Posted on Saturday, 18 December 2004
Frances Price, best known to her friends and family as Fanny, struggled to carry the weight of all the tiny costumes and props that had been piled onto her arms. She was in a hurry to return them to her first grade classroom and organize her desk so that she could leave work; she still had many errands she'd yet to run. As she ran through the mental list of all the things she needed to do after work - return the sweater her Aunt Norris had bought because it was the wrong size, drop by the pharmacy to pick up medicine for her Uncle Bertram, dash over to the post office before it closed to mail her cousins their Christmas presents, and stop by the grocery store in preparation for the holidays - Fanny stared at the top most items of her pile and, summoning all her powers of concentration, willed the items to stay put.
It proved immaterial the next second as she was abruptly shoved to the side. As she went careening into the wall, she lost her balance and everything fell to the floor. She tried to hold onto her temper as she called the errant student to a halt. She recognized the third grader as one of her former students and sternly asked, "Victoria, what are the rules about running in the hallway?"
The little girl bit her bottom lip and twisted her foot around before finally whispering, "No running in the hallways, Ms. Price?"
"That's absolutely correct. Let's try to remember that for next time." Then, she stood with her arms crossed as she watched Victoria walk slowly the rest of the way from the bathroom to her after school classroom.
Once she'd seen Victoria safely reenter her classroom, Fanny huffed and stared at the mess now lying at her feet. "Bleh."
Hiking up her skirt, she got down on her hands and knees to pick everything up. "Just figures," she muttered to herself. Fanny wasn't usually prone to pessimism, nor was she usually filled with such ill humor. Under ordinary circumstances, there wasn't a sweeter or kinder, more patient person than Fanny Price. But these weren't ordinary circumstances.
As the first grade teacher at Mansfield Elementary School, the weeks before the winter holidays were always the busiest for Fanny. Not only were there art projects to be finished, assignments to be graded, and the end of another six weeks' worth of grades to be tallied with report cards and comments filled out, there was also the holiday play that her class always put on each year for the school's annual winter holiday celebration. That meant that she had to teach it to the children, help them remember their lines, songs, and dance, and outfit them in hand-sewn costumes. Not an easy feat when dealing with twenty six and seven-year-olds whose attention spans totaled half an hour amongst the entire class. Which was why she was still finishing up work at school with the hour almost striking five.
Fanny was still crawling around on her knees, reaching for the fallen costumes and props when she saw a pair of polished, men's black dress shoes stop right in front of her. "Excuse me," the owner of the shoes said, "I was wondering if you might be able to help me find Ms. Frances Price. I understand she's a teacher here, and I'm an old family friend of hers."
Fanny's entire body went still at the sound of the familiar, mellifluous voice. Her body recognized it innately, but her brain screamed, Impossible!
Slowly, and shakily, Fanny forced her gaze to follow the length of the speaker's body until her head was tilted fully back and she was staring into his face. She hadn't been wrong after all.
It was about this time that Fanny remembered she was still crouched on the floor. He would, after all these years, return and find her in the most unattractive of positions, scrambling around on the dirty linoleum floor of the elementary school. Fanny tried not to blush from mortification.
"What are you doing home?" she asked, as she quickly found her feet.
Edmund Bertram reached down and pulled her up the rest of the way. "It's Christmas."
And you haven't been home for ten years, Fanny thought to herself. The last time she'd seen him, she'd been eighteen years old with stars in her eyes and her heart on her sleeve. Edmund, four years older, hadn't even spared her a backward glance, so intent had he been on following his then girlfriend, Mary Crawford, to the city.
A year later, Mary Crawford had become Mrs. Edmund Bertram.
"Have you seen your parents and your aunt?" she asked awkwardly.
"I was just there."
"They must've been happy to see you."
"I think so."
Fanny was sure of it. She knew how her Aunts Bertram and Norris, and even Uncle Bertram, wished desperately that their children would come home for a visit, though their pride prevented them from sending out a summons. The entire family's relationship had always been a bit of a complicated one, Fanny mused.
"How long will you be staying?"
Edmund wished he knew the answer to that question, but because he didn't decided to avoid it entirely. "What happened here?" he asked, returning her attention to the small pile on the floor. "An avalanche?"
Fanny looked down and laughed. "Something like that," she agreed. "Just one of the hazards of trying to carry a bunch of stuff while dodging student-sized bullets."
"Let me give you a hand." Bending over, he retrieved what he could, leaving the remaining few items for Fanny to collect. "Where to?"
She directed him down the hallway and towards her classroom.
It was just as he imagined it would be. Complete with Fanny's touch. Two of the classroom's walls were taken up by the green chalkboard. But, just to keep things festive, she'd put a Christmas tree in the corner and decorated it with ornaments that her students had obviously made. Swirled around the fresh pine tree was a popcorn garland. Edmund imagined Fanny had strung that one herself; she'd always liked that chore, he remembered. In his mind, he could still see her seated on the couch, all by herself, stringing popcorn while stealing a few here or there to eat as he and his brother and sisters raced around the Christmas tree, trying to out beat one another in hanging up as many ornaments as they could. It was interesting, he thought, how many of his childhood memories featured Fanny standing on the outside of things.
