Hey y'all! Remember me? I know it's been way too long, and I apologize for that. Make sure you all thank Labyrinth for this. I don't think that I could have finished it without her. She pushed me to keep going, and gave me deadline after deadline (which I often missed). But she wouldn't let me quit, and I am so grateful to her for that. Because I don't want to stop writing. Sometimes I just need to make the time to sit and DO it. This one's for you, Labyrinth, and to all my readers, if you're still interested. Thanks for being patient.
When we last left our couple, they had decided to continue with Brenda's pregnancy after all the tests came back normal. Now it's time to share the news with the Johnson family. But Brenda and Fritz aren't the only one with news...
The shriek from his wife in the next room jolted Fritz Howard out of his daydream about relaxing and watching tonight's football game while he prepared dinner. He almost sliced his finger with the potato peeler before he dropped it into the sink and rushed to see what was the matter.
"Honey, what's wrong?" he asked, out of breath as he ran into their bedroom. He quickly scanned her body for signs of injury before he followed her eyes to the TV screen, which she was staring at in horror. Images of factories packing snack cakes into cellophane pouches on industrial-sized conveyor belts flashed across the screen as the title of the news story flashed on the bottom of the screen:
Hostess Cupcakes going out of business.
Plopping down on the bed next to her, Fritz half wanted to kill Brenda for scaring him so badly, but all it took was one look at her face for him to eradicate that thought from his mind. She looked scared to death.
Gently, he reached his hand behind her to stroke her back.
"No more Ding Dongs, Fritzy." He watched her face continue to fall as she went on, the pitch of her voice becoming higher with each word, "no more Ho Hos or Sno Balls or Twinkies."
"It'll be all right, honey."
"All right?!" she turned to him with such a look of rage that Fritz scooted back in fear. "How can it be all right?" She stood up to pace the room before continuing, "I finally have free reign to eat as much junk food as I want. I mean, I'm gonna gain weight anyway."
"Brenda, I don't think you should—" Fritz began, but Brenda's dagger-like stare made him bite his tongue.
"And now I can't even have my Ding D—" Brenda stopped mid-thought and ran to their closet. Fritz tentatively followed.
Fritz sighed deeply, his patience wearing thin. "Brenda, what are you doing?"
She reappeared with her tennis shoes and purse. "We gotta go, Fritzy," she began as she sat to tie her shoes. "We gotta go to the grocery store and buy them all. Then we gotta go to the pharmacy, and..."
"Brenda!" Fritz grabbed his wife by the shoulders to shake her out of her hysteria. "Honey, you need to stop. You can't go out like this. Why don't you let me go and—"
"You'll buy them all for me, Fritzy?" she asked, her eyes wide. Then she threw her arms around him in gratitude. "Oh, thank you, honey, thank you so much."
He patted her back and didn't say a word as he plastered on a smile, grabbed his keys and headed out the door. He was going to say, "Let me go on the internet and see what exactly 'going out of business' means in this situation," but if this was what it took to keep the peace, he'd keep his mouth shut and do it.
This is only the beginning, he thought, as he turned the key to start the car and pulled into the street. He recalled stories from his buddies at work about running out in the middle of the night to pick up fast-food burgers or banana splits to soothe their pregnant wives' late-night cravings. But that isn't true for all pregnant women, is it? Maybe Brenda will be different...
Who am I kidding? He quickly reasoned with himself. He made a mental note to sign up for DVR service before baseball season began. He had a feeling he wouldn't be able to sit uninterrupted to watch a game anytime soon.
"Brenda, have you seen the remote?" Fritz called from the dining room as he peaked in the bottom cabinets of the buffet a few days later. He knew it was a long-shot, but he had already turned the living room upside down with no luck. Inside, he found no remote, but five boxes of Ding Dongs instead. Brenda had them hidden all over the house, and it was beginning to drive him crazy.
Although she hadn't answered his question, Fritz didn't exactly hear silence from their bedroom. Instead he heard grunts and exasperated sighs, as well as the sound of things being thrown across the room.
"Brenda, did you hear me?" he began as he entered their bedroom to find a pile of clothes on the bed and his wife nowhere in sight. When he made his way toward their closet, he was hit in the face by a flying pencil skirt.
"Oomph," he grunted. "What the hell, Brenda?"
"Oops. Sorry, Fritzy," she said as she appeared from inside the closet, clad in only panties and a half-buttoned blouse with her hair full of static cling, "but I think there's somethin' wrong with that new dryer. It's too hot or it's not workin' right. It shrunk all my clothes!"
Fritz began to pick up the haphazardly strewn pieces of clothing on the floor as he mumbled, "Maybe if you'd lay off the Ding Dongs a little..."
"What was that, honey?" Brenda asked, genuinely curious as she removed her blouse and turned to reenter the closet.
"I said," he began cautiously, "maybe it's time you thought about buying some mat—"
"Fritz, don't say it!" she shouted, pointing her finger for emphasis. She had come back out now, wearing a pink sweater that was a little snug, but passable. She ran her hands down her chest and stomach as she studied her reflection in the mirror. She wore a pensive expression.
"Brenda, honey." He took a step closer to her. "It'll just be for a little while, and when the baby gets here then…"
"Do we have to talk about this now?" she whined as she turned to go back to the closet, but Fritz gently grabbed her wrist to stop her.
