Brenda curled her fingers around the warm coffee mug and inventoried the old Cherokee chief’s weathered features. She stepped back, back, gingerly back until the wooden statue morphed into flesh. Customers and carving enthusiasts used to gasp, clutching their chests and laughing at themselves as they rounded the kitchen corner, nearly colliding with this stout, cross armed replica of her father. Although the formidable, dark complexioned John Lanson was only a half-blood, Brenda had called him Chief since she was two. He was a chief of his own making, an internationally acclaimed carpenter and artist and--with whiskey down his gullet--the irreconcilable god of her youth.
“He changed radically that last year of his life, Brenda. The Lord changed him, sobered him and opened him up. I wish you would’ve talked to him.”
Brenda jerked her gaze from the statue and took a chair opposite her mother. Bev reached across the dining table, covered Brenda’s hand, and looked at her with moist eyes. “It’s so good to finally have you back, baby. I’ve been praying for so long.”
Brenda placed her mug on a Christmas doily, flipped her sleek black bangs from her eyes and laughed. “Mama, I’m not the pitiful prodigal daughter returning home. A little credit, please. I’m running my own interior design business in Charleston. And, yes Mama. I attend church when I can. Life is good. But, I’ve missed you. I worry about you getting lonely or hurt out here by yourself.”
“Don’t worry about me, sweetie,” Bev said as she moved to the island. “I’ve got peace and companionship in my church and these Chattanooga hills. Speaking of which, why don’t you bundle up and explore your old stomping grounds while I finish preparing this Christmas feast? That Paula Dean gal’s got nothing on me!”
Bev hummed and quartered a yam before realizing that Brenda hadn’t moved. “Why, what is it Brenda?”
Brenda fixated on the hardwood floor and ran a fingernail across her lip. “My Christmas tree. I haven’t visited those woods since lightening stuck it down.”
Gracious Father, my little girl’s still lost. Still afraid. Still searching. Please, lead her gently into your Presence, Bev silently pleaded. “There’s still beauty and truth in those woods. Go on now. Things should be just about ready by the time you get back.”
As Brenda walked she remembered the first time Chief bounced her on his shoulders, crunching his boots through ice towards a patch of old pines. Those were his sober years, a time of unguarded affection. Although he’d promised her a Christmas tree of her choice, he hadn’t expected her to choose the great lone oak, a tree that stood forty feet high with a girth impossible to hug. Brenda was captivated by its crystal branches. The next day he cut a pine for the house, but burned an inscription into the oak:
Brenda’s Christmas Tree
Even in her teen years when drinking turned him mean, and she challenged him at every turn, she still claimed sanctuary under her Christmas oak. She’d never experienced true salvation in her parents’ God. And Chief had been mistaken when he thought one year on the wagon and a couple of apology letters could mend the ugly rents he’d caused in their relationship. There were tender moments, though, like her brief return home and willingness to hold his outstretched hand before his death, that nearly broke her. But bitterness prevailed. He’d left a legacy. She’d resolved to tell her mother the truth after Christmas. She’d see the U-haul attached to Brenda’s car soon enough. Then she’d explain how her own addiction cost her her livelihood.
As Brenda entered the circle of pines she looked for the remnants of love, a burnt oak stump, but, found a carved statue instead. Running forward, Brenda recognized the six foot oak figure as Christ. Under an intricately carved crown of thorns his large brown eyes showed no pain, only such a disconcerting welling of tenderness and mercy that Brenda had to look away. His robed arms were raised, inviting a weary embrace; his piercing were exposed, welcoming a doubtful touch. Despite Chief’s unparalleled craftsmanship, she couldn’t remember his creating a more realistic or poignant carving. This was her father’s masterpiece. The December wind dried Brenda’s tears into a sticky glaze while she reconsidered the power of paternal love and ran her fingers over the new inscription at the feet of Jesus:
Brenda’s Christmas Tree
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