Sunday, December 23, 2012

"The Ice Miracle" - a Christmas Short Story

This past November, my mother turned 90 years old. She was 43 when she gave birth to me, so was obviously a lot older than typical mothers of people my age. But having a mother from the World War II generation brought with it all sorts of gifts.

I grew up with an appreciation for Swing and Big Band music (even before its renaissance in the 1990s). I grew up being exposed to all sorts of old 1940s films and movie stars that my mother liked to talk about or have me watch with her. I felt very akin to her generation and often wished I could go back in time and perhaps double-date with her and her boyfriend Johnny Kirkpatrick in Cumberland, Maryland where she grew up.

My affinity for the 1940s inspired a Christmas short story in the winter of 2000. For today's blog entry, I will simply post a revised copy of it for your holiday reading enjoyment.

"The Ice Miracle"

Long Ago and Far Away played softly on the radio as Catherine O’Donnell stood in her tiny living room, a hand poised in the air with the last bit of tinsel for the Christmas tree that she had just finished decorating. Just a small Carolina pine that her father had brought over and helped drag in, but lovely all the same. He had said, “Now Cat, don’t be spending Christmas Eve alone this year. You know what it did to you last year. Why don’t you come with us to Christmas Eve service, and then stay over for the night? Mother’ll make you a nice Christmas breakfast in the morning.”
“Thanks, Daddy,” she’d said, giving him a hug and relishing being folded in her father’s strong, protective arms. “Maybe I will.”
Now she stood there, tinsel in hand, wearing a smart crimson suit dress, her only pair of nylons, and a pair of black pumps that her mother swore she didn’t need anymore—but Catherine knew she was only saying that so it wouldn’t seem like a handout. Her hair was pinned up at the sides, lipstick freshly applied, and the pearl necklace Bill had given her for a wedding present adorned her neck.  All dressed up and no one to see her.  No one to look her up and down, whistle and say, “Gee Cat, you sure are a sight for sore eyes!”
Catherine dropped the tinsel onto a pine bough with a sigh and glanced at the clock on the mantle.  It was time to leave for church, but she couldn’t seem to take the first step.  Something didn’t feel right.  She didn’t want to go to the service or her parents’.  Here she was, twenty-three years old, standing alone in the little home she once shared with her husband—a fortuitous inheritance from his departed and much-beloved grandmother at a time when housing was so hard to come by—until he was sent overseas, and “making do” without him for the third Christmas in a row.  So much had changed since he’d left. She was such a young girl then, and felt so very old now. This year, she’d been drained of any holiday cheer, and was only going through the motions.
Catherine had gone to the movies earlier that day, in need of some distraction from the loneliness, but the latest newsreels filled her with angst. They always did.  Sometimes, even though she knew Bill was in a Top Secret location, she hoped that she’d catch a glimpse of him in the background of the footage, just to see what he looked like these days.  To know he was still alive over there.
Bill getting killed in action was one thing Catherine was not going to allow into her thoughts.  They were meant to be together, ever since they first set flirtatious eyes on one other across the risers in high school choir practice. They were going to have children one day, too, and so dying was out of the question. This whole war was one big, fat inconvenience in their young lives and the sooner it was over, the sooner they could get on with things.
The first few months after he left were the hardest, crying every night and barely able to pull herself together enough to make it to her secretarial pool each morning.  Catherine lived for every letter that he sent.  Then she went numb, perhaps in self preservation, feeling disconnected from needing him…disconnected from the physical yearning for him that had become greater and greater since the first night of her honeymoon.  But lately, for some odd reason, sensations were returning to her body.  Sometimes it was anger, sometimes deep sadness…and sometimes she would get so randy that she found herself staring at the local high school boys as they passed her on the street, with a dark desire to generously give them their first lessons in love.  She was not ashamed of herself.  She knew she wasn’t alone in these feelings, for she and half the women in town had been put through rather cruel and unusual punishment with their men ripped from them and sent far away for God knows how long. All of this had been swirling around and around her head all month, robbing her of any holiday spirit. All she wanted for Christmas was Bill, back in her arms.
Catherine stooped to switch on the tree lights, and then stood back to admire her work. The sudden illumination of the room seemed to set in motion a magic spell, for what happened next was too surreal for logic. Over the voices of the Pied Pipers singing, Dream…when the day is through, she thought she heard the thudding of boots on the welcome mat outside the front door, stomping off snow, and she whirled around.