"Yes, we do," he answered her in a serious tone. "Come and sit with me for a minute."
Brenda huffed and rolled her eyes, but followed and sat on the one corner of the bed not covered with clothing.
"Brenda, look at me," he began. "I love you. I will always love you. Nothing could ever change that."
"I know that, honey, I just—"
"Let me finish, okay?"
She slowly nodded in agreement.
"We're going to have a baby. We both agreed we were going to do this, right?"
She nodded again, biting her lip as she did so.
"So, then why do you insist on ignoring the fact that you're pregnant?"
Brenda sighed. "I don't know, Fritz. I guess I just never imagined in a million years that this would happen to me, and now that it has, it's just so hard to wrap my head around it all. I mean, I know it sounds shallow, but I've always been the same size and weight, give or take 5 pounds, and the fact that I'm about to gain 20-30 pounds over the next year, I just don't know if I can handle it. I mean, it probably should be the least of my worries, with how our lives are about to change, but the thought of wearin' those hideous tent dresses or those pants with the big old spandex flap in the front…" her voice trailed off as she choked back tears.
"Aww, honey," Fritz said as he tried to comfort her with a hug. She was right. Their lives were about to change. He just couldn't believe that her clothes would be one of the things she worried about the most. "I'm sure we can find you some clothes that will fit that are still nice-looking. Please don't worry about this." He pulled away and added, "Why don't you try those pants that you always need to wear with a belt for work tomorrow?"
"Oh yeah, those tan ones," she said, her eyes widening in realization as she sprang to the closet. After a few seconds Fritz heard, "Yes, They fit!"
Fritz smiled in triumph at this small victory, but inside he was thinking that it was going to be a long nine months.
Fritz hoped that he hadn't made a huge mistake as he drove home from work that night. He had a hunch, and he hoped it was right, that buying Brenda clothes in one size bigger than what she normally wore would do for the time being. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how he looked at it, Fritz had been dragged along clothes shopping with Brenda enough times to know all of her sizes, as well as her favorite stores by heart. All he'd really bought were a few pairs of jeans, some sweaters and a couple of tank tops, which she liked to layer with. He figured that these casual clothes would get her through the few days that they would spend in Atlanta, and they could buy some work clothes for her when they returned after the holiday. He just hoped that he hadn't crossed some sort of line. He simply wanted her to be comfortable in Atlanta while they were there visiting, because breaking the news about the baby to her family was going to be hard enough for her.
Fritz entered the house slowly and cautiously, hiding the plastic bag of clothes in the laundry room. He wanted to gauge her mood before he sprung them on her. As he turned into the kitchen, he spotted her dressed in her sweats, which had become her go to at-home staple as of late, chopping vegetables.
"Hey, honey," she greeted him and turned to kiss his cheek. "You're runnin' late. Everythin' ok today?" She was smiling. That was a good sign.
"Everything's fine. What's that you're making there?"
"Oh, just a salad. There's some frozen burgers in the oven. Nothin' fancy."
"That sounds good enough for me," he replied, wrapping his arms around her from behind. He didn't want to spoil the moment. Maybe he'd show her what he'd bought after they'd finished eating.
Brenda was animated as she talked about her day with Fritz over dinner. She was relating a recent case she had been helping ready for trial. One of the star witnesses had suddenly gone AWOL, and she had finally tracked him down and convinced him to testify. He was happy for her. She seemed really content, but he could tell that she missed investigating murders. The fact that she occasionally got to do some detective work in her new position was really a benefit. And she was a lot safer there, which pleased Fritz immensely. He knew that Brenda could take care of herself; he had never doubted that fact. What had always concerned him were the psychopaths that she investigated. The situations she was forced to put herself in were so unpredictable that Fritz couldn't help but worry.
Now Fritz had new concerns for Brenda, like how she was going to handle telling her family about the pregnancy. He was sure that they would all be thrilled for them, but he still knew Brenda was not looking forward to this upcoming family visit. One issue at a time, Fritz thought to himself. First he had to convince her that she needed to start packing. It was already the Monday night before Thanksgiving, and they were scheduled to leave in less than 36 hours.
As they began to clear the dishes, Fritz said, "Honey, you made dinner. Let me clean up. Why don't you start laying out what you want to pack for Atlanta?"
Brenda frowned. "Do you think anyone would notice if I just wore my sweats the whole time?"
Fritz bit his lip. It was now or never. He put down the dishes on the counter and walked over to the laundry room. He quickly returned with the large shopping bag, which he wordlessly handed to Brenda.
Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "What's this?" she asked as she glanced in the bag. Pulling out a pair of jeans, she added, "Aren't these my favorite jeans? I already own a pair, and they barely fit. Why would you buy me another?"
"Just try them on."
"But, Fritz..." she protested.
"Just trust me, would you?"
"Ok," she said, not convinced, but she walked to the bedroom anyway. A minute later, she returned wearing the jeans, a look of bewilderment on her face. "How did you..."
"I just bought a bigger size. I thought that would do for now. Are they ok?" he asked, silently praying she wouldn't freak out, cry, or throw something at him.
She looked up and walked toward him. He was unsure of her expression. She moved to embrace him, holding him tight as she whispered, "They're perfect, Fritzy. Thank you so much."
Fritz grinned bigger than he had in a long time, celebrating another win. Maybe he would get through this pregnancy after all.