Returning to the classroom and the present, he noted the colorful posters Fanny had tacked along the third wall. They were designed to attract the attention of young children and get them excited about learning. Underneath the collection of posters were exactly twenty pieces of light blue construction paper lined along the wall. On each paper was a snowman constructed out of cotton. Surrounding him were snowflakes cut out of aluminum foil. The subject matter was all the same, but each snowman was distinctly unique. Edmund imagined the delighted expressions the parents would have on their faces when the students were finally allowed to take their creations home.
The fourth wall was labeled the "Reading Center," and below the heading was a mural Edmund recognized immediately as Fanny's own artwork. It featured a large apple tree and reclining both in and under the tree were various girls and boys all curled up with their own picture books. Edmund felt inclined to read a book himself, just looking at the mural.
"Is there anything I can help you with?" he asked, as he watched Fanny organize the stacks of paper on her desk, dumping some of them into her large oversized bag.
"If you could straighten the desks and push the chairs in, I'd appreciate it," Fanny answered. She started washing down the chalkboard and they worked in silence.
When her classroom was finally put in order, Fanny finally felt free to leave and enjoy her weekend. She welcomed the brief respite it provided; the following week would prove even more hectic, culminating in the school's annual holiday celebration before breaking for the winter holidays.
Still confused by Edmund's presence, she considered him as he followed her out to the teacher's parking lot. At her car, she confronted him. "Didn't you drive to the school?"
He stuck his hands into his pocket. "Actually, I walked. I was hoping you would give me a ride back home."
"Oh." She unlocked her car, and thought for a minute. It wasn't as if she really had a choice, she decided. She couldn't very well say no and leave him by himself. "Sure. Hop in."
He didn't wait to be told twice. But, once in the car, Fanny warned him. "I'm not going straight home. I have errands to run."
Edmund shrugged his shoulders, unconcerned, and snapped his seatbelt into place. "Whatever you have to do. It'll give me a chance to see all the changes in Mansfield. I haven't gotten the full tour yet; I went straight home. Lead the way."
Fanny started the car and pointed it towards Main Street, really the only street in Mansfield. Mansfield, Massachusetts only boasted a population of three thousand, so there wasn't a need for any more main thoroughfares than Main Street. It had everything they needed from the local bank to the old-fashioned, one-window post office. Fanny loved the smallness of the town, appreciated how everybody knew each other's name, and was grateful every day of her life for being able to live in the small town.
Her cousins hadn't. Edmund included. But it was only his defection that had hurt her in ways the others' hadn't.
She stole a look at his face and considered how much more handsome he looked than the last time she'd seen him. Ten years had caused him to lose the youthfulness in his countenance, but it had been replaced by an added maturity that made him appear more intense and more self-assured.
She thought she ought to say something, to keep up a conversation between them, but she didn't know what to say. Once upon a time, Fanny reflected, she and Edmund had never lacked for anything to say. From the moment they'd first met, they'd been fast friends. Fanny still remembered their first meeting like it was yesterday.
Fanny Price wasn't actually Edmund's cousin, and his parents weren't actually her blood-rated relatives. Nor was his Aunt Norris, for that matter. However, his Aunt Norris was also her Aunt Norris. Fanny's father had been her husband's younger brother. So, when her parents died together in a tragic car accident leaving four-year-old Fanny an orphan with nowhere else to go, it seemed only natural that she should be sent to Mansfield.
The transition from one home to another was traumatizing for Fanny, who'd always been painfully shy her entire life. Worse, her life had been upended from one side to the other and, even at the tender age of four, Fanny knew things would never be the same again. Her beloved parents were gone and she'd been brought to live amongst virtual strangers.
She'd never met her Uncle or Aunt Norris until after her parents' deaths because they'd disinherited her father long before she was born over the choice of his bride. The Norris's came from a long line of wealth and status, and were high sticklers. They'd expected Fanny's father, the younger son, to be the same. But he'd always been the troublemaker and the playboy. It was only after he met Fanny's mother that he'd settled down; his love for her changed him. Unfortunately, her background was one of working-class immigrants and the Norris's paled at even the idea. It was not to be borne! When Fanny's father refused to cave to pressure, he moved his wife away and created a new life for them, even taking on his mother's maiden name to further disassociate himself with his influential, but overbearing family. Their new life was a life full of bliss, then Fanny, and then even more happiness. For several years, the Price's lived in pure heaven. But, it was a life that ended all too abruptly one cold, icy, winter's day.
