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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
Jan 2007
B&H Publishing

A Winter of Wonders

by Jennifer O'Neill

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Just off Main, Norros was buzzing with wall-to-wall patrons inhaling the unrivaled best food south of the Mason-Dixon line. Even Nashville's snooty restaurant menus paled next to Norros, where “busy” was normal fare.

Truth was, city dwellers didn't mind the relatively short drive to the outskirt town of Centennial when they had a hankering for southern cooking at its finest. And the local residents never minded the thirty- to forty-five-minute wait for a seat, even if that seat was at the counter of the fifties-styled diner; they'd simply gather in any available corner of the restaurant to exchange stories and updates until they could be seated.

Irene had recognized right off that being a transplant from New York City to Centennial had the potential to create its own calling card for the curious. Still, ever since her husband had died and she'd been arrested, the local-yokel scrutiny had been beyond merciless. And with every postponed trial date, the insanity multiplied.

No question, Irene was the talk of the town; and she, uncharacteristically, hated every moment of the attention. Where she was from, as long as they were talking about you, it was a good thing; but Irene quickly came to terms with the truism that in the South being talked about was not something to aspire to.

Stephanie skillfully navigated her way around the popular diner, taking orders and serving her customers with a smile and a professional manner. As the only waitress at Norros, she handled the task with aplomb.

She couldn't help but cringe at the barrage of critical words and speculation being bantered about by Norros loyal patrons concerning Irene Williams's personal affairs. Frankly, it raised the hair on the back of Stephanie's neck, and she wondered just how long she would be able to bite her own tongue so as not to speak out against such mean-spirited conversations. But then she calmed herself with the knowledge that not everyone from around those parts had a spiteful heart. In fact, since Stephanie had moved to Centennial, she had made the best circle of friends she'd ever known, and that knowledge held her at bay, at least for the moment.

It looked like a little girl's bed, one barely big enough to accommodate the worn, one-armed teddy bear nestled between a double set of pillows trimmed in lace. The hand-stitched pink quilt came just short of covering the down comforter, its corner turned back as an invitation to crawl under and rest without reserve. arched windows overlooking a concise garden of evergreens framed by a white picket fence. Stephanie always had a way with creating a gracious home, no matter her circumstances.

A few leaves hung onto a formidable branch of an oak tree defying the inevitable turn of season from fall to winter. This bark-encased monument of time marked the corner of Stephanie's yard, which was located in the center of the mobile home park where she and Trace lived.

It was Wednesday, November 14, 1996. Long shadows cast by a rising sun cut across the room where Stephanie knelt in prayer at the foot of her bed. There was something childlike about this lovely woman; dreams still filled her heart despite so many disappointments.

Her innocent qualities were never more evident than when she was in prayer, seeking God's forgiveness, healing, wisdom, restoration, and glorious presence. This was her quiet time; her habit was to be up well before dawn to nourish herself spiritually.

In the scheme of things, the twin bed appeared oddly out of place in the relatively large bedroom that boasted

Stephanie always began her prayer time with some Scripture that would eventually move her heart and voice to song. Trace had grown up hearing his mother's melodic prayers called out to God early every morning, and this new day was no exception. In fact, these past years he had distinctly heard every lamenting word his mother uttered through the paper-thin, prefab walls that divided their bedrooms. Then, like clockwork, he would roll over, taking solace in the fact that he had at least an hour more of sleep before having to get up for school.

The seventeen-year-old's six-foot-four athletic frame sprawled sideways across the king-size bed he had inherited from his mom when they moved to Tennessee two years ago. He never quite understood why Stephanie had offered him her bed, and she never told him the real reason. All she said was, “I stopped growing years ago, . . . size wise.” Then she'd wink. “Now it's your turn to have some unencumbered snooze space.”

But the truth was, when Stephanie lost her husband in a horrific trucking accident in Alabama, she couldn't bear to spend even a single night alone in the bed that she and the love of her life had shared with such passion and commitment.

Trace was not even fifteen when his father died, and Stephanie, only thirty-nine, was suddenly a widow. She could relate to Trace's anger with God at such a loss; and soon after her husband's death, she found herself at a crossroads in her faith. That really frightened her!

