the pabulum. He tried again, despite my best effort to the contrary, so I sneered.

“You’re not making this easy for me.” His frustration at my noncompliance resounded in his voice. We both stopped and met in each other’s eyes. No, I wasn’t making it easy on him. It was no picnic for me either, but he remembered that a little too late and looked away, ashamed at losing his patience. I suppose I should have been more careful not to inflict guilt for which I may not have the opportunity to ask forgiveness. Life gives us a finite set of days, hours, minutes, seconds in which to accomplish all the things we are meant to do and there are no leftover days beyond those necessary to achieve them. Moments left to random chance cannot be retrieved. Hitting restart, not an option. The Creator gives us one chance to get it right.

I have failed at this. There is too much left undone, unsaid. My story remains unfinished. The clock ticks marking my time, and I want more.

The spoon still hung in mid-air, so I opened my mouth and ate what I could.

 

I awoke with a start.

“Frannie, no.” Molly reached out to thwart the leap that was already in progress, without success. Five-year-old Frannie landed on the foot of the mattress sending tremulous waves across the bed. Her unruly blonde curls bounced right along with her, falling where they would. Chubby little hands pushed the long golden strands out of her eyes. Only then did she offer her beautiful gap-toothed smile to me.

“Hi, Grandma.”

I melt every time she does that.

I worked at drawing in enough air to give my reply strong and clear. The last thing I want is for the kids to be afraid of me. As it was, tiny James stood partially behind his mother clinging to her leg, still unsure if I really was his Gama.

“Hi, Frannie. Hi, James. I missed you guys yesterday.” It came out better than I’d hoped, but James didn’t buy it. He stuck his thumb in his mouth and moved even further behind Molly. Frannie on the other hand crawled up the bed and cuddled next to me. I leaned in and kissed her. The tender skin, still unmarred by sun and age, tasted sweet against my lips, reminding me of younger days when I still believed tomorrow was a promise.

“Hi, Mom. I guess William told you James was running a slight fever yesterday. That’s why we couldn’t be here.”

“He’s all better now,” Frannie piped in with her two cents worth.

Molly bent over and placed a kiss on my forehead just as her husband had done the night before. So many women have nothing but complaints about their daughters-in-law, but I am blessed. Our common love makes us friends not combatants. She picked up James and tried to lean him in to me. He wanted nothing to do with it; instead, he turned away and drew himself into his mother’s embrace. Molly knew it was hopeless to try convincing him otherwise, so she just rolled her eyes in acceptance and hoisted him up into a more comfortable position on her hip. “You look good today.”

It was an observation, I noted, not a question. She tactfully avoided the how are you feeling today? inquisition in favor of small talk with a positive twist. Molly knew what she was doing. I bobbed my head in confirmation. And it was true. My spirit buoyed when I was with the kids, even if my body didn’t. I guess today it was obvious.

“Tell me a story, Grandma.”

Frannie cuddled in a little closer waiting for story time to begin. It was not an unusual request. Many were the times I would sit her on my knee or tuck her into bed with a story. Even James had been starting to show interest in hearing the stories, although his attention span waned quickly. When that happened, he would slide off my knee and toddle nearby with a raised hand to support the inevitable bottle in his mouth. But Frannie listened intently, soaking in every word. Speedy and Slowpoke, the mischievous chipmunks, were by far her favorite. Somehow those critters always seemed to be having grand adventures right in her own backyard.

Molly pulled Frannie’s hair out of her face letting it drop over her shoulder. “Oh, honey, I don’t think Grandma is up to telling you a story today.”

“Is that because you’re sick?” A pudgy hand stroked my face, no doubt a learned response. Molly was the mother to Frannie and James I always pretended to be to William, although I’m sure he knew the truth. Molly offered a charitable suggestion before I had the chance to reply.

“Frannie, since Grandma can’t tell you a story, why don’t you tell her one?”

She bolted upright, her face radiant. “Really? This time I get to tell the story?”

Her mother smiled. “Don’t you think that would be fun?”

There was no doubt she thought it was the next best thing to getting extra dessert after Sunday dinner, which rarely, if ever, happened. A change overcame her expression, as if she was trying to wipe away all traces of the little girl she was. She sat straighter, held her head up high, even pursed her lips. No doubt she felt she was being granted honorary membership into the grownup world. She was just about to begin when her eyes suddenly grew wide. “I almost forgot,” she half whispered. Then she got up and tucked the blankets snug all around me like I always did for her on those nights I’d put her to bed. Molly put a hand to her mouth either to cover her smile or in admiration of her daughter’s loving actions.

“Thank you.”

Frannie sat back down again on the bed and placed her index finger aside of her chin, pushing it in so that two mounds of soft cheek puffed up on either side of it. “Now where was I?” Molly nearly lost it. I could see her body tremble trying to hold in the laughter. “Well…” There was a long pause. “A long time ago there lived a person named Derla Duck. Of course, she wasn’t really a person if she was a duck, but we’ll just pretend for the story. Anyway, one day while…”

She regaled me with the tale of Derla Duck—the animation in her voice so much like my own it was almost eerie. I was impressed that she was able to do this on a moment’s notice. I wondered if it was a story she had already concocted in her mind long ago or if it was fresh and off the cuff. Either way, I was proud, glad the torch was being passed, not extinguished.

