Snow Place Like Home
by Lacey Baker
Ella Wilson has avoided home and the holidays for nearly a decade. For her, the season is plagued by a jinx that’s brought nothing but painful memories: her mother’s death nearly two decades ago, her fiancé’s abandonment last year, and now the loss of her job as an art curator. But without work to occupy her, home is exactly where Ella has ended up. And somehow, she’s also been roped into planning the town’s Christmas tree auction–side by side with her first love.
Seth Hamil knows that home is where the heart is, and for him, it’s always been the sleepy community of Bellepoint, Pennsylvania…and for a while in high school that included Ella Wilson. Since then, he’s been married and widowed and has spent the year throwing himself into his career as a music teacher and trying to keep his wife’s memory alive, starting with the church fundraiser she launched to support local kids.
So, despite their history, Seth isn’t about to let his wife’s vision for the event be easily dismissed by Ella’s temporary presence and big-city ideas.
To find a way to work together, the two strike a deal: Ella can incorporate her splashy ideas into the auction if she will allow Seth to show her why Christmas is about more than decorations. Soon both begin to wonder whether fate has brought them together for a fresh start–and if Christmas wishes really can come true.
Snow Place Like Home
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. ’Tis this season to be jolly . . .”
No, it wasn’t.
At five-forty-five in the afternoon, Ella closed the top drawer of her desk with a resounding click before sitting back heavily in her chair. The cream-colored ergonomic chair had taken her a year and a half to get used to, and now she had to accept that she wouldn’t be sitting in it tomorrow, or any other day for that matter. She rubbed her hands along its arms and closed her eyes. And then sent a silent wish to the heavens that the loud singing coming from outside her office would stop.
It wouldn’t. She’d been chanting that same wish all afternoon, since the very early holiday party began at noon. Normally, the annual gallery party would be held a few days before Christmas, but this year—since they would be closed by then—it was taking place on December 8. Today.
She checked her watch. Fifteen minutes to go.
That’s how much longer she had in this office where she’d spent the majority of her time for the last seven years. It was a nice office with soft-beige painted walls and built-in shelves on one side. Shelves that used to hold photos of her and Mama or her and her aunt, and figurines she’d collected from other galleries she’d visited. Sighing deeply once more, she dropped her arm and sat up.
Get it together, Wilson. Worrying is a waste of time.
Giving herself directives was much easier than actually carrying them out—although when those directives included sage advice from her mother, that made them all the more worth listening to.
“I can’t believe you really ditched the whole party.” Josie, one of the interns, came into Ella’s office wearing a reindeer antler headband with flashing red lights. It complemented her thick, green sweater with a Christmas tree—complete with jingling bell ornaments—on the front. “You’re missing Rudy in the Santa outfit. He’s totally rockin’ it,” Josie continued.
“Of course he is,” Ella replied, trying really hard to find just a little bit of cheer to appease her coworker one last time. “Nobody’s as jovial as Rudy at Christmastime.” That wasn’t an exaggeration. Rudy—the gallery manager—loved any holiday, but especially Christmas, and he cultivated his thick, white beard throughout the year so it’d be perfect when it was time to put on the red suit.
Ella thought it was all silly—from the ropes of garland draped around the back of the office space, to the tasteful white twinkle lights in the gallery’s front window. There was just too much holiday in this space. A couple weeks ago, Josie had even plopped a slightly annoyed looking elf on the corner of Ella’s desk to remind her of the time of year. But Ella didn’t need reminding. She liked ignoring Christmas and all the festive trimmings that came along with it. Her peace of mind depended on it.
Besides, they were adults working in a professional space. Making their offices look like a Christmas shop exploded inside was pointless. But Mama used to do the same thing. Nell Wilson would begin decorating the day after Thanksgiving, going through each room of their two-story house and adding what she called “a touch of Christmas magic” to each space. Then, like clockwork, on January 2 Nell would walk around the house taking everything down, packing each bulb, string of lights, roll of garland, red ribbons, miniature train sets, and everything else ever so neatly into plastic bins that would then be stored in their third bedroom.
And for what? So that on the twenty-fifth of December, the two of them could sit at the table and enjoy a huge meal together? They did that on most Sundays anyway, so looking back on it, it seemed all that decorating and singing and hoopla once a year had just been a waste of time and energy.