She had heard stories about such loss, and she had read somewhere that “crossroads in faith” happen to most Christians at some juncture in their spiritual lives. Nonetheless, realizing that she was not alone in her questioning allowed her a bit more latitude in her dialogue with God; she finally let herself wail from the depths of her soul without the fear of losing her reverence for the Lord as she questioned the meaning of her plight.

During those first days of grieving, Stephanie decided her teenager's bed would suit her far better than the king because she was absolutely sure there would never be another man in her life. Besides, she just couldn't stand any physical empty space residing beside her empty heart.

And so it never failed: over the last several years when she would kneel at the foot of her son's little bed, she was somehow comforted by its size-or lack of it. It actually took her back to her youth, to her teddy bear and mounds of pillows that made her feel secure in the middle of the night despite the fact that she was surrounded by six older siblings in three separate sets of bunk beds.

Yes, she was the baby, and she liked it that way, even as she grew into a young woman. But the security of a large family was short-lived for Stephanie.

Aunt Reba tried to comfort the thirteen-year-old Stephanie when she came to live with her after the disaster. “God must have a mighty special plan for you, girl, to have spared you the fate of your family.” The kind woman wrapped Stephanie in her arms, stroking her hair as she hummed an old-time hymn.

Stephanie battled with a bushel-load of mixed emotions while Aunt Reba's eight younger children gathered in the living room, settling into their favorite spots sprinkled around the family area of their modest homestead nestled in the backwoods of Alabama.

Stephanie remembered thinking that she'd never seen a TV with such big rabbit ears, extended by wire hangers and whatever else was necessary to get reception in the mountainous countryside. Everyone pulled their seats closer up to the set to watch the local news program about to report the story of Stephanie's loss.

An advertisement for Hoover vacuum cleaners filled the screen for what seemed an eternity, and although the family expected to see the interview with Stephanie, everyone was stunned when her likeness popped up on the little screen. Watching herself on camera, Stephanie remembered she was literally shaking in her boots during the interview.

The girl recalled wondering why the news anchor's lips didn't slide off her face since they were so rosy and shiny from lipstick and gloss.

“Stephanie, we're so sorry for your unthinkable loss but so thankful you're here with us. Tell us what you remember when you came home from your friend's house after Mother Nature's tool of destruction passed through your town.”

Stephanie slowly started to answer, hemming and hawing at first. Her voice was barely audible as the news anchor shoved the microphone just inches from her mouth. “Well, I was at a friend's, and then we heard about the tornado. . . . But it didn't hit where I was staying.”

The interviewer urged her on. “And then what happened? When you came home, what did you find?”

Stephanie was holding a teddy bear with one missing arm close to her chest. “Well, my friend's father brought me home in his truck, and there were all these police and ambulances around, but the farm was gone . . . just pieces left. And my mom and dad . . . and my brothers and sisters . . . they were already in the ambulance.”

Stephanie choked up, unable to go on. Thankfully, the news anchor was compassionate enough not to press the issue, turning away from the girl toward the camera to finish her report. “Unfortunately, all of Stephanie's immediate family were lost to the incredible force of the tornado.” She turned back to Stephanie. “Sweetheart, how old are you?”

Stephanie murmured in a wavering voice, “Thirteen.”

“Is that your teddy bear?”

Stephanie protectively reacted by squeezing the bear tighter, almost as if someone were going to make a move on her memories. “He's mine. He was in the tree. The policeman got him down for me.” Her eyes shifted focus. “My kitty always sleeps next to my teddy bear, but we haven't found her yet.” Stephanie. “Is that right, sweetheart?” The girl nodded as the woman once again addressed the camera. “This is Eva Brown reporting for WNKT TV News, Tolly, Alabama. If anyone would like to know more about how to donate to the storm victims, please contact the TV station, WNKT TV News in your local listing.”

The backdrop for the interview was a seemingly never- ending stream of medics, policemen, and firemen wading through the rubble; and as they wrapped the shoot, the young girl solemnly watched in disbelief as the ambulances drove away to take her family to the morgue.

“It's our understanding that Stephanie's aunt will be coming to pick her up soon.” She turned back to

That winter morning, Stephanie could feel the Holy Spirit move in her. The moans and groans of a prayer language known only to God's children transported her.

