Chapter 26

A note from the author: The story is almost ending; therefore, I'd like to thank some people for their encouragement and stamina. Thanks to Barbara on DC for loving and telling all about this fic from the start. Your kind words meant a lot to me. Thanks to Judy, for being a wonderful friend and beta. I miss you. And thanks to you , Jen is now my beta, and in her, I've found a wonderful new friend. Thanks Jen. Finally, thank you to everyone who continued to read this story through troubles and rl glitches. I apologize for my erratic postings. Thank you for still reading. I appreciate it. Your reward is that I've finished this story. Next week at this time the story comes to an end. Although there will be no sequel, I will post one-shot in this au from time to time. Thanks again,

el

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The Gregorys were to arrive around two. Char and Kate spent the morning getting the rooms ready for our new guests. Heath and I shoveled and plowed out last night's new round of snow while Linden and Jorge kept themselves busy doing, well, the usual moaning and groaning. 

I don't think they were exercising-- at least not in the traditional sense.

Me? I was getting my fair share of exercise. I read recently that shoveling snow burns 408 calories an hour. Sex burns 274 calories if you do it lying down in a phone booth and 60 more calories if you moan in Latin. And if you have a really small dick, you burn a lot more than if your dick is really big. I guess Heath and I are out of luck in that department. Or maybe good luck. I guess it depends what is most important, burning calories or a super-tight fit.

I'll have to remember that Latin thing. Kate's cooking was starting to put on the pounds-- I don't think eating half a jar of peanut butter with Heath should become a regular part of my diet. 

One thing about the snow here was that it was wetter and heavier than I remembered. I've never shoveled so much damn snow in my life-- it sure does snow one hell of a lot in Wisconsin. I hope their summers make up for it, because, like I told Heath, I wasn't going anywhere. At least I liked cross country skiing and the sound of snow crunching beneath my feet.

I was still shoveling the front steps when Heath finished clearing the end of the driveway and grabbed another shovel to give me a hand. With both our backs at work, we had it cleared off in no time. It was one of those bright, sunny days, and the fresh snow was perfect for packing. I couldn't help myself. I picked up a handful and flung it right at him.

Snowball fight!

Splat! Right in the side of the head. 

Heath dropped his shovel and retaliated. One, two, three. Damn, he was good. Nailed me each time. We were both laughing and ducking and throwing when the cab pulled up. Heath bent down and picked up his shovel and slung it over his shoulder. The cab slowed, then stopped in front of the steps, and the cab door swung open. Out came a freckle faced little old lady with white, fuzzy earmuffs and an over-sized wool coat. She stood staring at us all covered in snow. The cab driver didn't give us a second look as he got out and opened the trunk to get her suitcase. I shook my head, and the slushy-wet stuff flew around my head in a halo. 

"Heathcliffe?" she said.

The shovel Heath held dropped to the porch with a clang.

"Mom?"

I remembered what Heath had said-- that he didn't know what he'd say to his parents if he ever saw them again. Well, he didn't say a thing-- just threw his arms around her, hugged her tight and sobbed.

Got me crying too. 

The door opened behind me and Kate came out with Char standing behind her. Next thing I knew, they were all in one giant hug, crying and laughing. After a few moments, heads cleared and each stepped back, one by one, Heath last.

"Want to come inside?"

"Yes, son, I'd love to come inside."

---------------------------

Needless to say, the Gregorys never came: it was Ellen who planned to come all along. Linden and Jorge stayed conspicuously hidden away, making me wonder if they knew that she was the one coming not the Gregorys. As the family mingled in the anteroom, I noted how their mother tipped her head to one side as she listened just like Kate, and how her freckles, eyes and slow smile were so much like Heath's. When she laughed, it was like hearing Char.

After the initial ruckus, Heath stepped back and watched his sisters interact with his mother. Char swung her mom's suitcase in one arm and held her mother's big wool coat in the other. She was the one who finally asked, "Where's Dad?"

"He passed away last August. A heart attack at age 62," she answered, quietly.

The anteroom grew still. I cried silent tears for Heath-- for the father he'd never get to see or know. 

Char solemnly took her mother's bags to the one and only first floor room bedroom. Her reservation was only for one night. Kate asked her would she stay, would she go? Her mother smiled and told Kate this was but a short stay that she hoped would precede many longer ones. 

"I have something for you-- for you all," she said, and reached into her patch-work purse and pulled out a letter.

She handed it to Heath. He stared at it in his hand, the envelope yellow and tattered. 

"Read it after I leave tomorrow," she said. "Then think about what it says. If you want to see me again, you will know how to find me."

I, for one, wondered when someone would ask the question we all wanted to know, "Why? Why did you leave your children?"

Heath's fidgety silence told me that he was thinking the same as I. His demeanor wasn't lost on his mom either. 

"I hope you can find it inside you to forgive," she said.

"Forgiving was never the hard part," Heath said. "It was the wondering."

