As told by Catherine Anne Smithson
Thanksgiving this year was a total disaster — my boyfriend, Bob, of three years, my soul mate, the man of my dreams, the sperm donor for my unborn children, dumped me an hour before we were to leave for the holiday celebration at my parents’ home. To add insult to grievous injury, he didn’t do it in person, he sent a text. I was crushed, mortified beyond chagrin.
To go or not to go to my parents was the big question. I finally sent a text to Mary Louise, my sister, and told her I was going to kill myself so they should not expect me for dinner.
When cars began pulling into the driveway, I realized she must have taken my text seriously. Mom and Dad, Max, Harrison, Monty, and Toby, my four brothers and Mary Louise came bounding into the house with all the food for the feast.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Monty, put that butcher knife down. I don’t want any of you killing, Bob.” My brothers had always been protective but this sent them over the top. Toby was the only one who didn’t seem upset which I thought odd. But he was older and corralled the other three.
“Do you need some valium?
“No, Mother, I don’t need any valium.” I hadn’t thought of that before they arrived. But now it seemed like a good idea.
“I hope you’re not pregnant.”
“Who’s pregnant?” my father heard the word and almost choked on his cigar.
Toby turned around and moved in with that ‘you better not be pregnant’ look on his face.
“NO, I’M NOT PREGNANT! God! You people.”
“Well, you said you were going to kill yourself.”
“Shut up, Harrison. I was kidding.” As I glanced out the front window, “Who are all these people coming up the sidewalk?” More people began showing up who weren’t even invited to my parents. Mary Louise admitted later she had mistakenly sent a message to my friend Miranda who was part of a ten-person email group on her computer.
The rest of the day and evening were awash with food and wine and laughter. Someone, probably Max, hung a sprig of mistletoe in the foyer archway. By the time all wine had disappeared, everyone was kissing everyone else, especially me. They kept dragging me into the hallway and wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.
The days that followed, however, went from being unhappy to thoroughly miserable — as the reality set in that I was back to square one. I was alone and the possibility of a family of my own dimmed in the rubble of my emotions.
Then, on December First, a funny thing happened. Well, maybe not funny but it struck me that way for some reason. I found a small package in my mail box. It was not postmarked so I assumed someone had hand-delivered it. Inside, I found one of those silly well-intention secret pal cards along with a beautiful koa wood letter opener in its matching sheath. The note simply said, “To be used on what is to come.” That sounded intriguing. Was it to be used to open letters or stab my sonofabitchin’ ex-boyfriend through his black heart — that is, if he had one.
The note was written in a beautiful cursive handwriting I did not recognize. So, whoever it was had to be as old as, or older than me since cursive handwriting was being phased out when I was in school. I placed the letter opener and the card on my desk and stared at them, wondering who it might be who was doing this and the reason for which they were doing it.
Two days later I found a card in my mail box, no post mark, evidently hand-delivered. It was the Third of December. I dutifully used my new letter opener. The gift was a thumb print on the card which had a distinctive scar across the ridges of the print. I laughed at the thought of having to subtly examine the thumbs of everyone I knew or met. But if I found it, I’d know. The print was large, probably from a man’s thumb. Was this person more than a secret pal; possibly an admirer I had overlooked? This was getting interesting.
On the Fifth of December, I found another hand-delivered card in my mail box. This one also had a thumb print — obviously from the other hand; and free of any scars.
The next card arrived on the Seventh of December. Inside I found a short handwritten poem which took my breath away.
I am always thinking of you
I miss your smile, your words
I treasure every moment we are together
I imagine I am always by your side
sharing my love with you
I am closer than you think.
I called Mary Louise and read the poem. She was as surprised as I was. She suggested it might be Bob, trying to come back. I discouraged that thought immediately since romance was never his thing. In a way, I was now grateful he was out of my life. He loved to eat in bed which annoyed the hell out of me. I lost count of how many times I had to brush cracker crumbs out before I could retire.
