Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chapter Sixty-Nine

Chapter 69

December 25th – MERRY CHRISTMAS!! The is the first truly Merry Christmas for me since my family died. Part of it is Rand. Part of it is finally coming to terms with myself although that is a work in progress and probably always will be. I think the biggest thing that made this holiday different is that I’m remembering the lessons I learned when I was little, the real reason for the season. I’m seeing things I wasn’t capable of seeing before. My confidence in the future is returning and it is OK if the future doesn't get there quite in the form I expect it to or not.

I’m remembering that people matter to God. We matter so much that He gave up Heaven to dwell here on Earth with us and then He died for us even when we didn’t deserve it. What a huge deal that is and even though I know that we should think about that every day I’m glad that there is special day set aside where we share honoring that love with people that might not know about it yet.

I should go to bed but I’m still too excited and too wound up.

Yesterday, by late afternoon, I finally started feeling better and after Paul came to pick up the three little coats that I finished for Mrs. Withrow Rand surprised me with a dinner of beans and sausage and cornbread. If I hadn’t been feeling any better that would have done it; it was just so sweet I could hardly stand it. Things just got better from that point.

We got a little silly singing Christmas carols, eating the leftover popcorn from where I made the popcorn balls, we drank hot butterscotch milk. We even hung up our socks on the fireplace mantel just because it made us laugh. Then right before bed we stepped outside and looked at the stars and thought about who hung them there and how amazing it was that He brought us together.

Last night was wonderful. But today has been even better. For about fifteen minutes after I first got up I wasn’t feeling too hot but after a slice of Rand’s leftover cornbread I felt better. I was over excited and it went straight to my stomach just like always. Rand had me stay inside while he took care of the animals which gave me time to load the popcorn balls into the back of the wagon he had driven to the front for me. Rand had already put a five gallon bucket of molasses in the bed of the little wagon and I made sure everything else was ready.

It wasn’t quite as cold as it had been the last couple of days but I was real happy to see that the deacons had finally convinced the majority of folks to accept that a building didn’t need a steeple to suffice as a house of worship. The sermon took place in a group of old store fronts across from the park where the light could spill through taped up windows or covered with opaque plastic sheeting to keep the cold at bay. Wood stoves made from metal barrels put off just enough heat in the cavernous old commercial space to get rid of the damp and were vented through former furnace flues.

There were more people than chairs so children sat on laps or on the floor. Even some men wound up there; Rand gave up his seat and sat in the aisle beside me so that the rest of the family could sit together in the same row. Mick and Tommy sat on either side of Rand and he only poked them once when their attention began to wander enough that Uncle George noticed.

Several younger children were enlisted to act out the Christmas story as Pastor Ken read passages from Matthew and Luke aloud. I have to admit it was hard not to laugh when little “Mary” hit “Joseph” with a pillow decorated like a sheep after he knocked over the straw-filled manger that held a baby doll wrapped in an old dish towel. “There, there baby Jesus. Don’t cry. Momma’s got you. Stinky ol’ Joseph didn’t mean to dump ya on yo head. Boys are just stupid like that.” It was even funnier to see Pastor Ken trying not to laugh. When the shepherds started using their crooks to sword fight he finally sat down in the middle of the children and just pulled them around him and finished the story as best he could. By the time he was finished, one of the young wise men had fallen asleep with his “crown” on upside down and half over his eyes.

Then we sang Christmas carols and some old hymns. Aside from Good Christian Men Rejoice and What Child Is This the two others that tugged at my memories the most were I Love To Tell the Story and He Leadeth Me. There were plenty of people wiping their eyes after that one.

And then with a tap on my shoulder a young girl whispered that Mrs. Withrow and Momma O wanted to know if I would come help across the street at the civic center. Before I could leave Rand whispered in my ear, “Keep your pistol handy. If they get to be too much just leave. I’ll be over to help as soon as I can.”

That could have been taken a lot of different ways but I knew it was just Rand’s short hand way of saying to be safe in case of dangers and strangers, to not let our friends drive me crazy, and that he’d be over to help with either situation if need be as soon as he made sure the boys couldn’t get up to mischief that would get them on Uncle George’s naughty list.

I followed my nose through the park and just as soon as I got to the civic center someone threw an apron over my head that had Ladies’ Auxiliary embroidered on the bib. I noticed that a couple of women were bickering about what should go where on the tables. I thought it was a little late in the game for that to be happening and looked around for Momma O. She was sitting in a rocker in the corner just shaking her head.

