A Christmas Story 2019®

The sound of the garage opening next door drew Julia’s attention from making her world-famous wassail. Well, maybe not world-famous, but all of her family and everyone at church sure loved it.

Julia raised her upper lip in a snarl at the sound. It was that infernal Jamal Hudson heading out to do God-knows-what again. Here he was interrupting her wassail making too. Now I’ll probably cook it too long and make it sour, she thought as she scuffled across her small, one-bed, one-bathroom house. She was more than capable of walking, but her red slip-on houseshoes were getting old, so she was just keeping them from sliding off.

Julia glanced at her reflection in the glass of the small tv in the cabinet in her living room and fluffed her white hair. That tell-all would probably tell everyone in town if I didn’t have myself put together. 

Turning the tv on, Julia turned the knob to the station showing It’s a Wonderful Life. She wasn’t in the mood to watch it, but it would suffice for appropriate background noise while she worked on her favorite holiday drink.

She walked over to the front window, and standing on her tippy toes, reached the cord to open the blinds. Another hand around the house to help with things like this would sure be nice, but she wasn’t about to admit that she could use the help. Julia Winston was as independent and strong as she had ever been. With a zip, she drew the blinds up to watch outside. She squinted her eyes against the brightness of the sun reflecting off of the snow.

Sure enough. Jamal was scraping the ice off of the windshield of his old, blue Chevy truck while a white cloud poured out of his exhaust, freezing from the cold. 

Julia scowled at her troublesome neighbor. He has a garage. Why in the world doesn’t he keep that old truck in there. It’s probably full of old junk he won’t throw out. She watched in disapproval as he pulled his corduroy coat tighter and beat the frost off of his scraper onto his tire.

That was it. She had had enough. Julia stepped out of the front door and pulled her thick robe tight around her to shield her from the cold. “Looks like your driveway is nice and clean,” she said snidely.

“Yep,” Jamal said not looking up from reaching across his bed to scrape his back window. “Cleaned it off last night.”

“And I don’t suppose you could be bothered to help an old lady by clearing hers.”

Now Jamal looked up and raised a brow of mock disbelief at his neighbor. “After you having that boy cut the limbs off of my tree last week? I don’t think so, you petty woman.”

“They were hanging into my yard! Squirrels were jumping from them into my birdfeeders.”

Jamal rolled his eyes as he sat in his truck before slamming the door shut signalling the end of the conversation.

Rage boiled in Julia’s veins. She huffed and slammed her front door as she came in the house.

Their feud was an old one. They had been neighbors for the better part of three decades and they had hated each other every second of it. If Julia was honest, she would confess that she didn’t know what ignited their animosity for one another, but she could easily tell you that last week Jamal shoveled the snow from his driveway into her yard, which was a good ten feet away from his driveway.

Julia looked back out the window at her own driveway, still covered in snow. A real man would have offered to help a 76-year-old lady clear it. That certainly wasn’t Jamal. She would just have to wait until some teenagers came by on their way home from school and offer them $20 to do it.

When Jamal drove by, a scowl on his face and his rotted exhaust rumbling loudly, she dropped her blinds shut and stormed back into the kitchen. 

“One of these days that old jerk will move out of this neighborhood,” she said as she stirred her wassail. She put the wooden spoon to her lips and tasted it. Her face puckered and she threw the spoon down in the sink. “Sour.”

Julia struggled to carry her crockpot, with new wassail that Jamal hadn’t ruined, across the church parking lot. The little handles were trying desperately to slip out of her slick mittens. At least the warm liquid inside was helping to ward off the cold.

Today was the Christmas play, so there would be a lot of guests. There was no way she was going to serve soured wassail today of all days. Then everyone in town would think she didn’t know how to make wassail. Sally May’s eggnog was certainly not going to outdo her drink either. She cursed Jamal again under her breath.

“Here, let me get that for you, Miss Julia,” a voice from behind her called. 

Julia turned around and smiled. “Why thank you, Curtis Lee. We could use more men like you.”

The two struggled to make the exchange without spilling any wassail or burning their hands on the side of the old, tan crockpot.

“You’re welcome, Miss Julia. I wouldn’t want to spill any of your famous wassail. What a waste that would be.”

Julia slipped her arm under Curtis’ and the two walked slowly to avoid any slick spots still in the parking lot. Their merry chatter carried on the still, cold air.

