A Difference of One by Ellie707
Christmas Story contest entry
Word Count: 2,528
"Another Christmas alone," sighed Rose as snow fell in great flakes against the windowpanes. She was sitting by her fireside, looking out into the street from her home in London. People hurried by with their cloaks wrapped solidly around them, their heads bent to the wind. Church bells pealed in the distance. Christmas loomed on the horizon with only bittersweet memories to keep Rose company. She wouldn't be utterly alone, for sorrow and grief were daily companions. She pushed back the morbid thoughts even as tears formed in her eyes. She quickly blinked them away at the sound of Bertie's approaching footsteps.
"Mrs. Fletcher, would you like . . ." Bertie stopped abruptly, "a cup of tea?" she finished, her old crinkled face softening, her usual brisk tone now gentled.
Bertie poured the mahogany colored tea in the blue and white flower-patterned cup. She handed it to Rose then placed plates of delicate sandwiches and cookies on the small table.
Bertie shuffled to the fireplace and stoked the fire. "Do you need anything else?" Rose noted the worry etched in her lined face. A more faithful servant no family could ever find.
"I'm fine, Bertie." Rose smiled warmly. "Happy Christmas to you and your family."
"And Happy Christmas to you, Mrs. Fletcher."
"Not so happy," she murmured as Bertie bustled out of the room.
Rose studied the flickering candles as they cast long shadows against the wall. She traveled back in time as memories flooded her soul . . . Oh, the joy of Edmond's smile, his eyes lighting up at the sight of her -- not occasionally, but every time he saw her! The strength and comfort of his arms . . . the lilt in his laughter . . . the beautiful flowers he brought her from their garden. So many things! Forever gone! And now in their place, the emptiness and lingering loneliness.
"Life isn't fair," Rose quietly murmured.
"No, ma'am, life isn't fair. 'Tis especially dreadful for a forty year-old widow, too, that it is," Bertie said, shaking her head sadly.
Bertie's reply startled Rose for she hadn't realized Bertie had returned. She recalled Bertie's sorrow and shock when she discovered Mr. Fletcher slumped over his desk two years ago.
"Oh, Bertie." Rose's cheeks warmed. "I was thinking of Edmond and the children."
Bertie nodded her understanding.
Rose hesitated before speaking. "Remember how Philip would cry in the night for his Mum, even several years after she passed away. I'd go to his room and stay until he fell asleep. When he was older he confessed that he was afraid of the dark, but he didn't want Harry to tease him. And how many times you made lamb stew for Harry. Lamb stew for lunch, lamb stew for dinner. And the Christmas Philip put curry powder in Harry's eggnog. Harry was livid!" Rose stopped reminiscing. "I wonder - if they think of me - as I think of them," she said, her voice wistful.
"I, uh . . . I came back to ask if you'd . . . like to come for Christmas dinner," Bertie stammered.
Rose was touched. She recalled Bertie's anger with her stepchildren in neglecting her the last two holidays.
"How kind of you, Bertie, to think of me, but one of the children may stop by and visit. They have before, you know," she said softly.
Bertie inhaled deeply. "Begging your pardon, Mrs. Fletcher," Bertie said gently, but firmly, "that was when Mr. Fletcher was alive. I may be speaking out of turn, but you have nary heard from them for two years. They're busy young men, with families of their own. If you haven't heard from them by now, they're not coming." Bertie nodded her head vigorously.
"Yes, I know they're busy, and they haven't written," Rose conceded. She shuddered when she thought of her many trips to the post and of Mr. Smythe, the local postmaster.
Arthur Smythe was a balding, middle-aged widower who had the queer habit of twitching his left eye, which unnerved Rose. Rose suspected he was smitten with her, and shortly after Edmond's death, he had pursued her company. Rose graciously refused, but he was undeterred. Although she loathed going to the post, a desperate yearning to hear from Harry and Philip overpowered her aversion.
At first a few letters and notes trickled in, but eventually they ceased. Sometimes, on a good day, Bertie would tease Rose about "besieging and barraging the poor postman with your daily inquiries."
"Good morning, Mr. Smythe. Is there a letter for me today?" Rose would pleasantly inquire each time, without variation.
"No word today. I'm sorry, Mrs. Fletcher. Perhaps tomorrow?" he would add, his left eye twitching incessantly. She suspected he took a fiendish delight in seeing her hopes rise like the waves of the ocean, only to come crashing down again.
