The Life and Times of Jameson Jones – Chapter Four: Brave in the Attempt

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Destiny flows inexorably from its gentle source down to the sea, sometimes placidly, sometimes turbulently, but always moving, always pushing forward…

In the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, there is a room devoted exclusively to four large allegorical paintings by Thomas Cole, 19th Century founder of the romantic Hudson River School of Art. These panels, collectively called The Voyage of Life, depict the four stages of human existence: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. In the third of the four panels—the one depicting adulthood—the voyager is desperately praying as his small boat leaves the placid waters of childhood and youth and begins to drift toward a cascade of forbidding rapids that evoke not only self-doubt but also threaten his very existence. That’s Jameson Jones as he enters his fourth decade.

He has been living in Washington for several years now. He has a wife and two children. Presidents Ford and Carter have come and gone; America is deep into the Regan era. One day, Jameson returns to his office after lunch to find a note on his desk. There is a scribbled phone number and a message: “Please call Sargent Shriver ASAP.” Assuming it is a prank, he dials the number and asks to speak to “Sarge.”

“One moment please. Whom may I say is calling?” Jameson swallows hard and resists the temptation to hang up. Within the hour, he is sitting in Shriver’s office.

And so he finds himself once again in the Kennedy orbit. This time, however, he is revolving around Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband Sargent Shriver, founders of Special Olympics, a world-wide movement that provides life-changing athletic training and sports competition to individuals with intellectual disabilities as well as support for their families. Jameson is the new Director of International Programs and it has fallen to him and a dedicated multi-national team to work with existing national programs in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and to develop new programs in countries that wish to become part of the Special Olympics movement. It’s challenging and rewarding work, a physical and emotional rollercoaster ride that leaves Jameson enthralled by profound human magic some days and, like Cole’s lonely voyager, begging for divine assistance on others.

But in time, Jameson begins to feel more and more like the falcon in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre; He cannot hear the falconer/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Hong Kong, Nepal, India, Japan, Korea, the opening of China; Australia and New Zealand; Jamaica and Trinidad; Venezuela, Argentina, Chile; Ireland, England, Norway, Belgium, France, Austria, and Poland; Jordan and Israel; Nigeria and Kenya; the globe is a spinning blur. But back home, the cost is too dear and a ransom must be paid. Things do indeed fall apart; the centre does not hold. Jameson finds himself alone.

While he does not blame his work for his divorce, he knows he cannot continue to be in such constant motion. It is time to come home, even if it is to a spare one-bedroom apartment. The Special Olympics oath is “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” There is nothing left for Jameson now but to be brave in the attempt.

A few months later, Jameson is just beginning a new job at National Geographic when his beloved father—gentle Lawyer Jones—dies. Jameson holds on for dear life as his leaky little boat plunges into the churning whitewater ahead.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

The Life and Times of Jameson Jones (Chapter Three): In Unremembered Season by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Destiny is capricious: one day, you’re on a course that’s bright and straight as a Saharan sunrise; the next, it all turns out to be a mirage, ephemeral as moonlight…

Jameson Jones, newly-minted college graduate, isn’t quite sure what to do with himself. Camelot has crumbled and The Great Society has lost its luster. Martin is dead; Bobby, too. Richard Nixon has grabbed the spotlight and the orders of the day are racial strife, drugs, cultural wars, peace signs, and this thing called Vietnam. Jameson has a pretty high draft number (210), but the future is fuzzy. Only one thing makes any sense: Jameson hopes for the best and, still wrapped in Kennedy’s afterglow, joins the Peace Corps.

He looks the part: long hair, Fu Manchu mustache, bell-bottom jeans. He is assigned to a sports development program in a country he has barely even heard of: Tunisia. It’s a soft spot on the North African littoral, a slice of lemon wedged in between two giant neighbors. But it’s perfect. At the end of training, Jameson is offered a comfortable post in a coastal city, a tourist destination, but he stuns his supervisor when he opts to coach basketball and teach physical education in a small village in the remote mountainous corner of the country hard by the Algerian border. He’s all in.