"So, how are we doing this?" Fritz asked two days later as he and Brenda were sitting on a bench outside of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta waiting for their ride to her father's house.
"Doin' what?" Brenda asked, obliviously fiddling with her phone.
"Telling your family about... the baby." His voice trailed off as he whispered the end of his statement, but that didn't keep Brenda from shushing him nonetheless.
"Brenda, you can't keep acting like this is not happening."
"I know that. I know that," she tried to reassure him, and then looked around to see if anyone was listening to their conversation. They weren't, so she continued, "I just don't think that the entire city of Atlanta needs to know our business."
"Well, that's fine, honey, but by the time we leave on Sunday, will at least a few residents of Atlanta know?"
"Yes, yes, of course. I just need to find the right time is all. Don't you worry; I'll get to it. Let's just enjoy visitin' with everyone for awhile, okay?" She patted his hand, then gestured over his shoulder, "Oh, look. Here comes Charlie."
"And I'm also taking a cooking class, which I love. Remember how I cooked for you and Uncle Fritz when I stayed with you in LA? I'm actually thinking about transferring to Le Cordon Bleu after I get my business degree. They have a school here in Atlanta."
Although Brenda was pleased to hear how well Charlie was doing in her first few months of college and also to see her smiling and so excited about it, she needed to asked her niece a question that had been weighing heavily on her mind before they arrived at her father's house.
"Charlie, how's Grandpa doin'? I mean honestly, is he doin' all right?" Brenda had felt awful about how little contact she'd had with her father since she'd last visited him. She'd just had so much on her mind with her new job and pregnancy that she hadn't had the time... No, that was a lie, she thought to herself. A phone call doesn't take that much time. She'd really been avoiding her father. At first, she'd been afraid that she'd hear something in his voice that would make her feel like she'd need to fly back and be with him, which she couldn't physically do with her new job and already having taken so much time for pregnancy-related issues. Also, she wasn't sure she'd be able to keep the baby a secret from her Daddy. She remembered how well that had gone when she'd tried to keep Fritz a secret from her father, and she didn't want to go through that kind of stress again.
Charlie continued to smile, which was a good sign, and then answered, "He's great, Aunt Brenda. I mean, I've only been home a few weekends since I started school, but he's been doing really well recently. He's been smiling a lot and joking with me again. It's like the old Grandpa's back."
"Really?" Brenda asked, sighing in relief. "I'm so glad." She turned to smile at Fritz, who was seated in the back beside her nephew Jason. Jason was engrossed with his iPhone and had barely said two words the entire trip. Fritz returned her smile, and Brenda knew that he realized how Charlie's positive report had succeeded in lessening Brenda's guilt over having basically ignored her father for the past few months.
"There's just, uh, this one thing you ought to know," Charlie added.
"What's that?" Brenda asked, slightly concerned.
"We, um, might have an extra guest for Thanksgiving."
"Who's that?" she asked suspiciously. This visit was already full of surprises, namely her own. She wasn't sure that she could handle anymore.
"Grandpa's girlfriend!" Jason interjected from the back seat.
"Jason!" Charlie scolded.
"What?" Brenda asked. She was sure she'd misheard her nephew.
"She's not his girlfriend, Aunt Brenda. They're just friends. She cooks him dinner once in awhile, and they go to church together on Sundays."
Brenda grasped the bar above her window, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She felt as if the car had begun to spin.
"Who is she?" Fritz asked. Brenda felt him place a hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her, and she felt a little less dizzy, but not entirely better.
"Mrs. Conway from the down the street," Charlie answered. "You know her, right, Aunt Brenda?"
She nodded, having temporarily lost the ability to form words. The Conway family had lived down the street from the Johnsons since Brenda was in elementary school. They had two sons that were around her brothers' ages, and her family had always gotten along with them. Willie Rae had even become close to Mrs. Conway after Brenda went to college. The two bonded over their recent empty nest status, and would often go shopping together, or simply talk over coffee at one of their homes. Brenda had always thought that Mrs. Conway was nice enough, but she was her mother's friend. How could she have taken up with her father?
That tramp must have been bidin' her time all along, just waitin' until Mama was out of the picture, so she could finally sink her claws into Daddy, Brenda thought to herself. She began to feel sick to her stomach.
"Honestly, they're just friends," Charlie tried to reassure Brenda. "I just wanted you to know so you weren't surprised by seeing her tomorrow."
"Thank you, Charlie," Fritz replied, but Brenda didn't say a word.
After Charlie dropped Brenda and Fritz at Clay's with the promise that they'd see each other tomorrow, Fritz started toward the front door, balanced with one bag in each hand. When he noticed that there was no sound of footsteps behind him, however, he stopped and turned to see Brenda rooted in place, staring at her mother's favorite rosebush. She moved to gather her hair to one side and twist it around her finger, the way she always did when she was anxious or upset, before slowly folding her arms across her chest.
"Brenda, are you coming?" he called. He knew she was upset. Fritz couldn't blame her really; he'd probably be upset too, if the situation were reversed.
She looked up at him and slowly walked over to where he stood. "You go first," she whispered. Fritz nodded and walked toward the door. He'd expected anger from her, thinking he'd need to ask her not to lay into her father as soon as they walked in the door. Instead she was quiet and wistful. It was unsettling.
"We're here!" Fritz called out as he let himself in the front door and put the bags down just inside of it.
