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The Crèche

"What had become of a treasured family keepsake?"

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Becky Patterson arrived at the coffee shop short of breath after hurrying from the only parking spot she'd been able to find, five blocks away. Her hair disheveled and face rosy from the brisk walk, she slid into a seat opposite her sister and gratefully accepted the mug of steaming liquid pushed toward her.

"Sorry I'm late. I thought I'd allowed enough time to get here, but I wasn't counting on the rush of Christmas shoppers. It's a madhouse out there!" Glancing at the crowd through the window, she sighed. Unlike the happy throngs on the sidewalk and in the nearby stores, she had been unable to muster a scintilla of holiday spirit, and a sharp pang of emptiness stabbed at her as, while silencing her cell phone, she caught a glimpse of the wallpaper image: a photo of her mother.

"It's all right. You made it safely, that's the most important thing. Besides, I only got here a few minutes ago myself, and you had to drive further than I did." Zan paused. "Maybe that's why we don't do this more often — or, well, ever."

She flashed a sardonic grin along with the last comment: It was true that they had never before met for coffee, rarely seeing each other outside of family gatherings and sometimes not even then. But the events of nearly three months earlier had drastically altered their lives and their relationship. It was a mutual, if unspoken, decision that they needed to make time for one another, as well as for their brother.

"How was the drive?" she asked when her sister didn't pick up the conversation.

"It was fine," Becky replied with a dismissive shrug. "The roads were clear — no snow...or ice."

They locked gazes briefly before Becky looked away, putting her hand to her mouth and staring across the room.

"Nobody could have known the storm would move in so fast or be as bad as it was, especially since it was only September. Everyone was taken off guard," Zan assured her after a moment.

"I know. But it still feels...almost surreal," Becky mused. "Not just the accident itself, but everything that followed. Sometimes it seems that such a bizarre set of occurrences couldn't possibly have actually happened, that I must be trapped in a bad dream, or on an alternate universe or something."

"Well, except for the fact that it would mean you were insane..." — Zan checked to see this had succeeded in producing at least a wan smile — "...I wish it were true. Unfortunately, as we all know, it isn't."

No, Becky knew full well that all of it had really taken place: Their mother had died in a car accident when an unseasonably early ice storm swept through the region; after witnessing the crash, Becky had waited alone for hours until her brother and sister made their way to the hospital on roads that had since closed; and just a week later their father had turned against his children, ordering them away from his house as they attempted to sort out their mother's personal possessions the morning after her funeral. The last had occurred so quickly that it was difficult for her to process what was happening at the time, but her siblings had reacted swiftly both to his shouted accusations that they were stealing from him when they tried to find the list their mother had made detailing how she wanted her items to be shared, as well as to his threats to call the police if they didn't leave immediately.

"I am in awe of how fast you and Tom moved that day. It just didn't sink in with me — I couldn't believe we were being banished from our childhood home, and all because we tried to fulfill our mother's last wishes. But you two! You scooped up your coat and purse and warned Tom all in one motion, and he packed my suitcase as well as his own and was shuttling me out the door about 30 seconds later."

"It comes with our jobs, Bec. Cops and lawyers can usually tell whether a threat is idle or genuine, and the old coot was dead serious about calling the police," Zan explained. "Actually, he still is. If we ever go back to that house again, I have no doubt he will report us as trespassers. He has a vendetta against us."

With pursed lips, Becky shook her head. Even though she had nearly come to terms with their father's estrangement, she wasn't sure she would ever understand it. At times she still found herself tempted to contact him, to ask what had set him off so badly, to try to grasp how anyone could despise his own children as it appeared he did — but common sense always intervened before she acted on the notion.

She took a sip of her rapidly cooling coffee and let out another sigh.

"The irony is that the keepsakes we hold dear have very little monetary value, which is what he cares about most. What's he going to do, put them on Craigslist? I can't imagine there would be a big market for old school trophies and ribbons, or family photos, or 30-year-old board games..."

As she spoke, Becky became increasingly agitated, and she felt tears forming.

"Oh my God, Zan, what about the crèche?"

Zan fell uncharacteristically silent, and Becky was at once surprised and moved to see the eyes of her usually unflappable sister glistening as well. Mention of the Nativity set seemed to have brought home the weight of their loss more potently than their skirted discussion of the accident and its aftermath had earlier.

The crèche was possibly the most treasured family heirloom. Their mother had bought the most basic of sets at the five and dime store when Becky was a baby, and one figurine was added to it every year. Beginning when each child reached age 3, they took turns making the annual selection; the choice was always a matter of much deliberation and occasional lobbying efforts by the other two, but it was one of the few things they never argued about, even as sullen and contrary teenagers. In a small but significant way, it had made them feel connected as a family.

