Brown Sauce Broodings

As the light warms the early morning, I take the dog outside. The marigolds blaze in the corner by the driveway; the mums are just starting to blink at the world. Tiny red leaves from the burning bush spatter the dirt and the pavement, and in Sandy’s yard, a thick layer of crisp, leathery leaves stains the grass and seeps out into the street.

Thocka. Thocka. Acorns steadily pelt shingled roofs and metal car tops. A lone leaf detaches from Sandy’s tree and drifts, slowly, slowly, down to join its peers. And, Chicken, I think suddenly. We’ll have chicken for dinner.

I steer the little dog back home, where I take a container of chicken thighs from the chest freezer. And all morning, the picture of what dinner will be struggles and evolves in my mind.

While I’m doing laundry, I think about last week, when I took Jim to Riesbeck’s market. He ordered himself a fried chicken luncheon. When the clerk asked what pieces he’d like, he selected a breast and a thigh, which surprised me.

“I like the thigh,” he explained, “if it’s FRIED chicken.”

I do not really want the splatter and mess of stove-top fried chicken tonight; I’d rather dress it and put it in the oven. I remember a recipe from a cookbook I ordered before Jim was in school–ABC Cookery, a Gold Medal Flour cookbook for kids. I still have the book. There are instructions in there for oven-fried chicken; we once enjoyed that very much. Moves and schedules, I guess, relegated that method to the past, but today, I decide, I will revive it.

I find the slender cookbook and put it on the shelf next to the microwave.

So the entree is confirmed. We get in the car, running through the sudden, unexpected rain, to pick up Mark, to go to the post office, to stop at Panera and enjoy lunch financed by the last of a gift card, and I am thinking about sides. Green beans, steamed, I think, having had many, many green salads in the last four days. And maybe…rice?

But plain rice is missing something. Then I realize this would be a great day to try out a new sauce recipe.

********

I have been away for four days, and I need to cook.

*********

When we get home, I pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, open to page 54, and I read.

“Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking,” writes Julia Child, in collaboration with her French cooking comrades, “yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”

Good, I think, and I flip through the chapter. A brown sauce would be just right, I decide, and I read on, realizing I will need the whole afternoon for the task. But it is just 2:00, and I have time.

I run my finger down the ingredients list, and I take chicken broth from the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw. I pull out a carrot and an onion and a slice of ham (Ham! I think. That’s a surprise!) I get out my good knife, and I pare away the outer edge of the carrot and I peel off the papery onion skin. I chop and dice while oil heats in the heavy pan. I cut the ham into thin strips, and I dice that, too. Then everything goes into the pot, and it simmers and swirls for ten minutes, before I add the flour.

The flour melts into the oil, coating the sofrito, and I follow the instructions closely and obediently, stirring for another ten minutes. The mixture slowly turns a nice nut brown. I see what Julia Child means: this is not rocket science, but patience, rhythmic patience, is required.

I pour rich hot chicken broth into the pot, and I add two tablespoons of tomato paste and a handful of herbs; I whisk until the paste is melted into the mix, and then I step away to let time do its work. I get out the strainer and a blue ceramic bowl; I set out the pots for rice and green beans. I scoop out the rice, and I pour water into a measuring cup.

I wash the chicken and pat it dry, and I melt half a stick of butter. I mix flour and paprika and salt and pepper and a dash of cayenne. I slide each chicken piece into the butter, then dredge it with the flour. I put the pieces, bone side down, on a metal rack in the glass roasting pan. When I have placed the last piece of chicken carefully in the last space, my fingers are coated, fat with buttery clumps of flour dough.

I wash my hands and I stir the sauce, which is bubbling softly. It is brown and thick and aromatic.

I put laundry in and I take laundry out. I hang dress shirts and tuck matched socks into each other and I fold t-shirts into rectangles and put cold, wet towels into the dryer. I vacuum up dog hair from the carpet in the family room; shedding season seems to have begun in earnest. I answer emails and update my calendar, and I run downstairs to check the still-damp towels, setting the dryer for another cycle. And every fifteen minutes I check the brown sauce. I skim frowsy acid off the surface, peel away the skin that forms, and marvel at the alchemy taking place.

I have no idea what it will taste like. Some of the ingredients are totally unexpected.
But I trust Julia Child, who has never once led me astray. We simmer on.

********

I heat the oven to 425, and Jim comes in to inspect the chicken just as I’m ready to put it in to roast. “Hmmm,” he says, noncommittal; he will wait and see how closely ‘oven-fried’ resembles the fried chicken of his dreams.

I put the rice and the beans on when Mark pulls into the driveway. I grab oven mitts and pull the chicken from the oven; I use tongs to turn it, and Jim and Mark lean in to approve the crisp golden coating. Jim is being swayed. It smells really good, he says.

And the rice cooks up to soft and sticky, and the juices run clear on the chicken. I turn off the heat and I mitt up, hefting the big cooking pot and pouring the sauce into the strainer. “Strain,” the instructions exhort me, “pressing juice out of vegetables.”

I press the veggies. The little dog dances at my feet as I scrape them into a throw-away bag.

***********

The kitchen clatters: plates are pulled from the highest shelf and silverware from its drawer, water is poured, and serving spoons and tongs wrestled out of their jumbled space. The chicken is tender and perfectly cooked,–the crunchy coating, a triumph. The beans are crisp and buttery. And the sauce is thick and rich and savory,–more, I think, than the sum of its parts. It’s the magic of time and patience and good things combined.

We eat and we talk, and the chicken disappears; Mark and I split the very last piece. We scrape the juices from our plates, mop up the last bit of sauce, eat every morsel of sticky rice. A good meal, simmered and slow-roasted in the time provided by this post-work era. A good meal, providing the time to catch up, to family up, after having been away for four days.

We are reluctant to leave the table, but the little dog begins to dance, and a home-cooked meal offers up a sinkful of pots and pans to scrub, and there are chores to be done, plants to water, runs to be made. We are fueled and fortified, though.