The bickering was fast getting on my nerves but no one seemed to know what to do about it so I used my fingers to blow a time out whistle and said, “Momma O? Mrs. Withrow? With your permission I suggest we leave the main dish where it is at and have some of the ladies serve it so it gets pieced out with the rice in equal portions … one size ladle for the adults and another size for the children. We can then slide these three tables down and put the salads on one end and the sides down at the other. The beverages can stay over by the wood stove so that the coffee, tea, and cider stay warm. The table that has been set up for the cobblers can stay covered until everyone has gotten their first servings. Have some ladies guard that too or it’ll be gone before you know it. This way it doesn’t take forever and a day for the line to go through and get everybody served. And everyone gets the one plate they brought to use so that the people at the end of the line get a chance at having their share, same as the front of the line.”

And so it was and a good thing too because people were starting to file in with plates in hand just as soon as the last dish was uncovered. I don’t remember who managed the rice and burgoo but I stuck to the sides and salads table. Reminded me a whole lot of the diner and just like at the diner I came home with a bunch of recipes written down. The one that got the most attention was the fifty gallons of burgoo.

The meat for the burgoo included forty pounds of beef, between twenty-five and thirty pounds of venison, ten squirrels, five good sized rabbits, eight chickens, the pork from two hogs, and five pounds of beef suet. The meat was cooked with water to cover for four hours so that the meat fell from the bones. The bones were taken out and were either feed to the dogs or used to make soup from, I’m not sure. The meat was return to the liquid and then twenty-five pounds of potatoes, twenty pounds of onions, ten pounds of carrots, and the kernels from 100 ears of corn were added and boiled together for another two hours. Then the fire was allowed to burn low and one bushel of tomatoes are added along with four heads of cabbage, then pounds of green beans, and 20 quarts of tomato juice. Next comes the rest of the seasonings; six ounces of black pepper, one and a half ounces of red pepper, six chopped jalapeno peppers, six chopped cayenne peppers, and one pound of salt. Everything is stirred up good and the simmered for another hour.

You would have thought that fifty gallons of something that rich and thick would have gone a long way but it was a good thing that we pieced it out with rice because there wasn't a drop left to be scrapped out of any of the big kettles by the time seconds were had by everyone who wanted them. Gracious! And no one had to worry about taking home leftovers.

The kids had hysterics over the popcorn balls and we had brought enough molasses that even the adults got in on pulling taffy. A lot of the old folks laughed and carried on like they were kids themselves, reminiscing and saying how this was so like the Christmases they remembered from their childhood. Some who were raised during or in the aftermath of the Great Depression said there was actually more to eat than what they’d had back then. I know there wasn’t a family there who hadn’t donated something to the pot so that there would be enough for everyone. Rand had taken a deer over, Mr. Coffey donated a hog, Uncle George the beef, and I guess the Harbingers donated the other hog. Everyone else gave what they could.

I was trying to unstick some taffy from my teeth when Rand started laughing. Before I could take my finger out of my mouth and ask what was so funny I heard, “Well Rand, looks like you finally found a way to keep Shorty from opening her mouth.”

I jerked around and there was Ram, grinning like a fool. What brought me up short was there was a small Hispanic woman with him. I was grinding my teeth trying to loosen the taffy and give Ram what for when the woman poked her elbow none too gently into his ribs. “Ramiro Diaz, usted se comporta!”

My immediate laugh at the expression on his face finally broken the taffy loose and I gave my crazy foster brother a hug and was introduced to Concepcion Herrera.

“Oh it is so nice to finally meet you. And please, call me Concha.”

I liked her right away but I wasn’t sure what to make of Ram so quickly taking up with someone else. Especially after I found out she had a little two year old boy named Amando. They couldn’t stay, they were both couriers carrying documents to other stations. Ram pulled Rand aside and was talking to him quietly which left me alone with Concha.

“I know what you must think of me. Taking advantage of Ram in his grief.”

“If you want to know the truth, I was thinking it might be the other way around.”

She laughed quietly and then said, “Maybe … maybe we both needed to go through sorrows to find each other. My mother is watching my little Mando while Ramiro and I finish this courier job. For me it is my last. There have been one too many scares and I have a little boy to think of. Mando’s father died of the flu and my mother … well, I was the only one able to bring in money for a while. We have a small storefront now and Ramiro … I … we … we met at the cantina. I was … lonely and just wanted to dance, just one more time. Ramiro got me out of a bad situation and then made sure I got home safely. When he came by the next day to make sure that I was OK we started talking and … well … “

By then she was blushing. I told her, “You know that I’m Ram’s foster sister right? Not biological? I really have no say about … “

“He calls you his hermanita and you call him hermano, these days that is good enough. So … you do not … object?”

