At age seventy-three, Laura Kauffman knows she is closer to the end of life than the beginning. If God willed it, she would join her beloved late husband soon. Even so, Laura wonders what purpose God might have for her in this winter of her life—and why this season seems so lonely.
Widower Zechariah Stutzman is facing his own barren season, despite the great-grandchildren swirling around him. With his Parkinson’s worsening, he had no choice but to move in with his grandson’s family, though now he feels adrift and useless.
When Laura offers to help with Zechariah’s five great-grandchildren after their mother has a difficult childbirth, Zechariah is unsure how he will adjust to the warm but tart demeanor of this woman he has known since grade school. But soon Laura and Zechariah learn they are asking God the same questions about loss and hope. And they begin to wonder if He is providing answers after all.
With Winter’s First Frost reminds us that God’s purposes always bear fruit—and sometimes love is sweeter with age.
About the Author
Kelly Irvin is the bestselling author of the Every Amish Season and Amish of Bee County series. The Beekeeper’s Son received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, who called it a “beautifully woven masterpiece.” The two-time Carol Award finalist is a former newspaper reporter and retired public relations professional. Kelly lives in Texas with her husband, photographer Tim Irvin. They have two children, three grandchildren, and two cats. In her spare time, she likes to read books by her favorite authors. Visit her online at Kelly Irvin.com; Instagram: kelly_irvin; Facebook: Kelly.Irvin.Author; Twitter: @Kelly_S_Irvin.
Read an Excerpt
Friends warm a room better than any fireplace. Laura Kauffman laid the pinking shears on the oak table cluttered with a pile of construction paper in a rainbow of colors, Elmer's glue, scissors, crayons, pens, pencils, and markers. The sweet aroma of pumpkin-spice cookies fresh from the oven mingled with the scent of burning oak in the fireplace. The chatter of the women around her as they quilted lilted like sweet music.
She couldn't sew anymore because of her arthritis, but she could make Christmas cards. A white candle with a yellow flame glued to green paper still needed the Christmas poem inside. Her friend Mary Katherine Miller — the writer among them — would handle that part. Laura's perfect penmanship had also faded as the disease strengthened its grip on her.
Even so, at seventy-three she had no complaints. Only the certainty that she was closer to the end than the beginning. Her best friends, once widows like herself, had remarried. She served as the only remaining member of an unofficial club. She had no need to marry, of course. What a silly thought. She chuckled and reached for a piece of paper. Red this time. Bright and happy like this time of year.
"I cut out my donkey." Elizabeth Troyer dropped her baby scissors and held up her contribution to the card making. The eight-year-old's burro seemed to have an extra leg. Never one to sit still too long, she wiggled onto her knees and grabbed the glue stick. "It's for Mary. So she can go to Bethlehem with Joseph and have baby Jesus."
"He has too many legs." Elizabeth's sister, Cynthia, scoffed at the ragged animal. "And he's red. Donkeys aren't red."
"I think he's quite nice." Laura smiled over their heads at their mother, Jennie Graber. She shrugged and smiled back, surely used to her daughters' bickering. "Why don't you make a big yellow star for the wise men to follow after the baby Jesus is born?"
They were so like Laura's four daughters when they were that age. Now they were married and had children — and grandchildren — of their own.
"What wool are you spinning?" Mary Katherine nudged Laura's arm. "You're a million miles away and moving fast."
"Like a tortoise on an icy highway." Chuckling, Laura removed her silver-rimmed glasses and cleaned them with her apron. "I was just thinking about how much I love the Christmas season. Everyone is so cheerful and it smells and tastes so good. I think I'll make some caramel popcorn balls and gingerbread men for the grands."
"All of them?" Mary Katherine snorted. "What are there now? Twenty-eight great-grands? That's a lot of popcorn. You'll never get the smell out of the dawdy haus!"
"I like that smell." The dawdy haus would smell like Christmas. Giving presents to all of them was beyond her means, but she could make a little something and hand it out when she visited on Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day. And it would keep her busy, which would keep her mind off the anniversary. "And it's not like I don't have the time."