There’s a metaphor, I think, in the making of a long-simmered sauce, in the surprising combination of sturdy everyday ingredients into a mixture once unthought-of. There’s an analogy in the thoughtful preparation, the dicing and the sauteing, the careful addition and nurture of the flour, and the long, slow, vigilant bubbling. There’s a lesson to be drawn.

And maybe tomorrow, I will draw it. But tonight I am lulled and comforted by the hearty food, enjoying the re-connection with the boyos, the lazy walk at dusk with the slow-footed little dog. We step back into the house, into a kitchen still rich with the smells of roasting and simmering. It is right, it is good, to be home.

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The coffee steams, scent rising. The sky lightens, the leaves of trees a dark lacy tracery against a sky that’s milky, midnight blue. One bird trills and silences; another picks up the refrain, tattering. Then, after a tiny silence, there’s an answering warble.

The dog curls up under the chair, and settles in. Her panting subsides.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

**********

At work, the pile of documents to be shredded outside my office teeters. We all add to the stack, shoving our papers down. We each hope not to be the one that tips the balance, sending papers spewing, sending the clear message that here is a job that needs–right NOW–to be done.

No one likes to do the shredding.

Today, I pack up the basket and fill up some bags, chopping the wobbling tower in half. I head across the street, to the duplicating office where a high efficiency, industrial shredder is available: first come, first served. There is a little hint of martyrdom in my madness.

I pull a chair next to the shredding machine, and I empty the basket and the bags onto it, stacking the papers high. I open the shredder door and check the heavy duty garbage bag in its thick square bin inside; it is three-fourths full. I snug it back in, secure the door, wake up the machine, and begin.

And it is not so bad. The machine chomps and whirs. When the pile has diminished by two inches, I check the bag, rearrange the snowdrift, secure the doors again, grab more papers. Feed the hungry beast.

Finally, the machine refuses to go on. A blinking icon tells me the garbage bag is full. I pull the heavy bag out of its big square container. As it slides away from its constraints, tiny pieces of paper float and settle.

This is the part that everyone hates: changing the bag, then cleaning up the mess.

I wrestle the full bag into a corner, make bunny ears, tie a snug knot. I fit in a new bag, and then I take the dust pan and brush, and I kneel down on the floor to catch the errant shreds. I almost fill the dust pan, and I dump the flyaway paper back into the bin.

And I realize this is not so bad. This finite job, with its definite progress, has a certain clear-cut satisfaction. The pile of paper relentlessly shrinks. Sweeping the mess from the industrial carpet, yielding clear space, becomes a metaphor. I breathe deep. I savor the chance to do a simple job, a no-pressure job.

When my colleague Brenda comes in to pick up her mail, we talk about kids and summer and a wonderful graduate who’s gone on to success…and who is a thrifty wizard at yard sales. I seldom get to see Brenda; I enjoy the chance to catch up.

The stack of paper waits patiently until we are done talking.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

*********************

The sky is soft with clouds that do not threaten when James and I leave for Granville, our Wednesday ritual: a trip to the library, a visit to the coffee shop.

“Can I DJ?” he asks, another part of the routine.

We listen to Ewan MacGregor and Emma Thompson sing “Be Our Guest,” and Jim tells me that MacGregor’s first attempt at a French accent made everyone think he was Mexican. This is funny, because MacGregor’s wife is French.

We listen to Jerry Oerbach and Angela Lansbury sing the same song, and we can’t decide which version we like best.

We listen to several tunes by Imagine Dragons, and Jim tells me about the movies those tunes are featured in. The tires thrum, the music rolls, and the miles melt away.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

***********************

I put the boneless chicken on to parboil, and then I gather up the veggies. I rinse and chop fresh broccoli and put it on to steam; it quickly turns a bright, luscious green. I snap the ends of the sugar snap peas, peel off the rugged fibrous thread, give them their seconds in the pot. I take out small, jewel-like onions, a bulb or two of garlic. I take a whole jalapeño pepper from the freezer. Two carrots from the crisper; sliced almonds from the cupboard.

Mark comes home and changes clothes and slides the bamboo chopping board towards him, sharpens his favorite knife, and begins to turn the carrots into slender orange matchsticks. I mix the rice with water and drops of oil, sprinkle in some salt, put it on to steam. I slice the chicken and toss it into a hot cast iron pan; it sizzles, and smells rise and mingle–the sautéing onion, the searing meat. The snapping oil crescendos when the other veggies, crisp and wet, join the mix. We move around the kitchen, stirring and lifting, filling the sink with hot, soapy water, wiping down surfaces, comparing notes of the day.

Jim comes in to wrestle plates down from the top shelf, dig his teriyaki sauce from the back of the refrigerator, tell us about a scene in the episode he’s just been watching. Which reminds him of a joke from the joke tape, and we laugh although we’ve heard it many times before.

And the rice is plump and soft, the chicken seared golden brown; we mix General Tso’s sauce into the veggies and we say a family grace.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

*********************

The supermarket is quiet on a Wednesday night, floors gleaming, shelves picked over. But all the items on our list are also on the shelves.

A tired young mom wheels her cart slowly through the aisles; her path crisscrosses ours.  Her little boy, sleek head, hair as smooth and brown as an otter’s, points and points and begs. She murmurs, and he keens.

We select small, firm apples and pretzel rods, coffee and tea; we score the last loaf of Nickle’s bread and the last dozen brown, cage-free eggs. I put two thin bars of sea-salt dark chocolate in the cart. Mark adds a tube of cinnamon buns. We sort coupons. Jim stacks his own groceries in a corner of the cart; he will pay, proudly, for his own food.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

*******************

And there is Guy Fieri on the flat screen; there is an unexpected email to answer, and there is just time to do a little writing and reflection. The dark draws back over the sky and the house seems to settle. The dog sighs and slips abruptly into sleep; her feet twitch and she makes noises deep in her throat, dreaming her doggie dreams.

