Jacob's Wish, Conclusion
We always ate Christmas dinner at 1:30. By noon, Mom wanted to know where Dan had disappeared to. Allie’s a real sport, but she’s a horrible liar. Finally she said, “He’s getting David out of jail. That’s all I know. Dan said it wasn’t serious and that they’d be back in time for dinner.”
You could have cut the silence with scissors. Mom went to the bathroom and came back ten minutes later, eyes red and fresh powder on her face. Dad sat in front of the television and made conversation with Bob Berringer. The phone rang awhile later, and it was Dan, saying they were running late. I saw Dad cup his hand over the mouthpiece and say something, but the call ended quickly.
I think some days are just cursed in multiple ways. A few minutes before we carried the food out to the table, I walked into the kitchen to find Messie lying on top of the casserole dish of stuffing. Mom always made extra turkey stuffing and baked it in a large oblong dish. It and the turkey were the last items to be hauled over from the Berringans’ oven. The stuffing was still covered with aluminum foil, and I guess it felt like a nice warm little bed for Messie. But her weight had made a tear in the foil, and she had discovered something edible under there. At least it was still too hot for her to plunge in with all paws. I rushed over and lifted the cat up and out, tossed her on the floor, and lifted her onto the back porch with one swift swing of my foot, just as Mom came in.
“Mom, we’ve got a problem.” She looked at me tiredly. “Messie got in the stuffing.”
Mom came over and stood beside me. We both looked at the dish, its foil crumpled and bits of stuffing scattered here and there.
“You may as well know,” Mom said, carefully lifting off the foil, “that the cook can have secrets sometimes.” She spooned the stuffing into a prettier serving dish, handed the dish to me, and nodded toward the dining room.
At 1:30, Dad said grace and we ate Christmas dinner, my brothers’ two chairs empty. We talked about the food, about Father’s wonderful homily at last evening’s service. Elda asked where the boys were, and Dad said there was an errand that couldn’t wait. I could hardly taste my food, and Marci choked down hers, quieter than I’d ever seen her.
After dinner, we cleared the table and built up the fire. We picked up stray wrapping paper and ribbon to throw away. We put out trays of cookies and candies. Mom made a fresh pot of coffee. Marci cuddled into Allie, a new alliance formed. I felt a little jealous. Having already decided that I would never tell anyone when my first period started, I knew I’d miss out on this sort of sisterly companionship.
At 3:30, the Berringers thanked us warmly, gave us all hugs, and walked home. Although I hadn’t noticed, for all that was going on that day, the sun had shone bright since morning, and the temperature risen enough to melt the ice on the sidewalks.
At about a quarter past four, we heard the back door open and my brothers’ voices echoing from the attached garage. No one moved. My mother’s face looked pinched, and Dad had no readable expression. My heart sank. David had finally done an unforgivable thing, and nothing would be the same in our family. It was the holiday, and my parents were good people and would not throw things or scream obscenities. But they had reached their limit.
“Hey everybody.” David’s voice was soft. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas!” I tried to raise communal spirit with the tone of my lone voice.
“Sorry we’re so late,” said Dan, looking unruffled. “Talk about a comedy of errors.”
“What happened?” Mom’s voice was thin.
“We’ll explain it later.” Dan heaved a shopping bag onto the couch, bulging with several wrapped gifts. “Open your gifts first.”
My parents were so spent that they didn’t argue, didn’t insist on an explanation then and there. We opened our gifts from David—a leather purse for me, a gorgeous scarf for Mom, a Gap gift certificate for Marci, a cool jacket for Jonathan, a CD player for Dan and Allie that could attach to a kitchen cabinet. I noticed no gift in Dad’s lap. He was watching the rest of us, his face pale and passive.
“Okay, now everybody come outside.” Dan continued to be in charge. He exchanged a smile with Allie, who was as confused as the rest of us. Dan flipped on the yard light, then opened the front door, and we filed out and stood in a little row on the edge of the drive, trying to make out the object parked there. There was David’s car with a trailer hitched to it. Whatever was on the trailer was covered with a heavy tarp, tied down on all sides, snow and ice still in its creases. Dan and David starting untying it; after a moment, Dad helped. The sun had just set, and there was enough light to see a soft blue appear as the tarp slid away. Upon the shiny surface, artful white letters spelled out JACOB’S WISH.
It was Grandpa’s rowboat. Only this was hardly the wreck we’d seen in the barn. Totally refurbished, painted and varnished, it looked brand new, bright, as if never before set upon the water.
