A/N – I lifted the 'coat' part of this story from a real life account I read on someone's blog, re-told here with a few liberties.
The Christmas Coat
Marshall followed the directions written on the piece of paper he held in his hand as he drove through the various neighborhoods he had never been in before, finally finding 3702 Addison Street, a large white Victorian house nestled under snow covered trees. A distinctive white sign was on the front yard reading "Community Crisis Services and Respite Program". He pulled his car into the driveway that opened up into a large parking area and he walked to the side entrance of the building, ringing the doorbell as instructed on a sign on the door.
A few moments later the door opened and he was greeted by a Staff Member. "May I help you?" She asked politely.
"I'm here to see Beth Kantor,' Marshall replied. "I called earlier and talked to Sarah. My name is Ben Marshall."
"Yes, I'm Sarah," the woman replied with a smile, extending her hand in an offered greeting shake. "Nice to meet you, Ben." She was thin and tall with long black hair half way down her back.
"Did you mention to Beth what we talked about?" Marshall asked.
"Yes, she is aware of her options," Sarah replied as she let Marshall into the house. "Come, I'll take you to her."
Marshall followed Sarah through a living room area where two people sat watching television to a front stairwell that led to the second floor. A hallway ran through the center of the floor with rooms on either side. Sarah led Marshall to the last room on the right. The door was open and Sarah stuck her head inside.
"Beth, your friend Ben is here to see you," Sarah announced.
Marshall heard a muffled reply and Sarah said something quietly in return before stepping out of the room.
"You may see her," Sarah told the visitor as she walked past him and disappeared down the stairs.
Marshall sucked in his breath and stepped into the room, not quite sure what to expect.
He found Beth sitting on a bed in the room with her back against the head rest, staring out the window. She was dressed in jeans and a white turtleneck sweater with rainbow wool socks on her feet. Her face looked drawn and her eyes were heavy. She didn't smile when she glanced at him from her spot on the bed. Marshall noticed that her brown hair was shorter than the last time he saw her and not as well kept as he remembered.
"How did you find me?" Beth frowned.
"Liz," Marshall replied. "But don't be mad at her. I harassed her."
"You shouldn't have bothered coming," Beth told him, sounding tired and withdrawn.
"I was concerned about you," Marshall said, slipping into an overstuffed arm chair stuck in the corner of the room not far from her bed.
"I'm fine, Marsh," Beth said. "You can go."
"I can't stand the idea of you spending Christmas here," Marshall sighed. "It seems so…generically prison-like and institutionalized."
"It's not that bad," she replied. "Besides, I'm Jewish. Christmas isn't a big deal to me."
"Sarah says you can get out of here on a three day pass if you want," Marshall said.
"Where would I go?" She frowned.
"Come home with me," Marshall said warmly. "My hometown is only a couple of hours from here. I'm going home for Christmas to see the family. Why don't you come with me?"
"Why would I want to do that?" She sounded exasperated.
"Because it's Christmas," Marshall said with a smile. "It would be a nice Christmas present."
"For who?" Beth frowned.
"For both of us," Marshall said with encouragement.
"Marsh, you don't owe me any favors," Beth told him. "I appreciate everything you tried to do for me but we don't work together anymore and you don't have any obligations or responsibilities for me."
"I have some moral obligations and responsibilities," Marshall rebutted. "They shouldn't have fired you."
"They had every right," she sighed. "I burned and abused my sick time. I no showed. I was a liability."
"You were a good worker and an asset to the company."
"When I was there," she countered. "Those last few months I was hardly there at all."
"They should have granted you a leave of absence," Marshall argued. "Given you a chance to get better."
"They're a business, not a charity organization, Marsh," Beth reminded him. "I deserved to be canned."
"I still miss you," he sighed. "It's just not the same without your smiling face greeting me every day."
"Thanks," she said warmly. "But I burned that and many other bridges."
"Come home with me," he urged again.
"Marsh," she sighed. "I appreciate your concern. I'm flattered you came. But just go. You don't want to try to help me. I'm a lost cause."
"Don't say that," he said strongly. "I don't expect any Christmas miracles. I know you have your struggles and challenges…."
"What did Liz tell you?" Beth interrupted with annoyance.
"Nothing that violates your privacy rights," Marshall clarified. "Just what was in the paper and where you were staying."