I just shook my head, “Ram is a grown man. I’m not saying I’m not surprised but I’m not his momma either. If the two of you work together and it’s healthy … well, I wouldn’t say that my marriage started out the traditional way either.”

Before I could put my foot in my mouth Ram and Rand came up. Rand and I walked them out to a converted flatbed pulled by four mules. “Shorty, I wish we could stay longer but we’ve got to get to our rendezvous point for the next leg of our run. You two take care of each other.”

He helped Concha up onto the wagon seat and she got settled with her shotgun. I followed him around to his side of the wagon but he stopped at the back end. “What do you think of Concha?”

“I don’t think it matters what I think of Concha.”

“OK, then are you upset about Concha?”

“Ram, there isn’t time to cover all the details. She told me how you two met. I’m a little … surprised … given what happened with Sherri but … I don’t have a whole lot of room, or right, to talk. She seems nice on short acquaintance. But she sounds like she has had it as bad as you. And there is a little boy. Just be careful. Neither one of you needs to get hurt and the little boy … you saw what kids went through in foster care. What if the kid starts to care for you and then you and Concha don’t make it?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’ve thought. But this time … You know, I did go find Sherri. She didn’t want to talk to me. Her family would barely let me talk to her but I got the local base chaplain as a mediator and made it that we needed to end the marriage legally so there wouldn’t be problems down the road. She got really upset over that. She’d been using her military ID to get benefits for her and her family. She was shocked when I cut her off. Said some things that were … well, they hurt. She’s even more unstable than she used to be. Now I wonder how we ever got together, why we ever got together. It’s different with Concha. She is … she’s strong. She’s spunky. But she can be gentle too. She reminds me a little bit of my grandmother … spicy but sweet. You should see her with Mando. And that kid. I wouldn’t have any trouble raising him like he really was mine. She loved her husband and I won’t ask her to forget about him. She knows I loved Sherri but she isn’t jealous of that; she is the one that encouraged me to find some closure and find out if it was fixable or not and that was after we’d already started having feelings for one another. Just … just give it a chance. Keep an open mind.”

“Ram … you don’t need my blessing. But if you want it, all I can say is I want to see you happy. If Concha is the one that helps you find that then so be it. Just be careful. I don’t want to see you hurt again.”

Then he flipped me in the head with his hat and grinned. “I’m not looking for any more pain either Shorty.”

It wasn’t moments before he was in the wagon seat and they were driving away. I leaned against Rand and had a case of the shivers. It wasn’t from cold but from too much emotion and trying to stay in control. Rand whispered, “You OK?”

“I guess. He just comes and goes like the wind and there is always some type of drama. He’s the closest thing I have to a brother and I wouldn’t give that up but sometimes the worrying and stuff feels like it is going to overwhelm me. Is it that way with you and Brendon?”

“Um, not exactly but I do know what you mean. I was pretty shook up when we found out about Alicia and then to find out she was pregnant … Still is hard to get my head around but I have my own life to deal with. Now let’s go in before you get a real chill. You’re looking pale. You sure you aren’t too tired?”

I was a little tired but I didn’t think it showed enough that Rand would see it. I didn’t know whether to be insulted that he was commenting on my looks or flattered that he noticed. We walked inside and Rand got pulled away by Mitch Peters and some other men and I went to see how Momma O was doing.

When I got over there she was already surrounded and obviously doing fine so I decided to take the time to get our boxes and stuff together before they disappeared. As I was looking for them Mrs. Withrow called me over.

“You looking for your things girl?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I set ‘em back in the kitchen area over by the broom closet. Come on and we’ll go fetch ‘em.”

We walked into the kitchen and found that most of the clean up had already been finished. As we did the last few things Mrs. Withrow asked, “How you feeling child?”

“Fine,” I answered not quite sure why she was asking.

“Hmmm. I was worried. You shouldn’t be wrestling like you did with Lucretia. It’s not good for you.”

I laughed and told her honestly that that wasn’t the worst brawl I’d been in over the last couple of months.

“Surely but things are different now. Kiri? Child, look at me.”

I looked at her but never did hear about whatever she was looking for because Rand came into the kitchen looking for me.

“Babe, it looks like it wants to rain and … Um, oh, how do you do Mrs. Withrow?”