While the Norris's hadn't been willing to spare a thought for Fanny while her parents were alive, they were quite willing to take her in after their death. After all, they couldn't have it known that they'd thrown one of their own to the streets. Thus, Fanny was sent for and she moved into their large house right next door to her Aunt Norris's sister and brother-in-law's home.
There, she met Maria and Julia Bertram. Only two and three years older than Fanny, respectively, it was expected that the three girls would be fast friends. That was, however, not the case. Not only did they share little in common, the Bertram sisters looked down upon the little orphan girl who'd come to their Aunt's home with little more than the clothes on her back and the ragged, stuffed dog she insisted on dragging around with her everywhere she went. It was an embarrassment, they'd always say, to have to be seen with her. Consequently, they tried to have as little to do with her as was possible.
That suited Fanny just fine.
She hadn't been interested in playing with dress-up dolls or hosting tea parties, or clothes and boys as she got older anyway. Rather, it had always been the outdoors and the books in her Uncle's library that had captivated her interests.
Those were interests she shared with Edmund, and something he'd recognized almost immediately. Standing in front of a crowd of strangers who were supposed to be her family, it was Edmund who'd first stepped forward to clasp her tiny hand and welcome her to Mansfield. In the weeks that followed, he would seek her out especially to make sure she was doing well, getting over her homesickness, and finding her place within her new home.
Because of his kindness and because he always seemed to care, Fanny idolized Edmund. Somewhere along the years, though, her idolization turned into love.
They'd just visited the store where his Aunt Norris had purchased a sweater that Fanny returned, and were now on their way to the post office to mail off care packages to his siblings. There'd been a moment of awkwardness at the car when Fanny had turned to hand him the packages to carry, and handed him his own.
"Oh, I guess I won't need to send this one anymore," she'd said, and then returned it to the trunk of his car.
"I can't believe my parents still do this every year," Edmund had said as he hefted the packages into a better carrying position.
"Hm," was all Fanny had said, and in that moment he knew that it hadn't been his parents who'd been putting together the packages and sending them every year to him and his siblings. It'd been Fanny. It wasn't as though he'd deluded himself into thinking that his mother had actually slaved behind the oven and baked the tasty cookies, brownies, and fudge herself. He'd just always assumed she'd had the cook do it for her. But he knew better now.
It had always been Fanny.
They passed the Town Center and Edmund saw the large Christmas tree bedecked in candy canes, red and gold ornaments, curled ribbons, and lights. Lots and lots of lights. The tree-lighting ceremony had always been one of the highlights of the holiday season in Mansfield; in fact, held every first Sunday night after Thanksgiving, the tree-lighting ceremony always heralded the beginning of the holiday season.
He still remembered one ceremony when he'd been fourteen and Fanny just ten. She'd been forbidden from attending that year because she'd gotten in trouble at school. His older brother, Tom, had come home from school one day before Thanksgiving break with the exciting news that they would be dissecting frogs first thing after the vacation. He couldn't wait for the science experiment and talked about it non-stop. Fanny, upon hearing the news, had been horrified and appalled. She couldn't believe that innocent lives were to be sacrificed for such a barbaric ritual, and so stole into the high school one afternoon school to release the frogs.
Fanny, never able to lie or look free of guilt, was immediately found out and the consequences were dire. Her aunt and uncle were horrified at what they characterized her "silly behavior". They expected her to be a model citizen of Mansfield, to do honor to her family's name. Was this, they'd asked of her, how she repaid her aunt and uncle's generosity? After taking her in when she had nowhere else to go, was she now going to embarrass them throughout the small community by behaving so inappropriately and without thought? To give her time to think about her actions, they'd grounded her from non-family events, which included the tree-lighting ceremony.
How Fanny had cried. The holidays were always a special time for her, for that was when the memories of her parents felt the closest. She'd been looking forward to the tree-lighting ceremony for weeks, to seeing the town's lighted angel top the Christmas tree. And now she was forbidden from going. Edmund took pity on her and snuck back to the house after his family and his aunt and uncle had left to steal Fanny from her room. They'd stayed at the back of the crowds and were never found out, having rushed back to the house as soon as the ceremony was over. Their shared duplicity in the event, though, brought them even closer.
Edmund sighed, thinking over the past, and caught Fanny also staring at the tree as they walked past. He wondered if she too was remembering.
"It's amazing how little has changed," Edmund remarked, finally breaking the silence that had descended upon them ever since they'd left the school. "It's as if I never left."
"Small towns, you know," Fanny shrugged. "Not much goes on except that children grow older and new ones come along."
"You've never found that stifling?"
"Not really. Why should I? Mansfield is home. I've never felt I was meant for bigger and better things, like your sisters, or wanted to travel the world like your brother."