Clay quickly appeared with a smile. "Hey, Fritz!" he greeted him and offered a quick hug before moving to Brenda. Fritz noticed her flinch just slightly as he kissed her cheek.
"Hey, Daddy," she offered with a strained smile.
"How was your trip? Can I get y'all somethin'? Iced tea?" Clay asked animatedly. He really did seem to be doing well, and Fritz was glad to see it, but turning to Brenda he could tell she needed some time.
Before he could open his mouth to answer, however, Brenda beat him to it. "Daddy, I'm just so tired. Would you mind if I just laid down for while?" Fritz had to admit, she did look exhausted.
"Sure, honey. Everythin' okay?" Clay asked. Brenda nodded in reply and moved to climb the stairs.
"Is she really all right?" he directed to Fritz after she was out of earshot.
"Yeah, Clay," answered Fritz. "She is really excited to see you. It was just a long flight. I'll put these bags upstairs and then I'll come have some tea with you, all right?" Clay nodded and Fritz headed upstairs.
When he entered the bedroom, he found Brenda sitting on the edge of the bed twirling her hair around her finger so ferociously that he was surprised she wasn't pulling it from her scalp. She looked deep in thought, and he wondered if she even noticed that he had entered the room until she began, "How could he do this, Fritzy? Start datin' a woman so soon? It's just not fair. It's disrespectful is what it is, disrespectful to Mama's memory."
She continued to ramble as she rose and began to pace the room, still twirling her hair and pausing only to point a finger for emphasis. Fritz sat on the edge of the bed and let her go on. After a few minutes, she became quiet.
"I know it's upsetting, honey, but he's human," he said softly. "How long do you think he should wait?"
"Excuse me?" she snapped.
He could tell she was trying to unnerve him and get him to retract his question, but he refused to back down, and instead rephrased. "How long do you think is an appropriate mourning period for your father?"
Brenda plopped down on the bed next to him and shook her head. "I don't know, at least a year or two. Honestly, I never expected Daddy to date again. I just thought he'd be alone the rest of his life."
"Do you think that's what your mother would have wanted?"
Brenda sighed. "Why do you gotta go and do that?"
Fritz paused, worried that he'd upset Brenda further by bringing up her mother. "Do what?"
"Go and make sense all of a sudden. You're ruinin' my rant here."
Fritz smiled and put his arm around her. "Sorry, it's a bad habit."
"Well, stop doin' that, would you?" she added, leaning into his embrace and fighting back tears.
"So tomorrow," Fritz began. "Everyone will be here for dinner. I think it will be a good time to, uh, share our news."
Brenda recognized he was trying to change the topic, and she let him. Pulling away from Fritz, she sighed as she laid her head on a pillow and curled herself into a tight ball. "Yes, Fritzy. We will tell them all tomorrow."
The morning began much earlier than Brenda would have liked. She spent most of the night staring at the ceiling and thinking about how she was going to break the news to her family, as well as how she was going to deal with seeing Virginia Conway at her family's dinner. By 7:30 am, she could hear chatter downstairs. She guessed that it was her sisters-in-law, arriving early to prepare the turkey and put it in the oven.
Quietly she slipped out of bed, trying not to wake Fritz, and she quickly dressed and headed downstairs. Of course, she knew she wouldn't be much help in the kitchen, but she could chat with Amy and Joyce for awhile. Maybe she could get more information on Mrs. Conway and what exactly was going on with her and Daddy.
Nothing could have prepared Brenda for the sight she witnessed when she arrived in the kitchen. Amy, Joyce, and her daddy were all sitting at the table chatting and drinking coffee with Virginia Conway herself. The woman was the picture of southern gentility with her ironed slacks, blouse, silk scarf, ruffled apron, and a full face of makeup at sunrise. It made Brenda want to gag. She slowly turned around and started to climb back up the stairs as quietly as she could, but it was too late. She had been seen.
"Brenda!" Amy exclaimed. "How are you?" Defeated, Brenda plastered a smile on her face and turned around to accept her sister-in-law's fierce embrace. "You look wonderful. Doesn't she just look wonderful?" Amy turned and inquired of the others. Joyce stood to hug her as well, but the room suddenly fell silent as Brenda's eyes met the one person whom she had not expected to see so early this morning.
"Brenda Leigh," the older woman began as she stood. "It's so good to see you. What's it been, almost twenty years?"
"Mrs. Conway," Brenda acknowledged the woman with a curt nod.
"Please, dear, call me Ginny," her eyes were pleading. When Brenda didn't respond, she continued, "Come and sit with us. I want to hear all about Los Angeles. Can I get you some coffee?" She turned to grab a mug from the cabinet.
"Oh, none for me, thanks," Brenda quickly replied. The heads of her father and sisters-in-law all whipped around to face her in unison. She swallowed. It was not like her to refuse coffee. Although the smell no longer sent her running to the bathroom to vomit, it still did make her a little queasy. She rattled her brain to come up with a plausible excuse. "I, um, I've been tryin' to give it up. I've been sleepin' so much better at night." She forced a smile.
"Is this like that time you tried givin' up sugar?" her father asked with a smirk. He turned to face his daughters-in-law. "Remember how long that lasted?"
Brenda was indignant. She would not be embarrassed by her father in front of Virginia Conway. She crossed her arms before adding, "This is different, Daddy. I haven't had any coffee in almost three months. And I feel wonderful." Well, the first part was true anyway.
