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Authors: Carolyne Aarsen

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BOOK: The Only Best Place
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Stop dissecting the dessert,” Judy said, pulling the large crystal bowl away from Dan, who was mining Judy's trifle for leftover
chocolate. We were all gathered in the kitchen digesting the remnants of the various delicious desserts. It was a tight squeeze,
but the family insisted that it was cozy.

“I'm making sure I get all the chocolate,” Dan protested, pulling the bowl back toward him.

“You poke to your heart's content,” Wilma said with a benevolent smile in Dan's direction. “You're probably going to throw
it away when you get home anyway, aren't you, Judy?” Wilma asked, lifting an eyebrow that turned the question into a suggestion.

“Gee, Mom, not so sub with the subtext,” Judy said with a laugh, as she patted her ample hips.

I was surprised she could be so blasé. Even as my anger rose on her behalf, Judy seemed completely unfazed.

“Dan always did love chocolate,” Gloria said with an indulgent smile.

“But he didn't always respect it. Remember when Dan and Cousin Ben had that food fight here on his birthday?” Judy laughed
and leaned over the table toward Gloria. “That chocolate cake that you made?”

“It would have turned out if you hadn't distracted me.”

Judy dropped her head back and let out a hearty laugh. “Still blaming it on me. I bet you still think I was the one who ate
your Halloween candy when really it was Uncle Orest who was always pilfering it when he came over.”

“I did catch you with a Hershey bar.”

“That was my Hershey bar,” Dan said, coming up for air.

Everyone laughed as the conversation splintered, then separated and flowed past again, memories intertwining with conversations
about work, kids, and people I had heard only vague mentions of from previous visits. I sat back and let it flit past me.
I didn't know the people they talked about and by the time I caught the connection, they were off on another topic. Hard not
to feel like a stranger in my own house.

Tabitha and Allison huddled on the floor at one end of the table, their conversation liberally sprinkled with prepositions
and exclamations. Near as I could tell, for the past half hour they had been analyzing the latest romance of a mutual friend
and hadn't, to my knowledge, come to any conclusion whether they approved or disapproved of the liaison.

Allison bounced Nicholas on her lap, playing peekaboo with him.

The little piker had been a tangle of misery all evening, crying and rubbing his red cheeks against my face when I tried to
comfort him, twisting his blankie around his hands when I tried to entertain him. And now he giggled at everything Allison
and Tabitha threw at him, charming them with his tenor belly laugh and clapping his chubby hands.

Lovable little turncoat.

And Dan, well, he was looking around at his family, that half-smile of his that never failed to give my heart a little kick,
hovering over his well-shaped lips. He looked so content and so at peace that for a quick, sharp moment my envy was bigger
than my love for him.

“So, Leslie, when are you going to put the garden in?” Wilma asked.

What? Where did that come from?

“I… I didn't plan on gardening,” I said, flailing into this new topic like Nicholas waking up from a nap.

“You'll like gardening,” Judy said. “Besides, fresh vegetables are so much better than those strip-mined, poor excuses for
food that the local co-op tries to pass off,” she continued with surprising vehemence.

“Did that nasty co-op turn down your application to sell your vegetables to them again?” Gerrit asked. I guessed this was
an ongoing family joke, and I was glad for the deflection away from me and anything botanical.

“Without even giving us any kind of explanation,” Judy huffed. She puffed out her lip and blew her bangs out of her face.

“I think they should be happy to get fresher vegetables,” Wilma added, obviously put out with a store that wouldn't take produce
from her own child. “I'll have to talk to Dennis Verweer.”

“No, Mom,” Judy answered. “I can take care of this myself.”

“Dennis is an old friend of the family.”

“Mom, if I find out that you even mentioned the word
and my name in the same sentence in front of Dennis, I won't come to Sunday dinner for two months.”

Wilma and Judy's gaze held as I sucked in a breath, amazed at the standoff happening before my very eyes.

“But darling, surely…”

“Three months,” Judy said, holding up three fingers.

Wilma pressed her lips together, glancing at Dan as if hoping to enlist his support, but Dan was still buried in the trifle.

