Thanksgiving, 2020

Helen Belden smiled into the camera of her laptop, hoping her children couldn’t see the tears gathering in her eyes. Dropping her eyes to the Zoom configuration on her screen, she glanced from one face to the other. Her husband, three older children and their significant others each occupied a separate square on the screen. Placing an arm around the shoulder of her youngest son, she updated the older ones on the strangest Thanksgiving she could remember.

“We had a nice dinner here; Door Dash delivered turkey, dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy from the Talbott Tavern. I made Bobby’s favorite sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, and a pumpkin pie.”

“It was all good,” Bobby broke in to say. “Not as good as yours, Moms,” he added, turning toward his mother. “But I was looking forward to making some cash parking cars ever since last year.”

“I can’t believe you ordered out,” Trixie blurted out. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed as her face went crimson. “Of course you wouldn’t want to do a whole turkey and all the trimmings yourself for the three of you.” She grabbed a handful of curls on each side of her head. “Sorry again! That didn’t come out right at all.”

“Princess, we all feel the same way.” Peter Belden spoke for the first time. “I didn’t want your mother wearing herself out, cooking all of that food by herself.” He stopped to cough into a tissue. Helen thought he looked thin and pale in his blue striped pajamas, but at least he was sitting up in the armchair in the downstairs guest room. That was more than he’d done the past two days.

“Dad, how are you doing? I don’t like the sound of that cough.” Brian looked tired, but Helen knew better than to ask him to get more rest. He was dressed in scrubs, but at least he wasn’t at the hospital. Helen recognized the tiny apartment he and Honey had rented in Boston. At the outset of the pandemic, he’d sent his pregnant wife to stay with her parents in the relative isolation of the Manor House.

“I’m better. I’ve been staying in the downstairs guest room, isolating from your mother and Bobby. No fever today, so that’s an improvement.” Peter had been diagnosed with COVID-19 four days earlier.

“Bobby and I both tested negative, and we haven’t had any symptoms,” Helen assured her son. “We’ll get retested after the fourteen-day incubation period is over, even if we don’t get sick.”

“Be careful,” Diana Lynch broke in. “Mother was admitted to the hospital last night. She’s not in ICU, but Daddy is practically frantic because she can’t have any visitors.” She blotted her eyes with a tissue. “I feel like I should come home, but I face-timed with her and she begged me not to get on a plane.” Diana was away from home as well; she was ten months into an internship at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Coming home for a visit would not only interrupt her program—difficult enough due to pandemic restrictions—but she’d have to quarantine for two additional weeks after returning to California.

“Di, two vaccines are both on the cusp of approval for emergency use,” Brian said. “Once the approval comes through, travel restrictions should ease up a little—at least for vaccinated people. Both of them have shown great effectiveness in preventing infection during large-scale studies.”

“Gee, Brian!” Bobby spoke up for the first time. “You’re sounding almost as much like a dictionary as Mart. I saw on TV that the vaccines will only be for ages eighteen and up. How will that help kids in school? Our football team has had to forfeit four games so far. And Zoom classes suck.”

“I know, Bobby.” Brian’s voice softened. “It’s tough. The studies so far have focused on adults over eighteen who weren’t pregnant or trying to become pregnant. The results have been so good, and the side effects so minor for most people, that researchers are getting ready to start studies on adolescents aged twelve to seventeen. If all goes well with those, it should work out that most high-schoolers can be protected.”

“That’s such a relief, Brian,” Diana said with a sigh. Helen could see Diana look away from Brian’s square to her fiancé Mart’s. Her middle son had been unusually quiet so far. He’d been on track to complete his journalism degree from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky when the pandemic hit. Like the other Bob-Whites, his plans had been upended when schools dismissed in March and switched to remote learning. He’d been unable to complete some of his remaining coursework remotely, so when on-campus classes resumed, he’d made the decision to stay in Kentucky until his studies were complete. Although Helen worried about him being so far away, she knew he was conscientious about masking and social distancing.

She decided to take the bull by the horns. “Mart, how are you doing?” she asked. “It must be awful reporting on the virus every day.”

“Moms, the worst thing is seeing how tired all of the hospital staff are. They work twelve hour shifts and spend nearly their whole day masked up, wearing a face shield, a gown that’s plastic, and of course gloves. A lot of the nurses wear a cloth head covering, too, mainly to keep their hair from getting constantly messed up. I went to an outdoor drive through testing site one day and put on all of the isolation garb for my story—N-95 mask, face shield, isolation gown, and gloves. Let me tell you, it was sweltering within ten minutes, even though the temperature was actually around forty degrees.”

“Honey, how are you feeling?” Trixie spoke up as she saw her best friend slip back into her spot after a brief absence. Honey and Brian were married and she’d become pregnant just before the first case of the pandemic hit the United States. She was due in just a couple of weeks.

“I’m fine, Trix. Just tired—tired of being pregnant and tired of all the restrictions. But everything’s good with the baby—no problems with blood pressure or anything.” She made a face that was a cross between a grimace and a smile. “Mother won’t let me leave the house unless it’s to go to the doctor. They’re having groceries delivered, Winnie the laundress is living in for however long so that she doesn’t get exposed and can stay ahead of the laundry, and of course a lot of the other staff already live in. It’s hard for them, too, because Miss Trask is very strict with all of them about masking and hand washing, especially when they have a day off and visit their families. Mother and Daddy are a bit grumpy because they can’t really come and go like they normally would, even though Bob could fly them in the company jet, but they’d still have to be around too many people. Mother’s fanatically worried about bringing anything in to me and the baby. Miss Trask was even wiping down groceries with disinfectant until Brian told her it wasn’t necessary. It’s so sweet, they want to be safe, and they’re doing everything they can, but it’s wearing on them.”

Jim Frayne waved from his square. “Honey, I know we have a zoom with Mother and Dad in just a little bit, but I’m glad to see you here, too. I’m so glad you’re able to be with them now, and you’re definitely much safer at the Manor House than you’d be in Boston.”

“I’ve told her the same thing,” Brian said, pushing an unruly lock of hair back from his forehead. “It gives me a lot of peace of mind. How’s everything at Diamond Ranch?”

“Busy—I was afraid the COVID precautions would really interfere with our programs, but thankfully classes are small enough that we can still do our usual activities,” Jim replied. He had accepted a two-year contract at a youth residential treatment center in Utah that was also a boarding school with a full list of extracurricular activities as well as therapy by licensed mental health professionals. He thought the experience would help him to decide whether starting up his own school for at-risk boys was still his dream.

“Kids, I’m going to say good night.” Peter Belden yawned. “It’s not too late but I’m beat. Stay safe!” His square went black as he exited the Zoom space.

“Happy Thanksgiving!” Helen said with a bright wave. “We’ll do this in person next year—all of us!”

She closed the laptop with a sigh and turned to Bobby. “Can you go and see if your Dad has put his tray outside of the door? Brian says you don’t need to disinfect the tray, but be sure to wash your hands after handling it.” She gave him a quick hug. “Bring it out to the kitchen and I’ll wash up the dishes.”

“Sure, Moms. No problem. After that, I’m going to FaceTime with Larry and Terry in my room, okay?” The gangly fifteen-year-old returned her hug and stood up, stretching.

Her baby was taller than she was now. Sighing again, she reflected on how time had flown since he was really a baby. What would the next year bring? And would life ever return to normal?

November 18, 2021

Helen Belden hummed a verse of “Over the River” as she checked off another name as attending from the invitation list for the Belden family’s traditional Thanksgiving Open House. Technically, it wouldn’t really be an open house due to the ongoing pandemic, but at least her extended family would be able to gather and she’d invited Mr. Lytell and Mrs. Vanderpoel, as well as the Wheelers, Lynches, and Ike Maypenny. Of course, Regan, Margery Trask, and Dan Mangan were also invited.

After reviewing the list, she turned to the menu she’d planned. Two large turkeys were presently thawing in the refrigerator, and all of the ingredients for Peter’s traditional turkey dressing were ready to be assembled. Cranberries, sweet potatoes, pecans, sugar, butter… yes, everything had been included on her most recent grocery pickup order. Now it was time to inventory her serving dishes.

Her phone chimed just as she set her mother-in-law’s antique turkey platter on the dining room table. Reaching into her pocket to retrieve the device, she noted the caller was Madeleine Wheeler, and accepted it.

“Hello, Maddie,” she said. “How are you?” In the years since Trixie and Honey had become friends, she and Maddie had grown to know and appreciate each other. Maddie wasn’t the aloof society queen Helen had initially thought, but her busy and wealthy neighbor had warmed up and unbent some of her rigidly scheduled life since her family’s relocation to Sleepyside ten years earlier.

“Hello, Helen! We’re all doing well. It’s just so nice to be able to get out and see people—so different from last year.” Madeleine paused, and Helen could almost see her smiling. “What I really called about though, is your Open House.”

“Oh, you and Matt don’t have to cancel, do you?” Helen caught her breath after the question. The Wheelers had grown very protective of spending the holidays with their children and minimizing business travel at this time of the year. But as people began getting vaccinated, they had resumed some of their business travel in the past six months. Were they trying to make up for lost time? “I shouldn’t have said that!” she apologized. “Of course, we understand if you have other commitments.” She began to pace back and forth between the bright kitchen and the dining room.

Madeleine’s musical laugh broke into her gloomy thoughts. “No, we’ve blocked out our calendar from Thanksgiving week until New Year’s Eve, except for the company party. We’ll definitely be here. No, I called because I wondered if you might be willing to hold the Open House at our place, since I think we could socially distance a little easier here. With the latest uptick in the virus, I thought people might feel more comfortable, even though I’m sure most of your guests will be vaccinated.”