“Anyway, I’m all packed,” Ella continued, not wanting to take that trip down memory lane or talk anymore about the party going on, when there was absolutely nothing to celebrate. To show, rather than tell Josie this was how she felt, Ella picked up a box that had been behind her desk and walked to one of the guest chairs in her office. She set the box down on the chair next to the bag she’d finished packing this morning. “Since I started taking some of my things home earlier this week, I won’t have to come back and make another trip over the weekend. I know Rudy said we’d still be able to use our keys until Monday, but I’d rather not. I’m ready to leave.”
“Really?” The quiet sadness in Josie’s tone made Ella stop and look more closely at her. Josie’s sandy-brown hair was pulled back into a low puff that rested at the base of her neck, her cocoa-brown eyes filled with questions. “I mean, just like that? You’re ready to leave this place where you’ve spent so many long hours and had so many successes?”
“You don’t know about any of that.” The response was a little snappier than she’d intended, and that annoyed Ella more. She wasn’t normally so easily agitated, even at this time of year. She’d learned to ignore most of the festiveness that engulfed the world during the holidays, but this year felt different—or rather, it was turning out to be so similar to a couple of other years past that she was afraid of what else might happen in the next few weeks.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it quickly, she attempted to start again. “What I mean is, you’ve only been here for six months, so you haven’t witnessed that many of the ups and downs.”
“I know, but I’ve followed your shows since I was in high school. It’s what made me want to go to school here in the city and to seek out this internship.”
Ella had been flattered by Josie’s similar words in her interview, and while that wasn’t the only reason she’d hired her, it had made Ella feel good to know that her work was being noticed. “There’ll be more shows, Josie. Just not here at Liberty. And listen, you’ve got a great eye and your cataloguing and research skills have grown exponentially since you’ve started. You’re going to snag a new position in no time. Remember to put me down as a reference.”
Ella was moving again, this time going back behind her desk to have a second look around. She didn’t want to leave anything, didn’t want to have a reason to come back.
“What about you? Where will you go?” Josie picked up the moody elf she’d insisted Ella keep on her desk, rubbing her fingers absently over the ridiculous red hat it wore.
“As soon as Rudy made the announcement, I put some feelers out to other galleries, so we’ll see.” Ella hoped she’d hear back from someone soon, but in the meantime, she wasn’t entertaining any pity parties. Not her own, nor anyone else’s.
Certain she had everything now, Ella retrieved her purse from the desk drawer and returned to where Josie stood, touching her arm lightly. She really did believe in Josie’s potential and wanted her to achieve all her goals. It wasn’t that long ago that Ella had been this eager and excited to make her mark in the art world. She was hit with a pang of sadness at the realization that she wouldn’t get to see all her goals into fruition here at Liberty, and she hurriedly pushed it away.
“You’re graduating this spring, so another full internship isn’t necessary,” she told Josie. “You’re more than ready to walk into any gallery and handle whatever job they offer you.”
“I really liked working here.” Josie frowned. “I liked working with you, Ella. You made me feel seen in a way I never have in that fancy art school. Like I really belonged here instead of just being the recipient of what was basically a hardship scholarship. Like I could really do this job, and that one day I could become a curator at another gallery. And in these past months, everyone has welcomed me. I’ve learned so much—” There was a pause and then an exaggerated sigh. “I don’t really like change.”
Ella grinned. “Can’t say that I blame you, but you know you’ll never grow if you stay in the same place forever.” Now there was warmth spreading instantly throughout her chest at the memory of her Aunt Addie saying those very words to her the morning she graduated from high school. That seemed like so long ago and yet she recalled the day and that advice so clearly. It always amazed her how seamlessly Mama’s older sister had slid into the parental role when Ella was eleven and had become an orphan.
“See,” Josie said, pulling Ella into a hug. “It’s when you say stuff like that, I know I’m going to miss you so much. Who’s going to give me great advice at some new gallery?”
