"You forgot the raisins, didn't you?"
Rachel Yoder made a pained face. "I did, and I'm so sorry."
Annie King allowed herself the smallest of sighs as she considered the shredded carrots and mayonnaise in the wooden bowl before her. She glanced over at her sister-in-law, and made sure to keep her tone even. "Well, we have a lot more supper to cook, so let's not waste time. Maybe we can use the carrots some other way."
"No, no, I'll go home and get them." Rachel turned away from the kitchen counter where the two women had been working. "It will only take a minute."
She was out the door before Annie could protest. Supper that night was to be at her brother's and Annie's house, and the two women needed to work efficiently to have food for twenty-four people ready in time. Rachel started down the long path from the front door toward her house across the street, appreciating the unusually warm April afternoon. She saw a neighbor's horse and buggy approaching, and she reached the road just in time to wave and call out hello. Once across the street, she headed toward the kitchen door, but looked over at the sound of her name being shouted from the barn. Her father stood in the wide doorway, a cloth in one hand as he polished some shining object.
"I need more rags here," he called out. "Can you bring some?"
She nodded, picking up her pace. "I'll be right back."
Perspiring by this point under her long, dark blue dress beneath a black apron, she went inside the house, grateful for the relative cool in the dim kitchen. Her mother stood near the sink with Rachel's daughter, eleven-year-old Katie. Rachel's mother was grating and bottling horseradish with Katie. The women in the family preserved large quantities of fruits and vegetables, much of which they sold, and Katie shared the responsibility for this job with them. For now, she was still learning, but she would be expert at it by the time her grandmother could no longer do it herself. That day was still a long way off, however; Rachel's mother was of less-than-average height but strong and sturdily built, and behind her silver wire-rimmed glasses, her light blue eyes seemed to take in everything. She and her granddaughter spent many hours together, especially in the summer, making all different types of preserves, jellies, and pickled vegetables.
Katie turned at the sound of the door opening.
Rachel couldn't resist going over and putting an arm around her daughter's slender shoulders, leaning down to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. "You smell like peaches. And sunshine," she said to her. "No, wait-like summer, if summer were a little girl."
Katie laughed and hugged her back. "Silly."
Leah King watched, frowning. "Something wrong? Aren't you making supper at Annie's?"
"I came back for raisins. And Papa needs some rags."
"Take the rags in the hall closet, bottom shelf," Leah said. "Katie, mind that you don't hit anything with those tongs."
"Sorry, Grandma." The eleven-year-old snapped back to attention, anxious to avoid her grandmother's disapproval, which was quick to appear and slow to fade.
Rachel opened a cabinet and took down a large glass jar of raisins, measuring out the three cups she needed into a clean bowl. Leaving the bowl on the counter, she went to a closet full of cleaning supplies and took four rags from a neatly folded stack, remnants from old sheets that could no longer be used or salvaged.
She paused on her way out, thinking she might persuade her father to take a break if she brought him a glass of water; it would be good for him on a hot day.
Stopping at the sink just long enough to fill a glass, Rachel grabbed the rags and stepped out onto the side porch. She was unable to resist pausing to kneel down and scratch Buster behind the ears, the old dog snoozing in the bit of shade behind a rocking chair. Humming, she made her way to the stables, where she found her father forking hay. When he saw her, he stopped, lifting his straw hat and wiping his arm across his forehead. He wore a dark blue shirt, black suspenders, and black pants. His beard was full, but, as was traditional for married Amish men, he had no mustache and his brown hair was long around the sides, with bangs across his forehead.
"Are these enough?" She held up the fabric squares.
"Just right." He took the water with a nod of thanks and drank the contents in one long gulp.
The barn housed four horses, two of which were used only to drive the buggies, the other to work in the fields. Rachel walked over to the stall where Driver, her favorite horse, stood swatting flies with his tail, regarding her with soft brown eyes. She stroked the narrow patch of white between his eyes. "How are you, my friend?" she asked him in a soothing voice.