“Rand Joiner, you are as noisy a cub as you ever were.” But she took the sting out of her words with a smile. “You get Kiri home. Your uncle is giving me a ride home in his covered buggy and I expect everyone will be heading for home soon to take care of chores. If this is rain heading our way I expect we’ll be able to finish up the butchering in a day or two.” Then she turned to me and said, “When we do I want you and me to sit down and talk a spell child. You hear?”

I said, “Yes ma’am" and then left as Sadie and Hannah and a couple of other women and girls were coming in to take care of the very last of the clean up and to gather their own dishes.”

I have a feeling she is going to invite me to be a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary. I guess I ought to be flattered and I kind of am now that I’ve had time to think about it. Rand said the Ladies’ Auxiliary was one of the big social groups from before but not just anyone could join, you had to be invited and approved by a clear majority of existing members.

If the day had ended there I would have been more than content but the closer we got to home the bigger Rand’s silly grin would get. We pulled in and then once we were on the main forty we pulled down one of the little wagon trails that Rand had made to get to a fallen tree he had been cutting for wood a bit at a time.

“Ram brought you something Babe,” Rand said as he started moving some branches that had been piled against the large main trunk of the downed tree.

“Brought me something” was an understatement. Rand kept pulling out boxes and a couple of burlap type bags until the back of our little wagon was full. He then covered the top of that with some branches to take back and use as fat wood in the stove. There were some odds and ends like bottles and corks, a couple of odd kitchen knives with broken handles, some bags and decorative type colored bottles, some jars of specialty food brands like Alessi, Goya, and Vigo. Then there were some weird stuff like canned conch, Jamaican spice blends, kippers, smoke oysters, canned clams, canned crabmeat, canned shrimp, small tins of octopus and squid too. There were some semi-normal stuff like canned mangoes and boxes of dates. There were some Latin American specialty foods that were a little worse for wear like they came out of a seconds or “dent” store, or maybe from a flea market grocery stand. There is nearly a dozen tins of guava paste and several bags and small boxes of Cuban, Mexican, and Latin American type candies and cookies, again looking like they had come from a second hand store or flea market stand.

The best of the best though were two items. The first was sugar cones called piloncilla. Each cone was about six ounces worth and there was three dozen of the small cones packed in a case. The second was practically beyond belief. It was a fifty pound bag of potatoes. Ram probably meant for us to eat them or me can them but a lot of the tubers already had sprouts trying to grow from their eyes. I will keep a couple to bake and eat but come the first of the year Rand and I are going to plant them and pray that we get a crop that could be worth its weight in gold.

There was also a letter … well, little more than a card really … wishing Rand and I a Merry Christmas signed by both Ram and Concha. By the time Rand and I were finished unloading and finding places to put things the rain was here in earnest and the temperature did feel like it was dropping. We lit the fireplace to chase away the chill and popped some popcorn since neither one of us was hungry enough to bother cooking a full meal.

I hadn’t figured out how to give Rand his present yet so when he went outside to check on the animals one last time before locking the barn down I got the chaps out and wrapped them quickly in the shirt I had been working on but hadn’t had time to finish and put it on the coffee table with a bow stuck on it and then ran to the bedroom because I was suddenly too embarrassed to watch him open it.

He walked into the bedroom carrying his unopened package and the sock I had hung up last night. “You beat me to it. I know it isn’t much. I had meant to get more of them done but I’ll add to it and next Christmas you’ll have a whole set. Let’s open them at the same time.”

He kissed my cheek and put the misshapen sock in my hand. I reached into my sock and pulled out three packages. Each one held a wooden figure. I couldn’t help but smile. Rand had carved the first three pieces in our own manger scene. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph out of oak, cedar, and pecan wood. I ran my fingers over the smooth surfaces.

I looked up as Rand exclaimed, “Hey! Just what I needed! Did you make these?”

“Um hmm. They should fit, I took the pattern from a pair of Daddy’s old chainsaw chaps but made them longer on the in seam. I’m sorry I didn’t finish the shirt.”

“Even half finished it is wonderful. Um, do you like what I made?”

“Oh Rand, they’re beautiful. I hope you don’t mind but I’d like to put them on my dresser rather than just having them as Christmas decorations.”

He smiled and reached over and kissed me pretty good so I guess he doesn’t mind.

We’ve been relaxing ever since but I think it is time we both headed off to bed. The wind has picked up, I can hear it even with the shutters closed. Rand said it will likely be at least another twenty-four hours until it is cold enough to butcher again so hopefully we’ll have at least one day to get organized before we have to get back at things.

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