Both Maria and Julia had gone to college with the sole intention of snagging themselves rich husbands, and graduated with honors in their pre-wed degrees. One lived on Park Avenue in New York City while the other lived in Sutton Place, and they met frequently over lunch to congratulate themselves on their rich and indulgent lifestyles. Tom, on the other hand, opted to use his trust fund to finance his wanderlust travels. Fanny imagined that his traveling days would end only when his trust fund ran out.
"I like knowing my neighbors, feeling secure in my place here, and leading a simple life. I'd feel overwhelmed in a place like Boston or New York City. Mansfield may not be for everybody, but it works just fine for me. I couldn't imagine living in any other place."
"I've never wanted to move elsewhere, not like you. I remember how you couldn't wait to leave Mansfield, the summer after you graduated from college. Was New York everything you wanted and expected it to be?"
Edmund thought about Mary, his ex-wife, and the life he'd lived for the past ten years. No, it hadn't been what he'd wanted or expected.
"At one time, I thought it was. Now, I know it wasn't."
Edmund was a simple, peaceful man, more prone to thinking than to action. But, for the past ten years, he'd been forced to live a life that wasn't his. He'd been caught in the web of his own infatuation with his ex-wife. Now that they were no longer together, he could see clearly that that was precisely all that had been between him and Mary - infatuation. He'd deceived himself into thinking he was actually in love with her. And wasted all those years.
Mary Crawford had been an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, and she'd grown into a lovelier, handsome woman with age. It was her arresting good looks that had captured Edmund so long ago, and her sweet, flattering words that had ensnared him for so long. She'd played him like a fine instrument, knowing exactly which strings to pluck and how much pressure to apply, and gotten exactly what she'd set out for from the very beginning: a husband with the well-recognized Bertram family name, money in the bank, and an entry into the elite social circles of New York high society. Given that, and how much she resembled his sisters whom Edmund had always eschewed, it amazed him how long it had taken for him to remove the blinders and actually see what was before him.
Mary was a con artist. A seductress. She'd had him convinced that he was meant for "more" than what he'd wanted. He'd been the editor of the school newspaper in high school and an English major in college. Books and writing had always been his passion, and writing one of his own had always been his dream. But his father had warned him that finding success as an author could take years and encouraged him to have a back-up plan. Edmund had always had a head for numbers and so double-majored in Economics in college. It was something Mary had also encouraged, and when they'd graduated from college, she convinced him to take one of the investment banking offers that crossed his path. When Edmund had expressed doubt, explaining that he really wanted to write, Mary had reassured him that there would be time for that in the future. Meanwhile, he could work in investment banking for a few years, they could save up some money, and then one day, he could do as he wished and write a book. Edmund took one look into her sweet, honey-colored eyes and fell into the trap. He could never deny Mary what she wanted, and that was always the problem.
She whisked him off to the city almost immediately, before he could change his mind so that he could slave for the riches that funded her extravagant lifestyle. While he toiled away in his high-rise office building, Mary shopped, visited the salons, lunched with her girlfriends, and coordinated their evening social calendar with an acumen that even the highest-ranking military official would have envied. When he dared to suggest that they might spend an evening at home together, she'd balk and wonder why he would want to do that when there was such company to be had with their friends. As always, he'd indulged. Edmund lived to please his wife.
And because he did, he never questioned the way they lived their lives. Until he woke up one day, and realized that this wasn't what he wanted, and that he wasn't happy. He didn't like going to work every morning. He didn't like coming home to an empty penthouse, or coming home to his tuxedo laid out on the bed and his wife pushing him away, afraid that he would smudge her make-up if he kissed her hello. He wanted to come home to a warm and willing wife and a passel of children. For once, Edmund wanted to be the one that was indulged.
And that was something he now he realized his wife would never be able to provide.
So, he'd told his wife he wanted a divorce, and he'd moved back home. Away from her. Away from New York City. Away from a life he abhorred. And returned to the last place where anything had made sense.
It said a great deal that Mary hadn't even batted an eye at his news. The only thing she'd been concerned about was how much alimony she would receive in the divorce settlement. To weary to deal with her and her demands, he'd left the finer details of the settlement agreement in the capable hands of his attorney and left.
The only thing Edmund had wanted to do at that point was to return home - to Mansfield.
Fanny walked out of the post office and brought the edges of her coat closer. The weather had turned colder since they'd been in the post office and waited in its long line. She watched Edmund from the corner of her eyes, and wondered what he was thinking. He seemed to have retreated into deep, introspective thoughts since he'd last spoken.
She hadn't been without her own ponderings as they'd waited in the line to mail the care packages. She wondered what Edmund had meant when he said he was no longer sure life in New York was what he'd wanted.
She'd avoided the question up until now, but felt she had to ask anyway. It always pained her to even think about her, so Fanny took a deep, cleansing breath before asking, "So how is Mary? You haven't mentioned her. Is she at the house or will she be joining you later?"
"Mary's not at the house and she won't be joining me in Mansfield. Ever. We've divorced. It was finalized just two days ago."
