Short Story

CLAIRE’S MOTHER

by
Donald Koozer

It was the Eve of Christmas and the beginning of the long holiday between semesters.  As I  drove out from the campus and pulled onto the highway, small, dry flakes of snow had started to blow lightly in the breeze.  They were beginning to cling to the trees and dried grasses as I rode the first few miles of pavement that would take me into the panhandle and to a warm ranch house and old friends.
Christmas for me had become just another holiday.  The numinous and the magical had no place in my life.  I knew what lay before me on the road, and what the years ahead would bring.  I had taken care to insure order and security in my life.  Having achieved tenure at the university, my life fell into a pattern of classes and lectures that left no room for the miraculous or the mystical.  All of that was far behind me now in a distant, nearly forgotten childhood.  I saw myself, besides being a man of letters, as a realist.  So I never could have expected the surprises that waited for me as I drove that Eve of Christmas down the snowy rural highway.
When I saw the young woman standing beside the road I determined to pass her by.  I didn’t  want to take on a rider, especially an immature one.  I had barely left the campus environs, and I didn’t want to talk anymore.  Another year of college teaching was wrapped up and I was fleeing the busy schedule of classes and counseling.  I was burnt out; dead tired of lecturing and listening to the chatter and callow thoughts of the current year’s class of young people who possessed all the same misconceptions about life as previous classes going back through my seventeen years at the university.  There was nothing new in my world.  I was weary of it all, and did not wish to face more tiresome talk from the company of the young woman who stood by the highway stamping her feet and patting her crossed arms against the cold.
But the situation was hopeless.  I could not leave her to stand in the freezing weather.  As I drove by I had recognized her as a student.  Though she was not in any of my classes, I had seen her on campus and in the halls of the Arts and Sciences Building.  Irritated with the world and my fate, I put on the brakes and then backed the Mercury up to the side of the road where she stood.  She had long, wheat colored hair and a nice face; and a pretty figure that shivered under her coat.  At first she made no move toward the car, but remained standing with her arms crossed.  It left me no alternative but to roll down the window on the rider’s side and lean over so I could see her.  Failing any inspirational or original approaches, the obvious words came from my mouth.  “Need a ride?”
At first her body stiffened.  She shook her head and answered, “No, thank you.”  But then she leaned over to see me better, and with an expression of curiosity on her face said, “Professor Kozloff; is that you?”
“Yes,” I answered with a tone to my voice that I immediately regretted.  “Please get in the car.  You’ll be sick if you stay out in this cold weather.”
She quickly grabbed up a small bag and climbed into the front seat.  “I’m so glad to see a familiar face.  I was beginning to think I would have to walk back to the university.  I need to get home.”
“Where is home?” I asked, thinking the closer the better, because circumstance had suddenly made me hopelessly responsible for her.
“Satterfield,” she answered.
“Satterfield,” I repeated.  “That’s only about fifty miles east of here, isn’t it?”
“Yes.  It’s some ways off the main road, though.  If you can just get me to the nearest town up ahead, I’m sure I can catch a bus.”
It was a nice idea.  I could be free of her in thirty minutes to an hour.  “The next town is Arley.  Is there a bus connection there?”
She nodded.  Then with a mild expression of doubt on her face, answered:  “There use to be.”
Visions of the girl sitting alone the night of Christmas Eve in an empty station passed through my over imaginative consciousness.  “I’ll just take you to Satterfield,” I said.
An expression of relief formed on her face.  “Could you?  But it must be far out of your way.”
“Not so far,” I replied.  “And, besides, it’s still morning.  I’m not expected at my friends’ home until six.  I’ve time to spare.”
We drove on down the highway and took the turn to Satterfield, which would add about seventy-five miles to my trip.  I learned that the girl was called Alice, an old fashioned name that pleased me.  She was going home to be with her mother, who was alone for Christmas.  Her father, she explained, was a Colonel in the army and was called to temporary duty overseas.
“That must be very lonely for your mother,” I said.
The girl pushed back a lock of hair behind her shoulder.  “A little.  But mother has a very active life; many social responsibilities.  She was a state senator.  Now she’s mayor of Satterfield.  That keeps her very busy.”
“What’s your mother’s name?” I asked.
“Ruth Carrington.  You may have heard of her–when she was in the legislature.”
I had.  I remembered Senator Carrington’s activities some years back in support of state ecology and wildlife preservation.  The curiosity of having a mother who was a public servant interested me.  But as I was to learn, the unusual was an apt adjective for all facets of Alice’s life.
When I asked her how she happened to be standing alone beside the cold highway, she gave her head an irritated shake.  “Tommy,” she said.  “He was taking me home until we had a fight and he decided we should return to the university.  I refused, and told him he could go to the devil.  Then I got out of the car and refused to speak to him again.  I guess it was my fault after that to be marooned on the side of the road.”  She shook her head again.   “Poor Tommy.  I expect he’ll return soon and find me gone.  But I don’t care.  I don’t want to see him again.”
So, I thought, with some regret, more chapters in the life of an adolescent.  I didn’t look forward to the hour that it would take to get Alice home.  But as we drove on between the snow covered fields, there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  Alice had some interesting and very adult ideas about art and history.  She was the first student I had ever known who was familiar with Spengler’s DECLINE OF THE WEST.  I found myself discussing with her the theory of the plant-like growth and death of cultures.
When I learned that her major was in the field of music, I was further surprised by the broad scope of knowledge she revealed of history and science.  I asked her how she had gained familiarity with such a variety of disciplines.  She looked at me with wide eyes; and without a moment’s hesitation:  “Oh, that’s the work of my grandmother Judith.  She insisted I get a well rounded education from the start.  As far back as I can remember she has always brought me books on all manner of subjects.”
“She sounds like a grand person.  Is she still living?” I asked.
“Grandma?  Still living?  Oh yes.  She lives on a farm near East Fork.”
East Fork, I knew, was just thirty or forty miles from Satterfield.  Looking back on it now, I wonder why my question of whether her grandmother still lived did not lead Alice to further elucidation about her unusual family.  But then Alice had an innocence that didn’t put common values on events, that did not seem to recognize the unusual or exceptional in the everyday sense,  and so only saw the necessity to speak of such matters when prompted.

