Friday, February 03, 2006

Odd Ducks and Clotted Cream


(Odd Ducks and Clotted Cream is the second in the Odd Duck series. This is my Christmas tribute to Aunt Molly.)

"Oh, it's too pretty to use! Are you sure you aren't afraid it'll get broken?" Noelle held the fragile teapot with both hands, cupping the bottom. Aunt Molly, one of the more colorful senior citizens in the congregation, had brought her own teapot to the Christmas Tea planning meeting at the church. "I've never seen anything so beautiful!"

Delicate golden tea roses adorned the alabaster white china. Green leaves with a tinge of plum cushioned each rose. Noelle imagined the round pot to be a delicate bouquet straight from an English garden. It would be perfect for the annual tea.

Aunt Molly smiled, pulling her wrinkles toward her pearl studded ears. "This vessel was not meant to gather dust, dear. It will never be truly happy until it is serving others."

Noelle looked at the odd little woman. She wondered if Aunt Molly referred to herself or the teapot. She always seemed to be busy doing something at the church, shuffling about in her outdated purple dresses and adjusting her old fashioned hats with gloved hands.

Krystal, Noelle's friend, had introduced the octogenarian to the congregation last summer. They met after Aunt Molly moved into the neighborhood to live with her nephew. Krystal warned Noelle of Aunt Molly's uniqueness, even relating a funny story about the old woman's pet—Stuart, a large white duck.. It seems they had been inseparable at one time, and Aunt Molly still spoke of him with fondness. Later, Krystal confided that Aunt Molly had given her sage advice concerning her marriage to Ron. When Noelle inquired about that advice, just in case she ever tied that knot, her friend smiled dreamily and rambled on about steeping tea.

At twenty-seven-years old, Noelle still wasn't ready for marriage. Or maybe marriage wasn't ready for her. She knew no one with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life.
"Hello, ladies. Is it tee time again? May I play through?"

Lon Thornton. Youth pastor and child all in one. She rolled her eyes as the other women in the fellowship hall giggled at his golfing pun.

"Hey, my band is available to perform at your tea." His teasing eyes settled on Noelle.

"I don't think the women are ready for your style of music."

"Why not? It's Christian."

"Christian rock!" She folded her arms to let him know the subject was closed. Though they were both in their late twenties, she was way more mature.

He laughed and continued to walk through the room on the way to his office. Before disappearing, he said, "Oh, I hear you're heading up the Christmas decorating committee. Welcome aboard, partner." He then ducked down the hall.

Partner?

She had volunteered to decorate the church, offering her love of the Christmas tradition. After all, her mother had named her after the holiday, and Noelle considered herself an expert.

Now she would be partnered with Lon Thornton? The man who wore jeans to church and purposely messed his bleached-tipped hair to look like he'd just rolled out of bed? The man who argued that choir robes were archaic and the King James pew Bible should be replaced with a modern English version?

After hearing rattling glass, she realized she still held the teapot and gingerly placed it on the table. She glanced at Aunt Molly whose faded gray-blue eyes suddenly seemed to look straight into her.

* * *
Noelle felt the blood rush to her head. Surely he wasn't suggesting they put that eyesore in the sanctuary.

"There is nothing wrong with this tree," Lon said. She barely heard him through the buzzing in her ears. "Look, the branches light up at the tips. They even change colors, so you're never bored."

"I will not put a white fiber optic tree in the sanctuary." She folded her arms. He could drag that thing into the foyer, but he'd have to get past her if he wanted to go through the double doors. "It's not even big enough."

"We can put it on a table. Most of the congregation can't see the bottom from where they sit anyway. And look." He tossed a flat package to her. "It comes with a metallic silver tree skirt."

Was this the vision of Christmas future? Fake trees with color spurting from their tips? She dreaded to see what his idea of ornaments were.

