With Christmas coming, I, Carly Winston, know it's time to make changes in my life. I've spent way too much time hiding my family's past—and letting opportunities pass me by. Not even my boyfriend, Randy, or my friends in The Sisterhood of the Dropped Stitches know about my secret shame. I'm hoping my new role as Mary in the local nativity play will build my confidence and help me to open up to those...
With Christmas coming, I, Carly Winston, know it's time to make changes in my life. I've spent way too much time hiding my family's past—and letting opportunities pass me by. Not even my boyfriend, Randy, or my friends in The Sisterhood of the Dropped Stitches know about my secret shame. I'm hoping my new role as Mary in the local nativity play will build my confidence and help me to open up to those I care about. My evolving relationship with Randy—and my future—are riding on my ability to share my heart.
Janet Tronstad grew up on her family’s farm in central Montana and now lives in Pasadena, California where she is always at work on her next book. She has written over thirty books, many of them set in the fictitious town of Dry Creek, Montana where the men spend the winters gathered around the potbellied stove in the hardware store and the women make jelly in the fall.
"I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one (a wedding dress), please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory."
—Marie Curie It was a good thing Marie Curie was dead or her ears would have been ringing from all of the indignant protests when Rebecca read this quote to us years ago. The four of us—Marilee Davidson, Rebecca (Becca) Snyder, Lizabett MacDonald and me, Carly Winston—were sitting in a small room at the hospital with Rose, our counselor. Rose is the one who asked us to bring the quotes. It was almost Christmas and we were having our second meeting of the Sisterhood of the Dropped Stitches. Rose had been looking for a more cheerful place for us to meet, but we were content in that hospital room with its bad lighting, plastic chairs and the smell we could only hope was disinfectant. There weren't many regular places where we felt we belonged, not with our balding heads and our talk of chemo. That's why Becca brought us this quote. She said we were afraid to attract any attention to ourselves, just like Marie Curie had been on her wedding day.
I'm sure Becca thought that I would be completely horrified that any woman would ask for such a go-nowhere wedding dress. But she was wrong. I might have been the only one sitting in that hospital room who had actually given the beauty queen wave to a crowd of people instead of just to her own mirror, but I absolutely knew there was more to life than clothes.
Madame Curie's compelling research, like our cancer, stripped away most of the natural pleasantness of life until just one thing remained. For herthat one thing was the cure; for us it was the disease. At times like that, pretty clothes weren't worth a moment's thought.
I'm twenty-four, by the way, and I'm the second oldest member of the Sisterhood of the Dropped Stitches. On the surface, we're a knitting group. In reality, we started to meet as teenage cancer patients and that, more than the endless skeins of yarn, is what has kept us together for more than six years now.
Being in the Sisterhood gave us great courage, and we're trying to use that courage to take back our lives. We all know cancer put us a step or two behind most people our age. But what the others in the Sisterhood don't know, and I'm just starting to realize, is that I'm not just a step or two behind; I'm walking backward down a whole different street. I need courage more than anyone else in the Sister-hood, because I haven't been open with anyone.
I should have told the Sisterhood my family secret years ago. But secrets can be seductive things. A small secret, and it was a small secret at first, doesn't seem worth telling. Then it becomes a big secret and becomes too hard to tell. Now I wonder what they will think of me if they know I'm not the person they think I am.
It was the end of November when the Sisterhood started to meet that first year. I remember when we introduced ourselves, and I said I lived in San Marino. If you know the area, you know it's very upscale. It takes lots of money to live there and, when I said I did, the others assumed I had it made with a trust fund and a servant or two. Which was cool, I let them think that. I didn't tell them that I only lived there as an unwelcome guest, along with my parents, in my uncle's house.
My uncle is rich, but I'm blue-collar poor.
My mother is ashamed that her brother is supporting us, and I never advertise the fact myself. None of my friends know that my parents and I are one careless word away from being homeless and have been for years now. My uncle is known for his temper, and I used to keep a small suitcase packed just in case someone said the wrong thing.