We reached Satterfield just after noon.  It was a quiet little town built around a square on which a court house stood among pine, sycamore, and elm trees that were quickly turning white with snow.  Like all small villages in the area the downtown was festively decorated for Christmas.  Colored lights and strands of tinsel were strung from buildings and light poles across the streets.  Trees in the square were decorated with ornaments and tinsel, and a giant wreath had been attached to the court house over the entrance steps.  Of course, each store had its own decorations in bright display windows.  The snow on the trees and sidewalks only added to the simple beauty.  It was this kind of place that one might hope to retire to, or for a traveler to end his wandering and settle in.  And I felt the pressing desire to do just that, but knew that there were those who expected me down the cold, snowy highway.
Following Alice’s directions I piloted the Mercury off the square about two blocks until  we came to a homey neighborhood of well kept old homes of 1940’s vintage with covered porches that reached around two sides of the houses.  Green fir wreaths hung on most doors, and some house fronts were decorated for the holidays.  The streets were getting covered with a good layer of snow now and I was glad to hear Alice say, “There.  That’s the house.”
It was, like most houses on the street; a pleasant brick home that had known continual care and use over the decades.  The snow covering the roof and yard only added to a quality of well cared-for order that delighted and comforted me.
I pulled the car into the drive, thinking that Alice would grab her bag, climb out, and that would be the end of it.  I could go on my way alone, a happy solitary traveler.  But we both noticed something odd about the house.  The blinds were all pulled.  It was afternoon, a time when one lets natural light in.  Even if Alice’s mother had gone to the market, it did not seem she would close up the house so completely.  “The car is not in the carport,” Alice remarked with a note of curiosity in her voice.  Then, after a moment’s hesitation, said, “Oh well, I’m sure everything is all right.”
She reached into the back seat and picked up her bag and purse, and opened the door.  “I sure appreciate the ride,” she said, and then she started to climb out.
“Do you think she’s home?” I asked.
Alice looked thoughtfully back at the house.  “I’m not sure,” she answered.  “Actually, I can’t help feeling a little concerned.”
I turned off the engine and buttoned my coat.  “Let’s make sure everything is all right.”
We made our way across the snow covered yard and up the slippery steps to the large porch.  Alice reached into her purse and pulled out a key.  After she fitted it into the lock, she opened the door part way, stuck her head inside and said, “Mother!”  When no answer was forthcoming, she called out again in a louder voice.  Still, no answer broke the silence of the darkened house.  She looked back at me and then said, “Come in, Professor.  I’ll look out the other door.  She may be in the back yard.”
She stepped through the doorway and switched on a lamp.  I followed, feeling a sense of peace entering such a large clean, orderly living room.  It was like returning to my youth when life was simple and good.  I admired the old fashioned wall paper, the brick fireplace, and the oak paneling that reached part way up the walls and extended all around the room, and formed into eight foot bookcases on the east wall.  A fully decorated Christmas tree stood in front of the window so that the neighbors might see it.
While I was lost in this reverie of appreciation, Alice had gone through a doorway and shortly returned, carrying a small piece of paper.  “Mother’s not here,” she said matter-of-factly.  “She left a note for me on the table saying that she has gone to Grandma Judith’s house.”  Alice looked at the note again.  “Mother said that I should not worry, and she would try to be home before Christmas Eve.”
“This is Christmas Eve,” I said.  “Was she referring to the whole day or did she mean tonight?”
Alice shook her head.  “I don’t know.  I’d better call Grandma’s house.”
She walked through a doorway that I thought was the kitchen, and I settled myself into an easy chair near the cold fireplace, wishing it was lit with a crackling fire, and wishing even more that I could gracefully back out of this drama of family life, and be on my way.
Shortly, Alice returned.  “There was no answer,” she said with a worried expression on her face.  “I kept getting Grandma Judith’s answering machine message.  She has a habit of not answering it if she’s busy.  But my mother would answer if she were there.  Maybe she hasn’t arrived yet.  I can’t imagine what could have coaxed her to drive out on the highway in such bad weather.  Mother is very careful about driving, especially if snow is forecast.”
“Your grandmother, huh,” I said, feeling I was being drawn deeper into a trap of my own making.  “She lives near East Fork, you say?”
“She lives in a farm house just outside of East Fork.”
“That’s the next town down the highway,” I pondered.
“Yes.”
“Do you want to go there?”
Alice looked at me in silence a moment.  I thought she probably regretted her answer, and what it would mean to me.  The answer was, “Yes.”
“Well, it’s on my way and I’ve got to go by there anyhow.  Grab your bag and we’ll roll on.”

The snow had stopped falling as we drove off in the car, and I was gratified to see that it had been too dry to stick very much to the main highway.  The wind had blown it off to adhere to the yellow grasses and weeds on the shoulder and fields.
We reached East Fork about two P.M.  I had the comforting feeling, at least, that I was moving, however slowly, in the direction that led to my destination across the panhandle.  East Fork was a smaller village than Satterfield, one of the many such towns on the plains of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.  Following Alice’s directions I guided the car down the holiday decorated single main street and out onto a slick, snow covered country road.  Even in my mildly irritated mood I could not help admiring the beauty of the rolling countryside.  Here and there off the road were groves of snow covered, brown leafed, blackjack trees.  And we crossed a charming wooden bridge over an ice covered creek before turning into a wide draw that led to the farm house of Alice’s grandmother.
The farmyard seemed run down.  All buildings, except for the barn and farm house badly needed painting.  The big two story barn sat across the yard about a hundred feet from the house.  Next to it stood a silo and two storage sheds with tall weeds all around.  And further back in a field was a windmill whose broken blades had long ago stopped all useful interaction with the winds.  Like the house of Alice’s mother in Satterfield, the farm house looked deserted.
I pulled the car as close to the front porch as I could without leaving the driveway, then turned off the engine.  Alice jumped out quickly.  Strangely, she did not go to the house, but headed toward the barn instead.  I followed behind as she pulled back the sliding door.  “I thought it appeared unlocked,” she said.  “That’s not like Grandma Judith; to leave her studio unlocked.”
When we entered it was a great surprise for me to see that the barn had been converted into an artist’s studio.  All the animal stalls had been removed and tile flooring laid.  Windows that were not apparent from the driveway let light stream in to where an easel stood holding a canvas with a partially finished landscape.  I glanced around and saw other completed paintings lining the walls.
Alice stood admiring the unfinished canvas.  “Grandma is quite a good painter, don’t you think?  Galleries in Santa Fe and Los Angeles have had great success in selling her work.”
“Yes.  Very nice,” I commented, and meant it, thinking the stylistic quality of the figures in the paintings were reminiscent of  an artist I was fond of; a painter by the name of Claire Winstock who flourished in the early 20th century.
I said as much to Alice, and she nodded matter-of-factly.  “Yes.  She’s Grandma’s grandmother.  I guess Grandma Judith has been influenced by her.”
It was a surprising comment, and I wasn’t sure if I understood.  “Let me get this clear,” I asked with deep interest.  “You are related to the artist Claire Winstock?”
“She’s my great great grandmother.”
It is an understatement to say that I was profoundly interested, and might have pelted Alice with a volley of questions.  But without another word she hurried out the barn doorway.  I followed, and by the time I had securely shut the sliding door, saw that she had reached the porch of the house.  I could hear her knocking on the door as I followed.  When I reached the porch she turned to me.  “I’m not getting an answer,” she said.  Then she reached up to a thin ledge over a nearby window and pulled down a key which she used to gain entrance.
I waited outside.  She remained only a few minutes, then stepped back onto the porch.  “They’ve gone on to Grandma Lydia’s house.  I found another note from Mother on the table.”  Alice handed it to me, and I read what seemed to be a quickly scribbled message.