This moment; this day. We have what we have. We know what we know. Everything we’ve done, all the people we have met, all the thoughts we’ve entertained…all bringing us to this–this fulcrum moment, balancing between past and future, clad lightly in the fragile glass of now.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Vet’s Tonight

the-great-gretzky
I am perched on a little bench made for much shorter people to sit on. It’s so low to the ground, my knees form a roof peak. Tightly wound beneath them shudders my little dog, Greta, who is huddled and pressed and quivering uncontrollably. We’re in an immaculate green-tiled room room that is rimmed with locked cupboards. A metal topped table sits center stage.

A hum of voices, barks, and howls filters out from beyond a swinging door at the back.

We are waiting to see the veterinarian, my terrified pup and I. The kind, sweet vet tech has been in twice and taken Greta away, to be weighed, to have blood drawn. Both times, Greta went willingly enough, looking over her shoulder at me, making sure, maybe, that I wasn’t leaving her.

To her, this is a place where we leave her behind, in the care of strangers and the company of crazy companions, when we go away. This is the place where needles shine in fluorescent light, where harsh metal clippers make fast work of her nails, where a man with a shaved head pries her lips open and studies her teeth.

For me, this room provokes layers of memories. I have sat in examining rooms much like this one with other dogs, aging dogs; I have prayed, in those rooms, for miracles, or at least reprieves. Sometimes those have arrived, and a loyal friend has bundled back into the car with me. Going home: home to try the new medication, the rub, the bath…the thing that we hope will make life comfortable, livable, longer for the pet who has come to be a beloved necessary presence.

Sometimes the visit ended in harsh reality, in bowing to time’s inexorability, in knowing we could not subject our liquid-eyed dog to a life of unending pain.

Greta looks up at me as I rub her silky, bony head. She shoots one message from her big black eyes: Homehomehomehomehomehome…

“You’re not staying tonight,” I murmur, soothingly.

Then I hope I’m not lying. The tech, Melissa, says the dog has lost four pounds. Suddenly, Greta empties her big water bowl every day. At night, she wakes, panting heavily. Her scratching shakes the house.

I have found a lump on her back; there’s another on her belly. When James and I took her out to the car, she had trouble, my nimble little hound, jumping up onto the seat.

I am confronted with the reality of time’s relentless march.

***********

Cleaning files the other day, Mark found our adoption papers for Greta. We looked at the date–2005–and looked at each other and shook our heads. Eleven years.

An eye-blink.

We got the dog at the animal shelter. Something pushed us, almost physically, to stop one Sunday afternoon. It was spring, and still cold; the death of our beloved Holmsie was not that far behind us. We weren’t sure we were ready for another dog.

We’ll just look, we said.

The kennels were full; volunteers were bringing food around, and big dogs were jumping against the chain link walls joyously. Little dogs were running in circles and yipping. Puppies were tumbling obliviously.

But Greta–she was huddled in a corner of her kennel, quiet, sad, so very alone. She had the brown and black and white markings that belied a beagle ancestor. Holmsie, too, had been a beagle descendant; she also had a strong German Shepherd strain–she was big, solid, a rock.

Greta must have had terrier forebears; she was smaller. She was quivering.

“Look,” I said to Mark and Jim who were laughing at the antics of a fat, woolly beast whose name tag read, “Roseanne.” Roseanne was jumping against her cage walls to get the volunteer’s attention, then dropping down to the ground to preen and flirt.They came over to where I knelt by Greta’s kennel, and the little dog crept over to see. The boyos knelt down too, and the pup put a paw on the chain link, stuck her snout through the metal to try to lick Jim’s hand.

A volunteer, crepe-soled, stood suddenly behind us.

“I’ve never seen her be so interested in anyone,” she said. “Would you like to meet her?”

And in that moment the die was cast.

We had to wait, though, for shots and neutering. We had to be–no pun intended–vetted by the staff; they wanted to know our house was clean enough, our yard was fenced, we had no toddlers. Greta was not a dog for a toddler household. We waited several weeks in a cold, wet spring, when Mark would toss at night, and murmur, “Do you think she needs a blanket?”

The staff brought her home to us, watched the interaction, watched her settle in, and finally, satisfied, they went away, and Greta was our dog—our twitchy, nervous, sensitive, ill-treated dog.

The staff had told us stories about her origins. How they found her huddled in a corner of a kennel–someone had apparently driven up, after dark,and lofted her, dirty and flea-ridden, over the ten foot high fencing that kept the dogs from bolting. How the former volunteer who’d discovered her had clamped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she wailed and whimpered and resisted, across the pebbled driveway to intake. How after that, she turned her head away and didn’t want the company of human or beast.

Until we came. It felt like she was always our dog. It felt like if we just loved her enough, we could heal the wounds and bury the memories and make her over into a loving, trusting pup.

The first night, she paced and searched. She dragged her tupperware bowl of kibble under the dining room table and huddled over it. She didn’t eat the food during daylight. When we got up in the morning, the dish was empty, and the dog was quivering under the table.

We cooed and held out hands to sniff. That afternoon, I took her out into the fenced in side yard with me, company while I was weeding.  She paced and prowled as I inched my way down a wild, weedy flowerbed. She wandered over to the sun-warmed cement sidewalk  three feet from where I worked. She circled and sat, and suddenly, I realized she was sleeping–deep and urgent, sleeping as if she had never slept before. And I thought that finally, finally, the little dog felt safe.

She came to love us, Greta did, sometimes treating Mark and Jim like they were annoying brothers. I was always, to her, the alpha dog, the center of safety. Often, she followed me around the house, upstairs and down, just staying by my side.

We took her out to fenced in ball fields and she would soar around the base paths, running and running until she ran herself out. She always came back; this was not a dog we would ever have to worry about wandering away.

We took her for long evening walks.

We bought her toys. We realized she had no idea of how to play.