The possibilities of who it might be seemed endless. Mary Louise was as excited as I was in discovering who this mystery person might be. If nothing else, my sadness was gone. For that, I was grateful and would thank this person with all my heart.
On the Ninth of December, there was another envelope in my mail box. Along with a secret pal card, there was a key which looked like a key you might find at a bus station, one of those lockers you can use to temporarily store luggage. Or it could be a train station locker. This was beginning to look more like a mysterious treasure hunt.
A week later I located the locker at the train station. I almost fell over when I opened the door. In it was a butterfly hair clip I had lost over a decade earlier. It belonged to my grandmother, and I mourned its loss for the longest time. And there it was as if I had misplaced it only moments ago. Now I wondered if it might not have been stolen and not lost. It was in perfect condition, so I generously decided it had been found by someone who knew me. Wait a minute — someone who knew me in high school, when the clip went missing. That was a long time ago. And they kept it until now? Obviously, I knew whoever it was, but who was it? I went through my yearbook and found no likely suspect.
The next two cards arrived on the Eleventh and Thirteenth of December — each card had the remaining four finger prints of the left hand on one card and the four finger prints of the right hand on the other card. Now it appeared I had a complete set of this person’s fingerprints. One of the cards, however, had a strand of red hair which was either intentionally or unintentionally enclosed. Who did I know who had longish red hair? The only person I could think of was Karl Klum, but he was gay so that didn’t fit. But, he did have an outrageous sense of humor. He owned a nursery on the edge of town. I paid him a visit on the pretext of buying an apple tree.
“Cat, it’s winter. There are no apple trees until spring. How about an evergreen?”
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
“We’re all out of the cut ones but we’ll be getting more next week.”
“How about a living one?”
“Follow me.” As we walked through his greenhouses, “I hear you got dumped — sorry about that.”
“Your sympathy is touching, Karl.” I decided not to wait. “Karl.”
“Let me see your hands.”
“Just let me see them, please.”
He reluctantly put his hands forward. I quickly checked his thumbs. It wasn’t him.
“What was that all about?”
“Nothing. You have nice looking hands.”
That flummoxed him. I bought a small evergreen which he placed in the trunk of my car. As I drove away, I thought, ‘Two thumbs down, how many more thousands to go?’
The next card, dated the Fifteenth of December, smelled of cologne. It was an obvious man’s cologne. No one I knew wore cologne. Now, what was I supposed to do — sniff every man I could get close to? But, interestingly enough, there was a familiarity to the scent which I could not place. And there was a note at the bottom of the card, ‘Four days to go.’ There was some comfort in knowing the mystery would soon be solved.
On the Seventeenth of December, I found a small package in the mail box containing a card and a candle. The inscription read: If skies are dull and gray, light this candle in your window to guide me on my way.
I felt kind of silly, but as the day faded and twilight lingered, I did as instructed. Within minutes, a car drove in the driveway. My heart leapt at the possibilities as the back door opened. “Hi, pumpkin.”
“Hi, Toby.” I could not have sounded less interested.
He stood still and stared at me, “What?”
“Nothing. Why are you here?”
“The garbage disposal. You asked me to fix it, unless you fixed it — which isn’t likely.”
“Very funny. I’m sorry. Thanks for coming over.”
He walked over, flung his arms around me and lifted me off the ground as he hugged me. “Why so sad?”
I told him the story of the candle. He kissed my forehead and went to work under the sink. Of all my brothers, he was the most attentive. He was ten years older than me. I often wondered why he wasn’t married. He was handsome and smart and would make some lucky girl an excellent husband. But he didn’t seem to be interested. I wondered if he might be gay.
He fixed the disposal thingy, after which I asked him if he’d like to stay for a bite to eat. He thought that was a good idea. He had a wonderful sense of humor and we always had a good time together. You could not stay sad or angry around him for very long.
