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Stories from PotowassoMorality Tales from a Small Town
By William Morris
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 William Morris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Christmas Blessing
It was years ago, during a winter where snow and ice would alter the course of tradition and faith. Horace Blessing had been making and delivering fruit-and-nut surprise loaves for almost four decades. But this year it was doubtful; Horace found himself on injured reserve.
Horace sat in the kitchen, absently rubbing his coffee mug with his good hand, the one not limited by the cast that followed his fall on the ice a week ago. "This is the worst time it could happen!" he yelled at the cupboards of the empty kitchen. Then in frustration—a frustration deeper than he had ever remembered—he slammed his fist down on the table, causing coffee to jump from the half-full mug onto the flower oilcloth table covering.
He grabbed the dishrag and wiped up the spilled coffee, thinking that a broken arm was never convenient, but this was a special time for him. It was thirty-seven years that he had been making and delivering the surprise loaf during the week before Christmas.
Rinsing the rag at the sink, he remembered where it had begun. Dalia, his wife, had originated the tradition. She had created the holiday treat the first year they were married. Back then, his only job was to hold his finger on the half-knotted red and green ribbons Dalia tied around the wax paper-covered loaves. They would talk of unimportant things as they worked around the table together. Horace still talked to his bride in the kitchen as he took over all the duties that they once shared.
She died only eight years after they were married. That first Christmas after Dalia's passing, Horace decided to keep Dalia's holiday tradition alive. And in a way, it kept Dalia alive. He would smell the ingredients, and it smelled like Dalia in the kitchen.
Beyond being a labor of love, the fruit-and-nut surprise loaf was an excursion of wishful thinking, or even a bit of denial. And so, the thin layer of ice that precipitated his fall and broke his arm was also a great threat to this most sacred tradition that kept the last part of Dalia alive.
Horace just couldn't let this tradition die. Too much was at stake. It would be like letting Dalia die again. His eyes drifted around the warm kitchen, willing a solution, when he glanced at a Christmas card displayed on the chipped enamel sideboard near the back door and thought to himself, That's it!
It was a card from the McIntry family. In that card he perceived a way to get another right hand—a helper. Horace knew just who he would get. Maggie, the fourteen-year-old daughter who was the closest thing to a granddaughter he had—not by blood, but by history with her grandfolks, John and Hazel McIntry.
When Dalia died, John and Hazel displayed more than tears; they revealed a real compassion at his most difficult time. They asked Horace to come and live with them on the farm. They said they needed the help anyway, and Horace was in such a state as to believe them.
The McIntrys converted the old woodshed off the back of the house and made a "hired-hand" room. Horace had breakfast and supper with his hosts but packed a simple lunch and ate outside in good weather and in the barn in bad. He did this out of respect for John and Hazel's need for time alone. The arrangement wasn't perfect, but it was the best he could do for a long time, until he saved up enough money to purchase the old Anderson place in the village limits of Potowasso.
Maggie approached the white two-story house with the white barn out back, peeling to gray. Mr. Blessing had invited her to help him with the fruit-and-nut surprise loaves that were a long-standing tradition. She was happy, honored, and eager to help with this holiday ritual that was such a part of the Potowasso holiday routine, and she quickly agreed.
She understood that she would help him shop for the ingredients, assist in making the famous loaves, and even accompany him to deliver the treats. Maggie was well aware of how much the locals anticipated this annual holiday visit.
Early on this Saturday morning, just a little more than a week before Christmas, she had walked over to Mr. Blessing's house on Gower Street. As she approached, she could see Mr. Blessing step out onto the back porch wearing his red-and-black large-checked wool coat, brown wool pants, black zip-up boots, green cap with earflaps, and bulky black mittens. Mr. Blessing met her at the end of the walkway. He was as she remembered: the stodgy old man with smudged wire-rimmed glasses and a scruffy four-day beard—mostly gray but partially stained with his chewing tobacco dribble.
"Hi, Mr. Blessing," Maggie began.
He avoided further niceties with an abrupt "Let's get to the store."
They went immediately to Gleeder's Market to shop for the necessities for the surprise loaf. Horace and Maggie returned to the house excited about the project. As Maggie unpacked the bags, she examined this old friend of the family while he scrutinized the aged and yellowed recipe card in Dalia's careful script. He sat at the kitchen table in his brown-striped woolen pants and webbed leather suspenders over his long-sleeved Stewart tartan flannel shirt, rolled up enough to see the red flannels underneath.
Mr. Blessing carefully followed Dalia's instructions as his finger dragged down the recipe card, like a pilot scrutinizing a preflight checklist. The special formula for holiday bread was measured, spilled, sifted, stirred, slopped, poured, and slipped into the hot oven. While the first batch was baking, they mixed the second batch. With the second batch baking and the first batch cooling, Mr. Blessing started cutting the wax paper to size while Maggie snipped the red and green ribbons to length.