Full of admiration for Judy's bold move, I kept watching. I knew where I had to go now for “Coping with Wilma and Gloria”

“Hey, Judy,” Gloria put in. “Mom's just trying to help.”

Judy just smiled and lifted a fourth finger.

“It was merely a suggestion,” Wilma said, a grudging note in her voice. Her glance skittered away from her daughter and grazed
over me, caught and held. Her eyes narrowed as if warning me not to try this at home. I almost held up my hands in a gesture
of surrender. Judy was in a league of her own.

Dan looked up from the trifle and wiped his mouth. “Speaking of gardening, once the crop is in, we could work on ours, Leslie,”
Dan said with a helpful grin, as if I had been restlessly hovering on the edge of the garden, rake in hand, an avid desire
to stake beans burning in my heart. “Wouldn't you like to put a garden in, Anneke?”

“That would be fine,” Anneke chirped from his lap, having gravitated from the kids' table, where Tabitha's watchful eye kept
everything under control. She laid her head on her father's chest and wrinkled her nose at me. From any other child this could
be misconstrued as a taunt. From my Anneke, a sign of deep affection. I took what I could get from her.

I reached over and stroked a delicate strand of hair behind her ear in a moment of motherly connection. Dan caught my glance,
and the smile deepened.

He tucked his hand behind my head and lightly stroked my neck with his fingers. Like he used to when we were courting. And
like then, a shiver of delightful goose bumps flickered up my spine. I had missed this and welcomed it now.

“Hey, you,” he said, his voice dropping to that intimate octave that never failed to elicit a smile from me. My heart warmed
to him. He was really trying.

“Hey, yourself.”

We had our own highly evolved communication system.

Anneke blinked slowly at me, her imitation of a wink and I winked back at her as Dan smiled at us both.

“So, do you want us to come over and help you with the garden?” Wilma asked, her helpful question pushing a conversational
wedge through this quiet moment between me and my husband. Anneke pulled away, making Dan lower his hand from my neck and
our little warm family moment cooled.

“We could get some seeds at the co-op. It wouldn't take that long.” She had obviously given up on her face-off with Judy,
but I didn't have Judy's background or forcefulness. I was still working my way through the maze of family relationships here
and trying to find my place. But I resented feeling like I was failing a test I hadn't studied for.

“Might be too early to plant yet,” Judy intervened.

“I'm putting my garden in next week,” Wilma insisted.

“What's your hurry, Mom?” Judy pushed back. “Lay off the poor city girl. She doesn't know about gardening.”

“I've planted a few things,” I said, feeling torn between accepting Judy's offhand definition of me and Wilma's push to assimilate
me completely into rural life.

“And they all died,” Dan said with a light laugh.

“Not right away,” I protested.

Wilma and Gloria didn't need to laugh nearly as loud as they did. Judy shook her head at her brother's humor.

“I doubt it's that bad,” Judy said.

That's it. In my new will, Judy's getting my diamond earrings.

“I'm good with the greenhouse, but death on house-plants,” Judy complained.

my opal necklace.

“I think that's why my houseplants died,” I said. “They got jealous and died of spite because I spent more time fussing over
patients than I did over them.”

“You won't have to worry about that now,” Gloria said. “I'm sure you're looking forward to taking time away from your job.”

“I liked being a nurse,” I said. “I know I'll miss it.”

“Yes, but now that you're on the farm, wouldn't you rather stay home and putter around the house?”

“I never perfected the fine art of puttering,” I said with my own feeble attempt at a joke.

“Judy could give you a few tips,” Dayton said, pulling himself out of his conversation with Gerrit. “Didn't you give a course
on that at the ag fair last year?”

“That was pottery.” Judy rolled her eyes and turned to me. “You'll have plenty of time to come and visit us if you're home
all the time. I could teach you to sew if you want. We could have a lot of fun.”

“I don't know about fun,” I said slowly. “All that cutting and pinning. I doubt I can be trusted with so many potentially
lethal instruments.”

“Leslie was the kind of child who ran with scissors,” Dan put in, giving me a gentle poke.

“Sewing is a good way to save some money on clothes,” Wilma said. “You might want to think about it.”