Since he was the only blonde in the family, I used to kid him that he was either adopted or Mother had been fooling around. He’d laugh and often suggested we ask her, which produced even more laughter, but I did wonder.
On the Nineteenth of December a card appeared which simply said, Sorry – couldn’t find Ten Lord’s a Leaping. I laughed out loud when I read that.
The Twenty-First of December arrived and with it, a package in my mail box. In the box was a sock filled with 12 candy kisses. No note. It was probably one of his socks. I held the sock close to my heart as I ate the kisses and prayed he wouldn’t be a frog. I had certainly kissed enough of those in my day.
The Twenty-Third of December, Christmas Day, dawned bright and beautiful. This was the day the mystery would be revealed. Everyone who knew of these cards and gifts had run out of ideas as to who it might be — this secret pal of mine.
Technically, on the Twelfth day of Christmas, Twelve Drummers Drumming would be delivered. We all agreed that was unlikely to happen.
I planned to be with my family at my parents’ home on the Twenty-Third. I wondered if my secret pal knew this. I packed up Christmas gifts and goodies and departed early, checking the mail box one last time as I drove out. It was empty. Oh, well.
The morning and early afternoon passed quickly as preparations for the feast began to fill the air with delicious aromas. Thankfully, no one brought up the subject of my secret pal as we hustled about the kitchen. It would be awkward if he just showed up unannounced. I hoped that wouldn’t happen. Mary Louise was still living with my parents as was Max, the youngest of my four brothers. Harrison and Monty drifted in around two-thirty followed by Toby, a half hour later.
As the grandfather clock in the living room chimed four o’clock, we settled around the dining room table in anticipation of the delicious food waiting for us. Mother and Dad were in heaven, having all their kids in one place for a change. I felt a twinge of melancholy, realizing my secret friend was not among us. I thought of adding another place setting to the table arrangement but decided against it at the last minute.
Mother brought in the platter with the dressed turkey and set it in front of Dad for carving. Mary Louise said grace and we began passing platters of food around as the laughter and voices of my loving family filled the air once again.
My loneliness didn’t seem quite so acute in the midst of these loving and mischievous people. One of the boys brought up the fact that my secret pal was a no-show, followed by the usual wise cracks from the other ones.
Mary Louise spoke up, “Come on guys. Leave her alone. How about being a little more supportive.
Monty agreed, “Ok, ok, but we’d still like to know who this guy is.”
“Me too,” I half-heartedly agreed, and then I caught a glimpse of it. I stood up so fast I knocked over the chair I had been sitting on. Conversations stopped, everyone stared at me. “Let me see your left hand.” I heard a few gasps as some realized what was happening. “Come on. Let me see it.”
Toby blushed as he slowly put out his hand, palm down. I leaned across the table, grabbed it, and turned it palm up. His left thumb was scarred. I let go of his hand and stared in disbelief at my brother. He looked me straight in the eyes; his loving smile told me everything I needed to know. I burst into tears and rushed out of the room. I ran into the bath room, closed and locked the door. My sobbing was a mixture of joy and shock and confusion I never imagined possible. I could not control myself as I slid down onto the floor next to the bath tub.
I could hear the yelling and screaming coming from the dining room as the mystery unraveled. Toby’s voice rose above the rest. My take-charge sister was probably headed toward the bathroom, “Mary Louise, sit down. If you don’t, I’ll set you down. I’ll handle this myself.”
Everyone calmed down and then there was a soft knock on the door, “Catherine Anne, let me in.”
My sobs increased when I heard him. He never called me Catherine Anne before – never.
He knocked again. “Open the door or I’ll break it down.”
Now I was laughing and sobbing as I struggled to the door and unlocked it while remaining on the floor. I looked away as he opened and shut the door. Then he was on his knees holding me from behind as he whispered, “I didn’t mean this to happen, I’m so sorry.” He laid his head on the back of my neck and held me tight while he slowly rocked me back and forth. My sobs finally subsided and I gave out a great sigh.
