“Grady Gibson, if you don’t stand still, I’m going to snatch you bald-headed!” My sister Clarry was having a heck of a battle with my necktie and it seemed to me the necktie was winning.
“Allow me,” Skeet Thatcher said, gently nudging Clarry aside and taking over the skirmish. “There’s only a couple of things fellas are better at than you ladies and this is one of them.” He winked at me while performing some sleight of hand that would have put Mandrake the Magician to shame. In a matter of seconds, Skeet had that tie knotted and was handing me a stick of chewing gum from his jacket pocket.
“Juicy Fruit!” I exclaimed, unable to keep the excitement out of my voice. “Where’d you get chewing gum, Skeet?”
“Yes, Skeet,” Clarry added before he could respond, “where did you get chewing gum? The good stuff, that is.” She’d placed her hands on her hips and was looking at him suspiciously.
“Don’t worry that pretty head of yours, Clarry,” Skeet said, grinning at my sister. “It’s all on the up and up–this is the last of my rations I brought back from overseas. Been saving it for a special occasion.” He offered her a piece, which she accepted sheepishly. “It seems to me today is just about as special as it gets.”
Skeet was right; it was a special day. Not only was it Christmas Eve, it was also Charlotte Broome Mayfield’s wedding day. Thanks to Mama and Clarry, our living room looked like something out of a Hollywood movie. I suspect there wasn’t a white streamer, silver paper wedding bell or live flower left in the county. Those assembled for the event were in a grand mood because you couldn’t help but feel good in such a festive room on such a festive occasion. Even the formidable Reverend Cletus Powell was all smiles as he conversed with my dad, Doc Handy, and Frank Granger. And who could have known that once you spiffed up Frank with a shave, haircut, and new suit, he’d be a dead ringer for Tyrone Power? Well, certainly not me, that’s for darn sure.
The sound of Mama clearing her throat caused us to stop what we were doing and look toward the stairs. Charlotte stood on the top landing with her best friend right beside her. As Mama pinned a corsage of gardenias to the lapel of Charlotte’s light blue suit, the two of them shared a look that made them giggle. Suddenly, it was the easiest thing in the world to picture the young girls they once were. Charlotte looked pretty as a picture and it was hard to believe she’d been at death’s door just a few weeks earlier. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that Frank was smiling ear-to-ear, unable to take his eyes off the woman he was about to marry. Charlotte smiled back at him before directing her gaze at me and holding out her hand.
“Grady, since you’re the one who found me, it seems only fitting that you be the one to give me away.” I was only too happy to run up the stairs and escort her back down to the spot in front of the Christmas tree where Frank Granger and a new life awaited her.
December 24, 1951
Eight Years Later
The snow was falling but I could still see the lights of Endurance in the distance. Although my first semester at college had gone well, I was ready to be home. I was hankering for Mama’s cooking and daily games of checkers with my dad. I relished the idea of hide-and-go-seek and piggyback with my niece and nephew. And I looked forward to all of us gathering at Aunt Charlotte’s and Uncle Frank’s house in just a few minutes. We would dine on baked ham, buttermilk biscuits, and coconut cake–it was our Christmas Eve tradition. After supper, we’d exchange gifts and then stand around their grand piano, singing carols. Truth be told, it was my favorite night of the year and I suspect everyone else felt the same way.
Due to the weather, I was late arriving to our house. Mama and Daddy were waiting on the front porch and as soon as they saw me turn the corner, they started waving. The three of us made quick work of loading my trunk and backseat with brightly wrapped packages and then my parents slid into the front seat beside me. As I drove to the spacious house the Grangers had built on the edge of town, I noticed my parents share a look. My dad nodded. “You should tell him, Evie,” he said. “Before we get there.”
“Tell me what?” I asked, alarm creeping into my voice. “Is everything okay?”
Mama took a deep breath before answering. “Your Aunt Charlotte hasn’t been doing well,” she said. “You’ll notice a difference in her since you saw her at Thanksgiving.”
“Her heart?” I asked, swallowing the lump in my throat.
“Yes,” Mama said. “Doc Handy doesn’t think she has long.”
The three of us were silent for the rest of the drive.
Uncle Frank opened the front door wearing, of all things, a red Santa hat. “There he is,” he proclaimed in a booming voice as he embraced me in a big bear hug. “Go to her boy,” he whispered in my ear. “She’s by the fire. She can’t wait to see you.”
I rushed inside, leaving the others to transfer all those packages from the car to the house. I was thankful Mama had prepared me for Aunt Charlotte’s appearance or I would have been shocked. She’d always been a petite woman but now she looked as tiny and fragile as a baby bird. The extra rouge and lipstick, which had been carefully applied, couldn’t disguise her pallor. Still, the smile on her face lit up the entire room.
