Chapter 1 – December 1963
Emma Gerald pulled the wool scarf tighter around her neck. The icy winds of December cut through her coat as she hurried up the front sidewalk to the white-frame house on 5th Street East.
“Grandma, I’m here,” Emma called as she hung her coat on the hall tree in the entryway. She buttoned her beige sweater up to the top, rubbing her arms to warm them.
“In the kitchen, honey.”
Emma tossed her school books on the wooden hallway bench and pulled off her cumbersome, snow-covered boots, placing them on the boot rug.
“Did you start without me?” Emma leaned down to tie the loose shoelaces on her navy and tan lace-up oxford shoes. “Hate wearing boots,” she mumbled.
“At least you won’t get pneumonia if you keep your feet dry.”
Emma flushed as her grandmother came down the hallway from the kitchen, her snow-white hair bouncing with every step. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry, I’ve always hated having to wear boots. I have the cookie dough all mixed. Now, all we need to do is roll it out and cut out the cookies. I’m grateful you came over. I can’t believe I agreed to provide ten dozen cookies for the Christmas program at church.” She swiped a floured finger across her cheek.
“We’ll get them done before you know it.” Emma followed her grandmother to the kitchen. The pine cupboards glowed and the kitchen smelled of wood polish mingled with the scent of flour and melted butter.
“Will you go up to the attic and look in the Christmas boxes, Emma? I can’t find the Christmas cookie cutters. We can’t make Christmas sugar cookies without the bells and wreaths!”
“Can do!” Emma hurried upstairs and down the hallway to the door to the attic. She hesitated for only a second before she opened the door and headed up the second flight of stairs.
Emma shivered as she carefully made her way down the center of the storage space. Cobwebs were hanging down from the rafters. Dead ladybugs and boxelder bugs littered the oak floorboards.
Holding her arm in front of her face to brush away the cobwebs, she made her way to the northwest corner of the large room where Grandma stored the Christmas decorations. She sneezed twice and her eyes started watering.
“Yuck, so many boxes to look through.” Large cardboard boxes were stacked eight deep in the far corner by the aluminum tree.
Emma pulled out one box after the other. Frustrated, she lost hold of one box and it bounced once on the floor before the top flipped off and half the contents tumbled across the floor.
“Finally!” The cookie cutters were nestled in plastic wrap on top of the holiday soup mugs at the bottom of the box. She pulled them out and went to retrieve the lid and scattered Christmas contents. She didn’t want to spend any more time here than was necessary.
As she neared the corner where the lid landed, she glanced up at the golden-framed picture behind it. The large frame held an image of a beautiful young woman.
I remember this picture. When Grandma brought me up here a few years ago, I saw it. Wish I’d asked her about it then. Funny such a beautiful picture is buried up in the attic.
Emma retrieved the lid, placed it on the box, and hurried toward the stairway, to escape the suffocating space of the attic.
Grandma Belsan already had a large batch of dough rolled out on the vintage white enamel table when Emma returned with the cookie cutters. “Good, you found them.” Grandma motioned for her to put them on the table beside the dough..
“It’s really yucky up there, Grandma.” Emma thought she looked cute in her gingham apron with the smudge of flour on her cheek.
“Well, it’s not like I spend any time up there. Generally, your grandfather is the one who retrieves the boxes for the holidays. This year, we haven’t gotten around to putting the decorations up yet. I think I’m going to use the aluminum tree this year. That way I won’t have to make him carry all those heavy boxes down the stairs. He’s not a young man anymore.”
I hate that aluminum tree. I wish Mom had never gotten it for them. It’s easy, but it’s not Christmas without a pine tree in the living room and stockings on the mantle.
Emma unwrapped the cookie cutters and placed them back on the table. Two cookie sheets were lined up next to the dough.
“Why don’t you cut out the bells and Santa heads. I’ll do the wreaths and candy canes.” Grandma reached over and picked up the wreath and candy cane shapes.
The two worked in silence until they had the first two cookie sheets filled.
Grandma placed the cookie sheets in the oven and turned the little red timer to eight minutes. “Well, I should be able to roll out the next batch before these are done. It’s going so much faster with your help. Thanks, Emma!”
The First Date
The two worked quietly for a few minutes. When the timer sounded, Grandma picked up the quilted holly potholder and removed the two pans.
“Your mom told me you have a date for the Winter Daze dance.”
“Yeah, I guess I do.” Emma kept her eyes down, cutting shapes from the newly rolled dough. She didn’t want her grandmother to see her blush.
“So, who are you going with?” Grandma kept her back turned as she lifted the cookies to the cooling racks.
“Bill Statler asked me to go with him.” Emma slipped with the Santa cutter and messed up a piece of dough. She squished it with her hand and tossed it back into one of the bowls of dough.
“Is he that skinny boy with the gold glasses?” Grandma rubbed her hands together to remove the excess flour.
“Do you know him?”
“My, yes. His grandmother and I were classmates back in the day. I believe his grandparents moved down to Naples, Florida to a golf course a few years ago. Fox Fire was the name of the place, I think. I may be mistaken.”
“So, what are you going to wear? This is your first date, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but I am sixteen now.” Emma’s voice cracked. She wondered where the rule came from that suggested girls couldn’t date until after their sixteenth birthday.
“I wasn’t judging, Emma.”
“Sorry I snapped. I guess I’m just really sensitive about it all. I was so afraid no one would ask me, but the fact that it was Bill Statler who finally did ask makes me a bit apprehensive.”
“Apprehensive, that’s a big word. Why are you so nervous about going with the Statler boy?”