She settled in; our home became hers, but she never got comfortable with visitors.  No matter how much we loved her, claimed her, kept her safe, Greta was who she was: a nervous dog who didn’t much like change or company.

************
She moved with us, five years ago, settled into a new home after some days of consternation, but changed her nighttime place. Greta had always snuggled into a corner of the couch to snore the night away. After the move, she slept with us, starting in a cozy dog bed we bought for her.  When we woke up in the morning, she’d be snuggled between our feet.

She was never sick. We took her in for yearly visits, practiced flea and heart-worm prevention, walked her in our new neighborhood. The only time she needed doctoring was the night she greedily swallowed chunks of pork bone, which lodged in her intestines, making her feverish, taking her to the animal hospital for three scary nights.

We bought soft food instead of kibble for the healing time; she refused to eat bare kibble ever again. She gained three pounds.

They started calling her a ‘senior dog’ when she turned eight, and we snorted: Greta was still spunky and nimble and anxious, each night after dinner, for me to get the leash and head outside to wander. We didn’t register the facts of age.

***********
But sitting on that bench, I had to face the truth. We don’t really know how old she is. One vet guessed that Greta was eight months old when we adopted her; another was sure she was at least two years. We settled for the younger age; we gave her a birthday in May.

So the truth is that the little hound is at least eleven. She’s 77 in dog years–and maybe more than that.

The truth is, that she has moved from ‘senior’ to ‘elderly.’

The truth is, she will not be with us forever.

**************
The nice vet, the young man with the shaved head, wearing his green polo shirt emblazoned with the name of the practice, came smiling in to see the little dog; she turned and hid her head beneath my legs. He coaxed her out with gentle hands; he stroked her head and examined her lumps and he searched for anything internally that might alarm.

The lumps, he said, were harmless cysts.

She had, he surmised, a UTI.

Her lower back was raw from some sort of dermatitis.

And it was true: arthritis is setting in.

He sent us home with shampoo and pills–antibiotics and anti-itch pills. And when those are done, we can start the anti-arthritis pills; those are pills she’ll take now, forever.

*************

Oh, it could have been much worse.

I didn’t lie to my little friend; we will go home and start the medication regime, and maybe, tonight, she’ll sleep better than she has in a long time.

But time’s drumbeat is louder to me now, like that moment when the background noise–the thrumming of the furnace, or the backbeat of the band from the bar down over the hill–rears up and becomes the prominent, important sound. My little dog is entering those last days. I hope there will be years full of days in this era.

Our time with her will never feel endless again.

************

Once, jokingly, a few months after we got the dog, when she’d bared her teeth as he playfully tried to steal her rawhide bone,  Mark said to me, “Tell me why we felt compelled to get this nasty little beast!”

I was stumped for an answer. Why do we invest so deeply in these furry friends, these emissaries from another land, who change our lives and shed in our houses and demand our love and care and time?

But we do. On sad days when the house is empty of the tick-tacking of unclipped nails, the residue of hair on the couch, then we wander and we grieve.

“Never again,” we say, “never again. This hurts too much.”

And then the car stops, of its own free will, it seems, and the little beast comes to the fence…

I cannot find a reason; maybe this is one of those things that goes deeper than thought or practicality, some kind of inherited need to which we willingly accede.  For we need her just as much, I know, as she needs us.

**********

This time, I  clip the leash on and take the dog out to where young James waits. Greta looks at him, sniffs, and raises her snout snootily in the air; Jim has been petting the fluffy, caramel colored cat that prowls the practice. Greta is not amused at this defection. But she lets him take her outside while I pay the bill and gather the pills and head out into a sunny, cloud-scudded autumn day–a day when I’ll take my dog, healthy for the most part, home.

Talkin’ Trash in the Kitchen

Finished Trash.jpg

Ah the sun is full out: Sunday morning.
I am fresh back from taking my walk.
My coupons are stashed
and my dishes are washed
and I’ve already pottied the dog.

The boys have a task set before them,
A mission that took them to Lowe’s.
The outdoor faucet is beat;
Plants need juice in this heat:
So the boys will re-able the hose.

But I’m pounding chips in the kitchen
The remnants from several sacks;
Pretzels come next;
Yes, I’ll see them compressed.
I am trying a recipe called Trash.

Bags

It’s a recipe Mark saw on Facebook;
We decided to give it a try.
So I’m making Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

********
The butter melts quick in the big pot.
But the marshmallows stick to the sack.
They’re all glommed up and tricky,
Yuck–my fingers are sticky.
I’m too entrenched, though, to take that mess back.

I stir and I stir and I stir them;
They finally consent to melt down.
Not a cuss word I utter;
Just stir in peanut butter,
swirl together sweet white and nut brown.

And then it is time for the salty.
I mash in the pretzels and chips.
The mess is released
to a pan that is greased
(Only tiny, wee tastes pass my lips.)

And the boys struggle on in the basement;
Here an oath, there a triumphant cry.
While I’m spreading Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

Faucet fixing

************
Well, the thing comes together in last steps,
So I sprinkle on M and M candy.
I press on one quarter cup.
Having MORE than enough,
I devour the remains (which is handy.)

Sprinkled Trash.jpg

And then I fill a bowl full of chocolate,
and microwave-melt it to drizzle.
Ah–sweet melty slop!
I adorn the treat’s top.
(Can I cut these? I might need a chisel.)

So the treats are congealing and chilling,
As the boys labor over their chore.
I wash out the pot;
I might like these a lot.
And I surely will make them some more.

And the drill grinds away, then is silent,
To be followed by a joint victory cry
And I’m writing Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

*********************

Trash Treats

(from Delish.com…)

3 tbsp. butter
1-16 oz. bag marshmallows
2 tbsp. peanut butter
4 c. potato chips, crushed
2 c. pretzels, crushed
¼ c. M and M candy
½ c. chocolate chips, melted

Grease a 9 x 11 inch pan.  A small cookie sheet would do well, too.