The fairytale took me away, out of the hospital and into her world of make-believe where there was no sickness and the worst that happened was someone losing a webbed flipper then finding it again at the bottom of her messy closet.

I guess that is why I like stories and books so much. They let us step outside ourselves for a short time, to forget our own longing and live vicariously through others’ hopes and dreams. A different Opium for the Masses, so to speak. I doubt if the Wheatfield Bridge series in all its incarnations of books and short stories even vaguely amounted to anyone’s drug of choice, but it did allow me to walk where this world could never take me. I guess it did for others as well.

Soon Frannie’s voice faded like an echo traveling in the distance, and I found myself forming words in my head, words belonging to a world that has no form, where life is as I want it to be. To Wheatfield Bridge. It was as familiar to me as my own small three-dimensional universe, filled with people living mundane lives who touch us in ways we long to be touched. It is a cozy hamlet that exists somewhere between western Connecticut and my imagination, filled with woods and wild animals, a temperamental river, winding roads where you ‘can’t get there from here’ but nonetheless get where you want to be; hardy New Englanders who take life as it comes and are stronger for it; more good people than bad, though none non-redeemable; homes that have withstood more than a century of storm and sun; a place you would want to call home. It is a place where good overcomes evil. At least it always had.

And that was the problem. Jack Priestly’s fictional cancer came into being before my illness struck and now suddenly I was faced with two diagnoses needing outcomes. In other circumstances, it would not have fazed me one bit to write him off. Characters are dispensable; I cause them into being and can cause their demise. But Jack and I are too closely related. How could I do to him what I did not want to happen to me? I wanted Jack to survive. The words had churned in my head seeking release to a page, the story tumbling and circling in all directions never finding conclusion. It felt as if any movement in Jack’s life would have a profound effect on mine, the two being inexorably joined. If he died, my own story, I feared, would end. Yet making him well would not bring me hope, only sorrow, as our lives broke apart. I realized this made no sense. Fiction has no bearing on reality and certainly a woman of faith should not be thinking this way. God is in charge, not fate. A pleasant sentiment to be sure, yet one which is sometimes hard to hold onto.

Faith. My pastor always said that we should never use feelings to verify our faith. Feelings are fleeting, faith is constant, based in knowledge and wisdom. So if I couldn’t break from the idea that Jack and I are somehow entwined, then where is my faith, my assurance of God? Was my reality in Him? I never wanted to stop long enough to dwell on the questions. I didn’t think I’d like the results. Sometimes I just wished He would prop up a big billboard in front of me with a giant arrow. Here you go, Connie. Here I am, this way. Well, it never happened, so I could not let the feeling of my entanglement with Jack go. It ruled every plot decision. The story went nowhere.

I thought back to the first time I met Jack Priestly. Ellen Steele briefly introduced us in The Road to Emmaus. I never really thought about her even having a father before then. It all started with that radio preacher…

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Remembering Wheatfield Bridge is available on Amazon.

Click here to get your copy.

Gift of Time

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A friend from college passed away this morning. Except for a reunion several years ago I hadn’t been in contact with him for many years. Even still, I felt the impact of his passing. I’m told he rebounded from a coma and the brink of death several weeks ago, giving his family precious unexpected time together – a gift, I am sure, they will treasure forever. I know this because I had a similar experience with my father.

My dad had slipped into a semi-conscious state as a result of brain swelling, leaving him, for the most part, unresponsive to his surroundings. The edema was in the sleep center of the brain causing his illness to manifest in odd ways. He could see us and knew who we were but he didn’t interact with anyone. He could eat but had trouble swallowing. His legs, although sound, would not support him. To be blunt, the light was on but no one was home.

I was honored to be with him in his final weeks and help my mother care for him. Every day we struggled to attend to basic needs that he was no longer able to do for himself. We had begun to talk about a long-term nursing facility.

That’s when it happened.

It was a morning like any other. I awoke ready to take on the daily tasks of caregiving when I heard a strange noise coming from the bathroom down the hall, one most often used by guests and, in a previous world, by my father for his morning routine. I got up to see what was going on. In my bleary morning-eyed vision I saw my dad standing in front of the sink with a towel wrapped around his waist, having already showered, and holding a razor to his chin. My amazement could not be understated. This was a man who, just the day before, could not even stand on his own, and here he was going about his business just as he had for nearly 81 years. Once I overcame the initial shock, the only words to spill out of my mouth were, “What are you doing?” He looked at me as if I was crazy and laughed. “I’m shaving.” He was shaving. Shaving! My mind raced to the previous day when I’d had to bear hug him in an effort to get him to the portable commode. This was not the same person; this was my father reborn, with no memory of his decline or the passage of time.

