Short Story by DIANA HAINES
Illustration by VICTORIA WALKER
Stella pulled into the driveway that was just behind the Baptist Church. Through the bank of trees, the hundred year old colonial was all but hidden from the road. The front porch, both upstairs and down, went from one end of the house to the other. There was no question that this house had not felt the stroke of a paintbrush for almost a decade, but it still had more charm than alarm. Large hardwoods encased the home, leaving only a few small areas where the sun could break through and pepper the ground like Christmas lights.
The boards on the front porch creaked eerily and bowed with the pressure of each footstep as Stella made her way to the front door.
With her gentle knock, the glass panes rattled in their casings.
“Ms. Jessie,” she called out. “It’s Stella.”
“Oh. Hang on. I’m coming girl.”
Stella could see Miss Jessie slowly making her way to the front door. “Stella. It is so good to see you. Get in here before you catch your death.” Miss Jessie leaned on the door for balance as she slowly opened it.
The house had the stale, musty smell of an old house with an old person living in it. The furniture, dated and a little dusty, was appointed with a hand tatted doily on each
armrest and headrest.
“I brought you a new book,” Stella said.
“Oh, thank you child. I was just finishing up the last one.” Miss Jessie was one of the most pious women that Stella had ever met, but her greatest passion for passing the time on these cold winter days was a steamy romance novel. She always wanted paper back, never hardback, because the expense of the binding might mean too much attention to literary detail for Miss Jessie’s taste.
“What do you say I make us some coffee?” Stella said moving toward the kitchen.
“That sounds wonderful. This old heater works pretty well at keeping me warm, but a hot cup of coffee would surely help.” Miss Jessie settled back into her chair, electric coil heater less than six inches from her legs, and scanned the back cover of her newest book.
“This looks like a good one. I like the young man on the cover,” she said as Stella came back in the room with a tray. The old china cups were mismatched and chipped. There were some cookies on a little plate in the center. Stella set the tray down on the coffee table, passed Miss Jessie a coffee cup with a few cookies on the saucer, and then served herself.
“How are you feeling, Miss Jessie?” Stella settled into the couch.
“I’ll tell you the truth, I am feeling remarkably good today, in spite of myself,” Miss Jessie answered. There was a long pause before Miss Jessie added, “In fact, if I had to guess, I would say I’m doing a right smart better that you are from the look on your face.”
Stella, having taken a bite of the cookie that tasted amazingly like the house smelled, took a few seconds before she could process Miss Jessie’s concealed question.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Stella said all too quickly.
Miss Jessie took another sip of coffee and waited patiently.
“It’s just been a really hard time on us,” Stella finally spoke up. “Bill’s business is really struggling and it has got him so down. I don’t know how to talk to him any more. It’s taking a toll on the whole
family. My kids, God love them, are making me so crazy I believe I’m going to end up killing them before they turn 18.”
Miss Jessie nodded her head and took a few more sips of her coffee before directing her response to Stella. “I’ve heard things are bad right now for a lot of people and I’m surely sorry that your family is suffering. It’s not for me to say how you can get through this because it’s not my road to walk. I don’t rightly know what you’re gonna need to get down it, but I know you’ll find what you need along the way.”
“To borrow your metaphor,” Stella chuckled, “I’m not sure we even know where the road is anymore.”
“Well, I don’t have a metal fork here, but I got this metal spoon if you need it,” Miss Jessie responded, reaching to hand the spoon from her saucer to Stella.
“Miss Jessie, you are good medicine,” Stella laughed. “Sometimes a little hard to take, but good medicine none the less.”
After refilling the coffee cups, Stella said, “I often wonder how you stay so happy all the time. Do you think your kind of happiness just comes with age?”
“Oh no, child. I surely don’t think so. I know people older than me that seem to make a hobby out of being mad at the world all the time. I won’t mention any names, but I’ll be happy to tell you where they live,” she added with a wink.
“Then how do you do it?” Stella asked. “I mean you grew up during the Depression, lived through every terrible war of the last century, buried your husband and all of your children.”
“Two of them before they were a year old,” Miss Jessie broke in.
“How do you do it?” Stella pondered. “How do you stay so content no matter what?”
Miss Jessie thought for a moment and then said, “Do me a favor. Go over there and get me that pot.”
Stella saw a pot standing on a pedestal in the corner next to the front door.
“I keep that by my front door on purpose. It’s the first thing people see when they walk into my house and the last thing they see when they leave. They don’t know what it is, but I do.”
Stella set the pot on the coffee table as Miss Jessie continued her story, “My mother gave Frank and me that pot when we got married. She sat us down right at the supper table and told us our marriage was doomed and the only way to save it was to fill that pot. I don’t think she really believed we were headed for a bad marriage. She always thought a lot of Frank. I think she just wanted to scare us and I’ll tell you what, she surely did. Now, that’s not the original pot. My mother’s pot was smaller but about five years before Frank passed, I had to get a bigger one.”
Stella looked at the pot. It was about a foot and a half tall and a foot in diameter with a lid on the top.
“Go ahead. Take the top off,” Miss Jessie urged. “Reach inside and pull out one of those pieces of paper. Go really deep. The ones on the top are ones that I’ve added in the last few years.”
Stella opened the lid and looked inside to find thousands of little pieces of paper, some folded and some not, filling the pot almost to the brim. She reached down until she could feel her fingernail scrape the bottom, carefully pulled out a strip, opened it to find writing on it, and read aloud.
July 1, 1947 I got a raise today. $8 a week. I got RC colas for all of us. Sat on the front porch drinking them after dinner. William laughed so hard that soda came out of his nose.
Stella looked at Miss Jessie who was smiling at the memory and pulled out another note from deep in the mix.
October 1, 1940 I told Frank that we were having another baby. I wonder if he’ll leave a note, too.
“What is this Miss Jessie?” Stella questioned.
“It’s our happiness pot filled with all of our happy memories. It kind of always made us take note of the good things. As you can see, we had a lot of them,” Miss Jessie smiled. “Plus, every once in a while, when times were a little tough, we could come back and look at those notes just as a kind of reminder.”
Stella reached in again and pulled out a note written in the naïve scrawl of a very young child. There was no date on this one and we had corn for supper was the best she could make out.
“Here’s a sweet one,” Stella said reading the next note. September 25, 1959 I met the girl I’m going to marry. She’s beautiful.
“Now that could have been William because, as I recall, that’s around the time when he first made the acquaintance of his wife, but it could have been Joseph, too. He put five or six notes like that in the pot before he ever settled on a girl.”
“And you’re still adding to it, even now, after you family is gone,” Stella said pulling a strip from the top and reading it silently.
“Well sure I am. I’m trusting that the good Lord is going to let me know when it’s my time to stop living. Until then, I’m obliged to keep filling that pot every chance I get.” Miss Jessie smiled, then added,
“Your life is always going to be what you pay attention to. That pot right there, filled to the brim with happiness, is my life.”
Contact writer Diana Haines at email@example.com.
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