Chapter 14: Christmas Gifts SATURDAY, DECEMBER 10, 1960, BOB'S DINER, PENSACOLA, FLORIDA George glanced over the top of his *Navy Times* at the man sitting across from him. Al had barely spoken a word this morning. He was absently stirring his coffee. Al took his coffee black. "Can't decide what to get her for Christmas?" George asked, as he flipped the page. "No. I've already decided that. I just don't know when to give it to her," Al replied, absently. "Most people opt for December 25th, for some reason. It's become quite a trend." George glanced at Al again. Either he didn't hear him or he was ignoring him. "Did you have any trouble with the color or the size?" "Huh? No, I'll stick with the traditional color. As for size, she can always have it fitted." George felt as if he had missed something important. "Are we having the same conversation?" he asked, setting the paper aside. "I was talking about Beth's Christmas gift." "So was I," Al said, finally putting the spoon down. "So, what are you getting her?" Al blinked, surprised. "You don't know?" "No," George replied, surprised he was keeping his temper. "How could I? You haven't said what you're getting her." "Then how can we be having the same conversation, if you don't know what I'm talking about?" Al asked, calmly. George stared hard at his friend. This was going way too far. "Al, do me a favor." "Yeah, what?" "Just ask her to marry you, and put us all out of our misery." "Bingo," Al replied, raising his coffee mug. **************************************** George was staring, open-mouthed. "Do you know anything about diamonds?" Al asked, sipping the lukewarm coffee. George was still dumbstruck. "You know, I don't know why you're surprised. I told you a long time ago that I loved her. It was bound to happen." Al himself was still a little surprised with his decision. He had made it on the trip back. Al had given it a lot of thought, while Beth dozed in the passenger seat beside him. He had finally found the one woman in the world he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, who loved him for who he was and in spite of his faults. Beth wasn't trying to make him over into her idea of what a potential husband should be. The irony of it was, he *wanted* to change for her. It also didn't hurt that he thought her lovely, smart, sweet, warmhearted, and irresistible. "What happened?" George finally blurted out. Al peered at him, suspiciously. He hoped this wasn't a reoccurrence of what happened in October. George's odd behavior had worried them all. "When?" "Thanksgiving, of course." "If you mean, was there any bingo-bango-bongoing, the answer is no." George frowned at him. "Thank you for sharing, but I wasn't getting *that* personal." Al filled him in on what had happened in the McGinty's backyard. He seemed interested in the part about Al's flirting, and how Al reacted to the news when she told him. George shook his head and said, "Personally, I don't know a whole lot about diamonds, but I could refer you to a reputable jeweler." Al nodded, swallowing the last of his now cold coffee. "Thanks, George." FRIDAY, DECEMBER 23, 1960, TOWNSEND RESIDENCE, COLUMBUS, GEORGIA Beth barely waited for the car to stop before opening the car door and bolting up the porch stairs. "Gran!" Grace Townsend waited on the porch of the Victorian-style house, beaming at her as she ran up for a hug. Beth found it hard to believe that a whole year had gone by. "My angel," Gran said, returning her hug. The silver-haired woman held her away and said, "Still as lovely as ever." "No arguments there," a slightly, gravelly voice said from behind Beth. Al! She had completely forgotten him! "And this must be Albert," Gran was saying. "Please call me Al, Mrs. Townsend." He gave her one of his smiles, turning on that near- legendary Calavicci charm. Gran wasn't immune to it either. "Welcome, Al. And please call me Gran or Grace, whichever you feel more comfortable with, dear." Beth watched the exchange with a gentle smile. A thoughtful look crossed Al's face, as he considered the options Gran gave him. "Gran," he replied. "Well, let's not stand here all day," Gran said, ushering them into the house. The first thing Beth noticed upon entering her childhood home was the smell. It smelled of pine and cinnamon. Gran had already decorated most of the house, as far as Beth could see. The live tree stood bare in the living room. Gran noticed what she was looking at. "I left the tree for you and Al to do, dear," she said as she stood in the entrance way to the living room. "The ornaments are still in storage, though." Without preamble, Al stepped up to her grandmother and kissed her on the cheek. Gran turned bright pink. "Why, Al!" Al glanced up. Gran was standing under mistletoe. "I forgot that was there," she said, laughing. Al gave Beth a sly look and Beth arched her eyebrows at him, as if to say *since when do we need mistletoe to kiss?* Gran had seen the looks, but made no comment. Instead she asked, "What would you like for lunch?" ******************************** Grace watched Al and her granddaughter as they hung ornaments on the tree. Grace put a hook on the last one. *She's so much like Betty,* Grace thought sadly, *and yet so different.