His house in Kasserine is a few spare rooms off on open courtyard covered by a grape arbor. It has a cold water tap and a privy. The kitchen is a hot plate running off bottled gas. When Jameson wants fresh bread, he goes straight to the baker’s oven. He buys eggs in groups of four. When the open-air butcher shop has meat, the head of a slaughtered beast signals what is available that day. When he needs a warm bath, he spends an afternoon hour or two with the men in the hammem, the village steam bath where he is pounded, stretched, and scrubbed by one of the attendants. He recovers with an orange and a glass of mint tea. In summer, there may be no rain for months; in winter, a freezing wind blows down from the mountains. He is invited to a student’s home for a holiday feast and watches as a sheep is ritually bled and slaughtered in the street out front. He attends a friend’s wedding and waits with the other men until the marriage has been honorably consummated. At night, he plays cards with old men, drinking glasses of tea in a cafe. He is supremely happy.

One day, news trickles into town: a movie company is filming in another village down in the desert. Jameson is curious. On a whim, he heads south and when he arrives in the town, he is greeted by a stunning French women who is working with the production crew. She takes one look at his 6’4” frame and inquires if he wants a role in the film: “We need a tall alien.” She takes him out to the set and he sees dinosaurs and strange underground dwellings. It would require several days of filming and there’s even a modest per diem that sounds like a fortune to Jameson. But he has school to teach and a team to coach so he declines. Plus, the whole concept seems a little far-fetched. “What’s the film called?” he asks his host. “Star Wars,” she replies as Jameson boards the bus back home.

And so Jameson’s life remains on its modest arc. There will be no movie career, no Hollywood. Several months later, when the day comes that his tour is up and it’s time to finally leave the town, he is overcome by a beautiful sadness. As his bus pulls out of town, he is reading a passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet:

“If this is my day of harvest, in what fields have I sowed the seed, and in what unremembered season?”

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

The Life and Times of Jameson Jones Chapter Two: The End of Innocence by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Destiny can dawdle or it can hit you like a runaway freight train…

Jameson, caboose of the Jones train, has entered the weed garden of his teenage years. Eisenhower has placidly come and gone; Camelot is flourishing on the banks of the Potomac. Unbeknownst to his Republican parents, Jameson has undergone his own political changing of the guard. He is smitten with King Jack and Queen Jackie and all things Kennedy. He is leaving the fold, beginning to chart his own course.

He comes home from school one day and announces his desire to go off to boarding school. The announcement comes as a surprise to Lawyer and Mrs. Jones, but the idea has taken deep root in Jameson’s young mind. His three much older siblings have all flown the coop—married and moved away. Much as he loves them, Jameson has no intention of remaining home alone in a hushed household with aging parents; it’s time to break the mold.

And so, Lawyer Jones (perhaps just a little reluctantly) and son pack the car and head off to New England to shop for a new school. It’s a long voyage into the future, but Jameson is excited to set sail. On a Wednesday, father and son visit two fine schools; on Thursday, two more. But Jameson does not hear bells; maybe this is not such a good idea after all. They’re all fine looking shoes, but none seem to quite fit. On Friday morning, they try on another pair and are invited to stay for lunch: it’s broiled cod and boiled potatoes and Jameson takes one look at his all-white plate and asks if he can be excused from table NOW. Without much hope and on a seriously empty stomach, Jameson and his father head off on one last visit, the whole expedition in danger of unravelling into disaster.

They arrive at Choate mid-afternoon. Jameson is starving but he perks up when the Headmaster who is interviewing him just happens to mention that President Kennedy was a former student. And then this, out of the blue: “You look hungry, Jameson; let’s see what we can find in the kitchen.” Upon entering, all Jameson can see is one of those old-fashioned pale green milkshake machines. He stares. The Headmaster senses his advantage. “Would you like a milkshake?” Jameson can only nod. “Chocolate?” the Headmaster asks. Jameson nods again and the Headmaster knows he has won. The next day, upon returning home, Lawyer Jones greets his wife, smiles his little smile, and tells her he just purchased the world’s most expensive chocolate milkshake. She arches an eyebrow.

And so the deal is struck. Jameson arrives on campus in the fall of 1962. A month into the adventure, he is sitting on the stairs of his freshman dormitory, listening to news of dire proportion: there are Soviet missiles in Cuba and nuclear war is imminent. Jameson wonders if he will ever see his parents and home again, but when Kennedy saves the day, Jameson falls even deeper under his spell.

And then just thirteen months later, Jameson is taking his dirty clothes to the laundry on the other side of campus. By the time he arrives, the world has spun off its axis. The women who work in the laundry are staring at a black-and-white television: Kennedy has been shot; he’ll soon be dead. In a daze, Jameson wanders off to the only place he can think to go: the chapel, the same chapel Kennedy once sat in when he was a schoolboy. Jameson is utterly alone in that space and the tears begin to flow—first a river, then a lake, and finally an ocean of abject sorrow. A wound that will never heal.