Alice, I tried to call you at my house.  I fear Tommy may have driven you on to the farm.  You should return to Satterfield before the lateness makes the highway too icy.  Mother and I are just going to check on Grandma Lydia.  You and Tommy really should go back to Satterfield.  I will call you there and tell you the news and our plans when we arrive at Grandma Lydia’s.
Mother

Alice put her hand on her hip.  “It’s just like mother to protect me by not making clear explanations.  I can’t imagine why she and Grandma Judith would travel in this weather.  There must be something wrong at Grandma Lydia’s.  I tried to call her house just now, but got no answer.  Mother probably has not arrived there yet.  But why didn’t Grandma Lydia answer?”
I figured that Grandma Lydia was Alice’s grandparent on her father’s side, but Alice said something that enlivened my imagination.  “Grandma Lydia is nearly eighty now.  Since my mother was a little girl she has always felt close to her, and worries about her over much, I think.”
“Grandma Lydia is your mother’s grandmother?” I asked doubtfully.
“Yes.”
“Then she is the mother of your Grandmother Judith?”
“Yes.”
I was surprised.  People in my family were not so long lived.  I had only known two grandparents in my youth, the others, both grand and great, having passed away through natural and accidental causes before I was born.  Though unusual and beyond my experience, I knew it was easily within the realm of actuality for one to have living great grandparents.  Confusing matters were coming clearer.  “Then, how is Claire Winstock related to all of you?”
“She’s Grandma Lydia’s mother.”
In my mind I tried to bring order to the progression of ancestry.  First there was Lydia who was parent to Judith who was parent to Ruth who was parent to Alice.  And Claire was Lydia’s mother.  I thought I would like to meet Lydia.  I would like to ask her about her mother, the fascinating artist, Claire Winstock.  Not much was known about the painter who had lived among the great artists of New York some eighty years ago.  Lydia could be the last living person who could tell the story of her mother’s life and her experiences in those times.
But then I noticed Alice shivering on the cold porch, and figured the empty house was just as cold.  It brought me back from my consideration of the mysteries and vicissitudes of life to the problems of the present moment.  I couldn’t very well leave her alone at the deserted farmhouse on the Eve of Christmas.  Yet I did not want to take the backward drive to Satterfield as her mother had ordered.  It was the opposite direction from my destination, and friends in the panhandle were still expecting me.  Reluctantly I asked the obvious question.  “Where is your great grandmother’s house?”
“Oh, it’s in Dorset.”
I had never been to Dorset, and feared the worst when I asked her the next question.  “Which direction is Dorset?”
Alice kept a moment’s thoughtful silence before answering  “West,” she said finally.   “Yes, I’m sure.  It’s west.”  And she pointed in the westerly direction.
The answer came as a mild relief.  “Well, lock the door, and let’s move on.  With any luck I can have you in your great grandmother’s warm house, and me with my friends before the day slips away.”

