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Chicken Soup Stories

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Below are some of my stories that have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Gifts to Keep

Published 2014

         Only three Christmas gifts were under the artificial fir tree. All the other presents had been opened. Those three big packages were wrapped identically, green ribbon tied around red and white striped foil paper. Inside were gifts that my mom had planned to give her three grandchildren – my son, daughter, and niece. Gifts she had begun making, but didn’t finish. A heart attack ended her life suddenly in April.

Six months later, Dad sold the family home and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. The first Christmas without Mom was made even sadder as our family sat cramped in a small living room – so different from Mom and Dad’s home where we’d always celebrated Christmases.

Dad looked at his three teenage grandchildren. “Those presents are for you from your grannie,” he said as my brother and I and our spouses sat nearby. Alicia and Sarah, age 17, and Eric, age 15, all frowned. “She was making something special for you to have this Christmas,” said Dad. He looked at me as tears flooded his eyes and then he lowered his head and his tears rolled down his cheeks.

Taking a deep breath I said, “It’s three almost identical gifts.”

“Is it something we ask for?” Alicia asked.

“No,” Dad said. “It’s something you can use now, and your grannie hoped you’d keep it and maybe even pass it on to your kids.” The teenagers sat up straight, pulled their shoulders back, raised their eyebrows, and looked at each other.

“Is it something that we’ve seen her working on?” Sarah asked.

“No, she kept it a secret from all of you. But your parents and I knew,” Dad said.

“So, how do we know which box is ours?” asked Eric.

“By numbers. The same way Grannie always let you choose. Take one of those folded papers in the basket. They’re numbered 1, 2, 3, and the presents have numbers on the bottom of them,” Dad explained.

As Alicia, Sarah, and Eric held the unopened gifts, silence filled the small living room. They had quickly ripped into other packages, but now they sat cross-legged on the floor beside Dad’s chair. Silent and still. “Go ahead, open them,” Dad said.

The teenagers paced themselves so that they saw their gifts at the same time. “A quilt!” Sarah and Alicia said, almost in unison. Eric stood and wrapped his quilt around his shoulders. It fell to the floor. The girls did the same, holding their quilts close around their bodies.

“I love it!” Sarah said, “But Grannie always said that she’d never make a quilt.” She pulled her white and navy blue patchwork quilt tighter around herself.

“Yeah, but she made everything else,” Alicia said. “This is beautiful! My quilt is just like yours. Same colors. Same everything.” she said to Sarah. Alicia turned to her brother. “Yours is the same, except it’s dark red. Almost maroon color.” They held their quilts up and compared. The quilt pattern, with triangles and rectangles, was exactly the same. All three quilts had solid white pieces and some calico printed fabric; only the solid blue and maroon colored pieces were different.

“Grannie made everything, but this is the best. Remember the stuffed Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls?” Eric said. He lifted his quilt over his head and sat down, onto the floor. None of us adults said anything. We wiped tears, coughed, took deep breaths.

“Yeah, this is the best. But don’t forget all the matching outfits she made when we were little,” said Alicia. “Wonder why she decided to make us quilts now?” She and Sarah held their quilts in their laps as they, too, sat on the floor.

“And who finished the quilts that Grannie didn’t?” Sarah asked.

Dad blew his nose, wiped his eyes with his wet handkerchief and said, “Your grannie wanted you to have something that you’d keep. You girls will be going off to college next year, maybe you can take your quilt with you. She began cutting and putting the pieces together about two years ago. She was determined to finish them for this Christmas, but…” Dad’s voice faltered and he looked at me.

I continue the story. “She’d finished one, was quilting the second, and had pieced the third, but hadn’t started quilting it. We really wanted you to have your quilts for Christmas so Dad and I found a lady named Mrs. Horst who finished the last two.”

“Tell them about her wanting to see the finished quilt,” Dad said.

“Mrs. Horst is an excellent quilter and normally makes tiny stitches. When Mom quilted her stitches were much longer. Mrs. Horst wanted her quilting stitches to be exactly like Mom’s so the quilts would be the same,” I said.

“She even wanted to do the binding exactly like the one your grannie did,” Dad added. “She said quilters did bindings and corners differently and she did them the same way as the one that was finished.” Alicia, Eric, and Sarah held the corners of their quilts close together.