"Pastor Thornton." Her attempt to be formal, and perhaps remind the man of his age, was met with a teasing grin. "Would you care to hear my ideas, or have you made up your mind without consulting me?"

"Miss Douglas," he responded in kind. "I would love to hear your ideas. Do they involve hours in the freezing cold, squeezing through narrow rows of imperfect trees, strapping one to my car and  lugging it back here?"

Noelle felt her cheeks grow warm. "You make it sound like a chore."

"I just can't see why we should go through all of that, keep the tree watered throughout the season, and then throw it away when we're done. It's wasteful and costly. My tree can be used for many years to come."

Yes, his plastic tree would last a long time in a landfill. Clearly they were at a stalemate.

* * *

Noelle sat in the fellowship hall, her head resting within the folds of her arms on the table. If money were a concern, she would pay for the tree. Lon had no idea how important it was to uphold the tradition of Christmas. As youth pastor, he should be teaching the children all about the rich history of the holiday. Caroling, the holly wreath, gift-giving. Instead, he expected them to worship next to a Macy's icon representing the latest percent off sale.

"Ahem."

Noelle looked up to see Aunt Molly walking slowly toward her carrying a serving tray. She jumped up to help.

"What is all this?" Noelle asked, scanning at the food on the tray. She also noticed the rose teapot and two matching cups. However did the frail woman carry it all?

Aunt Molly lowered herself onto a metal folding chair using the table to steady herself. "I was showing the ladies in the kitchen how to make sandwiches and desserts for high tea. I thought maybe you'd like to sample some and let us know how we did."

Noelle's stomach growled. She and Lon had argued through lunch. "Thank you." She chose a delicate crustless cucumber sandwich first, cut in quarters. The cream cheese melted in her mouth, and she tasted a hint of dill. After sampling several other delights, she asked, "Where did you learn to make these?"

"Did you know that high tea was invented by the Duchess of Bedford? At the time only two meals were served—breakfast and dinner. She decided that a new tradition must be started or she might starve in the middle of the day. She called it 'that sinking feeling.'"

Tradition? Had Aunt Molly overheard her argument with Lon?

"Have some clotted cream on your scone, dear." Aunt Molly used her gloved finger to push a crock of white, fluffy cream and a jar of strawberry preserves toward her.

"This is delicious," Noelle said with the food still in her mouth. "Oh, excuse me," she said after she swallowed. She was sure the queen would have her head if she talked with her mouth full.

Aunt Molly leaned back in her chair. "Stuart used to love Christmas. We'd sit near the fire and open our presents." Noelle had to force a serious expression. The old woman spoke as if her pet duck were human.

After her wistful mood had passed,  the oddly endearing woman fixed her gaze on Noelle, once again. "This cream was bought in a store. But to make real clotted cream takes much time and patience. It's a process of hot and cold, two opposites that produce a perfect product."

Two opposites. That's what she and Lon were. Hot and cold.

"You take fresh, unpasteurized cream and let it stand for twelve hours. Then you heat it slowly, so it never boils. If you let it get to the boiling point, it will be ruined."

Noelle felt things had almost reached the boiling point in the foyer. It was a good thing they had walked away from each other.

"Remove it from the stove and then store it in a cold place for twelve more hours. After that, the best part can be skimmed off the surface. That's the clotted cream."

The best part rises to the top. She and Lon were hot and cold, and nothing good had come from that union. Could it ever?

Aunt Molly's eyes took on that knowing gleam again.

* * *

Noelle sought Lon out, finally finding him in his office.

"This is good," Lon said, flicking his tongue over his lips to draw in every crumb. "What do you call it?"

"Clotted cream." Noelle offered Lon another scone.

"For such an awful name, it sure is tasty." He brushed the crumbs from his fingers over the china luncheon plate. Noelle smiled at the way he tried to be so proper when she knew he'd probably prefer to use his jeans.

"This is my peace offering. I shouldn't have been so judgmental over your ideas."