Dream…and they might come true 
Whoever was out there wasn’t bothering to ring the bell. In fact, the doorknob was turning and the person was coming into the house before she could even think to do anything. Perhaps it was her parents, coming to pick her up. A man stepped into the entranceway.
Things really aren’t as bad as they seem…so dream, dream, dream 
It was shadowy where he stood, but the light from the Christmas tree shone on him, and she could make out a long naval coat and white hat. His brown hair was a little shorter than usual, and his face with the dramatic crease between his brows was slightly thin and drawn. It was like seeing a ghost. A scream of alarm, surprise and delight escaped her mouth as Bill emerged from the hall, taking off his hat.
Catherine took a step toward him, studying his features carefully to be sure it was really him. “Bill?
A tired smile spread across his strong, handsome jaw, and that intense gleam shone in his green eyes that she so loved. “They gave me a last-minute Christmas furlough. I didn’t call because I wanted to surprise you. My God, Cat, you’re still a sight for sore eyes. Even more beautiful than I remember.”
Catherine covered her mouth with her hands and stood there, trying to overcome the shock of seeing her husband come walking into their home when she imagined him across the Atlantic, drinking spiked eggnog with fellow officers at some makeshift Christmas Eve party. She was also overcome with joy at getting the wish she wished for in that precise moment, as impossible as it seemed.
Bill looked around the room, re-acclimating to his home and taking in the twinkling beauty of the Christmas tree. “I was hoping you’d have the tree up.”  Then he looked at her again and laughed. “Well, are you going to stand there all night, or do I get a proper welcome from my wife?”
“Oh God, Bill….” Her heels clattered on the hardwood floor as she ran across it, into his arms. His uniform coat felt cold and stiff, but she clung to it, grabbing handfuls of its thick fabric, then reached up to touch his neck and hair. He held her tightly, and she heard a shuddering sigh escape from deep inside him.
“Cat, I swear…just the mere thought of holding you in my arms again has kept me going day after day.”
She nodded, eyes closed, listening for something, but didn’t hear it. She pulled away and began to unbutton his overcoat. He watched her, amused. Once his blue sweater was exposed beneath it, she pressed her ear to his chest and listened again.  “Ahhh,” she breathed, smiling. “There it is.”
“There what is?”
“Your heart.  I memorized the sound of it the night before you left, while you were sleeping, and kept thinking of the day when I’d hear it again.”
“I love that.”
They held each other a long while, then all too soon realization crept into their bliss like the smell of smoke in a house that has caught fire.  This visit would be but a brief interlude in the nightmare of the war.
“How long can you stay, Bill?”
“Just two days.”
Catherine squeezed her eyes shut and grasped him more tightly. No, she thought.  I don’t ever want him to leave again. Please, God, find a way for him to stay…or get back here more often. A position in Washington…anything besides going back overseas!
Bill pulled back this time and gazed at her. “Ohhhh how I’ve missed this face, these eyes…I told the fellas that you were Rita Hayworth-beautiful, you know.”
Catherine blushed and shook her head.
“And every time they played I’ll Be Seeing You on the radio, my heart just ached.  I kept trying to imagine you dancing with me. I was afraid I’d forget what you even felt like in my arms.”  He had a shameless tear in his eye as he spoke, and Catherine felt a lump swelling in her throat. Ever so gently, he lifted his hand and caressed her cheek, eyes never leaving hers.  The cheek grew flushed beneath his fingers and she felt a warm waterfall cascading down the inside of her body, melting the ice that had started to form there.  She put her hand over his and closed her eyes, taking in the renewed love. Before she had a chance to open them again, she felt his lips on hers, light and uncertain. It felt like a first date, all over again, after all this time. But it wasn’t long before body memories returned and hands re-navigated old, familiar curves and shapes. Bill held her closer to him, and their breathing quickened with an eruption of passionate kisses. They separated from one another for a second, communicating with their eyes, and sizing up the other’s level of desire. They glanced around at the couch, then the floor. Breathless, Catherine laughed, “I dropped a lot of ornament hooks down there. Let’s go upstairs.”
With a spark of adventure in his eyes, Bill scooped Catherine up in his arms and she screamed in delight as he trudged up the staircase.

In the earliest hours of the morning, Catherine lay against her husband’s chest, listening to his breath move in and out slowly. Their legs were intertwined so, that she couldn’t even sense which ones were her own. Her insides hummed with a deep peace that had settled in as the fire of climactic energy subsided. In her final moments before slumber, time stood still and she savored each moment that passed and each breath that they took…until her eyes closed.