“They look the same to me, “ Eric said. All of us were silent – each in our own thoughts, as the lights on the tree twinkled in Dad’s tiny apartment.

“Aunt Susan, do you know which one Grannie really made?” asked my niece Sarah. I shook my head and smiled.

“I’ll answer that,” said Dad. He blew his nose one more time. “She made them all. That wonderful lady stitched for your grannie. I have to think that Susan and I were led up the dirt road that ended at Mrs. Horst’s house. If there ever was a godly woman, it’s her. When we picked up the finished quilts, she told me that she’d said prayers of blessings as she quilted and she hoped that someday she could make such beautiful quilts for each of her five children.”

The three quilts that my mom made have been used and loved. They covered twin beds in college dormitory rooms and were moved to apartments when each of Mom’s grandchildren married. And now, more than twenty years later, those quilts cover Mom’s great-grandsons’ beds.

Mom’s quilts were gifts to keep.

####

 It’s Much

Published in It’s Christmas, 2013

When a teacher dares to open her heart, a student crawls in, twisting the teacher’s heart.

Annie didn’t own Crocs – those trendy plastic shoes – that most of my 4th grade students wore. She wore white tennis shoes that the school counselor bought and jeans that she had chosen from a box of donated clothes.

Everyday, Annie came to school smelling like cigarettes. Her hair wasn’t brushed. She ate government-paid-for free breakfasts and lunches and didn’t understand why she couldn’t take home the food that her classmates threw away off their cafeteria trays.

On the last school day before Christmas vacation, twenty excited students crowded around my desk.   They were anxious for me to open their gifts.

“Open mine next!”

“Mine has the biggest red bow.”

“Mama paid a lot for that fancy candle. She said you’d better like it.”

“It’s homemade candy. And I helped make it.

Annie sidled close beside me and moved the discarded Christmas paper and ribbon from the floor to the trashcan. But she clutched a crumpled piece of shiny red foil paper and a big gold bow tightly in her hands.

While I continued to open gifts, Annie asked to use the Scotch tape on my desk. She took the paper, bow, and tape to a corner in our classroom. Then she ran back to her desk and shoved something under her shirt.

The other students didn’t notice Annie. In fact, they rarely noticed Annie.

I put on every gift of jewelry. I marveled over a hand-crocheted Santa Claus, a glittery angel, and a Christmas sweatshirt that was decorated with sequined snowmen. I stashed gifts of food—honey, banana bread, chocolate candy—in a basket. These were my family’s favorite teacher presents.

As the party ended, the children ate cupcakes with red and green sprinkles on chocolate icing. They drank red fruit punch. The girls clustered in groups of twos and threes. The boys sat in one big group on the floor.

Annie wandered toward me as I set a cup of punch on my desk. “Mrs. Ray,” she said. “I’ve got something for you.” She held a small wrapped box tightly in her hands.

“Do you want me to open it now?” I asked.

She laid her gift, wrapped in wrinkled foil paper and the gold bow bigger than the box, on my lap. “Yes, but don’t let anybody else see.”

As I torn away the many strips of tape, Annie stood so closely that her small body leaned against mine. “It’s not much,” she said.

A button lay inside a well-worn Avon box. A plastic gold coat button with tiny glistening rhinestones.

“Read the note,” Annie said.

To: Mrs. Ray

                        I’m sorry, but the present isn’t that much it’s all I had. I hope you enjoy it.

                        Merry Christmas

            Annie was wrong. It was much.

It’s so much that every Christmas I pin that gold button on my coat lapel.

It’s so much that it reminds me that giving a Christmas gift isn’t about the gift.

It’s so much that it reminds me why I celebrate Christmas.

 *******************************

Mother for Life

Published in Multi-tasking Moms, 2014

All I wanted to do was eat lunch, check on everybody, and go to the library. After two morning classes, I’d planned go home, eat a sandwich, check in with my two teenage children and my dad, and then spend the afternoon at the university library. And I’d do a load of laundry and put supper in the crock pot while I was home. On the way to the library, I’d stop by the post office to buy stamps and mail a package to return a bathing suit that was too small.

I had to get the research at the library finished for my thesis. And I had to get at least two chapters of my paper written before school started in a couple of weeks. After school began, I’d barely keep my head above water – teaching 6th grade, finishing my thesis for a Master’s Degree, parenting a high-school student and a college student, helping Dad, and just day-to-day married and home life. I sat at the kitchen table with my daughter as we ate lunch – ham sandwiches and apples.