Lon settled back in his leather desk chair. "Apology accepted, if you'll accept mine." She found his crooked grin endearing, and she was glad he didn't answer in his usual teasing manner. He was actually quite attractive when he managed to be serious.

"I was thinking," she ventured, "would it be possible to use both our ideas?"

He leaned forward and cocked his head. "What do you have in mind?"

"Could we put a real tree in the sanctuary, and put the modern one in the youth room?"

He scratched his chin. "Maybe the Fellowship Hall? More people would see it."

Noelle sighed. It wasn't a perfect solution, but at least the real tree would be where she wanted it.

* * *

"That one! No. That one! Oh, it's crooked. Maybe this one. Yes. It's perfect." Noelle smiled at Lon's expression. His eyes had glazed over and he had that guy look—the one her father would use when he didn't understand her or her sisters.

"Are you sure?" His voice came out ragged, maybe a little weary. "We've been to four lots. I've lifted twenty trees. I've been poked with cones, needles, bark—and will this sap ever come out of my sweater?" He picked at a minuscule spot on his right shoulder.

"Didn't your family ever take you tree shopping?"

"No, we always had an artificial tree."

"How unfortunate for you." Noelle breathed in deeply. "Smell that? That's the smell of Christmas."

"The smell of Christmas is ham, spiced cider, and chocolate." He took a tiny whiff. "Mom did keep a pine scented Air-Wick near the tree. It almost smelled like this."

Noelle rolled her eyes. He simply didn't get it.

They returned to the church and dragged their perfect tree into the sanctuary. After setting it into its base, Noelle laid out her plans.

"I think gold ball ornaments would be pretty," she said while walking around the tree. "Gold garland. Gold tinsel. Gold angels and a gold star. White lights. Yes, that would be perfect."

Lon glazed over again.

"What?" she asked, perhaps a bit too snippy.

Lon further irritated her with a fake yawn. "Boring! What about those colored programmed lights that twinkle, then run, then fade in and out?"

"The congregation wouldn't be able to concentrate on the sermon!"

"Well," the youth pastor said while rubbing the back of his neck. "Could we at least put a little character on the tree? Musical instruments maybe?"

Was Lon actually trying to work with her? She looked past the messy hair and the faded jeans. When had he become attractive?

"Musical ornaments would be perfect. And we could get different colors of velvet ribbon to tie around them."

Lon's face lit up, and she felt hers changing colors like the fiber optic tree in the other room.

* * *

"At least we didn't have to fight over this." Lon pulled the two-foot-tall manger scene from various boxes. First the plastic shepherds, then the wise men. Noelle noticed how gentle and reverent he handled each piece. After Joseph and Mary, he set up the wooden manger that would eventually hold the baby Jesus.

Noelle glanced around at the empty boxes scattered about the sanctuary floor. "Where's Jesus?"

Lon shuffled through the boxes with increasing panic. "He's not here!" His face blanched. "Did I forget Jesus? I thought I'd checked that box on the order form. I remember I was in a rush because my band was rehearsing that afternoon." He shook his head. "There's no time to get one now."

Noelle sunk onto the first pew and leaned her head into her hands. She had finally started to enjoy decorating with Lon. But now, because his priorities were in the wrong place, her perfect manger ensemble would be ruined without the matching Christ child.

"Ahem." A tiny voice gained their attention at the back of the sanctuary. Aunt Molly entered, the purple feather on her hat vibrating with each shaky step. She carried a small bundle of cloth. Upon closer inspection, Noelle realized it was a doll.

"I want to show you what I found in my things." Aunt Molly said as she shuffled to the couple. "I thought I'd donate it to the nursery."  She sat next to Noelle and handed her the doll gently, as if it were a real baby. Noelle noticed the fine features on the sleeping face. A faint halo could be seen surrounding the dark curls. "It's the baby Jesus."