Helen stopped her pacing. For a moment, she was too shocked to speak. The Belden Open House had been a tradition for over twenty years, basically ever since Trixie had been potty-trained. She’d never thought about having it anywhere but at Crabapple Farm. But just because they’d always done it one way, did that mean it could never change?

“Helen, are you still there?” Maddie’s voice sounded worried. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No, not at all,” Helen stammered. “You know, that’s a really good idea. People can mingle, but still spread out. I can still do all the cooking I’d planned, and Peter and I can bring it over Thanksgiving morning.” She thought for a moment. “We have a few card tables and folding chairs we can bring, too.”

“I don’t think you need to worry about the card tables. I spoke with Miss Trask, and we can have a few of those folding banquet tables and chairs delivered by The Wedding Place. That business has struggled during the past year and a half due to group size limits on gatherings. If we can give them some business, I’d like to take care of the tables, chairs, linens, dishes, and cutlery.”

Helen sat down. She needed to process this idea, but had to admit it had merit. “That’s a super suggestion,” she admitted. “I like the idea of helping a local business, too.”

“You said you planned to do invitations this year,” Maddie continued. “Have you mailed invitations or are you calling people?”

“I’ve called almost everyone, but really it’s not a large crowd. We wanted to make sure everyone who comes inside the house has been vaccinated, although Peter said he would deliver meals to a few people who have medical reasons to avoid gatherings.”

“Let’s ask Margie Lynch to help with some decorating, make it feel like a normal festive holiday,” Maddie suggested. “She’s artistic that way and she’s bored of staying in. But she’s got that long COVID issue and gets tired quickly. We can spend a half-hour or an hour decorating, and take a break. Our dining room and the big back family room can sit between decorating sessions and no one will disturb anything, so we don’t need to do it all at once. She’ll enjoy getting out and we can discuss Mart and Diana’s wedding plans.”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Helen was embarrassed she hadn’t thought of it herself. “Margie attended Garden Club meetings over the summer, but I could tell her energy was off.”

“Good! If you’ll email me the list of invitees, I’ll huddle with Margery and figure out how many tables, chairs, dishes, and all that we’ll need. Then I’ll call Margie Lynch and The Wedding Place.”

Helen stood and walked back into the kitchen, where her lists and recipes covered the kitchen table. “I’ll email that list to you now, and then I’ll call everyone and advise them of the change in location.” She thought of something else. “Do you think Jim, Brian, Mart and Bobby can handle the parking at your place? That can be a bit tricky if people are coming and going and you don’t want to have anyone blocked in.”

“I think between the boys and Regan, we might have as many parking attendants as we have cars in the drive. Maybe more.” Maddie’s musical laugh escaped again. “Don’t forget, Dan will be home Thanksgiving weekend as well.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Helen exclaimed. “I didn’t know if he’d be able to get away for the holiday or not.”

“As a matter of fact, Regan just told me today that all of the recruits were given four days off for Thanksgiving weekend.” Helen could almost hear the smile in Maddie’s voice. Maddie and her husband had initially been a bit guarded in welcoming Regan’s nephew, who had gotten involved with a smalltime gang in the city after his mom died. But the boy had won both of them over with his work ethic, and the Wheelers were now among Dan’s biggest fans.

“All right, then, I think we’ve covered what we need at this point,” Maddie continued. “Shall we get together in a few days to iron out the remaining details?”

“Yes, that will work,” Helen replied, jotting down the date on her list. “That’ll give me time to contact everyone.”

“Perfectly perfect!” Maddie’s voice sounded exactly like her daughter’s as she voiced Honey’s favorite phrase. “I’ll call Margie. We’re all vaccinated, so it shouldn’t be any problem for us to be together. I’ll see you Monday, then—ten o’clock?”

“Sure. Ten o’clock Monday. See you then.” Helen ended the call. Maddie’s suggestion would certainly make everything easier when it came to COVID precautions. But what about those turkeys? Two twenty-four pound turkeys wouldn’t be the easiest thing to transport, even after being cooked and sliced. Well, that was a potential problem they could work out on Monday. For now, she took her invitation list and opened her contact list to start notifying her guests of the change in venue.

Friday, Nov 19, 2021

Mart Belden glanced at his phone, which was flashing to show he had an incoming call. Seeing that it was Dan Mangan, he quickly accepted the call.

“Hey, what’s up?” he asked. “Did they cut you loose from Quantico yet?”

“Nah, that won’t happen until five p.m. next Wednesday,” his friend replied. “But I’m packing my car this weekend, as much as possible, so I can leave bright and early. It’s almost a five-hour drive, so if the weather is good, I may head out Wednesday night. But if it’s snowing or freezing rain, I’m not driving that far in the dark.”

“Good idea,” Mart agreed. “I’m actually flying in from Nashville. Over fourteen hours driving is just too much, and it’ll be the same on the way back. I was able to pick up some KN-95 masks and of course I’m vaccinated, so I’m not really worried about being around other people in an enclosed space.”

“So, will we have the annual Bob-White get-together Friday night?” Dan asked. “Are we drawing names again?”

“Dude, you know the girls are in charge of all that stuff,” Mart retorted with a chuckle. “I just do what I’m told.”

“Haha,” Dan said. “I did try texting all of them, but they must have been tied up or on the phone themselves. I really wanted to find out if we’re doing gag gifts, because one of the guys told us about a gift his dad received. It was kind of awesome but maybe a little cringe-y these days. Plus, I doubt if Brian or Jim would find it very funny.”

“Okay, now you’ve got to tell me what it is.” Mart lay back on the extra-long twin bed that his dorm room boasted. Maybe Jim or Brian wouldn’t appreciate the joke, but possibly one of his colleagues on the student newspaper would.

“Well, this guy’s dad, when he was younger, was apparently always jokingly talking about women’s breasts—”

“I can tell already this is NSFW.” Mart snorted. “And probably not safe for our feminine avian associates. I’m not sure if I want to risk my life for this one.”

“Hear me out,” Dan begged. “So, the dad was married, and his wife and her mom must have really had a sense of humor. They decided to collect as many bras from the women in the family as possible, stuff them, and sew them onto a small rug, like a bath mat.”

“You’re kidding!” Mart sat up straight. He could hardly believe his ears.

“No. It really happened. My buddy saw the thing several years later when his parents were clearing out some old boxes from the attic because they were getting ready to move.”

“Holy cow! What the heck did it look like?”

“Well, this was in the seventies, so the bras looked different. But one sister-in-law was really… really… um, well-endowed. I guess the others were on the average side, but there were a couple of these um, giant bras.”

“Mind blown!” Mart still couldn’t believe his ears. “So… was your friend’s dad embarrassed?”

“Damned if I know.”

Mart could easily imagine Dan’s shrug, although he couldn’t see his closest friend.

“I don’t know if my buddy even knows,” Dan continued. “It seems like it would be a great gag gift—if you were a bunch of teenagers or frat boys. But I don’t know how you’d ever get a bunch of women today to donate bras to the cause. Probably cost a fortune if you had to buy all new bras for it.”

“Yeah, I can’t see Di, Honey, and Trixie going for that.” Mart thought for a moment. “It would be awesome if we could come up with something that unique, but you’d also have to have the right recipient.”

“So, anyway… you’ll be staying with Mr. Maypenny, won’t you?”

“Yeah, Uncle Bill will have to deal with me not staying at his place.” Dan chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to cramp his style.” Mart knew that Bill Regan and Dan had long ago overcome their initial wariness with each other and had reached the point of being more like brothers. But Regan had recently acquired a girlfriend, and Mart knew Dan wanted to give his uncle space.

“So, what about your girl? You guys still together?” At the start of the pandemic, Dan had been seeing a young agent of the Surete du Quebec who was in the United States taking an anti-terrorism class. She was a few years older than Dan, but his friends had all looked forward to meeting her.

“Fleur-Elise? We’re still messaging each other, but she had to return to Quebec, and there was no travel across the border allowed for over a year. She’s not sure about traveling now. With the Delta variant spreading, she’s afraid of being unable to go back and forth.” Dan sighed. “I’d feel like a dog for breaking it off, but I’m not sure where it’s going. Long distance isn’t my best thing.”

“Hey, if you’re thinking like that, she might be, too,” Mart offered.

“Dude, I don’t think that’s the encouraging comment you might be thinking.” Dan sighed again. “But let’s change the subject. I can’t wait to see Mr. M, and Regan, and all of you guys! Are Di and Jim coming in, too?”

Mart stood up and walked over to look at the photo of his fiancée that sat on top of his desk. He picked it up and gazed at her smiling face before answering Dan.

“Yeah, they are. Di stayed in LA last summer, you know, and neither of us visited the other one due to the travel quarantine restrictions. She came here for a few days during Spring Break, and visited with her parents for a couple of days at home, but it was really a whirlwind trip. She thought of staying out there until her internship’s over, which is December 10, but in the end she decided she missed her family too much. Even though it’ll only be a long weekend, she’s taking it, and I can’t wait.”

“And Jim?”

Still gazing at Diana’s portrait, Mart sat down at his desk. “Jim’s coming, too. He was able to get a couple of days extra due to the way the Diamond Ranch calendar is set up. Since the kids are there full-time, the staff has staggered time off during holiday school breaks. With fewer classes, the staff can spend more non-instructional time with the kids.”

“I know Trix is champing at the bit to see him.”

“Yeah, she’s barely containing herself.” Mart’s eyes strayed to another picture, one of all the Bob-Whites gathered at the Wheelers’ lake two summers before. It was the last time all of them had been together. “Say, did you get the message from Moms about Thanksgiving Open House being held at the Manor House this year?”