Bertie's voice brought Rose back to the present.
"Mrs. Fletcher," Bertie bravely plunged on, "you can't expect too much from children that aren't natural born, even if they were young boys when you married Mr. Fletcher."
Bertie had hit a nerve in Rose's heart and it throbbed like an aching tooth. The only disappointment in her marriage had been her inability to conceive.
"From the first I loved them, and they loved me. Yes, they did," she said quietly as if to reassure herself. "They were so precious -- so lost. How happy it made me when Harry first called me Mother, and of course, Philip followed." Rose's voice trailed off, remembering.
"Yes, ma'am," Bertie's voice softened before continuing. "I know that, Mrs. Fletcher, and even the children know that, but . . ." she paused.
Bertie heaved a deep sigh, a visible sign she was upset. She straightened her frame and squared her shoulders like a naughty soldier facing his superior officer on charges of misconduct. "In the twenty years I've been your housekeeper, I've seen the many sacrifices you and Mr. Fletcher made, even sending them to university. It's just that, Harry, being a doctor and newly married, he's busy. Can't expect too much of him. And Philip's soliciting job demands long hours. If they were coming, one of them would've written by now." Her speech finished, Bertie smoothed the crease from her pristine apron with a gnarled hand.
Abruptly, Rose stood, her skirts rustling as she walked to the mantle. She clasped her hands tightly, staring into the crackling fire as if some magical answer would materialize. "You don't have to make excuses for them, Bertie. Their abandonment and rejection only adds to my sorrow." You can grieve for the living as much as for the dead.
She gently fingered the family portrait, remembering happier times. "I appreciate the invitation, but please understand I must decline."
"Yes, ma'am. Again Happy Christmas to you," Bertie said, exiting the room.
Rose thought how time had not mitigated her loss. She missed Edmond and the children so. Even taking over Edmond's tailoring shop hadn't diminished her loneliness, though she was grateful that it supplemented the moderate sum he left her.
Silence was a voice Rose knew only too well, and as darkness descended, she couldn't tolerate the empty house a moment longer. She threw her cloak around her, wrapped a scarf loosely over her head and stepped out into the falling snow. She trudged along with barely an acknowledgment of passersby who tipped their hats or smiled in greeting. A few blocks later she passed a group of carolers on the street corner singing Joy to the World.
It was too cold to be out with no destination in mind. Miserable and shivering, she slowed her steps and stared at the tall, impressive stone building. "St. George's Church. All are welcome," the sign read. God. She hadn't thought much about God since Edmond's death. Sorrow had locked her heart shut, blocking the entrance of any hope of spiritual comfort.
The frigid temperature propelled her to seek temporary shelter and warmth inside the church. She passed through the carved, wooden doors and heard the minister's deep voice, ". . . . in the journey of life it only takes one to make a difference -- to change the course of human events, to comfort a grieving mother, to still a crying child, offer a helping hand to a neighbor. A word, a deed of kindness, my friends, costs nothing, but is of great value to the recipient. Love gives. God gave . . ." The minister's words pierced her heart. A tiny ray of hope sputtered to life in her dark soul bravely pushing the darkness back.
Rose's mind drifted back to the minister's words. "We are the recipients of the blessing of the miraculous birth of the Christ child. Love came. God loaned us His Son for thirty-three years before calling Him home. Love gave, and that love made a world of difference."
Like the sun slowly bursting over the horizon, the realization dawned on Rose that life is a journey. Each day is precious, and for better or worse, individuals can make a difference. She had thoroughly enjoyed twenty years of her life with Edmond and had the privilege of loving and raising his children as her own. They were gifts to her, and she treasured and cherished each and every memory. What would her life have been without Edmond? Or his life without her? Edmond had completed his journey. She had been allowed to travel with him only so far. Now she would have to continue her journey without him. The Christ child -- Savior of the world. He had fulfilled his purpose and had made a difference. So had Edmond, thought Rose, rising to leave. But had she?
Chilled and exhausted, she arrived home and collapsed into a wing-backed chair by the fireplace. I'm to continue my life alone. The truth slammed into her with hurricane force. Rose uncorked her bottled grief and allowed the tears to flow unhindered. With a firm resolve she re-opened her heart to God and accepted the loss of Edmond and possibly, the children. That although she was alone, she wasn't. God promised to be with her.