And nothing will ever be safe for Jameson again.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

The Life and Times of Jameson Jones (Chapter One): Surprise! by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Destiny is a funny thing: sometimes it gallops into town, grabs you by the collar, and throws you to your fate. But other times, it can sneak up on you and gently push you toward your future. So gently, in fact, that you don’t even notice…

Jameson Jones was born one minute after ten o’clock on the morning of the first Saturday in September (or so it says in the family Bible). Harry Truman, that plain-spoken haberdasher from Missouri, was President. To say Jameson was a surprise would have been quite an understatement, but there he was, all pink and fresh, a new-born, squalling, diapered fact.

But let’s back up a few months. Mrs. Jones, well out of the child-bearing woods (or so she thought) wakes up one morning and feels something—something faintly familiar but utterly impossible. The family dynamic has been settled for ten years: two lovely girls and a boy—a junior even, in honor of his father to cap off the uterine flow. But now Junior is ten and Mrs. Jones is forty-two; surely she isn’t…she couldn’t be…it’s impossible…what will everyone think!

A few days later (and after a surreptitious visit to the family doctor), Mrs. Jones returns home, lifts the telephone in the den, and dials her husband’s downtown office. His secretary answers. She is a pleasant woman, as efficient and organized as she is devoted to Lawyer Jones having moved with him and the six other runaways who up and walked out of that smugly prosperous law firm across the street when they were told that their time away in the various services fighting in WW2 would not be credited to making partner. “I’ll show them!” Lawyer Jones told his wife that evening when he returned home for dinner with the family. She looked around the crowded dinner table and gave him an arched eyebrow.

But all that is in the wake of the boat. Now she crisply tells her husband’s secretary that she will be downstairs in the lobby in an hour and would her husband be good enough to come down for a moment—she has something to tell him. “No, thank you; I don’t want to come up; I have errands and this will only take a minute.” And she hangs up.

An hour later, she is waiting in the lobby of the Oliver Building, watching the lights of the elevator as it descends, tolling the floors. (In those days, there was an elevator operator—white gloves and all—to operate the lift, pushing the large brass handle forward or back to rise or descend and holding the squeaky cage door upon arrival. The operator knows every man in the building and their wives, too. He sees the waiting Mrs. Jones and tips his cap as Lawyer Jones steps into the lobby.)

She pulls him into the vestibule away from the maw of the elevator and says, “Guess what.”

“What?” Lawyer Jones is a kind and gentle man, but he’s busy this morning.

“We’re having another baby.”

Speechless would have been an understatement, but then sometimes a tear can speak volumes. In this case, she sees immediately it is a tear of joy and if she felt a bit of pique at her unexpected situation, that vanishes in the blink of her own happy tears. Husband hugs wife, gives her a gentle kiss on the forehead, and steps back into the elevator, smiling at the operator. ‘Back up to eight please, Charley.”

That was in the spring. Now it’s early autumn and the three much older Joneses will soon be back in school, each a little more educated in the ways of the world. They’re reconciled, maybe even a little excited about the stork’s visit. After all, it will either be a tie game or the girls will have a commanding lead.

And speaking of games, the Pirates are in town, scheduled to play a Sunday doubleheader against the Cubs. The season is winding down and neither team has World Series dreams. (“Who did?” you ask. Why it was the Cleveland Indians who were about to spoil the chance for an all-Boston World Series by beating the Boston Red Sox in a one game playoff for the right to play the that other Boston team—the Braves. But I digress…)

So the day after Jameson’s safe and somewhat miraculous arrival, it’s the Pirates and the Cubs and a Sunday doubleheader. It just so happens that one of Lawyer Jones partners has an ownership interest in the Pirates so when word of Jameson’s birth makes its way up to the KDKA radio broadcast booth, the announcer (the inimitable Bob Prince) takes it upon himself to tell everyone within earshot that Mrs. Jones, wife of Lawyer Jones, has just delivered a healthy baby boy—“Surprise!”

Playing right field for the Cubs that day is a fellow named Bill Nicholson, nickname “Swish.” He goes 1 for 3 in the first game; 2 for 4 in the nightcap. Pretty good day for a farm boy from little Chestertown over on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Ah, destiny…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Riversmoke by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Warm air moving over cold water produces that eerie, wispy, vaporous concoction we call riversmoke. It gives our river a lovely dreamlike quality that plays with our notions of what is real and what is imaginary. When the sun is out, the Chester can be sparkling blue; under grey skies it takes on a muddy, turgid aspect that gives it a sorrowful cast. Either way it’s a beautiful river, but to my eye, when the temperature differential produces riversmoke, the Chester has even more character; in fact, it has soul.