I ran to get my mother, who was also astounded at my father’s sudden reversal of status. We opted not to tell him about his health problems until my brother could get there and, together, we could share the arduous task of explaining to him what had transpired over the previous weeks. When my brother arrived we sat down and told my father of his illness. It was a fact of life he had difficulty accepting, after all, to him nothing had changed, it was just another day. Eventually, he accepted the news with all its uncertainty about his long-term prospects, although I suspect he seriously doubted our sanity at that moment. I didn’t blame him. It sounded preposterous, even to me as I was living through it. And in my secret heart I hoped that it was indicative of a change in diagnosis.

I share this story today upon the passing of my college friend not because he and my father are both gone, but because of the beautiful gift they gave to their respective families as they made their transitions. Time. More time, to be specific. In my case, it was a day that I value above all others. My father and I spent it in each other’s company, and I at least was cognizant that it was borrowed time. We sat outside in the fresh air enjoying the pleasant sun and warm breeze. We talked. I let him use my iPod to listen to soothing classical music. We talked some more. I noticed subtle changes in him as the day wore on and evening approached. Much like the character Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, he began to slip away. By the next morning all semblance of normal had disappeared and within the week he had passed on.

Memories of that day give me peace now that he’s gone. I look back on it and smile.

I pray the borrowed time they’ve had will give the same peace to those who loved my college friend.  #RIP

Goodness

pinata-1937444_1920-cropA most disturbing video scrolled through my FB feed today. It appeared to be at a political rally where young children were taking a stick and smacking a piñata of Donald Trump. My first thought at seeing it was: this is so wrong, and on so many levels. Now mind you, I’m no fan of 45, as a matter of fact my political bearings are far removed from most everything he has said or done since taking office. But this, THIS? Has our political fervor post-election got us leaning so far in either direction that we feel the ends justifies the means when trying to make a point? Teaching a child to enact violence on anyone, including someone perceived of as an enemy (even in effigy), has no place in a decent and moral society.

I understand it is our great Constitution that gives people the right to do things others disagree with. Even this. But I am afraid we are moving toward the creation of a nation we will soon no longer recognize, one where individual desires matter above all else and respect and tolerance are no more. When we stand up for what we believe to be right, such as in the rally previously mentioned, it shouldn’t be for self-serving objectives. Standing up for what is right is standing up for what is best for the good of all people. And good is the operative word here. We all have opinions; no one has barred free thought. But when we try to impose those opinions on others without taking into consideration the good of all, a line will have been crossed. And we’ve seen that line crossed too frequently of late. 

So I ask you, what has become of goodness, of compassion for all humanity? It seems to be lacking these days in our actions as well as in those who would be our leaders but instead follow the trend of doing for self instead of those for whom they were given the public trust.

As a form of speech, the word goodness is a noun. I wish it were a verb, an action word, so much could come of that. Still, a definition offered by Dictionary.com defines it as “the best part of anything.” What a great definition! It’s positive, affirming. I’d like to promote a new excitement for the word. Let’s find the best part of ourselves and make that the norm for our every action. Let us as a nation, for the benefit of all and in all that we do, commit goodness. The personal and global rewards will be boundless.

 

Remembering Wheatfield Bridge, available in paperback and for Kindle.

 

 

 

All Things New

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The internet today is full of memes declaring 2017 to be a book of 365 blank pages just waiting to be filled, a new year full of possibilities in the great circle of life. The memes brought to mind a familiar scripture, Revelation 21:5, which reads in part, “Behold, I make all things new.” Again. I always want to put the word again after that phrase, because like the changing year it allows for renewal, making it more than just a one-time shot. After all, God is a God of second, third and even fourth chances, as there is no limit to grace. God, like the new year allows for the promise of more and better. The past gets to stay behind and we can look forward to fresh opportunities. That’s not to say those blank pages won’t present challenges. They will come as with the tide: rolling in in turmoil and then back out, leaving changes in their wake, disappointments that help us to fully appreciate the joys in life. It’s just nice to know when we face those challenges that renewal will follow. Again.

Chain of Love

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Just in case you missed the daily posts last week, here is the complete story of Chain of Love. It is an excerpt from my book, Remembering Wheatfield Bridge, now available on Amazon. Merry Christmas!

CHAIN OF LOVE

By Joni VanNest © 2016

The Designer

Alexis smoothed the fabric, noting how the nap of the material moved with each passing of her hand like the graceful ballet of field grass yielding to a breeze. The soft texture of the lavender fur would be perfect. She knew that in her skilled hands the fabric would soon undergo a transformation; she could feel it in her soul and could not wait to draw it out into being. This is how they always begin – with just an idea, one that would not go away and would gnaw at her until she made it a reality. She brought the bolt up to the counter for the clerk to cut.

This particular idea nestled in her head about a week ago and had been incubating ever since, rolling over in her mind, changing in shape and size, even in color. This week it would take shape. The design phase had created a fairytale-like character – cuddly, downy soft, gentle as a newborn. Of utmost importance, it must give the sensation of being so delicate as to wilt from a touch. It will be something a child can love and yet be a child itself.