Inside the usual greeting and hugging that accompanied a church service took place. Everyone asking each other how their week went or how their sick loved ones were doing. Shortly everyone made it into the sanctuary and quieted for service.

The play was perfect, as always. Mary, the music director, had such a talent for making stories come alive. Her voice was amazing too. She definitely needed to go on one of those singing shows. 

The actors all lined up at the front of the stage donning clothes from the 1800s and bowed as the crowd clapped. Pastor Jerry came out and called for another applause as the actors walked offstage. Then the pastor gave an exhorting and stirring sermon examining the lesson of the play. He talked about forgiveness and the biblical parable of the man who was forgiven for a lifetime’s debt then turned around and punished a man who owed him just a week’s wages.

“”You see, we owe much to God for His forgiveness, and when we don’t forgive the little transgressions of others, we look like this man who didn’t forgive the little debt owed to him,” Pastor Jerry explained.

Julia smiled contently. I sure hope some of these people are listening to this, she thought. I know several people who could learn something from this. 

After service was dismissed, it was Julia’s time to shine. The pastor asked everyone to come by the visitors’ booth for a quick beverage and an invitation to the Christmas dinner. 

Julia grabbed her purse and was the first one out the sanctuary door. She loved her after-service chat with Rose, but that would have to wait for another day. People needed their wassail poured… and of course if she admitted it, she liked being able to tell them it was her secret recipe when she poured it for them. 

Julia hustled across the foyer and slid her purse under the draped folding table before setting the styrofoam cups on top. She took the lid off of her crockpot and the sweet aroma of cinnamon rose with hot steam, washing her with nostalgia. Looking around the room, it seemed like the Christmas lights glowed a little brighter. Soon the Christmas music was playing, and the mood was perfectly set.

The sanctuary doors slid open, and a lady of similar age and stature joined her behind the table, wrapping her in a warm hug.

“Sally May. It’s good to see you, honey. How’s Bob? Did his surgery go well?”

As Sally pulled away, she gave Julia a warm smile. “Yes. Thank you for asking. He should be healed up in a month or so. He’s kind of being a baby about it though. That was his excuse to stay home today.”

The two shared a chuckle and Julia said, “He’ll do anything to sit in that recliner and watch football.”

“Yes, yes he will.” Sally May reached under the table and pulled out a jug of store-bought eggnog and some plastic cups. 

Julia held back a gasp and her face flushed. “You didn’t make your eggnog this year?”

Sally May looked away sheepishly. “Well, with Bob’s surgery, I was busy taking care of him. I didn’t have time to make my own. It takes a long time.”

“Well. I think I would have made time,” Julia said sitting her ladle in her wassail. I’m definitely not going to have any competition this year.

Sally May turned to respond but a tall, blonde woman with a fur-rimmed coat had made her way to the table with a young boy and a tall, dark-headed man in tow.

Julia was quick to be the first to greet them. “Well hello, Michelle. Want some wassail?”

“You know I do, Miss Julia. I wait all year for some of your famous wassail.”

Julia was beaming as she poured some of the drink into a cup, steam dancing blissfully from its rim. Michelle pulled it to her face and sniffed deeply. “Mmmm. Thank you.”

As Julia poured two cups for Michelle’s family, she smiled at Michelle’s son. “Benjamin, you did a great job in that play. You mark my words, you’ll be famous someday.”

“Thank you, Miss Julia.” The family accepted their drinks with gratitude, grabbed a Christmas dinner flyer, and stepped out of line. A line that was growing quite rapidly, Julia thought. Especially compared to Sally May’s. 

She should have left that hospital long enough to make her homemade eggnog. She’s going to make visitors think we don’t care about them with that stuff from the store. Though she could hardly contain her disapproval of the store-bought eggnog, she was loving being so popular.

As the people began to disperse, Julia made light chatter with some of the regular churchgoers. She was as happy as she had been in some time. Whether it was the holidays, the compliments on her drink, or a little of both, she was practically glowing with excitement. Then she caught something out of the corner of her eye that drained her mood.

It can’t be, she thought. Sure enough, Jamal was talking to her pastor. He was dressed in the nicest clothes she had seen him in. The look on his face made it apparent he felt awkward talking to Pastor Jerry though. When Pastor Jerry gestured toward the welcome table, Julia panicked. 

That hooligan is not getting any of my wassail. Julia looked around for an excuse before deciding to quickly slide her cups under the table.

