November 1 is the official launch party for Christmas Mourning at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books and Music, 7:30 p.m., although it has been available for at least a week. If you are on my eList, you received the following excerpt a couple of weeks ago. This link (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k08wEGekzkI) should take you to a short video that was made in my home. If not, go to YouTube.com and enter “Margaret Maron’s Christmas Mourning” in the search box. Hope it whets your appetite for the whole book!
Excerpt from Christmas Mourning
This scene takes place a few days before Christmas. As a surprise gift for Deborah and Dwight, her nieces and nephews have rigged up colorful lights for the pond. When they get home that evening, they find most of her family around a bonfire down by the pond:
The colored lights that shimmered on the surface of the water must have revived ancient memory because when there was a lull in conversation, Daddy said, “I ever tell y’all about the first Christmas after my daddy passed? The tangerines?”
There was a chorus of noes from his grandchildren and calls of “Tell us” from my younger brothers and me. Robert, being the oldest, smiled as if he knew the story and already anticipated our reaction.
“Well,” said Daddy, “the way it was is that I was still three months shy of turning fifteen when my daddy died and left me the man of the family. There was Mammy, and Sister and Rachel and the twins . . .”
His voice always trails off whenever he mentions his younger twin brothers, Jacob and Jedidiah. Jacob had drowned in Possum Creek when the two were sixteen and Jed immediately ran away, lied about his age, and joined the army. He was killed in a training exercise at Ft. Bragg before he ever got out of the state.
“Anyhow, it was getting on for Christmas and we was poor as Adam’s housecat. Mammy’d already told the little ones that Santa Claus probably won’t gonna be able to find our house, but they didn’t believe her and just kept talking about what they was gonna find in their stockings. Mammy’d made a rag doll for Rachel outten a flour sack she’d bleached white and did its hair and pigtails with tobacco string. Sister’d used pokeberries to dye a sack purple and stitched up a little doll dress and bonnet. I whittled out new slingshots and whistles for the boys and Mammy’d sent me over to the store to trade some eggs for a little poke of Christmas candy, but all the same, it was looking like a mighty thin Christmas.”
Tenderhearted Ruth, who was seated on the tarp nearest him, squeezed his wrinkled hand and said, “Oh, Granddaddy, you must’ve felt just awful.”
Cal was solemn-faced, as if trying to get his mind around a Christmas with nothing plastic or electronic under the tree.
“Now right before Christmas, there come a rain like I ain’t seen in no December before nor since. Was like a hurricane only not no wind, just a hard, hard rain coming straight down like water outten the pump in our kitchen sink. Possum Creek flooded something awful. Getting on toward nightfall next day, a truck drove into the yard and it was a man up from Florida looking to buy a couple of jars of whiskey from my daddy. Said he had two more deliveries to make over in Cotton Grove and he needed something to keep him warm on his trip back home, ’cause he was freezing to death up here.”
Daddy paused and gave a foxy grin. “He must’ve finished off a jar of something a little earlier though, ’cause it struck me that he was well on his way to being right warm already.
“Well, he left when we told him Daddy was gone, but it won’t thirty minutes till here he come again, walking this time. His truck’d got stuck trying to cross the creek and he wanted me to help him get it out. See, the road won’t paved back then and the bridge was down almost level with the water, so mud was up to his axles before he ever got to the bridge. He said he’d give me fifty cents if I’d help him. Back then, fifty cents was like five dollars now, so I went right out to the lot and hitched up ol’ Maude.”
“Who was ol’ Maude, Granddaddy?” Cal asked.
My heart lifted at his unconscious use of that name because it meant that he felt himself a part of my family.
Best mule we ever had,” Daddy explained. “Strong as a Cub tractor and biddable as a dog.”
High praise indeed.
“When we got down to the creek, we unloaded the back of the truck to lighten it some and I seen he was carrying a pile of Florida fruit. Wood crates of oranges, tangerines, and some big yellow things I ain’t never seen before. First time I ever laid my eyes on grapefruit.
“We stacked them boxes up on the creek bank and I tied a rope from Maude’s traces to the back of the truck, then that man heaved on one side and I heaved on the other and little by little we could feel it start to pull loose.
“The thing was though that Maude was a-straining so hard that just as the truck come free, she let loose with a load of her own and the man stepped right in it. Well, sir, he jumped back and when he did, his feet slid out from under him and he flailed back into that pile of crates. ’Fore you could say Jack Robinson, two crates of them tangerines tipped over and went tumbling down the creek bank where they busted open on the rocks and the high water just carried ’em right away.
“That man was cussing Maude and cussing me and even though I helped him load the truck back up, when I asked him for my fifty cents, he told me I oughta be a-paying him fifty cents for them tangerines and he just drove off without a thank-you or a kiss-my—”
At this point, Daddy broke off and lit a cigarette to cover his chagrin at nearly using a crude expression in mixed company.
“So what’d you do, Granddaddy?” asked Annie Sue.
“Won’t but one thing I could do,” he told her. “I took Maude back to the mule lot and got my dip net and a gunnysack and went down to the fish trap I had rigged up a little further down the creek. Sure enough, when I got to it, there was all them shiny orange tangerines bobbling around in amongst the brush that’d got backed up from my trap. Took me almost a hour to fish them all out and lug that gunnysack back up to the barn. I give Mammy enough so everybody’s stocking got tangerines, even mine and hers. Then I lugged the rest of ’em to Cotton Grove and traded for some store-boughten stuff Mammy’d been needing. Thanks to ol’ Maude, it was a real fine Christmas.”