Her father's eyes grew wide. He looked taken aback. Amy chimed in, "Well, good for you, Brenda. I don't think I could ever give up my mornin' coffee. You're a stronger woman than I am." Brenda smiled at her. Leave it to Amy to come to her rescue.
Brenda tried to smile as she joined the others at the table, but she was still hesitant. She wished Mrs. Conway would just leave. She didn't belong here at her family's holiday celebration. But Brenda faked it as best she could, and began to talk about home.
"Ok, let's get down to business. Who's makin' what for supper?" Amy asked after they had been chatting for about a half hour.
Ginny jumped right in. "Well, the turkey's in the oven already, so that's done. Amy, you said you'd make the dressin', right?" Amy nodded.
Joyce added, "I'm makin' biscuits, and I brought a pecan pie."
"I made a pumpkin," said Amy, "And you made apple, right, Ginny?" she nodded.
Brenda looked lost, but Amy being the sweet sister-in-law she was noticed this and added, "Brenda makes really good mashed potatoes."
Brenda smiled in response to Amy before Ginny chimed in with, "Aww, ain't that sweet," and Brenda fought the urge to smack the condescending smile off of her face.
After a beat, Clay asked, "What about the cranberry sauce?"
Brenda, Amy, and Joyce remained silent, but Ginny jumped up and said, "Don't worry, ladies, I grabbed the last four cans at the Piggly Wiggly last evenin'" She moved to the counter to show them off. "I think this should be plenty for the family," she smiled proudly.
"Cranberry sauce from a can?" Brenda whined, her disgust plain. Ginny's face fell, but Brenda barely noticed, turning to her sisters-in-law. "Do either of you have Mama's recipe?" Joyce and Amy shook their heads. Ginny opened her mouth to speak, but Brenda continued, "Daddy, do you know where Mama kept the recipe?"
He shook his head. "You know that recipe was a secret, Brenda Leigh. I think it would be fine if we just—"
"Maybe we could call Aunt Pearl. Do you have her number, Daddy?" Brenda moved to look through her parent's old rolodex, which was kept on the counter beside the phone. "I'm sure she would know. They were sisters after all."
"Brenda Leigh, stop it!" Clay shouted, startling Brenda, who almost dropped the rolodex.
"What's going on in here?" Fritz asked as he wandered in, rubbing the sleep from one of his eyes. He moved to stand beside Brenda and nonchalantly put his arm on the small of her back. She was grateful for the show of support, even though he had no idea what the argument was about.
"I was just tryin' to find the recipe for Mama's cranberry sauce, but no one seems to know, so I was lookin' up Aunt Pearl's number-"
"And I was just tryin' to say," Clay cut in, "that Ginny already bought four cans of cranberry sauce, which will work perfectly fine—"
"But, Daddy," Amy insisted, "Mama's cranberry sauce is tradition. With the apples, and orange zest, and I'm not sure what else was in it, but Thanksgivin' won't be the same without it."
Brenda smiled. She could always count on Amy to have her back.
"Grand Marnier," Fritz mumbled, breaking the silence. Everyone turned to stare at him. He explained, "I walked in on her making it one year. Her secret ingredient was Grand Marnier. She made me swear never to tell, but I think she'd want you all to know now."
Everyone was still for a moment, marveling at Fritz's revelation.
"Do we have any, Daddy?" Brenda finally broke the silence.
"Do we have any Grand Marnier?"
"Well, I think we do, in the liquor cabinet over there."
"Great! Then we just need cranberries, an orange, a few apples… Where's a pen?" Brenda stopped ticking things off her fingers in search of paper and a writing implement.
"Brenda Leigh, I don't think…" Clay began.
"Clay, if it's all right with you and Mrs. Conway," Fritz offered, trying to appease everyone, "I can help Brenda with the cranberry sauce, and we can still put some of the store-bought on the table. How does that sound?"
Clay turned to Ginny, who said, "That's fine with me, but you don't have to go to the trouble—"
"Great!" Brenda cut in. "I'll go get dressed, Fritzy. Do y'all think the Piggly Wiggly's open this mornin'?" she turned to her sisters-in-law for confirmation, and after seeing them nod their heads, she ran up the steps.
You could cut the tension in this kitchen with a knife, Fritz thought as he and Brenda worked almost silently beside Ginny an hour later when they had returned from the store with the ingredients for Willie Rae's cranberry sauce. Brenda had gotten a hold of her Aunt Pearl in the car as Fritz drove, and they had a lovely conversation in which her aunt had agreed to email Brenda the recipe with the help of her granddaughter. He and Brenda were now taking turns reading the recipe and adding the ingredients while trying to stay out of Ginny's way. Amy attempted to make small talk a few times, but Brenda stubbornly refused to engage in responses of more than two words with Ginny. He felt like he should say something, but on the other hand, he couldn't really blame Brenda for the way she was feeling. He just hoped that she hadn't changed her mind about sharing the news of her pregnancy with the family at dinner this afternoon.
When the cranberry sauce had finished cooking and was sitting on the counter to cool, Fritz decided to take Brenda aside so they could talk.
"Can I see you for a second, honey?" he asked, as he motioned for Brenda to follow him. He looked around for a private place to talk, and with Bobby, Jason, and Clay watching TV in the living room, the laundry room seemed like their best bet without having to go upstairs.