"I never should have called her," Beth groaned.
"She just wants to help too," Marshall insisted. "She's worried about you."
"I'm doing okay," Beth told him sternly.
"Don't you want a change of scenery for a few days?" Marshall asked. "A home cooked meal?"
She gave him a long stare. "You're even crazier than me if you think bringing me home to meet your family is a good idea," she said.
Marshall laughed. "Believe me, my family will never be on a poster for the stereotypical perfect family!"
"I don't want them knowing about my troubles," Beth warned with a serious look on her face.
"I would never do such a thing," Marshall vowed. "Just take this getaway from everything that's happened. You'll have no baggage there."
"You sure you want to do this, Marsh?" Beth worried.
"You were always nice to me at work, Beth," Marshall sighed. "Let me return the favor."
"Well, I am feeling kind of stir crazy," Beth admitted, glancing around the room. "I haven't been out of this house in weeks."
"You could use a break," Marshall agreed. "Pack your bag."
Beth chewed on her lip for a moment while staring at Marshall. Liz was her best friend at Lewistein and Jacobs, Certified Public Accountants, but Ben Marshall was her favorite co-worker, a nice guy who treated her with admiration and respect in the work place. They developed a bantering working relationship and although they were in different departments, Ben passed by her cubical several times a day and they often exchanged pleasantries, small talk and good cheer.
When Beth started having her latest wave of emotional problems in the workplace, it was Ben who became her best advocate and defender, going out of his way to help delay her termination by intervening on her behalf. Finally, even Ben's involvement wasn't enough and Beth was let go without cause after missing another four days of work. The HR Director determined that Beth had 'abandoned her job' when she failed to call in. Beth had been in the local mental health ward and she was too depressed to call in but it was only the latest in a long list of employment infractions and failings that finally got her fired.
That was more than six months ago now and Beth never expected to see Ben Marshall again but here he was sitting in her room at Respite where she had landed after her latest release from the mental health unit having no other place to go. Liz couldn't take her back again without risking her marriage and Beth found herself on her own, homeless with no job and no money. She was facing placement in a local shelter which was hardly an optimum choice.
Now stood Ben Marshall, ready and willing to rescue her at least temporarily and maybe he was supposed to some sort of Christmas Guardian Angel or miracle even if she didn't believe in any of that stuff.
"Did you get in trouble because of me?" Beth wanted to know as she finally slid off the bed. "At work?"
Ben shrugged. "Let's just say I avoid Human Resources and Melody Anders' office these days," he smirked. "But everything's fine as long as I keep my mouth shut and mind my own business!"
"I'm sorry about everything," Beth sighed. "I should have quit long before I got fired."
She walked to the small closet and pulled a duffle bag off the floor, placing the bag on the bed and removing some clothes from the bureau drawers.
"You'll feel better after a few days away," Marshall predicted, still sitting in the chair.
"This is very strange," Beth admitted. "We really don't know each other very well at all, Marsh."
"We know each other well enough," he replied. "Don't worry about it. Just go with the flow."
Finished with packing the bag, Beth zipped it closed and then took her winter jacket off a hangar in the closet. "Where exactly is your hometown?" She asked.
"Hillsboro, out in the western part of the state," Marsh informed her. "You'll like it. Very New England. Norman Rockwell type place."
"Why'd you leave?" She tested.
"Lewistein and Jacobs is a pretty prestigious place for a guy like me to start out," he replied, finally standing. "I couldn't pass it up even if it did mean leaving Hillsboro."
She nodded in understanding. Marshall took the bag from the bed and he carried it from the room, following Beth down the stairs to the counter area in front of the counselor's room behind a huge glass window.
"Signing out," Beth announced as she scribbled her name on a clipboard sitting on the window lip.
"Good for you!" Sarah said with a pleased smile as she opened the glass sliding window door. "I packaged up your meds for you," Sarah told her, handing her a packet. "That's a week's worth just to be safe. Have a very Happy Holiday and we'll see you on Tuesday morning!"
"Thanks, Sarah," Beth replied with a forced smile. "Merry Christmas to you too."
Marshall led Beth from the Respite house and directed her to his late model Volvo, the first nice car he ever purchased. He tossed her bag in the backseat next to his luggage and various Christmas gifts and they both climbed into the front of the car.
