Friday, February 15, 2008

Chapter Twenty

As is the family’s new habit, they wake before dawn has quite broken. Everything is quiet and peaceful until the younger ones remember what day it is.


Scott and Sissy make the kids wash and dress warmly before they can investigate the tree. Of course the kids are ready in record time. Even Rose and James, well past the age where they worry about whether Santa put them on the naughty or nice list, are excited about the day.

The kids had hoped to have the Christmas lights on, but the power has indeed gone off yet again. Even Scott and Sissy are disappointed but trying not to show it.

Just then Rose jumps up and says, "Wait!" And she reaches into the tree and flicks a switch on a small plastic box and a short strand of tiny white lights turns on. "I took these off an old wreath that somebody gave us a couple of years ago. I’m not sure how much charge the batteries have left in them, but we’ll have Christmas lights for a few minutes anyway."

After a group hug and much praise and admiration for Rose’s forethought and ingenuity, the family carefully opens their presents to one another. Even Johnnie, imitating the others, makes an attempt not to shred the paper, but to save it in case they need it for something else.

While Johnnie babbles questions like how did Santa come and how did he get in, Scott and Sissy wonder how far to take their answers. Bekah saves them by explaining, "Just like we helped Santa visit Mr. Barry’s family, somebody must have helped Santa visit us." And that is as good an explanation as any.

It is like no other Christmas they have ever had. There is no doubt that it is leaner than any they’ve shared in years. Almost everything is homemade except for a few practical gifts Sissy had hidden away for the kids. But the fact that they are all still healthy and together, that they have food, clothing, and shelter when so many have nothing, outweighs any regret that they have that things are different. It is certainly a holiday no one will ever forget.

While Sarah, Bekah, and Johnnie are playing with their gifts, Rose helps Sissy set the breakfast table with slices of the bread that had been baked the day before, glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice, a small jar of apple butter, "margarine" made from powdered milk, and some home-canned sausage patties.

Scott and James go check on things outside. When they come inside Sissy asks if the plants are OK.

"Yeah, I think so, but we are going to have to pick all the fruit off of the citrus trees."


" ‘Cause if we don’t we aren’t going to get any. A lot of the fruit on the lower branches on one side of the tree is gone. There isn’t any on the ground so they didn’t just fall off," James says in disgust as he hangs his gloves on the coat rack.

"Huh." And then, after thinking a moment, Sissy says, "Well then we’ll just have to clean off all the fruit this afternoon. From now until the next day the power comes on we’ll drink all the juice and eat all the fruit we want. On the day the power comes on I’ll need help juicing the remaining fruit and I’ll can it. We’ve got a lot of empty quart jars and I have plenty of rings and seals put away. I’ll candy the peels and anything else that we don’t use can go into the compost pile. There won’t be anything left for those fruit rustlers next time. Sharing with those in need is one thing, being stolen from is another."

"Yes, Mom." everyone chimes.

"And before breakfast could you all please move your worms out of my bathroom?" And with a theatrical shudder Sissy continues, "Trying to use the bathroom while thinking about those things wiggling around in there is just plain wrong."

So with a laugh that breaks the tension and gets their Christmas celebration back on track, the family washes their hands and sits down to breakfast.

After a morning spent goofing off, singing favorite Christmas carols, and generally doing nothing more constructive than putting away the dishes, it is time to pull the citrus fruit.

While empty storage tubs are lined up inside the house, Scott and Sissy begin to methodically harvest every ripe grapefruit from their two large trees. As the trees are in the front of their yard - which was probably why the trees were targeted in the first place - people start stopping by for a word.

Sissy is a bit perplexed over the attention she is receiving. She stays up the ladder in the tree to avoid close contact but people seem to insist on stopping by and talking to her anyway. She can’t imagine why people she has never met seem to know her. To be honest, after four months of SIP and confining her face-to-face contacts with her immediate family, she is a little freaked out. It is a struggle to interact with people in person again.

