Ten years had passed since the Christmas that had irrevocably changed the course of her life, and she felt every moment of them as she sat quietly talking with her sister-in-law in the kitchen at Crabapple Farm. The cozy farmhouse that had been her home for so many years now belonged to her son and daughter-in-law, and on this Christmas eve, was filled with family she barely knew anymore.
“Moms?” Bobby hesitantly touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but if you see Trixie, will you let her know I’ve gone to pick up Kristi? We should be back in about twenty minutes or so.”
“May I come, too?” twelve-year old Rebekah asked as she walked up behind her uncle.
Bobby nodded. “Sure, but let’s go before the others realize we’re gone. I have Kristi’s present in the back seat, and that won’t leave room for anyone else.”
Rebekah raised an eyebrow. “But I thought…”
“Come on, Bekah. I’ll explain on the way,” he replied, flushing. “I’m going to give it to her when I take her home tonight, so maybe she’ll show it to you tomorrow.”
Eleanor reached out and patted Helen’s hand as the two walked away. “I know it’s not easy.”
“No, it isn’t,” she sighed. “Nothing was supposed to turn out this way.”
“When has life ever turned out like it should?” Eleanor asked. “For either of us?”
“It used to,” Helen whispered. “I wish we could go back to when the kids were all teenagers. I’d do so many things differently.”
“I’ve learned that you can’t spend your life wondering what if,” Eleanor said gently. “I’ve wondered so long what life would be life if Johnnie had lived. As adamant as Harold was about three children being enough, I would have had my tubes tied after Cap. Hallie probably would never have been born. Instead, she’s celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary tonight, and has two kids of her own.”
“Kids that you really should be spending time with,” Helen reminded her, forcing a smile as she noticed her own daughter and son-in-law headed in their direction. “I really do appreciate this, Eleanor.”
“I know,” she assured her as she stood. “If you need to talk later on, I’ll be around here somewhere.”
“Thank you,” Helen nodded. She knew that she probably would seek out the other woman at some point later that night or the next morning. After a decade of living next door to each other in Idaho, Eleanor had become a closer friend and confidant than she had ever imagined, and she was grateful for the unconditional support.
“Any chance you know if Bobby’s left yet?” Trixie asked, sitting down in the chair Eleanor had just vacated. “Mart’s going to kill him if he hasn’t.” She grinned. “He won’t let anyone open gifts until after we eat, and since we won’t do that until we’re all here, Robin and Ricky are driving him nuts. The other kids aren’t exactly helping, either.”
“He left just a few minutes ago,” Helen answered. “I think Rebekah went with him.”
“Oh good, that answered my next question,” Trixie replied. “I wish she’d told me before she left, but I know she knew you knew where she was.”
Helen blinked as she unraveled her daughter’s sentence, then smiled. “Yes, she reminds me of another teenage girl I used to know.”
“Not quite yet, but I know,” Trixie laughed. “Thankfully she’s not usually as impulsive as I used to be, though. I think it’s because she’s the oldest. Billy and Danny are already trying to give us grey hair.”
“You’ll do fine,” Helen’s words surprised all of them. She took a deep breath. “I know I haven’t said it, but I’m proud of how well you two did with Bobby. He’s turned into a fine young man.”
“He already was when we got him,” Trixie said. There were tears in her eyes when she reached over to hug her mother. “I’m really going to miss him when he’s gone.”
“But he’s found a nice little house not far from the academy,” Regan added. “Just two bedrooms, but it will be big enough for the two of them, and they can always add on later. It will be convenient for them, too, especially since they’ll both be working there.”
“The two of them?” Helen asked, more sharply than she’d intended. “Does that mean he’s engaged to this girl?”
“They’ve been talking about it for a couple of years already,” Trixie said softly. “Since she’ll graduate this spring, he’s planning to give her a ring for Christmas.” She smiled. “I think he’s actually pretty romantic. She’s always loved stuffed animals, so he found a huge white teddy bear and used a red ribbon to tie the ring around its neck.”
“I just can’t imagine Bobby engaged or married,” Helen said. “I still remember his first crush.”
“When was this?” Regan asked.
“He was six years old,” Helen said. “The little violinist that stayed with the Wheelers.”
“I think you remember Gaye Hunya,” Trixie added. “He even tried to give her Oscar. Unfortunately, she wasn’t impressed.”
“No, I imagine not.” Regan shook his head. “She didn’t seem like the type to enjoy lizards, even at that age.”