"I hope we know what we're doing," Beth sighed.
"No regrets!" Marshall grinned. "Next stop, Hillsboro."
"I bet Sarah thinks I'll never come back," Beth remarked as Marshall steered the car out of the driveway and onto the street.
"Why would she think that?" Marshall asked with curiosity.
"I've disappeared before,' Beth admitted sheepishly.
"Sometimes I get tired of expressing my feelings and facing my issues and even engaging in treatment," she admitted. "I get ambivalent about the whole deal and I'd rather just isolate alone somewhere."
"You have good people skills," Marshall observed. "And you're a compassionate person who helped others at work. Aren't those strengths that should help get you back on track?"
"I don't know, maybe volunteer to start," Marshall suggested.
"My self-esteem has taken a real hit this past year or so, Marsh," Beth revealed. "It's been hard to fit in anywhere. I don't know if I'm ready to try anything yet."
"Well, maybe in time," Marshall said as he steered the car onto the highway.
"I have a lot of shame about going off the deep end," Beth sighed. "I feel vulnerable and exposed and judged so I don't have much conviction that all my self-blame and hopelessness will ever go away."
"You must have some good days," Marshall remarked hopefully.
"Some," Beth admitted softly. "But I worry about what people will think if they discover my story. Will I ever get a good and decent job again? Will I become chronically depressed again? Withdraw and disappear like before? Sleep for days at a time? That stuff haunts me."
"Is that what happened the last time?"
"Ah, it all blurs together," Beth groaned. "I've had so many set backs and crash and burns and depressive episodes that they all blend into one endless mix," she sighed. "I was doing pretty good at L and J until my mother died."
"You were close?"
"No, I hated her guts," Beth responded truthfully. "But her death unleashed all these buried feelings and memories and it really knocked me off kilter. My boyfriend couldn't deal with the drama so he broke up with me. That seemed to send me over the edge all over again."
"I'm sorry," Marshall offered with sincerity. "What's your story?" He wanted to know. "What happened in your life to make you have these depressive episodes?"
"Did you know I grew up five miles down the road from L and J?" She asked.
Marshall shook his head no.
"I had a brother and our parents divorced when I was a teenager," Beth explained. " My mother drank too much and my father was abusive."
"He'd hit me with his belt and he was always saying negative and mean things to me," Beth sighed with defeat. "Otherwise, he was minimally involved in my life and he often told me he could care less about me. He remarried some dragon lady who was even worse than him."
"That's horrible," Marshall said with disgust. "What a bastard."
"I had a serious boyfriend and I moved out of my mother's house when I turned eighteen to live with him but it turns out he was physically abusive too so I moved back in with my mother but her drinking was totally out of control by then. I worked at a supermarket and met another guy and we got married. I was twenty."
"Wow," Marshall said with a whistle. "How old are you now?"
"Twenty-six," she revealed. "We weren't married very long."
"He couldn't handle my dark mood swings," she sighed. "I'd get crazy angry and I had zero self esteem. I was convinced he was cheating on me even though I had absolutely no evidence to prove such a wacky theory. I was just convinced he'd find somebody better and more worthy than me."
"I'd break furniture," she revealed. "Once, I stabbed our waterbed with a knife and caused a flood. He left me and I finally went to see a therapist for my depression. Then I landed the job at L and J and things went well for a while but periodically I would get depressed and I wouldn't be able to get out of bed or function. My brother moved away to save himself and my mother was a full-fledged alcoholic. Then I met this last guy and things went well for a while but after my Mom died I got all weird. We'd get into wicked fights and once I slapped him and spit on him and he kicked me out. That's when I ended up in the hospital and got fired for not calling in. They diagnosed me with PTSD, Depression, and mood disorder."
She glanced at Marshall and sighed. "You can pull over and let me out here if you want."
"I really had no idea," Marshall admitted. "You did so well at work."
"I could manage it pretty well most of the time," she said. "Now that I'm on meds, my moods don't swing and sway like they used to and I'm doing okay emotionally even if my life is a mess."
"What happened after you left L and J?" Marshall asked.
"Left?" She said, raising an eyebrow. "You're too kind. I was in the hospital for a few weeks and then I lived with Liz for a while but that got old with her husband so I couched surfed at a few places and then about a month ago I was feeling weird and I ended up getting a Crisis evaluation and a Respite admission. My insurance is almost up there and I really have no place to go."