“Hey, Julia,” Pastor Jerry said, startling the old lady. She quickly stood and smiled at Jerry before he continued, “This is Jamal. I was just telling him that he had to try some of your amazing wassail.” 

Jamal and Julia looked at each other, terror in Jamal’s eyes and disdain in Julia’s. Julia shrugged. “I would love to, but I’m out of cups.”

Jerry shrugged and began to reach for Sally May’s cups. “I’m sure Sally May wouldn’t mind if you borrowed some of…”

“Can’t,” Julia interjected, a bit too quickly. Jerry raised a brow at her. She tried to laugh it off. “I mean, wassail’s hot. It’ll melt those plastic cups and make it taste weird.”

Jerry began to reply, but Jamal interjected. “It’s okay. I’m… more of an eggnog guy anyway.” 

When Sally May began pouring for the visitor, Julia came from behind the counter and pulled on the pastor’s elbow. “Pastor, can I talk with you for a minute?”

Jerry’s look of confusion deepened. “Okay, Julia. Just a sec.” He grabbed a flyer and handed it to Jamal. “Anyway, we hope to see you at the Christmas dinner.”

Julia could feel her face flush as she tingled with anger. They walked to a quiet corner of the foyer next to one of the couches and Julia turned to Jerry with her arms crossed.

“What is it, Julia?”

Julia took a deep breath to calm herself. Her pastor didn’t know this man or he wouldn’t have been so chummy with him. He definitely wouldn’t have invited to the Christmas dinner.

“Pastor, now that Jamal is my neighbor. He’s nothing but trouble. He has no consideration for me. Just last week he dumped his garbage into my trash bin. I’ve had to call the law on him 5 times already.”

Jerry looked across the foyer at Jamal who was talking politely with Sally May and back to Julia. “He seems awful nice to me.”

“He’s just hiding who he really is to you…” She thought really hard for a reason that Jamal might be putting up a false pretense. “Probably because you’re a pastor.”

Jerry smiled knowingly. “You did have some cups behind the table, didn’t you?” 

Julia sighed and shook her head in frustration. She knew what he was trying to do. Jerry was good at lightening a situation with humor, but this was not the time for that. There was definitely no room for Jamal in this church, and he needed to see that.

Seeing his trick wasn’t working, Jerry gave her a resigned smile. “Look. I understand why you’re frustrated and what you want me to do, but we don’t turn people away from this church. Maybe you guys will get to chatting at the Christmas dinner and put your differences aside.”

Julia couldn’t believe her pastor wasn’t seeing her side. She narrowed her eyes at him and kept eye contact as she stomped past him. 

“Julia…” Jerry tried to stop her, but it was too late. 

Julia threw on her thick, maroon coat, grabbed her empty crockpot and purse, and went straight for the door. When she got halfway across the room, a pain started shooting straight from her heart into her arm. Her eyes widened in pain and her mouth dropped open.

“Julia?” Curtis came running from the nursery door and sat her crockpot to the side. “Pastor!”

Jerry came running over and put his arm behind Julia, a look of panic in his eyes. “Julia, are you okay?”

The pain intensified in her chest, and her breathing became labored. She looked at Jerry with tear-filled eyes, pleading for help. Her vision blurred and narrowed and the last thing she heard before losing consciousness was Pastor Jerry’s shout.

“Call 911!”

Julia blinked her eyes open. When she saw that she was in a hospital room, she began to panic. Her heart started beating wildly against her ribs, and she broke out in a cold sweat. She couldn’t remember where she had been or what happened to get her here.

When Julia sat up quickly and began to look around at the IV in her arm, the oxygen hose in her nose, and everything else attached to her, a familiar voice began to soothe her.

“It’s okay, Julia. It’s okay. I’m here with you.” Pastor Jerry stood and put a hand on her shoulder.

Julia looked at him and tears began to well in her eyes. Bit by bit she began to put it all back together. “Di… did I have a heart attack?”

Pastor Jerry gave her a strained smile. “The tests haven’t come back for sure, but that’s what Dr. Palinski thinks it was.”

Julia sat back with shock in her eyes. It couldn’t be. Julia had never had a heart attack. She had never had any trouble with her heart. What did this mean for her living on her own? Her daughter, Patricia, lived so far away, there was no way she could help. Oh how Julia wished Patricia was here now.

A knock on the door drew their attention that way. “Hello, Ms. Winston,” Dr. Palinski, a tall, gray-haired man with handsome features stepped into the room. “How are you feeling?”

