“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Bess asked Agnes as the car pulled up in front of the pastor’s house, with its ocean-blue shutters framing the windows and rose bushes lining the walkway.
“They spread her brother’s ashes at Palo Duro yesterday, just her and Michael, poor girl. Even though none of this was her fault, she’s having a hard time even looking people in the eye, have you noticed? If we aren’t holding what happened against her, why should anybody else?”
The rumors around the small town had been flying since the night of the attack, especially since Judd had exerted his considerable influence to keep most of the details out of the papers. The latest story had Bess sneaking out to meet Samuel for secret liaisons while Judd was in the hospital. Only a thick skin honed over years of being an outsider kept Bess from hanging her own head in public.
Bess sighed. “Well, let’s do this then.”
They rang the bell twice before Michelle cracked open the door, her eyes red-rimmed, her hair disheveled. She made a wink of a sound when she recognized them and stepped back to let them in the house. Agnes walked inside and right up to Michelle, wrapping the younger woman in a warm hug that brought fresh tears.
“Oh, Bess,” Michelle said over Agnes’ shoulder. “I don’t know what to say.”
Bess thought about how kind Michelle had been when the pastor’s wife could have ignored Bess altogether. She’d given Bess newfound confidence in her sewing skills and included Bess in social activities when others would have cut her out. “There’s nothing for you to say. I’m sorry everything ended the way it did.”
Michelle’s eyes got a far-away look. “He won’t get a chance to redeem himself,” she said. “I think that’s what hurts the worst of all.”
Agnes moved back, placing her hands on Michelle’s shoulders so that she could look the younger woman in the eye. “I’m sorry we didn’t hear any last words from your brother, but we don’t know what happened in those last moments, Michelle, between Samuel and God. You can’t torture yourself for something that was never yours to control in the first place.”
Something passed across Michelle’s wan face. She gave herself a little shake and forced a smile. “We can’t just stand around here in the entry all day. Would you all like some coffee?”
She motioned them into her living room, where the sofa and many chairs offered proof of the household’s commitment to hospitality. As she sat down on the sofa with Daniel settled against her shoulder, Bess thought about all the church members and strangers who had been welcomed into this house. She could almost feel the energy of acceptance in the air around her.
Perhaps the routine of putting together a tray of drinks and treats settled Michelle’s frayed nerves. When she returned from the kitchen a few minutes later, she had more color in her cheeks, and her soft eyes had just a hint of their old sparkle. She handed Bess a steaming cup of herbal tea and sat back in the straight-backed chair by the couch with her cup of coffee.
Drinking the hot liquid, feeling it pool in her belly and chase away the last of her butterflies, Bess worked up the courage to ask something that had been bothering her ever since the night of the incident. She glanced at Agnes and Michelle, who were discussing the upcoming Valentine’s Day banquet, and took a deep breath.
“If I had died that night,” she blurted, startling the other two women, who sat down their coffee cups with a clink, “I wouldn’t have been redeemed either.” She swallowed, letting those words, finally spoken out loud, sink in. “I have a better life now than I’ve had in the whole of my life. I have a husband who loves me, a great mother-in-law, and a beautiful, precious baby. But none of that means anything if I am not in a relationship with Christ, my Savior, does it?”
Michelle moved to sit beside Bess on the couch, laying a soft, warm hand on Bess’ thigh and squeezing so that Bess winced. “No, it doesn’t,” she answered. “And you’re going to discover that being in relationship with Him makes everything that much better, especially when times get hard again.”
Bess grimaced. “Times definitely have a tendency to do that.” She studied the back of Michelle’s hand, still clutching her thigh, watched the network of bluish veins that shown through the other woman’s pale skin, like a map of the twists and turns of her own life, leading her here. Suddenly, her worries about giving up control to God, about not being good enough, seemed moot. She looked up to gaze into first Michelle’s and then Agnes’ eyes. “What do I do?”
Agnes kneeled in front of Bess and gathered all three women’s hands together. “You pray, darling,” she said. “Right here and now, you tell Christ that you know you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. You ask Him to forgive you because you accept Him and His gift of grace as your Savior. And when you pray those things, Bess, you believe them with all your heart, mind, and soul.”
