December loomed large and busy; ‘Thanksgiving is next week’ she thought and Julie felt a twinge in the pit of her stomach at the amount of work about to descend upon her; so much to do. She folded the laundry on the bed where she’d deposited the heap from the dryer earlier and pulled on the last blanket; Mimi the cat rolled off as her ‘bed’ was pulled away.
“I want to make this year special,” Julie said aloud to no one in particular, though Mimi took note and answered with a soft ‘meow’.
“Thank-you, I’m glad you approve,” she scratched the cat’s soft, gray head before walking to the kitchen for a coffee break.
‘The List’ of tasks written weeks ago, lay on the counter; it was scheduled to begin two weeks before Christmas Eve. Julie picked it up while she sipped a second cup of coffee. It was entitled ‘Cleaning- One week prior’ and read: Police the yard; make a to-do list for Harry’; clean the fingerprints off the front door; do the floors two days before;’ and on it went with details on fifteen or more tasks. She looked up and tried to think of anything else that might need doing; “no, this should do it’ she confirmed and knew she’d be working right up to the Christmas dinner she prepared each year for the family.
“How many family gatherings have you planned now?” Startled, Julie looked up upon hearing her neighbor’s voice and turned to greet her.
“I didn’t hear you come in, Bella.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to startle you. I knocked, but you were pretty engrossed here. Is this a bad time?” The elderly woman smiled and pulled up a stool to the kitchen counter.
“No, not at all; please join me,” Julie shoved the list away as she held up her coffee. “Would you like a cup?”
“Why yes, but sit still, I’ll get it.” Bella moved easily to the coffeemaker to help herself and retrieved the pumpkin-spice creamer from the fridge.
“Is that another infamous list of work for the holidays?” she asked as she returned with her coffee.
“You know me too well… yes,” Julie answered with a smile, “the list that happens every year,” she toasted in mock sincerity with her cup.
“You okay?” Bella asked. She noticed something new in her friend; a weariness around Julie’s eyes and her cheerfulness, a little forced.
“Sure, I’m fine. I didn’t sleep very well last night and Harry left early this morning for work. I could use a nap,” she said, conscious that her friend was watching her. When Bella moved into the neighborhood last July, she’d explained she was a transplant from Maine for the warmer climate. Her age was never discussed, but her silver hair and aging skin made Julie guess she was somewhere in her early eighties. ‘An old teacher’ she’d told Julie as they sat at the kitchen counter that first time and Julie had come to think of her as a respected friend over the last few months.
She didn’t seem to have any family and there were never any visitors coming up the brick walk to her house. Julie felt a little guilty for having so much family of her own who were always stopping by or calling to check in. Bella was a pleasant, easily conversant woman and it occurred to Julie she’d be well accepted by family as a guest for Christmas, something she’d thought about doing since last month and had best do now before the chance was lost.
“Bella, now that you’re settled in, would you like to come to Christmas dinner with us?”
Bella’s face broke into a smile. “Why, that would be splendid, Julie -Thank-you so much.”
“Well, I don’t know about ‘splendid’, but we would love to have you.” Julie assured her. “It’s pretty standard fare, turkey and all the trimmings, but you’re more than welcome…if you can put up with ‘the relatives,” she joked.
“Now I happen to know that your brothers are very pleasant and so are their wives. And those adorable nieces and nephews of yours will fill the day with laughter,” she declared, then added, “Anything I can do to help?”
“Just come and enjoy yourself, Bella; that will give me pleasure.” Julie told her sincerely.
“Oh, I will,” Bella replied and Julie noticed a little sparkle in her eyes.
One morning, when Julie arrived home after a trip to the grocery, she found the front door was unlocked. She must have forgotten and it didn’t surprise her as she had done the same thing last week. ‘Too much holiday, I guess’ she admitted to herself. Everything appeared normal in the house …except that as she closed the front door, she noticed the smudges under the handle were gone.
‘Harry must have started on my list’ she guessed and took the bag of groceries through to the kitchen. Sure enough, the task had been crossed off the list, but another item was also crossed off and she went to the kitchen window. The fallen leaves on the outside deck were cleared away, too.
“That Harry,” she exclaimed with satisfaction and began to put away the groceries. The next morning, she wrote a note, ‘Thank-you dear for being so helpful, Love from your wife’ and stuffed it into his lunch bag.
Over the course of the final week, the list gradually lost the remainder of its tasks to cross-outs. A good thing, Julie thought, Christmas is tomorrow. She was deep into food preparation and the kitchen was a shambles, but everything that could be prepared ahead of time, was in the fridge when she went to bed.