"Oh, that woman!" Brenda began as soon as Fritz shut the door. "Can you believe her, walkin' around Mama's kitchen like she owns the place? And those pearls and false eyelashes first thing in the mornin'... Who does she think she is?"
Fritz approached Brenda carefully, afraid to startle her. She looked like an animal on the prowl. "Brenda, honey, can we not talk about Ginny for a second?"
Brenda whipped her head around. "You mean Mrs. Conway? Fritzy, I am not callin' that woman by her first name. She is not my friend. She shouldn't be here…"
"Okay, okay, Brenda, but can you please just listen to me!?" he hadn't meant to raise his voice at the end of his question, but his wife was on the edge, and he needed to bring her back to Earth.
She paused, slightly taken aback, and he continued, "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't mean to yell. I just… I know you're upset, and you have every right to be, but we have something important that we need to do today when your family all gets here, and I just want to make sure you're still up for this."
Brenda sighed, "Maybe we shouldn't do it today, Fritzy. It's just with that woman here, I don't know if I feel comfortable."
"No, Brenda," he took her hand before he continued, "We are doing this today. I don't know when we're coming back here again, and your family should know what's going on." Brenda sighed again, but didn't speak, so Fritz went on, "This is a good thing, remember. We're having a baby. Don't you want to share the good news with your family?"
"Yes, but that woman is not my family."
"I know that, honey, but she's here. She's not going anywhere right now, and you're just going to have to deal with it." He squeezed her hand. "I'm here for you. Whatever you need, just say the word, but we are doing this today. All right?" Brenda didn't answer. "All right, Brenda?" he asked again.
"Yes, yes, Okay!" Brenda scowled.
"Good." Fritz fought a smile. Brenda had her arms crossed and was staring at her shoes like a petulant teenage girl.
"But I'm sittin' at the opposite end of the table from where she is."
Fritz sighed, "We can sit wherever you want, honey."
Several hours later, as the turkey and cornbread dressing were being passed around the table, Brenda felt relaxed for the first time all day as she made conversation with her nephews and nieces. She and Fritz had finagled seats far from Ginny, and even though it meant they were at the children's end of the table, she didn't mind it one bit.
"So, do you like your new job, Aunt Brenda?" Emmy Rose asked, eager to here all about her favorite aunt from California whom she rarely got to see.
"Yes, honey, I like it a lot. Everyone's real nice, and I don't have to work at night time as much anymore."
"Do you still get to see dead bodies, though?" her nephew Wyatt probed.
"Wyatt Horace Johnson!" Amy reprimanded her son from halfway across the table as his cousins snickered. "That is not appropriate."
"Aww, Mom, why do you hafta use my middle name? You know I hate it."
"I do. And I don't understand why. It's a perfectly fine name. It was my grandfather's name."
"Yeah, and 100 years ago, it was fine. But today..."
"No, Wyatt," Brenda cut in. "I don't see dead bodies very much anymore. I just deal with the livin' now," she squeezed Fritz's hand once before she continued, "which reminds me..."
"Oh, I almost forgot somethin'," Ginny interjected as she stood and ran to the kitchen, interrupting Brenda's attempt at an announcement. When she returned, she was holding two bottles of wine. "My son brought me these bottles of Merlot from Napa the last time he was out to visit, and I've been savin' them for a special occasion. Who would like some?"
Brenda's brothers and sisters-in-law all nodded in agreement, but Brenda was fuming. She already detested this woman, and now she was interrupting her when she had finally built up the courage to tell her family her news.
All of the adults' wine glasses were filled, except Brenda's and Fritz's. When the bottle came to them, Brenda put her hand over her glass. "None for me, thanks," she said to Ginny, whose face fell at the refusal.
"Come on, Brenda, just have a little. It's your favorite, right?" her brother Bobby cajoled.
"Not today," Brenda reiterated. "I'm just not in the mood."
"Damnit, Brenda, will you just let the woman pour you some wine?" Clay insisted, slapping the table for emphasis. The chatter ceased and the room grew eerily quiet.
"No, Daddy, I won't."
"And just why is that?" he pushed.
"Because... because pregnant women shouldn't drink alcohol!" she spat out, jumping up and knocking over her chair in the process. Simultaneously, half the mouths at the table fell open in surprise.
"You're pregnant?" Charlie finally broke the silence. Fritz nodded in reply as Brenda covered her mouth to muffle a sob and ran upstairs.
As Fritz filled the family in on the particulars, Clay slipped away to check on his daughter. He knew he had made a mess of things by inviting Ginny to dinner on the family's first big holiday without Willie Rae. He hadn't considered how it would affect his children, especially Brenda. He should have known it would be hardest for her, and not only that, but she had had something important to say to the family, and Ginny had ruined the moment. As he climbed the stairs, he only hoped that his little girl would listen to what he had to say.
Softly he rapped on her door and waited for a response. This brought back a flood of memories of doing the exact same thing so many times before throughout Brenda's childhood. He pictured a five-year-old Brenda in tears because her brothers wouldn't let her play with them, and a surly sixteen-year-old pouting because he had refused to let her borrow the car. He'd thought by this point in his life he would have figured out what made his daughter tick, but she was still such an enigma to him.