"He's fine," her father answered, "but I would be a lot better if he could use a pitchfork."
"You wouldn't like that. You'd have to sit around doing nothing."
Rachel grinned. Her father would sit down at worship or for meals, or to talk with visitors or his many grandchildren, but doing nothing- that was inconceivable. The farm was a round-the-clock job for him, his wife, and everyone else in the family.
He laughed. "I imagine I could find something to occupy myself, don't you worry."
He came over to stand next to his daughter, and ran his hand along the horse's neck. "Katie inside with your mother?"
"She's okay? Seems to me she looks a little sad lately."
Rachel didn't answer right away, reviewing her daughter's recent actions. Despite how busy he was, she knew her father stayed attuned to her and Katie's moods, somehow always aware if they were having a hard time or a particularly bad day. It had been that way ever since her husband, Jacob Yoder, died three years ago. Actually, Rachel knew her father had always been unusually aware of her moods, even when she was a child. She had been closer to him than she had ever been to her mother, closer than she'd been to any of her four siblings. They just seemed to have a special connection, for which she would always be grateful. When Jacob died, she knew her father felt the weight of her pain in a way no one else did.
As much as her husband's death had devastated Rachel, it was equally terrible for Katie. His humor and spirit, the boundless energy for life that had made Rachel love him so, also made him a wonderful father. It had been only six months from the diagnosis of cancer until his death, and there was no time to prepare physically or emotionally for what was to come as Jacob quickly wasted and weakened. She and Katie spent the first months after he died in a dreamlike state of shock, going through the motions, while their relatives and the community sustained them with food and support. When Rachel was finally able to look around and take stock of where she was, she recognized what everyone already knew, that she couldn't manage the farm alone. One of Jacob's older brothers took it over, and she brought her child back to live with her parents, in the house where she had grown up. At least here she could contribute, helping with the chores and earning money from the quilts she was so good at making. They brought in an income that had been a useful supplement during her marriage, but was not enough to support her and a child now that she was on her own.
Rachel was grateful that she had the blessing of a family to take her back in. It was only at night when she lay alone in her narrow, childhood bed that she permitted herself a few moments of wishing she could have found another option. She had lived away from her parents for the nine years of her marriage, ten years counting the year when she actually lived outside the community in an apartment she rented with another Amish teenager.
Her time away occurred during her rumspringa, which for Rachel, had lasted nearly two years. At sixteen, Amish girls and boys had the chance to go out and experience the world beyond their communities, to be sure they wished to be baptized into the Amish faith. Few went as far as Rachel had in moving off the farm completely, but it wasn't that much of a shock to the family when she'd left. She had always been the one who had trouble staying on the straight and narrow, the one with the most questions about the way they lived, their faith, their place in the world. Rachel knew she was the child who caused her mother to frown the most often. It was to Rachel that her mother directed most of her lectures and warnings. Rachel's sisters and brothers all seemed perfectly suited to Amish life on a farm; three of them had experienced their own rumspringa adventures, but no one had any serious doubts about whether they would be baptized into the faith. The youngest sibling, her nineteen-year-old brother, Daniel, was still in the process of deciding his future, but they all believed that he, too, would come around.
Rachel knew she had caused her parents genuine pain, as they worried that she might be lost to them forever. When she actually moved out during the second year, their worrying increased exponentially. In the end, however, she returned. She never told them about all she had done during her time away, and they never asked. Nor had she told them that the reason she came back was not so much that she had made a clear-cut choice, but that she simply couldn't imagine a life without Jacob, who had, in fact, decided to be baptized. Whatever her hesitations about the demands of Amish life, nothing could override her need to be with him. She loved him to distraction, maybe, she had sometimes worried, too much. Besides, she had come to see that her entire support system was here, and nothing in the outside world could ever come close to the peace and security of being part of her Amish community. When she returned, she and Jacob had married as soon as possible after their baptisms.