"Oh." Fanny's entire world tilted at the news and she struggled to keep things in perspective. First things first. She stopped and placed a sympathetic hand on Edmund's arm. "I'm sorry, Edmund. I didn't know."
He searched Fanny's face. He didn't want her sympathy. He was glad to be rid of Mary finally. "Don't be," he said curtly, and continued walking.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"And say what?" Edmund stopped, turned around, and held out his arms as he asked the question. "I'm not sad, Fanny. I'm glad we're divorced. I'm relieved to be rid of her."
"Most definitely." He then explained to Fanny how he and Mary had wanted different things in life. "I wanted children. She didn't. I started to feel suffocated in the city. Mary thrived upon it. I wanted to take time off to write a book. Mary was afraid I'd become a hermit, become ashamed of me, or, worse, lose all my money and no longer be able to support her in style. Basically, I realized that everything in our marriage was about her and not so much about us."
"Then why do you look so upset and defeated?"
His hands dropped to his side before he put them over his head and sat down on the nearby park bench. She'd always been able to see right through him. "Because I feel I've been a fool a thousand times over?"
Fanny settled herself next to him and draped a comforting arm over his shoulders. "Edmund," she whispered fervently, "you could never be a fool."
"But I was. I married Mary, after all. Doesn't that make me the biggest fool alive?"
"No. You loved her."
"Love," Edmund scoffed. "Was that what I felt for her? Or was it lust and infatuation? 'Turned by a pretty head,' isn't that how the expression goes? I always thought I was above that. Better than that. But apparently I wasn't. I can't even blame Mary; how could I? She was only being the person she was. I was the blind one who couldn't see who I'd married."
Fanny sighed deeply. There was so much she wanted to say, but couldn't say. She sat back and leaned her elbows against the back of the bench. "What's done is done, Edmund. Think of it this way - at least you finally saw the light."
"But ten years," he groaned.
"Consider it penance and a lesson learned," she said softly.
"No recriminations? No 'I told you so'?"
"Why would I say that?" Fanny feigned innocence.
"Because ten years ago you tried to tell me that Mary wasn't the woman for me, and I wouldn't listen to you. Or had you forgotten that? I had, until I finally realized what was making me so unhappy. And then it was like your words kept on haunting me."
Fanny hadn't forgotten that conversation, though she wished he had. The reason being because she could no longer remember if she'd tried to warn Edmund away from Mary because she genuinely felt they weren't compatible or out of self-interest. It was probably a combination of both, but Fanny feared it consisted more of the latter than the former.
"Well," Fanny finally said. "I suppose there are some things you have to figure out for yourself."
She shivered as she spoke and Edmund looked up, noting that there were snowflakes twinkling in the darkened sky. And they were sitting outside, chatting, as if it were sixty degrees warmer out. He reached over to button the top button of her coat and said, "It's starting to snow and it's cold out. We should keep moving. Where to next?"
"The grocery store. But I don't mind the weather. I love snow." Fanny smiled. There was nothing she loved more than a white Christmas and if the weather continued to cooperate, they'd definitely have one in two weeks. Excited by the thought, she ran ahead and twirled in circles, trying to catch the dancing snowflakes with her tongue.
Edmund followed more sedately from behind, his hands tucked into his pockets. A smile teased at the corners of his mouth as he watched Fanny's frolicking antics. This, he thought, was what it was all about. Pure, unadulterated joy at the simple things in life. He laughed when Fanny turned around and stuck her tongue out at him. In so many ways, she reminded him of the child that she'd once been. He remembered taking her out to play in the snow as a child, helping her to build snowmen and snow forts, dodging her snowballs, and showing her how to make snow angels with her body. But she wasn't a child anymore either, he thought, as he took in her measure.
It was something he'd realized ten years ago too.
She'd pulled her long, straight chestnut hair back into a ponytail making it easier for him to gaze at her face. The scarlet-colored scarf twined around her neck accented the flush from her exertions. And the long, black overcoat cinched at the waist accentuated her slender figure. When she reached the door to the grocery store, she waved at him to hurry him along. Edmund waved back and quickened his stride.
The hour was late and it was dark outside.
The children had been sent home amidst a great deal of giggling and tempered excitement. Tomorrow night was the school's annual holiday celebration, so Fanny had taken one last run through the backstage to make sure all the props were present and in place. Afterwards, she'd returned to her classroom stripped of all snowmen artwork, which had been sent home with the children, and organized everything until there wasn't a single piece of paper or pencil out of place. Even the chalk had been organized by length in its chalk tray.
There was nothing left for her to do at school, but still she did not go home.
For the first time in all her years of teaching, Fanny hadn't rushed home after work to care for her aging relatives. Things were different now with Edmund living next door. He was there to make sure they had everything they needed, ate their dinner, and then settled in for the night without any problems. Her aunts and her uncle were so thrilled to have Edmund home with them that Fanny was beginning to feel a little bit superfluous.
