My first novel, On the Choptank Shores (previously titled Redeeming Grace) is about a young woman, Grace, who is trying to save her little sister Miriam from their verbally and physically abusive father, Luther, a man with a penchant for speaking in biblical verse and using such verses, taken way out of context, to justify his abuse.
But despite Luther’s mistreatment of his daughters, come the holidays, Grace wants to reach out to her father and include him in her family festivities. Otto, Grace’s husband, is doubtful, but agrees to drive her to Luther’s house so she can invite him to dinner. The year is 1928.
It doesn’t go well. Here’s what happens:
Christmastime was Grace’s favorite time of year. She loved the way the scent of cinnamon and vanilla went wafting through the house as she baked cookies, mixing with the scent of the fresh pine bough garland framing the fireplace. She loved making Christmas gifts for her friends and family, sometimes spending weeks crafting a single, perfect gift.
Christmas, more than any other time of the year, was when she missed Mama the most. It was Mama who had taught her to decorate a freshly cut blue spruce Christmas tree with the artist’s critical eye, placing each fragile glass ornament in such a way that it hung freely, not touching another ornament; who taught her the proper way to drape the yards and yards of glass beads and long strands of silver tinsel across the boughs, making the entire tree gleam in the light like so many sunbeams.
Unfortunately, the beautiful glass ornaments and tinsel she loved so well were tucked away in a trunk in the attic of her father’s house. As she sat at the table cutting out star-shaped sugar cookies, Grace figured out a way to retrieve her ornaments and make amends with her father, too.
Humming ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, she took a sheet of cookies from the oven and put in another just as Otto came into the house.
“Umm, what smells so heavenly?” he asked, stomping a dusting of snow from his boots and hanging his jacket and cap on a peg by the door.
“Sugar stars.” Grace transferred the hot, fresh cookies to a cooling rack as her husband walked up and kissed her on the cheek. “Hey, hands off!” She playfully slapped his hands away from the hot cookies.
Managing to grab two of the sweet treats despite her attempts to fend him off, Otto sat at the table, juggling the cookies. “Ouch! These are hot!” He took a bite. “Good, too.”
“I’m happy you like them.” She dusted her rolling pin with flour and began to roll out another batch of cookies.
She worked in silence a few moments, concentrating on rolling the dough out into perfect quarter-inch thickness. Unhappy with her first attempt, she wadded up the dough into a ball and began once again.
“I’m thinking about inviting Papa for Christmas dinner.”
Otto said nothing, but his eyes urged her to speak on.
“It’s been four months, and I haven’t seen him once, Otto.” Grace’s palms were sweating. Annoyed with her nervousness, she wiped her hands on her apron.
“He’s my father. And despite what he did to Miriam and me, I love him and I miss him. And it’s Christmas. He’ll be all alone if we don’t have him here for dinner, and Bessie and Ernie and Todd will be here, too, so I don’t think it’ll be too terribly awkward, do you?” She searched her husband’s face for some sign of approval.
“Don’t you think having him here will confuse Miriam?” Otto finished his cookies and licked the crumbs from his fingers.
“On the contrary. I think having him here will help her.” She picked up the rolling pin and attacked the dough again. “She asks about him all the time, and I don’t know how to keep putting her off. She’s a little child, Otto. Little children can be so forgiving.” This time she succeeded in her attempt to roll the dough to just the right thickness.
“What about you, Grace? Have you forgiven him?”
“No, I haven’t.” She exchanged her rolling pin for a cookie cutter. “I want to forgive him, though, and I don’t know how I can if I don’t see him and talk to him.” She stamped out the cookies in rapid succession, sliding them carefully onto the waiting cookie sheet. Cookies in the oven, she poured two cups of coffee and sat down next to her husband once again.