“That’ll be a change for your parents. But I’m sure it will all work out great. Hey, I’d better let you go, man. See you Thursday!”

“Yeah, see you then.” Mart ended the call, excited at the prospect of seeing his family and friends soon.

Monday, November 21, 2021

Helen, Maddie, and Margaret Lynch sat with a place between each of them around the Wheelers’ dining room table.

“I’ve asked Margery to join us,” Maddie said. “She had to take a call from her sister’s assisted living residence, though, and will be here as soon as she can. I hope her sister’s not ill.”

“Yes, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Margaret said with a shudder. Helen noticed Margie’s face still looked a bit drawn, although she hadn’t lost a significant amount of weight since her bout with COVID.

“How are you doing, Margie?” she asked. “I know you had a rough time.”

“Not nearly as bad as some,” Margie told her, taking a sip of Maddie’s special English tea blend. “My family is all together now, and healthy, and we’re excited about spending time with friends and family during the holidays. Everything isn’t back to normal, but we’re finally all vaccinated and Diana is back in New York now, instead of Los Angeles. My brother Monty just visited right after Halloween. The holidays are such a busy time at the ranch, you know. But last year we didn’t get to see him at all, nor my in-laws in Virginia.”

“I know! We weren’t able to see my sister and brother, or Peter’s brothers either.” Helen made a face. “I never wanted to see anyone so badly! Alicia and I are so different that we usually can’t spend too much time together before we start sniping, but I really missed her.”

“I’m sorry for being late.” Margery Trask, the Wheelers’ estate manager, entered the room. Her crisp gray hair and neat tailored skirt looked just as neat as always, but her bright blue eyes held a slight shadow.

“Not a problem,” Maddie Wheeler insisted. She poured a cup of tea for her employee and placed a saucer of dainty cookies at the spot one seat down from herself. “How is Anna?”

“She’s all right now,” the older woman said. “The staff was worried she might have COVID, but she saw her doctor and had an X-ray, and it seems to be just a sinus infection.” She took a sip of her tea and then pulled a pad of paper and a pen from her pocket.

“It’s just awful the way we almost have to assume something is COVID until proven otherwise,” Margie complained. “Your sister is vaccinated though, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she was in the first group of people who were offered vaccination, since she’s in a group living setting.” Margery glanced at each of her companions. “My brother was a bit reluctant at first. Thankfully, he came around, and now he’s insisting all of his staff be vaccinated. He believes it’s helping his business, and that people feel more comfortable eating at the Pirate’s Point, knowing the staff is vaccinated. Well, enough about me and my family. Mrs. Wheeler, didn’t you say this session was to ensure we have thought of all of the logistics, and how to divide up some of the work?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly,” Maddie said. “Helen, I know you are devoted to doing all of that cooking, but since we’re serving here, I wish you’d let Cook roast and carve the turkeys. That’s a big chore and transporting all of that is going to be a pain.”

“I hate to put Cook to that much trouble,” Helen protested. She was a little concerned about Maddie offering her employee’s services, since Maddie herself didn’t cook at all.

“Don’t be silly,” Maddie replied. “I’ve already discussed it with her. We renovated the kitchen last year and have two large commercial-size ovens. She can actually cook both turkeys at the same time, and probably a couple of other dishes as well.”

“Maddie’s right,” Margaret Lynch backed up her good friend. “I saw the new kitchen right after it was finished, and it’s got plenty of oven space. A turkey is one of the easier large main dishes to cook, even though it takes a long time.”

“Please don’t worry.” Margery Trask’s blue eyes twinkled. “I was with Mrs. Wheeler when she spoke with Cook, and she’s right. As soon as Cook heard that the Open House would be held here, she immediately offered to cook and carve all of the turkey.” She took another sip of her tea. “And Cook never says anything she doesn’t mean, when it comes to cooking.”

“All right, I suppose.” Helen felt a bit of relief despite her protests. She hadn’t been looking forward to transporting the cooked birds. It would be easier to transport the mostly-thawed birds encased in their packaging.

“Now, I think the next item of business is where to set up the buffet and tables.” Maddie moved along briskly. Helen remembered that she’d been involved in planning many banquets for company parties as well as charity fundraisers. “Margery has a diagram of the dining room, family room, and enclosed terrace, as well as some cutouts to scale, to represent tables.”

Four heads bent over the table as Miss Trask spread out a large-scale diagram of the spaces, and a small stack of cutout circles and rectangles.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

“Margie? It’s Maddie Wheeler.” Although Maddie knew her name and number displayed on her friend’s phone, she had trouble overcoming the past twenty-five years of identifying herself on calls related to the Wheeler business or her social and charitable foundation work.

“Hi, Maddie! How are you?” Margaret Lynch’s voice was warm, with a tone that was like liquid honey.

“I’m good!” Maddie replied with a smile. “Say, The Wedding Place will be delivering the tables, linens, dishes, and cutlery at eleven o’clock today. If it’s convenient for you, I was hoping you could come over for lunch, and then we’ll get all of the tablecloths onto the tables, and start on the centerpieces. We don’t need to rush, though; we can take the whole afternoon if you’re free.”

“That works. I’ll gather my supplies for the centerpieces and bring them with me. Is Helen coming, too?”

“No,” Maddie said with a sigh. “I asked her, but she’s elbow-deep in piecrust today, it sounds like. Still, I told her if she can take a break she should come up and have a cup of tea sometime during the afternoon.”

“That would be nice. All right then, I’ll see you at eleven-thirty. Bye now!”

“Good bye!” Maddie jumped up from her desk in the bright room that served as her home office. Walking through the dining room and into the large family room that opened into a similarly sized enclosed terrace, she checked her phone for the Open House To-Do list. Most of the usual furniture pieces in the family room and enclosed terrace had been moved into an adjoining storage closet, although a sectional sofa, end tables and coffee table had simply been moved closer to the big-screen television mounted on the wall opposite the fireplace. She’d been completely prepared to move the sectional and tables, too, but Matthew had pointed out that some of the guests were likely to be interested in watching the football game.

“Football—phooey!” she had said, but agreed he was right. The sectional and its tables stayed, but several armchairs, ottomans, and occasional tables went into the storage closet.

Instead, strips of painter’s tape marked the spots where five round banquet tables were to be placed. Each table would normally seat eight people, but to enable social distancing, Maddie and Margie had decided to limit seating to six per table.

Not seeing any obstacles to the tables being set up, she retraced her steps to the dining room. She found Miss Trask there, with her trusty steno pad and pen.

“Shall we move the chairs, Mrs. Wheeler?” the older woman asked. “There is space in the ballroom coat closet for them.”

“That would leave more room for walking around between the table, the regular buffet, and the folding tables,” Maddie agreed. “Also, it would stop anyone from sitting in here.” She nibbled at her lower lip. “Not that I would mind, normally, but I think it would interfere with the food line.”

“Right, because the idea is to let people mingle in the family room and terrace, where there’s plenty of space.” Miss Trask took her own phone and sent a text. “I’ve asked Regan to help me get the chairs put away whenever he can find the time today.”

“The three of us can do it together,” Maddie said firmly. “I’ve already told Tom and Celia they are off duty for the weekend as soon as he brings Matt home from the train station today. They’re going to the Delanoys’ for the weekend. In fact, if we haven’t finished by the time Matt gets home, he’ll want to help, too.”

“That’s settled, then.” Miss Trask put a check next to one item on her list. “Now, do you think we should arrange the folding tables on one end of the room, kind of perpendicular to the buffet? Or on the opposite wall?”

“We’re arranging desserts and a coffee urn on the buffet,” Maddie said with a thoughtful, quizzical wrinkle of her nose. “Other beverages and cups will be in the seating area, so people won’t have to try to juggle plates, glasses, and cutlery. I hadn’t thought before about doing a perpendicular arrangement. We’re going to have four rectangular table in here, so they might not all fit on the end wall. Let’s see how it looks. I don’t believe the tables will be too heavy for us to move if we don’t like the way that functions.”

“Very good.” Miss Trask made another checkmark. “Now, will we need any chafing dish holders and candles or sterno?”

“The Wedding Place is providing plenty of chafing dish holders and sterno. I thought that would be easier than having Helen bring hers. We should have plenty. If anything needs to be plugged in, there’s an outlet on the wall.”

“It looks like we’re as well-prepared as possible,” Miss Trask said. “I’m going to go ahead and start moving these chairs.”

“Let’s each take one,” Maddie suggested. “Two pairs of hands will cut the work in half.” She suited her action to her words and lifted a dining chair. Miss Trask did the same and they headed through the living room into the ballroom that hadn’t been used for a gathering in many months.

The delivery truck for The Wedding Place arrived before they finished moving chairs, but Miss Trask directed them inside from the service entrance. The three masked assistants set up the five round tables in the family room and enclosed terrace; the thirty folding chairs were trundled inside and set up around the tables according to Maddie’s direction.

“Here’s your tablecloths and napkins,” said one of the delivery assistants, depositing a bundle on the table nearest the door.

Miss Trask directed another assistant into the dining room with a wheeled cart of plates and cutlery. “You’ll need to rinse all the pieces and replace them back into the bins,” the woman said, indicating with her hand. “But even if you wash them, we’ll have to do them over. So you don’t need to wash them unless you really want to do extra work.”

Maddie entered the dining room in time to hear that information. “When will you pick up everything?” she asked.

“Pickup time is ten o’clock on Friday,” the assistant replied. “Since we need to clean and sanitize everything, we need the time to get that done for the next event.”

“Understandable. We’ll have everything ready,” Maddie replied with a smile.

“I think that’s everything. Here is a copy of your invoice, so you can see how many of each item were delivered. We supply four extra plates and sets of cutlery, in case of accidents.” The woman grinned. “There’s rarely a problem. But I’d rather have extra and not need it, than need it and not have it.”