All Julia could answer in reply was a defeated shrug.

The doctor gave Jerry an understanding and sad half-smile then looked back to Julia. “Listen, you did have a heart attack, but it looks like your heart is still in good shape. It may have just been a combination of that and stress that caused you to pass out. Are you currently under any stress at home?”

Julia eyed Jerry then turned her head away sharply. She looked out of the window and paused for a moment. “I’m fine.”

Dr. Palinski looked at her for a moment before patting her leg. “Well, just try to take it easy. Okay? You may just need to stay at home for a few days. I’m going to write you a prescription and we should be able to get you out of here today.”

Julia heard him walk out of the room before shutting the door behind him. She and Pastor Jerry sat in silence for a few moments, neither knowing what to say. What luck. The Christmas dinner was just around the corner, the one she looked forward to all year, and now she was going to have everyone fussing over her there. If they even let her go.

Then something caught her attention from the corner of her eye. Someone had bought her flowers. She was curious to see who, but she wasn’t ready to be done sulking yet so she turned her eyes back out the window. But really. Who brought her the flowers? They were so pretty too.

Julia raised a brow and strained to read the name hanging on the card. She could hardly contain her shock when she read it. Jamal! What was that nosy neighbor doing here?

Almost as if reading her mind, Jerry said, “You’ll never guess who stopped by.” It was obviously an attempt to cheer her up, which she did not appreciate.

Julia took a deep breath through the tube in her nose. “I already know. Your best friend Jamal. Why did you let that nosy man in here?”

“I didn’t think it would be right to kick the man who saved your life out.”

Julia turned so quickly her neck tensed. She looked at Jerry in utter disbelief. 

“Yep. Jamal was the one who gave you CPR until the ambulance got there. It’s a good thing. None of the rest of us knew how to do it.” Jerry shrugged with a smile.

Julia didn’t know what to think. What was his gain here? There had to be some angle that Jamal was trying to work. He wouldn’t have just saved her.

Would he?

Her pastor must have read the struggle in her eyes, because he spoke as if she had said it out loud. Laying a hand on her hand, Jerry said, “I think Jamal is ready to move on. I talked to him. He said the play and the service really moved him. I was thinking… maybe it’s time for you to do the same.”

Pastor Jerry’s deep smile was so disarming, Julia believed every word he said. She wanted to stay mad, to hold onto that well-cultivated hatred for that man that had caused her so much trouble for so many years, but… she just couldn’t. It felt like one hundred layers of ice and stone just melted off of her heart.

And she forgave him.

Julia began to cry, and Pastor Jerry just hugged her. They sat in an embrace that both felt like it went on forever and that it was over in a moment. When they finally pulled apart, Julia looked him in the eyes, put a hand on his cheek, and said, “Thank you.”

Jerry patted her shoulder and said, “You’re welcome.” 

The pastor stood and slid on his black peacoat. “I’d love to stay and chat with you, Julia, but the church staff needs my help setting up for the Christmas dinner.” He paused and looked at her with sincerity. “I’ll pray that you can make it.”

As her sweet pastor walked out of the door, Julia became more determined than she had ever been in her life. I’ll be there.

The night of the Christmas dinner party had finally arrived. The places were set, and the mood was right. Volunteers milled about the events room that doubled as the youth room on Wednesdays. Red tablecloths were set on long tables arranged in a U-shape around the room with chairs sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with each other to make as much room as possible for all of the dinner guests. The pillar in the middle of the room was hugged by a square setting of tables with crockpots, tinfoil-covered plates, cups, and bottles of soda covering every square inch. All food that everyone had chipped in to bring.

Lights and garland with large red bows and poinsettias set in them dotted the room, and the giant Christmas tree stood as the center of attention against the back wall with a little manger scene set before it. The wonderful scent of cinnamon filled the air sharing space with the joyful sound of Angels We Have Heard on High playing softly.

Julia took a deep breath as she stood in the doorway. She was preparing herself for the onslaught of questions she knew was coming. They all meant well, she knew, but that wasn’t the attention she wanted today. It didn’t really matter though. She was just glad to be released to come to the dinner in the first place. As if the doctor was going to keep her away anyway.

Julia smiled and strode in. The first to greet her was Curtis. He asked the question she dreaded, but the look of genuine concern in his eyes disarmed her. She politely let him know that she was fine and that she was glad to make it to the dinner.