“I feel really guilty about the way we left things with him.” Grace spooned honey into her coffee cup. Peach blossom honey was one of the finer benefits of living on a peach orchard, she thought. “He’s my father. I was taught to honor him and to obey him. I guess when you look at it that way, what happened was partly my fault. I defied his authority at every turn.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“That I defied his authority? Yes, I do believe that. Especially while mother was still alive.” She took a sip from the steaming coffee mug. “I remember one time when I went to the library, I checked out several books I knew he wouldn’t approve of. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe was one. I don’t even remember the other title. Anyway, I purposely set them down in the parlor where I knew he would see them, because I knew he wouldn’t dare chastise me in front of mother.”
“That doesn’t sound like such a crime. You were always a free-spirited young lady, Grace, that’s all.” Otto reached over and brushed a speck of flour from his wife’s chin.
“But good Christian young ladies aren’t supposed to be free spirits, don’t you see, Otto?” she said, unable to hide the desperation in her voice. “We’re supposed to be submissive to our fathers, to our husbands, like Christ was submissive to the will of God.”
Otto didn’t reply immediately, but sat stirring his coffee. Finally, he spoke.
“Grace, if anyone on the planet has ever been a free spirit, it was Christ. Otherwise, he would have been an apprentice carpenter at age twelve instead of running off to preach at the temple. He would have settled down with a wife and children instead of roaming the countryside teaching and healing social outcasts.” He reached for another cookie. “And might I point out to you, my dear, that I fell in love with your free spirit. Do I strike you as the kind of man who wants a submissive wife?”
The corners of Grace’s mouth turned up in a feeble attempt at a smile. “No, you’ve always encouraged me to speak my mind. And I know in my head what you’re saying is right, Otto. But it’s almost Christmas, and right now my heart doesn’t feel as my head does. I feel like I have to try to make things right. I can’t heal what’s wrong between Papa and me if I don’t see him. Please, Otto. Please let me invite him to dinner.”
Otto leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on his wife’s forehead. “I have never told you what to do, Grace. I wouldn’t presume to start doing so now. If you want to invite Luther to dinner, by all means do so.”
Grace smiled. “Your not telling me what to do is one of the things I love about you. Nevertheless, this is your home and I don’t want to do anything that you are unhappy with.”
Otto squeezed Grace’s hands. “This is our home, and if you’re happy I am, too.”
He kissed her once again, then wrinkled up his nose. “I think your cookies are burning.”
“Let them burn.” Grace threw her arms around her husband and, closing her eyes, pulled him close and offered her lips to his.
After dropping Miriam off at Bessie’s house to play with Todd, Otto and Grace drove to Chesapeake Ridge farm, Grace talking all the way.
“The ornaments are beautiful, Otto. Grandmother brought them with her from Germany when they came to Pennsylvania right before mama was born. There were two dozen ornaments, but Goldie broke one with her tail last Christmas. The poor dog looked so ashamed! It was hard to stay mad at her.”
She pulled a hand-embroidered handkerchief from her pocket and blew her nose. It was cold, and a light snow had begun to fall.
“Then there are strands of Lauscha glass beads. Lauscha glass is the best, some people say, because that’s where the original glass blowing factories were. And real silver tinsel.”
“Are you sure Luther will let you take them?” Otto asked, gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckled intensity. The road was getting slippery, and keeping the old truck on a true course was difficult. “He may want to use them himself.”
“No, they belong to me. Grandmother gave them to me right before she died.” Grace dabbed at her nose one more time, then put her handkerchief back in her pocket. Her throat felt a little scratchy, and she hoped she wasn’t catching a cold.
Minutes later, Otto pulled the truck up to the front gate to the house. Grace sat for a moment, staring at the house.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Hearing the concern in her husband’s voice, Grace turned to him and smiled.
“Yes, I’m okay. Just so many memories here. Mama and Mattie. Emily too, although of course she never lived here.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, trying to block out a flood of memories. Emily had been her best friend as well as her sister, sharing clothes and books and confidences with Grace. And Mattie, sweet, sweet Mattie, even at three unable to resist trying to sneak frogs and lizards into the house, to the great dismay of their mother. And Mama. Mama would have loved to see Grace a married woman with a husband and home of her own.
