After church, Bernice and Phil had dropped Dee Anna off at the house and headed to the hospital to pick up Bud. After tidying the living room, scrubbing the bathroom and vacuuming the bedrooms, Dee Anna watched anxiously out the window as she washed the coffee cups they had used before heading to church. The morning’s icy wonderland had melted , leaving the front lawn brown and crisp. A cold wind rattled the window pane. Even Ricky Rooster and his harem of hens were nowhere to be seen. Must be huddled in their little coop, thought Dee Anna, feeling forlorn. Kinda like me.
She thought about calling Madeline but decided against it, figuring she would call when she could say she was heading home in a day or so. Hopefully that would be soon. She wondered how church had gone at North Woods Chapel. What a long way away it seemed. And what a long time since Mom and Phil left! Has something happened? Is Dad not coming home?
She wandered about the house a bit, wishing that her parents had bought a television, Must be the only house in town with no TV! She went to her room and changed from her church clothes into jeans and the green sweater she had worn on the airplane. Should have done that an hour ago! she chided herself, easing her feet into her fuzzy slippers. Plopping down on the bed, she picked up My Utmost for His Highest from the bedside table where it rested atop her Bible. Must think about something besides what is keeping the family so long. Maybe good old Oswald will distract me.
After reading the same page three times, she gave up and tossed the little volume on the table. Sorry, old friend, you are too obtuse for me today. Aloud, she said, “I probably could handle Madeline’s book of children’s devotions about now.” She climbed off the bed and knelt by a small bookcase. Wonder what is still in here? Oh, "Winnie the Pooh," "Wind in the Willows," "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan"…does anyone actually read the real books anymore and not the Disney versions? ”Oh,” she cried aloud, seeing a set of thin volumes, “It’s my Madeline books! I thought they were long gone. She sat on the floor, legs crossed, and gently stroked the cover of the first volume, smiling at the long cover picture of little girls in yellow hats. Soon she was reading aloud:
"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
They left the house at half past nine,
The smallest one was Madeline."
She smiled, feeling her spirits lift a little. I really must ask Mother if I can pack these up and take them home to my own little Madeline! Hearing the crunch of tires on the gravel drive, she closed the book and clambered to her feet. They’re here!
An hour later, Bud had settled into his favorite reclining chair, a blanket across his lap. Phi was outside feeding the chickens some leftover bread, and Bernice was on the phone reporting to Pastor Wallace that all had gone well.
Dee Anna kissed her father on top of his head and settled down near him on the couch. “Feeling okay, Daddy?” she asked. “What do you think of the job Phil and I did on the Christmas tree?”
Her father smiled. “The tree looks fine, Kiddo. I’m glad I’m going to be here for Christmas. I feel terrific, actually. I’m tired, but it sure is good to be home.” His smile faded and he said seriously, “Thank you for coming down here and being with your mother. She needed you, both of you kids. I know she wouldn’t say so, but…”
“It’s okay, Dad. I needed to be here. I needed to see you.” Dee Anna paused, reflecting and then added, “It has been good. Phil and I got to reconnect after all these years.”
“Yeah, I was glad about that. I saw how it was with you two. You know about Phil and…” he hesitated, “Well, you know your brother wasn’t doing so good for a long time?”
“I know. I’ve missed him.” She smiled at her father. His round face, usually florid, was looking pale and his face was drawn. She took a deep breath. “Daddy, I’m sorry I have been so out of touch with home. I missed you and Mom too.”
“Honey…” a pained expression passed Bud's face, “Dee Anna, I am the one who needs to apologize to you. Lying in the hospital gives a man time to think. When I wasn’t awake, I wasn’t really out of it altogether either.” He paused. “I thought of so many things. I did some prayin’ too. Many things I’d sure do different if I could. I wasn’t a very good daddy to y’all. I know it now, Dee Anna. I mean…I know I wasn’t a bad man, but I was just…” He sighed heavily. “I was too busy at church, and managing things over at the feed mill, and feeling important. I was happy to let your mother raise you and Phil.” Dee Anna said nothing, but reached over to grasp her father's hand. She saw that there were tears in his eyes. “I know that wasn’t right, Dee Anna. Your mother is a wonderful woman. But…I know she was hard on you children. Too hard…”
Dee Anna felt chilled and wrapped her arms around her body, wondering what to say. An all-too-familiar lump settled in her stomach. “Dad,” she began, but her father held up his hand.