"I don't know, Bec, I don't know. Let's just hope he doesn't come across it."

Their conversation continued in a lackluster, desultory fashion, and before long they finished up and left the coffee shop together, separating to head in different directions.

That night while she lay in bed, waiting for sleep that was mulish to come, Becky’s thoughts turned again to the crèche. She shuddered at the thought that their childhood keepsake had been sold, given away or, the worst possibility, tossed out as trash, but there was no telling what their father might have done considering his behavior that day and in the weeks since.

Although she couldn't have prevented anything from happening as it had, she nevertheless felt remiss about the last thing she had told her mother: "We'll be all right." As events had unfolded, their family could hardly be considered all right. Individually, the others might have been coping reasonably well, but she herself was far from fine. She hadn't slept soundly since before the accident, and constant insomnia and nightmares were taking their toll on her both physically and mentally.

However, she kept her troubles to herself — mostly because she didn't feel there was anyone she could talk to about them. Despite the support of friends and a renewed relationship with her sister and brother, she often still felt achingly alone. She frequently caught herself, even after all this time, reaching for her cell phone to call or text her mother, only to be reminded that it wasn't possible — and the void she felt got a little deeper every time.


"Oh crap," Becky muttered out loud as she woke from yet another night of bad dreams and fitful sleep, idly considering how long a person could function without getting a decent night's rest.

It was Christmas morning, and her siblings were due at her home in less than three hours. They had agreed upon a low-key get-together, a late brunch and gift exchange, but she found herself dreading it nonetheless. She would rather be alone and miserable than put up a false front of cheer.

After wallowing in her negative state of mind for a few minutes, she dragged herself out of bed to begin readying the brunch. They would be having a smoked salmon strata, Waldorf salad, roasted new potatoes, asparagus sautéed with minced garlic, insalata caprese, and hot curried fruit. Nothing on the menu was overly difficult or complicated, but it all required chopping, layering or mixing, which Becky set about doing. Her funk began to lift as she worked; she had always enjoyed cooking but had fallen into the habit of not going to any special effort just for herself, so as curmudgeonly as she had felt earlier about guests coming over, she had to admit she was glad to have an excuse to make a special meal.

By the time the others arrived her mood had improved greatly. The bustle and exuberance of their entrance helped to further raise her spirits, and when Tom suddenly caught her up in a welcoming bear hug she rested her cheek against the rough cloth of his overcoat, disarmed but happy with his gesture. The strata and potatoes had just gone into the oven, and after the greetings and wishes of Merry Christmas had been exchanged, Zan joined her sister in the kitchen to help with the final preparations. Meanwhile, Zan's husband, Brad, and Tom carried in packages.

Soon both tasks were complete: The food was ready to be served, and the base of the tree was decked with gifts of all sizes. Amid the last-minute flurry of activity, one package hadn't found its way under the tree, however. A large box wrapped in elegant gold foil paper and topped with a red ribbon sat on a sideboard in the dining room. Zan made a beeline for it when she entered the room.

"Ooh, what's this?" she asked playfully. "It doesn't have a tag."

"Hmm, it must be from Santa. And since it doesn't say who it's for, maybe that means it's for all of us..." Tom appeared as though he could barely contain himself.

Becky smiled upon seeing her sister and brother — a corporate attorney and state police sergeant — eager as children about the mystery package, raising her humor even more, and she decided to play along.

"I don't suppose Santa would mind if we opened it now, do you?"

They gathered around it, Brad positioning himself to lift the lid. He did so slowly, careful not to reveal even a peek at the contents until the last moment. With a flourish at the end, he unveiled the surprise: the crèche.

"Oh my," was all Becky managed to get out before she was momentarily overcome by emotion and sank into a nearby chair.

"Wait!" Zan exclaimed, a stunned look on her face. "You need to open one of your gifts now, Tom."

She hurried to the tree and searched for a minute before returning with a small package. He tore off the wrapping, opened the box within and unwound the tissue paper padding the ceramic object it contained.

"Ah, now the Nativity set is complete," he said with a broad grin, carefully setting the figurine in its place behind the shepherds.

"Um, a sheepdog?" Brad queried. The other three laughed.

"Even at age 3, he presented a compelling argument in favor of his case," Zan admitted with a deferential nod to her brother.

"By the time I came along," Tom began, "those shepherds had quite a flock to keep track of, and when was the last time you saw a shepherd without a sheepdog, especially when they're moving a great distance? It made perfect sense to me."

Becky was still dabbing away tears of joy as she spoke.