Clay knew about boys. He had had three brothers himself and spent 25 years in the Army. Raising sons was easy for him, but when Brenda came a long, it was like he was a first-time father. He had no idea what to do with a little girl—how to talk to her. Willie Rae had been the bridge between Brenda and him, but now she was gone. For the first time in a long while, he felt like he was on the brink of losing Brenda for good, and he couldn't let that happen. He wouldn't let that happen. He knew he would never truly figure her out, but he'd muddle through. After all, he loved his little girl to pieces, and he knew when he was stupid and needed to apologize.
Clay knocked on the door again, a little louder this time.
"Go away!" she responded, sounding every bit like she had as a teenager. He slowly turned the knob anyway, relieved to find the door was unlocked.
Inside the room, Brenda was lying curled up in the fetal position on the bed, both arms wrapped around a pillow. As he entered, she looked up, meeting his eyes briefly before turning away.
"I don't want to talk to you, Daddy," she said icily.
"Well, that's just too bad, Brenda Leigh, because I've got somethin' to say." He closed the door and moved to sit on the bed, but tried to stay as far away from her as possible in order to give her space.
After a sigh, he began. "First off, are you doin' all right?"
Brenda looked up. "What? No! I'm angry with you and I..."
Clay put up his hand. "What I meant is, are you feelin' all right, you know, with the pregnancy and all?"
"Well, yes. I was pretty sick in the beginnin', but it's gotten better. I still can't stand the smell of coffee, but..." Clay began to laugh, and Brenda became indignant. "What is so funny, Daddy?"
"Oh, no, I'm sorry, sweetheart. It's just that your Mama had the same problem every time she was pregnant. If I wanted coffee in the morning, I had to go to the diner down the street, and then brush my teeth as soon as I got home." He smiled at the memory.
"Really?" Brenda asked, softening. She slowly sat up.
"Yup. Every time."
"Oh Daddy, I wish Mama was here. I wish that I could talk to her about all of this. I miss her so bad sometimes my heart actually aches." Tears welled up in her eyes and she buried her face in the pillow she was still clutching tightly.
"I know it, honey. I know just what you mean." He moved to pat her shoulder, but decided against it. He didn't want to push her, and he was guarding his own feelings. He was on the verge of tears himself.
"So then why are you datin' Mrs. Conway?"
Clay sighed again. "We're not, datin', honey. We're just...spendin' time together." He stood and walked around the small bedroom, thinking how little it had changed since Brenda was a girl. "I know you don't understand, but I was just so lonely here all by myself. Then Ginny and I started talking one Sunday after services, and she offered to cook me dinner. She lives alone, too, you know. Gerald, her husband, passed six years ago. It's just nice to have someone to talk to and eat with. Can you understand that?"
He turned to look at his daughter, who was staring off into space. He wasn't even sure if she was listening until she answered, "I guess so."
He sat back down next to her on the bed. "So are we okay, then?"
Brenda thought for a minute. "What exactly are your intentions? Do you plan on marryin' Mrs. Conway?"
Clay rolled his eyes. "Brenda Leigh, this is just a friendship. I'm not lookin' to replace your mother. All right?"
Brenda nodded slowly, still looking hesitant.
"Are we okay, sweetheart?" he asked.
She turned to him. "Well," she began, "I'm still mad at you…a little, but I guess we're okay. Just don't be bringin' her out to LA the next time you visit or anythin'."
"All right, Brenda, I won't. I love you, honey, and I'm so happy for you and Fritz."
"I love you, too, Daddy," she answered, moving closer so he could kiss her on the forehead.
As Clay held his daughter, he wondered if his new grandchild, which he already loved more than anything, would be as complicated and mysterious to Brenda as she had always been to him.
"Good bye, y'all," Amy said as she hugged Brenda and Fritz farewell the next morning. She and Joyce had come over to share breakfast with them before they needed to head to the airport for their flight back to LA.
"I know you two can't come back to Atlanta for Christmas, but will we get to see you again before the baby's born?"
Brenda turned to Fritz with a shrug, then answered, "We'll let you know. Maybe March for Daddy's birthday?"
"You'll probably be as big as a house by then!" Joyce joked.
Amy elbowed her. "Joyce! That's not nice. I'm sure Brenda will still be tiny and petite with just a cute little baby bump," she insisted with a smile. Brenda certainly hoped this would be the case.
"Can I send you some maternity clothes and baby things?" Amy asked.
"Me, too," added Joyce, her eyes lighting up.
Amy and Brenda turned to look at her. "You still have maternity and baby things?" Amy asked, incredulous. Brenda could only imagine how nice Joyce's 15-year-old maternity clothes would look. The vision of a floral tent dress with shoulder pads entered her mind. She shivered at the thought.
Joyce blushed, "Well I…"
"Don't worry, Brenda," Amy reassured her. "We'll send you some nice things, even if I have to buy new ones myself."
"Oh, you don't have to do that."
"I know that, but I want to. You and Fritz have a safe trip now. Come on, Joyce, let's let these two hit the road." They started to walk away, but Brenda could still hear Amy giving her sister-in-law a hard time about her "retro maternity clothes."
Brenda turned to her father, who had been standing by quietly. She was still hurt by his spending time with another woman so soon after her Mama's death, but it was difficult to remain angry with him; she loved him too much.
"Goodbye, Daddy," she said as she moved to embrace her father. "I love you."