Daily, Stephanie longed for the refilling of the Holy Spirit and the renewing of her mind. She always prayed for a hedge of protection around those she loved, which God so graciously supplied her upon request. But as she put on the armor of God (see Ephesians 6:11-17), the claiming of his Word never failed to beg the lingering question, Why hadn't her husband been protected the day of his death? Yet, as quickly as she asked, a peace surrounded her, and God's promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5), crossed her mind and heart, and she knew she was truly and completely adored by her Lord.

Yes, she had learned that abiding in God and trusting that he always had her best interests at heart, even when she didn't understand the why of his ways, was the way to go.

Stephanie prepared a hot bowl of oatmeal topped with bananas, three scrambled eggs, a stack of buttered toast, grits, fresh squeezed orange juice, and a granola bar for good measure every morning for Trace to fuel up on before school.

The boy took up most of the far side of the small kitchen table after he dropped his gym bag by the back door and greeted his mom. By habit, Stephanie's hand ran along her son's broad shoulders as she moved across the kitchen for another cup of coffee.

Just as Trace was about to chow down, Stephanie piped in, “Thank you, Lord, for this food and sanctify it for your use, in Jesus' name.” Contrite, Trace glanced at his mom, recognizing that his appetite had, once again, sideswiped his thanksgiving.

“Big game tomorrow, Son?”

“They're all big.” He took a moment to swallow before lifting his eyes. “Thanks, Mama, for cookin'.”

Stephanie nodded, content that her son never took her efforts on his behalf for granted, even in his most rebellious moments. His father had instilled respect in the boy before he died, and Stephanie was thankful Trace's childhood lessons had not waned.

Sitting across from Trace, she observed her son through the steam rising from her coffee. After a beat, she noted that the gleam in his eye looked different from when he used to talk about playing college ball on a scholarship and going on to the pros. Lately sports didn't seem to be Trace's main interest. In fact, from the beginning of basketball season, this handsome young man had been off his game. On the other hand, his grades had improved.

Stephanie concluded that both changes had something to do with a young lady named Chelsea. Ever since the girl had moved to town at the beginning of the school year, she and Trace had become inseparable. Truth was, Stephanie was concerned about how close these two teenagers had become.

“Congratulations on getting that 'A' on your biology test.”

Trace held his fork up in a little victory twirl while he continued to devour the breakfast before him.

“So Son, you haven't asked me for any help lately with your homework. I think it's wonderful you're doing so well, but . . .”

“. . . Chelsea helps me. She's real smart, Mom.”

Stephanie tried to maintain a casual demeanor. “That's good. She seems like a really nice girl. Must be, you sure are spending a lot of time with her.”

Trace stared at his plate, avoiding his mother's glance. “Yeah, I like her.”

Stephanie laughed, “I gathered. Your record with any of the other girls in town maxed-out at a week. You two have been going together, what . . . three months?”

Trace shoveled some more scrambled eggs in his mouth. “Yeah, I guess.” He could feel her eyes on him, despite his avoidance.

He looked up at the change of her tone. “Yes, ma'am?”

Now that she had his attention, she continued. “I wish your father was here to have some of these sit-downs with you. . . . You know, man-to-man talks.”

Her comment instantly raised old feelings of bitterness in her boy. “Yeah, well, he's not here, is he, Mom?”

Stephanie was not going to let him go down that path. “No, he's not Trace, but that's not my point. I know you miss him, and I miss him, but that's not what I'm talking about right now.”

“We've talked about this a million times.” He tried to adopt his mother's vocal lilt for emphasis. “'There are consequences to every action.' 'You have to treat girls like ladies because you're a gentleman.' 'The only way to stay pure is by practicing abstinence.' 'If you really love somebody you'll want to save yourself, and so will she.' . . . I'm being careful, Mom. And I really like Chelsea.”

“Well that's good, Trace, that's good. But being 'careful' doesn't cut it. If you're treating the girl with respect and yourself with respect, you don't have to be careful. You just have to be trustworthy and caring. . . . I can tell you genuinely care for this girl, but I also have to tell you that my impression of Chelsea is that she's got some problems.” That comment did not sit well with Trace. “How do you know what she has? You've only said hello and good-bye to her.”

“Trace, I feel like I'm talking to a wall here.”