Early on, my mother encouraged me to look like I belonged in San Marino. She probably thought my uncle might like having us around if we looked like the neighbors. Back then I saw it as camouflage. So I did the hair and the dress and the attitude. It seemed to make sense at the time, but I'm beginning to realize I've pretended so long that I don't know who I am anymore.
I need to tell the rest of the Sisterhood about me, but I can't bring myself to do it just yet. I didn't realize what years of living a little lie would do. I guess I never expected the Sisterhood to become so important to me. Or that the things we said in those early meetings would have any significance beyond those days.
Frankly, I never really thought we'd stay together long enough to make it out of that hospital room. And we might not have except, a couple of weeks after we started meeting, Marilee's uncle offered us the use of the back room at his diner in old-town Pasadena, California. He'd stored a damaged pool table in the room before he cleared it out and added French doors so we could see out into the main dining area. I know Rose thought we'd start talking to each other more when we had a nice room like that, and it made her even more determined to keep us together.
In those days, we had no words for anyone. We were afraid for our lives. Marilee had breast cancer. I had Hodgkin's disease. Becca had a bone tumor. Lizabett had a tumor in the muscle of her leg.
Looking back, I don't think any of us wanted to stay together. But we didn't have the energy to tell Rose so we just kept on meeting and meeting. Through the chemo, through the radiation, through the wigs. Through that Christmas and the next one. By the time we each had our five-year clearance from cancer, we had grown so tight nothing could pry us apart.
It's the story of this struggle back to being normal that Marilee wants to tell in our journal. She started writing it several months ago, saying we need to show the world that our cancer didn't drain the very life out of us; that we kept our spirit and we survived.
The journal is her little victory dance on behalf of us all and her joy in it warms me.
You'd like Marilee. She's a cross between a Girl Scout leader and the girl next door. If she sees anyone in pain, she's right there with a Band-Aid or an aspirin or a kidney. Seriously, she's always looking out for the other guy—unless, of course, she's asking someone, like me, to write in the journal. Then she's Attila the Hun on a rampage.
I might approve of the journal, but I don't want to write in it. Now that I'm more aware of my secrets, I'm afraid they will seep out onto the pages without my knowing it, even though we all clip pages back or tape them together when we want them to be private.
When Marilee shoved the journal into my hands a little while ago, I was trapped. I like Marilee too much to disappoint her. Besides, she had already given me the equivalent of a kidney when she gave me her forever boyfriend. He's the man she had fantasized about through all the years when she had cancer and he's come back to work for a couple of weeks at her uncle's diner. So what did she do when she found this out? She decided I should date him instead of her.
Which is why I couldn't say no to writing in the journal. Talk about guilt. Marilee gave up her dream for me. I'd rather disappoint my own mother than cause any grief to Marilee. So, of course, I politely told the guy "no, thank you'' when he asked me out and tried to give him back to Marilee.
I've been trying for several months now, but she won't take him back.
We're sitting in a Sisterhood meeting right now and talking about the guy. We call him "the grill guy" because Marilee called him that for years. His name is Randy Parker and he's going to be working the grill at The Pews for the next two weeks. Marilee's uncle is finally going on vacation and Randy is filling in for him. It took Marilee's uncle, Lou, longer than anyone thought it would to organize everything, but he is flying to Venice, Italy tomorrow and Randy will be here at The Pews several hours every day working the grill. I think they are swapping time and that Randy will go on vacation next and Uncle Lou will help manage Randy's diner for him when he's gone.
"If you're both so busy, I could date him," Becca finally says after Marilee and I spend ten minutes telling each other why we are too involved with other things to go on a date with Randy.
"That's fine with me. I have Quinn," Marilee says. She is blushing and knitting a blue scarf for the new man in her life. Quinn is a firefighter that she met a few months ago. I think the scarf is her Christmas present to him, because when I offered her some red silk yarn that makes those new sparkly scarves, she said the yarn had to be blue to match the person's eyes.