Eli loved Christmas. He loved gingerbread men. He often stole one — or two — before she had a chance to decorate them. She could smell it on his breath when he kissed her with an airy "sorry." He wasn't sorry at all. Worse than the children. His death during the night on Christmas Eve eight years ago made the season a strange mixture of bittersweet memories. More sweet than bitter as the years passed and the anguish faded into a well-worn, treasured memory box hidden away in the far corner of her mind. If God willed it, she would see her sweets-loving husband again one day soon.
Maybe they would make gingerbread cookies in heaven and he'd steal two or three. The kisses would be all the sweeter with son Luke and grandson baby Matthew sharing them too. Her parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers and all the other family members who'd gone on before would be present for the great, unending celebration of the New World. If it were God's will, she could look forward to seeing them all for supper every night and singing every morning.
At her age she'd find a train station full of folks waiting to meet her at the pearly gates.
How prideful of her to think she'd be standing at those pearly gates. If and when, Gott, on Your time, not mine.
Mary Katherine elbowed Laura again. "Was there more to that thought or did you doze off?"
"I'm old. I have to rest between sentences."
"Like I was saying, I love the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas too. I've discovered — or maybe rediscovered — how romantic this time of year can be." Batting her pale eyelashes in pretend coquetry, Mary Katherine stabbed her needle into the burgundy material. Her round cheeks dimpled. "Ezekiel has been sneaking around the back bedroom for a week now doing something he refuses to talk about. There's strange noises floating down the hallway."
"That's because you're still practically newlyweds." Bess Graber stood and picked up her coffee mug. It appeared she might be in a family way again — a thought that tickled Laura pink. Her blue eyes made bluer than sky by her royal-purple dress sparkled with happiness. "Aidan and I spend more time thinking about what to get the kinner than each other now. Anyone need more kaffi or hot chocolate?"
"Let me get it." Rosalie Stutzman hoisted herself from the other side of the quilting frame. Like Bess, she was in a family way, only on a much larger scale. Almost eight months along and, rumor had it, expecting twins. They'd chosen her house for the frolic so she wouldn't have to drive. "My back is killing me and I need to check on Delia and Samuel. They've been napping for over an hour. For Samuel, that's a miracle. When he starts school next year, no more naps."
"I'll take a cup of chamomile tea." Laura smiled up at her friend. Being retired as a midwife meant someone else would bring these new babies into the world. She stifled a sigh. No sense in regretting what couldn't be changed. "My hands and my knees ache today. It must be the cold."
"Oh, look, it's snowing." A mug in each hand, Rosalie paused at the window. "The first snow of the year. Finally."
"You never know in this part of Missouri. Snow one minute, sunshine and fifty the next." Finicky weather served as part of the charm in living in Jamesport. God liked to mix it up and keep everyone on their toes. "Snow makes it feel more like the Christmas season, though."
"That's not snow. It's freezing rain mixed with sleet." Jennie kept sewing. She was determined to get this quilt done in time to sell it at her Combination Store before the holidays when demand was particularly high. "It'll be gone by midafternoon. Which is fine by me. I'm not a fan of driving the buggy in the snow. We'll have plenty of that this winter."
Being part of the holiday hustle and bustle at the store this year set at number two on Laura's list of chores she missed. Her knees and ankles simply couldn't handle standing for hours at a time. "I love the seasons. Every one of them. All that winter snow will make us appreciate spring flowers all the more."
"Jah, Miss Sunshine." Mary Katherine stuck her tongue out at Laura. "You're not the one driving into town every day to the bookstore."
"You like it, you know you do."
"Ach, there goes Zechariah shuffling out there in that slick sleet with his cane. He'll fall for sure and Ben will have a fit." Shaking her head, Rosalie trudged toward the door that led to the kitchen. "The man seems to have lost what sense the gut Lord gave him along with his health."
"Ben loves his groossdaadi. I'm sure he feels responsible too, since his daed gave him a turn at watching over Zechariah." Laura made her tone soothing. Plain families took care of their old folks. They were gifts. Not burdens. Rosalie knew that. "I read that confusion can be a symptom of Parkinson's in the book I checked out from the library."