“Mom, do you think we should get matching bedspreads? Can we go shopping this afternoon and just look for ideas?” My daughter Alicia was excited about decorating her new dorm room and having a new college roommate.

Eric, my son, answered the ringing phone. I heard him say, “Sure. She’s eating lunch. Come on over.” He turned to me and said, “That was Papa. He wants to talk to you, Mom. He’s coming over to eat lunch.” After Mom’s death four months earlier, Dad had moved from their home forty miles away to an apartment just a half mile from my family’s home. I saw him almost daily, and he often ate meals with us.

“And, Mom, my practice uniform is ripped. Can you fix it before tomorrow? I’m going to the Y,” Eric said. His summer schedule was to workout with his basketball team in the mornings and lifeguard at the YMCA during the afternoon. I’d waited to take to summer classes until he had his driver’s license and could drive himself to all his activities. After spending the past several years taking one graduate class a semester, this was the summer that I was taking two classes and working on my research paper. I hoped to finish by December.

“Maybe. Remind me later. Have a good afternoon,” I told Eric. I turned to my daughter. “Alicia, I really must go to the library today. Let’s shop over the weekend. I promise I’ll help you get things together for your dorm room. Just not today.” She nodded her head, but her whole body slumped with disappointment.

Alicia opened the refrigerator and said, “I’ll made Papa a sandwich. I know you’re busy, Mom.” Dad walked into the kitchen carrying a manila folder. He’d adjusted well to being a widower, but needed me to share in his daily life and decisions. He kissed Alicia’s forward as she placed his lunch on the table.

“Look what I found,” Dad said. He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “A house for sale and not too far from you. Close to town and all the space I need.” He opened the folder and laid a picture of a gray brick home on the table. “I saw the inside of it this morning and told the realtor I’d be back this afternoon. You can go with me, can’t you, Susan?”

I’m sure Dad didn’t know why Alicia laid her sandwich on her plate and stared at me, but I did. Quite often, since Mom’s death, I’d put Dad’s needs in front of everyone else’s. He was 79 and had some health problems. “We’ll go whenever it’s good for you,” Dad said. “I just need to call the realtor.”

“I’m not sure,” I told Dad. “Let me make a phone call. I’d planned to go to the library.”

I hid in my bathroom and stared into the mirror. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I breathe deeply. Controlled, long breaths. How did this happen? My children were almost grown – at ages 16 and 18 – I thought they were. And yet, they still needed me. Fix something. Look at this. Look at that. And now, Dad wanted me to do those same things.

I hated that I’d just told my daughter that I couldn’t spend the afternoon with her and then felt forced to go along with Dad’s plans. I’d often heard Mom say, “This, too, shall pass.” When? When would being pulled in all directions pass? Or would it ever?

I had a talk with myself – as Mother, daughter, and student. At that moment, I knew my priorities needed to fall in that order – Mother, daughter, student. After a short, intense prayer and a few hard sobs and a cold-water face wash, I walked back into the kitchen. Dad and Alicia were eating chocolate chip cookies. “Are you okay, Susan? Your eye is red,” Dad said. I told him that a hair had gotten in it and I’d made matters worse trying to get it out. Alicia’s grin let me know that she didn’t believe me and knew why my eye – both eyes, in fact – was red.

“About the afternoon, Dad,” I said. “Do you think the realtor could meet us at the house about 4:45? Alicia and I have some shopping to do first. So how about we see the house just before suppertime and then our whole family and you eat out somewhere together? Then I’ll go the library tonight.”

The next morning, I mended my son’s uniform, a five-minute chore. Alicia and her roommate, with very little hands-on help from me, decorated their dorm room a month later. My husband, son, and I helped Dad move into his new home two months later. I walked across a stage to receive my Master’s Degree the following May. It all got done.

And I had many more face-to-face mirror talks. That day, when all I wanted to do was eat lunch, check on everybody, and get back to the library was a watershed time. A turning point. A time that I revisited often. My children were just that, children. Their needs changed, just as Dad’s did. One thing didn’t. Being a mother is for life.

 ***************************

Check out the website http://www.chickensoup.com/ for more inspirational stories and write your own story and submit it.

Happy writing and reading! srr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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