“Oh my gosh, look!” Marci brightened up and pointed. The middle seat of the boat was the wide, refinished seat of some ancient tractor. Imbedded along the top rim of the sides were polished harness buckles, various latches and handles, even a few chain links. On the front, a small post jutted up, attached to it the lantern David had picked out of the barnyard. Other items I couldn’t even identify, and I couldn’t tell how they were attached or why.
“This is . . . it’s like a work of art.” Mom walked slowly around the boat, wrapping her sweater around her.
“It’s a sculpture,” stated Allie. “It’s gorgeous, David.”
Jonathan and I took turns saying, “Wow.”
“I’m learning in my spare time.” David’s fists were jammed in his pockets. “A guy I work with does this kind of thing from stuff he finds in junkyards. He’s got some pieces on exhibits in galleries. I asked him for help, since I’d never done anything this big, or elaborate.”
He looked at Dad, who stared at the boat. “But, uh, there was a mix-up. We just finished a couple of days ago, and it was parked at his place—he’s got a fenced-in lot. I left a message about picking it up yesterday evening when I got off work, but his little girl erased it, or something. Anyway, when I came to get it, they weren’t home. I figured they were gone for the holiday, so I picked the lock on the gate—it’s never been locked before, because somebody’s always been there. I’d been in and out of that lot for nearly a month, so the neighbors wouldn’t think anything of me being there.”
Dan broke in. “But the neighbors weren’t home either. And—get this—the guy’s brother had that day installed an alarm system while they were gone. It was a surprise Christmas present.”
We all moaned.
“So he got arrested for breaking and entering.”
“You were in jail?” Mom was trying not to panic after-the-fact.
“Well, you know, it was chaos there at the precinct. It's Christmas Eve, they're shorthanded, there were two traffic accidents I heard about while I was sitting around waiting for them to either lock me up or let me go. And an ugly domestic dispute about which parent got the kids for Christmas. And Joey—the guy who owns the lot—was out of town and couldn’t be reached.”
“Why didn’t you call us?”
“I kept thinking it would work out and they’d let me go. Then it was too late to bother anybody.” His voice sounded small and unsure. “I knew you’d be upset . . . I don’t know. I should’ve called but everything was so screwed up.” He was standing near our mother, hoping for a pardon. “I’m really sorry I missed dinner and everything.”
She reached up and wrapped arms around him. “It’s beautiful, sweetheart,” she said into his hair. Then she let him go and, in the way only moms do really well, signaled to the rest of us to leave Dad and David alone. So we returned to the house. Marci announced that she was starving, and she, Mom, and Allie started pulling out leftovers.
Then Jonathan and I did an inexcusable thing. We crept into the garage, stood up on a crate, and watched our brother and father through the window in the top of the door. You have to understand that in a large family the boundaries get laid early, and you learn not to tromp on anyone else’s privacy, anymore than you’d want your own privacy invaded. But that Christmas, I needed to know if my family would be all right, if Dad would be able to receive David’s gift and if David would be able to be part of the family the way a brother should.
We could see it clearly: Dad wiping his eyes with a handkerchief, David standing close, trying to grin so Dad wouldn’t feel embarrassed. Then Dad kept wiping his eyes and nose as they walked around the boat together, pointing at this article and that, and I could see that Dad was telling David something about the history of the pieces. And I could tell from David’s gestures that he was trying to explain the process of how he and his friend had done the assembling. By the time they’d walked all the way around the boat, they were both grinning. They turned to go into the house, and Dad caught my brother by the shoulder. They hugged then, a long, fierce man’s kind of hug, and walked in the front door. A moment later, the yard light went off.
Jonathan and I didn’t say anything but put back the crate and sneaked into the house. The place was noisy with a ballgame on, and people in the kitchen piling up turkey sandwiches. I helped Jonathan attend to the dogs and cats, who each got a bit of plain turkey with their food.
I like to remember that Christmas now because to me it’s proof of how powerful a gift can be. What we give to another person can contain our very heart. Gifts can heal, the way JACOB’S WISH soothed Dad’s pain after Grandpa’s death. Gifts can reconcile; things were better between David and our parents after that. And gifts can pull together all our old pieces, making a work of art that’s entirely new and shiny.
So we’re all gathering again, through weather and across miles. I’m now the only unmarried kid, and all the married ones but Jonathan have kids of their own. At my parents’ house will be a collection of adult children, toddlers, the pets of three different families, and the newest addition to our family: David and Clare’s infant daughter, Alice. You can just imagine the activity, the chaos, and the love.
[Copyright 2008 Vinita Hampton Wright]