With the first one inquiry out of the way, the rest felt less and less intrusive and soon she was no longer being asked. She was truly grateful for a church family that cared so much.

Julia went over to check her crockpot with wassail and stirred it once for good measure. She wafted the scent toward her and smiled. This dinner was going to be the best yet. Her hospital scare and time to reflect at home was giving her a new appreciation for reasons to be joyous in life.

Out of the corner of her eye, Julia spotted Sally May struggling to carry a couple of store-bought jugs of eggnog into the room. Julia hustled over and took one from her. “Here let me help you, Sally May.”

“Julia. I’m sorry. I tried to find time to make homemade eggnog, but I just couldn’t…”

“Don’t you worry about that, Sally May,” Julia interrupted. “I’ve always liked Hiland’s eggnog anyway. Everyone’s going to love it.”

Sally May looked at Julia for a moment, obviously unsure what to think, but then a smile grew on her face she recognized Julia’s authenticity. They carried the eggnog over together and sat out their cups before helping to prepare where they could with everyone else.

Soon people began filtering in and the sounds of clanking and preparation were replaced by the sounds of light and joyous conversation and laughter. Friends and family were hugging one another, and then the finger food began to run low.

Julia smiled and greeted people as they came in, shaking their hands and hugging them, but she kept watching the door for one person. I really hope I didn’t scare him away…

Before long, she saw Jamal step into the doorway and was washed with relief. His face wore the same awkward look of uncomfort that it had when he talked with Pastor Jerry all those days ago. He pulled his hat from his head and began ringing it in his hands, apparently nervous about meeting all the new people.

When he began walking in, he and Julia made eye contact. He looked away quickly as if he hadn’t seen her and started trying to pick his way through the crowd in another direction. 

Julia’s heart hurt. Not in a physical way, but she knew she had done this. She was ashamed of herself for the first time in as long as she could remember. After pouring a cup of wassail, she headed straight for Jamal.

The bustling crowd of people seemed to part before her, opening a way straight to her neighbor while Jamal still struggled to find a way through them elsewhere. It was almost as if this meeting was supposed to happen.

When Julia approached him, Jamal looked at her nervously. “Oh. H.. hi, Julia. I was just…”

“Would you like some wassail?” Julia asked offering the cup up to the tall man.

Jamal paused and looked down at the wassail for a moment then back to Julia. When he saw her smile, he returned the favor and it seemed as if all of his apprehension about the dinner began to melt away.

“Some of Miss Julia’s famous wassail? You’d better believe it.” He took the cup and put it straight to his lips. His eyes went wide and he pulled it away from his mouth quickly with a pained look on his face. “Sssss.”

Julia chuckled. “Sorry, I forgot to say, ‘careful it’s hot.’” The two shared in a short laugh.

Julia began to feel conflicted. There was so much to say. So much to apologize for. Jamal seemed to be accepting her now, but would he accept an apology that was decades late? And was right now, in the middle of this Christmas dinner, the right time to do it?

Before she could stop herself she was blurting out to him.”Jamal… I’m so sorry.”

Jamal raised a hand to her. “Julia we both have so much to be sorry for. Let’s just enjoy each other’s company this Christmas and leave the past in the past. Besides, I don’t need that bowl of Jack’s anymore. That dog’s been gone for more than 10 years.”

Suddenly Julia remembered what started this whole feud. She must have worn a look of shock on her face because Jamal gave her a knowing smile. 

“I… I think I know exactly where that bowl is,” Julia replied. “It’s on the top shelf in my linen closet. I had completely forgotten. I was so sick of the cats coming on my porch because you kept leaving that bowl out…”

“That you just took the bowl to solve the problem,” Jamal finished with a laugh. “It’s okay. If I hadn’t put the cat bowl on your porch when you did that, things probably wouldn’t have got so hot between us anyway.”

They both laughed at the pettiness of it all. Their conversations got much lighter as they reminisced about all of the inconsequential things that kept that fire stoked between the two houses at the end of Lyon Street. 

When the pastor announced it was time to begin eating, everyone gathered into a circle and held hands as he said Grace. When it was time to sit down to eat, Jamal and Julia sat side by side sharing in merry conversation the whole night. 

Julia looked at Jamal as he was taking a bite of mashed potatoes and just smiled as she was flooded with warmth. Who would have ever guessed this Christmas would bring so much joy that she didn’t know she needed.

May you have a Merry Christmas filled with as much joy as Julia and Jamal share.

Shawn Bain

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