Josie was hugging her so tight Ella could barely breathe, but she didn’t pull away. Instead, she held on for a few seconds too, letting the reality of tonight really sink in. For the past two weeks since Rudy had announced the gallery closing, she’d been busy trying to arrange new commissions for some of her artists, packing and shipping paintings and sculptures to other galleries, and making sure all her records were in order for whomever might see them next. According to her “no pity party” mantra, she hadn’t taken one second to absorb the magnitude of leaving the place where she’d worked for the last seven years. Or how her life might drastically change because of it.
“I’m gonna miss you too,” she told Josie and meant it. The girl was so much like Ella when she’d been in her last year at college. Bright, enthusiastic, and ready to take the art world by storm. Now they’d both have to channel that energy in a new direction.
“Well, if you’re trying to ditch this party for real, you’d better head out the side door. And you can’t forget Mr. Elf,” Josie said when they parted, and she dropped the elf into Ella’s bag.
Ella stared down at the silly elf and couldn’t resist a small smile. It was fleeting, and seconds later she set her purse on the edge of the desk and grabbed her coat from the second guest chair to put it on. “I wouldn’t exactly call it ditching,” she said. “Laurie from accounting brought me a gingerbread cupcake earlier, but she didn’t know what I wanted to drink so I had to go out there and grab a cup of festive punch.”
“And how long did you stay out there?” Josie asked with a smirk. “Right. About as long as it took you to get that punch and hustle your way back to your office.”
Unable to argue, Ella shrugged and slid her purse strap onto her arm. She picked up the box and Josie put her other bag on top of it. “No lies detected,” she said. “But really, this just isn’t my favorite time of year. And that doesn’t totally rest on the fact that the gallery is closing. I haven’t enjoyed Christmas in a very long time.”
They were both at the door now, and Josie turned to give Ella a quizzical look. “Honestly?”
Ella nodded. “It’s just another month to get through and some years it’s a little harder than others. This,” she said, “I can tell is shaping up to be one of those years.”
As if the universe were determined to prove her point, a different song drifted from the party, down the hall to Ella’s office. All Christmas carols were familiar to her, but this one had her stopping, her heart pounding as she listened to the lyrics about spending Christmas away across the sea.
“Christmas Island” by Ella Fitzgerald, the jazz singer Mama had adored so much she’d named Ella after her, was playing just loud enough to hear. Memories of last night’s dream slammed into her and Ella tried to steady her breathing, to keep the pain from surfacing again.
“Hey, you okay?” Josie came to stand next to her again.
The movement had those bells on Josie’s sweater clinking together and Ella gave a little chuckle. “Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “I’m fine. And your sweater’s jingling,” she said.
Josie laughed. “That’s right,” she said and shook her shoulders so it would jingle again. “That’s the sound of Christmas joy!”
Ella began walking again, leaving the song and the memories it evoked behind. With Josie’s help, she was able to skirt around the other party goers undetected and made her way out the side door of the gallery.
Holding a box under one arm and a bag with the goofy elf sticking out of it in the other hand, she went through the glass doors of the Liberty Art Gallery one last time. And stepped right outside into a torrential rainfall.
Grumbling, she broke into a run, hopping over a puddle and barely making the light to get across the street to the parking lot. She was soaked by the time she made it to her car and fumbled to pull her keys out of her coat pocket. Of course they fell, and she had to put the box on the roof of her car before bending down to get them. When she did, Mr. Elf fell out of her bag and she hurriedly picked him up. He had a smudge of wet on his face now and she shook her head. “See, you should’ve stayed in the office with the rest of the festive folk.”
With a rueful sigh, she tucked the elf back inside the bag and stood to unlock the car. Once she had the box and everything else inside, Ella slid into the driver’s seat and closed the door. She dripped water onto her leather seats and the steering wheel, grumbling at the sight. This day was just getting worse and what she really wanted was to eat something, grab a cup of hot tea, and go to bed. Clenching her teeth and fighting off a shiver, she started the car and headed home.
Twenty minutes later—thanks to traffic—she was making another trip out into the rain. This time, she left the box in the car but grabbed her purse and the bag and ran into the house. Her phone had started to ring along the way, so as soon as she was inside, she dropped the bag on the floor and reached into her purse to pluck it out before it stopped. Praying it was about a job, she answered without looking at the screen to check the caller ID.
“Hey, Ella Bee! How’s my sweet niece doing?”
