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: Jessie must choose to buy the doll for Maddie or to secretly purchase the elixir Peruna that might help Grandma Collier get well.

To see all the chapters, click here.

Chapter 6 – Two Secrets



I bought the doll and hid it in the hop wagon amidst Grandma Johnson’s other goods. Back at the ranch, when Maddie and I were alone, I mentioned I was hoping somehow to buy a bottle of Peruna for Grandma Collier. In my sternest whisper, I told Maddie to keep the medicine a secret, but she had to go ahead and spill the beans to Grandma Johnson about it. I told her once, I told her twice to keep that between us, but she goofed. She even knew she goofed, how she wouldn’t look at me after she said, “I’m hoping we get that medicine for Grandma soon, and then, we’ll be back in our beds and hopefully I’ll have a doll to sleep with.”

I didn’t think about it until later, but she said Grandma, not Grandma Collier, and I wonder if that is one of the reasons why Grandma Johnson got a sadder face than usual. She has to know Grandma Collier is mostly our favorite.  “Those medicines are just syrup, they won’t fix a thing,” Grandma Johnson said and I hated her right then. She didn’t want us to be happy with Grandma Collier, she just wanted us to be miserable like her. I didn’t say anything though, I just glared at Maddie and skipped ahead acting like kicking that rock up the road was the most important thing in the world. Later, in bed, Maddie asked me if the Peruna was just syrup and if it fixed people like new why wasn’t it free. That got me thinking so hard my head was swirling like mixing cake batter. Just before I fell asleep I found myself wishing I could ask Mama about all this, which left me wondering how sad Grandma Johnson must be, because she can’t talk to her daughter at all. And then, I didn’t hate her so much.

Today Grandpa came by in a borrowed wagon out to the ranch to let us know he had a surprise. While we got in the wagon, he went and whispered with Grandma Johnson. He told us that he invited her to dinner, but she said she wasn’t sure if she was up for a merry gathering just yet. “You’ll want to work on her later,” he said. “If anyone can convince her to come, it would be you two.” He wouldn’t even give us a hint of his surprise, even though we badgered him all the way.

The secret turned out to be that Grandma Collier was out of bed, bundled up and sitting in the sunshine on the front porch watching the autumn leaves fall. She even drank a whole bowl of soup! When we got there, Grandpa helped her back to bed. She was smiling as he tucked her in and Maddie took credit for getting her better, saying she prayed the hardest for a miracle, so hard it made her forehead hurt.

Grandma Collier said she was going to get better darn quick and that she was going to have everyone for Christmas dinner and Maddie and I would be Aunt Ruth’s helpers from now till almost dark to get the house ready because, although she felt better, she would still need lots of rest so she didn’t wear herself out. Grandpa cornered us in the yard and told us just about the same thing, in case we didn’t understand the first time. “Help your Aunt Ruth. Grandma has big plans and we’ll all want the house to look pretty.”  He said this with one of his smiles, the kind he does when he’s got a secret or something up his sleeve.

First, Aunt Ruth had us sweep and dust every little nook and cranny. We’d report back to her after every task and she’d give us another, sometimes with a cookie or sometimes just with a pat on the head. Maddie did more moving of dust than dusting, but that’s okay, at least she wasn’t complaining. She found two spiders and let them outside in her hand, telling the second one to go find his friend. “That way he won’t be lonely.” For all that selfish wanting of that doll, Maddie can also be such a softie sometimes.

Grandma Collier sent us back to Grandma Johnson with pieces of pumpkin bread in a cloth napkin, and instructions to fill her house with laughter. This was the funny part, over at Grandma Johnson’s Maddie and I don’t feel like laughing at all. Grandma Johnson is so serious; she’s like a lump on a log, just staring into space. I’m not even sure she’d hear us laugh anyway.

On Christmas Day, we went for a walk at the ranch with Grandma Johnson to look at all the funny mushrooms coming up along the road and afterward, Grandma went to her room to rest. That’s when Maddie and I started to poke around on the bookshelf. I picked up a book and read one line and then skipped a page and read another. Maybe we were laughing a little, when Maddie noticed that behind the books was a little wooden box. It was Maddie who pulled it out. I told Maddie to put it back right away but I didn’t tell her fast enough.

Grandma Johnson cleared her throat behind us. Maddie and I froze, unable to put the box away. Grandma came over, and with tears her eyes took the box right out of Maddie’s hands.

And then she did something unusual. She put the box down and held both our hands, mine in her right, Maddie’s in her left. “In this box is something of your mother’s and mine. It’ll be yours one day, if you like. And there’s a note from Rachel that I hid away …” She shook her head at us and we leaned back as if blown by a cold wind  “… but, evidently, not hidden well enough.”

I wanted to read that note badly, yet at the same time I was afraid of both the words and Grandma Johnson. How much trouble were we in for snooping? I vowed right then and there to never go through someone else’s bookshelf again. The excitement was overwhelming; it was difficult to force myself to breathe. It didn’t matter how much Grandma might scold us; something from our mother was in that box.

Next Time: Chapter 7: “The Gift,” the conclusion by Press Democrat Columnist Chris Smith. Grandma Johnson shares the contents of the box, and the message the girls’ mother left behind.

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

Stefanie Freele’s newly released short story collection; Surrounded by Water (Press 53) includes the winning story of the Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Her first collection, Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press) was a finalist in the John Gardner Binghamton University Fiction Award and the Book of the Year Award. Stefanie’s published and forthcoming work can be found in magazines such as Witness, Sou’wester, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, American Literary Review, Night TrainEdge, and Pank. Learn more at her website.


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