“You’re so right.” Miss Trask walked her to the door. The remaining delivery team members were already inside the truck. “Thank you so much! Happy Thanksgiving,” she said.

“The same to you! I’m glad your family will be able to be together this year,” the woman said with a friendly wave.

Maddie had walked back out to the enclosed terrace to study the layout of the tables. “I think this will look nice, once we have a tablecloth and a nice centerpiece at each table,” she said, beckoning Miss Trask to join her. With a satisfied smile, she added, “It’s not too crowded, but people will still be able to talk to each other.”

The doorbell’s chime interrupted them as they carried chairs 7 and 8 from the dining room to the ballroom. Maddie, who was closer to the front door, put her chair down and went to answer it. As expected, Margaret Lynch and her chauffeur stood on the front porch. The Lynch chauffeur, Jack, carried a large plastic tub of supplies for Margie’s fall-themed centerpieces.

“Margie! So glad you could make it!” Maddie waved her friend inside and gave her an air hug. “Let me take your coat, and Jack, I’ll show you where to put down that tub.”

Taking Margaret’s coat, she led the way into the Wheeler family room. “Any of those round tables will be fine. I think that will be a good place to distribute the centerpieces, and if there’s any assembly needed, it will be convenient.”

The chauffeur set down the tub as indicated and turned to his employer. “Mrs. Lynch, just let me know when to come back and pick you up,” he said. “Thank you, Mrs. Wheeler. I’ll let myself out.”

“Thank you, Jack.” Maddie lay her friend’s coat across the back of the sofa. “I think Cook is just about ready to serve our lunch,” she said. “Would you like to freshen up? Then you can just meet Margery and me in the breakfast room.”

“I can’t wait to get this area decorated,” Margie said, glancing around the spacious area. It’s really going to look nice. I’ll see you in a few minutes in the breakfast room.”

“Now we can put the finishing touches on!” Maddie’s eyes sparkled as she again led the way into the family room. “First, let’s get the buffet tables in the dining room taken care of. She handed a folded cloth to each of her helpers, and took two herself, Once the rectangular tables were evenly covered, the trio spread tablecloths over each of the round banquet tables, adjusting the cloth until all sides were as even as possible.

“Now for the fun part!” Margaret Lynch announced. “Seriously, I think these will be so easy, and really cute. They shouldn’t take much time at all.” She pulled a package of round braided straw placemats from the tub.

“If you’ll put one mat in the center of each table, that will be our base.” Maddie and Miss Trask quickly complied. “Now, lets arrange these leaves on the mats, kind of randomly. Maybe start with a dozen, but I have more if that seems too skimpy when we’re done.” She handed out eight packets of brightly colored silk leaves, and the other two again followed directions.

“This is looking good,” Margie said, walking around the tables. “Now I have some pillar candles with artificial flames. Let’s set one in the center of each mat. After that, we’ll add some artificial mini pumpkins and gourds.”

Once the candles were in place at each table, she gave out the mini pumpkins and gourds. “Use three or five, grouped around the candle. I’d love to use real leaves, pumpkins, and even candles, but since there’s going to be food, and maybe a fair amount of moving around, I thought it would be easier this way and we don’t have to worry about whether there are any critters or dirt on the leaves or pumpkins.”

“Mrs. Lynch, you’re right,” Miss Trask said. “The decorations are lovely and this was a super-easy project.”

“Do you think we should do any decorating on the food serving tables?” Maddie asked.

Margaret looked thoughtful. “It’s hard to say because we don’t know yet how much food there will be. I’m concerned that putting out decorations might interfere with space needed for the serving dishes. I have a few more pieces if needed, but let’s just wait for now.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Maddie agreed. “We’ll move your tub into the butler’s pantry. There’s space in there so it will be convenient, but out of the way.”

“Didn’t you say we would place a salt and pepper on each table?” Ever practical, Miss Trask had pulled out her notepad again.

“Thanks for the reminder!” Maddie snapped her fingers. “We have plenty of small salt and pepper sets in the butler’s pantry. Let’s go ahead and get those.” She picked up the plastic storage tub and led the way again, into the butler’s pantry.

Once all of the tables had two salt and pepper sets, the three women admired their work. “Not as cozy as Crabapple Farm, but I think it’ll be very comfortable,” Maddie commented.

“Yes, it will.” Margaret smiled and hugged herself. “Most of all, though, it will be wonderful to be able to gather again with all of our families and neighbors. I never want to go through another holiday like last year’s.”

Thanksgiving Day 2021

As a bright blue Honda Civic made a neat three-point turn outside the service entry of the Manor House, Honey Wheeler Belden hurried to open the door, her ten-month-old son on her hip. The car belonged to her sister-in-law and best friend, Trixie Belden. The two young women hadn’t seen each other in over a year, thanks to a combination of conflicting schedules and the pandemic.

Now that all of the adults in both families were vaccinated, she couldn’t wait to show off Trixie’s first (and only) nephew, in person. As she held the door open for Trixie, she tried her best to keep little Matthew’s head pressed against her chest on one side, and to hold her hand over his ear on the opposite side to keep the chilly air away from his ears.

“Come in, come in!” she exclaimed. “Wow, you are loaded down.” Trixie carried two large rectangular casserole dishes, and a full shopping bag dangled from one arm. “Jeepers, Trix! I wish I could take something for you.”

“No, no—I’ve got it all balanced. And look at little Matthew! He’s giant!” Trixie stepped inside and wiped her feet on the mat from habit, although it was dry and clear outside. The two of them headed for the Wheeler kitchen, where Cook was preparing to carve the first of two massive, golden brown turkeys.

“Where would you like for Trixie to set her casseroles?” Honey inquired of the estate manager.

“Let’s see,” Miss Trask said. She put on her reading glasses and consulted her diagram. “All right. The hot foods go over here.” She walked briskly over to a line of cloth-covered rectangular tables on one side of the spacious dining room. Counting off several places, she asked, “Do you have the sweet potatoes? They should go right here.”

“Yes, here’s the sweet potato casserole with pecan topping.” Trixie set both dishes down on the cloth-covered table so that she could place the correct one on top of the chrome chafing dish holder. Honey moved closer to her sister-in-law to get a better view—and maybe a whiff—of her favorite dish. Just as Trixie lifted the uncovered casserole with its sweet, crunchy nut topping, Matthew suddenly squirmed and kicked. Somehow his shoe struck the surface of the dish and made a dent in the crispy, sugary topping.

“Oh, Matthew!” Honey spun away from the dish before things could get any worse. “Trixie, I’m so sorry!” She held her son out in front of her, trying to see if any of the topping clung to his shoe. Matthew screwed up his face as if he was about to howl, so she lifted him up and cooed “How’s my big boy? You’re going to meet so much family today!” She lowered him almost down to her face and made kissy faces, and the baby gurgled and laughed instead of crying.

Trixie was bent over the dish, examining it closely. There was a slight dent in the topping, but none of the bright orange filling was exposed. Next, she took Matthew’s foot and checked the bottom of his shoe.

“No harm done, Honey. I don’t see anything on his shoe, and he’s not walking yet, is he?”

Honey could hardly believe her ears. “But… but… his shoe!”

Miss Trask, for once, seemed at a loss for words.

“This shoe looks like it’s never been worn before,” Trixie pointed out. “I don’t think it’s really dirty. This house is clean and …well, I’ve always heard you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die, anyway.” Trixie shrugged and grinned. “You can ask Brian if you’re really worried, but I think it’ll be safe to eat.”

Several expressions flitted across Miss Trask’s face, but in a moment, she seemed to collect herself. “Honey, you know, I really believe Trixie’s right. Matthew isn’t walking yet, and you just put those new shoes on him a few minutes before she arrived. Maybe take him to the bathroom and wipe the bottom of the shoe just to be sure it doesn’t have anything sticky on it, but I don’t see anything either. Now, let’s see where the broccoli rice casserole is supposed to go.”

Honey left the dining room carrying Matthew, and headed to the downstairs powder room with him. That was a near-disaster, she thought. I’ll try to make sure I get the piece with the dent in it, even though I’m sure Trixie is right .

As she emerged from the powder room, she saw her brother almost galloping down the front stairs.

“Where’s Trixie?” he asked. “I exercised Jupiter this morning, and once I got back it was obvious I needed to shave before everyone started arriving. I thought I heard her voice, but couldn’t get down here fast enough.”

“She and Miss Trask were in the dining room a minute ago. But I think Trixie brought a few more casseroles, so she might have gone back out to her car.”

Jim was already out of sight.

Trixie carried two more casserole dishes into the Wheeler service entrance as a familiar tall, redheaded young man opened the door to her. Jim bent over to give her a kiss and take the heavy dishes from her at the same time.

“Careful, they’re on the hot side,” she cautioned her boyfriend. “Take the bottom one by the handles; don’t touch the underneath part!”

“As you wish,” Jim replied with a grin. “After you, my lady.” She wrinkled her nose at him and scooted inside as he leaned on the door to keep it open.

“Let’s ask Miss Trask what to do with these,” Trixie suggested once they were inside the warmth of the kitchen. “They’re extra and we’ve already got one dish of each set up on the buffet.” Jim put the dishes down on the large quartz-topped kitchen island and leaned against it, gazing at his special girl as if he couldn’t look at her enough.

The Wheelers’ cook had finished carving the first turkey, and Trixie admired the beautifully arranged slices. Each slice of white meat had an edging of crispy golden brown skin. Even the dark meat, that was so difficult to slice, looked neat. If she’d been at her own home, she would have filched a piece. As it was, she felt her mouth watering at the sight. While she watched, Cook pushed that platter to the side and started in on the second turkey.