“I do believe,” Bess said. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. The words came haltingly at first, but picked up fervor as she continued. Bess knew her sins were many, but that Jesus’ love was much bigger than those sins. When she finally lifted her head, she felt hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Her heart swelled, beating a happy rhythm in her chest.
Agnes took Bess’ face in her hands and kissed her forehead. “I’m so happy for you,” she breathed.
Michelle was smiling through her own happy tears. “It’s a life-long journey, Bess, growing closer to our awesome God, but the hardest step is always the one you just took. I’m so honored you let me be a part of your journey.”
Bess smiled. “You were already a part of the journey, Michelle. You and Agnes, and even Lillian. I can’t thank any of you enough.”
As they got in the car some time later, Bess turned to Agnes and asked her, “There’s something I haven’t done yet that I’d still like to do. Can we go by the cemetery? I’d like to introduce Daniel to his father.”
The cemetery was just off a lonely stretch of highway outside of town, surrounded by fruitless mulberry trees. There were tombstones that went back to the time of the civil war. The grass spread across the ground in odd patches, as if it were chasing water.
Daniel’s grave lay next to his father’s in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Their matching headstones were simple granite with their names and birth and death dates. At the bottom of each was the single-word epitaph, beloved.
Bess sat down on the ground with her baby in her lap, ignoring the dirt that could be easily washed out of her dress later. Agnes laid the fresh flowers they’d bought on the way to the cemetery at the base of each headstone, running her hands over the cool, flat granite. She sighed so deeply, the action seemed to start at the tip of her toes and spill out of her like a waterfall. Without a word, she turned and stepped away, out of earshot, to give Bess privacy.
Holding Daniel’s chubby hand as he lay in the hammock created by her crossed legs underneath her dress, Bess took a moment to really study the features that were all Daniel, the green eyes and perfect nose, the tilt to his smile that held the promise of the heart-breaker her son would become one day. A single tear slid down her cheek, splashing on Daniel’s blanket and leaving a paisley pattern in the soft cotton. She swiped at her cheek and looked up at the gravestone with her first husband’s name on it.
“Daniel Taylor,” she told the grey slab, “I’d like you to meet your little boy. Your brother and I are going to make sure he grows up knowing everything about you, especially what a hero you are. Not only did you give your life for your country, Daniel, I wouldn’t have this life if you hadn’t seen something in me that day on the Galveston shore.
“I owe you so much. I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to know you better, to love you like you deserved. I can’t be sorry about falling in love with your brother, though. He’s a good man, Daniel, the best of men. But, you already knew that.
“Rest in peace, beloved. We’ll be back to see you here, but you will always be with us wherever we go.”
They were settling words, a kind of epiphany. Bess repeated them often through the years, as she and Judd came with a rapidly growing Daniel to pay respects, as more children, two boys and three girls, were bundled into the station wagon to ride to the graves, as they laid Agnes, 95 and mobile until the last, into the ground next to her husband.
All the while, Bess worked to grow in faith. She discovered with each passing year with Judd, with each child added to her family, that love had no limits. The more that seemed required of her, the more she had available to her to give. For the orphan-child who once lived without love, discovering the power of God’s love, the greatest love of all, was truly the key to her finally finding a home. ##
Thanks for joining me on this journey. I appreciate your patience with the stumbles of a first draft. In a few months, when the new has worn off these words, I’ll pick up this draft again and begin the next hard job of editing. “Use the best word,” Mark Twain said, “not its second cousin.” I’ll be searching for the best words as I edit.
If you are interested in reading some of my more polished writing, you can check out my books at ramonalevacy.com.
I will be publishing my latest book, Fire in the Bones, in the next couple of weeks. If you visit my website, you can sign up for my email list. I’ll send out an email blast when the book is available. When you sign up for the email, you’ll get instant access to the first chapter of the novel.
Have a wonderful holiday season as we celebrate the glorious truth that our God loved us enough to be born into this life of misery and joy only to die as a sacrifice for all, so that all might be saved.