Noelle glanced toward the empty manger, then at Lon. He was already studying her intensely. "Aunt Molly," Noelle ventured. "Would you mind if we borrowed this doll until after the Christmas Eve service?"

Aunt Molly's eyes sparkled, even in their dimness. "I would be honored if you accepted my Jesus."

A thrill went through Noelle's spine. The woman had a way with words!

* * *

The sanctuary looked beautiful.

Noelle had forgiven Lon, especially once she saw how upset he'd been at himself. The crises averted, they worked side by side to grace every window with garland and each pew with red bows. Poinsettia plants now adorned much of the large room, and her tree stood tall, a perfect centerpiece among this holiday banquet for the eyes.

Why then, did she feel something was missing?

"Merry Christmas Eve," a deep voice said behind her. She whirled to find herself within hugging distance of Lon Thornton. He clasped his arms around her and squeezed, but what started out feeling like brotherly affection turned to something more awkward.

Noelle pulled away and stammered, "Merry Christmas Eve to you too, Lon." She swept her hand toward the garnished sanctuary. "It's perfect. Thank you for working with me."

He dipped his head and cleared his throat. Was he blushing? "I'm getting compliments on the other tree, too. The children did a great job of decorating it. And they had fun guessing which color would spring out of any given branch."

"I'll bet you instigated that game." She was suddenly grateful for clotted cream—a tasty product made from hot and cold.

He stuck his hands in his back pockets and rocked on his heels. "Yeah. I guess I'm just a big kid."

She had to agree, but after getting to know him, she realized she didn't care.

"Oh," she burst out. "I know what's missing—Mistletoe." The moment it burst from her lips, she wished she could snatch it back. The surprised look on his face spoke volumes, as did his next words.

"We don't need Mistletoe."

He leaned down and placed a sweet kiss on her lips, and then left it there to burn into her heart.

"Ahem."

Aunt Molly! Noelle looked at her watch. It was about time for people to start arriving for the candlelight service. They had asked Aunt Molly if she'd like to come early so she could place her baby Jesus into the manger.

The old woman walked to the display carrying the tiny bundle in her arms. Lon helped her to her knees. She reverently laid the baby in the manger and stayed to arrange the cloth. When she was through, she continued to kneel, gazing at the face of the beautiful doll.

Noelle wondered if she had trouble letting go of the toy. She'd probably owned it for many years. Aunt Molly began to hum a faint tune. Noelle couldn't make it out from where she stood. A lullaby? To a doll?

People began filing in and she motioned to Lon to help the old woman up so she wouldn't be a distraction to the beautiful adornment they had created together.

The look on Lon's face suddenly changed. Wonderment? She could imagine that look on the shepherd's faces as the angels broke out into song. He motioned her to allow the people in, then shocked her as he also sunk to his knees emulating Aunt Molly. As the congregants arrived they found their seats, but then, sporadically, after noticing the couple at the tree, rose and joined them. Each person who knelt with the odd couple began humming the same tune. Noelle soon recognized it as "Silent Night."

Aunt Molly wasn't attached to a doll, she was loving on the Baby Jesus. She wasn't latching onto something she owned, she was letting go and giving herself completely to her Savior in the manger.

The Savior in the manger.

That's what had been missing. It didn't matter that all the ornaments matched or that a real tree stood in a place of honor.

Jesus had been missing from her holiday tradition. Like the Duchess of Bedford who changed tradition to include high tea, Noelle changed her view of tradition, and joined the growing crowd around the manger to sing "Silent Night."

Perfect.

Dear reader, If you enjoyed this story, and would love to know how steeping tea saves a marriage, please read Odd Ducks and Tea and how she reveals the beauty in a weed of a man in Odd Ducks and Periwinkle. ~Blessings, Kathy.



Copyright: Kathleen E. Kovach, 2004. All rights reserved.
If you wish to share my work, please do not copy without express permission, but I do invite you to send the link to those you feel will benefit from my stories. Thank you for understanding.