“Cook, that is the most beautiful sliced turkey I’ve ever seen,” she said truthfully. The talented carver smiled at her. “That’s high praise, coming from Peter Belden’s daughter,” she said. “I enjoy it, but I’m kind of glad I don’t have to do it too often.”

The kitchen’s swinging door opened to reveal Miss Trask, whose eyebrows rose as she saw the additional dishes.

“You know Moms,” Trixie said. “She always wants to make sure there’s enough food. This is another broccoli casserole and another sweet potato casserole. This isn’t everything, but Mart and Bobby are bringing several pies and the cranberry sauce.”

Miss Trask nodded, adapting quickly to the new need. “Cook, can we just slide these in the warming oven?”

“Yes, indeed.” Cook waved toward the double warming oven, and Trixie opened the door. Warm air greeted her and she stepped aside as Jim slid the two casseroles inside.

“Good, there’s still room for more,” she observed. “I’m not sure how much more space we’ll need. We don’t have a pro setup like this at the Farm, of course.”

“Trixie, I told your mother I’d take care of the mashed potatoes and gravy,” Cook said with a fond smile for the energetic girl who had been Honey’s best friend since the day after the Wheelers had moved into the Manor House. “The potatoes are almost ready to mash now; I’m just trying to finish up this turkey.”

“Hey, I’m pretty much an expert potato masher,” Jim said with a grin. “Let me take care of that. Trixie, if you want to learn from the master…” He winked at his girlfriend.

“Sure, it’s not against my principles to watch you work, Mr. Potato-master,” she replied with an answering grin. She climbed up onto one of the barstools on the outside wall of the island while Jim went to the stove for the big pot of potatoes.

“Jim, the big colander is in the sink there,” Cook told him. “And I have two sticks of butter sitting on the counter for the potatoes.”

Trixie watched as Jim lifted the heavy, twelve quart pot and transferred it to the sink. She appreciated the definition of his arm muscles, visible even through his plaid flannel shirt. Clouds of steam arose as he poured the potatoes into the colander to drain, and then dumped the potatoes back into the pot. Grabbing a dish towel, he carried the pot to the island and set it down on top of the towel before unwrapping the sticks of butter and dropping them into the hot vegetables. Next, he poured some salt into the pot and grabbed a gallon of milk from the commercial-size Sub-Zero refrigerator. After pouring what Trixie felt was not enough milk into the potatoes, he turned to Cook.

“Where would I find the potato masher these days?”

“My lands! I forget you haven’t been home since the kitchen renovation was finished.” Cook quickly washed her hands and wiped them on a clean dishtowel. Reaching into a drawer, she handed him the sturdy old wood-handled, square-gridded masher. Trixie had heard her say before that the masher had belonged to Cook’s mother, years ago. “Here you go, Jim.”

“I’m surprised you don’t have a fancy electric machine to whip up the potatoes,” Trixie said.

“It’s just not the same,” Jim demurred, taking a few preliminary punches at the potatoes.

“Eh, many people use a mixer, but it makes the potatoes kind of gluey,” Cook said with a shake of her head. “It’s quicker when you have such a big batch, but a strong fellow like Jim shouldn’t have any trouble.”

A red flush rose from Jim’s neck to his hairline. Trixie knew he was embarrassed to receive such praise.

She watched him pound the cooked potatoes with the utensil, enjoying the glimpse of his muscles as the butter blended with the soft potato flesh extruded through the grids. A delicious aroma of cooked, buttered potato rose from the pot. After a few moments, Jim stopped and poured another splash of milk into it; next he went to the spice cabinet and took down a small jar labeled “white pepper.” After a few shakes of the white pepper, he began mashing again, scraping bits of potato off the sides of the pot into the middle, so that all of the mixture blended together.

Finally, Jim seemed to decide the potatoes were ready. He set down the masher and pulled a teaspoon from the cutlery drawer.

“Taste this and let me know if it’s right,” he invited Trixie, holding the spoon out to her.

Trixie was happy to be the taste tester. “Yummy-yum!” she exclaimed, eyes closed in bliss after licking the spoon clean. “Perfectly perfect, as Honey would say. I know you can cook, but have you been holding out on me?” she asked. “Or watching cooking shows on the Food Network?”

“Hah!” Jim snorted. “More like taking turns with the cooking at the Diamond Ranch Academy. The staff are divided into teams, and each student is assigned to a team. It’s great practice for people who need to learn their way around a kitchen, and also for cooking in larger quantities.”

“I can imagine! So how is the experience so far? Does it feel like the career you want?” She was genuinely curious. Jim’s childhood dream had been to establish and run a combination school and year-round camp for boys without fathers. Life and experience had led to alterations in the dreams of most of the Bob-Whites already, and she wondered if Jim was still on the path he’d dreamed about.

Jim was busy transferring the mashed potatoes into two large rectangular casseroles and didn’t answer immediately. After dabbing a few pats of butter over the surface of the fluffy potatoes, he slid one of the dishes into the second warming oven.

“I suppose we’d better go ahead and put this one with the other hot food in the dining room,” he said. “Guests will be arriving in another thirty minutes or so. Maybe I should cover this with some foil until we’re ready to eat.” He suited the action to the words, tearing off a sheet of foil to loosely cover the top.

“Yes, Dad was getting ready to pick up Mrs. Vanderpoel and Mr. Lytell,” Trixie agreed. She tried to pick up the remaining dish of potatoes, but Jim grabbed it first.

She tagged after him into the dining room.

“I’m not sure yet about the school,” he admitted. “But remember, it’s only been a few months. I have a one-year contract and will have to see how the rest of the year goes. The kids at the Diamond Ranch have had very tough lives, even worse than what I had with Jonesy. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to deal with some of those situations day in and day out. For now, I’m keeping an open mind.”

Jim checked the diagram Miss Trask had created for the arrangement of the various dishes, and placed the potatoes in the appropriate holder. Trixie lighted a can of sterno and slipped it into place underneath the dish.

As she withdrew her hand and was caught in an embrace by Jim, the sounds coming from the direction of the service entrance and kitchen heralded the arrival of her brothers Mart and Bobby. She quickly returned Jim’s embrace and turned her face up for his kiss, but the kiss wasn’t very satisfactory. She and Jim weren’t embarrassed by their relationship, and Mart (at least) had moved past the stage of teasing. But both she and Jim preferred to keep their overt displays of affection private.

The couple separated and greeted the two Belden brothers.

“Hi Mart! Hi Bobby!” Trixie waved at the two blond young men. Mart carried two pumpkin pies and Bobby had a mincemeat pie in one hand and an apple pie in the other.

“Hi Trix! Hi Jim! I wasn’t sure you were going to make it,” Bobby said.

“Do you have a certain spot where we should put these?” asked Mart. “I don’t want to mess up the plan.”

Jim consulted the diagram again, and showed them where to place the pies on the Wheelers’ sideboard. “When did you get in?” he asked Trixie’s almost-twin.

“Actually, last night about ten o’clock. It was a bummer because my flight was supposed to leave Nashville at five-thirty, and I’d have had time to see Diana last night. As it turned out, there was a delay related to some mechanical issue, and as a result I got to Penn Station barely in time to make the last train from the city. By the time I got to Sleepyside, it was just too late. We Facetimed, but it’s not the same, of course.”

“Mart, we’d better get the rest of the stuff from the car if you want to pick up Di,” Bobby interrupted. “You can always help,” he told his sister with a waggle of blond eyebrows.

“Gleeps! How much more stuff do you have to bring inside?” Trixie asked. “I already brought four casseroles.”

“Cranberry sauce, green beans, Dad’s signature turkey dressing…” Bobby ticked off the items on one hand. “You’ve been to the Open House before, haven’t you?”

“I’ll help,” Jim offered with an easy grin. “Trix, why don’t you go check on Honey? Surely she’s finished cleaning Matthew’s shoe by now.”

Trixie grinned. “She probably went upstairs to wake Brian, but I might be able to snag some quality time with my favorite nephew while you men put out the rest of the food.” As the three guys headed for the service entrance again, she made her way upstairs.

Cook arranged the final slices of the second turkey on a large oval platter and covered it with plastic film before sliding it into the refrigerator. As she directed her attention to compacting both turkey carcasses into plastic storage containers, Jim grabbed the first platter and carried it into the dining room, where he found Miss Trask studying the food diagram intently, with a worried pucker of her brows. He placed the platter in the designated spot near the beginning of the line.

“Here, let me take the food diagram,” he said, reaching out for the sheet of paper. “There isn’t too much left to set out, and I don’t have anything more pressing to do.”

Miss Trask startled. “Oh, my! I was so busy studying this diagram that I didn’t even hear you come in, Jim.” She looked a bit flustered; a few stray curls stood out in odd places over her head. “If you’re sure it’s no trouble, I’ll take a few minutes to freshen up. Mr. and Mrs Belden are already here, and everyone else will be along momentarily.” She handed him the paper and smiled. “Thank you, Jim! And if I haven’t already said it, it’s good to have you home, even if only for a few days.”

“It’s good to be home,” he replied with an answering smile. “Go along, now. I’ve got this!” He double-checked the diagram to ensure everything was in the right place.

“Plates, cutlery folded into napkins, turkey, potatoes, gravy… still need gravy,” he noted. Dressing… I’ll check with Mr. Belden. Broccoli casserole, green beans, cranberry sauce… Mart said he was bringing that; sweet potato casserole.”