Fog is fog but riversmoke is different. It’s romantic, mysterious, otherworldly. It challenges our perceptions of space and time. For example, when the river smokes, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see a dinosaur sloughing through the phragmites along the shoreline or a Nanticoke brave out in the shallows tending his fishing net or a British man o’ war tied up along the wharf at the foot of High Street. Just the other day, even the dismasted Sultana and the Packet looked like character actors in a grainy film noir; I expected a gunshot, a splash, footsteps running along the dock.

Within the confines of the river, riversmoke may be a beautiful and benign condition, but to a waterman out in middle of the bay, I imagine it must be a disorienting, lonely, maybe even fearful thing. I suppose that modern miracles like radar or sonar offer some solace, but even they can’t be all that much comfort when your dead rise is enshrouded and cut off from the world by thick fog or smoke and all manner of things can go dreadfully wrong in the blink of a blind eye.

And then there’s this: riversmoke may be a perfectly natural phenomenon but I find it also has a inherent metaphoric quality. It’s the offspring of colliding physical forces—heat and cold—and to my mind, that gives it a yin and yang aspect that transcends mere meteorology. How I wish all our current polarizing differences would yield such a magical result as they evaporate into thin air!
But back along our own pleasant waterfront, riversmoke has a more soothing nature. Maybe it was just all that unexpectedly warm air hovering over the frigid water for a couple of days last week, but for a moment, I thought I detected a whiff of spring. Not so fast! That wistful dream turned out to be just another mirage when the mercury plummeted again and all the ice that had melted away last week reformed and made another unwelcome appearance this week. Still, take heart, friends: it’s only a matter of time before Persephone emerges from the underworld, maybe even draped in a cloak of gauzy riversmoke, and comes back to stay.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

On Perspective by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Funny thing about perspective: it matters. I’ve been thinking about a cartoon I recently saw: in the first panel, a man stranded on a desert island sees a boat coming toward him and yells, “Boat!” In the second panel, the man adrift on that boat spies the desert island and cries out, “Land!” It’s all about one’s point of view…isn’t it?

Any good artist knows that perspective is about a real or implied horizon and the vanishing points that lead the viewer’s eye toward it as the artist attempts to render three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. (If you feel you need a refresher course on artistic perspective—or a master class for that matter—take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s representation of The Last Supper.) As for the philosophers among us, they would contend that perspective is simply an attitude or viewpoint that impacts how one perceives the world. In either case, reality—whatever that is!—is influenced by perception to the extent that it becomes a mere shadow on the wall of Mr. Plato’s cave. That’s why perspective invokes belief more than certainty, magic more than truth.

The trouble with perspective is that it’s highly personal. It’s distilled from all manner of things: family, national origin, gender, race, religion (or lack thereof), sexual identity, political persuasion…you name it. And despite all these different potential starting points, we usually assume that we’ll end up if not in complete agreement, then at least in some relatively contiguous space because, after all, a good cigar is just a good cigar…isn’t it?

These days, it has become common to the point of trite to “agree to disagree.” That’s a cop out. While agreeing to disagree may bring some temporary resolution to a conflict, it doesn’t offer any meaningful long-term solution to a difference of opinion, let alone address all those untidy little differing perspectives that may have caused the conflict in the first place. It’s a messy business to be sure but unless any underlying divergent perspectives can be a) identified, b) clarified, and c) mutually recognized, well, good luck in enjoying that cigar.

But back to perspective. In these days of selfie love, I see a lot of people holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or pinching the Eiffel Tower between their thumb and forefinger. I know: it’s just a harmless tourist’s joke, a distortion of reality that’s supposed to make me laugh while proving you were there. Maybe I’m getting grumpy in my dotage, but I think those images perpetuate the fantasy that we’re in control of our perspectives, rather than the opposite—that our perspectives are in control of us. It makes me think we’re putting ourselves a little too much in the center of things, becoming a little too exceptional, asking for a little too much control, but then that’s human nature. We like to be the boss.

Perspective can begin as an unconscious starting point that leads to interpretation and often concludes in hard-boiled belief. It’s the invisible flashpoint that is potentially inherent in any human interaction. So, for example, does it really matter if I believe that my nuclear button is bigger and more powerful than yours…does it?

