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 admits to herself she doesn’t like Grandma Johnson and she wants to return to the home of Grandma and Grandpa Collier. She begins to consider a way to get back to town. Could she secretly buy the elixir Peruna instead of Maddie’s doll, in order to help Grandma Collier get well?
Chapter 5 – Decision Time
By KERRY BENEFIELD
Doggone hop wagon. The ride was so rough I felt like I would drop my money.
The dollar’s worth of coins was tucked in my satchel. It was more money than I’d ever seen, let alone held, but riding in Grandma Johnson’s wagon to town, I was likely to lose it before I even got to the store to buy Maddie her Christmas doll.
The doll. That darned doll.
Grandpa Collier wanted her to have it, that’s why he’d given me all this money and arranged for Grandma Johnson to bring me into town.
But it was money enough to buy the Peruna for Grandma Collier. I didn’t understand him, sending me to buy Maddie a silly doll when for the same money I could have bought the medicine that might have made Grandma Collier stop coughing so we could go home.
Home. That wasn’t ever going to happen. Seemed like Grandma Collier was only getting worse.
Maybe that is why Grandpa Collier wanted Maddie to have that unbreakable doll. Something for her to feel good about when we all knew there was not much happiness to be had, even on Christmas.
With a jolt, the wagon stopped, shaking me from my thoughts, setting the coins to jingling in my purse.
“Child, you get your errand wrapped up and meet me back here in two hours. I’ve got some chores myself but I don’t have all day to spend in town, so don’t you keep me waiting.” Grandma Johnson took Maddie’s hand, turned and started off down Fourth Street without waiting for my reply.
Maddie looked over her shoulder at me. Her eyes told me she wanted to stay with me, but Grandma Johnson had told her some story about needing her to come along with her – all so I could buy the doll in secret. Even with all of her stern ways and long silences, Grandma Johnson also wanted Maddie to have something special this Christmas.
The way these adults are going on about a silly doll you’d think it could solve all of our problems. I squeezed my purse tighter.
Across the street, the big windows at Carey’s were fogged over. It looked nothing like the beautiful emporium that once stood so tall before it was toppled in the quake, but it still had what I needed.
The wind ripped right through my bonnet and I shivered all over. I felt like I hadn’t been warm in ages.
I crossed the street and paused for a moment outside the big windows of the store, but it was cold and I was tired of wrestling with my own mind.
“I have $1 and I can fix this. I can finally fix this whole mess we are in,” I thought as I stepped inside and the warm air enveloped me.
The building wasn’t the same, but the familiar trinkets were all around. There were glass ornaments and silver cups, powder canisters and frames with real glass. I remembered coming to the old store with Mama and Aunt Ruth once, long ago, before Maddie was born. I remembered watching them admire the same trinkets. That day they made plans for the gifts they would someday buy each other. They laughed together and seemed to forget I was there. But I didn’t mind, I liked watching them smile. I hadn’t seen Aunt Ruth smile in ages.
“Winter time maladies are a thing of the past,” the man was saying at the end of the counter, snapping me out of my daydream. He was wearing a hat indoors and his hair was greasy. Maybe that was what Grandpa Collier meant when he talked about salesmen and their snake oil. Maybe all salesmen wear oil in their hair.
The man was selling Peruna. It was the medicine the newspaper said could fix anything.
I didn’t want to give this man Grandpa’s money. But, I thought, if what he says is true, Grandma Collier could take this medicine and get better – better enough to take Maddie and me back in. I could fix this mess. I could buy it now and get to Grandma Collier before Grandma Johnson came back to get me. I could pour it in Grandma Collier’s tea and make all of this go away. We’d be off the ranch and away from Grandma Johnson’s stern ways, away from the silence and the sadness. Isn’t that better than a doll? Am I the only one who sees that? I know Aunt Ruth thinks the medicine might help, but I don’t know if she’d approve of my buying the Peruna all by myself.
“What’s on your mind, darlin’? You look a million miles away,” the man said to me. I clutched my purse tighter.
“How much of the Peruna do you have to take? To get better, I mean?” I asked.
“Not much at all, little lady. This here is powerful stuff,” he said as he handed the brown bottle over the glass counter for me to hold. I let go of my satchel and let it hang from my shoulder, and reached for the bottle. “One dollar will get you all you need.”
“It’s not for me,” I said, turning the bottle over in my hands.
Funny, it didn’t look like much. I couldn’t smell any magic coming from the cork stopper. I was a good reader but the label didn’t advertise secrets or miracles, but it did have the word “elixir.” I wasn’t sure what that meant but I didn’t want to ask.
“Well, whoever it’s for. This’ll get the job done,” the man said as he smiled and waved his hand through the air. He was either trying to keep my attention or to make sure other people in the store saw him and his small stack of brown bottles.
My mind returned to Mama and Aunt Ruth, dreaming and scheming of one day having shiny trinkets to place on their bureaus. Our family never had too much of that kind of stuff but Mama never got sad about it.
“Dreaming is as much fun as having,” she’d say as she tucked a strand of hair behind my ear or pressed her delicate finger to my lips.
Maddie had been dreaming of that doll forever, it seemed. When she wasn’t dreaming of the bed shaking or bricks falling, she was dreaming of her unbreakable doll.
“Dreaming is as much fun as having,” I thought as I put the brown bottle of Peruna back on the glass counter in front of the man with the greasy hair and smooth voice.
Dreaming is good, I thought, but maybe on this Christmas, having something to hold and something to love would be the best gift of all.
“Mama would have thought so,” I said to myself as I made my way to where the dolls are sold.
Next time: “Two Surprises,” by Geyserville author Stefanie Freele. Grandpa Collier takes the girls to Santa Rosa for one discovery. They make another at Grandma Johnson’s ranch.
Read more about the Santa Rosa of 1906 in this 2006 Press Democrat story.
Kerry Benefield is a staff writer for the Press Democrat. She is the newspaper’s education reporter and writes the schools blog, Extra Credit.
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