“How many yards?” asked the clerk.

“Oh, about three of each,” she said looking at the rolls of material lying across the counter. “I have to plan for trial and error, you know.”

“So what is it going to be this time?”

Alexis was no stranger in the notions section of the department store. She regularly came in for supplies and, more times than not, it was this same woman who waited on her. Sarah, her nametag read.

“A bunny.” The image in Alexis’s mind placed a smile on her countenance and joy in her heart, her infectious bright spirit spilled over to Sarah who returned the smile.

“I see you in here all the time buying fabric for your dolls. What do you do with them all?”

“I make them throughout the year and sell them at craft fairs in the fall. I call the line Alexis’s Critter Comforts.”

“Cute. Have you ever thought of putting them in stores? Like the toy shop in the village?”

“Oh, I…” She didn’t know how to respond. The thought had crossed her mind. The little toy shop in town would be a great place to market her creations. However, the leap from craft fair item to store inventory seemed too great in her estimation. She loved her stuffed friends and they sold well at fairs, but mass-producing, even for just one local shop, seemed beyond her talents and abilities. At least that is what she told herself.

“You really should think about it,” the clerk pressed on. “American made is in these days. And handmade American made, well, it doesn’t get much more chic than that.”

To her surprise, the more the woman spoke, the more Alexis found herself considering the possibilities. “I appreciate the pep talk. I tell you what, I’ll think about it.”

“Good idea. And let me know because I’d love to look for your critters in the shop window.”

Alexis bid goodbye, gathered all of her purchases and left the store dwelling on the newly sown seed of maybe.

The Shopkeeper

A wooden sign inscribed Village Toy Shoppe hung above the doorway and swayed with the wind. Alexis stood in front of the shop and took a deep breath trying to work up the confidence to go in. She felt a chill go up and down her spine and the cardboard crate in her hand grew heavy with her indecision. It was now or never. “Well God, this is it. It’s in Your hands now.” She pushed the door open and walked through.

A plump woman wearing glasses with half lenses was dusting a display of brightly colored racecars on the shelf behind the counter. Her gray hair led Alexis to believe she might be someone’s grandmother, which she thought could prove to be helpful. The woman stopped dusting and welcomed her customer. “Good afternoon. Can I help you find a toy for someone?”

The friendly greeting did little to calm Alexis’s nerves. She stuttered as she introduced herself and passed the woman her business card. “Hi, m-m-y name is Alexis Hunter. I am a toy designer.”

“Well then, you’ve come to the right place. How can I help you?”

“Actually, I was hoping I could help you.” That little spin on words was enough to give Alexis the boost she needed. Her well-rehearsed pitch began to flow, the words taking on a life of their own, much like her dolls. “I would like to show you some of my creations. I call them Alexis’s Critter Comforts. They’re a line of stuffed animals meant for pre-school age children. Each one is individually hand-crafted and no two are exactly alike.”

“Is that what you have there?” The shopkeeper pointed at the container in Alexis’s hand. “It looks sort of like an animal crate of some kind.”

“Um.” Alexis hesitated for just a moment. “It is. I couldn’t just stuff them in a bag or a box without air holes. It wouldn’t be right.” She felt the need to explain further. “This seems more humane.”

“I see.” The woman’s drawn out words and raised eyebrow told Alexis she may have gone a bit too far with her last comment, no matter how true she believed it to be. Thankfully, the woman seemed curious. “Well, let’s see what, or rather who you have in there, shall we?”

Alexis opened the crate and pulled out several of her friends, placing them on the counter. The likes of Monkey Mike, Ted Bear, Poofie Poodle and Lisa Lamb stared up at the owner. In a wave of anthropomorphism, Alexis could almost hear them pleading with the shopkeeper, Please let us stay.

“Oh, aren’t they just adorable.”

The merchant’s words gave her hope.

“Oh, look at this one.” The woman seemed to take an interest in her newest creation, Bonita Bunny. “Isn’t that precious. And so soft, too.” She picked up the rabbit and turned it over inspecting it on all sides. “Why it’s wearing a housecoat. How original.”

“She’s dressed for bed, like a little girl would be.”

“You really are very talented, but I’m so sorry I just don’t have the room to offer them on consignment or otherwise.”

Alexis’s heart dropped. She cast her gaze to the ground in defeat and thanked the woman for her time, then quickly packed up her menagerie and left.

As she walked out the door, she nearly ran into a young woman who was opening the door next to the shop’s entrance, not three feet away. It appeared to lead to a staircase, perhaps to an apartment on the second floor. Tagging behind the woman, yet holding tightly to her mother’s hand was a little girl about four or five years old. The toddler turned her head toward the crate where tufts of lavender colored fur protruded from the air holes. The girl’s eyes lingered on the toy-filled box in wonder as her mother gently pulled her inside and out of view.

Alexis sat in her car and wept for a dashed dream, allowing the tears to wash away her disappointment until she was ready to drive again.