"You remember I had two bags when I came out of the guest room?"


"Well, my stuff was already in the car. The other bag I was carrying, besides yours, was Mom's. I grabbed the crèche from the closet and put it in her suitcase, and toted it out right under his nose. I figured it was a safe bet he wouldn't be paying close enough attention to notice what I'd done."

Becky turned to Zan with furrowed brow.

"What about Old Shep? Wasn't he with the rest of the set?"

"He had a broken leg, and was wrapped in tissue in the back of a drawer in Mom's nightstand." After several seconds, she added, "I had no reason to open that drawer. I think Mom was guiding me to him."

"I felt that way too," Tom agreed. "Somehow I knew exactly where the crèche was stored, but I don't have any recollection of Mom ever pointing it out to me. And it wasn't out in the open in an obvious place, it was tucked behind a few other things."

They contemplated this in silence for a few minutes.

"Mom wanted us to enjoy Christmas as much as we did when we were little," Becky eventually said. "Do you two remember the photo of us with the crèche she had in the rec room? Let's do that again."

As if it had been 30 minutes earlier instead of 30 years, the three siblings immediately struck the exact poses they had in the original while Brad snapped pictures with his cell phone. Afterwards, while Becky and Zan peered over Brad's shoulder, craning for a better view of the tiny screen, Tom sat examining the sheepdog with the thoroughness of a jewelry appraiser.

"You mended this...for me," he said in a tone of wonderment, turning the figure over and over in his hands. "You, with the patience of a loan shark, fixed up Old Shep for me, an annoying little twerp."

"Yeah, well, you're not quite so annoying anymore." Zan ruffled her brother's hair in passing. " 'The patience of a loan shark' — that's a good one."

As Becky observed their affectionate interaction, her mind drifted back to a time before they had become impatient and annoying, when they were simply her little sister and brother reveling in the magic of Christmas morning and she their older sibling who had helped perpetuate the joy of their youth. The magic, she had known even then, was of her mother's creation.

"It's funny how one memory can spark another," she reflected aloud, breaking her reverie. "I can practically smell Mom's sticky buns baking."

Without a word, Zan returned to the tree to retrieve another package.

"Be careful, it's delicate," she cautioned as she handed it to her sister. Becky knew before she unwrapped the gift that it was their mother's well-used index box of recipes, and she beamed through fresh tears of emotion as Brad emerged from the kitchen with a tray of the caramel-topped sweet rolls that Zan had prepared in advance from their mother's recipe and slipped into the oven after everything else was done.

"You're a sneaky bunch," she chided them affectionately, "and I love you all."

They spent the rest of the day reminiscing, laughing, and talking, with none of the undertones of jealousy or unresolved hurt feelings that had clouded their relationship for years. More than once Becky paused to think about how thankful she was that they were together for Christmas.

It was late evening when everyone said their goodbyes, and Becky headed straight to bed. She was looking at the wallpaper image on her cell phone, the picture of her mother, when a message arrived from Brad: a photo of the three siblings with the crèche. She smiled and saved it, then flipped back to the wallpaper image of her mother.

"You already knew this, Mom, but it took me a while to figure out: There are a couple of other people in this world I can talk to. I think I'm finally ready to let you go. We really are all right."

With that, she opened the new photo of the crèche and pressed 'Set as Wallpaper.' The phone once again displayed her mother and asked 'Are you sure you want to replace wallpaper?' Becky touched the image and whispered, "I love you, Mom," before selecting 'Yes.'

For the first time since the accident, she slept through the night, and awoke the next morning feeling rested, content and at peace with the world.

© July 2012 by M.P. Witwer 

* * *
Mom's Sticky Buns
350°F, 20-25 minutes

3/4 C milk (scalded)
Add 1/2 C sugar, 1/2 C butter, 2 tsp salt.
Cool to lukewarm.
Dissolve 2 T yeast in 1/2 C warm water.
Stir in lukewarm mixture, 1 egg and 2 C flour.
Beat until smooth.
Stir in 2 C more flour to make stiff dough.
Form dough into large ball in mixing bowl and cover tightly with foil.
Refrigerate dough at least 2 hours.

Grease large baking pan. Prepare a caramel sauce using butter, brown sugar and evaporated milk. Pour sauce into baking pan. Roll out dough. Spread with butter, then sprinkle with cinnamon. Roll up, cut into 24 rolls. Place rolls in caramel mixture. Cover, let rise until doubled.

Bake at 350°F for 20 to 25 minutes. When you take the buns out of the oven, flip over so that caramel sauce drips through. Cover with pecans if you like.
Written by magnificent1rascal
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