After taking care to lock the door and return the key to its hiding place, we climbed back into the Mercury.  We discussed whether we should stop for a bite of lunch, but both had had breakfast and agreed it was unnecessary.  So I drove the car down the snowy country road and through East Fork again; then returned to the highway to drive on west.
Alice was not totally sure of the correct route and we had to stop once to consult a map I kept in the glove compartment.  Dorset was not directly west and would require a sixty mile drive off my main route, but I saw that, after leaving her at the town, I could take a southerly county highway and connect with the main artery with a minimal loss of time.
So after a few miles travel down the main highway I again turned the car onto a minor two lane highway that would lead northwest across the plains to Dorset.  There, I told myself hopefully, this treasure hunt would end.  Surely Alice’s mother, grandmother, and great grandmother and any other aunts, uncles, and fourth cousins of the moveable clan would be congregated there.
Alice sat silently, looking out the window on the rider’s side.  I felt a sudden twinge of guilt for my thoughts of escape.  “Are you worried?” I asked.
She turned her head to look at me.  “A little.”
“Do you have a cell phone?  You could call ahead to the house and see if everything is all right.”
Alice shook her head.  “My family is slow to accept new technologies.  You’d think my mother would require a cell phone as mayor, but Satterfield is so small.  She’s always in walking distance to City Hall and anyone who needs her.  I own one, but no one else does.  And I loaned mine to Tommy.”
I chuckled.  “I ruthlessly left mine in my desk drawer at the university.  This holiday, all I want is the comfort of knowing I will not be bothered by any developing problems there.”
Alice smiled.  “It doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sure that everything is all right.  Surely your mother would have said otherwise in her note if your great grandmother were in danger.”
Alice looked back out the window.  “Oh, I’m not worried about her.  I know she’s all right.  But there is something else wrong.  I can feel it.  Something very sad is happening; I know.  But I don’t know where.  If I just sit quietly I may be able to see.”
It was a very peculiar thing to say, I thought.  I knew Alice was a strange girl, but had added it up as a characteristic of her youth.  But this went over the line.  “What do you mean?  Something else is wrong?  Why do you say that?”
She smiled gently.  “It sounds silly, doesn’t it.  Members of my family have these visions.  We sense things far away that happen to each other.  Me included.  The peculiarity seems to occur in every other generation.  I have the gift.  My mother does not.  But her mother, Grandma Judith, does.”
Alice fell into silence again, and I was taken aback too much to instantly pursue the curious statements which I looked upon with some doubt.  And anyway, we had come to a crossroads and had to stop and consult the map.  Finding that our destination was just ten miles to the right gave me new hope of impending release.  I drove on at an increased speed until I saw the wintery cityscape of Dorset loom up on the horizon.  It was a village of 3000 people, according to the population sign at the outskirts.  Alice was more familiar with its layout than she had been of the highways leading to it.  It was about 4:00 P.M. when she directed me through the little main street, all decorated with Christmas lights and tinsel, and then had me turn off and go to an old but upscale neighborhood a few blocks away.  We came to what would have been called a mansion in the 1920’s when it was built.  And it still maintained a sort of regal, architectural beauty.  A great porch with roof supported by fifteen foot columns fronted the building.  The top of the porch roof served as a balcony for the upper floor.  Two large gothic windows sat on either side of an eight foot tall front door.  Even under a blanket of snow I could see that it was expensively landscaped with a well edged lawn and neatly trimmed bushes so that they were formed into cylindrical and oval shapes.
I pulled the car into the drive and we both got out and walked up the icy stairway of seven steps that led up to the great porch.  Alice didn’t have to knock this time, for as we reached the final step to the porch the front door swung open and an elegant woman of about 40 years of age stepped out to greet us.
“I hoped you would be in Satterfield,” she said to Alice and then hugged her.  “But I’m glad to see you.”
“Everything just seemed to lead us here,” Alice said.  “Tommy and I had a fight and he went back to the university.  But I will tell you all about that later.”  Then she turned to me.  “This is Professor Joseph Kozloff.  He was nice enough, and patient enough, to drive me here after I had the fight with Tommy.”
The woman held out her right hand and shook mine.  She had a thin figure and intelligent blue eyes, and the same wheat colored hair as Alice.  “I’m Alice’s mother, Ruth.  I’m glad to meet you; and grateful to you for getting my daughter here safely.”
I answered that it had been my pleasure, and was about to make my exit when Ruth turned to Alice and said, “I’m so sorry to have deserted you at Christmas, but Grandma Claire is missing.”
“Missing?” Alice responded.  “What’s happened.  Isn’t she at Pleasant Prairie?”
“It’s a long story, but Grandma Lydia telephoned me at home and Grandma Judith at the farm this morning.  She said the manager at Pleasant Prairie Homes had called and reported that one of Grandma Claire’s neighbors had seen her walk out toward the hills.  When I set out to your Grandma Judith’s house, I hoped that Claire would have been found by the time I arrived.  Then mother and I would have come right back to Satterfield to spend Christmas with you.  But Claire has not been found, so mother and I have had to continue on here to Dorset.”  Ruth opened out her hand in a gesture of exasperation.  “Now we have a new problem.  Grandma Lydia has driven off alone to Pleasant Prairie to find Claire.  I told her on the phone to wait for us, and not go out in this weather.  But she didn’t listen.  We just arrived and found her and the car gone.  We’re getting ready to follow her now.”
My mind seem to be spinning in my head.  Ruth had said ‘Claire’.  Claire who?  Was it a family member named after the artist Claire Winstock who painted those remarkable pictures in the early 20th century?  But Ruth had called her “Grandma Claire”.
Alice turned to me with a troubled expression.  “It seems Grandma Claire has left Pleasant Prairie Homes, the special care community where she lives, and wandered out in the snow.  Now Grandma Lydia may be lost too.  Neither of them should be out in such weather at their ages.  I’m going with mother and Grandma Judith to find them.  Thank you, Professor, for all your kindness.”