But that wasn't what was bothering her.
It was her feelings for Edmund.
When he'd left ten years ago and then married, she'd given him up for good - and thought she'd gotten over him. A schoolgirl's crush, she'd told herself. But, ever since his return, the emotions he'd stirred had been anything but.
They'd been in each other's company a great deal ever since his return to Mansfield. He'd moved back in with his parents and Fanny still lived next door with her Aunt Norris. For a while, she'd had an apartment of her own but when her Uncle Norris had passed away, she'd moved back in to assist her aunt. In recent years, as her aunts and uncle grew older, she'd started splitting her time between her Aunt Norris's residence and the Bertram's next door. Most evenings she and her Aunt Norris had dinner over there and then walked back to their own home afterwards. She'd begun to think it would be easiest for all if they'd just consolidate households - her Aunt Norris spend most of her daytime hours over there anyway - but then Edmund had returned.
She thought she'd spend less time at the Bertram's now that Edmund was around to watch over his parents, but it seemed the opposite had occurred. She spent almost all her free time at his parents' home now that he was there.
Although Edmund seemed hesitant to commit and say explicitly that he was back in Mansfield for good, it certainly seemed that way. He'd had his things from New York packed and forwarded to his parents' house. He'd also brought with him his laptop and told Fanny that he was going to work on that novel he'd been itching to write for years.
His news delighted her. Fanny thought it was wonderful that he was finally giving fruition to his dreams. And from what Edmund told her, it sounded like he was meeting with a great deal of success. Even though it'd been less than a week, he'd begun to make significant headway and felt confident in his continued success at being prolific. It was as if everything he'd had stored in him for the past several years was finally being unleashed and finding its way onto paper. Edmund felt released.
For the first time in years, he felt truly happy about what he was doing and how he was spending his days. Every morning, he woke up feeling rejuvenated and alive, eager to start another new day. He'd spent the past week trying to ease some of Fanny's burdens. She'd been attempting to put both households in order for the holidays, but there simply weren't enough hours in the day to do everything that was expected of her. He'd asked what he could do to assist her, and she'd happily provided him with a list.
While Fanny taught first grade, Edmund ran errands for his parents and aunt, took them to their doctors' appointments, and waited patiently while they visited with their friends. When they settled down for their afternoon naps, that was when Edmund got the bulk of his work done. He'd brought his research with him, finished all his outlines, and had begun to write. Over dinner, he and Fanny would discuss their respective days.
Fanny cherished those moments. Finally, she had someone with whom she could share both her frustrations and funny stories from teaching. And Edmund enjoyed her updates as much as Fanny enjoyed hearing about how he'd spent his day, especially his writing. Fanny had a keen mind and more and more, Edmund had begun turning to her for input when he ran into trouble spots. He'd already shared with her the first chapter of his story, and Fanny had read it with great delight. "I can't wait to read more," she'd told him. "This is a fabulous beginning." He'd felt a hundred feet tall at her praise.
One afternoon, he put aside his writing long enough to drag all the boxes of holiday decorations out from the storage spaces. That night, he and Fanny had drunk eggnog and decorated first their Aunt Norris's house and then his, all the while reminiscing over the memories the Christmas ornaments evoked.
"Do you remember this one?" Fanny had asked.
Edmund studied the crystal ornament Fanny gently held in her hands. It depicted a carefully cut nativity scene. "I do," he said softly.
Fanny, eleven years old, had been saving up her allowance for an entire year to buy the ornament for her aunt and uncle. It was to be her first year giving them a gift, and just the thought of what would come Christmas morning filled Fanny with enormous pride. Every day, for months, she'd stopped by the store's window on her walk home from school to stare at the beautiful ornament. Then, she'd run home to dump out her piggy bank and count the pennies and nickels she'd collected over the many weeks. It was never enough.
When she worried over the matter with Edmund, he told her not to worry. He was sure she'd have the ornament by Christmas; after all, he asked, hadn't she been a good girl who'd diligently saved up all year long for it?
Trusting in the cousin who'd never disappointed her, Fanny continued to check on the ornament and count her coins at night. But as the weeks drew nigh and her piggy bank continued to be short, Fanny grew increasingly nervous. Her nerves turned into full-blown panic when on the last day of school before the holidays she walked by the store and saw the empty window. The ornament was gone! Fanny cried herself to sleep that night.
But, the next morning, Edmund came to see her. He coaxed her from the bed and encouraged her to swallow her breakfast. It was only after she'd eaten her oatmeal that he presented her with the box he'd so carefully hidden behind his back. Tears flooded her eyes as soon as she opened the box and beheld her cousin's gift.
It was a happy Fanny who presented her aunt and uncle with a Christmas present that year.