"You'll figure something out," Marshall said with a positive tone.
"You sure you don't want to turn around and take me back to Respite?" Beth tested. "You sure you want a crazy person like me hanging out with your family?"
"You're not crazy," Marshall told her. "I think you're just as remarkable as you were everyday at L and J," he replied. "Probably even more so now that I know what you've gone through all these years. You should be proud of everything you've accomplished and endured. Now you have a chance for a do over and to keep getting better."
"But what if I get worse?" She worried.
"Don't think about that sort of stuff," Marshall advised.
Beth sucked in a deep breath and glanced out the window. "So, what am I going to find at your house?" She asked.
"Controlled and organized chaos," Marshall smirked. "My parents are still together. My maternal great-grandmother lives with them. I have four sisters. It will be loud, noisy, chaotic and fun!"
"How old is your great-grandmother?" Beth asked with surprise.
"Ninety-eight!" Marshall laughed. "But you'll like her. She's…..eccentric."
"That's code for crazy, Marsh," Beth replied.
"Exactly!" He laughed. "But there's nowhere I'd rather be than with my family. I love going home. I love being in the house again. I miss it when I'm gone."
Marshall gave her run down on his family – his father (Ben Sr.) was a professor at nearby Green College, his mother (Judy) an instructor at Blue County Community College. He and his four siblings – Angie, Barb, Carol, and Deb –were doing well. Angie (HR Consultant) and Barb (Stay at home mom) were married with children, Carol was a free –lance journalist and Deb was an aspiring community theater actress and Green College student.
"Sounds like you were outnumbered growing up with all those sisters," Beth observed.
"Yeah, but I had a large date pool with so many of their friends around all the time!" Marshall grinned. "Plus it was a pretty liberal progressive household and I grew up with a sound grounding in equality, women's rights, social justice, and compassion."
"Statistics show you should have ended up gay," Beth noted.
Marshall laughed out loud at that one. "That was never a concern," he smiled, giving her a look and Beth was surprised to feel herself blush.
She always liked this guy and after all she had been through she was glad to be with him now. This was her great escape from some of the tough times she had been enduring. She always felt 'normal' and accepted when she worked at L and J – nobody knew her real story and she liked the professional atmosphere of the company where she could mask all her fears and insecurities being surrounded by talented and quality people. And she looked forward to seeing Ben Marshall every day too, a friendly and cheerful guy who made her laugh. Now here she was sitting in the car with him going home for Christmas.
Beth tried to stuff her anxiety and stress thinking about meeting Marsh's family and enduring the holiday in a new and unfamiliar setting. She grew up surviving Christmas and even then not very well given her Jewish Faith (although her parents didn't practice) thanks to the drama that was constantly engulfing the family dynamics. Beth liked it better when she was in school because that kept her out of the house and away from the ongoing soap operas. Christmas was usually torture for her and she rarely found herself excited or cheered by the holiday spirit.
But Marsh had been grinning the entire ride, it seemed. He had tuned the car radio to a station that played nonstop Christmas songs and he even sang along to a few of them. The backseat was full of presents and she noticed for the first time that he was wearing a cheesy Christmas sweater. Beth almost started to laugh out loud which surprised her because she couldn't remember the last time she felt a spontaneous moment of good humor.
"I don't know how to do Christmas," Beth said.
"Don't worry about it," Marshall replied warmly. "You don't have to do anything. My family will do everything for you."
Beth stared at Marsh as if he was the Ghost of Christmas Present. She didn't have the courage to tell him that her family never did anything for her.
"I don't want any special treatment," she said. "Promise me you won't say anything about anything."
"Beth, relax," Marsh told her. "By showing up with me you're going to get the special treatment. It's been a while since I brought somebody home."
"You didn't tell them I was your girlfriend did you?" She asked, feeling panicked.
"No, but that's not going to stop them from assuming and they're not going to listen if I try to tell them we're just friends anyway," he let her know. "Just go with the flow. It's going to be fine."
"If I get overwhelmed, can I just hide out somewhere?" She asked.
"Sure," Marshall smiled. "I'll hide with you!"
Not much more time passed before Beth saw the 'Entering Blue County' sign on the side of the state highway.