“I don’t understand, Toby. You’re my brother. How could you do this to me?”
“Listen to me, Catherine.” He took a breath, “I’m not your brother. I’m adopted.”
That hit me like a ton of bricks. I sat up and yelled, “WHAT?” and turned around to the face of this man I thought I knew. “What the hell are you saying?”
“Mom and Dad adopted me before any of you were born. They thought they couldn’t have children.”
My sense of humor clicked in, “Well, that didn’t work out very well. But why the secret?”
Toby sat back on his haunches, “They told me when I was fifteen and left it up to me to tell the rest of you. I was afraid it might make a difference. I wanted to belong and decided not to tell.”
“Toby, I’m so confused right now, I can’t think straight.” I looked into his beautiful face and saw tears running down his cheeks. I reached up and brushed them away, “How long?”
“I fell in love with you the day Mom brought you home from the hospital.”
“The butterfly clip?”
“I found it in the back yard and hid it. I knew how much you loved it. I wanted something of yours I could hold in secret. When you met Bob, I thought I’d lost you. When he dumped you, I almost jumped with joy and figured I better do something before someone else came along.”
“And the candle?”
“I waited almost an hour until I saw you put it in the window. I thought you might catch on.”
“And I didn’t. I’m so sorry, Toby. I just never imagined.
“Can I have my sock back?” he grinned that so-familiar grin of his.
I sat up and threw my arms around his neck and laughed as I pulled him close, “Yes, you can have your old sock back, but not the kisses. I ate them.” And there it was, the low key scent of the cologne in one of the cards. No, it wasn’t cologne, it was just aftershave.
“Are we still friends?” he whispered.
I sat back and looked into those adoring eyes of his, “Oh, my God, yes. We’ll always be friends no matter what.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small black box, “Here, this is for you.”
Before I could open it he added. “Wear it in friendship. If someday you decide you want to be my wife, switch it to the correct finger.”
I sat back, opened the box and the tears began again, “Oh, Toby. It’s so beautiful.” I stopped him as he began to get up, “I’m sure you already know, since nothing can be kept a secret in this family, well, almost nothing,” I smiled for a second and then said, “I’m not a virgin anymore.”
He kissed my hand, “I know, but I am, so you’ll have to show me the way.” He got up and pulled me to my feet.
“I have a little secret.”
“I thought you might be gay.”
He smiled, took my face into his big hands, kissed my cheek, “Not to worry, my dear Catherine.” He stepped back. “We better get back in there before they come looking for us." He chuckled, "Wash your face, you look terrible. I’ll go ahead."
I looked in the mirror and laughed. I did look terrible. My mind was in a whirl as I washed my face and put my hair into some semblance of order. I took the ring out of the little black box, kissed it and thought about which finger to put it on.
Everyone was seated at the table smiling their asses off as I walked in and sat down. I looked at Mother and Dad, “Does everyone know about him?” They both smiled. “Well, let’s eat before it gets cold.”
I looked across the table and suddenly saw Toby in a different light. I reached out with my left hand. He took it and his jaw dropped when he saw which finger held his ring.
“Why wait. You know me better than anyone. I’ve loved you as my brother all these years, learning to love you as my husband should be easy. Thank you.” We just smiled at one another as everyone else went crazy again.
He grinned, “At least you won’t have to change your name.”
I hadn’t thought of that and laughed at the idea.
I took my hand back and asked, “I hope you don’t eat crackers in bed.”
“Not a chance.” The devilish smile on his face told me he had something else in mind.
I took my plate and handed it to Dad, “I’ll have some white and dark, please.”
Everyone laughed and cheered with toasts for a Merry Christmas as we got down to the business of celebrating the holiday, and my engagement to a pretty wonderful guy who had taken his shoes off and was playing footsie with me under the table.