Simple Gifts Chapter 3

Friday evening came and Christy couldn't have been more proud of her students. It was the first time that many of the parents had been in the schoolhouse when it was a place of learning as opposed to a place of worship on Sunday. It was clear that most were surprised and proud of the things that their children showed they were capable of.

Some of the children had been given the task of memorizing poems or reciting passages from books but others gave a different kind of presentation. Rob Allen read an original composition about how some of the earliest inhabitants of Cutter Gap had come to be there. It wasn't written as a historical outline but as first person accounts of some of the events that they experienced. Everyone in the schoolroom was held captive by the story and there was a spontaneous round of applause when Rob finished.

Zady Spencer worked some mathematic equations and related them to their uses in business, such as showing how to figure how much lumber could be milled from a tree of certain dimensions or how much honey could be counted on when you had x-number of hives and how many bees were needed to fill the hives with honey. Christy knew that most of it was over the heads of the majority of the parents in the room, but she saw genuine interest on Bob Allen's face and unmistakable pride on Neil MacNeill's. Christy decided to speak to the doctor later and see if he thought that Bob Allen might be interested in a mathematics course that he could put into use in his mill. And, as for pride, Zeb Spencer was just a step away from busting his buttons while Fairlight's face reflected amazement at her daughter's knowledge.

One of the most entertaining presentations of the evening was Creed Allen's summation of the book of Genesis or, as Creed so succinctly put it, "How the whole world come ta be in the first place." Christy knew that David had worked with Creed and had approved his…unique….point of view on the subject, so she had no concerns over doctrinal heresy, but she knew that it would be quite a while before folks of the cove would stop talking about Creed's perspective of the first book of the Bible. The highlight came when he was talking about the first chapter of Genesis when God created all the animals and saw that it was good.

"Now, I gotta say that I still cain't figure why God decided to create 'skeeters," Creed Allen said seriously. "They purt near eat me alive last summer. But Doc MacNeill says that if there weren't no 'skeeters then there wouldn't be nothin' fer frogs ta eat. So, since God created 'em an' Doc says frogs 'ud starve without 'em, I guess I'll just hafta learn ta tol'rate 'em."

Christy's eyes shot from David, who had a huge grin plastered across his face, to Neil, whose head was bowed and shoulders were shaking uncontrollably, to Miss Alice, who had her finger placed sideways across her twitching lips. There seemed to be a sudden outbreak of allergies in the room as evidenced by the numerous residents of the cove who suddenly dissolved into coughing fits behind handkerchiefs or were wiping tears from their averted eyes. For her part, Christy could scarcely hold back a fit of giggles over the irony of Neil MacNeill being used as a point of reference in a Bible lesson! It was a fact that she was going to make sure to point out to him at some time in the not too distant future. Upon its completion, Creed's presentation was met with the heartiest round of applause heard all evening.

Christy was also surprised and very proud of her class near the end of the evening. John Spencer and Smith O'Teale came to the front of the room and asked David Grantland and Doctor MacNeill to come forward. The two men eyed each other speculatively but came to stand by the two young men.

"Doc MacNeill, Reverend Grantland, we just wanted to take time to thank you for all you did for us this year," John said. "We know that you're both busy men, but you took the time to come give us special classes in science and in the Good Book. I know that Miz Christy appreciates everything you done, but we wanted to show you that we did too."

At that point, Smith O'Teale handed each man a wooden plaque that was made from the same walnut as the bookshelf that they'd made for Christy. He had carved the inscription "To Dr. Neil MacNeill (or) Reverend David Grantland, in grateful appreciation for your instruction and guidance. The Cutter Gap Mission School, Class of 1913" on each plaque, which had then been stained and polished using the same materials as they'd used on the bookcase.

Both men were genuinely surprised and shook the hands of both of the younger men as the rest of the students, who were soon joined by their parents, applauded their approval.

After they'd returned to their seats, Rob Allen returned to the front of the room and again thanked Christy for the job that she'd done over the last year, repeating much of what he'd said the morning that the class had made the presentation of their gifts to her. As he spoke, Christy looked around the room and looked at the faces of the people there, people who had been strangers to her less than a year ago but whose lives seemed inextricably entwined with hers now. As Rob finished and turned the rest of the evening over to Christy, she took a deep breath to clear the lump from her throat and stood facing the packed school house.