"We're almost there," Marshall announced happily and he began telling her about the area and pointing out various landmarks and local businesses as they passed several buildings and lots.
Marshall grew up in Greenville, the county's largest town and "county seat". Beth had to admit that the town did look Norman Rockwell New Englandish once they drove down the main street of 19th century buildings with attractive storefronts decked out in Holiday cheer. There were also plenty of Christmas lights and decorations to add to the festive feel.
Marshall drove through some attractive neighborhoods. A couple of inches of snow on the ground added to the magic of the season and most houses were adorned with lights and other holiday decorations. Marshall pulled the car into the driveway of a house that almost could have rivaled the house in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with an overabundance of lights and other decorations on the house, trees and yard.
"Don't the neighbors complain?" Beth asked.
"They're used to it," Marshall replied as he pulled the car into an open lot behind the house. There was a two car garage with at least six cars parked in the lot and on the grass. "Looks like everybody is here," Marshall grinned.
"The light is blinding!" Beth observed as they climbed out of the car, actually shielding her eyes from the bright lights hung on the house and shining brightly.
"Great Grandma insists we go all out every year," Marshall explained. "We do it for her. It's her custom and tradition. She's always loved Christmas and she instilled that love in all of us."
"Well, if the lights are supposed to prove just how much she loves the season this place looks like an orgy," Beth commented as Marshall dug their luggage out of the back seat.
"She would consider it sacrilegious not to have lights, decorations, the tree, the stockings, the whole nine yards," Marshall grinned. "We don't argue!"
Marshall led Beth through the back door into the large Victorian house. A back coat room spilled out into a large modern kitchen that was full of people and the aroma of various cooking foods.
"Benjamin!" A middle aged woman pranced across the room and engulfed Marshall in a laughing hug.
"Hi, Ma, Merry Christmas," Marshall said, dropping the luggage to embrace his mother.
"And who's this lovely thing?" Mrs. Marshall wanted to know, breaking the hug to examine her son's companion.
"Everybody, this is Beth," Marshall said. "Beth, this is everybody."
Beth felt like she was at an AA meeting as she was greeted by endless – "Hi, My name is…" meeting Marsh's family. They were surprisingly friendly, cheerful and welcoming, as if they were embracing Beth back to the fold after a long absence even though this was the first time she met any of them. The house was warm and loud with Christmas music playing, decorations everywhere, and the largest tree Beth had ever seen taking up half the living room.
Mrs. Marshall directed her son and guest up the stairs with their luggage.
"It's a full house," Marshall explained sheepishly as he led Beth into his childhood bedroom. "We'll have to bunk together."
Beth gave him a funny look as she tossed her duffle bag on the bed.
"I can sleep on the floor," Marshall clarified.
"The bed seems big enough for two," Beth said with a shrug before glancing around the room, eying his various posters and various other artifacts. "No sports trophies?" She teased.
"I was never that good," Marshall replied. "In fact, I was pretty much average at everything except Math. I excelled in that from the beginning which is why I'm at L and J now."
She nodded with understanding.
"We should head back down," Marshall advised. "Meet my Great Grandmother. We call her Great-Ma. Be warned, she really is out there mentally. I wasn't kidding about her being eccentric which really means weird. She tells bizarre stories in her old age. I don't want to say she has a screw loose but she really isn't all there mentally. Sort of demented and out to lunch so don't be freaked out if she asks you to do something strange or tells you a goofy story."
"I've spent plenty of time on the wards lately, Marsh," Beth said, rolling her eyes in a self-mocking response. "I'm sure I can handle a 98 year old woman's fantasies."
The two went back downstairs and Marshall located Great-Ma in the den, watching television. She was a small and frail woman, sitting in an overstuffed arm chair dwarfed by a colorful quilt that covered most of her body.
"Great-Ma!" Marshall said happily. "It's me, Benny."
Beth giggled at hearing Marshall refer to himself as Benny and she watched as he gave his great grandmother a hug.
"Hello, Dear," Great-Ma replied in a squeaky course voice. "Who's this with you?"
"Great-Ma, this is my friend Beth," Marshall said warmly.
"Friend?" Great-Ma frowned. "You don't need no friend, Benny. You want a lover."
Marshall laughed nervously and threw Beth a look. "See what I mean?" He sighed.
"Come closer, Beth, I'm half-blind," Great-Ma ordered.