The sun poured over the bed on Christmas morning, waking Bill and Catherine, and as they opened their eyes to one another, they smiled.
“Merry Christmas, love,” Bill murmured.
“Yes, it is,” Catherine whispered. “The merriest Christmas ever.  I never dreamed I’d be waking up to you, today.”
Bill just sighed, stroked her shoulder and closed his eyes again.
“I confess, I was a little worried last night. So many of my friends have told me that their husbands or boyfriends felt like strangers when they came home on leave—and that they needed a day or two to get reacquainted. If not longer. But I didn’t feel that with you, Bill. Not at all.”
His eyes opened again and beamed love at her.
“We could never be strangers.”
Bill leaned across their shared pillow and kissed her. She returned it with hungry fervor, and the energy between them intensified. They made love again, slow and lazy this time, loving the feel of their naked bodies beneath the warm covers in their freezing bedroom.
Afterward, Catherine caressed his face, relishing the sight and feel of it even more. Her eyes twinkled with mischief. “Let’s just lay here in bed all morning. Forget church…forget the family. We can go later.”
Bill grit his teeth with a pained smile. “As much as I’d love that, my darling, I have to tell you that I’m simply starving.”
“Oh!” Catherine cried, sitting up and knocking the covers off them both. “Let me make you a huge breakfast, then. I haven’t had a chance to cook much or bake due to sugar rationing…but I’ve got eggs and bread and sausage!”
“Gee, that’d be swell, Cat. And I’ll make us a fire. It’s damn cold in this house!”
They tore themselves away from the comfort of their warm bed, donned bathrobes, and headed downstairs. On the way, Catherine noticed Bill feeling the soft flannel of his robe and looking at it as though he’d never seen it before. How funny it must be, she mused, to come home and put something on that you haven’t worn in almost three years.
In the kitchen, Catherine pulled pots and pans out of the cupboards. In minutes, Bill had a roaring, toasty fire in the fireplace. Then he turned on the radio and she heard the merry strains of the Andrew Sisters singing Jingle Bells in their signature three-part harmonies. Bill kicked off his slippers, crept up behind his wife and grabbed her arm, pulling her into a spontaneous jitterbug.
Catherine dropped her wooden spoon on the stove with a clatter and giggled like a schoolgirl.
They rocked back and forth and did a couple of spins.
“I miss dancing with you,” he told her. “Those women at the USO dances…they can’t hold a candle to you, baby!”
“European women?” she asked, one eyebrow raising, pretending to be jealous.
After a few more steps he released her with a playful ruffle of the hair, and stood back to look at her once again. “Catherine, my eyes just can’t get enough of you.  If you were a bottle of wine, I’d be drunk! It’s so good to be home.”
They stared at each other, intimate smiles lighting up their faces. Then, as if hearing the clock ticking with the time remaining on the furlough, the smiles faded.  Both of them knew that duty called, and how critical the war was at this juncture. It was a miracle that he had even been given leave in the first place.
“Say, Cat, do we still get a morning paper?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, pointing to the front door. “It should be out on the front porch.” Catherine bent down to get some eggs out of the ice box, heard the front door open, and felt a cold draft creep into the kitchen from the outside. After gathering a handful of eggs and cracking each one into a bowl, the kitchen grew frigid and her skin covered with goose bumps. “Bill, close the door!”
There was no answer, so she wiped her hands and went to see what was taking him so long. When she looked out the front door, a gasp escaped her.  Bill was lying in a heap at the bottom of the porch steps!
“Cat, I’m hurt,” he said, wincing in pain and clutching his right thigh. “It’s bad.”  Catherine started to hurry toward the steps, but he warned, “Be careful! It’s icy…that’s why I fell.”
Catherine noticed that the paper had landed three feet short of the porch, which was the reason he’d gone down the steps in the first place. “Oh Lord, Bill,” she cried, descending the steps gingerly, grabbing the handrail for dear life. She knelt beside her husband. The way his leg was bent looked very strange, and she knew it was broken.  “Can you get up?”
“I don’t think I should try.”
“I’ll get blankets and call for help. Will you be okay?”
“Just hurry.”
Catherine gave him a quick but tender kiss before rising and scrambling back up the porch, grasping the railing till her knuckles were white.

“I’ll bet you never bargained on spending Christmas Day in the hospital,” the kindly nurse said to them after Bill’s leg had been set in a cast, in the emergency ward of the military hospital. She stood over him, one hand clutching a clipboard, the other on her hip. “The doc says this leg was broken in three places…and that you might not be able to return to duty for a long time…maybe not at all, depending on how it heals.”
Bill nodded, but said nothing. The pain medication they’d given him earlier was kicking in, and his eyes were glazing over. Catherine sat next to him on the bed, a protective arm around his shoulders, beaming up at the nurse.
“Doesn’t look like it’s taken any of your Christmas cheer away,” she remarked, glancing at Catherine’s inappropriate grin that contrasted her husband’s painful situation.
Catherine shook her head.
“Well,” the nurse sighed, hanging the clipboard with Bill’s information on the edge of the emergency bed, “I’ll go rustle up a gurney so we can get you into a proper bed on the next floor.” She walked off, closing the white partition curtain behind her.
Catherine gave Bill’s shoulders a triumphant squeeze. He was all hers, once again. Weeks of recuperation at home, in their bed. In her heart, she gave thanks for the careless paperboy who didn’t throw the paper far enough. She gave thanks for the leaky gutter that dripped water onto the porch steps, and the subsequent ice that formed there overnight—causing her husband to fall. But most of all, Catherine thanked God for sending his only Son to Earth….because if it hadn’t been for Christmas, her husband would not have been granted leave, and would still be on some ship in Europe or wherever it was they sent him, ready to go into the war zone again on two good legs.