*     *     *

Although the Village Toy Shoppe owner went about her business taking care of customers—both big and small—the rest of the day, she found herself repeatedly distracted by the thought of the little rabbit wearing a housecoat. It reminded her of her own childhood. As a little girl she, too, had a housecoat just like the one the rabbit was wearing that her mother had made. The memories took her back those many years. She remembered the comforting feel of the soft robe around her on chilly winter mornings, of her mother calling her to a breakfast of warm cereal or pancakes. She didn’t realize until now how that simple robe provided a measure of wellbeing that as a child she didn’t even know she had.

Well, it is getting near Christmas. Soon the toys will be flying off the shelf. And that bunny was so adorable.

She picked up the receiver and dialed. “Hello, Alexis? This is Caroline calling from Village Toy Shoppe and I was wondering…”

The Young Couple

It had been six months to the day – a beautiful wedding, the most wonderful day of their lives. Dianne’s memories of the occasion were just as vibrant on that cold winter evening as they had felt on that bright sunny morning. Recent comments from an older friend regarding their “monthaversary” still played in her mind. “Six months? Honey, you’re still on your honeymoon. Come talk to me after you’ve had at least a decade under your belt.” Dianne looked forward to that and many more joy-filled, and perhaps even challenging years ahead. On this particular evening, she saw the future in her husband Kenny’s eyes, by candlelight at a small Italian restaurant in the village.

A waiter placed heaping bowls of pasta on the table; steam rose from them into the twilight of the room. As if by instinct or ritual, she joined hands with Kenny across the table while he prayed. “Thank you Lord, for six outstanding months and for the many years still to come. We ask you to bless this food to our bodies that we may be strong for you and for each other.” A duet of “Amen” concluded the blessing. Their eyes met one last time before they turned their attention to the waiting food.

“Mmm. I think I died and went to heaven.” Dianne savored the marinara sauce, letting the rich flavor linger in her mouth before washing it down with a drink. “So, have you thought about what we’re going to buy everyone for Christmas? I have some ideas about my side of the family, but I’m at a loss as to what to get your Mom and Dad.” Dianne loved Christmas. She had tempted Kenny with her visions of sugarplums since Halloween. The question was just one of the many things they had to work out for this, their first Christmas together, as they were still learning the finer details of how to create a family.

“You know, I really haven’t given it much thought, but there is something I wanted to run by you.”

Dianne put down her fork to give full consideration to her husband.

“I’ve been thinking, this whole year seems to have gone by in such an amazing whirlwind: the wedding, the island honeymoon, moving into the apartment together, getting that promotion at work. I just can’t help but feel that I, that we,” he corrected himself, “have been blessed beyond compare.” There was no doubt, things were certainly going well for them – so well, in fact, they were even considering the possibility of starting their family earlier than planned. “So I thought maybe we could share a little of that blessing with someone else this Christmas. I know it sounds hokey and it doesn’t have to be anything major, I just feel that I want to give back a little – you know, to make Christmas special for a needy kid or something like that.”

Dianne sighed and looked at her husband with deep admiration. This was why I married him. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. In fact, I saw one of those Toys for Tots barrels the other day. We could start with a donation there.”

They finished off the meal with a tiramisu for two and decided to walk off the damage by going for a stroll around the green before heading home. Linked arm in arm they window shopped along the way. Village Toy Shoppe was just getting ready to close as they stood looking in the window.

“Oh honey, isn’t that adorable? And look, she’s got on pink bunny slippers.” Bonita Bunny caught Dianne’s eye and heart. “We have to get it for Toys for Tots. Come on!” Kenny was not given an option. She grabbed his hand and yanked him into the shop.

“Hi Caroline.”

“Well hey, if it isn’t the two lovebirds.” Dianne’s childhood neighbor and local toy merchant peered out over half glasses. She looked as if she’d had a long day and was ready to call it a night. The two greeted one another with over-the-counter hugs. “Gee, five more minutes and you would have missed me. I was just closing up.”

“Oh, we won’t keep you. We know exactly what we want.”

“Dianne, let her close up. We can come back another time.” Kenny then turned to Caroline. “Every now and then I find myself rescuing people from my wife’s impetuous nature.”

Dianne pouted in her husband’s direction and implored Caroline, “Please. We need to buy that purple bunny in the window; it’s for a special little girl.”

“Well, don’t let it be said that I’d ever keep a toy from a child.” Caroline went to the front of the store and locked the door before pulling the rabbit out of the window display.

“Bonita Bunny. I have to admit, I thought she was something special when I first saw her.” The woman carefully wrapped the little rabbit in white tissue paper, taking care not to cover its face. She placed her in a gift bag, feet first, so her head would stick out.

“So, who’s the special little girl?” Caroline inquired as she rang up the sale.

“I don’t know,” Dianne blurted out, only realizing afterward how silly it must have sounded.

Kenny came to her rescue. “We want to give a gift to a toy drive. I’m afraid Dianne fell suddenly and madly in love with this doll. But I think it would be perfect as well.” He smiled at Dianne and she in turn kissed him.

“Two hearts, one mind.”

