We prowled through the second hand bookstore, the day after Christmas, just my husband, Louie, our daughters, Jenny and Helen, and me. This was a precious time for us, because we would be splitting up as a family, again, in just a couple of days.
It had been a tough eight months since my husband had retired from the Navy. As plotters and planners, we had manipulated the “military system,” while on active duty, as much as we could, trying to prevent a long, dreaded absence from one another. Now, here we were, retired, and we were eight months into our longest separation.
When my husband retired, we discovered that the only job available for him was in the city of Norfolk, Virginia. Our dream was to live out the rest of our lives in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, six and a half hours away. My health had gotten so bad, that it was impossible for me to stay with Louie in the city. We had settled for a separation, praying that a job would become available in the beautiful region that we love.
So, there we were, delaying the inevitable, passing time in a second hand bookstore, before the girls and I headed back to southwest Virginia. We were as broke as we’d ever been, supporting two households; yet we were grateful to be together, and we seized every opportunity for extra hugs, shared daydreams and laughter.
There was only one other person in the bookstore, besides the proprietor, a lovely, well-dressed, woman, about my age. I noticed her clothes, her shoes, and her expensive handbag, and I wondered what it would be like, to be rich enough to walk into a bookstore and have the money to buy any book my heart desired. But we were having so much fun, that I quickly forgot the woman.
We joked as we continued our treasure hunt, clutching our spending money of five dollars apiece, all hoping to be the first to find the oldest, least expensive book. It was a bittersweet excursion. Frequently Louie and I would brush past one another, finding excuses to touch or to give on another’s hand an extra squeeze.
Jenny remembered, that there was an ATM machine, not far from the bookstore, and she decided that she needed another twenty dollars that she had squirreled away.
“No fair!” I cried, laughing. “The rest of us can only spend five dollars, and here you’re going to have twenty-five dollars?!”
We all laughed, and we began to tease Jenny, mercilessly, but she was able to convince her Dad that she must have the $20, in order to get that irresistible book.
“Come on, Jenny,” Louie laughed. “I’ll drive you to the ATM.”
Then we did another round of hugging and kissing, none of us wanting to be apart for even a few minutes.
Soon Louie and I would be saying “good-bye.” We couldn’t resist the opportunity to assure one another of our love, and our faith that our separation would soon come to an end. It must have been a curious ballet, this demonstrative family scene, but we were oblivious to what others might think.
Military families seem to fall into two categories: those who look for affectionate opportunities, and those who avoid close contact, because “good-byes” are painful. I have to admit that we’re a pretty “huggy-kissy” family, so unmindful of anyone else, we continued to give kisses and hugs all around. In our military career, we had become painfully aware, that anything can happen during even the briefest separation. But now, as I look back, I realize how odd me must have looked.
Finally, in between another hug and kiss, I saw the perfect book for me! It was one hundred years old, and it was on my favorite time period, the Middle Ages. Oh, how I wanted that book! I quickly checked the inside cover for the price, and my heart fell. It was twenty-five dollars! We just didn’t have it. I looked up at Louie, already knowing the answer.
He must have wanted me to have that book. I could see the pain in his eyes. Louie reached out and gave me an extra hug. I understood his “honey, we just can’t afford it” message. I leaned into his sheltering arms, and I saw that the well-dressed lady was also touching the book that I wanted. Ah well, let her have it. I gave Louie and extra hug, and half serious, I murmured, as my eyes locked with hers.
“Oooohh, I wish I were rich!”
“It looks to me, as though you already are,” she said with a smile.
There was a pause that stretched through eternity, and my heart filled with comprehension. I looked up at my husband, and I gazed at my daughters, wrapped as we were in the arms of love, and I knew it. I was rich. Very rich. I quickly turned to thank the woman for her gentle reminder, but she was gone!
Who was she? I’ll never know. But what she did for my outlook, was nothing short of miraculous. I will never forget her. Where did she disappear to? I can’t say.
Strangely enough, within days, my husband received a job offer in southwestern Virginia. In less than two weeks, he was hired and we moved to the place that is now our home. The job notice had been sent out two days before Christmas, even as we hugged and kissed and wished in that bookstore. Even as I heard the words, “It looks to me, as though you already are,” events were already in motion to unite our family.
I am quite certain that it was all part of God’s plan, to remind me of what being “rich” is all about… faith, love, family, and friends. And when I get to heaven, I will not be at all surprised to discover that God sent an angel to a second hand bookstore, in Norfolk, Virginia, to give me his richest message, the day after Christmas, many years ago.
Author - © Jaye Lewis, 2003 Jaye Lewis is a writer and poet, who lives with her family in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia. This story will be included in Jaye's forthcoming book, entitled "Entertaining Angels." Jaye can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.