No pressure from the family here. Sewing. Gardening. Who did they think I was? Ma Walton?

“And if you're not going to be working, that is something to consider,” Gloria put in. “Farming is a wonderful life, but there
isn't always a lot left over when all the bills are paid.”

“Great, Gloria,” Dan said with forced jocularity. “You're going to make her think we're two checks away from being broke.”

“Been there,” I muttered. And from the looks of the check we were getting from Wilma each month, we were still only a few dollars
from “there.”

Dan shot me a hurt look, and I regretted my quick tongue. I reached over to lay my hand on his arm, to recapture the moment
we had shared earlier.

“Anneke, can you come to Oma?” Wilma's quiet request pulled Anneke off Dan's lap and brushed my arm aside and the chance was
gone. “Could you get me the Bible?”

Bible? Low-level panic struck again. Was I supposed to have it handy? I knew we had our own around somewhere. Someone from
Dan's church had given us one on our wedding day.

Anneke danced toward her grandmother, then stopped, looking puzzled. “What's a Bible, Oma?”

Wilma's eyes cut to Gloria, who lifted her perfectly plucked eyebrows in a “What did you expect?” expression I couldn't help
but resent. These two were like the tag team of familial censure.

“It's this book over here, honey,” Wilma said, pushing her chair back and picking up a large black book from the countertop.
I relaxed. I guess Wilma figured, in this house it was Bring Your Own Bible. “Why don't you bring it to your father, and he
can read something out of it for us?”

“That's okay,” Dan protested. “Someone else can read.”

But it was too late. Anneke, bursting with pride at her own importance, hustled to our end of the table carrying her sacred
burden and duty.

Dan bit his lip as he took the heavy book from her, then pulled her onto his lap. “Anything in particular?” he asked as he
flipped through the pages, their rustling the only sound in the reverent quiet that had descended the moment he laid the Bible
on the table.

Even the teenagers, who had seemed oblivious to what was going on with the adults, became quiet. Everyone seemed to know the
unwritten rules, I thought, glancing around the table as people sat back, folded arms across chests, or leaned forward, waiting.

“Read what you like, Dan,”Wilma said quietly.

Dan bit his lip, frowning as he paged through the Bible. Then a gentle smile eased over his lips as he stopped. “I've always
liked this piece.” His hand smoothed over the page like a caress.

“This is from 1 Corinthians 13. I know it's read a lot, but I want to read it again.” He cleared his throat, took a slow breath,
and started reading.

” ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal….
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’ “

I listened to the cadence of the words and caught a tone in Dan's voice I had never heard before. It was gentle, soft, and
carried warmth and comfort.

Everyone else seemed to pick up on it as well. The lines in Wilma's forehead eased away; a genuine smile warmed Gloria's face.
Judy stared off into the distance as if remembering other Bible readings around this table, in this room.

Even Anneke, my wiggly worm, now leaned against her father, her head on his shoulder, the quiet sound of his voice soothing
her restlessness.

I turned my attention back to Dan and what he was reading. “‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest
of these is love.’ “

The warmth in Dan's voice pushed the last words deep into my being. More than the words, the tone and timbre of his voice
touched me, as if he had become another person right in front of my eyes.

“Thanks, Dan.” Wilma's voice sounded like a benediction. “That was lovely. Could you close in prayer?”

I felt nervous for my husband. Reading the Bible was one thing, but praying off the cuff? The only thing resembling a prayer
I'd ever heard from Dan was a muttered “Good Lord” when he was especially frustrated with Anneke or Nicholas.

Dan nodded slowly, glanced around the table at everyone but me, then lowered his head. And as he prayed, I got another surprise.
His voice filled with an emotion I'd never heard before. I opened my eyes and glanced around the table. Everyone, even the
teenagers, had their heads bowed and their eyes closed.

Once again I felt peripheral to a family I couldn't understand.

A pause followed the end of Dan's prayer and then the table erupted into a cacophony of noise and busyness.

I started clearing away the plates, when Judy put her hand on mine. “Don't. The kids can clean up. We'll move to the living

BOOK: The Only Best Place
8.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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