Melt the butter over low heat in a large pot.

Add the marshmallows; stir until melted and smooth.

Add the peanut butter; stir to combine.

Turn off the heat, and quickly stir in the chips and pretzels.

Press mixture into greased pan. (I find that wetting my fingers, and shaking off the excess before pressing, helps in the pressing process.) Sprinkle with M and M’s; press the candy into the surface of the treat.

Drizzle the bars with the melted chocolate.

Let harden before serving, about thirty minutes.

Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

*******************

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

********************

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

********************

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

****************

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

Take the Pepper; Come Back for the Salt

 

 Evelyn sat behind the counter and watched as people passed by, never turning to look her way or stopping to explore the wonderful, quirky, lovely things she had in her little store. She had taken a great leap to open the little gift shop, a leap of faith–faith in the Almighty, in her own ability, and in her nephew Barney’s assurances.

“Aunt Evy,” he’d said, “you have taste and a discerning eye.  People will pay for that.”

This store, with its little stash of glowing inventory, had taken all of her savings.  She had left her job in the doctor’s office, and they quickly replaced her.  If this didn’t work, she would truly be in trouble.

“Wait,” Barney assured her. “Ride it out.  It takes a little time.”

But Evelyn didn’t think she had much time before the bottom crashed away, and she couldn’t sustain things any longer.  She needed a miracle–just a little miracle would be nice.  She needed shoppers–four or five a day would be fine, especially if they each spent thirty dollars.  She sighed and went back to get her dusting cloth.  At least she would, for sure, have the most immaculate shop in town.

************
Jorie was wiry and dark and unremarkable, not pretty, not ugly, not smart, not dumb.  I am completely UN-special, she thought. I’m so un-special that I’m invisible sometimes.

It was a complicated time at her house.  Her oldest sister, Mills, was pregnant–19 and pregnant, and hadn’t there been some screaming about that? Mills was the pretty one, all golden hair and blue eyes, and she was smart too.  She was in college studying to be a teacher, except that now she’d take some time off to have her baby.

She had married Danny and they were living at Jorie’s house, but just until the first of the year, and there was tight-lipped, silent disapproval seeping from her mother’s pores.

Mills acted unconcerned.  “Don’t you worry, Mother!” she’d snapped.  “I’ll finish my degree.  The college has a daycare.  I’m not going to be derailed.”

She said it like an accusation, like a taunt, to her mother, who had only had one semester of college before it became apparent Mills was on her way.  But, Jorie thought, her parents loved each other; they would have gotten married anyway.

And it was her mother’s choice, wasn’t it, to keep on having kids? Four years after Mills, there was Freddy, who was a sophomore now and had just discovered what he called the Wonderful World of Alcohol.  He stayed out late; he came home drunk; there was more screaming.

Jorie–Marjorie, really, but no one called her that, just like no one called Mills ‘Mildred’–came along four years after Freddy, and there was a bigger gap–almost six years–between her and Patrick, the baby. Patrick and Freddy had blue eyes and blond hair, too–Freddy’s kind of a dull and dirty blonde that he shaved close to his head.  Patrick had a nimbus of curls.

Between Mill’s pregnancy and Freddy’s partying and Patrick’s excessive cuteness, Jorie felt like there was only a narrow space for her.  She would be, she advised herself, smart to squeeze into the space available, shut up, and crouch beneath the radar.

Which she did, pretty well, but it got lonely sometimes.  Sometimes she wished her mother would just talk to her–just for 15 minutes a day or so.

She’d asked yesterday if she could help with the holiday baking, and her mother about snapped her head off.  “Just let me DO this, Marjorie!” she’d said.  “If you want to be helpful, go clean your room.”

That wasn’t right of Mom to say, because Jorie always kept her room neat, and she vacuumed it weekly.  She enjoyed dusting and rearranging her pictures and statues.  She made her bed, every day. She cleaned and straightened Patrick’s room, too.  She picked up the magazines in the living room, and she loaded the dishwasher.  She was learning to do her laundry and loved the feel and the smell of an iron in her hand, crisply pressing cotton cloth.

She DID help.  Mills and Freddy mocked her, mercilessly; Patrick accepted that Jorie was there to pick up after him.  Her mother kicked her out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t fair.

Her dad got home late, usually, at 6:30 or 7:00, always one to pick up overtime at the plant; by then Jorie would be in a chair with a book, and Dad would come in and just for a minute rest his hand on her head and smile down as she smiled up.  They were the dark ones in this fair-haired family. But Dad was handsome–distinguished, even, with his snapping eyes and high cheekbones and glossy mop of hair.

Jorie was just…unremarkable.

*********

After school on Wednesday, Mom was taking Mills to her OB/Gyn appointment, so Jorie had to walk over to pick up Patrick at his kindergarten class, which was in a separate school about a half mile from hers.  And he would be whiny and not want to walk home, so Jorie, who had three dollars saved, would take him through the little downtown, and they would stop at the coffee shop and share a coke.  That way, he’d shut up and not drag behind, bitterly resenting the lack of ride.

Patrick was out playing with two friends when Jorie got there; he left them reluctantly and opened his rosebud mouth to protest the walk home.  Jorie cut him off with a promise of the coffee shop.  Patrick clamped his little mouth shut, considered, and accepted the placation with a shrug.  He dragged his book bag behind him, and Jorie remonstrated; they wandered, bickering, into the little downtown area, until Jorie lifted her head, looked in a window and saw wonders.

It was a new little store; she’d never seen it before.  In the window was a display of music boxes and kaleidoscopes. Oh, Jorie loved kaleidoscopes.  Inside, she could see beautiful frothy clothes on a rack and little statues and doodads arranged enticingly on counters.

“Patrick,” she said.  “Patrick! Let’s go in here.”

