THE STORY SO FAR: The Dickens family’s Christmas joy is cut short by Dad’s sudden job loss and the hospitalization of the girls’ grandmother. This is the third installment of a 10-chapter holiday serial, which concludes Christmas Eve.
By Patsy R. Brumfield
Fall 1968 was crisp and clear that Tuesday afternoon alongside Highway 9 a half-dozen miles north of Pontotoc.
Just a few feet from the dark-green equipment shed, newly married Helen St. Cloud stood facing her husband, Mitchell, so close they only needed to whisper.
His strong farmer’s hands held her gently above her elbows, as if to keep her from collapsing on the red-and-gold-leaf-strewn lawn.
“Honestly, I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Helen said as she looked anxiously into Mitchell’s hazel-colored eyes. “I don’t know if it’s just the shock of Mama’s death or something else.”
At least 50 yards away, workers were “closing” the ordinary grave of Betty Jane Bonney Ratchford, a very unordinary woman who had grown up outside New Albany under rather exceptional circumstances.
People from miles around had, for years, come to the Bonney and then Ratchford homes to hear whatever Betty Jane had to say. About anything.
“Betty Jane has the gift,” they would say in quiet moments in their own humble living rooms.
They may have considered it “the gift,” but during her growing-up years, Betty Jane felt it was a curse. She couldn’t explain the odd ideas that suddenly popped into her head or her compulsion to say whatever it was.
Sometimes, when this feeling came over her, she’d seek shelter from strangers’ eyes and ears underneath the big, old holly tree at the back of their family garden.
“Honestly, I don’t know what’s happening to me,” she confided at a young age to her mother.
There, there, the exotic-looking woman would say, reassuringly.
“The Denio women have the gift,” she said of her forebears. “Just try to believe it’s a good thing, whenever you feel it.”
The Denios originated in France centuries before. They’d been de Noyons, but the spelling was changed when they made their way slowly south from Canada through America.
Helen’s mother was cautious about who she revealed “the gift” to. It migrated into the next generation during a Thanksgiving 1947 church service when the child fainted and was heard to mutter something about a house fire – a tragedy to befall Brother Meredith’s family just a few weeks later from a faulty Christmas tree light.
The odd behavior wasn’t to be repeated by Helen until 22 years later, this bright fall day at the cemetery.
A large, loving crowd had followed the hearse to the graveyard, where Betty Jane Bonney Ratchford was laid to rest. Helen held on tight to Mitchell’s arm at graveside as she tried to think about the narcissus bulbs she’d plant there when the winter grew bitter cold.
Now, it was just Helen and Mitchell beside the road when that long-ago blackness passed over her eyes like a veil.
“It’s Ginny,” she said softly to her still boyish husband as he scooped her up from a near collapse.
He placed her tenderly beside him on a bench someone fortuitously had installed for Sunday afternoon visits. And he waited with concern across the few seconds his wife seemed to have left her body.
“What happened?” Helen said as she found herself a dozen steps away from her mother’s resting place.
Mitchell wasn’t quite sure he had an answer.
“You said, ‘It’s Ginny’ and then kind of fainted,” he told her.
A few minutes later, Helen recovered sufficiently to walk back to the disturbed red dirt and say another good-bye to the woman she’d loved more than anyone else in the world.
Before they climbed into Mitchell’s secondhand pickup, they stood face to face by the roadside and asked each other again about Helen’s unusual behavior.
“Yeah, maybe it’s just been too hard on you the past few days, your mother collapsing like that in church,” Mitchell assessed.
They walked hand in hand toward the truck and took comfort in the sure knowledge they’d be driving home to a house full of food and friends, who’d help them weather the dark days with happy stories about Betty Jane Bonney Ratchford.
“Mitchell?” Helen said quietly as he accelerated the stubborn engine onto Highway 9.
“By springtime, there’s gonna be someone else to help us fill this empty space in my heart.”
Patsy R. Brumfied/NEMS Daily Journal