“You’re right about that,” she sighed. “Kristi’s a lot more down to earth than Gaye ever was.”
“Didn’t he date Jim’s wife’s sister for a while?” Helen asked. “And where are they tonight?”
“They’re upstate visiting the Darnells this year,” Trixie said. “And yes, he did, but Sally didn’t want a long distance relationship. He took it rather hard when they broke up, too. It wasn’t until he was in college and met Kristi that he even dated again.”
“Just how did he meet her?” Peter asked, joining the group at the table.
“Well, you know Bobby decided to become a teacher for the deaf soon after we realized Elspeth’s hearing loss was permanent,” Trixie explained. “It still amazes me, Moms. It was a hard adjustment for all of us, but he’s dedicating his entire career to her and to others in her situation.” She blinked back an unexpected tear. “And it isn’t an easy program he had to go through. He struggled even harder than most of his classmates, because he was really just starting to learn sign language. He refused to give up, though, and one of his teachers asked Kevin, Kristi’s brother, if he would tutor him. Kevin was one of the few people who understood just how important it was to Bobby to make it. He spent a lot of time working with him, and even invited him out to his parents’ house one weekend. Bobby met Kristi that weekend and hasn’t looked back since.”
“Was she born deaf, or did she lose hear hearing later on like Elspeth?”
“She had meningitis when she was almost two,” Regan said. “A little bit older than Elspeth was, but not by much. Kristi’s been an amazing role model for her – well, an amazing encouragement for all of us.”
The back door opened, and Bekah ran in, smiling at her parents as she gave her grandfather a hug. “The slowpokes should be in soon.”
“We’re right here,” Bobby retorted, closing the door behind the petite blonde with him. He let go of her hand, and turned to her. “My parents, Peter and Helen,” he both signed and said aloud. “Moms, Dad, I want you to meet my girlfriend, Kristi.”
“It’s good to meet you,” Peter said, smiling welcomingly as Bobby interpreted. Suddenly uncomfortable, Helen gave a small smile. After the conversation of a few minutes earlier, she had no doubts that this young woman would soon be her newest daughter-in-law, and she wasn’t sure how to react. She had known Mart’s wife since she had been in kindergarten with Trixie, and even though Brian and Honey weren’t actually married, she had also known Honey since the girls were thirteen.
“Come on,” Trixie signed as if she had done it all of her life. “Let’s let Mart know you’re here. I think we’re about ready to eat.”
“Good, because I’m hungry!” Bobby exclaimed.
Helen’s smile became genuine. It was good to know that no matter how much things changed, some things would always be the same.
“As you know, it’s become tradition that we all gather here on Christmas eve,” Mart said, standing in front of the Christmas tree. “It’s really good to have Moms and Dad, and Uncle Harold and Aunt Eleanor here with us this year.”
A chorus of agreement ran through the assembled family members, and Helen found herself nodding. “It’s good to be here with you, too.”
She nestled snugly into Peter’s side as he put his arm around her. Mart grinned and continued his speech. “We have a lot of excited kids here tonight, so I thought we could get on to the highlight of their evening.” He laughed. “Then we adults might get some peace and quiet for my second favorite tradition – singing Christmas carols together.”
“What’s your most favorite?” Eleanor asked.
“Mommy’s fudge!” six-year old Robin called out.
Amongst the ensuing laughter, Mart pretended to scowl at his daughter. “Just for that, you get to help me.” He took a brightly wrapped gift from the pile under the tree. “Let’s see. This goes to Ricky, from Uncle Andrew, Aunt Dot, and Anne.”
Robin scrambled up to Mart, taking the box from him. She handed it to her brother, then ran back for the next package. One by one, gifts were exchanged to squeals of childish delight. Diana had made sure that everyone would receive something, and Helen was struck by how much she was reminded of the Christmases her own children had been young.
Lost in her memories, she was startled when seven-year old Elspeth shyly touched her arm. The small redhead held tightly to the doll she and Peter had given her, a rag doll that closely resembled the one Trixie had once had. She put her fingers to her lips, then extended her palm with a smile.
Helen returned the smile, not even needing Andrew’s quiet interpretation: Thank you. Instinctively, she held out her arms. The child’s smile grew even wider, and she reached out to hug her, climbing into her lap as she did so.