At last, Rose composed herself. A deep inner stillness and peace pervaded her being. She pondered her new life with the endless possibilities before she retired for the evening. How could she make a difference?
* * *
Church bells chiming awoke Rose later than planned on Christmas morning. Sitting up and stretching, she delighted in the beauty of the sun shining on pristine snow-flocked trees. The icy fingers of despondency and despair had released their tight grip on her heart and peace abounded. What made the difference? As she recalled the minister's words, a loud knock interrupted her thoughts. Quickly wrapping herself in a dressing gown, she hurried to the door and opened it a crack.
Her eyes widened. Bleary, blue eyes and red-stained cheeks in a strong intelligent face caused her heart to thump.
"Happy Christmas, Mother!" Harry entered and removed his hat and gloves. "I've been traveling since very early this morning. I planned on coming yesterday, but Mrs. Barnett decided to have her baby."
Speechless, Rose gaped.
"Since you haven't responded to any of Philip's or my recent letters, and Christmas being the time of year it is, I decided to come personally and fetch you to spend the holidays with Hannah and me. Now that I'm here, you can't refuse." He stretched out his arms for her embrace.
"Letters? I . . . I didn't get any letters!" stuttered an astonished Rose. "After your father died, I felt you didn't want anything further to do with me," she whispered, tears welling in her eyes.
"What?" Harry boomed, his voice incredulous. "Whatever are you talking about? We wrote you -- you didn't respond, save a time or two after Father's death. Why, I ran into Arthur Smythe on two different occasions when he was in Colchester. I inquired after your welfare, and asked him to convey to you our kindest regards and deepest affection. Smythe said you were doing splendidly and even had a few suitors. We thought you were busy pursuing a new life and had no time for us," he concluded, dumbfounded.
"Suitors! There are no suitors, and there were no letters! I went to the post almost every day. Mr. Smythe relayed no word to me." In that moment, she realized what Mr. Smythe had done and why.
"Why, that cannot be!" Harry thundered hotly, his face flushed. Agitated, he paced back and forth like a caged lion Rose had seen at a circus.
"I'll talk to Philip and we'll investigate the matter with Smythe's superiors immediately."
Rose slumped in a chair and burst out crying. "I thought you'd forgotten me!"
Harry knelt and wrapped his arms around her. "We didn't forget you," he said, his voice rich with tenderness. "You're the only mother Philip and I have known since we were small boys. We love you. You've touched our lives in more ways than you'll ever know. You've shown us the meaning of unselfishness and encouraged us to pursue our dreams. You and Father were always there for us. I've often thought how terribly different our lives might have been if Father hadn't found you after Mum died."
Trembling, Rose wiped her tears. They did love her!
"You must make haste and pack now, Mother." Harry hugged her tightly and kissed her cheek.
"Yes, dear." Rose hurried upstairs.
The holidays with her sons and their families were even more wonderful than Rose could have imagined. The days drifted by in a happy blur until it was past the New Year and time to return home.
A smiling Bertie greeted Rose upon her arrival home. "Mrs. Fletcher, pleased I was to get your note. How was your holiday with the boys?" Regardless of their ages, for Bertie, Harry and Philip would always be "the boys."
"Splendid! Just splendid!" Rose couldn't keep the gaiety from her voice. She decided against telling Bertie about Mr. Smythe.
A week later after returning home, Rose wrote Harry and Hannah a thank you note for their gracious hospitality. With fear and trepidation, she trekked to the post.
Upon entering the post office, she was greeted by Clive Larson, a parishioner from St. Thomas' Church. "Good morning, Mrs. Fletcher. I'm the new postmaster."
"Oh! What happened to Mr. Smythe?"
"He left rather abruptly, that he did." Mr. Larson handed her a letter from Harry. With shaky hands she read that Mr. Smythe was forced to resign pending charges of mail fraud. True to their word, Harry and Philip had followed through.
Rose breathed a sigh of relief. She wouldn't have to face Mr. Smythe anymore. And even though Edmond was gone, all joy had not died with him. Circumstances would not dictate her happiness and she'd pursue it fearlessly. Indeed, with her hope rekindled she was strengthened to face life. She had made a difference in their lives and now they were making a difference in hers.
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