It was the first time since picking up Alice along that empty highway that I truly had an easy out.  In fact, she was offering it to me openly and without hesitation.   I knew I should grab it and run, but…..There were too many unanswered questions involved, and a suggestion of the mysterious and the extraordinary.  I had to clear the matter up, but first I tried to tally it all up in my mind.  There was Alice and her mother, Ruth; then there was Ruth’s mother, Judith, and Judith’s mother, Lydia.  An incredible thought was gnawing at my mind.  It seemed preposterous but, if one stretched the idea, maybe not impossible.
I looked into Alice’s light blue eyes, trying to grasp the concept of five living generations of women.  “This woman that is missing–Is she the mother of Lydia and your great great grandmother?”
Alice pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.  “Yes.”
“And is she Claire Winstock, the artist?”
It seemed typical of Alice to answer such questions about incredible phenomena matter-of-factly.  She nodded calmly.  “Yes.  I understand Grandma Claire was quite well known in her time.”
I shook my head in bewilderment.  I couldn’t believe it, but knew it had to be true.  “How old she must be,” I said, as much to myself as to Alice.
“Grandma Claire is about 103 this year, as far as we can tell.  There is some question about the year of her birth, and she chooses not to clarify it.  She has always been an individualist and gone her own way regardless of what any of us felt.  That’s why she lives in the special care community.  Up to two years ago she lived in Grandma Lydia’s home.  But then she decided she would never become a burden to the family.  She made up her mind, and we couldn’t keep her from moving to the community for the elderly.  She chose Pleasant Prairie Homes because she could have her own house and still be taken care of without bother to us.  Of course, we all worry about her, living alone up there.”
While Alice rattled on I tried to grasp the concept of five living generations of women.  “I can’t believe this,” I said, interrupting Alice, who was describing the community where the aged artist lived.  “I would think your great great grandmother would have to be at least 120 to be a fifth generation ancestor.”
Ruth smiled and looked at Alice with a touch of glee in her eyes.  “Yes.  Well, in our family, in addition to the women living long healthy lives, it has been an unacknowledged custom for them to marry young, usually by the age of eighteen.  If you do the math it’s not so hard to verify.”
“So she is still alive,” I said, thoughtfully.  “Claire Winstock the artist is still alive.”
“Grandma Claire; alive?” Ruth responded, and then laughed.  “She’s more alive than any of us.  She’s been a dynamo.  It’s only the past couple of years that her age has started to slow her down.  And it has been a chore for her to accept.  Even so, she’s still a powerful force, and if she decides something, you’d better step aside.  She will not be diverted.”
“Does she still paint?” I asked.  I was thinking I would love to see how such a long life had developed her art.
Ruth shook her head.  “Not so much.  For a time she turned to sculpting.  But in recent years she has devoted her time to designing and making quilts.  I think it has given her much pleasure to use her talents in another media.”
I was still reeling from it all.  Claire Winstock.  It was like finding out that an exotic, prehistoric bird still flew over the isolated valleys of some far away mountains.
During this amazing interchange with Ruth I hadn’t noticed that Alice had left the room until she returned through a doorway.  “Grandma Judith is getting up.”
“Good,” Ruth said.  “I felt she should have a rest before we travel on.  The foolish woman has spent the night in her barn painting again.”
Ruth turned to me.  “I’m afraid, Mr. Kozloff, that we must say good-by.  I hope you have a safe trip on to your destination.”
I nodded, but didn’t feel myself turning away.  I was remembering the car that was parked in the drive.  It was obviously the car they intended to use; a small foreign vehicle, hardly made for travel in inclement weather.  My Mercury was fixed up with snow tires and a good heater.  “How far is Pleasant Prairie Homes?” I asked.
Ruth looked off into the empty distance thoughtfully.  “Oh, I’d say about forty miles south from here.  It’s in some fairly hilly country.”
“Allow me to drive you there,” I said.  “My car is much better equipped for the weather, and I would feel better if I knew you ladies had arrived there safely.”
Ruth looked at Alice doubtfully, and then turned her pale blue eyes upon me.  “Are you sure, Professor?  I feel like we have already taken advantage of your good nature.”
“No.  It’s quite all right.  Besides,” I qualified without too much exaggeration, “I would be very pleased to meet the artist Claire Winstock.”
“Well, it would be a great help for us.  And we could return in Grandma Lydia’s car so that you could travel on.  Your Christmas Eve might yet be saved.  Ah, here’s my mother now, and I see she has passed by the wine cabinet.”
A woman entered carrying a wine glass that was half full in one hand and an uncorked bottle of port in the other.  I didn’t know quite how to describe her in my mind except to say that, though she was not smiling, there was a jolly sparkle in her eyes, an effect perhaps not only from the wine, but from a life spent in enjoyment.  The woman hardly appeared to be worthy of the appellation ‘Grandma’.  If she had been trying out for the roll in a play, the director would have turned her down with a sarcastic chuckle.  Her hair held a few streaks of gray, and though not fat, she was an attractive full figured woman who might be taken for middle aged at the most.  Like Ruth, she had a natural calm aristocratic manner.  She moved like a woman of thirty.  “Would anyone like a glass of wine?” she announced.  “It will help to fight off the winter chill.”
Ruth answered no for both her and Alice, and Alice started to introduce me formally to this latest matriarch of a remarkable family.  But Judith interrupted, saying she had eavesdropped on our conversation while in the nearby rooms.  The woman directed her attention to me.  “Would you, sir?” she said simply, and held up the bottle of port.
The woman’s cavalier attitude made me smile.  I told her that I was tempted but it was best that I keep a clear head for driving on the highway.
Ruth nodded.  “I should do the same, in case I need to spell Professor Kozloff on the road.  But you drink up, Mother.”
Judith took a sip from her glass and then looked to Ruth.  “Have you told them what Claire said?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to,” Ruth answered, “but I guess we will now.”
Judith took another drink.  “Claire said that she was going to meet her mother.”
At this point in the curious trip I suppose I should have been prepared for anything.  But the sudden inference that Claire’s mother, the great great great grandmother of Alice, was alive was too much to digest.  “Claire’s…..mother?” were the only words emitted from my confused mouth.  Driven speechless by a fantastic thought, I looked to Ruth with what must have been a shocked, bewildered expression.
“Claire’s mother,” she said, “died in 1912 in the Titanic disaster.  We don’t know what Claire has meant in mentioning her.  It sounds, I know, like the babbling of a senile invalid.  But Claire is not senile.  Her mind is as clear as anyone’s in this room.  She’s as quick as a whiplash.”