"Given the lateness of the hour and the fact that, as my students have so recently pointed out, I tend to cry at the drop of a hat," Christy began and was met with chuckles around the room, "I'll be brief."

"I just want to thank you. To thank you for giving me the opportunity to teach your wonderful children for the past year. You have allowed me to watch them learn and grow in ways that I could have never imagined when I arrived here. I know that I'm supposed to be the teacher, but I learn from them every single day and I can't begin to express to you the joy that they bring to me."

Every eye was trained on the small figure at the front of the room, the majority of them looking at her with affection, respect or both.

"And I want to thank you for allowing me to become a part of your lives here," she said, her eyes roving over the crowd of faces. "When I got off that train in El Pano last year, I stepped into a world that was completely different than the one that I knew. I was excited about being here, but I was afraid as well. I was afraid that I wouldn't fit in and that I wouldn't be up to the job of teaching. So I prayed to God and told him that, if He thought He could use me…then, here I was. And even though it hasn't always been easy, it's been the most fulfilling year of my life. God has put people in my path who have helped me to grow and see things with new eyes, and I've developed friendships with some of you that are deeper and richer than any that I've ever experienced. So, I want to thank you for allowing me to come here and live amongst you and make a home for myself."

Jeb Spencer had to put his arm around Fairlight as he saw the tears trickling down her face. Alice Henderson's eyes were also unusually bright, while David Grantland's shone with his feelings for the young woman standing in front of them. Neil MacNeill simply had to look away; his throat was thick with emotion and he was afraid that what he felt in his heart was surely written all over his face. So he simply looked down and listened to Christy's sweet voice as she finished speaking.

"Now, to end with, I'd like to thank all of you for coming tonight. Don't forget to look at all of the students artwork that's hanging on the walls and remember to take them home with you. And, to my students, for the final time this year," Christy paused, smiling at the children who had become so precious to her, "You're dismissed."

There was the expected buzz of voices as the children and adults began talking about the evening. The adults exclaimed to each other in amazement over the previously unknown talents that each child seemed to possess, and the children laughed and giggled over mistakes and baubles that they'd made, while being assured that no one had noticed them.

Christy was surrounded for quite a while by parents and students alike. She and Fairlight embraced for a long moment, and Christy whispered in her ear that if she'd had an award for the most inspiring student that she'd taught that year, it would be her. They made a date to go rambling along the creek soon.

Alice Henderson came up and took her hands and simply said, "Well done, Miss Huddleston. Very well done, indeed." Christy knew that she wasn't just talking about the evening and knew that she'd be eternally grateful for her friendship with this wise, wonderful woman.

David leaned down and whispered that she'd never looked more beautiful than she had that evening and hoped that, now that school was over, they could make more time to enjoy each other's company. He also said that everyone that had spoken to him that night had done nothing but sing her praises and that she should be proud of all she'd accomplished during the past year. Christy smiled at him... he was such a good man…but for reasons that she couldn't quite explain, it vaguely irked her that he'd mentioned her accomplishments after he'd commented on her appearance. And he had almost made it sound as if school had been preventing them from spending time together. But, it was late and perhaps she was being overly sensitive.

She'd seen Doctor MacNeill speaking to various families and couldn't help but smile when she'd seen him speaking to Smith and Becky O'Teale and then bend over to praise Mountie on her recitation. She'd memorized her piece and performed it perfectly, without a pause or a stutter. It seemed that the little girl and the doctor had developed quite a friendship over the past few days.

Christy was standing at the side of her desk and had just finished speaking with Mary Allen when she turned and nearly ran into the very man that she'd just been thinking about. Neil was standing by her desk, looking down at the large bouquet of wildflowers in the mason jar. She'd decided to leave it on her desk until after the program that evening and Mountie had brought a few new blooms that morning to replace the ones that were wilting. It still looked beautiful and the blue ribbon gave an air of distinction to the humble mason jar. Neil had been absently toying with one of the daffodils in the arrangement.

"I'm glad that you were able to come tonight, Neil," Christy smiled, looking up into his eyes. "I was hoping that you wouldn't have an emergency to tend to."

"No, everyone managed to stay hale and hardy in the cove tonight," he replied. "I'm glad too; I would have hated to have missed this evening. You did a fine job with the program."

"No, really," she said, shaking her head. "It was the children who did all the work, I just planned it."