After taking note of the items that were left, he went back into the kitchen by way of the swinging door on one side of the sideboard. At the same time, Matthew Wheeler entered the kitchen. Jim’s eyes widened in surprise. His dad was even less likely than his mother to come into the kitchen. Matthew glanced around for a moment, obviously not finding what he searched for. But the refrigerator door was open, and as Cook backed away from it and closed it, Jim realized his dad was looking for Rachel.

“Good morning, Rachel,” Matthew greeted his employee. “There are certainly some wonderful aromas coming from your domain today—although that’s the case any time you’re cooking, I must say.”

Cook blushed. “Good morning, Mr. Wheeler, and thank you. It’s a pleasure to cook for you and your family. This is a special day, of course.”

“Well, yes. It is special, and we appreciate the extra work you’ve done to help make it possible.” Matthew fixed her with the sharp gaze from his green eyes. “Now, you must join us for dinner today. This Open House is a community event—normally—and just because it has to be different this year, that doesn’t mean you don’t get a break from working all day on the holiday.”

“But, I couldn’t possibly… the food… the cleanup…” Now it was Cook’s turn to be flustered.

Jim stepped forward. “Dad’s absolutely right,” he declared. “All of the food is prepared. The Bob-Whites can take care of replenishing any of the dishes that are emptied, as well as cleaning up afterward. You go ahead and get ready to relax for the afternoon, and don’t worry about a thing.”

“Jim’s absolutely right,” Matthew backed up his son. “Go ahead now, and everything will be fine. You deserve a relaxing time today. You’ve already done more than enough.”

“If you insist.” Cook still looked a little uncertain, but she untied her apron and removed it, hanging it on a hook behind the swinging door.

“I do insist.” Matthew smiled, his most winning and persuasive smile. “Besides, Mrs. Wheeler will have me strung up if you don’t join us. It was her idea but she was afraid you’d find some excuse to refuse if she asked you.”

Glancing first at Matthew and then at Jim, she said, “Thank you, Mr. Wheeler, thank you, Jim.”

As Cook went out by the swinging door, Jim checked the gravy, simmering on a back burner. Cook had set the gravy boat on the counter next to the stove, and he dipped out enough gravy to fill it. Next, he checked the refrigerator for the cut glass bowl of red, glowing cranberry sauce. Checking the silverware drawer, he found the gravy ladle as well as a suitable spoon to serve the cranberry sauce.

“Thank you for backing me up, Jim,” Matthew Wheeler said. “I’m not sure Cook believes I’m competent to do anything related to cooking or serving food, but she knows you are. I’m sure that’s the only reason she agreed to go.” He chuckled. “We’re very lucky in our staff.”

“I think that’s because you treat them right, Dad. But I agree with you—we’re lucky, and she wouldn’t have agreed if I hadn’t stepped in.” He grinned and picked up the two dishes to take them out to the buffet.

Brian had planned to leave Boston Wednesday night as soon as he showered and changed at home after leaving the hospital. The trip was normally a two and a half-hour drive, and he hoped to be able to sleep late in the morning before the Open House.

Honey and Matthew had been staying in Sleepyside with her parents since the surge in COVID infections from the delta variant. Matthew was too young to be vaccinated, and she felt uncomfortable staying in the city, since Brian was around sick people all day in the hospital. The semi-separation had been hard on the young family, especially since a steady drop in infections throughout the spring had led Honey to move back to the city for two months. It was a double blow when another surge of infection hit in August.

Trixie knocked on Honey’s old bedroom door. In the old days, she would have been welcome to barge in. But even though Brian was her brother, she was not anxious to walk in to a private scene between husband and wife.

Honey opened the door, but not enough for Trixie to come inside. She held a finger to her lips. “Shhh! Matthew just dropped off. I don’t know if he’ll be up for dinner or not, but I’ve got the baby monitor Bluetoothed to my phone. Brian’s finishing up in the shower. He and I will be down in just a few minutes.”

“Great, I’ll let Jim and your parents know. See you shortly!” Trixie turned and scampered back down the stairs, just in time to see Miss Trask opening the front door. Mrs. Vanderpoel and Mr. Lytell stepped inside the entry hall, followed by Helen and Peter Belden.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Vanderpoel! Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Lytell!” Trixie hurried to take the coats of her two elderly neighbors, as well as her parents. There had been a long time when she and Mr. Lytell were wary of each other, but their relationship had relaxed as Trixie grew up and matured.

“Thank you, Trixie,” replied rosy little Mrs. Vanderpoel. “Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.” She had dressed for the occasion in a warm pumpkin-colored dress with a brown tunic-length vest.

“Trixie Belden, you used to be a harum scarum tomboy, but anyone can see today that you’re your mother’s daughter. Not just in looks, but you’re growing more like her in hospitality, too.” The skinny storekeeper had shrunk in the past few years and his body was bent. But his eyes twinkled behind his spectacles as he smiled at her.

“Miss Trask, I’ll take their coats,” she said. “Mrs. Wheeler said we’re to use the big ballroom coat closet,” she said. “So just let me know when you’re ready to put them back on and I’ll fetch them.” She turned toward the big front parlor, which led out to the ballroom, and hurried to start with one of her regular Open House duties as Miss Trask led her parents and neighbors back to the large family room and enclosed terrace where guests were to mingle.

Trixie could hear a gentle murmur of conversation behind her as she made her way to the ballroom coat closet. Despite the dozen dining chairs in the closet, there was still plenty of room to hang coats.

The doorbell chimed as Trixie emerged from the closet, and she started to run to answer it, slowing down as she remembered the Manor House residents were a bit more formal. By the time she reached the door, Maddie Wheeler was opening it to welcome the Lynch family, sans Diana.

“Welcome, friends!” Maddie held the door as Margaret and Ed Lynch entered. As the couple reached the center of the Manor House’s entry hall, their two sets of twins came through the front door, along with Bobby Belden.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Wheeler,” the five chorused, almost in unison. The boys and girls divested themselves of light jackets just as Trixie stepped up.

Trixie stepped forward. “Let me take your coats,” she offered to the Lynch parents.

“Absolutely,” Mr. Lynch replied with a jolly laugh. “But first, we brought a small hostess gift.” He held out a basket to Maddie. Nestled inside were a fifth of Maker’s Mark Kentucky bourbon and two bottles of Veuve Cliquot.

“Oh, my! Thank you!” Maddie took the basket and turned to the five youngsters, who were ready to hand off their coats. “I’m so glad you all could come,” Maddie told them with a warm smile. “It’s wonderful to be able to come together again.”

“Thank you,” one of the girls said with a shy smile. Trixie tried to study her face without being obvious about it, trying to decide if this was Margie or Barbie.

“Coats will be in the ballroom coat closet,” she told them. “When you’re ready to leave, let me know and I’ll get them back out.” The girl who had spoken nodded, but none of the others were paying attention. After all this time, Trixie still had trouble telling the two girls apart. The boys were a little easier, if only because they had been at the Beldens’ home so often. Still, due to the pandemic she hadn’t seen any of them for over a year. The kids had all grown and changed. As she turned to Mr. and Mrs Lynch, the kids disappeared in the direction of the family room.

Mr. Lynch helped his wife with her coat before shrugging out of his own. As Trixie added the parents’ coats to the bundle already in her arms and headed back to the ballroom, she could hear Mrs. Lynch’s voice.

“We’re so glad the children were able to be vaccinated before school started. Such a relief that the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children as young as twelve! They missed their friends so much last year, and also since your grandson is here I would hate to have to worry about them spreading it to him.”

The adults’ voices faded as Trixie made her way back to the coatroom and they apparently joined the others in the back of the house. As she emerged again from the coatroom, the doorbell chimed again.

This time it was Dan Mangan and Mr. Maypenny, followed by the Wheelers’ groom, Regan, who was also Dan’s uncle. She opened the door and ushered the trio inside.

“You guys could’ve just walked in, you know,” she chided them even as she reached for their coats.

“If we were only visiting Honey it might be different, but even so I’d always call or text and not just walk right in,” Dan protested. “I offered to help with parking, so I’ll just leave my coat on for now.”

“I don’t believe we’re expecting more people—except Mart and Diana!” Trixie sniffed. “Di’s parents are already here, and they brought all of the twins and Bobby. I guess Mart dumped Bobby on them so he could have some private time with Di.” She accepted Mr. Maypenny’s and Regan’s coats before continuing. “Moms and Dad brought Mrs. V and Mr. Lytell. After we eat, we’re taking food to the police station for Sergeant Molinson, the dispatcher, and Spider. And we’ll take a plate to Miss Rachel Martin. She’s not getting out right now since she’s still receiving therapy for her hip replacement.”

“Here’s Mart now,” Regan observed. “So I suppose they didn’t have time to watch any submarine races.” He chuckled. “I know the Lynches only arrived a few minutes ago.”

Trixie heard the muffled thump of car doors slamming shut, and she could see Mart and Di hurrying up the semicircular drive to the front door. Before either of them could ring the bell, she threw the door open.

Just as Jim checked the food diagram to make sure the gravy and cranberry sauce were in the right spots, he heard Mart’s voice and hurried out to the front hall, where Mart and Diana were greeting Trixie.

“Di! Long time no see!” In spite of the bulky coats she held, Trixie threw her arms around her future sister-in-law.

Diana hugged her back. “I know we’re supposed to do elbow bumps, but oh, my goodness! We’re vaccinated and healthy, and today I just want to feel like the world is normal again!”

“Trixie! Long time no see!” Mart grinned and grabbed his sister in a hug as soon as his fiancée freed her.

“Yeah, it’s been at least twenty minutes,” she retorted. “We’ve been waiting on you two. Give me your coats so I can put them away.”

“Where’s your dreamy woodsman?” Mart asked. He would never let her live down the term of endearment she’d once accidentally let him overhear. “I can’t believe he let you out of his sight.”