A light salting of small snowflakes were falling when we left the house and climbed into the Mercury.  Alice and Judith settled into the back seat, and Ruth, who was prone to car sickness, sat in the front seat with me.  As we drove out of town to the highway the streets were slowly becoming coated with white, but there was, fortunately, no under layer of ice as was so common in this three state area.  We had driven for about twenty-five minutes when Ruth sat up straight and looked with thoughtful attention to the highway up ahead.  “Would you slow down, Mr. Kozloff?” she asked.
I pressed the brake gently and noticed that we were coming upon a blue foreign car parked on the shoulder of the highway ahead.  Alice sat up and looked between her mother and me.  “I think it’s Grandma Lydia’s Peugeot,” she said.
Ruth nodded with a noticeable expression of concern on her face.
I felt the tension of the three women as I pulled the Mercury off the road and parked behind the Peugeot.  We had not quite stopped rolling when Alice jumped out, quickly followed by Ruth and then Judith.  But before they reached the other car the door on the driver’s side flew open and a woman of indiscernible age stepped out.  I was just climbing out of the Mercury, and heard Ruth cry out, “Are you all right?”
The woman nodded and then hugged Ruth and Alice and Judith in turn.  While Ruth and Judith and the strange woman stood in the cold a moment in discussion, Alice walked back to me.  “It’s Grandma Lydia,” she said.  “Her car won’t start.  They’re discussing what to do about it.”
The three other women walked back to my car.  I studied Lydia with interest.  This latest addition to the remarkable dynasty of women was as impressive in her way as the others.  Though her hair was almost totally gray, her body had a youthful firmness to it.  She stood straight as an arrow with lower back slightly swayed like a dancer.  I was curious to know more about this woman who was the daughter of the artist, Claire Winstock.  “Your grandmother Lydia is very youthful,” I commented aside to Alice.
Alice smiled.  “Isn’t she.  She was a ballet dancer most of her life.  Her husband, Granddad Edward, was a dancer too.  When he died she moved here to Dorset and started teaching the dance to children.  It has kept her young, I think.”
I nodded, thinking that the assumption was probably true to some degree, but the inheritance of good genes and an interesting artist’s life must have contributed a good part.
I walked over to the three other women and Ruth introduced me to Lydia, who took my hand in an ingratiating manner, and told me that I had been exceedingly generous to her family.  Though all the women were dressed in coats and snow boots, it seemed a bad idea to stand out in the cold unnecessarily.  “I wish you ladies would get into my car to talk,” I said.  “It’s so cold out here, and the heater is still running.”
In a few seconds the four of them were safely inside with Ruth up front and Alice and Judith and Lydia in the back.  They continued the discussion that had kept them standing in the snow.  Lydia was concerned about what to do with the Peugeot, but wanted to get on to Pleasant Prairie Homes to check on her mother, Claire.  It was Judith who finally took a strong stand. She was sitting back calmly in the car seat with fingers of one hand tapping on the window frame.  “Leave it,” she said succinctly.  “Leave it.  The car will either be here when we return, or not.  We can deal with whatever matter arises then.”
It was so simple an answer to the dilemma and said in such a determined manner that the other three women laughed.  Lydia, who already treated me like family, put her hand on my shoulder.  “This is the sage advice of my aging artist daughter, Mr. Kozloff.  And she’s right again.  Shall we drive on?”
Ruth looked at me and laughed again, and I put the Mercury in drive and pulled out onto the highway.  As I drove on, I felt an aliveness I had not felt in years.  Perhaps it came from the curious way involvement with this remarkable family kept developing since the morning.  But a good part of it seemed to come from something immaterial.  It was a life affirming energy that emanated from the four human beings; four grand women whom I had just met and yet felt I somehow had always known, and seemed strangely to commune with from some deep part of myself.
And yet I wondered if the most curious and baffling incidents of the day were yet to come.  What Claire had said before she walked out of the special care community kept repeating in my mind.  “I’m going to meet my mother.”
Then another thought occurred to me, from something I had read about Claire and her mother. But I wasn’t sure of the details.  I broached the subject to her four descendants:  “Wasn’t Claire’s mother famous?”
Lydia, perhaps because she was Claire’s daughter and closest to the subject, answered.  Through the rear view mirror I could see her turn her eyes toward me and smile as if the job pleased her.  “Yes, her mother was quite well known, though hardly anyone would recognize the name of Alexandra Hansford Caufield now.  No visual records such as motion pictures exist of her.  There are only a few photographs in history books of the American stage.  But she was quite well known at the time in theater circles; a celebrated stage actress.  She had just finished an acclaimed tour of England when she took passage on the Titanic to return to New York.  My mother, Claire, was with her, a girl of only twelve or thirteen years of age.  We don’t know why she survived and Alexandra did not.  Mother has never cared to talk about it, and I have given up any attempt to coax it from her.”
I glanced through the rear view mirror then, just in time to see Judith nod her head.  “I remember the strange stories,” she said, “that lingered, even when I was a girl, that Alexandra was not killed.  She, or her ghost, was said to be seen occasionally in the old theater district of New York.”
“No one knows,” Lydia added, “what truly happened on the Titanic.  And my mother’s reticence has always put an added note of mystery to the tragedy.”