“Grady Gibson,” she said as she stretched her arms out in front of her, “if you aren’t a sight for sore eyes! Come here and give me a proper hello!”
“How’s the prettiest girl in Endurance?” I asked as I crossed the room. I bent over and hugged her. Although she was nothing but skin and bones, her embrace was strong and lasted longer than usual. Finally, she released me.
“You save that flattery nonsense for those coeds, young man. Now, let me look at you,” she demanded. I stood back and she regarded me critically. “Your mama and I are going to have to fatten you up while you’re home. I hope you’re okay with that.”
I smiled. “Yes ma’am. That sounds just fine to me.” The doorbell rang, indicating Clarry and her brood had arrived. The squealing and reprimands that accompanied them everywhere they went made further conversation impossible.
“Sounds like the gang’s all here now,” she said, looking toward the hall and smiling. Then she turned back and leveled her gaze at me. “I need to speak to you before you leave tonight. Just the two of us, okay?”
“Good,” she said. “Promise me you won’t forget.”
At that moment, my nephew and niece raced into the room and threw themselves at me, toppling me to the floor. I spent the next half hour pretending to be a horse and giving them rides around the house. Aunt Charlotte looked on and laughed, until her coughing forced her to stop. Mama and Clarry moved to the kitchen to finish preparing the supper Uncle Frank had started. Once they’d set everything on the dining room table we took our seats and feasted. My family filled me in on what had happened in Endurance in my absence. I, in turn, regaled them with tales from college. I informed them I’d made the Dean’s List, which made Mama, Aunt Charlotte, and Clarry beam with pride. They saw my accomplishment as theirs, which I suppose it was. It was good to be home with the people I loved most in the world.
After dinner, Uncle Frank led Aunt Charlotte back to the chair by the fire and made her comfortable. The rest of us gathered around the piano and shouted our Christmas carol requests to Clarry. She played them all while the rest of us sang at the top of our lungs, although not always on pitch. We ended with Silent Night, as we always did, only this year I found it hard to get to the end without tearing up. I looked around the group and realized I wasn’t the only one.
“Now, how about some cake and hot apple cider?” Mama asked in her most cheerful voice. “I could use some help slicing and pouring.” Everyone else followed her into the kitchen, leaving me alone with Aunt Charlotte.
“Pull that chair over here and sit by me,” she said. I did as she requested and as soon as I was beside her, she reached for my hand. “I have something to tell you and I need you to listen. Okay?”
“Okay,” I replied, although I wasn’t looking forward to whatever was coming.
Her gaze shifted to the fire as she spoke. “I know we aren’t fooling you. I’m sure your mama has told you about my situation, but even if she hasn’t, you’re a smart boy and you know the truth.” She paused and squeezed my hand. “Last week, Doc Handy informed me that now was the time to say whatever I needed to say to folks. Now was the time to say goodbye.”
I swallowed hard and started to speak, but she stopped me. “No. There’s no need for you to talk–I already know everything that’s in your heart. Just listen.” I sat back in the chair and she continued. “First of all, I’ve made arrangements for both you and your sister in my will. You’re going to be a wealthy man, Grady Gibson, and I want you to be smart about it. Finish your education and make something of yourself. And do good with the money because that’s something you’ll never regret. Make me prouder of you than I already am, if that’s possible. However, Skeet will fill you in on all of that after I’m gone. What I truly want to say to you–and I’m the only one who can do it– is thank you.”
“Thank you?” I asked. “What for?”
“For saving me.” I looked at her questioningly and she smiled. “When you left all that food in the crook of that tree, you were just doing what your heart told you to do. You had no idea you were throwing a lifeline to a drowning woman. And then the next day, you saved my life when you found me passed out in the kitchen and called Doc Handy. Without you, my new life wouldn’t have been possible, and I’m not talking about the money. Without you, I wouldn’t have married Frank. Without you, I wouldn’t have found my best friend again. She paused and squeezed my hand tighter. “And without you–and your sweet mama’s generosity in sharing you with me–I wouldn’t have known the love of a son. So thank you, Grady. Thank you for giving me this life. Thank you for giving me a second chance.”
At this point, we both were crying and there was no pretending we weren’t. After a few minutes she said, “Now go into that kitchen and see what’s taking them so long. I’m ready for cake and cider.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, wiping my eyes. I stood up, leaned over, and kissed her on the forehead. As I left the room I could hear her softly humming Silent Night, slightly off-key. I stopped, smiled, and looked back at her.
It was the last time I saw her alive.
Her burial spot is located in the opposite corner of the cemetery from the empty grave that also bears her name. The message on her tombstone is even simpler than the plain, white marble on which it is etched.
February 2, 1904 – December 24, 1951
“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Aesop
Categories: Story in Progress