************
Evelyn was dusting when the bell jangled, and hope surged and then faded.  It was children; she’d have to watch them.  She hurried behind the counter and kept a sharp eye.  They were whispering by the salt and pepper shaker display.

There was a great deal of low discussion, and then the little boy came over, a pepper shaker cupped in his chubby little hands. He looked up at her, enormous blue eyes shining, and he raised the little shaker toward her. It was a clever little owl.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “could I buy the pepper today and come back for the salt next week? ‘Cause I only have three dollars?”

His hair was a molten golden aura encircling his head.  He looks, thought Evy, like an angel, and her heart leapt. It seemed to her, suddenly, like a sign or a test, and of course she would let the little one take the pepper and come back for the salt.  She solemnly took his money, and handed him a clipboard. He printed his name carefully on the sheet of paper attached and handed it, equally solemnly, back to her.

“I won’t let anyone else buy the salt owl,” she promised.

“My mother loves owls,” he said, almost reverently, and he left, herded by another, bigger child. Blinded by all that blue and gold, Evy didn’t take much notice of the bigger one.

**************

That week, Jorie turned into an odd job whirligig.  She shined Dad’s shoes; she walked to the store for Mills.  She vacuumed Danny’s car and she folded laundry.  She earned a quarter here and fifty cents there.

She told Mills about the little store and Mills went down and did some Christmas shopping.  Mills saw a necklace she liked and she hinted broadly to Danny, who went down with his mother and bought the necklace.  His mom got a few little things, too.  Jorie told the kids at school about the store and some of them went in to get gifts for their moms, or to buy one of the homemade suckers in a pail by the counter.

By Thursday, she had the money they needed. Patrick had a play date, so Jorie went into the store alone.

***************

Evy looked up at the thin, dark child standing in front of the counter.  “You want what?” she asked.

“The owl,” said Jorie, “the salt owl.  For my mother. She loves owls.”

“Sorry,” said Evy, sharply. “Not for sale.”

Barney looked up at her hard tone, folded up his paper and stood.  He smiled over the counter at Jorie, who had frozen in shock.

“But I was HERE,” said Jorie. “I was here with my brother, Patrick.  He wrote down his name and you gave him the pepper and said we could come back for the salt.” Jorie’s eyes glazed over, and Evy realized: this was the darker, bigger child.

“Oh, darling,” she said.  “I am sorry.  I didn’t see you that day.”

“I’m know,” Jorie whispered, apologetic. “I’m not especially stand out-ish.”

“Oh, darling,” whispered Evy again, and she shook her head clear of its cobwebs. “I’m going to get you a special box and a gift card. You wait right here.”

She went into the cluttered little back room and sorted through boxes, and she could hear  Barney’s rumble and the child answering him, stumbling a little at first and then being drawn into the conversation.  Their voices rose and fell. Evy found the box and a little Christmas gift tag with a beribboned owl smiling up from it, and she took them out to Jorie.

She took the shaker down from its shelf and nestled it in tissue.

“See how I did that?” she asked, and Jorie nodded.  “Well,” said Evy, “here’s another piece of tissue for the pepper.  And if you need help, you just bring it back.”

Jorie’s face was shining now, and Evy saw how her dark eyes snapped, and, with that blush creeping up under her skin, how pretty she would be.  “Oh,” she said impulsively to the girl, “oh, with that complexion and those eyes,–you’re going to be so lovely.”

Jorie’s eyes opened in shock and she hugged the bag Evy gave her tight to her chest.  At the door she remembered her manners and turned to thank them and say goodbye.

“Come in any time you’re bored,” said Barney, “and you can help me grade papers.” Barney taught second grade and was always co-opting help with the endless math sheets.

When Jorie left, he turned to Evy. “She’s been sending you business,” he said.
**************
Jorie didn’t expect much that year, but it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.  Her Dad and Danny decided they would do all the cooking and cleanup and they spent the whole day, Christmas Eve, simmering up spaghetti sauce and making meatballs.  Mom disappeared upstairs to do her wrapping, and Mills, after she threw up twice in the morning, ran around humming and grinning.  Freddy didn’t go out with his friends at all, and he went to midnight Mass with Dad and Jorie.  Mom stayed home with Patrick, who couldn’t sit still that long or that late.

The next morning there was a ton of presents.  Danny and Mills got her a necklace with a real diamond, and Dad got her books.  Her mother got her a cookbook and her own cooking things–wooden spoons and pans and a little electric beater, and she said they would make cream puffs the day after Christmas.

Freddy got tons of clothes and Patrick tore and jumped and threw wrapping and got his new toys out right away, right in the middle of the wrapping paper mess.

There was a very dewy moment when Mills pulled the paper off a big package and discovered Grandma’s christening gown.  All four of them had been baptized in it; years before, Mom had been baptized in it.  Now Mills and Danny’s baby could be too. Mills gulped out a thank you and hugged Mom for a long time, and even Dad had snail tracks on his cheeks.

*********
When Mom opened the pretty  box, she stared down at the little owls, and her hands stopped, fingers splayed, frozen, for a minute, in the air.
 
 
“They’re beautiful,” she said, a little gruff. Patrick jumped up and down on a pile of gift wrap, grinning. “Let’s,” Mom said to Jorie, “go fill them up.”
 
 
“Don’t we have to wash them?” asked Jorie, shocked.
 
 
“I can’t wait that long to use them,” Mom said. In the kitchen, she added, “I know who did all the work to get these, Missy.”
 

 *********

She saw me, Jorie thought.

**********
On the 27th, Evy made a little clearance display of Christmas doo-dads; they were gone within the day.

“I’ll actually have to come in early to dust,” she said to Barney, who’d arrived to take her out to dinner. “I didn’t have time today.”  She thought about Jorie and Patrick, and how the day they’d come in had been the last frozen day; after that, the ice thawed and things started flowing.

She put her hand on Barney’s camel-hair-coated arm and she laughed. “I thought the angel was Patrick, with those curls and those eyes, but it was Jorie all along.  I’ll look closer next time.”