I drove on with ghostly visions of turn-of-the-century New York passing through my mind until the snow on the road started piling up.  Then it took all my attention to maintain a safe passage through the plains gone mystical and dreamlike with the deepening blanket of white.  After about fifteen minutes we entered a country of rolling hills and wide gullies which made the roads even more treacherous.  Having been raised in Oklahoma, I had been through worse weather, but nevertheless, I was relieved to see Ruth point toward a settlement ahead, and say, “There it is, Pleasant Prairie Homes.”
As I drove closer, a grouping of small houses clustered around a large central building could be made out through the falling snow.  Soon, we entered the outskirts of the orderly landscaped settlement of neat little homes.  At Ruth’s suggestion I guided the Mercury to the large main building.  It housed, she said, the office and meeting rooms of the complex of assisted living homes.  “Claire’s home is nearby,” she said.  “But I think we can get the latest news from the manager’s office in the central community building.”
I pulled the car into a small parking lot beside the building and, before I shut off the engine, Ruth and Alice had already stepped out.  I and the other two women followed.  And as a group, we entered quickly through the glass entrance doors which opened into a brightly lighted public meeting room with about twenty tables arranged in rows and facing toward a small stage.
Ruth led the way behind the tables to one of the hallways that brought us to an alcove which was the central office area.  Since there was only a counter dividing this official area from the hall, the manager saw us approaching and stepped out to meet us.  She was a tall, middle aged woman with a firm jaw, and there was concern in her eyes as she stood before us.  “Claire is still missing,” she said.  “We have had staff out searching all day, but no physical signs of where she went have been found.”
Ruth spoke first, asking if local authorities had been notified.  The manager said that the county sheriff and his deputy had been taking part in the search, but had left temporarily to get snowmobiles.  “We have covered the country east and north, and a helicopter crew has searched west and south from the air.”
“Maybe we should check her house,” Ruth suggested.  “She might have returned without being noticed.”
The manager nodded.  “Yes, that occurred to us.  Someone went to Claire’s house just a few minutes ago.  She wasn’t there.  I’m so sorry.  We pride ourselves in the special care and safety of our tenants.  We’re hoping that the sheriff may have some success with the snowmobiles, now that the snow has gotten so deep.  They are very fast and can, we understand, cover large expanses of country quickly.”
Judith unbuttoned her coat.  “We were informed that Claire told someone she was going to meet her mother.  Did the person say which direction she walked?”
The manager nodded.  “That was Mr. Colling who lives in the home to the east of Claire’s.  Mr. Colling’s vision is not too good, I’m afraid.  But he pointed to the southwest when he told us about her.  That’s toward the pasture land used by a rancher for his grazing cattle.  The searchers have been all over that area, but again, there was no sign of Claire.”
The manager shook her head.  “It’s been a busy week, filled with planning for the Christmas observance this evening.  We’re all worried here on the staff.  But I’ve decided to go on with the program.  Some of our citizens so look forward to it, and most do not know of Claire’s disappearance.  I’d hate to deprive them of the celebration.  A choral group from a nearby church will stop by to sing carols.  And there will be a holiday buffet.”
Lydia placed her hand on the woman’s arm.  “Yes.  Please do go on with the program.  Claire would not want to feel she was responsible for canceling it.  And she loves choral music.  She might hear it.”
The manager excused herself to return to the holiday preparations, and we five travelers sat on easy chairs near the crackling fireplace in the recreation room.  The four women were silent at first, each staring off thoughtfully into the fire.
But then Lydia looked up with a determined expression in her eyes.  “We’ve got to look for mother.  It will be dark soon, and I think I know where she is.”
Ruth sat up.  “Yes; in the grove of fir trees on the hill.”  For confirmation she turned to Judith who said simply, “I feel she’s there.  Claire always liked the spot.  She said there was a special benediction among the fir trees.”
Alice stood up.  “She’s there.  I know she’s there, and still well.  I’m going to find her.”
Then Ruth stood.  “I’ll go too.”
Lydia stood then, saying that it was best that she and Judith stay behind.  “We would only slow you young women down.”
I didn’t know how far this grove was, but felt responsible in the way any family member might.  “I’ll go too,” I said.  And Lydia patted my forearm.  “Yes.  We would be very grateful for your help.”
While Alice and Ruth went to the office to borrow warmer headgear, I returned to the Mercury to get my stocking cap and earmuffs out of the trunk; then returned to the building to see the two youngest of the dynasty wrapping heavy winter scarves around their heads and necks.  Leaving Lydia and Judith standing at the door we exited the building and set out southeast across a park and down a road that led between several houses.
A light dusting of snow still fell.  Darkness was approaching and I feared the worst for Claire.  I turned to Ruth who walked with her hands in her coat pockets between Alice and me.  “How far is this hill.”
She adjusted her scarf.  “Once we get past the houses it’s just across a field and a large hollow.”
We soon walked between the final row of houses and, as Ruth had described, came to a field covered in snow with only the dry yellow and brown stems of weeds sticking through.  The under surface of ground was fairly smooth, and we crossed it in three or four minutes and reached the edge of a wide hollow which looked about one hundred feet deep.  Ruth pointed across the depression to a hill topped with fir trees about two hundred feet away.  “There,” she said, succinctly.  “I walked to it with Claire only a few months ago.”
Alice held her hands tightly in her coat pockets and looked at the hill intently.  “I feel she’s there.  She must be.”
Ruth said there was a path leading down, but the falling snow had hidden it completely.  Without the path we were several minutes getting to the bottom of the hollow which held a grove of cottonwoods, their high, dark winter limbs bare except for a covering of snow.  Once through the trees it was an easier walk, because the snow had not drifted so deeply on the upward side.  We found the meandering path with little difficulty.  I followed the two women up the trail which was made slippery by the combined elements of snow and incline.  Ruth slipped once, falling to one knee with a cry of surprise.  But it was followed by laughter as I held her arm and she regained her footing.
A little breathless, we finally reached the top of the hill and the edge of the grove.  It was made up mostly of pines and a few blue spruce and covered about eighty feet of hilltop.  The green needled limbs of the trees, though laden with coverings of pure snow, filled the air with a refreshing, elevating scent.  The trees were widely spaced.  In single file, led by Ruth and followed by Alice and then myself, we zigzagged through the small forest that seemed a magical place.  It brought to memory the love I had for fir trees as a boy.  As we made our way, Ruth called out “Claire” twice, but got no answer.  After we walked a good thirty feet into the grove we came to a little meadow in the midst of the trees, a clearing about twenty-five feet across.  In the middle of the open space were two large rocks standing side by side like primitive, sacred megaliths, both about five feet in height and, together, about eight feet in width.
Again Ruth called out her great grandmother’s name.  We were surprised to hear a soft but  succinct answer:  “Yes.”  It was said in a calm everyday tone of voice, spoken as if sitting at a cafe table in conversation.