"You were reading up on Parkinson's." Jennie giggled. "Sudden interest in another aspect of the medical field?"
"Just curious." And sympathetic. Getting old, although a gift, could be a tough row to hoe. A disease like Parkinson's was no walk across the pasture. "I like to be helpful if I can."
"What's he doing out there?" One hand holding back the folds of the green curtain, Bess pressed the flat of her fisted hand on the window and wiped away condensation in a widening circle. "It looks like he's filling the bird feeder. In this weather?"
"Tons of birds are looking for food in the winter. They don't all migrate like the purple martins." Laura rose and went to stand next to Bess. Cold air seeped in around the window's calking. She shivered. Lately, she didn't have as much body fat to keep her warm as she once had. If her dress hems were any indication, she'd somehow lost a few inches in height as well. Old age had mysterious ways. "Looks like he's hooking up one of those buddy propane heaters. The birds will love a heated bird bath. You just turn on the pilot for heat."
"Since when did you become a bird lover?" Mary Katherine's voice held suppressed laughter. "Or, have you been brushing up so you can carry on a conversation with the bird lover? Everyone knows Zechariah is crazy about them."
"Don't be silly." All her knowledge of birds had been acquired since her retirement from midwifery. She sat on the dawdy haus porch and watched the purple martins, cardinals, blue jays, and sparrows wrangle as the spring evenings lengthened into summer. The fresh breeze turned into a languid rustle of leaves weighted down by summer humidity. Hummingbirds zipped around the orange and yellows of the Pride of Barbados and the esperanza, keeping her company.
A Janette Oke book, a mason jar of homemade tea, and some decent bug spray helped pass the time. Visits from her kiddos too. Lots of visits over cookies. Lots of storytelling. Boo-boo kissing. They and the birds were her companions when her now-remarried friends filled up their lives with husbands and couple-y things. "They like the black oiled sunflower seeds. I like sunflower seeds now and then too."
The other women joined in a chorus of laughter. "Maybe you should run out there and chat with Zechariah about where to buy them," Jennie suggested.
"Or where he bought the heater," Bess added.
"You girls are too silly. Besides, I think Rosalie is having a word with him." Laura tapped her gnarled finger on the cold windowpane. Rosalie had donned her coat and rubber boots in order to follow Zechariah outside. From her gesticulations and Zechariah's overt turning-of-the-back, the exchange pleased neither one of them. "He's not so thrilled with her either."
A few seconds passed. Rosalie threw her hands up, whirled, and marched back to the house. She tromped in the front door and stopped on the braided rug to tug off her muddy boots. Balancing her unwieldy body proved a challenge. She propped her hand on the wall and grunted as she shed the boots, followed by her coat. "I thought Ben was stubborn. Now I know where he gets it. Zechariah is the most stubborn man who walks the earth." Her cheeks were red and her kapp damp with melting sleet. "He's had that stomach flu that's going around. Fever, vomiting, diarrhea, the whole kit and caboodle. Yet he insists on parading around half-dressed —"
"Rosalie! Half-dressed?" Iris Kurtz chortled as she placed her baby Thomas on her shoulder and patted. Thomas obliged with an enormous belch. She laid the four-month-old in Delia's old playpen and scurried to the window. "Looks to me like he's wearing pants and a shirt. Thank the gut Lord."
"You know what I mean. No coat." A pained look on her face, Rosalie rubbed her belly. "Ach, indigestion. I hope I'm not getting that flu. I can't afford to get sick. Who'll watch the boplin? Not Zechariah. He doesn't get around well. He can't be running after Delia."
"He probably misses his dawdy haus." Laura was used to being the peacemaker and the problem solver. With age came wisdom. Or confusion. Or silence. Lots of silence in the middle of the night. Zechariah knew about that too. His wife, Marian, passed two years earlier of female cancer of some sort. If anyone understood this loneliness, Laura did. "I'm sure he's just getting used to the idea of living here. He'll adjust."
"Ach." Rosalie trudged to the table. She gripped the back of the closest chair. Her knuckles turned white. "This feels wrong. Something's not right."
Iris crossed the room in two quick strides. She rubbed her friend's shoulder. "What do you mean it feels wrong?"