Caroline paused to look at Bonita Bunny before passing the bag to Dianne.

“This probably sounds silly, but I’m a bit sad at seeing this little rabbit leave the store. I’ve grown quite fond of her since her arrival. I suppose I’ll have to be appeased knowing the doll will soon be in the arms of a deserving child.” She finished ringing up the purchase and joined the couple’s generosity by giving them a discount on the price.

As Caroline locked the door behind them, Dianne and Kenny walked out into the crisp night air. Snow flurries filled the space between them but their love for each other and for a little girl they would never meet kept them warm.

The Marine

The ears first caught his interest. They were sticking out of the bag – one at attention, one having fallen over, weary from being on the alert for a child to love. The gift bag containing the rabbit sat atop a large brightly colored cardboard box labeled Toys for Tots.

Sgt. Joe Farrington was part of a crew of volunteers rounding up donations from various drop sites around the area. His truck had already made several trips to the warehouse from other drop-off locations. The magnitude of goodwill the toy drive created, and even more so, the generosity it produced still amazed him. Like that guy who showed up at the warehouse this morning.

“Are you in charge?”  the man asked.

“No, just one of the volunteers,” Joe replied.

“Then you’re just the person I need. Can you give me a hand with these?”

Joe peered into the back of the man’s pickup truck. Eight kids’ bikes in ascending sizes filled the truck bed. “Looks like you cleared out some lucky bike store.”

The man’s face shaded a hint of red. He looked down at his booted foot and kicked it forward and back. “I just want to do my part to make sure no kid who wants a bicycle this Christmas will go without one.”

Last year was the first time Joe took part in the program. It was enough to move his battle-hardened heart to melt upon seeing kids’ faces at Children’s Hospital light up when they handed out gifts. He believed that if no other good thing ever happened in his life again, the memory of those kids’ smiles would more than make up for it.

Joe pulled the bag containing the bunny out of the drop box, and turned it around by its thin rope handle. It was completely out of character for him, after all, he was a marine—a lean green fighting machine—but he had to see what was attached to those ears popping out of the bag. He gently lifted the doll out of the tissue wrap to take a look.

The rabbit was small against his large, sturdy and callused hands, but still he could sense the fluffy softness of its form. Then he noticed the ribbons. Lavender ribbons of silk, just like the one’s his wife put in their daughter’s hair, were tied at the base of each floppy ear, and also in a bow above the top button of her outfit. It was like looking at a Beatrix Potter version of his own little girl. He wondered about the child who would soon be hugging the bunny and once again his heart turned to mush. I must be going soft in my old age. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Mother

“What do you have there?” A tiny child with upraised arms holding a crayon drawing ran toward Pam Stilling at toddler warp speed.

“A ‘smastree,” came the excited answer.

For some reason Hope always overlooked the first syllable of Christmas tree and ran the two words together as one. Pam was glad to know verbal language was a fluid thing.

The child leapt into her arms for a hug. Pam hated the long days her little girl had to stay in daycare, but she had to make a living. Those outstretched arms running toward her at day’s end were enough to temporarily quell the guilt of being a working mom and soothe her troubled soul. It was not as if she had an option. If she didn’t work no one else would pick up the slack. “It’s a very pretty Christmas tree.”

Hope’s eyes sparkled. “Sandy says Santy’s coming.”

Again, it’s a fluid thing. “Santa, honey. And we’ll see if he gets around to us, he’s pretty busy you know.” Pam tried to keep a low profile on the Santa Claus issue but found it nearly impossible this time of year. He was everywhere. Of course, the daycare workers were just doing their job. What kid didn’t dream of presents under the tree? However, this would be Hope’s first cognizant Christmas and it would be spare. If she had to spend money on the holiday, it was better to buy things her daughter needed. Pam was more inclined to think of practical gifts like snow pants and boots rather than toys.

“Pam, I’d like to talk to you. Do you have a second?” Sandy, the daycare manager, put her hands out in front of her indicating to Pam to let her take the child. “Hope, I need to talk to your Mommy. Why don’t you go play with the blocks a minute?” The girl was easily distracted and did as instructed when Sandy put her down.

“Pam…”

“Look, if it’s about the balance on this week’s tuition, I get paid next Friday. I just needed to keep a little aside to get Hope a present.”

“Actually, that’s what I want to talk to you about; not the tuition, but a present. You, or rather Hope, was nominated to receive a gift from Toys for Tots. Are you familiar with the program?”

Pam was speechless. Yes, she knew of the program, she’d seen the toy drops around town. They were almost as common as the red kettles. But to be standing here having this conversation as an apparent recipient of one of the toys put her in unfamiliar territory. She had always worked hard to provide for herself and Hope. The public-assisted daycare was a godsend she couldn’t make it without, and the rent on the studio apartment over the toy shop was manageable. It was usually the incidental things like car repairs and illnesses that sent the budget on a downward spiral, and Christmas was not doing them any favors.

“I don’t understand,” finally spilled from her lips.

“It’s really simple. The daycare center is one of the agencies that helps to coordinate the distribution of donated toys. Hope’s name came up.”