“Jim was helping to set out all of the food and plates while I answered the door,” Trixie said. “I think you’re the last ones to arrive, though.” She grabbed their coats and headed for the cloakroom just as Jim himself appeared in the front hallway.

“Mart! Do you have the dressing?” he asked. “I think that’s the last item for the buffet.” As a slight afterthought, he greeted Mart’s fiancée. “Happy Thanksgiving, Di!”

“Darn it!” Mart snapped his fingers. “I left the dressing in the car. Give me a sec.” He kissed Diana and reversed course, almost colliding with his sister who had just emerged from the formal living room into the hallway.

“Watch it, Mr. Graceful!” But Trixie’s voice was only half admonishing. “Di, you probably want to go ahead and score seats for you and Mart. You two are the last ones here.”

“Sounds like a plan! Happy Thanksgiving, Jim!” Diana continued on her way toward the family room.

Just then, Jim heard a faint “ding.” It was his turn to snap his fingers. “Cook had some rolls in the oven,” he told Trixie, who was immediately behind him. “Let’s go get them before they scorch.”

They were luckily in time, and Jim turned the rolls out into a napkin-lined basket, which Trixie carried to the dining room, just in time to nearly collide again with Mart, who had returned with a casserole full of dressing balls in an insulated carrier.

“We must stop meeting like this, Sis,” Mart teased. “Before one of us gets hurt.”

“You’re so funny!” But she laughed anyway. “I’m so glad we can still have the Open House this year, even though it looks different.”

“You know what? Me, too.” Mart slid the dish out of its insulated carrier and placed it in the last empty spot on the buffet line.

I wonder if Honey and Brian have come down yet , she wondered as she emerged once more into the front hall. She glanced up the sweeping staircase to the second floor, but all seemed quiet upstairs. Shrugging, Trixie hurried to the powder room to wash her hands. As she opened the door, she almost walked straight into Jim.

“Everyone’s here,” he said. “All of the food is ready and we’re just waiting to say grace. I should have come out here with you to greet the guests; it seemed like everyone came at once.”

“I was fine. But I never saw Honey and Brian come downstairs.” She tried to match her shorter stride to Jim’s, but he noticed and slowed down instead.

“They came down the back steps. Matthew is still sleeping, which was a great disappointment for the Lynch girls.”

Trixie laughed. “Those girls like babies almost as much as their mother does. I know Mrs. Lynch can’t wait for Mart and Di to start having babies.”

By this time, they had reached the family room. Its accordion style glass doors were fully open to the enclosed terrace today, and a bright fire burned in the fireplace. The occasional crackles and pops from the fire gave a cozy intimacy to the expansive space.

Matthew Wheeler clapped his hands to catch everyone’s attention. “We’re so glad the Beldens allowed us to host the traditional Belden Open House here at the Manor House this year. But please know that the Beldens planned the menu and actually cooked everything except the turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. They provided the turkeys, as well. My wife thought it would be easier for the purposes of transportation logistics to have the turkey and mashed potatoes cooked here. Maddie may not know how to cook, but she definitely knows how to plan a banquet. All of the food looks beautiful and delicious, so I hope you’ll join me in giving a hand to Helen, to Maddie, and to our amazing cook, Rachel.”

Everyone clapped obediently, and Bobby Belden gave a loud whistle of appreciation.

Peter Belden stepped forward. “I wanted to say something to all of you, too. It’s been a hard year and a half, and we all missed being together last year. I’m thankful for the great, effective vaccines that were developed, thoroughly studied, and carefully manufactured so quickly. If not for them, we’d still be isolated in our own homes. Thanks to the vaccines, those who are here today are able to socialize safely. But since COVID-19 is still with us, we all—even those of us who have had a bout with it—need to continue to take precautions in order to protect ourselves and each other. That’s why we’ve set up the tables so everyone can have some social distancing, and why we decided to invite guests this year, rather than inviting anyone in the community to come through and spend time in our homes. We’re so glad that all of you are here, and we’re going to deliver plates to some who can’t get out, so if you know of anyone who is alone and struggling, let us know and we’ll try to set up a delivery.”

It was Maddie Wheeler’s turn to speak. “We’re ready to get started, but I wanted to let you know that there is a hand sanitizer dispenser set up just ahead of the buffet line. Please use the sanitizer before serving yourself, since everyone will be using the same serving utensils. Cups, beverages, and an ice bucket are right over there between the family room and the enclosed terrace, so that no one has to juggle a full plate and a drink, too. Any of the young people will be happy to fetch an extra drink, napkin, or whatever you need. Helen, are you ready?”

Helen Belden stood up and walked to stand beside her friend. “I’d like to join with my husband and our dear friends, the Wheelers, in welcoming you today. The past year and a half has been filled with unbelievable challenges. The opportunity to gather today is something I’m very, very thankful for! Mrs. Vanderpoel, as the senior guest, we’d all love it if you would be kind enough to say grace before we line up for the food.”

Elderly little Mrs. Vanderpoel blushed, but she stood, cleared her throat, and folded her hands. Everyone bowed their heads as she recited the simple traditional prayer:

“Heavenly Father, we ask you to bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies. Bless the hands that prepared it, and bless our lives to your service. In your name we pray, Amen.” The Lynches, Regan, and Dan crossed themselves, and then everyone moved to the dining room.

“Mrs. Vanderpoel, as the senior guest, you must go first. Mr. Lytell, please take the next spot.” Maddie was gentle but insistent.

The five youngest guests were all seated at one table and were the first to finish eating. As Bobby Belden set down his fork and wiped his mouth with his napkin, he leaned forward and beckoned his table-mates to get their attention.

“Guys, let’s get up and start picking up empty plates, refilling glasses, and offering to bring slices of pie. That will show our parents we’re practically grown up, so we can get more privileges.”

Larry Lynch squinted his eyes at his friend. “Are you sure this will work? I’m not.”

“Well, it’ll prove that the Bob-Whites aren’t the only ones who can do a good deed.” Terry Lynch was usually the quieter of the boy twins, letting his ten minutes-older brother take the lead. He snapped his fingers. “But we need to hurry if we’re going to beat them.”

“Bobby and Terry are right,” Margie Lynch asserted. “Although I’m sure we’ll still be treated like babies.” She gave a disdainful sniff.

The five of them stood and pushed back their chairs.

“Let’s roll,” Bobby said dramatically. He led the way to the table where Miss Trask, Cook, Mrs. Vanderpoel, Mr. Maypenny, and Mr. Lytell were leisurely enjoying their dinners.

“Miss Trask, we”—he waved to indicate the four Lynches—“are finished eating and we’d love to bus the tables.” Bobby put on his most serious, responsible face and was glad his voice seemed to have finished changing in the past week.

“That’s very kind,” Miss Trask said with a pleased smile. “I’ll come and show you where to put the dishes, cutlery, and napkins.”

“Cutlery?” Bobby’s face fell, just a little bit. What in the heck was cutlery?

“The flatware. I mean, the eating utensils.” Miss Trask’s bright blue eyes twinkled.

“Okay, got it.” Bobby gave her a thumbs-up gesture.

Meanwhile, the Lynches started to spread out to the various tables. “If you’re finished, may I take your dishes?” Barbie Lynch asked her mother.

Mr. Lynch’s eyebrows went up at the offer. “No!” he exclaimed. “My babies are growing up!”

Barbie blushed, but stood her ground. “We’re older than Di-Di was when she used to watch us as babies,” she reminded him. “You’ve told us the stories before.”

“Sweetie, you’re absolutely right,” her mother agreed. “It’s just hard for your Daddy and me to believe you’re growing up so fast.” She blotted the corner of her eye with her napkin.

Barbie thought her eyes were suspiciously bright, although she smiled. She accepted plates from both of her parents, as well as from Peter and Helen Belden. “I’d better take these things, and I’ll come back,” she assured Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler, who were also seated at the parents’ table. She headed for the kitchen, following Miss Trask and Bobby Belden.

Terry Lynch, meanwhile, approached the table where his sister sat with Mart and Dan. “I can take your dishes if you guys are finished,” he offered.

“Way to go, short stuff!” Mart grinned and handed his plate over. “Are you guys going to serve the pie, too?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Terry held out his other hand and accepted plates and flatware from Di and Dan. “What kind of pie do you guys want?” he asked, deciding to get a jump on the others.

One mincemeat and three pumpkin, he reminded himself as he headed for the kitchen with the dirty dishes. One mincemeat and three pumpkin, one mincemeat and thee pumpkin…

Larry approached the table where Brian, Honey, Trixie and Jim sat. As Brian used his napkin, Jim snapped his fingers. “This is probably a great time to put together the plates we’re delivering to the police station, the ambulance service, and Miss Rachel Martin.”

“Don’t forget Mrs. Elliott,” Trixie reminded him. “She told Moms she isn’t ill, but she had a bad reaction to another vaccine, and Dr. Ferris believes it was the poly… poly-something component. He believes she shouldn’t get the Covid vaccine at this time. Poor lady, she’s really been confined.”

“Wait just a minute, please!” Larry felt a touch of panic. Trixie, Jim, and Brian looked ready to spring up and abandon their plates. He was determined to fulfill his part in demonstrating responsibility in the hope of obtaining more privileges.

“If you guys are finished, let me take your plates to the kitchen. Bobby—and us Lynches—are going to help divide up the work so no one has too much.”

“That’s great,” Brian said. Larry could tell Brian wasn’t sure which twin he was. Oh, well. That was twin life in the Lynch family. Their parents and Diana could always tell them apart. Bobby could tell him and Terry apart. Larry wasn’t sure, though, if Bobby could tell the girls apart. None of them dressed identically, but until finding out which twin was wearing which outfit, most people couldn’t tell.