She never told anyone, not even Jacob, how unworthy she continued to feel, harboring so many doubts about her ability to live up to the ideal of a good Amish woman. She tried, always, doing her best to keep her home clean, to keep her appearance tidy and modest. Every day, she resolved to exemplify the virtue of humility. Somehow, she always fell short. She carried her shame in secret, knowing that secrecy added yet another layer of failure in her efforts to be the woman she wished she could be.
The years of her marriage had been far and away her happiest. The two of them moved onto the farm, which they rented from Jacob's parents. Rachel worked harder than she had ever worked before, but with the joy of knowing they were building their own family together. Was it allowed for a woman to love a man as much she loved Jacob? Were married couples supposed to laugh as much as they did? She did not know and did not care.
With Katie's birth, Rachel felt her heart overflow with gratitude for everything she had been given. That they had never been able to have another child was their only sorrow. Rachel had suffered two miscarriages, both of them when she was nearly halfway through the pregnancy. And then, nothing. She had always assumed they would have a large family, and they had looked forward to creating their own loving brood. Nonetheless, they knew that whatever happened was the way things were meant to be.
Rachel had sincerely believed that, until Jacob's death. After, she wondered how it was meant to be that she should lose, first, their two babies, and then, her great love. She understood life was hard, and people suffered in many different ways. But why give her that kind of love and passion, only to snatch it away? On top of her anger and doubts, she felt guilt about having such emotions. Two of the most important tenets of Amish life were obedience and submission. She struggled to maintain her footing, and remain true to the values in her life.
By now, three years after losing her husband, she had recovered her smile. Every day, she said a prayer of thanks for Katie, Jacob's wonderful legacy. Their precious child looked exactly like her father, with sandy hair and hazel eyes, so Rachel was able to glimpse him whenever she looked into Katie's face. Still, there was sadness behind her eyes that disappeared only when she was around her daughter.
Katie was all that mattered now, making sure that she grew up with the best guidance and the least possible amount of disruption in her life. The Amish community would make sure that Katie knew she was loved and cared for, no matter what happened. That was a great relief to Rachel. They were safe here in every possible way.
Thinking about what her father had just said, she tried to recall if she had seen any signs of Katie slipping back into the sorrow that had dominated the little girl's life for so long after losing her father.
"I haven't noticed anything," Rachel said, "but I'll keep an eye on her."
Her father waved a hand. "My imagination, probably. I'm sure she'll be just fine. In fact, I promise to have her laughing by supper."
Rachel froze. "Supper!"
"What about it?"
She shut her eyes tightly and let out a groan. "The raisins!"
"What? What rai-"
But Rachel was already gone.
Ellie Lawrence kicked off her shoes as she sank down onto her desk chair. The shoes were new and the heels even higher than those she usually wore-too high, she thought, to wear anyplace except going from her apartment straight into a taxi. By the time she got out of the subway and walked the three blocks to her office on Fifty-sixth Street, she was practically hobbling. She massaged her inflamed toes, annoyed at herself for being so impractical.
"The price of being fabulous," she muttered.
Wheeling her chair closer to the desk, she tucked her shoulder-length, blond hair behind her ears, then reached for the computer mouse, and clicked twice. She nearly groaned aloud. Seventy-eight new emails. Her chronic stomachache, the one that kept her company during most of her working day, made its presence felt more acutely. Hurriedly, she scanned the emails to see what could be put off or ignored altogether. In her years of working at Swan and Clark Public Relations, Ellie had found that making a list of priorities and sticking to it was the only way to get through the day. Without priorities, distractions ate up the hours. She had a lot of work to get through; she had to leave the office by eleven-thirty to get to a luncheon for a new magazine's launch, and then there was a reception at the SoHo showroom of a new but extremely hot handbag designer.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Plain & Fancy Christmas by Cynthia Keller. Copyright © 2011 by Cynthia Keller. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.