Her neighbor finally takes pity on her and explains that Scott is always passing along bits and pieces of what she is up to. When he asks her for a recipe that someone has asked him for it usually makes the rounds of the neighborhood or gets tacked up on the neighborhood bulletin board for everyone to see. On top of that, more people than Sissy thought had listened to her repeatedly mentioning the need to be prepared for emergencies. Not everyone acted on what she said, but some had, and it has made a difference.

"Well, for Pete sake. What’s all the fuss for? I’m not the only one. Mr. Cleary down the road has what amounts to a community garden in his backyard. Mrs. Linden has donated her empty lot for the trash burning and the neighborhood market. Mr. Jones lets people that have had their power turned off get water from his outside spigot and he carts water to those three widow ladies the next street over on his bicycle. I can name more than a dozen other people that do the same kind of things," Sissy huffily exclaims.

"Yeah but we’ve been able to say hello to them before now. This is the first time in months that you’ve popped your head up out of the rabbit’s hole for more than a minute, and it’s the first time a lot of folks have had a chance to get a good look at you," the neighbor laughingly replies.

"Add to that, you have five kids at home and a husband that goes into parts of town most of us avoided even before the pandemic – and it hasn’t made you crazy enough to bay at the moon – its given you a bit of mystique."

"Mystique?! You’ve gotten bored and have been reading too many bodice-ripper romances again haven’t you? I do not have mystique. I am a mother of five. I have gray hair. I . . . ouch . . . just ripped my jeans dat blasted! I do not have mystique. Y’all are crazy for a fact. Y’all are just hard up for entertainment."

"OK . . . OK . . . " she goes away snickering and then starts laughing outright as yet another person stops by "just to say hello."

Scott doesn’t help matters by grinning and whispering up at her, "I told you this neighborhood is full of nosey people." All Sissy can do is give him a dirty look.

Later that evening, after reviewing the day’s events, Sissy is reminded of one of the news clips that really struck her a couple of weeks ago. Its wasn’t so much what the story was about, but how the people being interviewed were acting. They seemed either dazed and disconnected or like they were really jacked up and just a little bit on the crazy side. They would get that deer in the headlights look and phrases would fall out of their mouths before they were even half thought out.

At the time she put it down to the fact that it always appeared that the goofiest people were the ones that wind up on television. Everyone knows those stereotypes: the hillbilly hausfrau with a million curlers in her hair and a tent-sized muumuu who’s practically shrieking about how the tornado sounded just like the freight trains that used run by Uncle Wilbur’s farm when she was a little girl or the rail thin guy with a wad of tobacco in his mouth pondering on whether the mysterious light everyone saw was from a spaceship who was coming to kidnap humans for use as sex slaves or was the light on the front of the ghost engine that rattles through town every fifth of Juvember. Bizarre.

The thing she is remembering now is that the people on that show actually looked more or less normal. They weren’t characters or stereotypes. Any of them could have been a neighbor. Heck, any of them could have passed for a member of her own family. They just all were acting strange, like they weren’t used to interacting with other people much. Looking back, she now feels bad for stereotyping people that were just having trouble communicating after not really having to do it very much. She probably looked the same way those people did, only she was up a ladder in a grapefruit tree with a pair of ripped jeans on, jumping spastically every time someone addressed a remark in her general direction. She’s sure she would have looked more than a little goofy had someone caught a shot of her in that position.

Sissy then went on to remind herself that she is lucky that SIP is all she is dealing with. They have food and they have their health. She hasn’t lost any of her children or her spouse. They have a secure roof over their heads, a business that is still going even if it is limping, and prospects for the future. Yes, she is definitely in a Blessed position. Next time she swears she will be a little less quick to judge someone just because of their appearance. Maybe looking in her own mirror more often will keep her from being so judgmental.

But really, she must have made some picture up in that tree. At least she can laugh at herself. And she doesn’t begrudge anyone else a laugh either. Come to think of it, it was kind of funny.

And so thinking, she rolls over and can finally sleep knowing that she is blessed that everyone she cares most about is safe and snug and where they are supposed to be, on this very special night. Praying that the next time this holiday comes around, things will be better for everyone.

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