Hope’s name came up. Despite her hard work, despite her trying to be as normal as everyone else, she was still a statistic – one of the families that just wasn’t making it. Pam swallowed her pride, for Hope’s sake. A low, “Thank you,” was all she could utter.

*   *   *

Pam looked around the apartment. Currier and Ives it was not. The small artificial Christmas tree in the corner wasn’t even theirs. They borrowed it from a neighbor spending the holidays with relatives out of town. But Hope’s handmade decorations of glittered pinecones and aluminum foil stars and bells graced the boughs making it feel like theirs. Last night, Christmas Eve, they strung ropes of popcorn from branch to branch adding the finishing touches. Outside the window, a fresh blanket of snow covered the street below without even so much as the imprint of a tire. The world was still slumbering in Christmas peace.

Pam had been in a good mood since receiving the Toys for Tots gifts two days earlier, and the spirit of Christmas filled her heart. Hope would have a toy under the tree. That was important to her but so, too, was the knowledge that someone somewhere thought to care for the happiness of an unknown child. Her child. She quietly uttered a prayer. “Lord, please bless the person or persons who provided this gift for my little girl. I am so grateful for their kindness. Amen.”

Pam had gotten up early so she wouldn’t miss seeing Hope’s face as she awoke to Christmas morning and presents beneath the tree. She would make sure Hope opened the toy first. The practical clothes would take a backseat to the doll. She sat on the couch with a mug of coffee warming her hands and waited. It wasn’t long before there was a stir and Hope stumbled into the hallway dragging her bankie in one hand while rubbing her eyes open with the other. In the twinkling of an eye, she saw.

“Mommy, Santy was here!” She never was able to get it straight – Sandy, Santy, Santa – it was hopeless. There was time for correction another day.

“Yes honey, he was. And look, he left you presents.” Pam knelt on the floor and pulled the toy out from under the tree. Hope’s small hands could barely hold the cumbersome package. She placed it on the rug, and at her mother’s suggestion tugged at the wrapping paper until it tore off the box. She raised the lid.

The Child

“Ohhhhh…” A breath-filled sigh filled the room and Hope’s eyes opened wide. A faint hint of memory—just outside their front door—flashed for a second then was gone. “Mommy, she’s so pret-ty.” Bonita Bunny, her ears gently folded into the box, was ready for love.

Hope lifted the doll into her arms. The downy rabbit, the softest thing she had ever felt, even more huggable than her precious bankie, was dressed in the warmest of lavenders and palest of pinks from the tip of her floppy ears to her bunny-slippered feet. Silk ribbons tied in petite bows at the base of each ear gave the impression that she was a gentle creature. Even the buttons on her robe were shaped like tiny bunnies. White whiskers emerged above pastel lips and lovingly, in her little bunny arms she held a teddy bear.

She squeezed the stuffed animal tight in an adoring hug. “Mommy, I love my dolly so much.” Her eyes then abruptly filled with worry. “Is it OK if I love my new dolly as much as I love you?”

Her mother cleared her throat and stumbled over her reply. “Absolutely, honey, absolutely. Merry Christmas.”

Hope threw her arms around her mother. “Merry Christmas, Mommy.”

 

Day 6 – The Child

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This week I have been sharing a Christmas story with you in six parts. It is an excerpt from my novel,  REMEMBERING WHEATFIELD BRIDGE, now available on Amazon.com. Feel free to share the story with others. You may also visit my website jonivannest.com for more information, and be sure to like my Facebook page – jonivannestauthor. Have a Merry and Blessed Christmas!

 

CHAIN OF LOVE

By Joni VanNest © 2016

“Ohhhhh…” A breath-filled sigh filled the room and Hope’s eyes opened wide. A faint hint of memory—just outside their front door—flashed for a second then was gone. “Mommy, she’s so pret-ty.” Bonita Bunny, her ears gently folded into the box, was ready for love.

Hope lifted the doll into her arms. The downy rabbit, the softest thing she had ever felt, even more huggable than her precious bankie, was dressed in lavender and pink from the tip of her floppy ears to her bunny-slippered feet. Silk ribbons tied in petite bows at the base of each ear gave the impression that she was a gentle creature. Even the buttons on her robe were shaped like tiny bunnies. White whiskers emerged above pastel lips and lovingly, in her little bunny arms she held a teddy bear.

She squeezed the stuffed animal tight in an adoring hug. “Mommy, I love my dolly so much.” Her eyes then abruptly filled with worry. “Is it OK if I love my new dolly as much as I love you?”

Her mother cleared her throat and stumbled over her reply. “Absolutely, honey, absolutely. Merry Christmas.”

Hope threw her arms around her mother. “Merry Christmas, Mommy.”

 To read the complete story, visit my blog on jonivannest.comPlease generously support toysfortots.org.

