When your world is shaken apart, who needs Christmas?
When love is ripped from your hands, what do you hang onto?
One holiday story from 1906.
Previously: Jessie recalls the day when the earth trembled and tragedy struck her family.
CHAPTER 3 – Leaving Home
By AMANDA McTIGUE
From the minute the day began, everything went piggedly-higgeldy. Where were the roosters? It wasn’t their ruckus I woke to, it was Maddie kicking me under the quilt. “Grandpa’s calling,” she snuffled, puddling herself into a ball.
“Jessica Anne Collier!” Grandpa’s roaring finally got the roosters going, with every dog on Cherry Street baying in response.
December mornings are chill in a proper bedroom, but out on the sleeping porch with the mist coiling around us, it was torture. I slid on a second pair of socks and scooted down the hall, skidding into the grandfather clock which set it chiming a good fifteen minutes behind schedule. It had been running slow since the quake.
Grandpa stood at the top of the stairs, braces looped to his knees. “You’re on your own this morning. Get your sister ready for school. Those boy cousins, too.”
“Where’s Auntie Ruth?”
“Never you mind. Be a good girl now.” He shut the bedroom door firmly behind him.
Be a good girl. That’s what Papa said when he wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do. Like be a mommy when there’s no mommy around.
It was too cold to dress on the porch so we huddled in the kitchen. Maddie helped scrounge up breakfast. Not a scrap of bread in the house, but there was ham on the sideboard. Potatoes, some currants. And pickles.
The grandfather clock chimed. Snatching up their hoops, the boys ran for the door with Maddie right behind. “I’m staying home to help with Grandma!” I yelled after them. Without breaking stride, Maddie waved goodbye.
I took the stairs two at a time. The bedroom door groaned as I pushed it open. “Grandpa?”
Grandma lay snoring. Grandpa nowhere to be seen.
I eased in next to the bed. Two tables, round and square, had been set within reach. On them were medicines galore, bottles, sticky spoons and glasses cloudy with tinctures: AYER’S SARSAPARILLA, MOTHER SIEGEL’S CURATIVE SYRUP, PHOSOPHOL EMULSION and a poultice marked KOORINGA BILE BEANS.
The day crawled by like the slowest of turtles. Grandpa and I took turns bedside. In between, it fell to me to straighten up the house. Folding Maddie’s nightgown I found–horror of horrors! – a page torn from Grandpa’s precious Press Democrat. It contained a doll ad that Maddie had colored all over. FLUFFY RUFFLES, it said, THE WORLD’S MOST UP-TO DATE DOLLY. Grandpa would be furious. I crammed the page inside my boot hoping against hope it wouldn’t be missed.
I was so bored I nearly did cartwheels when Maddie and the boys came home. I got to the front door just as my cousins, marbles in hand, dashed out so fast they almost plowed into – Grandma Johnson! There she was on the porch, her field bonnet tied firmly around her chin. Her boots were mud-laden, her apron covered with hop stains. Truth be told, I’d always been a little scared of Grandma Johnson. I never could figure how a woman so frozen-faced could be mother to my mother.
She beckoned us out to her. Big Boy, the Percheron, waited at the curb, straining his harness to swing his head around for a look. Even coming into town by herself, Grandma Johnson had driven the hop wagon.
“I’ve come to take you home with me,” she said. “Your Aunt Ruth came by this morning. Told me Mrs. Collier’s taken a turn for the worse. Asked if you and Maddie could stay with me for a while.”
So that’s where Aunt Ruth was, I thought.
“Stay with you for Christmas?” Maddie asked.
“For Christmas but not for Christmas—” Grandma Johnson untied her bonnet, smoothing her hair back from her eyes. “Big Boy and I, we’re not planning on much of a holiday this year. There’s too much to do. We’ve got hop wires to mend, sacks to sew and that kiln to sweep out.”
Maddie started bawling.
“I believe we’ve all done enough crying for one year,” Grandma Johnson said. “Now get your things.”
We packed what little we owned in a Gravenstein crate. “It’s just ‘til Grandma Collier gets better,” I told Maddie, but her tears began anew.
“What about Christmas?”
“We’ll have Christmas, I promise.”
“Cross your heart?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye.”
A shrill voice called from the hallway. “Anybody home?” It was Aunt Ruth.
“I’ll take care of the crate,” I whispered to Maddie. “You go out and keep Grandma Johnson company.”
“But she doesn’t like me.”
“She likes you fine. Ask her to help you feed Big Boy an apple core from the scrap heap.” That brightened Maddie. Off she went.
Sneaking behind the hall door I could hear Aunt Ruth talking to Grandpa: “It says it’s ‘the greatest remedy of the age,’” she said. “Just a few drops of Peruna and mother will feel so spry we can bring the girls home again.”
“Peruna?” I thought. “Could it really help Grandma feel better?”
“Quackery,” Grandpa snorted. “Have you counted the bottles by your mother’s bed?”
“But what if it’s a miracle cure?”
“Right now the only miracle we need is a cup of that oxtail broth of yours.”
I heard Auntie Ruth’s footsteps receding, then:
“I spy someone’s shadow…” Grandpa’s head popped around the door, sending me squealing. We both laughed.
I held out the purloined newspaper ad. “Grandma says Maddie needs a proper Christmas even far away from home, so I thought maybe we could buy her a doll.” I pointed to the words in big letters at the bottom of the page:
THE WORLD’S FIRST
“Fluffy Ruffles is expensive, Grandpa, but she’s the only doll Maddie wants.”
Grandpa nodded. I could see he understood. Maddie wanted one thing in this world that would not break no matter how hard the earth might shake. He pulled a dollar’s worth of coins out of his pocket. “You’ll need every penny of this. Ask Grandma Johnson to drive you in to Carey’s and buy that doll.” He gave me a hug. “You’re a good girl, Jessica Anne.”
By “good girl,” I knew he meant “big girl.”
“I’ll take care of everything,” I told him.
He kissed me on the top of my head—once, twice, three times. “Pray for a miracle cure so we can bring you girls back home.”
I took a good, wide stance next to Maddie on the flat bed of the hop wagon. We held tight to each other as Grandma Johnson clucked just once. Big Boy eased forward, the wagon lurched and yet somehow we managed to stay on our feet. Grandpa waved from the porch, but we couldn’t wave back. All we could do was shout our goodbyes as Big Boy pulled slowly west down Cherry Street.
Next time: “A Way Back,” by Healdsburg author Steve Cotler. Jessie wishes she could get away from Grandma Johnson and return to the Colliers’. Then comes an idea.
Read more about the Santa Rosa of 1906 in this 2006 Press Democrat story.
A storyteller on the page and for the stage, Amanda McTigue has had a heck of a wild ride these past couple of months. Her debut novel, GOING TO SOLACE, was just published in August, 2012 by Harper Davis. Already a favorite with book clubs, Amanda’s been making appearances to talk about her novel both locally and nationally via Skype. In November-December, she’s traveling the East Coast on a book tour that included stops at hospices from Washington DC to Atlanta GA. Meanwhile, here in Sonoma County her original text for a Choral Concert commemorated the opening of The Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. A member of the fourth class of undergraduate women at Yale, a stage director and a concept writer for international design firms like Walt Disney Entertainment and Paramount, Amanda considers herself a busy, happy writer. Learn more at her website.
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