~Alexandra Lander, 2000

Sunday, December 16, 2012

In Their Honor

First, a moment of silence for the fallen educators and children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut… and for the ones who were killed in a Portland, Oregon shopping mall this very same week.

Having a “positivity and inspiration”-themed blog, I thought long and hard about writing an entry in response to this week’s tragedies. One has to tread carefully and choose the most appropriate words, out of respect for the dead and the people grieving for them.

I live in one of the two cities that were affected by the shootings. This time, it came within a few miles of my home. I also used to teach primary-grade students once upon a time, and even had a couple of lock-down drills with them. I have to say, this one shook me up pretty badly.

The word that came to everyone’s mind, when faced with the absolute horror of the news—and not just this week, but all the other unfortunate times in history that this has happened before—is a resounding WHY?
We will never know the answer that lies beneath the murky surface of mental illness and dangerous instability. Even if we did know, it certainly would not help ease the pain. And trying to find national solutions to this recurring problem will be a tedious and difficult road. Singer/songwriter Dan Bern composed a song after one of the very first school slayings, called “Kids’ Prayer.” His lyrics are poignant, thought-provoking, wise, and maybe just a little soothing as he offers a touching litany of possible solutions and hope.

After reading several conversations online in various social networks, a recurring phrase seems to come up in response to random killings time and time again. “What has happened to this world? The whole world’s gone crazy.” This was the sweeping statement uttered for all the other mass shootings, the heinous crimes, the 9/11 tragedies, terrorist bombings, each and every war, the Holocaust, and a list of crimes that goes on and on into the annals of history.

The thought that keeps coming to me, from the depths of my soul, is this: 

Evil things keep happening to innocent people in this world. But it’s doesn’t mean the whole world has gone crazy. It means some seriously disturbed and sick people have exacted their power to harm others. They are but a few, versus the thousands of good and loving people that never get sensationalized media attention. For every bombing or shooting, covered and exploited with hours and days of news reports, there are hundreds of random acts of compassion and goodness happening at the same time. Homeless people being fed and sheltered, people from all over the globe doing volunteer work in third world nations, Christmas gifts and dinners being donated to families who are poverty-stricken and would have otherwise gone without, charities raising money for important humanitarian or medical research causes, choirs going to sing and visit at nursing homes and hospitals, where the weary and lonely could use a heartwarming infusion of cheer and good will toward all, everyday people holding the door open for package-laden mothers pushing strollers, or standing up to give bus seats to elderly passengers, kids reaching out and asking the new kids in school to play, or even just a tiny little baby—doing his or her part too—by simply smiling up at a stranger in line at the grocery who was having a really crappy day until that moment.

I don’t know about you, but I will not let this handful of individuals—who have had something go terribly wrong in their brain and done massive amounts of damage to people—define the state of my world. I will not let them cast a lingering shadow on the way I see my fellow humans, so many of whom are doing massive amounts of good. I will not let those random acts of compassion and love be done in vain.

With monumental respect for those who lost their lives this week and in the past to senseless violence, I feel I owe them this: 

In their honor, I will never give up on the goodness of the human race and the world in which we live. I will be there for people to help with the healing. I will be there for them to lend a kind word or deed. Even in times of personal adversity, I will try to always be the voice of inspiration and hope, and to help lift people up and direct them to better-feeling thoughts. I will focus on and contribute to how I want the world to be, rather than focusing on what is wrong and horrible.  No matter what unfathomable evil takes place in our world, I will wipe the tears from my eyes, take a deep breath, and remember what is still right and good. I will focus on the capacity of most people to love and unify. 

This, to me, is the most productive thing I can do with the energy from the feelings that this week’s events have evoked.

This morning, a good friend of mine posted a quote from Leo Tolstoy on Facebook. I had never heard this quote before, but it certainly hit home. Thank you, Stephanie.

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world." 

~ Mister Rogers

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”

~ Leo Tolstoy