“You're right. That wasn't fair. I guess I'm assuming some things. Maybe because her family's going through so much. . . . Her mom's having such a hard time in town with the court and all. It's not hard to imagine that Chelsea has some issues. Her aunt is part of our prayer group, you know.”

Trace glared at her. “So what do you do? You all talk about Chelsea?”

Stephanie put her coffee cup down with authority. “No, absolutely not. We don't talk about people. I just know that the girl's in therapy with Pam. . . . I don't know any other details. It's none of my business. Her privacy is of utmost importance to everyone. But I'm not going to lie to you; we pray for her. . . . We pray for you too. We pray for all of our family and loved ones.”

“We're not little kids, you know.”

“Please don't speak to me in that tone. I don't care if you're fifty, you're still going to be my son, and I'm always going to pray for you. . . . And I hope you do the same for me. That's what family's about. . . . That's what love's about, and that's what a hedge of protection is about. I've told you that since you were knee-high. There's nothing more powerful you can do for people than pray for them.”

“You and Chelsea are spending every spare moment together. . . . And that may end up putting a strain between you two in an area that you might want to leave a little bit more space.”

“Mom, we're studying and stuff.”

“OK, your grades are better, but it's the 'stuff' I'm concerned about. Chelsea is one pretty young lady.” Trace was back looking at his plate.

“Son, I'm just trying to say that the decisions you make today make your tomorrows.”

“I know that, Mom.”

Stephanie poured herself another cup of coffee while Trace gobbled up the last morsels of his breakfast. He wanted to get out of that kitchen as fast as possible.

Trace stood up. “I gotta go.”

“I know . . . Trace, I'm not saying that you should be single. I'm just asking you to slow down and know that while you're putting all your attention and focus on this girl, other things are going to suffer. You've always had dreams. . . . I'm just not seeing you following through like you used to.” The boy headed for the door, his demeanor indicating his frustration with his mother. “I don't want to be disrespectful, Mom, but that's my business. I'm almost eighteen and . . .”

Stephanie stopped him before he went any further. “. . . And clearly you've got someone else to talk to. I know you're not my little boy anymore. But I'm still your mom. You've been shut down lately, and that concerns me. I'm not talking about excluding Chelsea. I'm just asking you to put things in the right perspective.”

Trace was about out the door. “Gotta go, Mom, or I'll be late for school.”

“OK. . . . Have a good . . .” But before she could finish the sentence, he was gone.

She sat there a moment as she wondered how she was ever going to get through this raising time without the help of Trace's father. It was all going by so fast.

She recalled the times she'd talked to her boy about God's plan for a man and a woman, about the fact that God had designed sex to be glorious and everlasting within marriage. She had even read the Song of Solomon in the Bible with him so he could see the intimacy God had in store for his people within the parameters of commitment and respect. And she was clear to point out that living in a manner outside of that plan brings only pain and disappointment in the end.

She had even asked Trace to think about all of God's creation, from animals to plants. Then she illustrated that God had only designed human beings anatomically to face one another when they made love. Invariably, Trace would blush when his mother talked to him about such things, but she would not be dissuaded. Her point was too important. She would tell him that people were designed to face each other so that they could look into each other's eyes when they made love in an intimate and trusting relationship.

“And how could that kind of relationship evolve?” she would ask. “One of trust only comes through commitment. And what is commitment but marriage?”

She was also quick to remind Trace that they served a God of second chances, and that if he were to stumble and fall, she didn't want him to feel that fidelity was lost for a lifetime. He could always repent and start fresh. Yes, Stephanie had laid a solid foundation for her son, but the question remained, would he heed her advice?

Stephanie took a deep breath. She thought about her circle of friends, her prayer partners, each in their own way having gone through so many tests in the last several months; Eleanor's bout with breast cancer, Tonya's waiting for a commitment from the father of their son, Pam's determination to help Chelsea in counseling and to open Hope School. And Lauren, their newest friend, struggling with her divorce and issues with her family.

Yes, they all had a lot to pray about, but Stephanie was encouraged knowing that at least they all had one another for support and accountability, and that was more than most people could claim. Trust was hard found in this world. Although, in God's economy, it was the emotional glue that held one together during life's storms.