Fanny smiled at the memory. There were lots of happy memories from her youth that involved Edmund. He'd helped her with her schoolwork. Comforted her the first time a boy had rejected her. Listened to her grievances with her friends. Taught her how to drive a car. Took her to visit the college she'd ended up attending. And, at the heart of it all, he'd been her friend.
Was it any wonder she'd looked up to him so much?
And now he was back, and all those old feelings she thought she'd put to bed had resurfaced. Something would happen while she was teaching and she'd think to herself, "I must remember to tell Edmund about this tonight." Something would go wrong, and she'd think to herself, "I'll get Edmund to help me fix the problem." Something would confuse her, and she'd think to herself, "I'll have to ask Edmund what he thinks." She was starting to get too attached and dependent on Edmund again, and that was a bad thing. Especially when she didn't know if he'd be staying in Mansfield.
The last time she'd allowed herself to dream that he was back in Mansfield for good, her heart had been broken into two.
She was mulling over the question when there was a knock at her classroom door. Fanny looked up. "What are you doing here?"
Edmund held up plastic bags filled with Chinese take-out. "You didn't come home for dinner. I thought you might be hungry."
"What time is it?"
"I was worried."
Fanny couldn't believe she'd been sitting there, thinking about Edmund for that long. "I'm sorry. I should've called. It slipped my mind though."
"It's all right," Edmund reassured. "You've been busy and preoccupied with work of late. I know how that goes."
"Did your parents and my aunt get their dinner?"
Edmund cleared a space on Fanny's desk and started to lay out her dinner. He handed her a pair of chopsticks. "Yes, they did eat. When I left the house mom and dad were watching the evening news and your aunt was with them, knitting something though I'm not sure what."
"I'm not sure she knows either. Her mind's too far gone these days to try and remember actual patterns. I think she knits mostly to keep her hands busy, because she's gotten so used to knitting. It's an old habit."
"I told her I'd bring you home in an hour or two, and we'd walk her back to her house then. But she's fine where she is for now."
"Eat!" Edmund shoved the containers of food at Fanny. "It's Kung Pao Chicken. It used to be your favorite."
"You remembered!" Fanny exclaimed in soft surprise.
"Is it still your favorite?"
Fanny plucked a chicken and popped it into her mouth. She moaned with delight. "Umm. Yes."
It gladdened Edmund to see her eating, to be the one to make sure that she did eat. He'd always liked watching out for Fanny. Apparently, he still did. "You should worry more about yourself instead of others, Fanny."
Fanny looked up, her chopsticks poised midway to her mouth. She wondered what had prompted that remark. "Excuse me?"
"Look at you. You tired and exhausted, and you're too thin. You've overextending yourself, Fanny."
"Overextending myself?" She'd started out feeling pleased by his display of concern, but now she was starting to bristle.
"You do too much. Take on too many responsibilities. What are you trying to prove, Fanny, and to whom?"
"Exactly what are these responsibilities of which I've taken on one too many?" Fanny inquired coldly.
Edmund shifted in his seat. This hadn't been his intention. "I don't mean to imply that you can't do it all, Fanny. I know you're very capable and can do just about anything you set your mind to. It's just that I know you also have a bleeding heart, and I don't want to see you get taken advantage of. Anyone asks you a favor, and you're right there. Meanwhile, you've got your job, you take care of my parents and your aunt. I just wonder when you have time to have your own life."
Fanny shrugged. "What kind of a life would I have in a place like Mansfield? You said it yourself. There's not much going on here. Things are pretty quiet, day in and day out. I lead a simple life, Edmund, and I'm quite content."
Content. Was that really good enough?
"So you're fine giving up your life to take care of people who aren't even related to you?"
Suddenly her dinner didn't seem so appetizing. She shoved it away and put down her chopsticks. "They may not be related to me, Edmund, but they took me in when I had no other place to go. Your parents included, and they had even less of a claim on me than Aunt Norris. They've aged these past ten years. You may not be able to see it, living as far away as you do, but I see it. They need help. They need company. They need someone to take care of them, so I'm just repaying them for everything they've given me."
She'd always been able to make him feel like the lowest of the lowliest heel. Worse, she never blamed, never reproached, she always stated the obvious, and somehow that just made him feel guiltier and more shamed.
He hadn't known what it was like for his parents. Certainly, he did his duty by inviting them to New York in the spring of every year, but that wasn't the same as spending the entire year with them. Now that he was back and could see firsthand what was going on, he could see that he'd been missing a great deal by living a life so far apart from the one grown up with.
Since she hadn't said the words, he said them for her. "But, of course, if their children pulled their weight and did their share, you wouldn't be saddled with all the responsibilities."
"That's not what I said."
"It's all right. I'm not mad at you. You've only pointed out the truth."
They sat in silence, each not knowing what to say. Finally, Edmund spoke his heart. "I never should have left."
It surprised Fanny to hear him say so. "Of course you should've. It was what you wanted."
"It wasn't what you wanted."