* Betty had been bubbly and outgoing, but not what most people would consider ‘loose'. She had made the mistake of falling in love with a married man, and suffered for it. At first, Betty had been depressed. She never saw the man again, according to the diary. Grace and Henry did not know, at the time, of the man's existence. Betty became distraught, when she found out she was pregnant. *I have let my father down,* her diary said. But Henry loved Betty so much, he couldn't stay angry with her for long, even in the predicament she was in. Once her father accepted the situation and forgave her, Betty had blossomed. She no longer cared what others thought, as long as her parents supported her. Beth, on the other hand, was more quiet, reserved, and cautious. Times had changed, but Beth still held to a moral code that was more along the lines of the one Grace herself had held to. Her granddaughter was very much in love with the man helping her with the tree. Instinct told Grace that a certain boundary had not been crossed, and would not, so long as Beth's childhood haunted her. Grace suspected that the young pilot was aware of the family history. Beth would have had to concoct a creditable story otherwise, for him not to be asking a dozen questions. Beth had talked about Al constantly in her letters and on the phone, but Grace felt she was leaving things out about him. As for the man himself, he seemed just as taken with Beth as she was with him. Grace had spied them earlier, kissing, after Al had brought the last of the boxes from the attic. She had never seen Beth kiss a man as ardently as she had kissed Al. The young couple was putting the finishing touches on the tree. Al searched for an outlet for the lights. Beth stepped away from the tree, as Al plugged in the lights. He stood next to her, put an arm around her waist, and together they looked at the tree. Beth slid her arm around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder. *Did they forget I was here?* Grace thought, amused. She held her peace, not wanting to intrude on their moment. Also, she didn't want to startle them, just in case they *had* forgotten her. "What do you think, Gran?" Beth asked, not turning. So they hadn't forgotten her. *About you and Al? It looks serious to me,* "The tree looks lovely, dear. Thank you both." The couple turned and Grace noticed how exhausted Al looked. "Al, why don't you go take a hot bath. I've run you ragged." Al smiled at her and it made her feel young. He had a powerful weapon there. It was a wonder Beth had fallen from her ivory tower. "I'm glad you said that, Gran," Al was saying. "I don't think I could keep my eyes open much longer. Between Beth wanting to leave at oh dark thirty, driving, and then lugging boxes, it's a wonder I didn't fall asleep at dinner." Al gave her granddaughter a gentle kiss good night and disappeared upstairs. Beth remained silent as she helped Grace straighten up. Beth unplugged the tree, and Grace turned off all the lights except the hall. "You're not turning in, are you?" Beth asked her, hesitantly. Grace smiled. "No dear, but let me change first." * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * There was a tapping on Grace's door a half an hour later, as she sat up in bed reading. Beth came in, dressed in her nightgown and robe. She climbed into bed, just like she did when she was little. "What's on your mind, angel?" Grace knew, but she wanted to hear her say it. Beth looked hesitant and thoughtful. "Al." Grace smiled. "Beth, that's obvious." Beth smiled ruefully. "So I've been told. He's been acting a little strange since Thanksgiving. A good kind of strange." "Angel, have you told him about your parents?" Beth nodded. "He knows the truth." She paused. "And he told me about his family." "Yes?" Beth continued on hesitantly, as if she still wasn't sure she should be telling her things about Al's family. Grace did not interrupt. "Do you love him, Beth?" Beth face lit up. "Yes, Gran, I do." She giggled, turning bright red. "You don't realize how much I want to run across the hall and lock myself in there with him." "I don't think he has the energy right now, Beth. Wait until tomorrow." "GRAN!!" Beth exclaimed. Her face was still red. Grace chuckled. "But, you are wrong about one thing, Gran. If I went in there right now...well...he would find some energy. Trust me." "So, you love him. Do you love him enough to marry him?" A determined look crossed her face. "Yes. In spite of everything, yes." Grace looked puzzled. "What do you mean?" Beth sighed frustrated. "He may never ask me, Gran." "Angel, you've only known one another since June," Grace pointed out "We spend most of our free time with each other. I know more about him than any of my childhood friends." She slid off the bed and began to pace. "I think he's marriage shy, Gran." "Because of his mother?" "Yes. I want children, Gran, his children. But Al doesn't believe in dragging them from one assignment to another. His own father was seldom around, and Al wouldn't be there for ours. He hasn't said it, but I know he's afraid that I would leave them like his mother left him and his sister." "Beth, there is no guarantee that you would have a child in the same situation as his sister," Grace pointed out. "I know that, Gran, but I don't think I could convince Al that." "But you would still marry him, knowing this?" Beth closed her eyes. "Yes." "Angel, if he does ask you to marry him, then he has overcome one fear. And if he overcomes one, he could certainly