Next I passed Miller’s room. I slowly pushed open the door for a peek inside. The door creaked softly and I cringed, not wanting to wake him. Shafts of light from the blinds illuminated the boy sleeping on the twin bed. He was on his belly, twisted in his blue-and-white duvet covered with sailing ships. He wanted his room to be the same color as his adored older brother’s.
Miller had been my surprise child. Like Sarah in the Bible I’d born a son later in life, and he had been my and Alistair’s blessing. Miller was more like me than Alistair and Taylor. He had always been my helper, at my side, watching, observing, readily absorbing anything I taught him. When he grew older, Miller, unlike Taylor, didn’t hold back on his feelings or the gossip from school. He didn’t need the lights out to share his thoughts. Miller talked openly night and day.
Which was why his silence now was so disturbing. I missed my chatterbox. I slowly closed the door again. Today, my focus was on Miller. His heart was broken and he needed my help to get past his anger.
Making my way downstairs, I let my gaze wander the rooms, assessing what needed to be done that day. It was an old house. It had once belonged to a McClellan, another shrimp boat captain, but over the years it had been sold. It was a great day in the Captain’s life when he bought the house and brought it back into family hands. I loved the house even more than he did. The trawler, the Miss Jenny, was Alistair’s terrain. This house with all its wood-paneled rooms and beams, the dentil molding, built-in shelves, was my domain. The navy sofa was lumpy, the plaid fabrics on the wing chairs were frayed, the cane seat of the old rocker by the fire needed recaning, but put them all together and they made a cozy room in the early-morning light. The house was neither large nor grand. But it had history . . . and it was mine.
Clothes lay strewn about on the furniture, dishes were left in front of the television, dying flowers drooped on the table. Entering the kitchen, I paused. Best of all, every morning I could come into this kitchen and greet the day while staring out at my beloved Jeremy Creek. The sight never failed to take my breath away. This time of year the wide creek curved through the vast acres of gold and brown cordgrass like a snake, stretching far out to the Intracoastal and the ocean beyond. I loved this old house, one of the oldest in an old town dating back to 1861. None of the bigger, newer houses along the creek with all their bells and whistles made me wish for more. I had what money couldn’t buy—craftsmanship from a day gone by. Besides, I wasn’t the fancy type. Flannel and denim suited me more than silk and cashmere. And today, boots! It was time for the Christmas Forage!
I reached for my heavy iron skillet from its place of honor over the stove. This treasured heirloom had been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. I’d make a hearty breakfast for Miller. I smiled smugly to myself as I pulled a thick slab of bacon from the fridge. Nothing could lure a boy from his bed faster than the scent of bacon sizzling on the stove.
For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.
—A Christmas Carol
Do I smell bacon? Who can ignore that? I pushed back my covers and went downstairs, sniffing like a hound on the scent. Mama was standing at the big iron stove, humming as she flipped sizzling bacon in the cast-iron pan. She turned and smiled when I walked in.
“Morning, sleepyhead. There’s a stack of pancakes on the table, help yourself. Bacon will be up in a minute.”
I slid into a chair and grabbed the pitcher of warm maple syrup. After drenching the pancakes, I dug in. I’d already eaten two when Mama put several pieces of crisp bacon on my plate. She stood beside me and watched as I hungrily devoured a piece.
“Eat up,” she said with gusto as she turned back to the stove. “We have a busy day ahead of us.”
“Huh?” I swung my head to look at her.
Mama’s eyes gleamed as she picked up her coffee cup. “It’s time for our Christmas Forage!”
The Christmas Forage was an outing that we went on every year. Our mission was to collect pine and fir branches, holly, pinecones, and whatever other decorations caught our eyes in the woods. It was special. Just the two of us. No one else came along. She called me her Christmas helper, but I always teased back that I was really her slave.
I looked up at her smiling face, and her eyes were bright with hope. She knew I was still mad at her and Daddy, that my heart was still aching about the dog. But I knew she felt bad about it and was trying to make me feel better. I wanted to stay mad, but this was our special time. And when I saw that hope in her eyes, I just couldn’t hurt her. I loved her too much.
So I caved. Brusquely, I nodded and went back to my breakfast. I had to save face, after all.
With every step, I heard a crunch in the thick forest floor of leaves. The air was crisp and laden with the musky scent of autumn. In South Carolina the winters come slow. Not till December do the icy winds and frosts hit us, unlike in Chicago where my uncle lives. There are already inches of snow on the ground. Or even in the mountains of North Carolina, where the roads are already slick with ice. People from off always yammer on about how the seasons never change here. They’re used to looking up into the trees to see the colors go from green to yellow, orange, then red. They just don’t know where to look when they’re in our neck of the woods. Mama says that the most magical changes of season occur in the wetlands, where the grass turns gold in the fall, then brown in the winter, then come spring you see the bright green stalks peeking out at the base of all the brown grass, until summer, when the vast expanse is a wonder of waving green dotted with white egrets. We look up and see the migrating birds that stream along our coast on their long journey south in the winter, then back north in the spring. Every fall Mama and I get our binoculars and make a list of all the migrating birds we spot. Yes, sir, here along the coast the change of seasons is a living, breathing miracle.
We walked a few paces, Mama’s stride slow, her head turning with careful scrutiny of the forest floor and leafy canopy. She’s spry like I imagine a woodland fairy to be. When she strolls, her dark hair fans out behind her and her eyes gleam with the joy of the hunt. It’s like being deep in the forest frees her somehow. With each step deeper into the woods the creases and lines of worry leave her eyes and a soft smile rests on her face.
I followed behind her, pulling the rusty, trusty red Radio Flyer wagon that used to be mine when I was a kid. It was a good toy then, but it’s a good tool now. We use it to lug all the loot we gather from our forage trips to the woods, the beach, the docks. We’d been out to the forest earlier in the fall to collect pounds of pecans for her Thanksgiving pecan pies. Mama calls it “going nutting.” She knows a secret spot where the best pecan trees dwell. She won’t tell anyone where it is, save for me.