Fanny laughed. "Why do you keep coming back to that? What did I know? I was just a pesky eighteen-year-old, ready to go off to college herself, but unable to appreciate that you needed to sprout your wings and do the things you wanted to do. I was being selfish when I asked you to stay in Mansfield."
Asked . . . Fanny snorted silently to herself. Pleaded had been more like it. How shameless she'd been. She plucked at the edges of her desk, blushing silently in mortification at the memory.
Edmund surprised her with his next words. "Actually, you never asked anything of me that I didn't wish for myself already."
"I don't understand."
"It's difficult to explain. But, perhaps I should try anyway. When I graduated from college and took that summer off, the summer we spent together, Fanny, it was the happiest time of my life. It was so nice it scared me. We spent so much time together, took so many long walks together, rowed the pond together, read and wrote together . . . somehow, somewhere, amidst all those moments my feelings for you . . . they started to change.
"You were eighteen. No longer a girl. And Lord help me, I started to notice. It both frightened and frustrated me. Here was a woman I'd known since she was just a little girl and always looked upon as a younger sister. What sort of a man was I to be attracted such a person? That's why when Mary followed me to Mansfield from college I was so relieved. Even more relieving was the attraction I felt for her. I convinced myself that if I could feel for her what I did, then what I felt for you wasn't real - it was just a passing fancy, something I'd tricked myself into because of all the time we'd spent together that summer.
"But I was wrong, Fanny. It wasn't just a passing fancy. What I felt for you was real. I've never been surer of it than I have been ever since my return to Mansfield. You're what I've always wanted and you're the woman for me."
"Oh, Edmund." Tears fell from Fanny's face and landed in large splotches on her desk.
"I'm sorry. I know. I'm ten years too late."
"No, Edmund." Fanny placed her hand in his. "You could never be too late."
Fanny and Edmund stood side by side, hand in hand, at Mansfield Elementary School's annual holiday celebration. They'd just finished watching Fanny's first grade class complete their tribute to the holiday season. Edmund had been surprised the year before when he'd learned just what play it was that Fanny's classroom had been putting on year after year for the annual event. Apparently, Fanny had taken a play he'd written in middle school and adapted it for her classroom purposes. Entitled, "The Christmas Tree Miracle," the play had won him many accolades when he'd been in grade school.
"I can't believe you use this!" Edmund had explained upon discovering it.
Fanny, embarrassed and unsure of Edmund's reaction, rose to the occasion to defend her choice. "It was just sitting around on your desk, and it seemed like a good idea to use it at the time. It's such a nice story, with a message that the children can understand. I was only going to use it that first year, but then I got so many compliments from the other teachers and parents that it's become a tradition for my classroom to put it on every year."
Edmund couldn't believe it. He'd written the story as a lark, but his English teacher had believed in the story about a family of children who didn't have a Christmas tree because their father had been sent to debtor's prison and their mother was too poor to afford the extravagance. When they visited a Christmas tree seller and asked him for a donation, the owner of the lot chased the children away. Not to be undone and determined to have a Christmas tree, the children fetched a bare branch and decorated it with little bits of string. With a little bit of imagination, their simple Christmas tree seemed to them to be the most beautiful tree they'd ever beheld. Their spirit and their dedication did not go unnoticed. On Christmas Eve, while the children slept, the Christmas Fairy visited their home and transformed the pitiful branch into the grandest, most magnificent Christmas tree.
"You don't mind us using it, do you?" Fanny had asked.
"No. Of course I don't mind," Edmund had answered, smiling tenderly at his new fiancée.
It had been a joy watching the children act out the play he'd written so many years ago last Christmas, just as it was a joy to watch an entirely new class perform their rendition of the play this year.
"How are you feeling? Tired?" Edmund asked his wife, moving to stand behind her. They were waiting for the sixth grade class to sing Christmas carols, as they did every year at the end of the celebration. The first grade put on the play, the second grade sold gift wrap paper to fund the event, the third and fourth grades decorated and planned out the fun and games that always preceded the first graders' play, and the fifth graders provided the refreshment.
"I'm okay." Fanny smiled at her husband's care and concern. She wrapped his arms around her bulging waist. When the children returned at the end of the holidays, she wouldn't return with them. She'd miss her class, but she looked forward to her impending motherhood.
As the children sang, Fanny relaxed into the warm and loving embrace of Edmund's arms. When the sixth graders began singing proudly their last song, she was almost fast asleep with a contented smile on her face.
The soloist's voice rang loud and true as she sang:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light,
From now on our troubles
Will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on our troubles
Will be miles away.
Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years
We all will be together
If the Fates allow,
Hang a shining star
On the highest bough,
And have yourself
A merry little Christmas now
With a husband she loved by her side and an eagerly anticipated child on the way, Fanny was indeed going to have a merry little Christmas.
In fact, she had one every year for the rest of her life.