Marshall stepped aside and Beth moved close to the chair. Great-Ma reached out and took Beth's hand.
"My, you're pretty," Great-Ma pronounced.
"Thank you," Beth replied, trying not to blush.
"Benny doesn't need a friend, sweetie," Great-Ma told her. "He needs a wife."
"Great-Ma," Marshall pleaded. "Behave."
"Benny, why don't you go visit with the others?" Great-Ma suggested. "Give me a chance to get to know your….friend."
Beth laughed and gave Marshall a nod to let him know it was okay and she would be fine alone with his harmless great grandmother. Marshall chewed on his lip for a moment but then decided there was no point in arguing with Great-Ma.
"Just let me know if you need me," Marshall advised Beth as he headed for the door.
"Yes, she'll be sure to do that, Benny," Great-Ma said sarcastically while motioning for Beth to take a seat in the chair next to her.
Beth did as she was asked and Great-Ma gave her a long look.
"I'm not going to ask you your story, Beth," Great-Ma said. "I sense a certain aurora from you that tells me you haven't been happy lately."
"I….." a dumbfound Beth began.
Great-Ma held her hand up. "Don't worry, Dear, you're going to be okay," she said with a warm smile. "It's Christmas."
"I'm Jewish," Beth blurted out.
"Jesus was a Jew, Dear," Great-Ma replied easily. "It's not about that anyway."
"Oh," Beth said nervously.
"I have many stories I could tell you, Beth, but I won't bore you with my tales," Great-Ma said. "Only that once I was young and beautiful like you and I had my challenges too."
Beth stared at Great-Ma with uncertainty, not sure if she could trust the woman to truly understand her own struggles.
"I was madly in love with Joseph M. MacMullen," Great-Ma announced. "Met him at Green College where I was fortunate enough to attend. But the war broke out and he left to go serve in the Air Corps. We married the day before he left. His plane was shot down and he was missing in action for nearly three years. The government declared him dead but I refused to believe it."
"I'm sorry," Beth offered.
"Christmas 1944," Great-Ma smiled. "Not unlike this one. I was lonely and miserable in my small little apartment in Hillsboro. I worked as a clerk at the Army Supply Depot supporting the war effort."
"I know it was a hard time," Beth said.
"I prayed to God to bring Joseph M. MacMullen home to me for Christmas, even if it was for one night," Great-Ma recalled. "There was a knock on my door and I opened it and there was Joseph, looking so handsome in his uniform. We had a wonderful night together talking about our lives and he told me he loved me. I was so happy. But he wouldn't talk about the future. Just about our past together and how much he loved me. And he kept telling me that I was going to be okay as long as I believed in the miracle of Christmas. The next morning I awoke and Joseph was leaving. But he wasn't the handsome young man in his uniform from the night before. Now he was an emaciated prisoner of war wearing shredded fatigues. Barely recognized him. He looked like a skeleton. Then he walked out the door and he was gone. Two days later, I got a visit from the war department. Joseph had died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp a month earlier."
Beth knew that Marshall had told her to beware of Great-Ma's stories but there was something that felt so real about her Christmas tale even though Beth knew it couldn't be true.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Beth said warily.
"I was too," Great-Ma replied. "I was convinced I would never love again. Never live again. Never enjoy Christmas again. But I knew Joseph had come to me that night. That God had given me a chance to believe again. And live again. And love again. So I vowed to honor those promises of Christmas and here I am all these years later surrounded by a family who loves me because I was able to love again, marry again, have my daughter who was Benny's grandmother and she had Benny's mother and Benny's mother had him."
"That's certainly a gift," Beth said.
"As are you, Dear," Great-Ma replied.
Beth felt her eyes filling with tears.
"Benny doesn't know it but he brought you home for a reason," Great-Ma continued. "I'm guessing this was an unplanned spur of the moment invite?"
"Kind of," Beth admitted.
"You're here so I can pass the gift on to you, Beth," Great-Ma informed her. "I got the flu in September and I almost died but I knew I couldn't go yet. I knew there was one more thing left for me to do. And as soon as you walked into this room I knew you were the reason I didn't die."
Beth stared at her, not sure if she should be freaked out or comforted.
"You're going to be okay, Beth," Great-Ma said again and for some reason Beth believed her. "Leave your past where it belongs and look to the promises of the future."