There wasn't much conversation as they worked, just occasional comments by Maggie and an odd grunt by Horace Blessing. But by the time Mr. Blessing was testing the temperature of the cooling third batch, he said quite matter-of-factly, "When we get that last batch out of the oven, we can make a sandwich and eat. Then we can wrap the last batch and even deliver most of them tonight!"
"Tonight?" Maggie asked. "I can't tonight. I have a Christmas pageant rehearsal at church tonight."
"Christmas pageant. That doggone ... grddrr ... stupid ... darrnnitt ... church," he murmured. "I expected you to help me deliver them tonight!"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Blessing," she said, "I thought you knew that ..."
"Didn't know!" he spit out. "Thought you was smarter than that ..." His voice trailed off. Then with more volume he said, "Stupid ... blasted ... bothersome ... superstition ..."
"Mr. Blessing!" Maggie stomped her foot, clenched her fists at her sides, and began to turn red in the face. "How dare you—" she began but let it go. Then trying to regain her self-control, she asked, "Why don't you like church, Mr. Blessing?"
Without hesitation, as if he had memorized a part in a play, he said, "I used to go. Didn't like that preacher they got in '52. And they stopped using the real Bible—the King James—and they changed from those perfectly good hymnbooks and got those newfangled ones. And they wasted their money on those new upholstered seat cushions. It just wasn't the same, just wasn't good anymore ... so I quit going."
Still angry from Mr. Blessing's early comments, now Maggie was stunned by this collection of, to her, unimportant issues. Cushions? Hymnals? Really? "What about the people?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" Horace shot at little Maggie. "What about those holier-than-thou bunch of hypocrites?"
Maggie had heard enough. Though her folks had taught her to respect her elders, she now set her jaw and fired back at this crusty old grump. "Well, it's like your fruit-and-nut surprise loaf!"
That stopped him. His mouth froze as he seemed ready to deliver another batch of church-directed criticism and just plain meanness. Then he asked, "What do you mean 'like my surprise loaf'?"
"Do you think people like your awful loaf?"
You would have thought Mr. Blessing just heard the news that America lost World War II. His jaw went slack and color drained from his weathered face while his eyes searched Maggie for some hidden truth. Mr. Blessing seemed to shake some shock off and stated, "Of course they like my loaf!"
Maggie didn't flinch. Mr. Blessing pulled himself up to his full height, stared back for a moment, and then asked with little conviction, "Don't they?"
Maggie watched him seem to shrink and grow old in that moment. She began to regret the words that had hit him like a hard punch.
With a quiet and thin voice he said, "Someone said they didn't like the surprise loaf?"
"It's terrible!" It was out before she could think about it, and once loose it just kept running. "It doesn't taste good. What everybody likes about it is that you remember them!"
Mr. Blessing sat back and seemed to shrink on the kitchen chair.
"People like the visit you make to them before Christmas. You delivering the surprise loaf is part of Christmas here in Potowasso." Maggie leaned in for the last word. "What is important is you, not the stupid bread."
The kitchen was suddenly very cool to Maggie McIntry. She grabbed her coat and scarf, stepped toward the door, and turned but couldn't find any words to say. She left for the church, and Mr. Blessing only made a grunt in recognition of her leaving.
The humid kitchen was quiet—just a few ticks from the stove as it cooled and the slight squeak from the screen door being irritated by the wind. But the quiet felt less about sound and more about history.
Horace scanned the room, staring at one object and then another. He paused until the past took over the present. As he looked at the old windup timer on the linoleum counter, he could see Dalia's small hand, still dusty from the flour, pick it up and give it a couple of twists. The dirty wooden spoon was now in her hand, punctuating her sentences when she was trying to make a point. He couldn't hear her, but he knew it was a scolding. But Dalia never stayed mad long. She was already smiling as she swept the random crumbs on the oilcloth with one hand into the other one cupped at the edge of the table.
Every vision brought a moment of tenderness that gave way to an old anger. He'd lied to little Maggie, and he knew it. He was angry but not about hymnals or seat cushions. It had always been about Dalia. As he gazed at the stack of surprise loaves and the red and green ribbons and bows embracing them, he could see Dalia's delicate fingers tying the bows and then tapping the loops in a finishing gesture. Horace could almost hear his wife's whisper, "there," like a benediction.
The next day, Maggie came around to help Mr. Blessing deliver the surprise loaves. They were both pretty quiet until they were received into the homes of neighbors and old friends. Then Horace would warm up and talk freely, just like all the other years. But back outside, he kept his own counsel. They finished the deliveries, and Horace politely said his thanks to Maggie and then left her on the sidewalk as he climbed up the steps to the back porch of the old white, empty house.