The smile that came immediately reflected the warmth that had spread through her chest at her earlier memory of her aunt. “Hey, Aunt Addie. It’s so nice to hear from you.”
Ella closed the door and continued to walk through the narrow foyer of her townhouse. There were pictures hanging on the dove-gray painted walls that she passed along the way. One was of Mama and Aunt Addie as little girls—bows held their freshly pressed hair into two ponytails and also topped the white patent leather shoes they each wore with pastel-colored dresses. It was probably Easter and they were on their way to church. Another picture was of her and Mama when Ella was just a baby—Mama’s smile was bright and beautiful while Ella displayed a soft, toothless grin. And the last was of Mama on Ella’s eleventh birthday, two months after her mother passed away. Ella stopped at that one, staring as she often did at their smiles, recalling the happiness she’d felt in that moment so long ago, and yearning for just one more of Mama’s warm hugs.
“Oh, how I miss hearing your voice, Ella Bee.”
Her aunt’s cheerful tone pulled Ella back into the present. Aunt Addie had been calling her by that nickname since Ella won the spelling bee three years straight in middle school. That seemed like so long ago and she was an adult now. Ella was sure the nickname could be dropped. Yet, she never said that to her aunt, the woman she’d grown to love just as much as she’d loved Mama.
“I’m really glad you called. How are you?” Aunt Addie was the closest relative Ella had, in proximity and relationship. Her father had passed away before Ella’s second birthday and his family hadn’t kept in touch with Mama after the funeral. Then, when Mama became sick and passed so quickly, Aunt Addie took the two-hour drive to Philadelphia, handled all the funeral arrangements, and brought Ella back to live in Bellepoint, Pennsylvania with her.
“Not too good, baby.” Aunt Addie sighed and Ella was about to ask her what was wrong but her aunt continued, “You know I miss you most at this time of year. This is a time for family and reflection.”
Ella rolled her eyes—thankful that Aunt Addie wasn’t there to see her doing such a disrespectful thing—and pulled one arm out of her wet jacket, water dripping onto her glossed hardwood floors. “I miss you too, Aunt Addie. I always miss you.”
Aunt Addie was all Ella had in this world. She was the rock that kept Ella tethered to her foundation—at least she had been before Ella left Bellepoint to attend Temple University. Then, Ella, like every other eighteen-year-old had thought she could handle life on her own. Oh, how wrong she’d been. Not that she wasn’t handling her life. It was more like she didn’t think she was doing that great a job of it.
“Well, then, that means we should be together this Christmas. Now, I know you’ve got your fancy job and house there in the city, but I’d love to have you home for the holidays this year, Ella Bee. It’s been almost ten years since you’ve been back. We could do all the things we used to do—bake cookies, well, I bake and you eat.” Aunt Addie chuckled. “We can get out the stockings and hang them on the mantle, go out and buy a tree and get that all dressed up. And you could go to church with me. You know Phyllis asks about you every year at the Christmas pageant. Said she never had another student create such perfect scenery as you did for the play.”
While her aunt talked, Ella eased the other arm out of her jacket and walked over to hang it on the banister. She hadn’t returned to the small town where her aunt had raised her since that one week in the summer before she’d entered her junior year in college. After that, internships, accelerated course loads, and then landing the job at the gallery had kept her busy in the city. Too busy to return to a place that held just as many tough memories to deal with than the time when her mother had been alive.
“Ms. Phyllis was a fantastic art teacher,” she said. Since fifth grade when Ella first sat in the back of her classroom, Phyllis DeShields had taken Ella under her wing, spending time with her after school at the community center and at church whenever they were doing arts and crafts. Ms. Phyllis was also the first person to encourage Ella to go to college and study art. For that, Ella would always be grateful to the sweet woman.
“Yes, she was. You know she retired a couple years back. But she’s still active in the church and at the school from time to time. So, what do you say? Think you can take off Christmas week and come home?”
“I don’t know, Aunt Addie,” Ella said and took another step before staring down at her feet. She was tracking water across the floor with her wet boots. Annoyed, she eased them off and walked the remaining distance from the hallway to her kitchen in her stocking-clad feet.