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Iceberg Lives by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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We all lead them: iceberg lives. Anyone can clearly see the visible parts of our lives, the parts that lie above the waterline—our families and friends; our homes; our jobs; what we do and say, the color of our eyes, what we ate for breakfast. Far less apparent, however, is all that lies beneath the surface of the water: the secrets of our hearts, those parts of us known only to God.

We know that the tip of the iceberg is the visible part—our public personae, our apparent selves—but it is also the smaller portion, perhaps as little as 10% of our berg’s entire mass. That leaves the far larger portion of whom we are lying below the waterline, invisible to others, maybe even lost to our own view.

At the very least, we float on a long strand of DNA, our chromosomes and genes, stretching back generations into the mist. That’s the “nature” part of each of us: tribal, determinant, inescapable. Then there is also the “nurture” part: birth order, where we live, how we were raised, how our parents were raised by their parents and so on and so on and so on. These are the subtle shadings, perhaps not readily apparent to ourselves or anyone else but present nonetheless and these elements of our personalities may inform our lives and daily interactions just as much as the more nature-given components of our beings. But I believe there is even more that holds us up from below: our hopes and dreams, yearnings, longings, our greatest loves, our darkest fears. Although often hidden, these, too, combine to sculpt that part of us that’s visible to all.

Because so much of its mass lies below the surface of the ocean, an iceberg is usually highly stable. However, from time-to-time, a berg “rolls over” and what was below becomes the topmost and apparent part. It’s a highly dramatic event that can create a tsunami-size wave, but when this does happen, startling new colors and formations become visible for the first time—dark, mesmerizing hues and textures that challenge our perception of what we thought we once knew. I suppose the same would be true of our own individual icebergs. Flip us over and all manner of things, previously dark and submerged would suddenly be revealed in the cold, clear light of day. Talk about a tsunami!

But icebergs have no dark secrets to reveal, only beautiful glassine features that glisten and sparkle in the sunlight. How I wish that were true of humans! I’d like to think that if my own iceberg flipped over, the ice that emerged would be free of debris, undamaged, pristine, dazzling. Alas, friends! I’m all too human for that—we all are—so perhaps it’s better if we each work hard to maintain our delicate equilibrium and let what lies below remain below.

Icebergs are just floating chunks of frozen water calved from glaciers; upright or capsized, they are whole. To be human, however, means (among other things) being part seen and part unseen. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, to do good in the world, or to be good people. After all, when it comes time for each of us to roll over—and eventually we all do— wouldn’t it dazzling if what lay below was even more beautiful than the tip above?

Happy New Year!

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

One Last Letter (Fifth and Final Stave) by Jamie Kirkpartick

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Just as everything unto heaven has a purpose, so must every story have its conclusion. And so, dear reader, our tale now comes to an end. But first:

By the time Mother Wilmer had finished reading “A Christmas Carol,” little Holiday was fast asleep in her lap and drowsy Christian was not far behind. The fire had burned to embers and the last of the dim afternoon light was fading quickly. The chore of undecorating the house would have to wait another day.

Christian looked up at his Mama with half-closed eyes and murmured, “Tiny Tim had a father, didn’t he?”

“Yes, my darling.”

“Then where is our papa?”

It was not an unexpected question, but coming at this peaceful moment, it caught the good widow off her guard. She had to admit: it was a confounding query. She knew for certain that the man in the cemetery was the very man whose likeness she had seen in the just-read book was none other than the redoubtable Ebenezer Scrooge. Could he also be the two cryptic letters mysterious signatory, “S?” But how could that be? Scrooge was only a character in a Christmas tale while the man whom she had seen by Mr. Wilmer’s grave was flesh and blood—or surely seemed to be. True: he had left no trace anywhere, so what was he then—a ghost? But characters in stories don’t have afterlives—how could they?—they are, after all, nothing more than figments of some poor scribbler’s imagination, players on a stage, shadows without substance or corporal form. And then there was the matter of this other actor, this poor “Marley,” Scrooge’s one-time partner in an accounting firm, whom, as she had learned at the very beginning of Mr. Dickens’ story, “was dead.” But what had he to do with her departed husband and why did “S” think he was he buried under Mr. Wilmer’s headstone?