Harry has certainly outdone himself this year, she thought as she lay down beside him. He was already sound asleep, poor dear. They had barely had time over the last few weeks to talk to each other as he’d worked overtime for a friend who was flying home for the holidays. She gave him a light kiss on the cheek, careful not to wake him before she lay down to join him in a sound sleep.
When Julie awoke at eight on Christmas morning, Harry was already up and the smell of coffee wafted upstairs. ‘Wonderful’ she thought and breathed deeply. She threw on a robe and went downstairs to put the turkey in the oven.
“What…oh my,” She exclaimed and took in the clean countertops and absence of pots on the stove then looked for Harry.
She found a note; ‘I put the turkey in so you could sleep, love – H.’. But that wasn’t all, the kitchen was spotless and the dishwasher was full of clean dishes. He came in just as she poured her coffee and she quickly set the cup down to meet him at the kitchen door with a hug.
“Thank-you for being such a thoughtful husband,” she said into his ear.
“Well, you’re welcome,” he said as he returned her warm hug and kept her in his arms for a little while, thinking this is a surprise, we rarely have time to share hugs anymore.
“You’re the best.” Julie beamed at him and they shared a kiss. “All the yard work and this, too; you’ve really been such a help this year.”
“What do you mean? You’ve outdone yourself, again, too.” Harry said and poured a cup for himself.
“Not like you, but thank-you dear. Now I really have to get dressed before the ‘clan’ arrives. Oh, and I invited Bella for dinner, hope you don’t mind,” she added before she hurried upstairs.
“Bella?” He questioned, but Julie was already up the stairs and didn’t hear. Hadn’t he seen Bella leaving this morning with suitcases and a gentleman? Oh well, Julie probably knows something I don’t, Harry thought and went to turn on the television. The dining room looks great, he thought as he walked by to the livingroom. Julie must have been up pretty late; glad I could let her sleep a little.
Harry’s brothers with their wives and children began arriving just as Julie came down the staircase. They had a hug-fest with everyone in the entryway, all were talking at once; the children, adorable in their ‘dressed-up clothes’. Julie heard someone remark ‘the table looks lovely’ and answered, “oh, very funny, I haven’t had time to do that yet, but would you like to help?”
“But… it’s already set…isn’t it?” Harry asked and they all turned to the adjacent dining room after seeing the blank look on Julie’s face.
“But how…when did…Harry?” Julie turned to him in disbelief; “is this another of your talents I didn’t know about?” But he held up his hands clearly meaning ‘not me’.
She turned to the rest of her guests, but they were clueless as well and she walked into the dining room to take a closer look. The table was beautiful and set with the good china and white napkins tucked into the stemware at each setting. Two fresh flower arrangements of mums and star lilies were placed in the center of the table; their light scent permeated the room.
Before turning back to her family, Julie noticed a white envelope at Bella’s place, addressed ‘To Julie and Harry, and your wonderful family’. She opened it with a dinner knife and unfolded the white stationery note. Reading quickly, she soon read what she needed to know and looked up with a smile.
“Well, shall we get the food to the table and sit down?” They all followed behind her into the kitchen, asking questions, but she was determined to wait until everyone was seated at the table before bringing the letter back out.
I regret I’ll be unable to join you today, I really wish I could be there, but there are things I must take care of. You see, I was moved to your neighborhood as part of a witness protection program and now I’ve been called to testify. I do so willingly and with hope that it will assist in convicting a white collar executive on some very serious charges, but enough of that.
Julie, you made me so welcome in your world and because of you, I was able to live alone and away from my family all these months. Without your kindness and friendship, I couldn’t have endured the slow pace of time.
I hope you enjoyed seeing ‘the list’ go a little quicker this year, and will forgive me for creeping into your house last night to set the table. It was the least I could do, considering what you’ve done for me, and you do have a habit of leaving the door unlocked.
I hope we can meet again someday after the air has cleared. May you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. Love – Bella
It took a few seconds for the letter’s content to sink in then as usual, everyone started to ask questions at the same time.
“Where did she go?”
“How did she do chores without you knowing?”
“How did she cross off tasks on the list without being seen?”
“What did you cross off Harry? And what did Bella? I know she couldn’t possibly have cleared the leaves off the patio,” Julie remarked with a smile. “Okay everyone, we’ll sort all this out later, but right now it’s obvious that a toast is called for. She’s been a good ‘friend’ to us and did some pretty unselfish giving in honor of this Christmas day.”
Julie raised her glass high and said, “To Bella for teaching us the true meaning of Christmas. May she be home with her family soon.” And everyone echoed “To Bella.