The evening of the Christmas pageant, Maggie prepared to be Mary in the ancient drama. The Klonderman boy was playing Joseph again. He had black-rimmed glasses and his father's blue-checked robe tied around his tiny waist. He was a bit shorter than Maggie and had a habit of bouncing on his heels as he unsuccessfully tried to stand still.
Mrs. Glowers played on the piano "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and Mary and Joseph started up the aisle toward the stable scenery on the platform. Once on center stage, Mary knelt by the manger, looking at the baby. Joseph bounced on his heels, watched the file of visitors coming to see little Lord Jesus again this year, and pushed his glasses in place with one finger.
The two shepherds also wore robes—one plaid and the other paisley. Then three wise men—well, with Amanda Coffendaffer insisting on her right to be a visitor from the East, it was really two wise men and a wise woman—came clomping down the aisle.
The lights in the sanctuary went down as "Silent Night" began the dramatic conclusion of the nativity scene. Maggie focused on the manger and babe. She noticed a bit of green and red poking out from underneath the swaddling clothes. She adjusted her vantage point enough to recognize a fruit-and-nut surprise loaf nestled almost out of sight. Mr. Blessing must have been here, she thought. Maybe he still was. She squinted at the crowd and searched the sanctuary. There he was, the old face of Mr. Blessing illuminated near the back by a candle in the window above him. Horace Blessing had come back to church that evening.
Tears welled up in Maggie. She wanted to run offstage and give him the biggest hug he ever had, but she had to finish the pageant. The light was dim, but Maggie thought Mr. Blessing's eyes were a bit wet, like hers.
After the service, Maggie found Mr. Blessing and ran to him. She thought she had a lot of stuff to say to him—maybe an apology or a show of happiness at seeing him there—but as she gripped him in that hug, she was speechless. She looked up at him, and he looked down at her. They didn't say a word, but his soft eyes and warm smile said something was very different. Hand in hand they headed for the door. Maggie was blessed by his change of heart.
Horace never missed a service—that is, until his death a few years later. At the funeral home during visitation, an older Maggie McIntry came to pay her respects. Tears ran down her cheeks, but there was also a slight smile from such good memories. At one point she found herself alone next to the plain pine casket. She set a newly baked and wrapped fruit-and-nut surprise loaf next to the reposing Horace Blessing and, with a thin, cracking voice, said, "I'll take it from here, Mr. Blessing." And she made and delivered these treats to the people of Potowasso, who welcomed this special holiday visit. They still loved getting the attention of this little Christmas blessing.
Chapter TwoThe Christmas Program
Bobby DeGlopper had the words stacked against the entrance to his mind: "No, I won't do it this year!" Those words had to come out first. Any other words would be blocked. He just couldn't say anything else this year. Last year was stupid and embarrassing, a "little kids" thing that he was bound not to repeat this year.
"Yeah. Sure, I'll do it!"
What? Who said that? Oh no, Bobby DeGlopper thought as he heard the words tumble out in that very familiar voice: his.
Oh no! Tell me it ain't so. But it was. How could he say exactly what he didn't want to say? What happened to his backbone? He reached back to feel his spine and decided that the problem was that it wasn't connected to his mouth. No, his backbone was connected to an empty cavern in his head that many people used to store a brain.
Bobby continued to beat himself up, but it did not change the fact that he had once again volunteered to play Joseph this year in the Christmas pageant at First Church of Potowasso.
First Church made a long production, if not a good one, out of its annual performance. It brought in one of the largest crowds of the year, and for a Sunday night that defied the odds. But that large crowd intimidated the older kids, making them self-conscious about playacting, especially in costume and alongside little kids.
"Hey, Bobby," someone shouted.
"Yeah?" Bobby replied, turning toward the voice of his older cousin Glenn.
Standing in the hallway with a mocking smile, the tall, gangly, close-cropped blonde—a shepherd type, not a wise man—waited for Bobby to approach.
"Thought you weren't going to do the pageant this year, Booby."
Bobby cringed at the unwanted nickname his cousin insisted on using.
"What happened?" Glenn asked. "Mommy make you do it?" His sarcasm dripped like syrup off a hotcake. Glenn was definitely a shepherd type, not a wise man—a wise something, but not a wise man.
Bobby was about to defend his decision to accept the Joseph part again, but he realized that the tall shepherd type was right to ridicule him for his cowardice and lack of resolve. Bobby held his tongue, shrugged—a fool's shrug—and walked away.
Excerpted from Stories from Potowasso by William Morris Copyright © 2011 by William Morris. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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