When your world is shaken apart, who needs Christmas?
When love is ripped from your hands, what do you hang onto?

Seven chapters.
Seven writers.
One holiday story from 1906.

Previously: Grandma Collier takes a turn for the worse. Stone-faced Grandma Johnson comes to take Jessie and Maddie to her hop ranch west of town.

To see all the chapters, click here.

Chapter 4 – A Way Back



Grandma Johnson did not say even one word on the wagon ride out of Santa Rosa. She held the reins, clucked to Big Boy every once in a while, and stared straight ahead as the wagon bounced west toward her hop ranch.

I didn’t talk either.

But Maddie did. She whispered question after question to me. How long will we be staying at the ranch? Why do we have to go? What’s wrong with Grandma Collier? Why can’t Aunt Ruth take care of us?

I shook my head after each question. How should I know?

Then Maddie asked, almost whining, “How will Santa know where we are? He’s going to think we’re still at—“

“Santa knows.” I said quickly, touching the dollar’s worth of coins in my pocket that Grandpa Collier had secretly given me to pay for Maddie’s Christmas present doll. “Don’t you worry. If Santa knows whether we’ve been bad or good—which he most certainly does—then he surely will know what house we’ll be at come Christmas.”

That quieted Maddie down.

We bumped down the road alongside Santa Rosa Creek. I used to catch tadpoles and frogs here. I showed Maddie how I could trap them in a jar. But that was two springtimes ago. I didn’t try to catch any this year. I could have. No one would’ve stopped me. No one would’ve said, why are you having fun catching frogs? Don’t you know your mother is dead? No one would’ve said that.

But I would’ve said it to myself.

I stared at the sky and the thin gray clouds. It wasn’t particularly cold, but I shivered.

When we got to Grandma Johnson’s ranch house, she said we could play outside. But Maddie went inside, so I went to look at the chickens. I like chickens. I think it’s because they are the busiest of creatures. They are always moving around, squawking and pecking. I don’t know why, but I can just stand and watch how busy they are, and there’s something about that busyness that calms me.

“Dinner time, girls,” Mama would say when she used to fling handfuls of chicken feed to them. That’s what Mama used to call those chickens.

I watched the girls for a while. They skittered around the coop, not paying me any mind until I grabbed the pitchfork that has leaned against the wall of the hen house forever. Then they scurried all around my feet, screeching and pushing at each other, trying to get as close to my pitchfork as possible. People say chickens are stupid. And maybe they are, but they definitely knew what I was going to do next. The ground was soft from recent rains. I jabbed the pitchfork in and turned over a big clods of dirt. The girls crowded in. Even with one broken tine, that pitchfork was perfect for digging up earthworms.

Those worms didn’t stand a chance.

Mama loved the ranch. When I was Maddie’s age, and Maddie was too little to tag along, Mama and I would explore—just the two of us—and she showed me all the secret places from her childhood. She had names for every one of these places. Secret names, she told me, that I’m sharing with only you. This is Old Triple Oaks, Mama said when we stood under the three trees on top of the hill behind the barn. It’s the perfect place to picnic, she told me. And we had a picnic there.

More than once.

And if you need to get away and be by yourself, Mama whispered to me one time. If you want to read or daydream or plan something important, I’ll show you my Hideaway.

I lifted the latch and opened the door to the old tack room, and I was in Mama’s Hideaway. Like always and forever, a long bench nestled against the far wall, with horse blankets on it, right where I’d left them. But it wasn’t the same. Mama was gone, and I was stuck out here with Grandma Johnson.

If anybody ever asked me—which no one ever would—Jessie Anne, do you like your Grandma Johnson? I would answer, No, I do not.

There. I’ve said it. No, I do not.

I do not like her, but I suppose I have to love her because she’s the only thing left in the world besides me and Maddie with the same blood as my mother. I know that love is what my father would tell me I should have in my heart. But if that love is in there somewhere, it is buried very deeply. I don’t feel it.

There. I’ve said it.

I sat by myself in Mama’s Hideaway until my ankles got cold. I reached down to rub them and realized the newspaper page I’d stashed in my boot was still there. I walked outside, staring at the paper. As I passed the chicken coop, the girls scurried up to me, hoping, I guessed, that I’d dig up some more earthworms.

The sun was almost down. I could hear Big Boy shuffling around in his stall inside the barn, something Mama told me he always did just before sundown. “Kind of like he’s saying his prayers. Just like you at bedtime,” Mama had explained.

“I know what I’m praying for,” I said out loud to the chickens. “That Grandma Collier gets better real soon, so Maddie and I can go back to town and have a real Christmas.”

As soon as I said it, I realized I had a choice to make. I had that one dollar from Grandpa Collier. The next time I went into town, I was supposed to use it to buy Maddie’s Christmas present, a Fluffy Ruffles Can’t-Break-‘Em Doll. I looked at the doll’s picture in the newspaper.

But what if instead I bought the Peruna medicine? Didn’t Aunt Ruth say it might be the “Greatest Remedy of the Age”? Grandpa Collier said it was quackery, but what if it made Grandma Collier well again?

What if?

Next time: “Decision Time,” by Press Democrat Staff Writer Kerry Benefield. Will Jessie buy the doll for Maddie’s Christmas present or the medicine that could make Grandma Collier better?

Read more about the Santa Rosa of 1906 in this 2006 Press Democrat story.

Steve Cotler, author of the Cheesie Mack series for 8- to 12-year-olds from Random House, is a retired Little League catcher who’s also been a shoe salesman, telecom scientist, singer-songwriter, Apollo 1 computer programmer, Hollywood screenwriter, Harvard Business School MBA, investment banker, and door-to-door eggman. He lives with his wife and writes in Healdsburg. He thinks he is and always will be eleven years old. Learn more at his website.


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