"You really are miserable at accepting a compliment, aren't you Miss Huddleston?" the doctor said, his tone teasing and causing her to laugh.

"Isn't there an old saying about birds of a feather flocking together?" she teased back.

"Point taken," he said, smiling as he looked around the school room. "I have to admit, I'm going to miss this place a bit. I'd come to enjoy the chemistry lessons every week."

"Well, you can still visit. The building is opened on Sundays, you know," she said, not pushing the point but, rather, extending a gentle invitation.

"Well now, if you can guarantee that Creed Allen would be delivering the sermon, I'd be tempted to take you up on your offer," Neil said, his lips quirking. "I think that boy has a definite future in the pulpit."

"Creed Allen as a preacher," Christy said, her eyes glazing a bit as she shook her head. "The thought nearly renders me speechless."

Christy suddenly noticed the plaque that he was holding under his arm and she reached out to touch it.

"May I see this?" she asked, holding it carefully as he handed it to her. "I didn't know that they were going to do this for David and you, but I'm glad they did. The two of you have been such a help this year, I'm truly grateful to both of you."

"It was a pleasure," Neil said, watching as her small fingers traced the scrollwork that Smith O'Teale had carved into the corners of the plaque.

"He did a beautiful job, didn't he?" Christy commented. "He carved the vine detailing on the bookcase too. I wonder if he'd ever be able to get an apprenticeship with one of the furniture makers in Knoxville.

"You never stop, do you?" Neil asked, gently.

"What do you mean?" she asked, looking up at him.

"You never stop thinking about how to help those children, do you? You're always thinking of ways to make their life better," he said, his eyes soft as they looked into hers.

"You do it, too," she said. "Look at your kindness towards Mountie. No….now who is it who can't take a compliment?" she asked as he looked down and started to shake his head, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Helping her make a card may have been just a small thing to you, but it was important to her. You made a difference in her life."

"And you do that every day," Neil replied, his voice as soft and low as she'd ever heard it as he looked back up at her. "With everyone you meet. You thanked people tonight for letting you come and make a home for yourself in Cutter Gap, but the truth is that we're lucky to have you here. I'm glad you came here, Christy….I can't tell you how glad."

The last words were the most truthful and, at the same time, the most difficult that Neil MacNeill had ever uttered. He couldn't tell her how very thankful he was that she'd come into his life because he wasn't free to do so. He couldn't tell her what she meant to him and that, oftentimes, her face was the last thing that he thought of before he went to sleep at nights. He couldn't say any of that…..but he could stand here and look into those blue, blue eyes for just a moment longer.

"Hey, MacNeill," David's voice made it's way into their consciousness as Neil and Christy broke eye contact and looked towards him. "Can you grab the other end of this bookcase and help carry it to the Mission? Christy, do you want it to go in your room?"

"Yes, could you put it on the right side of my bed, please?" Christy asked.

She walked over and quickly removed the quilt, which she folded and handed to Ruby Mae to carry, and then gathered the card and leaves that Mountie had given to her before the doctor and the preacher picked up either end of the bookcase and started out the door with it.

Everyone else had left and the rest of the lights had been extinguished, so Christy returned to her desk to pick up the bouquet of flowers and blow out the last lamp. There was a full moon outside so she wouldn't need a lantern to follow the others to the mission. As she reached for the mason jar, her hand stopped in midair. The ribbon… the ribbon was gone. She knew that it had been there just a few moments ago, she'd seen it when Neil had been toying with some of the flowers in the bouquet just before he'd handed the plaque to her….just before she'd turned away towards the lamp to read the inscription that had been carved into the wood…

"Christy, are you coming?" she heard David shout. "We're waiting for you and this thing is heavy!"

"Yes…yes, I'm coming," Christy said, a small smile curving her lips.

She quickly blew out the lamp and picked up Neil's plaque and the jar that held the flowers then headed towards the door. As she walked down the aisle, memories of the past year that she'd spent in this room with the children flooded her thoughts. She pulled the doors shut behind her and turned to go down the stairs, her eyes lighting on the two men standing in the moonlight waiting for her.

As she walked across the yard to join them, she knew that she had no idea what challenges would come her way in the following year, but she had faith that her Father in Heaven would be by her side to lead her. And she thanked Him for the immeasurable, bountiful gifts that He had heaped upon her this last year. The gifts of belonging, of friendship and…..of love.