Elspeth was still in her lap a few moments later when Mart spoke up again. “Okay, I know Brian has to work at the hospital tomorrow, and I suspect Dan and Hallie would also enjoy a little time alone this evening.” He laughed. “I’m so glad my anniversary isn’t on Christmas eve! I do want to help them out, but I admit I’m also selfish enough to still want to sing before anyone has to go. Does anyone have any suggestions for an opener? Keeping in mind that if you do, you also get to lead it.”
“Away in a Manger!” five-year old Anne called out. “May I lead that one?”
“Of course,” Mart said, motioning for his youngest cousin to come stand beside him. “I’d be hurt if you didn’t!”
Kristi moved to perch on the arm of the sofa beside Helen and Bobby sat down on the floor in front of them. Bobby began signing as they sang, and both Kristi and Elspeth signed along with him. It wasn’t long before Elspeth’s siblings joined in.
Helen imperceptibly tightened her arms around the child.
“I’m sorry, Peter,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “I can’t…”
“You don’t have to,” he assured her. He pulled her into his arms. “I hope you understand why I do.”
“I do. Andrew has always been there for us, and with our own kids battling their kids’ chicken pox, he needs someone with him.” She pulled back with a small smile. “I can’t believe he’s actually about to be a father.”
“He’ll be a great one,” Peter said. “It’s killing him he can’t be more of a help with his nieces and nephews.”
“Dot can’t risk being exposed right now,” she reminded him, calming down as she realized he wouldn’t force her into going back to Sleepyside. “And the kids will all be fine. It’s just too bad they all seemed to get it at the same time.”
He sat down on the sofa and drew her into his lap. “Brian’s worried, Helen. Bekah and Billy bounced back after a few days, and Danny escaped all together. Robin and Nora are almost recovered, too, but he said Elspeth’s immune system isn’t the best. She’s had too many ear infections, and she’s only eighteen months old.”
“She might be a Regan, but she’s a Belden, too,” she said, trying to block out the sudden memories of Bobby’s long ago bout with pneumonia. “She’ll be okay.”
“I hope so,” Peter whispered, leaning his head against hers.
She closed her eyes. The chicken pox she had dismissed so easily had developed complications, and Brian’s fears had come true. She had finally flown out when Brian had called her himself, bluntly telling her that her granddaughter was literally fighting for her life in a New York City hospital. She had stayed only until she was certain the child would live, retreating back to her home in Idaho before the lingering effects had been made known.
Away in a Manger finished, and Dan’s voice broke into her thoughts. “We Three Kings, please, but I’ll let Hallie lead it.”
“Our ears all thank you.” Mart’s smile took the edge off of his words as everyone chuckled.
Dan grinned. “My own singing ability aside,” he rolled his eyes as his children giggled. “I repeat, my own singing ability aside, Hallie reminds me of my mother singing it when I was little.”
Helen bit her lip, knowing that her own children’s memories of her had all been overshadowed by her later actions. There was no escaping what had happened; no going back to undo what she had done. Silent tears rolled down her cheeks.
Elspeth unexpectedly turned around and gently wiped the tears away. She pointed to herself, then crossed her arms over her chest before pointing to Helen.
Rebekah noticed, and quietly slipped to sit between her grandparents. “She said she loves you,” she interpreted softly. She put her arms around both Helen and Elspeth. “I do, too.”
Fresh tears came unbidden to Helen’s eyes. “Why?” she whispered.
Rebekah signed something to Elspeth, who reluctantly stood. She looked over at her mother. “Elspeth and I are taking Grandmother to see if Uncle Mart left any of Aunt Diana’s fudge for us in the kitchen.”
Trixie nodded, smiling knowingly at her daughter. “It might take you awhile to find it if he did.”
“I know,” she said. “We’ll bring out what’s left of it for everyone else.”
Helen was only mildly surprised when Rebekah pulled out two chairs at the table, motioning for her younger sister to take one while Helen took the other. “I’m assuming your Uncle Mart still eats like he always did.”
“Yes,” Rebekah replied, handing a small plate of Christmas cookies to her sister. “And I also know Aunt Diana’s hiding place. There’s plenty there, despite his legendary appetite.” She sat down across the table from her grandmother.
“I’m sorry, Grandmother Belden. I know it seems funny to love someone you barely know, but I feel like I do know you, or at least, know how you were when Mom was my age. She’s always telling me stories about you and Grandpa Peter, and so is Bobby. Uncle Brian and Uncle Mart, too.” She took a deep breath. “I wish I could know you better for myself, but I understand why you don’t live here.”
“You do?” Helen asked in uneasy surprise.