The three of us quickly crossed into the clearing and rushed around to the other side of the standing rocks.  An elderly woman sat there on a short flat stone.  She was wearing a coat and snow boots.  On her head was a stylish winter fur cap, and her gloved hands were clasped and calmly placed on her lap.  I could see gray strands of hair falling loosely from under her cap.  Her cheeks which were red from the cold, were lined with age.  This was the artist, Claire Winstock.  I felt as if I had just come upon some member of a fabulous lost tribe, long thought to be extinct.  Even as she sat I could see that her back was slightly bowed, an attribute granted by time and gravity to one who has seen many decades pass.  She was truly a being trapped in the throes of advancing age.  Only her eyes reached beyond her years.  They were clear and wide, and revealed both an innocence and intelligence.  There was a purity in them that I wanted to understand.  Here was a person, I thought, whose being had been cleansed to a childlike purity, and yet a profound depth still radiated from her face.
“Claire,” Ruth said.  “What are you doing out here?  We’ve been worried sick about you.”
Claire looked up at her great granddaughter through those clear eyes and repeated the cryptic message she had spoken to her neighbor.  “I’ve come to join my mother.”
“You can’t mean it.”
Claire turned her eyes back on the pines and spruces.  “Yes.  She’s here now.”
Alice peered thoughtfully from Claire to the trees.  “Where?”
Claire looked up at Alice, a moment’s interest expressed on her face.  Then she stood and walked to the edge of the clearing, and, facing a stand of trees, spread her arms and said calmly, “Here.”
We all watched as she turned to face us then and spread her arms again as if trying to embrace the whole meadow.  “Here,” she repeated.  After that pronouncement she looked up to the sky and raising her arms out to it, said, “There.”
Though I stood physically frozen on the spot, I felt myself jump inside when she looked at me.  Beyond any concept of reality I possessed I knew there was a strange spirit in the air.  I could sense it; something alive and pure.  I had felt it when I entered the grove and when I first saw Claire, but denied its actuality.  Now it had seemed to grow in power, and permeated the cool winter air.
“It’s my mother,” Claire said.
I tried to discern if Claire perceived something visible.  “Where is your mother?” I asked.
Claire closed her eyes.  “She’s everywhere.  She favors this place, but She is everywhere.”
Ruth looked out into the empty distance as if she were hearing music coming from far away.  Then she smiled gently.  “Yes.  I understand.”
She turned to me.  Her eyes seemed to radiate light, like Claire’s.  Alice stood out between the firs and the standing rocks and stretched out her arms at shoulder height, and opened her hands.  Her eyes were closed and a soft smile formed on her lips.  Though I did not have her freedom and spontaneity, I felt It too, a sense of sacredness that surrounded us; and something was transmitted to us within It–a powerful blessing.
But I was shocked out of the benediction by the roaring noise of engines.  It took me a moment to remember that the community manager had said the sheriff was coming with snowmobiles.  Ruth must have realized the same thing, for she told Claire that it was time to return to the community.  “It’s getting colder,” she said.  Claire had sat back down tiredly on the rock.  She was shivering from the cold.  “I don’t suppose you will go back now and leave me to this private matter?” she said.
Ruth looked at her with gentle eyes.  “No.  You will not be taken up today.”
Claire nodded and smiled with an expression I can only describe as ironic submission.  “I thought the conditions were right, with the snow and cold, and there would be enough time.  It seemed She was ready for me.”  Then she shrugged submissively.  “But it is my curse to have inherited a strong constitution.”  She stood up.  “The proper time has passed.”  She patted Alice on the cheek.  “Let’s go back now.”
The snow was falling more densely in quiet soft flakes as we threaded our way through the pines and spruces.  When we stepped out of the grove, I could see it falling in the fading evening light all across the hollow and on the distant houses of the community.  Directly in the hollow below two snowmobiles were soaring up the rise toward us.  And on a road to the north I could see two horse drawn sleighs which were turning to cross the field toward the grove.  The snowmobiles, carrying two men in heavy parkas and cowboy hats, pulled up before us.  The driver of one stood up.  He was wearing a sheriff’s badge on his chest.  “Is everyone all right?” he asked.
I answered that I thought so.  “But it would be nice to get everyone inside.”
The sheriff nodded.  “The two ladies at the community center said you would be here, so the Prairie Home Center is sending two sleighs to take you back.  We’ll get you inside as soon as possible.  You’ll find they’re having a celebration in the Community building; lots of food; and carolers are just arriving.  You should get some hot cider in your bellies as soon as you get there.”
“Carolers,” Claire repeated.  “I would like to hear the carolers.”
The two sleighs pulled up.  They were large conveyances with facing seats for passengers behind the high seat where the driver sat alone behind the horses.  Judith and Lydia rode in the first one.  When it came to a stop Ruth walked over quickly and talked with them.  Eventually Lydia stepped out and approached Claire.  “Mother.  Why would you do this?  Why would you put us through so much worry?”
Claire looked at her aging daughter a moment.  “I am sorry for that,” she finally responded.  “But it can’t be helped.  My life is my own.”
Lydia shook her head in dismay.  “Well, I hope you have gotten it out of your system.  I want your promise that you will not do it again.”
Claire was silent a  moment.  “Well, not for a while, at least.  Waiting in the grove has given me a new perspective.  I will see where it leads.”
Judith stepped up with crossed arms.  “If we stay out in this cold much longer we can all say good-bye to life.  Now everyone climb aboard and we’ll get ourselves back to the warm center.  I need a drink.”
Lydia and Claire followed Judith into the first sleigh, and Alice and Ruth and I climbed into the other.  Alice took the seat looking into the wind, and Ruth and I sat facing her as the driver tugged at the reins and the horses started pulling the sleigh back to the community.  It was nearly dark.  The continual falling snow had built up a heavy layer on the fields and road, at least five inches deep.
Alice and Ruth fell into a silence and contemplatively watched the pure white fields flow by.  But I could not do the same.  Too much had happened.  I leaned over to Ruth.  “Did you understand what happened back there in the grove?”
Ruth drew her attention from the snow, and looked down at her hands that were clasped on her lap.  “Didn’t you?”
“I’m just a simple college professor.  I only know what I read.  But there was something back there, something I do not understand.”
Ruth smiled gently.  “You sensed it too, then–the Presence.  Do you wish to hear of a further mystery?  It’s here now.  Can’t you feel It?”
I sat back into the seat realizing Ruth was right.  The Presence was there.  It seemed to surround the sleigh and extend out into the sky of falling snow and the far fields beyond sight.  It was a benediction.  It filled me with a joyous peace.  It’s beauty and majesty filled the world.
As the horses pulled the sleigh within the outskirts of the community I could hear a chorus singing JOY TO THE WORLD.  We had fallen somewhat behind the other sleigh and when we finally pulled up in front of the center, Judith and Claire and Lydia had already gone inside.  Darkness had fully settled over the land by then, and we entered a brightly lighted hall festooned with colorful decorations and ringing now with the joyous sounds of HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING.  The chorus stood on the low stage before a room of elderly men and women sitting at tables.  Claire, Lydia and Judith, their coats removed, sat at a table near the blazing fireplace, each with a mug of warm mulled cider cupped in her hands.  Lydia and Judith sat on either side of the matriarch in a protective manner.  We three newcomers gathered up empty chairs from nearby tables and joined them.  I was interested in observing Claire, to see what her mood was after the events of the day.  I had seen in the grove that she wore a skirt that reached down to the tops of her snow boots.  But her coat had hidden her blouse.  It was deep purple and around her neck was a necklace made up of many small turquoise stones.  She appeared none the worse for her foray into the cold weather and the emotional experiences in the grove.  Her eyes and overall bearing radiated a calmness that seemed to touch and effect all of us around her.
The caroling stopped for awhile, and the manager announced that the food buffet was open and all guests were welcome to join in the banquet.  It was a beautiful buffet, offering a feast of holiday food and treats.  After filling our plates and returning to the table the conversation of the five women fell on other Christmases when they were girls or when they were young women whose husbands were still alive.  The husbands of Claire and Lydia had long ago passed from this earthly plane.  Ruth’s husband was away on military duty.  Only Judith’s story held no note of nostalgic loss.  She had divorced her philandering mate ten years ago, and drew universal peals of laughter when she gleefully related how the courts punished him by bestowing the farm and the bulk of the bank account upon her.
There were so many Christmases.  They talked of the year of the big snow when great drifts covered the sides of their houses up to the roof.  And the Christmas during the war years when they sent gift boxes to Europe.  And the year when they gathered at Judith’s farm, and a lone white deer with bright angelic eyes came to the porch on the snowy night of the Winter Solstice.  They fed it from their hands and it allowed Alice to hang a wreath of holly from its horns.  It returned each night after that until Christmas, and then was not seen again.  No one among the women tried to explain it.  It was just another mystery among a whole bushel of magical events that seemed to be drawn to this family, and evoked a profound, mystic beauty that gave meaning to life.
The chorus filed onto the stage once more and began caroling.  They stayed until eight and then returned to their various homes to celebrate with their families.  The manager announced that now there would be a community sing, and everyone rose from their chairs and, passing by a table, picked up either a small star decorated with sparkles, or a small green branch from a fir tree.  Then as the electric lights were dimmed, leaving the lights from candles and the fireplace flickering off the walls, all stood in a circle and sang carols.  I had picked up the piece of fir branch as had Ruth and Judith.  Lydia and Alice held the decorated stars while we sang.  Claire, also holding a fir branch, joined in to sing O TANNENBAUM and DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS OF HOLLY before returning to her place at the table; evidence that the day had taken a toll on her energies.
Seeing it as a good opportunity to approach and talk with her alone, I sat across from her at the empty table where she held a warm mug of mulled cider in her ancient cupped hands.  I thought I was prepared to ask all the questions that had filled my mind about her painting and her life so long ago in the art scene of New York.  But after the happening in the grove, my questions seemed to lose sufficient meaning to bring up.  Instead she spoke first.  Looking at me with her deep blue eyes, she spoke in her quiet voice that seemed to come out of an amazing calmness.  “My daughter tells me that we have spoiled your Christmas, Mr. Kozloff.”
I shook my head.  “Not at all.  You and all your family have made it a Christmas Eve to remember always.”
“But weren’t you suppose to be with friends across the border.”
“Yes.  But I will have plenty of time to visit them tomorrow and the day after.”
“Well, you have been very generous and thoughtful to my girls.  I thank you for it.”
And that was all that was said between us.  All that I might have asked and learned about her art and life in that fascinating time of artistic ferment slipped away in the circle of vastly greater events; events from which I was still reeling and could not find the understanding to form into new questions.
After the celebration broke up Lydia and Judith found sleeping space in Claire’s little house.  There were four small bedrooms in the center for guests, three of which were claimed by Alice, Ruth, and me.  Feeling that I would not see them again, I made my good-byes to the five women before we separated.  I had been the recipient of an occasional hug in my life, but never had so many at one time.  I do not remember what each woman said to me, but remember fondly the bounty of human warmth of which nothing is truer.
I awoke very early Christmas morning and set out in the Mercury at sunrise.  The pure calming Presence was there in the morning light and as I rode the ribbon of highway through the snowy plains.  I made it to my destination in the panhandle in time for Christmas dinner with the gathering of my friends in a gaily decorated ranch house.
The Mystery that I had sensed in Claire’s grove was to leave me in the afternoon, lost somewhere in the conversation and social interaction.  But just before the New Year, as I drove down the highway toward home and the university, the Presence was suddenly there as if It had been waiting for me among the arroyos and brush of the plain.  It was to be that way from then on, usually coming at times of quiet and being gone during times of busy activities. But the awareness of the Living Mystery had been awakened in me at the grove where Claire had waited, and the recognition of Its existence remained in my consciousness until the next Christmas and all the Christmases after.

THE END

Claire’s Mother first appeared in BELLOWING ARK magazine, Shoreline, WA; vol.25, no. 1, Jan/Feb 2009.

Donald Koozer

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