"I hope the letter answers some of your questions," she said. 

"Why can't we read it now? Why can you just tell us?" Char asked.

"I know it's selfish of me, but give me this time with you. After reading it, if you never want to see me again, then at least I'll have this time with you to remember. For now, all I can say is that I'm sorry, so sorry, and that we tried to find you and that we did what we thought we had to do to keep you safe. Maybe it wasn't the right thing to do, but we did it for the right reasons." 

They agreed not to read the letter until after she left and to spend this time with her without knowing the contents of the envelope. I didn't know what to think about it all. If it was me, I would have opened up that envelope and read it. But Heath wasn't me. He carefully folded the enveloped in half along the well-worn crease and put it in his pocket and waited for another day.

--------------------------

They had the time together. They laughed and reminisced. That day I learned about the younger years: about Kate getting five stitches in her knee sliding into home plate during a neighborhood softball game and about Heath breaking his arm hanging like a monkey in the tree. I learned that Heath's first word was cookie, and when he was three he used to ask everyone he met in the supermarket to "read me a story."

They talked about everything that happened before that day before Christmas when their parents left them, but said not a word about anything after. The present? They gave the usual filler information you might read on one of those copied Christmas letter: accomplishments, illnesses, deaths. When Heath got to me, Heath told her who I was, what I was to him. She never blinked, yet a deep sadness came over her. She hugged Heath tight after he told her, and she whispered something in his ear.

Later that day, we said goodbye to Linden and Jorge. The girls gave them each enough kisses to last them "until next time," Kate said. Linden blushed and Jorge blew kisses back as they left.

The next morning, we said goodbye to Heath's mom in the falling snow. The Wisconsin wind whipped through my coat and tossed around our hats and scarves. I stood on top of the steps of the bed and breakfast and shivered as I watched the girls wave long after the cab disappeared in the swirling snow. Heath hung his head, kicked a chunk of ice with his boot, then slowly lifted his eyes until they met mine. Amazing how one gentle smile melted me. The top step had drifted over with snow during the short time we stood there, and Heath stepped through it. I brushed the white flakes from his hair, then pulled his hands into my pockets to warm them.

"You ok, friend?" I asked.

His eyes wavered back to his feet, then up again to mine. "Yeah," he sighed, "I think I'm gonna be ok."

Kate stepped up behind him. "How 'bout some hot chocolate?" she offered.

We all agreed and went inside. 

"Guess we can read Mom's letter now," Char said.

"Guess we can," Heath repeated.

"I'll make that hot chocolate," she said. "I guess the kitchen is as good a place as any to read it."

---------------------

Heath reverently opened the envelope. Unfolded the letter and laid it out flat on the table in front of him. I blew into my hot cocoa as Kate and Char pulled up chairs and sat down.

"April 12, 1997. Dear Katie, Heath, and Charlene," he read, 

We so hope that somehow we will find our way to each other and these words will never have to be read by you, our dear, dear children, but if we should not find each other and you do read this, we are living in Saskatchewan in Estevan. Please come to us. Your father and I work at a small store there. You will find us as Ellen and Hal Parents.

Your father risked much to look for you, and we feared that they would find you through him. These people would do anything to get to the money since they have hurt others close to you to find us. They blackmailed your father for many years, but your father said "enough" when their greedy fingers reached for the charity funds. 

We want you to know that your father did take the money, not for himself, but to keep the money from those men. They have many connections, and we left you to keep you safe. They threatened your lives as well. They followed. We lost them only through your father's skill and a friend,s kindness. We waited and when you did not come to meet us, your father took a chance and contacted your Great Aunt Abigail. She told us she had heard nothing from you, but the Mafioso goons found her and asked where we were. She understood from what they told her that they did not know where you were. Your father and I wept tears of joy to know wherever you were, you were safe. 

Where is the money? It is gone. Your father laughed when he read in the paper that we'd hidden it away in a Swiss bank, when all he had done was to give a large, anonymous donation to the Salvation Army. Your father said, "Who would expect that from a Rabbi?"  

Your father was right. There are many things that one does not expect from a rabbi. You father's secret was safe with me all these years but like all secrets, it came to light. He feels shame for his past. It was his own shandeh. I never judged your father. He is a good man. They hounded him for his past. He chose me, and for me, that was enough. He never failed to follow one of God's  mitzvot in the years after he married me.  

We can wait here no longer. To stay longer, would allow them to find us. 

A brocheh for you, my dear children,  

Mother

He folded the letter.

"What was his shandeh, his shame?" Kate asked.

"She told me-- she whispered it in my ear last night," Heath said. 

"What?"

"Our father loved a man-- before our mother." 

"Somehow I think I'd known all along," Kate said. "It all makes sense now."

"They were happy," Char said. "I know they were."

"Of course they were," Heath said. "One thing I've learned about love is that you fall for a person-- who they are, not what they are." 

That night when we went up to our room we made more than love. 

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