Grace opened her eyes. “Let’s do this, okay?” She opened the door and stepped out of the truck.
A curtain moved slightly as they approached the front stairs. Grace’s stomach lurched. She felt nauseated.
Luther opened the front door before Otto could knock. “What do you want?”
Grace reeled. She hadn’t expected Luther to open his arms to her, but she did expect to be greeted with some semblance of a welcome. Instead, Luther stood in the doorway, arms crossed, glowering at her like she was some unwelcome peddler selling tonic door-to-door.
“Good afternoon, Luther,” Otto said, offering his hand. Luther didn’t move.
“Hello, Papa.” Grace leaned forward as if to kiss him, but the look on his face dissuaded her from doing so. “We’ve come to invite you to spend Christmas with us.”
Luther stood like stone, not moving, not speaking.
“Please, Papa. I’d like it very much if you would come to Windy Hill on Christmas day.” This time, Grace did reach out, touching her father on the arm as she spoke. Luther remained steadfast.
Grace was about to give up and turn back to the truck when finally he spoke.
“Christmas is the holiest day of the year. I expect I’ll be spending it with folks who will treat it as such.”
“You know I…”
“I know you disrespected your father and our God by running away and stealing your sister,” Luther snapped. “I know you were married in a civil ceremony and therefore are living in sin with a man who is not your husband in the eyes of God.” Luther’s face twisted in rage. “Get off my front porch.”
“Now see here, Luther,” Otto reasoned. “Grace is offering…”
“No, Otto. Don’t bother.” Grace squeezed her husband’s arm. “We made a mistake coming here.”
She turned to leave, emotions pounding over her like waves at the beach. Resignation as she crossed the porch; then, by the time she reached the steps, heartbreaking sadness. She turned back to her father.
“Very well, father. You can shut me out of your life. But if you do that, you shut Miriam out, too. You’ll lose two daughters. Is that what you really want?”
She moved back closer to Luther. “Father, I want to forgive you for mistreating us. Can’t you open your heart and let us back in? It’s Christmas.”
“Are you both deaf? I told you to get off my porch.”
Otto moved toward Luther and started to speak, but Grace grabbed his arm and once again stopped him. “It’s okay, Otto. Don’t.” She turned to Luther once again. The sadness was gone. All Grace felt now was cold fury.
“I want my box of Christmas things grandmother gave me. It’s in the attic. It’s mine, and I don’t intend to leave without it.” She stared Luther straight in the eye, daring him to defy her request.
No one moved nor spoke for what to Grace seemed an eternity. A bobwhite called from the meadow and was answered by the plaintive mooing of a cow from the barn. A chill wind whorled snow up the stairs, sending a shiver up Grace’s spine. Finally, Luther stepped aside. “Take it. Then get out.”
Grace swept into the house, Otto close behind her. She looked around, appalled.
Dirty dishes and glasses cluttered the parlor tables and the stairs. Piles of mail spilled from the desk onto the floor, unopened. On the dining room table a bouquet of flowers long dead kept company with a moldy loaf of bread. A thick film of dust shrouded the floor and furnishings. The window shades were pulled, the curtains drawn tightly. The house was cold.
A whine drew Grace’s attention toward the kitchen. Limping through the door was Goldie. The old dog was emaciated; her left eye crusted shut with dirt and dried mucus. Still, she wagged her tail with a puppy’s enthusiasm as she made her way to Grace.
“Goldie! Oh, Goldie girl!” Grace knelt down and hugged the dog, then turned back to Luther.
“Father, what in heaven…” but Luther cut her off.
“I said take your things. Then get out.”
“I’m taking Goldie, too. She’s sick, or didn’t you notice that? What have you been feeding her?”
“Take her with you. Better she dies on your front stair than on mine.” Luther pulled on his coat and headed out the door. “I’m going to water the horses. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” He turned back to his daughter. “I expect you to be gone.”
* ~ *
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