“And if you’ll give me your pie orders, we’ll serve those, too.” He stood expectantly, with a hand extended to receive the plates and flatware of the four adult Bob-Whites.

Honey’s phone was lying on the table, screen down. Suddenly a strobe light flashed and she snatched it up to look at the screen. When she pressed the home button, Larry could hear the sounds of a baby babbling.

Honey handed Larry her plate and flatware. “I’d like a small slice of apple pie, please. But I’ve got to go and fetch my son, so it might be a few minutes before I’m back. Brian, I think I’d better stay here while the rest of you deliver meals. I shouldn’t leave Matthew and he’s probably hungry. Please tell Miss Rachel and Mrs. Elliott I said hello. Oh, and Sergeant Molinson and Spider too, of course!”

Honey dropped her phone into her pocket and hurried away, stopping at her parents’ table to let them know where she was going.

“Sweetheart, I heard you say you’ll stay here with Matthew, but I hope you know your dad and I would be happy to take care of him and feed him.” Maddie squeezed her daughter’s hand. “And I know Helen and Peter would love to help, too.” She glanced from one Belden parent to the other.

“I know you would. We appreciate that so much, too. If he hadn’t just woken up, I think it would probably be fine, but he can be a grumpy bear when he wakes up. I’m definitely going to see what kind of mood he’s in, but it will probably take an hour or so to deliver all the meals, and I’m afraid that would be too long.” She hugged her mother and continued toward the stairs.

Larry looked inquiringly at Brian, Jim, and Trixie. “Pumpkin pie, with plenty of whipped cream,” Trixie said, smacking her lips.

“I’ll have the same,” Brian said.

“Mincemeat for me.” Jim reached for the plates on either side of him and stacked all three, along with their flatware. “Are you sure you kids can handle all of this?”

“Yeah, we’re not babies anymore, you know.” Larry knew Jim meant well, but gee whiz! He was fourteen, not four. He moved away from the table and headed for the kitchen, repeating silently, Small apple, two pumpkin with whipped cream, one mincemeat, until the words meant nothing.

In the kitchen, Miss Trask was directing traffic. She showed Bobby the large plastic tubs in which to stack the dishes, and suggested he rinse the dishes and flatware so that food particles didn’t sit overnight and harden, since the Wedding Place had requested they shouldn’t wash the dishes. Used napkins were also to be placed in a tub. As the Lynch twins arrived with their own stacks of dishes, she formed an assembly line of sorts.

“Thanks, Miss Trask,” Bobby told her. “I think we’ve got it now. You don’t have to stay here with us.” He accidentally angled a plate so that the water sprayed up instead of down, and Miss Trask got a slightly stressed look on her face. “Sorry! But we’ll definitely clean up the kitchen, too.”

“We wash up and clean our kitchen at home every week on our cook’s day off,” one of the Lynch girls reassured her. Bobby was pretty sure it was Barbie. “We know what to do.”

Why hadn’t he memorized what the girls were wearing when they arrived, so he could tell them apart? Now he would have to wait and see if one of the other Lynches called either girl by name. They were both cute, since both looked just like Diana, but they were still awfully young. He looked at the confident young girl next to him from the height of his own fifteen years. Maybe someday she would be old enough to be interesting.

Brian and Jim beckoned Mart, Di, and Dan to join them as they followed Trixie into the Wheeler dining room, and the other three got up from the table. Stopping by the parents’ table, Jim explained what they were doing.

“We’re going to go ahead and make up the plates we’re going to deliver,” he said. “After the pie, the Bob-Whites will take those plates to the people we talked about before.”

“The children are doing a great job clearing up,” Mrs. Lynch observed. “You are all spoiling us.”

“Not at all,” Mart replied. “All of you worked hard getting ready for this day. We barely even had to do anything. We’re all so thankful we can be together again, and we just want you to relax and enjoy yourselves today.”

“We’ll collect all of the tablecloths and fold up the tables and chairs after we make the deliveries,” Diana said.

“That’s right.” Dan was still the quietest Bob-White, but he was emphatic. “All of you worked together to put on a great dinner for our families and our neighbors. Now it’s our turn to help.”

“I’ve hardly been around, so doing the cleanup means a lot when I can do it with my oldest friends.” Brian joined in. “Doing things together helps life to feel more normal these days.”

The six Bob-Whites selected large, divided clamshell containers for the meals they were delivering, and assembled dinners for Miss Martin, Mrs. Elliott, the two police officers and a dispatcher; next they made six more plates for the EMS staff at the ambulance station. Jim and Trixie had both arrived just early enough to contact the various first responders who served the community twenty-four hours a day, but the firefighters had already planned their own feast, and the hospital provided meals for staff working on the holiday.

“These are a lot of plates to try to keep straight,” Mart said. “Do you think it would be okay to use one of the plastic tubs from The Wedding Place, so we could stack them in a couple of layers?”

“I think that would keep everything a lot more stable,” Trixie agreed. “We won’t damage the tubs, and we’ll bring them back here.” She looked at Jim for the final verdict.

Jim nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right, it will help keep everything in good order and we’ll be returning them. Let’s do it.”

“None of us really have a large enough vehicle to carry six people and all of this food,” Dan observed. “Is the Bob-White station wagon still in shape to drive?”

The faithful old station wagon had remained garaged at the Manor House for the past few years. Although it was rarely used, the Belden and Lynch parents had suggested it might be a good learner vehicle for Bobby and the twins. This idea suited all of the Bob-Whites. Honey in particular felt a tug of sadness any time she thought about getting rid of the car that held so many memories.

“It is,” Jim replied. “Or at least, I drove it some over the summer before I went to Utah.”

“Tom takes care of keeping the old girl tuned up and keeping up with the oil changes and tires,” Brian added. “Jeepers, just think of Bobby being old enough to learn to drive next year!”

“Well, let’s get loaded up,” Trixie said. “Come on, time’s a-wasting!” She grabbed a tub and Diana hefted the second one, but Brian and Mart weren’t having that.

“Let us carry these,” Brian said. “I know they’re not that heavy, but your arms are short and they’re just big enough to be awkward. I’m off duty and don’t feel like performing first aid today.” He winked at his sister to let her know he knew she could handle the job. “You and Di lead the way and hold the service doors for us.”

As they were about to leave, Honey came down the back steps, carrying Matthew. The baby bounced in his mother’s arms when he saw his daddy, and started calling, “Da da da da!”

“Smartest kid on the Eastern Seaboard,” Brian observed, leaning over slightly to kiss his wife and son. “Take good care of Mama, and we’ll be back soon.”

“He will!” Honey held Matthew’s hand and made him wave goodbye at his dad.

Moments later, the six were on their way to Miss Rachel’s house.

“I’ve got fresh masks for everyone,” Dan said. “We’re all vaccinated, but we don’t know about everyone else we’ll be seeing.”

“I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a Thanksgiving so much,” Trixie said. She bounced on the seat for emphasis. “I guess most of it has to do with just being able to be with everyone again in the same space.”

“Just the fact that we’re all still here is a great reason to be thankful,” Brian reminded her.

“So true.” Diana nodded. Her eyes were suspiciously bright. “Mother was really sick, and I know your dad had COVID during the holiday last year, too.”

“We all need to keep doing our part,” Jim said. “We can’t make everyone care, but we can each do the best we can to take care of each other. We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through it together.”

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Author’s Notes

15,484 words

This story is dedicated to my dear friend BonnieH!

Bonnie and I have both struggled with inspiration and writer’s block in the past year and a half (for me—perhaps even a bit longer for Bonnie). I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to get a story together for Secret Santa, but during the Jix Author Half-Marathon, the idea for this story came to me. Once I started imagining how the Bob-Whites and their families would cope with the current pandemic, the words did start flowing. Although I’m not sure it’s worthy of Bonnie, I did enjoy writing it and feel like it broke up a logjam in my own writing journey. So I hope it will do the same for Bonnie.

Merry Christmas, Bonnie! I hope you have a wonderful Christmas with your family, and that your writing muses return and pester you unmercifully!

A few notes on the story:

To help the writers participating, we were asked to consider some poll questions. My most embarrassing food moment occurred when my two-year-old daughter put her foot down on the top of my sweet potato casserole as she was struggling to get out of her carseat. Her shoes weren’t quite as clean as Matthew’s, but I confess we just scraped off the topping that was mashed and ate the rest!

The most ridiculous present was a bra rug presented to one of my husband’s brothers-in-law back in the 1970s. It happened pretty much as Dan related it to Mart. Yes, a very cringe-y gift today, but to be honest we all laughed at the time! My mother-in-law was the actual instigator.

I couldn't find a great place for Maddie to explain why she rented dishes and cutlery from The Wedding Place, rather than using her own holiday-themed china and silver. But she had given her household staff a long weekend and I think she didn't want to give anyone the job of doing dishes!

The Diamond Ranch Academy is a real place in Utah, and serves youth who have troubled backgrounds. I didn’t do detailed research on it and don’t have any first-hand knowledge of its operations. It did seem like a place Jim would investigate.

I also checked on the train schedules from NYC to Ossining, NY—the real town that provides some of the basis for Sleepyside.

I owe a great deal of thanks to my intrepid editors, Ryl and Trish. Their input was very helpful and made my story better. Any remaining errors or inconsistencies are on me, not on them!

Thank you, dear readers and Jix friends! Wishing all of you the happiest of holidays and a healthy New Year!

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2010-2021 by MaryN/Dianafan. All images from Pixabay and used in accordance with usage rights; manipulated by Mary N in Photoshop. Graphics copyright by Mary N 2021.

Story copyright by Mary N, 2021.

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