And now she began to put two and two together: if this “Marley” character were indeed dead, and if her husband were also dead, and if the mysterious “S” was in fact Scrooge and if his cryptic letters were the common denominator, then was the answer not four? She had to admit she knew next to nothing about her late husband’s past—he never talked about his origins which (as she had divined by his accent) must have been in England. He had simply materialized in Chestertown one day nearly a decade ago and, with hard work and an honest reputation, he had prospered—as an accountant!—to an extent that made her and the twins the most fortunate beneficiaries of what he had created out of seemingly thin air.

That thought brought her back to the moment and to young Christian’s plaintive question. She looked down at the boy and saw he was watching her, waiting for her to answer.

“Your poor Papa,” she began, “was a wonderful man and he would have…”

Just then, there came a knock on the door. Not wishing to wake little Holiday, Mother Wilmer sent her son to answer. A moment later, he returned holding an envelope. It was simply addressed to “Mistress Wilmer.” This time, she recognized the hand immediately.

“Who gave you this?” she inquired of Christian.

“A very nice gentleman, Mama. He looked just like the man in our new book. He said I was a remarkable boy and he gave me this!” He held out a bright English shilling.

“Run, quickly, darling, and invite the gentleman in!”

“I can’t, Mama.”

But why ever not, my dear?”

“Because he’s already gone, Mama. One minute he was there and the next he..he just wasn’t.”

Mistress Wilmer looked down at her son and her daughter who was just now waking and at the envelope she held in her hand. She thought to open it later but seeing the seal was already broken, she withdrew the folded note and read it silently.

“What does it say, Mama?” asked the twins in unison.

The good widow smiled and turned the letter—if one could call it that—to show her children what was written on it—one simple sentence: “God bless us, every one!” Signed, of course, “S.”

FINIS

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

An Unopened Gift (Fourth Stave) by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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It was a happy Christmas. The twins delighted in their presents and the good Widow Wilmer was pleased to receive many kind remembrances. So many, in fact, that she overlooked one small package that lay tucked under a fold of the tree skirt.

And yet, despite all the joy of that season, she could not quite shake the memory of the mysterious visitor she had observed at the cemetery two weeks previous and the odd little note he had placed by her husband’s grave. Since that day, she had hoped to encounter the man again so that she could introduce herself and to that end, whenever she went about in town, she kept one eye open for his tall, thin frame. She even attempted to search him out: she made modest inquiries at the local rooming houses and eating establishments, but no one had encountered a man who fit the mysterious visitor’s description. She even took it upon herself to go down to the wharf where the frigate that had arrived a few weeks earlier with a passenger or two and its load of fine English teas was making preparations to continue its journey down to the warmer islands. The captain of the vessel, busy with lading provisions and cargo, was polite enough but of no further help. Only two passengers had made the crossing on the outbound leg of the journey—both young men looking to advance their prospects in this part of the world. It was as if the mysterious visitor had literally vanished.

Life continued quietly on as it is wont to do in a small town, but Mistress Wilmer had to admit that she was a uneasy about the cryptic message the mysterious man had left behind. “It is better to forgive than to deceive.” What sin was to be forgiven? Who had been deceived? Was her late husband someone other than whom she believed him to be? Was there, in fact, a monster under the beds of her children lying in wait to snatch away their happiness and prosperity? And who was ‘Marley,’ and for that matter, who was ’S?’ Mrs. Wilmer was a sensible woman and unanswered questions did not lie idly with her. The situation festered for another two weeks.

That is until Twelfth Night when Mistress Wilmer and the children undertook to remove the tree and put away the Christmas decorations. That was when little Holiday found the gift that lay unnoticed and unopened behind the tree. It was simply wrapped in brown paper and offered to no one in particular so Mama let Christian open it.

It was a slim volume entitled “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, an English author of considerable note even in this remote corner of America. “Oh, mother,” cried the twins in unison (that was their habit after all), “will you read it to us now? Please, mother!”

Reading seemed a far, far better thing to do than restoring the house to its natural order so Mistress Wilmer added another log to the fire, pulled her comfortable Windsor chair close, and lifted the twins onto her lap. Such a cozy, wholesome scene! Imagine, then, her surprise and consternation when upon opening the volume, she saw an engraving of the very man whom she had observed in the cemetery. The caption informed her that this was none other than Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge himself, the central character in Mr. Dickens’ famous Christmas novella.

“Mama: whatever is the matter?” the twins said in chorus. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

“No, darlings! Everything is fine. It’s just that this man—she pointed to the engraving of Mr. Scrooge—looks so very familiar to me.”

And with that, she began to read…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.