“I don’t know the whole story,” the almost-teenager admitted. “I just know something happened, and I know Bobby came to live with us while you were sick. Uncle Brian said you moved away so that you could get well again.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, too, that you were sick. I’ve just always hoped that it wasn’t my fault.” She smiled weakly. “Well, at least since I’ve been old enough to do the math.”
“No,” Helen said, fighting against the turmoil of her emotions. “I admit you were a surprise to me, but none of this was your fault. It wasn’t your parents’ fault, either.” She stood and walked around to hug the girl that so much resembled Trixie. “I’m not going to tell you what I did, Rebekah, but it’s something I regret very much. I still have to deal with it every day. I wish things were different, but I’ve learned that I can’t change the past.”
“No, but you can change the future,” Rebekah said, looking thoughtful. “We’re going over to Manor House tomorrow, and I know you’re going to be here with Aunt Di and Uncle Mart’s family.” She took a deep breath and looked hopefully at her grandmother, just as her mother had so often done. “Could you and Grandpa Peter spend the day after Christmas with us?” She smiled at Elspeth, who was still contentedly eating a gingerbread man. “We’ll all be happy to help interpret for you.”
Helen took a deep breath of her own. It would be difficult, she knew, but in some ways, she realized that this could be the second chance she had so often dreamed of. “Maybe you could even help me learn a little sign language for myself.”
Rebekah’s face lit up with a brilliant smile. “Of course I will!”
“Then as long as it’s okay with your parents, we’d love to spend the day with you.”
“It will be,” Rebekah said confidently. “They never mind when we have anyone come over. Mom always says our house has stretchy walls.” She reached up to return her grandmother’s hug. “Besides, you’re not just anyone. I know they’ll love it, too.”
“I’ll talk to them, just to be sure,” Helen said, although her heart told her the child was right. Despite everything, Trixie had never once said a reproachful word to her and Regan himself had told her that she would always be welcome to visit.
The kitchen door opened just then, and Trixie walked in. Rebekah jumped up to stand beside her. “Mom, I asked Grandmother Belden if she and Grandpa Peter will spend the day after Christmas with us. Will you tell her it’s okay?”
Trixie blinked in surprise, but quickly nodded. “Of course it is!” She smiled down at her daughter. “Why don’t you take the fudge on into the living room? I’m going to get another cookie for your dad, then we’ll be back in.”
“Okay. But please don’t tell Uncle Mart what I’m doing, or Aunt Di will get mad at me!” The two women watched in amazement as she pulled a chair over to the refrigerator and climbed up in it. She reached for a large canister labeled “FLOUR” and took out a Tupperware container of fudge before climbing back down.
“Why didn’t I ever think of that?” Helen mused aloud as the children left the room.
Trixie grinned. “You had all four of us to keep out of trouble. Di just has Mart, Robin, and Ricky, and the kids are too young to get into much mischief yet.”
“They’re not chasing bad guys yet?” Helen teased her daughter for the first time in years.
“No,” she shook her head. “Most likely that will be my kids, paying me back for everything I got the Bob-Whites in to.” She smiled. “On the other hand, if they ever do, I’ll just send them to Honey and Dan. They’ll take over and keep them safe.”
“Do you ever regret it, Trixie? The detective agency was your dream.”
“It was theirs, too,” she answered honestly. “It wasn’t meant to be for me, but I’m glad it happened for them.” She took her mother’s hand. “Except for everything that happened with you and Daddy, and Elspeth’s health problems, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m happy, Moms.”
“I’m glad,” Helen said sincerely. She squeezed her hand. “That was all I ever really wanted.”
“I know, Moms,” Trixie answered softly. “I know.”
Author’s Notes: Author’s notes are something I’ve always struggled with, and I’m having an even harder time than usual for this story. This is a universe that’s been in my head and heart for eight years now (Mrs. Fidget was first posted in late March of 2001), and even though there are still loose ends and the unwritten back story of Elspeth’s illness and ensuing deafness, I suspect this will be my last Heartstrings story.
This was originally posted as a submission for Zap’s Happy Holidays GWP X. If this is the first time you’ve read one of my stories, thank you for reading. I do hope you enjoyed it. Thank you, too, if you’ve read these stories at other Trixie sites I either was once or am currently a part of. Thanks for reading as I followed Jenni into taking non-traditional to new levels…
Also, many thanks go to Cyndi, my friend and editor extraordinaire, for editing, but also for sticking by me through these years.