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!
By Joni VanNest © 2016
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.
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.
“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 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”