"I love you too, honey." He pulled away then and asked, "Do y'all have a minute? There's somthin' I want to give you, Brenda."
Brenda turned to Fritz, who considered his watch. "We probably have a few minutes, Clay," he responded.
"Oh good," Clay said. "I'll just be a second."
He raced up the stairs faster than Brenda had seen him move in a long time. She had to admit that it was nice seeing him smile again, if she didn't think too much about the person that was putting that smile on his face.
Less than a minute later, Clay had returned with a box labeled, "Brenda Leigh" in what Brenda recognized as Willie Rae's handwriting. Her breath caught at the realization. "Daddy, what is this?"
"Your Mama kept a box of baby things from when each of you kids were small. When Clay Jr. and Bobby had their first babies, Mama gave them their boxes. I think Amy and Joyce were more excited about them than they were, but that's neither here nor there. My point is, yours and Jimmy's stayed up in the closet for years and years. I told your Mama that she needed to give them to you two, but she kept sayin' it wasn't the time. She gave Jimmy his box last Thanksgivin' when we went up to New York to visit him, and she brought yours out to LA over the summer when we were there…" his voice trailed off, and Brenda's eyes began to fill with tears. That must have been what her Mama wanted to talk to her about before she died. She wanted to give her the baby box.
Fritz put down the suitcase he was holding and moved to put his arm around Brenda. She looked up at her father. "Can we open it, Daddy?"
"Yes, of course," he answered, moving to the dining room table to set it down and remove the lid.
The first thing Brenda noticed was the book The Runaway Bunny. It was her favorite story as a little girl, and she asked her Mama to read it just about every night before she went to bed. When she lifted it out, she also noticed a framed photograph of herself as a newborn, as well as a few snapshots of herself with her parents and brothers. There were also a few baby outfits, her christening gown, some papers, and two other books. The larger she recognized as her baby book, but the second smaller one was unfamiliar. She opened it to find it filled with her mother's handwriting.
"Daddy, what is this?" she asked.
"That was her pregnancy journal." Brenda looked up, puzzled. He continued, "when your Mama was pregnant with Clay Jr., she had awful symptoms: headaches, mornin' sickness, and she was so tired all the time. She was in bed a lot, so she started writin' letters to Clay before he was born for somethin' to pass the time. Of course, she just addressed them 'Dear Baby,' because back then we couldn't find out what we were havin', so you couldn't name the baby before it was born. She wasn't as sick with the rest of you, but she continued the tradition of keepin' a journal with each pregnancy anyway."
Brenda flipped through her mother's journal, marveling at it in wonder, but something she saw inside gave her pause. "Daddy, you said that Mama always addressed her entries 'Dear Baby,' but all of these say 'Dear Brenda.'" She pointed to the top of each page to show him what she meant, but he smiled and didn't even need to look at them.
"She was so sure with you. From the day she found out she was pregnant, she said she knew you were goin' to be a girl. Havin' three boys already, we had settled on a girl's name long ago, we just hadn't had the opportunity to use it yet. I was worried, because I didn't want her to be disappointed, but she was right. She was right all along." Clay stroked his daughter's cheek with his thumb, trying to catch a falling tear.
Brenda wanted to sit and read her mother's journal from cover to cover right then, but Fritz's voice brought her back to Earth. "Honey, we need to go now, or we'll be late. You'll have the whole flight to read the journal, okay?"
Brenda nodded and turned to her father. "Daddy, I won't be able to fit all of these things in my luggage today, but can you have them shipped to me in LA? I'd really love to have them if it's all right with you."
"Of course it is, sweetheart. Your Mama and I both wanted you to have them. You take Mama's journal with you now, and I'll mail the rest of the things on Monday, all right?"
"Sounds good, Daddy." She gave her father another hug. "And I'm gonna be better about callin', okay?"
Clay chuckled, "That's all right, Brenda, just keep me updated on the little one, and I'll definitely be out to see you all once the baby arrives. I got a lot of spoilin' to do."
"All right, Clay," Fritz said. "Thank you for everything, and we'll talk to you soon."
Sometimes I still can't believe that I finally have a daughter. Your father thought I was crazy, but I just knew deep in my heart that I was having a baby girl this time, and now here you are. You're sleeping so peacefully, and the house is quiet, so I thought I'd write one last entry in this journal before I put it away.
The first thing that I want to tell you is: you are perfect. I want you always to remember that. You don't need to ever try to be something you don't want to be, because I already love you, and I always will. Between your daddy and three older brothers, I'm afraid that you'll be treated like glass, but I want you to grow up to be a strong woman. I want you to fight for what's right, and go after your dreams without fear of failure. I hope I can instill that sense of confidence in you.
Whatever you choose for your future, I will support you in, but I really hope that you choose to become a mother one day. Being one is my greatest joy, and I hope you get to experience it, too. It will probably seem scary, and if you were not scared, I'd be worried, because being a mother is a huge responsibility. It is the hardest job in the world, but also the best one. You can do it if you put your mind to it. You can do anything.
I love you to pieces.
You can do anything.
Brenda read her mother's words one last time before closing the journal on her tray-table and laying her head on Fritz's shoulder.
If Mama says it, it must be so, she thought. I can do this.
She only wished that she could have gotten the box and journal from her Mama while she was still alive. But maybe this was better. It was like one final gift from her mother after she'd thought there would never be any more.