“Not,” she added after a pause, “that Patrick isn’t a sweet little guy.”

It had been a nice Christmas, Evy thought, and she had a small but steady stream of customers coming back.  And she was having dinner with her favorite nephew, at the Chinese place they both loved.  She gotten what she’d asked for: just a little miracle.

********

Just a little miracle, and it had been quite enough.
*********
My blogging friend Jodi posted a wonderful, real-life photo of a little Christmas angel just recently—our thoughts were on that same kind of Christmas innocence! 

No Place Like Home for the Owlidays

 Owls 1

The Greathorne twins, Olivia and Owena, hatched on a beautiful May morning and looked right into the luminous eyes of their loving mother.  A hop or two back on the branch was their proud Papa.

The loving parents gave their owlets some time to adjust to bright moonlight and spreading out space.  When the girls had stretched and blinked and settled into calm curiosity about their new surroundings, their parents hopped softly toward them.

“We call thee Olivia,” said Mama, tapping gently on Olivia’s still damp head. Papa dropped a shred of fresh meat into Olivia’s beak.

“We call thee Owena,” said Mama, tapping her other daughter’s pate.  Owena had her maw open for the food before Papa even had a chance to hop her way.

That was the last time Owena was ever second behind Olivia.  From the very first, the girls’ personalities shone through.

Owena was the explorer.  Even on that first hatching day, she was angling to fly, watching Papa as he soared away in search of food. She would plant her little talons on the rough bark of the branch, and she’d imitate his arking and swaying.  When Papa returned with his catch, she would first eat ravenously, then watch as Mama flew off.  Owena would strain forward as Mama did, twisting her head this way and that, her sharp eyes searching for things that skitter in the tall waving grass.

Olivia was quite different.  She was content to stay closer to the nest.  She listened.  She imitated what she heard, and soon her raw croaks became melodious croons.  Olivia, it was clear, was musically gifted.

The twins, different as they were, loved each other dearly.  At dawn they would huddle together and talk just before they slept.  Olivia dreamed of conducting an owl orchestral chorus. She would teach Owena little tunes and they would harmonize together.  Although Olivia had the much stronger, truer voice, when they sang together, the harmony was very, very pleasing.

Owena dreamed of faraway places.  She would make up stories of wonders she would see and share them with her sister.  Olivia’s eyes would shine with excitement–until they suddenly dropped into sleep.

Mama and Papa were deeply pleased with both their girls, and they encouraged their different interests.  Before long, both Owena and Olivia had learned to fly.  Owena, of course, flew first, after several careless tumbles and premature attempts.  The urge to go just pushed her, and one morning, from her imitating Papa stance, she suddenly lifted up and soared. Mama and Olivia shouted in amazement.

Papa heard the joyous cries of his family, and he circled back. Sweeping around his adventurous daughter, he led her out on her first flight.  He’d intended to be cautious and stay close to home, but Owena’s urge to explore gave her great strength.  They left Mama and Olivia cheering them on far behind.  It was the first of many exploratory flights Olivia took with her father.  She quickly picked up hunting skills and was soon bringing delectable tidbits back for the family’s dinner.

Olivia faithfully followed Owena’s lead, and with her sister’s hearty encouragement, became a sturdy flier.  But she never had Owena’s panache; her flying was strictly for the purpose of getting from here to there, and her hunting to make a meal.  Owena’s flight was beautiful–and sometimes nerve-wracking–to watch.  Her hunting dive was deadly and swift.

“Now that you’re flying,” said Mama one morning, “it’s time for the next level of learning.  Girls, you’re going to school today!”

Olivia and Owena preened in excitement and, after breakfast, Papa flew them over to Mrs. Knowle’s Tree of Knowledge.  There were eight or nine other little owls just about their age assembled there.  And there was Mrs. Knowle, puffed up and frightening, sternly waiting for them.

“She was MY teacher when I was an owlet,” Papa whispered.  “Scared the scat out of me, but I learned a lot.”

The girls shared a glance, and they made sure they had spaces close together on the branch campus.

Owena soon realized she hated school.  Olivia didn’t mind sitting still and learning, and Mrs. Knowle often pointed that out.  Owena, on the other talon, always intended to listen.  But, as Mrs. Knowle droned on, she would find her eyes flickering from side to side, and soon she’d be staring at a spot far away where she could see the little rippling trail of something moving through the meadow.  Without her awareness, her wings would spread, and the next thing she knew, she’d be airborne.

Olivia would trill to her quietly, but Mrs. Knowle always caught her.  The teacher would whip her head around and glare until Owena came sheepishly back, lighting softly on the branch and cooing apologies.

“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Old Lady Knowle would demand, and Owena would hang her head.

“It’s true,” she would think.  “Olivia is so good.  I’m a bad owlet, and I can’t seem to change.”

Owena grew to dread going to school.  She talked her mother into letting her stay home sick one day. but that was almost worse.  Mama was so concerned, she made Owena stay tucked under her wing until Olivia finally came home.  All Owena wanted was to soar.  She didn’t want to be bored at school.  She didn’t want to be stuck under her mother’s wing.

She wanted to fly.

Things finally came to a head at school.  Owena had just returned from another involuntary flight and Old Knowle, all puffed up with indignation, was waiting for her. She’d dismissed the rest of the school, although Owena saw Olivia waiting for her, hidden on a branch of a nearby tree.

“Well, Missy,” sneered the teacher, “enough is enough. It’s time you learned to stay still.  After dinner, I am going to your parents and I am going to demand that you be grounded.

“Grounded!” gasped Owena. “Errr…what exactly does that mean?”

“It means,” snapped the teacher, “that you will not be allowed to fly until you have learned to perch!”

“Not allowed—” breathed Owena.  “For how long?”

“For as long as I decide!  But at least two weeks.”

