She wanted to spend the holiday season on her own. The town had another idea.
- Posted on Oct 24, 2014
I should have known that moving into a historic house would come at a price. My place was a stop on the long-standing Eldon, Iowa, holiday open-house tour.
Half the town would file through my door, not to mention tourists from all over. I’d intended to spend the days before Christmas quietly, alone with my thoughts.
My husband had died suddenly a year ago, at age 43, and I was still grieving. I’d moved to the little white house, pictured in Grant Wood’s famous painting, to try to make a fresh start. By myself. Not with strangers traipsing through each room.
Of course I was used to people coming by to see the place from outside. I enjoyed making small talk and selling pies on the lawn, even posing for pictures.
But inviting them inside—where I lived and baked and wrote in my journal and mourned my husband—seemed too intimate. I wasn’t ready to take that step. Still, I felt I should participate.
“I can make pie,” I said at the town meeting to plan the tour, “but I don’t even have any Christmas decorations.” What little I had from my married life was too painful to put out.
Besides, I was all set to drive to California to spend Christmas Day with my parents. I had no plan to decorate here.
“Don’t worry, Beth,” Mayor Shirley Stacey said. “We’re all loaded with decorations. We’ll lend you some of ours.” Everyone around me nodded. What had I gotten myself into?
The day before the open house, I started my baking. I was pulling an apple crumble out of the oven when I heard a knock at the door. It was Mayor Stacey holding a big cardboard box.
“Decorations, as promised. We’ll get this place looking festive in no time,” she said, walking past me into the living room.
I followed. She set in the corner a two-foot high Santa wearing a velvet coat and ski boots. Next to him she arranged other Santas who looked like they just stepped out of a Dickens story.
Shirley nodded approvingly. “It sure smells good in here,” she said. “You know, Beth, you and your pies really bring this place to life.”
The mayor left. I got another knock on the door. It was Priscilla, a retired schoolteacher. “I brought you some candles for the windows.” We put them out together, while I answered knock after knock at the door.
A parade of neighbors delivered loads of garland, twinkle lights, angels and bells and ornaments for my little tree. When people stopped by they invariably asked how I ended up here.
I told them about my late husband and how much I missed him. About how making pies comforted me, rolling out the dough just right. How peeling apples and crimping the crust felt so peaceful.
Talking seemed to make me more peaceful too, and I slept better than I had since agreeing to open my doors to anyone and everyone who wanted to come by.
The open house was a big success. So were the pies. After eight hours of greeting my guests I flopped onto the couch and dug into the last slice of pie. I had survived.
In fact, I had fun meeting people from all over the county who admired the house and wanted to know more about me and my pie making. And my beloved husband.
I hardly had time to rest before packing up for the trip to California. But the roads were covered in snow and ice. Driving was treacherous. There was no way I’d make it to my parents!
I woke up Christmas Eve morning in my little house feeling lonely. That evening I got on my laptop and Skyped with my parents. At least we could see each other live on-screen.
I carried my laptop from room to room, focusing the camera on all the details: the lights, the angels, the Nativity scene around the base of the tree.
“The mayor herself loaned me these Santas. And there’s a candle in every window, thanks to Priscilla.” Each decoration reminded me of my new friends. This historic house had come at a price. The price of a caring and loving community.
“It looks so nice and cozy,” Mom said. “I can almost smell your pies baking. We wish you were here, Beth, but I can see you’re in good hands.”
Mom was right. I remembered what the mayor had said, about how I brought this house to life. It was the other way around. This house brought life back to me. Now for a warm slice of Christmas chai-spiced pumpkin pie.
Beth Howard is the author of Ms. American Pie: Buttery Good Pie Recipes and Bold Tales from the American Gothic House (Race Point Publishing; 2014). Photographs by Matthew Gilson.