Thursday, December 28, 2006

Heaven's Suggestion

Back when I was a struggling writer I used to harbor this Christmas fantasy so embarrassing I blush to think of it. I was reminded of it this year when the doorbell suddenly rang in the midst of my annual writer’s group Christmas party.

“Maybe that’s it!” Nancy shouted, waving her wineglass. “Your Christmas fantasy come true.”

“Ha-ha,” I replied. “As if.”

In order for a publisher to be sending me a big, fat Christmas contract I would first have to have written a big, fat new book -- which we all know I have not. Turns out it was just UPS working late into the night to drop off the DVDs I’d ordered from But the unexpected intrusion got me to thinking about old dreams and Christmas miracles and what it would be like if they really did come true. I knew it was silly, childish even, but part of me longed for a Christmas miracle. The publishing thing was out, of course, and I had no notion of what might replace it, but my heart was definitely open to heaven’s suggestion. So it was in that frame of mind that I answered the phone a few days later.

“Can you help me find a book?” a sweet elderly female voice asked.

“I’d be happy to try,” I replied. “What the title?”

“Well, that’s just it. I don’t know.”

“Do you know who wrote it?”

“No. All I know is that my sister and I read it in the 30’s and it changed our lives. We still talk about it to this day. I want to get it for her for either Christmas, or her birthday on January 4th. She’ll be 82.”

“Hmmm, that might be a little tricky,” I said. “But think hard. What can you remember about it?

"Oh, I remember a lot. It was dark, the cover I mean, and I think it might have been set in a little brown house. But then again maybe it was published by Little Brown.”

At this point many booksellers would have rolled their eyes and suddenly realized they had a call waiting on the other line. But when Greta laughed at the absurdity of what she’d just said, I knew she was my kind of girl. For better or for worse, I’d been tapped to be her book finder. For the better part of half an hour we laughed and talked and finally nailed down a few concrete details. The story was about five sisters whose names were Faith, Hope, Charity, Peace and something that didn’t fit. They baked cakes and Peace, the youngest, was a hell raiser of the first order. Armed with these details, I was ready to sally forth into the valley of vintage children’s books.

Trouble is, neither Google, Yahoo, nor all the king’s men or all the king’s horses cooperated. I tried so many things I can’t even remember the sequence of events, but it concluded with a plea on booksleuth at where I hoped and prayed that someone would recognize the sketchy plotline. Almost right away the suggestions poured in, but it didn’t take long to realize that none of them were right.

“You tried,” my husband consoled me. “Now give it up. It’s nearly impossible with so little information.”

Of course it wasn’t impossible! And anyway, impossible or not, I was Greta’s book finder, not her book looker. Finally on the afternoon of December 20th I went back to booksleuth on the half chance that someone else had logged on. And there it was – At The Little Brown House by Ruth Alberta Brown.

“That can’t be right,” I muttered. The first day she called I’d asked Greta about that very book which I’d sold last year and she’d assured me it didn’t ring any bells. But the guy on booksleuth was almost certain that was it.

Quickly, I did a search and found two copies on the net. I emailed both dealers with my sketchy info and one wrote back immediately. Faith, Hope and Peace were all present, and accounted for, as was someone named Gail. There was even a part about cakes, but there was no reference she could see to Charity. It took several calls to local librarians and a copy speedily sent through interlibrary loan from the Burton, Ohio library to confirm it. I'd done it -- I'd actually found Greta's book. Charity was in there after all. It’s just that she goes by the name Cherry.

That night I ordered it, nearly bursting with the excitement of being part of a Christmas miracle. Actually, I ordered both of the copies I’d found, one for her sister and one for Greta. The bill for the first book came to $25. The second one was paid in full with one stipulation. Even before she knew that I used to write professionally, Greta told me that all her life she’d wanted to be a writer. For a short while straight out of high school she’d covered the military desk for the old Cleveland Post and written stories about local boys serving in WWII. But then life took several unexpected turns. She became a wife, a mother of five, a widow much too soon, and a baker of fabulous cakes and never wrote again. Lately she’s been thinking about maybe writing down a few stories for posterity, but so far hasn’t picked up a pen. She never went to college, she explained, and it had been too long since she’d tried composing anything. So there’s where the stipulation comes in. The price of the second book, I told her, is the promise that she’ll forget time and the lack of a degree and start writing again.

When I began this blog I thought that finding Greta’s book was my Christmas miracle, but now I see I that I got it all wrong. The book was just a conduit to bring together two people who share the same old dream and needed the same exact thing. The real miracle was that in giving each other the gift of belief we found it in ourselves -- if only for a little while.