"Besides, Randy is really more your type," Marilee says as she looks over at me.
I freeze. "What do you mean?"
Marilee shrugs. "He's just got that San Marino look."
Boom. Who knew my secret would lead to this? "There is no San Marino look."
"Plea-ea-se," Marilee says as she rolls her eyes.
"Even if there were such a look, I wouldn't need a San Marino–look guy. I'm not as San Marino as you think."
Marilee smiles. "You may as well date him. I'm happy with Quinn."
I must admit that Quinn is nice, but Marilee hasn't been dreaming about him for the past six years. Besides, Marilee would give me her last saltine cracker if we were stranded on a desert island and there wasn't another cracker in sight and she was feeling queasy, (Marilee always had saltine crackers with her to help settle her nausea when she was taking chemo). Not only would she give me the last cracker, she would insist that I needed it more than she did. That's Marilee.
I wonder if Randy is a little like that cracker and that she thinks I need him more than she does so she's being noble.
Not knowing what else to do, I am writing in the journal. Between the cracker theory and the San Marino–look comments, I'm beginning to realize that my lack of candor about my family might be affecting us all. If Marilee is thinking I should date Randy because he looks San Marino and I am San Marino, then we have a problem.
I might live in San Marino, but I don't belong there.
I can't just blurt out that I've let them believe a lie, however. Besides, if I say I'm really poor, Marilee might decide I need the cracker even more. No, now's not the time to tell everyone.
Maybe if I write for a while something will come to me. I don't know what to do but to write about what's happening now, though, so that's what I've been doing.
We're in The Pews, of course, at our table in the back room. It's almost Christmas again and last week we hung red garland from the ceiling fan and stood a plastic snowman on the bookshelf. December in Pasadena is a little cold, so we have the heat turned on and the flow of the warm air moves the garland slightly. Becca is looking up from the cap she is knitting to see if anyone has any response to her halfhearted offer to date Randy. Becca is going to force us to deal with this issue. Not that I should be surprised. She is the most forthright person I know and she expects that same honesty from each of us.
When I first met Becca, she was sixteen and everything about her, from her short black hair to her wiry frame, made her look like a teenage activist. I wasn't surprised that she was fiery. I was a little unnerved by her directness, though, and she hasn't mellowed over the years. Becca believes that if a person has a sliver, someone needs to yank it out whether the person wants it to be pulled or not. I'm more the kind of person who likes to coax my slivers out with a little ointment and maybe some soft pressure.
I suppose that's obvious because of my reluctance to blurt out that I've been an imposter. I try not to show Becca any slivers in my life until I've taken care of them myself. Ironically, she has no idea how many slivers I have in my life right about now. I'm not even sure I do.
Our counselor, Rose, is not here tonight, so the only other person sitting here knitting is Lizabett. She's pretending not to listen to the conversation Marilee and I are having because Quinn is her older brother and she is trying to be neutral. I can see she's having a hard time keeping her opinion inside, however, and that's good for Lizabett. She was fifteen when we started to meet so she's the youngest of the Sisterhood and the most shy. Everyone tells her she needs to learn to speak her mind.
I decide to give Lizabett some hope.
"You don't have to stop dating Quinn to date Randy." I say the words to Marilee, but I intend them for Lizabett. "You're not exclusive with anyone. It would just be a date. You don't have to choose between the two guys. There's no hurry. We've got time."
At those last words, all four of us look up and grin at each other. We forget about journals and guys and what season it is. We have time. Those words are sweet to four people who once thought time was the one thing they didn't have.
"Praise God," Marilee says.
I grunt in what I hope is an acceptably nonjudg-mental way. It is Christmas, after all, so I should expect people to talk about God. Even those people ringing the bells for donations say something about God when a person puts in some money.