Owena tried to imagine that.  She remembered the awful frozen feeling of staying home sick that one day, stuck under Mama’s wing.  She thought of all the times she flew without even realizing she had lifted into the air.

She knew, without trying to be defiant or ornery, that she could not be flightless for a day, much less two weeks.

“I’m very sorry,” said Owena to Mrs. Knowle politely. “But I cannot be grounded.”

The teacher begin to warble angrily, eyes bulging, head twisting, but Owena did not stay to listen.  She lifted gracefully off the branch and flew to where Olivia hid.  Olivia had heard the whole exchange, and her golden eyes were wet.

“I know,” she whispered to Owena, “that you have to go.”

“Tell Mama and Papa that I love them!” said Owena.  “I love you, too.”  And she was flying, soaring away on an updraft, leaving Olivia sadly watching and the teacher  wildly ranting.

Owena flew until she left her anger behind, and then she opened her eyes and watched the world unfold. She flew out of the homely woods to the end of the familiar meadow.  She flew over rivers that shone silver gray in the moonglow.  She flew over lakes in which she saw fish swimming away from her moonlit shadow.  The first day, she slept in a strange pine tree, startling at noises she wasn’t used to, but in the evening, the urge to go further erased the daytime fears.

Owena flew and and she flew and she flew.

She met all kinds of owls–who knew there were so many? She ate exotic foods.  She explored bare rockfaces of rugged mountains, and she enjoyed little respites in cozy, protected valleys.  She saw settlements of people, those odd beings who build huge dwellings for themselves and for their animal friends.  She met new owl friends who lived in the animal dwellings, structures they called barns.

She learned to fly against the wind; she learned to navigate in the rain.  She was propelled by the overwhelming need to explore further and to know more about the wide world she lived in.  On and on she went.

The weather changed.  She noticed the leaves changing color.  She noticed how they fell to the ground after a time; then, Owena only felt protected in the still-green pines when she stopped to sleep for the day.  She felt the wind grow colder; she noticed the extra layer of fluffy feathers she sprouted to ward off the chill.

And Owena began, for the first time since she left the branch campus, to slow down. She slowed down, and she began to think of her Mama and Papa, and especially she thought of Olivia.  She wondered what kind of music Olivia was making these days.  She wondered if Mama and Papa were very, very angry and disappointed with their fly-away daughter.

For the next few days, she pushed herself to move ahead, but it grew harder and harder, and finally, one evening, she arced a new course toward home.

She noticed changes as she flew, unswerving as an arrow, to the place of her birth…a hard skin on the surface of the lake, fewer little critters dancing about to be eaten.  Things, it seemed, were burrowing into those cozy drifts of fallen leaves.

Owena experienced, for the first time, snow. It was beautiful, and she learned it could be deadly, changing the look and smell of the once-familiar world.  She thanked her stars for the homing instinct that seemed to be built in, a sense right behind her eyes, and she let that instinct lead her.

It led her home, on a clear and moonlit night, home to the tree where her life began.  And before she could even see that tree, she heard a beautiful song.

It was Olivia, and she was singing, “I’m dreaming of a flight Christmas…”

Owena let the song float her down to the branch, where there was tremendous excitement.  Oh, they were all so happy to see her, Mama and Papa and her sister.  They demanded to know where she had been and what she had seen. They plied her with questions and delicious shredded meat, and they listened, bright-eyed and joyful, to her tales of discovery and adventure. Olivia beamed at her with the utmost admiration.

Finally Owena wound down, and she leaned back and looked at her parents, and she sighed with contentment and relief.  “I was so afraid,” she said, “that you’d be so angry you would never forgive me for flying away.”

Her parents looked at her lovingly.

“Come see this,” said her mother, and they hopped around the trunk of the tree to a glittering scene.  Papa had bent down one branch of the evergreen so that it was vertical. From it hung strands of silver–silver strands captured and shredded from the careless litter of humans–that caught the moonlight and glittered.  There were dried seed pods hanging from the branch, and, “See this?” asked Mama, proudly.

Owena gasped.  It was a big pine cone, decorated with leaves and nuts so cleverly that it looked just like a young owl–just, in fact, like Owena.  And there was another, very similar, but clearly Olivia, a little farther on.

“How….” started Owena, not even knowing what to ask.

“Ah,” said her mother softly.  “You never knew your father was an artist.”

Her father ducked and turned his head shyly, and then swiveled it back to say, “Nor did you know this about your Mama: she is a poet.  Say your lovely words for her, darling.”

Mama hopped to a spot near Owena, cleared her throat, and spoke.

“One of my girls must sing her songs.
The other one must roam.
Owena has to spread her wings.
Olivia sings her home.
You  are destined to follow your yearning:
To be whom you’re meant to be.
But at Christmastime, you’ll always know
Your heart is in this tree, my dear.
Your heart is in this tree.”

“What is this ‘Christmas’?” Owena asked in wonder.

“Oh,” said Papa, “it’s a wonder-filled, magical time, when we celebrate the Son of Man, who broke through all the veils that separate us.”

The moon shone in a velvety sky; stars twinkled, and the world, for just a moment, was as still as eternity.

Owena whispered, “Wherever I am, I will always know to turn around and come back to the tree when the Christmas season beckons.”

Mama said, “Your sister knew.  She never had any doubt; she told us you’d come back. In fact she wrote a song for your return.”

Her parents opened their wings and she hopped into their embrace.  Below and behind them rose Olivia’s clear true voice:

“Owl, be home for Christmas…”

******************
Owena flew, in her lifetime, thousands of miles.  She saw the most wonderful sights and met the most amazing creatures.  But when the wind blew cold and the warm underlayer started lining her feathers, she always turned around and kept her vow.  This owl, she had promised, WILL be home for Christmas.

And she always, always was.

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Merry Christmas to the grandest of kids:  Alyssa and Kaelyn, Alex, Brennen, Gabrielle, Kirsten, Maddie, Mia, Patrick, Quincie, Ronan, and Ryan.