“He was a real jerk when we were little. He was always pulling on my pigtails. Once, he even put a dead spider on my desk in the classroom.”
“Sounds like he’s had a crush on you for a very long time. I’m sure everything will go just fine. Have you picked a dress yet?”
“Mom says she’s going to take me over to Eau Claire this weekend to get something.”
“Try to find something in black velvet. Men seem to love a woman who wears velvet.”
“Oh, Grandma.” Emma’s cheeks flushed at the idea her grandmother was trying to give her dating advice.
“Grandma, there’s a picture up in the attic of a young woman in a white dress.”
“Yes, dear, I know.” Emma scrapped another batch of dough from the bowl onto the counter.
“Who is she?”
“Well, that’s quite a story. Why are you so interested?”
“She looks like a lady I’ve met before.” Emma had to be careful not to say too much.
“Really? Well, that’s odd. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who looks like her.”
“Did you know her?”
“No, I never met her. What’s the name of the lady who looks like her?”
“Her name’s Nextra.” Emma was extremely nervous. She didn’t dare say too much about the winged creature who helped her with the little girl who got lost in the woods last summer.
“That’s a rather strange name. What’s her last name?”
“I really don’t know. She was one of the counselors at girl scout camp last summer. I don’t think she gave us her last name.” Emma made up a quick story. Surely God wouldn’t judge her for this one little white lie.
Emma was sworn as a guide to human children. The ruler of Fiori expected her to protect the secret of the existence of the creatures who traveled to earth through the reflections of children. Her first encounter with these miniature guardian angels was out on the farm when she helped save a little girl who fell into an abandoned well.
“Odd. Well, I’ve heard we all have a double somewhere.” Grandma reached behind her waist and redid the ties on her apron.
“So, who’s the lady in the picture?” Emma quickly returned to the original question to eliminate any further discussion.
“The woman in the picture is Nettie Perkins Henson. She was my grandmother.” Hazel Belsan smiled wistfully. “She was so beautiful. I’ve often wished I had her lovely brown curls. My hair’s white as snow and straight as a corn stalk.”
“Oh, Grandma, your hair’s beautiful. I love the short pixie look.”
Hazel chuckled. “You always make me feel special, Emma. I love you so much.” She leaned over and gave Emma a hug as she swiped at the moisture in the corner of her eyes.
“What was she like?”
“Nettie? Oh, my goodness. I never met her, Emma. She died long before I was born.” Grandma sprinkled more flour on the tabletop to roll out the next batch of dough.
“Then how’d you get her picture?”
The Family History
“This is the original house Nettie and Raymond lived in. That picture’s been in the attic since your grandfather and I moved in after Raymond died. We’d been living in an apartment in town here after we got married. I had no idea Grandpa Henson would leave me the house when he died.”
The buzzer rang, and Emma’s grandma reached for the hot pad. Another two sheets of cookies were removed from the oven.
“How do you know so much about her, Grandma?”
“Ah, well, my grandfather told me stories over the years. Then, there was the Girls Club.”
The Girl’s Club
“Girls Club?” Emma grabbed a fresh cookie from the cooling rack and took a bite.
“That’s what Nettie and her friends called themselves. They ended up living in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin when they grew up, but each year they’d return to Menomonie for a week of catching up. When Nettie was alive there were five of them. They’d all grown up in a rural area in Minnesota and were inseparable.”
“Why didn’t they move around? I mean, why would they always come to Menomonie?” Emma watched as her grandmother placed another batch of cookies on the cooling racks.
“I asked them that very same question. They told me it was because they wanted to all be together and place flowers on Nettie’s grave. She was the one who organized the Girls Club in the beginning. It was their way of honoring her.”
“They must have been very good friends.”
“Oh yes, they were, Emma. When I was about your age, they began to include me in their summer get-togethers. I loved those times. It was like I really had a grandmother when they were all around. Mom said it was good for me to be able to spend some time with Grandma’s friends.”
“They sound quite lovely.”
“Oh, they were. Let me see, the one with dark hair was Rosemary Zehr. She was a delightful woman and so very good to me. I remember she always brought me a book when she came to visit. She loved to read and was a librarian in Iowa.”
“So, she’s who gave you a love of books?”
“Yes. She actually introduced me to Shakespeare. Then, there was Maria Iannone. I adored her. She and her parents emigrated from Rome. Oh, the stories she could tell of the Sistine Chapel and the Spanish Steps. It was as if I grew up there with her. She was twelve when her family arrived in Minnesota and settled there.”
“Wow! I wonder how many people from Italy were here in Wisconsin way back then.”
“Careful, Emma, you make me sound really ancient.” Grandma laughed as she carefully used the rolling pin on another batch of dough.
“So, who was the third girl?”
“Well, Beth Brandon was one of the girls. She was a wee bit of a thing. I imagine she didn’t stand more than five feet if that. She was a teacher like your great-great-grandmother. I’d think the third graders were probably as tall as she was, but she was one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. Nobody pushed Beth Brandon around.”
“She sounds like the kind of woman you’d like.”
“Oh, most certainly I did. She came from a very fine family in St. Paul. The last of the Girls Club was Bertha Carlson. Mercy, could that girl mix up a batch of Swedish meatballs and crispbread! I can still taste it. She was my grandmother’s very best friend. She had the most beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes. My parents named me after her, in fact. Her middle name was Hazel.”
“So, how did they all come together?”
“Let’s go in the living room and rest for a spell. I’ll tell you the whole story.” Grandma Belsan slipped off her apron and headed for the sofa.