"It's too early. I'm not due for another five weeks." Rosalie's shoulders hunched. She closed her eyes and rocked. "It feels like labor."
"You probably overdid it a bit today." Iris, who'd taken a hiatus from delivering babies when Thomas was born, guided Rosalie toward a hickory rocking chair by the fireplace. "Take a load off those swollen feet. Rest. We'll clean up and take care of the little ones."
Hand on her hip, Rosalie trudged toward the chair. "Nee, nee, nee." She jerked to a halt. Her mouth opened and her eyes closed. She sighed. "My water broke."CHAPTER 2
Babies come when they're ready. Laura plumped Rosalie's pillows and smoothed the sheets on her bed while Iris checked to see how far labor had progressed. An icy draft swept across the bedroom, but the hard work of having two babies would warm Rosalie. She leaned back and closed her eyes. Her fingers rubbed a spot on the bridge of her nose as if she tried to ward off a headache.
Iris's forehead wrinkled. A concerned look flitted across her face. She quickly shuttered it. Laura lifted her eyebrows. Iris shook her head. She nodded toward the door and the hallway beyond.
"I'll get you a glass of water and a warm washrag for your face." Laura patted Rosalie's cheek. "You rest up. You have work to do."
"Will you deliver my boplin, Iris?" Rosalie lifted her head. Sweat shone on her pale skin. "Or do you think Theresa will get here in time to do it?"
"Bess and Mary Katherine went for her." Iris smiled, but her blue eyes held worry. She smoothed back a wisp of honey-blonde hair and tucked it in her kapp. "Jennie went to get Ben."
A question not answered. Laura headed for the hallway. Iris followed.
"What's it look like?"
"Her placenta is presenting first." Iris chewed her lower lip. "She needs to go to the medical center in Chillicothe. Theresa told me she tried to convince her to have the babies at the birthing center and she said no. This is two babies. They're premature. I don't want to take any chances. We need to call an ambulance."
"I'll tell her. You meet Ben at the door and talk to him. He can run out to the phone shack."
"Say a prayer?"
"I will." Laura took a breath and marched back into the bedroom. It wouldn't be the first time she'd delivered this kind of news, but it was never easy and she had thought herself done with it. Gott, put Your protective hand on these little ones and give Rosalie the strength and peace of mind to weather any storm that comes. You are the Great Physician. These are Your babies. Thy will be done.
That last part troubled her the most. Thy will be done.
A hard phrase for someone who might lose a baby. Or two babies. Or who lost a husband too soon. Or a wife.
"What is it?" Rosalie threw her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Her curly brown hair framed her face and straggled down her back. "What are you two whispering about out there? You act like I've never had a baby before. I know how to do this. It's not that hard."
"It's different this time." Laura sat next to her and patted her knee. "You have placenta previa. Do you know what that is?"
Rosalie's hands went to her stomach and began to rub in a soft, circular motion. "The placenta is in the way. My boplin will have trouble getting out."
"That's right. Because of that and the fact that they're early, we feel it would be best to deliver at the medical center. The boplin may need some help with oxygen and such that we can't give them here."
"I've never been in the hospital." Her brown eyes wet with tears, Rosalie's face crumpled. "I want to wait for Theresa, see what she says."
"Theresa already told you she thought it would be best. She knows other Plain women have delivered at the medical center, like Millie Mast. It happens sometimes, and we always want to do what's best for the baby."
Plain folks preferred as little intrusion from the English world as possible, but they also knew what it meant to be good stewards of the gifts God gave them. That included babies.
"Doctors and machines and strangers. How can that be what's best?" Rosalie swiped at her nose with her sleeve. "I'm a grown woman. Is it silly that I'm afraid?"
"Not silly. We're all afraid of the unknown. But we trust in Gott's plan for us. We set our worry aside. That's how we show our faith." Laura stood. Spouting the words was easy. Following her own advice much harder. But Rosalie didn't need to know that. She needed a strong, faithful friend right now. "Lean back and rest. I'll pack a bag for you. We'll be ready when the ambulance comes."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "With Winter's First Frost"
Copyright © 2019 Kelly Irvin.
Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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