get over another. Don't loss faith, dear heart. Maybe one day, he'll see a child in playground or a park, and suddenly he'll want one of his own." Beth stared at her as if this hadn't occurred to her before. "I suppose you're right." "Now, dear, why don't you get some rest." SATURDAY, DECEMBER 24, 1960, TOWNSEND RESIDENCE "This is where I spent most of my youth." AL looked around the bare garden, imagining a lonely girl, learning to plant and care for flowers. "I used to play pretend here, too," Beth continued, thoughtfully. Al said nothing. He slid his arm around her waist as they walked along the flagstones. She did the same. All morning he had sensed the dual emotions this place stirred within her. The good memories of Grace and the flowers, and the bad of being shunned by her aunt. Al had seriously thought of proposing there, but it felt wrong. "So, who's coming over tonight?" he asked. "Mostly old friends." They walked on in silence for a few seconds. Al glanced at her. "Any old boyfriends?" Beth laughed, mood lifted. "No. These are high school friends. I didn't date in high school, Al." "You're kidding. A good-looking girl like you?" Al had seen her senior picture. Grace had pointed it out this morning. As he hoped, Beth turned pink and looked shyly away. "I love it when you blush," he whispered in her ear. She turned even redder. "Let's go back inside and find some mistletoe to stand under." Her eyes were sparkling. "Since when do you need mistletoe?" "Never, but it's a convenient excuse in case Gran comes along." "Oh, you don't have anything to worry about. I think she likes you a lot." "I didn't think it would be that easy." "All you had to do was smile." Al opened the back door for her. "You really do take after your grandmother." * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Al patted his uniform jacket pocket. The ring was loose in his pocket, and he wanted to make sure he hadn't lost it. He had placed it there, at the last minute, still uncertain of the timing. The guests had started to arrive before Beth came down (which was unusual for Beth), so he hadn't had a chance to see her alone since their walk in the garden. Now all the guests were here and the party was in full swing. "Al, help me with the punch bowl." Grace sounded more authoritative than some commanders he knew. While he helped Grace with the punch, he scanned the room until he found Beth, talking to a couple. She was wearing the lacy silk eggshell blouse Janet had given her for Christmas and an emerald green velvet skirt. She was fiddling with the lace of her collar with her left hand. An image of that hand wearing the engagement ring rose in Al's mind. He had to find a way to get her alone. Now. "Could you take your mind off her for five minutes, Al," Grace said at his elbow. Al turned his attention back to the punch bowl. It was amazing that he hadn't gotten punch on himself. "Thank you," she said, slightly amused. Al glanced at Grace. She was looking at him . . .knowingly. "Take my advice," she said to him in a low voice. "Don't wait." He gave her a surprised look, and she smiled up at him. "You've only patted your right pocket a dozen times and I know your cigarettes are in the left pocket." It was her way of giving consent. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. While his attention was averted, Beth had moved, but that suited Al fine. He opened the front door and sat on the front porch. Either Beth would come looking for him on her own accord, or Grace would send her to him. Either way, Al used the momentary solitude to collect his thoughts. He loved her. He wanted her. He wanted to marry her. Al knew what he was getting into, committing himself to one woman, for life. Al smiled. He had always been faithful to the woman in his life, but this was the ultimate test: remain faithful. The idea of coming home to someone had appealed to him. Of course, she worked, too, but that was fine. As long as he knew she would be there at some point, it was enough. After all, he would be at sea months at a time. The door opened and Beth stepped out into the cold night. "There you are! I've been looking for you." Al stood, rummaging in his uniform pocket. She was watching him, innocent and unsuspecting. Oddly, he didn't feel as nervous as he thought he would be. "I have an early Christmas gift for you, Beth," Al said, taking her left hand. Beth smiled, puzzled. "Oh, Al, I don't have one for you. An early gift, I mean." This made him smile. "Actually, you do, honey." With that, he slid the ring on her finger. A perfect fit. Looking into her eyes, he asked "Will you marry me, Beth?" She was trembling and had turned first white, then pink. She lowered her eyes to stare at the ring on her finger, and then she looked back up at him. There were tears in her eyes. Beth began to laugh. Al was stunned, it was the last thing in he had expected her to do. "Just last night," Beth began to explain, voice quivering with tears and laughter, "I was telling Gran that I didn't think you would ever ask me to marry you." Al smiled at her, and gently wiped a tear from her cheek. "You haven't answered me, honey," he reminded her gently. She nodded, trying to get her breath. "Yes, Al. I will marry you." Al closed his eyes and drew her into his arms, holding her tight. Behind them, the sound of the guests singing Christmas carols could be heard.