“You know, baby, even Jesus set aside a day for rest,” her aunt continued. “Working yourself to death doesn’t fill in the gaps left vacant by those we’ve loved and lost.”
Leave it to her aunt to go right for the jugular. Ella entered the kitchen and tucked the phone between her ear and her shoulder. “I really have a lot to do in the next few weeks.” Namely, look for a job so she’d be able to keep the lights on in this fancy city house, as her aunt had called it.
Rolling her eyes skyward, Ella realized she still hadn’t gotten around to telling her aunt about the gallery closing. To be honest, she’d hoped she would find another job right after the first of the year and, therefore, wouldn’t ever have to share her disappointment and moderate despair with her aunt. The last thing she’d ever want is to cause her aunt to worry.
“Busyness isn’t a substitute for living.” It was a solemn statement, one that Ella had heard many times before. Mostly during this same conversation when her aunt would ask her to come home and she’d decline.
“Now, I’m not gonna preach,” Aunt Addie continued and Ella pulled open the refrigerator door with a knowing smirk. The woman was definitely getting ready to preach.
“But I will tell you that life goes by fast and you only get one. You gotta stop and smell the roses. Sit still and let life happen. It’s what my mama used to always tell me and Nell. Just, be still.” Aunt Addie released a heavy breath.
Ella grabbed a water bottle and closed the refrigerator door. She could imagine her aunt sitting in the recliner that was positioned just so in her living room, so that she could stare directly out the window and see everyone turning onto her block. It was her favorite place to sit in the dusty-blue painted craftsman-style house she’d lived in all of Ella’s life.
“I’d love to come, Aunt Addie, it’s just that—”
“Every year you come up with more and more excuses,” her aunt interrupted. “And Lord knows I won’t be here forever to listen to them. So I’m not gonna push either. You do what you feel is best for you, baby.”
If not pushing meant she’d slide in a layer of guilt instead, then Aunt Addie was a pro at this. And this time, she was also right.
Each year her aunt called and invited Ella to come home for Christmas, or the Easter parade and worship services at the church. For Aunt Addie’s birthday, which her aunt celebrated the entire month of August because she said she never knew which one would be her last. Or for Mama’s birthday, when Aunt Addie always went to the cemetery to take Ella’s mother a bouquet of her favorite tulips. But every year, Ella really did have something to do.
This year, she didn’t. Or at least nothing she couldn’t do in Bellepoint. Looking for a job would consist of combing the online job sites for openings and contacting every connection she had in the art world. All of which required only her laptop, a comfortable place to sit, and tea to keep her pumped while undertaking the dreary task. Each of those things were possible in the small college town where Ella had grown up and where Mama had sung on the church choir.
“Do you still make those chocolate chip pancakes?” she asked before she could talk herself out of it.
Her aunt only paused a beat before replying, “Only when my best girl is here to eat them.”
“Good, because I’m gonna need plenty of those and a whole pot of that Earl Grey tea you make with cinnamon sticks and honey.” She shook her head because she couldn’t believe she was actually doing this. “I’ll be there in the morning, Aunt Addie.”
“Bless the Lord! So soon? Well, no, I’m not gonna question it.” She could hear her aunt clapping through the phone and it made Ella smile. “I’ll have breakfast all ready for you and then we can sit and talk a while and catch up on everything. Oh, we’re gonna have such a great time.”
“Yeah, a great time,” Ella added as she opened the bottle of water and took a gulp.
“Ella? Are you all right? You sound a little off.”
Because she was way off. Her life had just taken a tumble that Ella wasn’t sure she’d be able to rebound from and she didn’t know what to do next. Still, she replied, “I’m fine. I’m gonna go and start packing now and then get to bed so I can get an early start in the morning.”
“Oh, okay then. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night, Aunt Addie,” she whispered, and after her aunt had said the same, Ella disconnected the call.
She set the phone on the island and took another drink of water, trying her best to hold back the tears of disappointment that threatened to fall. “The Christmas jinx,” she mumbled. “That’s what this is. That relentless Christmas jinx.”
Frowning she closed her eyes and vowed the bad luck she swore came into her life at this time of year wasn’t going to get the best of her. She was going to get through the next few weeks regardless of the downward spiral she felt she was in, and then, in the new year, she’d start all over again.