“’No, Dee Anna. I was too much of a coward to stand up to her. It was wrong. She loves you but she just doesn’t know how to show it. Her mama and daddy were upstanding Christians, but…” He paused, face stiff. “Kinda hard people. They didn’t like me much.”
Long moments of silence stretched out as they both gazed at the Christmas tree, lost in their own thoughts. “Daddy,” Dee Anna finally said gently, taking her father’s hand once more. “Daddy, Mama told us. She told me and Phil about falling for you at the dances.” She grinned, “She said you could sing better than Elvis.” Her father smiled back at her, the memory making him look more like his usual self. He nodded at his daughter, waiting. “And she told us the other part too. About how she got pregnant, and how she had to leave home, and….and…it seems kinda crazy to me, holding on to bitterness all those years, but I think it made her scared. Scared that her kids would be wild.” Dee Anna ran a hand over the top of her red curls and shook her head ruefully. She glanced at her father, whose face was impassive. He sat very still. Was he listening? Suddenly the words tumbled out in a rush. “Daddy, I tried so hard to be good. All the time. She has no idea…” Her voice trailed off as she sensed the tightness in her middle spreading to her arms and legs.
“I caint believe she told y’all that stuff! She’s been keeping that to herself for a lotta years. It did something to her, Dee Anna, did something to her heart. Her daddy was so angry with her. Called her…” Bud’s face twisted. “He called her awful names. Said he’d kill me if he thought he could get away with it.”
“Now that’s good Christian behavior!” Dee Anna snorted and then spoke more quietly, “ Oh Dad, it all seems so needless to me! I know she wanted…wants…to be a good woman. Maybe wants to be perfect…and wants us to be perfect too.” Her neck hurt and she felt chilled. What is wrong with me? My father doesn’t need to hear this right now! Unwanted feelings were flooding her body, unwanted memories assaulting her thoughts. She pulled her feet up under her on the couch and squeezed her eyes shut. Think about something else...Horrified, she realized tears were rolling down her cheeks. She dashed them away impatiently, hoping her father didn’t see.
“Dee Anna?” Phil stood in the living room doorway. “Danna, you okay?” He crossed the room and put a hand on her shoulder. “Dad, is she all right? What’s wrong?” Bud shook his head wordlessly, looking stricken. Phil patted his sister’s shoulder, “Sis, what is it?”
Phil felt the tension in Dee Anna’s shoulders and her back shook as she began to cry soundlessly, covering her face with her hands. “I always tried so hard…” Sobs choked her and she stopped.
Phil knelt by her chair and put his arms around her, “I’m sorry, Danna. I’m sorry.” He looked over at his father, who was looking a little grey. “Dad, maybe you should go to bed…?”
“No!” Bud rose, a bit unsteadily, from his chair and sat next to Dee Anna on the worn sofa. “No! It was my fault.” Dee Anna struggled to stop crying, concerned that she would upset her father, but the sobs kept coming.
“Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Phil. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“I do.” Their mother’s voice startled them. She crossed the room and stood stiffly by her children, arms crossed on her chest, misery etched in the lines of her face. “These past days I watched you, both of you kids, and I saw what I’d done. Saw how you were almost afraid of me. I know part of what happened to you, Phil…runnin’ away and not writin’ or callin’ for almost three years…” She looked as grey as their father did as she added, “I know it was partly to get away from me and my…my mouth. And, Dee Anna, I am ashamed of how I treated your Michael when y’all came home. Ashamed, Dee Anna, especially now since…since he’s gone and I can never tell him I’m sorry. And me callin’ myself a Christian woman. Lupita Garcia and her mother think I’m some kind of saint. I know I…”
Dee Anna’s cell phone rang, piercing the silence. “Ode to Joy--how dumb for a cell phone. I have to change that stupid ring!” said Dee Anna angrily. She wiped her nose with a tissue Bud was holding out to her and picked up her phone, glancing at the name and number on its display panel. “It’s Lee Coats from Little Big Foot. He’ll leave a message.”
Bernice was looking at her husband, “Bud, you need to lie down.”
Dee Anna pulled her legs up and put her forehead on her knees, not wanting to look at any of them. Oh, God. I want my Maddie. I want to go home now. And then, with a fresh rush of tears, I want Michael. I want someone who loves me.
The small bedside lamp cast a warm glow around the girlish room, illuminating the bookshelves with their store of childhood classics, the small desk in the corner, the pastel pink curtains at the window and the twin bed covered with a fluffy green and pink plaid comforter. Dee Anna pulled a flannel nightgown over her head and climbed into bed. Leaning back against the headboard and closing her eyes, she heard the creak of a board in the hallway as Phil headed for his room, boot heels clicking on the floor. She crossed her arms over her chest, shivering a little. I thought Phil was going home to his apartment. Thanks to me and my big mouth, he must have decided to stay for another night and make sure Dad is okay. Her head ached and her eyes burned. Stupid crying! I hate crying!