 

Day 5 – The Mother

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Day 5 – The Mother

This week I will be sharing a Christmas story with you in six parts. It is an excerpt from my book, REMEMBERING WHEATFIELD BRIDGE, now available in paperback  and also on Amazon. Feel free to share the story with others as it enfolds each day. You may also visit my website jonivannest.com for more information, and be sure to like my Facebook page – jonivannestauthor. Have a Merry and Blessed Christmas!

 CHAIN OF LOVE

By Joni VanNest © 2016

“What do you have there?” A tiny child with upraised arms holding a crayon drawing ran toward Pam Stilling at toddler warp speed.

“A ‘smastree,” came the excited answer.

For some reason Hope always overlooked the first syllable of Christmas tree and ran the two words together as one. Pam was glad to know verbal language was a fluid thing.

The child leapt into her arms for a hug. Pam hated the long days her little girl had to stay in daycare, but she had to make a living. Those outstretched arms running toward her at day’s end were enough to temporarily quell the guilt of being a working mom and soothe her troubled soul. It was not as if she had an option. If she didn’t work no one else would pick up the slack. “It’s a very pretty Christmas tree.”

Hope’s eyes sparkled. “Sandy says Santy’s coming.”

Again, it’s a fluid thing. “Santa, honey. And we’ll see if he gets around to us, he’s pretty busy you know.” Pam tried to keep a low profile on the Santa Claus issue but found it nearly impossible this time of year. He was everywhere. Of course, the daycare workers were just doing their job. What kid didn’t dream of presents under the tree? However, this would be Hope’s first cognizant Christmas and it would be spare. If she had to spend money on the holiday, it was better to buy things her daughter needed. Pam was more inclined to think of practical gifts like snow pants and boots rather than toys.

“Pam, I’d like to talk to you. Do you have a second?” Sandy, the daycare manager, put her hands out in front of her indicating to Pam to let her take the child. “Hope, I need to talk to your Mommy. Why don’t you go play with the blocks a minute?” The girl was easily distracted and did as instructed when Sandy put her down.

“Pam…”

“Look, if it’s about the balance on this week’s tuition, I get paid next Friday. I just needed to keep a little aside to get Hope a present.”

“Actually, that’s what I want to talk to you about; not the tuition, but a present. You, or rather Hope, was nominated to receive a gift from Toys for Tots. Are you familiar with the program?”

Pam was speechless. Yes, she knew of the program, she’d seen the toy drops around town. They were almost as common as the red kettles. But to be standing here having this conversation as an apparent recipient of one of the toys put her in unfamiliar territory. She had always worked hard to provide for herself and Hope. The public-assisted daycare was a godsend she couldn’t make it without, and the rent on the studio apartment over the toy shop was manageable. It was usually the incidental things like car repairs and illnesses that sent the budget on a downward spiral, and Christmas was not doing them any favors.

“I don’t understand,” finally spilled from her lips.

“It’s really simple. We’re one of the agencies that helps to coordinate the distribution of donated toys. Hope’s name came up.”

Hope’s name came up. Despite her hard work, despite her trying to be as normal as everyone else, she was still a statistic – one of the families that just wasn’t making it. Pam swallowed her pride, for Hope’s sake. A low, “Thank you,” was all she could utter.

*    *   *

Pam looked around the apartment. Currier and Ives it was not. The small artificial Christmas tree in the corner wasn’t even theirs. They borrowed it from a neighbor spending the holidays with relatives out of town. But Hope’s handmade decorations of glittered pinecones and aluminum foil stars and bells graced the boughs making it feel like theirs. Last night, Christmas Eve, they strung ropes of popcorn from branch to branch adding the finishing touches. Outside the window, a fresh blanket of snow covered the street below without even so much as the imprint of a tire. The world was still slumbering in Christmas peace.

Pam had been in a good mood since receiving the Toys for Tots gifts two days earlier, and the spirit of Christmas filled her heart. Hope would have a toy under the tree. That was important to her but so, too, was the knowledge that someone somewhere thought to care for the happiness of an unknown child. Her child. She quietly uttered a prayer. “Lord, please bless the person or persons who provided this gift for my little girl. I am so grateful for their kindness. Amen.”

Pam had gotten up early so she wouldn’t miss seeing Hope’s face as she awoke to Christmas morning and presents beneath the tree. She would make sure Hope opened the toy first. The practical clothes would take a backseat to the doll. She sat on the couch with a mug of coffee warming her hands and waited. It wasn’t long before there was a stir and Hope stumbled into the hallway dragging her bankie in one hand while rubbing her eyes open. In the twinkling of an eye, she saw.

“Mommy, Santy was here!” She never was able to get it straight – Sandy, Santy, Santa – it was hopeless. At least for now.

“Yes honey, he was. And look, he left you presents.” Pam knelt on the floor and pulled the toy out from under the tree. Hope’s small hands could barely hold the cumbersome package. She placed it on the rug, and at her mother’s suggestion tugged at the wrapping paper until it tore off the box. She raised the lid…

…TO BE CONTINUED. You can view the previous installments of Chain of Love here on my blog. Be sure to like my Facebook page, JoniVanNestAuthor, and to visit my website, JoniVanNest.com. Please generously support Toys for Tots!