"Are you saying Marsh is my future?" Beth asked.
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying," Great-Ma replied knowingly. "That's the promise of this Christmas."
Beth smiled. "That's not such a bad thought," she said.
"Did you happen to notice Donovan's Department Store on your way in?" Great-Ma asked. "Big old building on Main Street."
"Yes, Marsh mentioned it's where he shopped all the time whenever he's home," Beth said. "Looked very old fashioned."
"I worked there after the war," Great-Ma told her. "Every Christmas season, a man came in with his wife to buy Christmas presents. Donovan's had a wonderful toy section back in the day and other gift sections that were the best of the best. I liked the couple because I could see that they were deeply in love."
"Sounds very sweet," Beth smiled.
"Then one year the man comes in alone and I thought for sure the poor woman had died," Great-Ma said.
"How terrible!" Beth sighed.
"He tells me he wants to buy a fur coat and he asked me to try the coat on since I was the same size and it felt nice and he bought it and I thought his wife was going to have a wonderful Christmas that year,"
"Sounds like it," Beth smiled.
"A few weeks later, a woman comes into the store with the coat. I recognized it because it was the most expensive one we had and we didn't carry that many. It was a gorgeous shade of brown, so soft and warm." Great-Ma said. "But it wasn't the same woman I used to see with the man buying their Christmas gifts together every year. She had the receipt for the coat and she told me with mortification that she had to return it because she was having an affair with the married man who bought her the coat and she just couldn't accept something like that from him knowing he was married."
"That's really awful," Beth remarked, not quite sure why Great-Ma was telling her the story.
"I told her that she should keep the coat," Great-Ma revealed.
"Why would you tell her that?" Beth asked.
"Because he bought it for her and it was a very nice coat," Great-Ma explained. "If she didn't want to continue the affair then she shouldn't but the coat was hers and she didn't need to return it."
"I would have told her not to keep it," Beth said. "It would always remind her of him even if she broke it off."
"The lady left with the coat," Great-Ma announced proudly.
"Oh," Beth said.
"Years later, I was in the state hospital and guess who I ran into?" Great-Ma smiled.
"You were at the state hospital?" Beth asked with surprise.
"I had some problems after the birth of my second child," Great-Ma revealed. "Today they call it post-partum depression but back then there wasn't any such diagnosis. My husband thought I was crazy and he had me locked up."
Beth stared at Great-Ma with a look at disbelief on her face.
"I told you it's going to be okay, Beth," Great-Ma said knowingly. "I got over that challenging period and I went on to live a full and happy family life. My husband became accustomed to my quirks, oddities and peculiarities and I paid no attention to those who talked behind my back or dismissed my stories about Joseph and my other visions as that of a crazy woman."
"Did you happen to have a vision about me?" Beth asked with fascination.
"Stop looking over your shoulder," Great-Ma advised with authority. "It is clear Benny is crazy about you."
"You wouldn't be here if he wasn't," Great-Ma let her know. "This can be your new family if you so desire. Your family of origin doesn't have to define you or haunt you. These people here will love you for who you are and they won't fault you for who you aren't."
Beth wanted to cry hearing such validation.
"It's time for your Christmas miracle, Beth," Great-Ma said with a smile.
"But I don't believe in Christmas miracles," Beth said with panic.
"Maybe it's time to start," Great-Ma suggested.
"What about the woman with the coat?" Beth asked after thinking about the entire conversation in her head.
"You mean Kathy?"
"You didn't finish the story."
"Well, the state hospital wasn't Club Med," Great-Ma recalled. "We were limited to what we could bring and keep there. Kathy was wearing her fur coat! She recognized me from Donovan's and we talked as if we were old friends. I don't know if her affair is what eventually brought her into the system or if something else happened to her and I didn't ask. But she had kept the coat because it was hers just like I said it was. She told me that the coat hugged her when no one else would." Great-Ma stopped for a moment to consider those words. "Can you imagine that?" She asked sadly.
"No," Beth whispered, feeling a chill run along her spine.
"Kathy said the coat kept her warm and that was good because the state hospital building wasn't the warmest place. We became friends that day and we remained friends for the rest of Kathy's life."
"Are you warm now, Great-Ma?" Beth asked.
"Yes, dear, I am," Great-Ma smiled. "Are you?"