After a few moments, she reached over to the little table and picked up her Bible, flipping it open randomly. The lamplight glowed on the pages, illuminating the words of Isaiah the prophet.
…Prepare the way,
Take the stumbling block out of the way of My people.”
For thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“ I dwell in the high and holy place,
With the one who has a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
She recalled reading that same passage the morning she had awakened in the North Woods Chapel parsonage. She had written the date next to the verses and had added a question mark in the margin. She sat for a while, eyes closed, hearing the soft settling noises an old house always makes at night and feeling the hard wood of the headboard pushing against her back. She glanced down at the open Bible on her lap, remembering the stillness that had surrounded her in the upstairs bedroom of the North Woods Chapel parsonage. She had forgotten about that moment. How strange that i began that day with certainty that i would never live in Little Big Foot. Now I'm feeling homesick for the place.
Placing her Bible on the table, she reached up and snapped off the lamp. Lying down on her back, she pulled the comforter up to her chin as darkness enfolded her. She was tired, but sleep did not come. She heard the water from the bathroom sink running for a moment and the indistinct sound of her mother’s voice. After a long while, something pattered on the roof and she wondered if it was rain or sleet. Faintly, she heard the creak of the long-unused windmill that stood in the front yard. For a long time, she lay still, feeling the odd comfort of being in her childhood room, her own bed from long ago, with her bookcase, and her little lamp. They must have missed Phil and me, she thought sleepily. They left our rooms just as they used to be...Can I go home now, God? Am I done here? The only answer was the tick tock of an old-fashioned wind up alarm clock that sat on the bookcase.
God, I’m not sure if I am humble, but I do know that I feel contrite. I sure need reviving. What was wrong with me, upsetting Dad that way? Why does coming home always have to be painful?
Feeling chilled, she turned on her side and pulled her feet up, wrapping her arms around her body. She sighed. Unbidden, scenes from the previous week played like a movie in her mind. There was Phil at the airport, shockingly thin and looking ten years older than he should have. His warm smile. The hospital room and her father’s still form, hands folded on his chest, making her wonder if he was dead. She could smell that anonymous hospital smell and hear the thup whoosh of the respirator. Sitting in the family waiting room with her mother and brother, listening to Dr. Martin and absently seeing Oprah on the wall-mounted television. Her mother’s unexpected tears and Phil’s even more unexpected suggestion that they should pray. Lupita, with her warm smile and sparkling brown eyes, sympathetic and caring and full of almost unbelievable revelations of a mother Dee Anna had never known. Her mother’s sudden honesty as she sat with her children at the kitchen table. Phil talking, once again, like the brother she had missed so much. Her father’s gentleness as he regained consciousness, and his recovery. The unexpected pleasure of worshipping at her childhood church. Dad at home.
Ah, I’m sorry, Lord. Here I am feeling sorry for myself and when I stop to think, I have to admit that it has, overall, been an amazing week of unexpected revelations and blessings. I’m sorry for being such a baby…what was all that boo hooing about…? She drifted off to sleep.
She was abupry awakened by the sudden ringing of the house phone. Phones are always interrupting us around here, Dee Anna thought. Then she remembered that it was the middle of the night and she sat up, heart racing, and turned on the light.
The little alarm clock said it was 1 a.m. Phil’s door opened and his boots clacked down the hall. He must still be dressed…who's on the phone...? Nobody calls at this hour unless something is wrong! Dee Anna rose quickly. How many rings is that? As she opened the bedroom door, the phone stopped and she heard the rise and fall of Phil’s voice from the kitchen. She headed that direction, and then bumped into Phil in the darkness of the hallway.
“Dee Anna, I’m sorry, but it is someone named Lee. Isn't that the guy who called your cell phone before? He sounds really upset.” He followed his sister into the kitchen, flipping the switch by the door way and squinting as the light stabbed his eyes. Dee Anna was standing at the wall phone, lifting the receiver from where it dangled near the floor. His heart went out to her. She looked so childlike and vulnerable in her flannel gown, hair tousled and eyes swollen from all that crying earlier.
His sister grew silent, listening, and Phil sat down in one of the wooden kitchen chairs. What more is going to happen now? He knew that a middle-of-the-night call from Wisconsin was not going to be good news.