"I'm getting there," Beth said hopefully.
"I have the coat," Great-Ma revealed.
"You do?" Beth asked with surprise.
"I inherited it when Kathy died," Great-Ma explained. "She said she wanted me to stay warm."
"It was nice of her to remember you."
"I had Debbie put the coat in Benny's bedroom closet earlier," Great-Ma smirked.
"You did?" Beth asked, confused.
"So you can stay warm," Great-Ma explained.
"But wait," Beth said with confusion. "How could you ask Deb to put it in Marsh's closet before you even met me?"
"I have visions, dear," Great-Ma explained with a smirk. "Wear it tonight," she suggested.
"Tonight?" Beth asked with confusion.
"With nothing else," Great-Ma instructed.
Beth blushed and Great-Ma laughed knowingly. "Do you want to be warm or don't you?"
"I could use some hugs," Beth admitted.
"You've come to the right place," Great-Ma assured her. "This is going to be your best Christmas ever, Beth. Don't question it. Embrace it."
"Okay," Beth said.
"Don't tell anybody about our little Christmas miracle secret, child," Great-Ma told her. "Nobody needs to know."
"It will be just between us," Beth agreed.
"And after I'm gone remember to stay warm and to give hugs and to believe in Christmas just like I always have," Great-Ma said with a wink.
"I will," Beth promised.
"Keep putting the lights up for me," Great-Ma requested.
"We will," Beth told her, trying not to get choked up.
The door to the den opened and Beth's private time with Great-Ma came to an abrupt end as Marshall and a couple of his siblings came into the room chatting and laughing and being a family. The sound of Christmas music could be heard in the other room and the smell of baking cookies drifted into the den.
"Everything okay here?" Marshall asked, giving Beth a concerned look.
"Everything's fine," Beth smiled as she stood.
A part of Beth wanted to tell Marshall the entire conversation and experience she had just shared with Great-Ma but she knew it was a private moment meant just for the two of them. So she gave Marshall an unexpected hug instead, kissing him on the cheek in the process.
"Merry Christmas, Benny," she said happily. I love you."
Marshall was taken aback by Beth's random act of affection and her emotional words. He returned the hug with disbelief but contentment as Great-Ma smiled radiantly from her chair.
"Thank you," Beth mouthed to Great-Ma over Marshall's shoulder. "This is going to be the best Christmas ever," Beth whispered into Marshall's ear.
"The first of many, dear, the first of many," Great-Ma replied.
Mrs. Marshall came to help put Great-Ma to bed and a wide eyed Marshall led Beth by the hand from the den.
"What in the hell did the two of you talk about in there?" an amazed Marshall wanted to know.
"It was Secret Santa stuff," Beth smiled, squeezing his hand.
"You don't even believe in Santa Claus," Marshall told her.
"I do now!" Beth assured him.
Beth spent the evening getting to know The Marshall Family and their Christmas Eve traditions, sharing in the home made corn chowder and Christmas cookies and eggnog, singing Christmas Carols, and telling stories. The family adjourned to their bedroom before midnight (so not to disturb Santa's arrival!). Marshall walked Beth to the bedroom and then excused himself to use the bathroom.
Beth went into the room and found the closet and sure enough there was Great-Ma's fur coat hanging on a hanger. Beth smiled, removed her clothes, and slipped the warm coat over her naked skin. She was modelling the coat in the mirror when Marshall came into the room.
"What are you wearing?" He laughed.
"A hug," Beth smiled, feeling loved and sexy and warm and happy all at the same time, the magic of the coat transforming her on the spot. "I believe in Christmas miracles, Marsh," she announced.
"You do?" Marshall smirked. "Show me."
She opened the coat and Marshall's eyes went wide when he saw what was underneath.
"Don't worry," Beth laughed, noticing his reaction. "I'm not crazy."
She let the coat fall off her shoulders before she slipped naked under the covers of the bed. Marshall was momentarily stunned but then he smiled.
"Best Christmas ever?" Beth giggled from the bed.
"Best Christmas present ever," Marshall smiled as he disrobed before joining her in the bed.
"Merry Christmas, Marsh," Beth said as she snuggled against him under the covers.
"You're doing Christmas very well," Marshall let her know.
"That's because I get it now," Beth replied, giving him a kiss as they cuddled. "Merry Christmas to both of us."