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Love Letters
by Lori B.

Abby Letterman padded into the living room, fluffed the pillows on the sofa, and turned to admire the tall tree she and Ben had chosen. Colored lights illuminated her face, softening the lines around her eyes; silver strands of tinsel were reflected in her glasses. She moved closer and reached up to reposition an ornament. This was their best Christmas tree so far, she thought – their thirtieth. She hoped there would be a thirty-first.

 

Her gaze shifted to the menorah on the console table by the front door. Hanukkah was over, the candles were put away, but the menorah remained in place all year. Next to the menorah stood the Kwanzaa kinara, the candelabra their son Charlie and daughter-in-law Tiana had given them. And beside that lay a sealed envelope with a message penned across the front: “Do not open until Christmas.”

 

A gust of wind rustled the bare trees in front of their home. Pulling her bathrobe more snugly around her, Abby moved to the picture window and peered out. Flat snowflakes as big as quarters were falling from the pitch-black sky and landing on the holly shrubs in front of their house. The large flakes reminded her of potato latkes, Ben’s favorite breakfast. She’d have to remember to make some tomorrow.

 

They’d had a good marriage. Sure, they’d had their differences, but they’d always managed to work things out. When an acquaintance once asked them for the secret to their wedded bliss, Ben said “compromise” and Abby added “never go to bed angry.” But they both knew the truth. The real secret to their happy union was Scrabble.

 

At first they played just for fun, but as the years went by, the pastime became their version of a marriage counselor. If one of them sensed some tension in the other, or a need to talk things out, they’d bring out the old Scrabble game to put them in the best mood for resolving things. This never failed to do the trick.

 

They’d discovered the technique quite by accident. Once, after Ben found himself getting annoyed with the way Abby loaded the dishwasher, he’d raised the subject while they were setting up the game. “I’ve noticed you usually put the knives in with their points sticking up,” he’d said. Abby, distracted by the act of alphabetizing her seven Scrabble tiles, was barely listening. “Points down might be better,” Ben added.

 

Abby nodded absently while rearranging the letters in her tray. “Sure, no problem,” she murmured with eyes closed, while plucking a single letter from the bag of remaining tiles to see who would go first. As soon as she’d opened her eyes, though, she grinned at him. “I see what you did there,” she said, laughing. “That was excellent timing.”

 

“But I …” Ben stammered.

 

“Oh, I know you didn’t mean it,” Abby assured him, “but catching me in the ‘Scrabble Zone’ seems to have worked. I’ll have to try that on you sometime.”

 

About a week later, just as Ben placed a Z on a triple letter score square, Abby spoke up. “Ben, do you think you could start loading the dishwasher after dinners from now on, while I get Charlie’s bath ready?” she asked.

 

“Touché,” he answered. “Of course I can. And by the way, the word ‘touché’ is in the Scrabble dictionary.”

 

* * * * *

 

They’d met on a blind date in 1988, during college. Abby’s roommate Sandra (the unofficial matchmaker of their residence hall) had arranged it. Abby had reluctantly complied, since Ben was Sandra’s cousin, and since Sandra had practically begged her to go.

 

“Why don’t you just meet him at the library?” Sandra proposed. “Then if you like him, go out for coffee after. But I know you’re going to like him. He’s really cute.”

 

Abby thought Sandra tended to exaggerate. After all, Sandra had told Monica, who lived down the hall from them, that her date was the spitting image of Jon Bon Jovi, when in actuality he looked more like Elton John.

 

“And he’s quiet and serious, like you,” Sandra continued. “I just know you two will hit it off.”

 

“I’m serious?” Abby asked. She wondered if this was code for “boring.”

 

“Plus, he looks like … who’s that musician you’re always swooning about? The songwriter with the shiny hair?”

 

“Jackson Browne?”

 

“Yeah, that’s the one. He looks like that Jackson guy.”

 

Abby was much more interested in meeting Ben after that. She admired Jackson Browne’s sensitive lyrics and dedication to environmental and social causes, not to mention his gorgeous hair.

 

Abby tried to keep her hopes in check as she pulled open the heavy library door. Upon entering, she immediately noticed a lanky guy seated at a table in the References section. He was neatly dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt, and a tan corduroy jacket, and he was hunched over a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, which he appeared to be studying intently. His longish brown hair did look a little like Jackson Browne’s. Abby, guessing this was Ben, cleared her throat.

 

“Ben?”

 

The young man raised his head and smiled at her, revealing two adorable dimples. “That’s me,” he said in a deep voice that made Abby’s heart flutter. His warm dark eyes and long eyelashes didn’t hurt, either.

 

“I’m Abby,” she managed to say, suddenly feeling a bit breathless.

 

“And this is the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume One,” Ben laughed, pulling out a chair for Abby. “I wonder if our names are in it.”

 

“Well, if they aren’t, they should be,” Abby said, sitting down next to him. “Right after ‘abalone’ and ‘bemused’,” she added.

 

“Hey, that’s good!” he said, patting her hand and sending sparks up her arm. “Sandra told me you were cute and funny, but she didn’t tell me you were smart, too.”

 

At the coffee shop, the conversation flowed easily, and they learned they had a lot in common, lingering at their table long after their mugs were empty. The next weekend, they went out for pizza, and for their third date, Ben cooked dinner at his place. It was only a matter of weeks before they were spending all their free time together.

 

On the night Ben decided to propose to Abby, he asked her to sit at the dining room table. When she was seated, he handed her a box: his Scrabble game. “Let’s play,” he said. He knew she wouldn’t refuse. It was something they loved to do together on the weekends. While Abby began setting up the game, he excused himself to his bedroom, telling her he’d be right back.

 

As soon as he was gone, Abby pulled a bag of Scrabble tiles from her purse. She’d planned on proposing that night as well, and she’d chosen the tiles from her own Scrabble set with care. She dumped them out and quickly arranged them on the open board just before Ben emerged from his room with a small bag of his own.

 

“These are special tiles,” he told Abby. “Pick one to see who goes first.” Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Abby had already taken her turn. A word was facing him upside down.

 

“Wait … what’s that?” he asked, puzzled. “Three, W, H, something, something, V, W?” Abby swiveled the board around so Ben could read it. 

 

Mar-Rhyme?” he asked. “Is that even a word?” He thrust the bag he was holding toward Abby. “Maybe one of these will help.” 

 

Abby rolled her eyes, took the bag from Ben, and reached in. She felt something metallic among the wooden squares and pulled it out. It was a diamond ring.

 

“Marry me?” Ben asked, dropping to one knee. But the moment his knee hit the floor, he realized she’d just asked him the same thing, in a different way. He stared at the Scrabble board again. The words “MARRY ME” were obvious to him now.

 

“Yes,” they both said at once.

 

* * * * *

 

Over three decades later, Abby and Ben were about to become grandparents. It was Christmas Eve, and the baby was due in two weeks. Abby looked out across the growing snowdrifts in her front yard and thought about her grandchild-to-be. Would it be a boy or a girl? Nobody knew, not even Charlie or Tiana. They’d told the doctor they wanted to be surprised.

 

Abby was hoping for a boy, and that they’d name him Ben. She wanted this not for herself, but for her husband’s sake. He’d been through so much this past year, and she thought it would lift his spirits if he knew his name would be passed on, even if his life turned out to be shortened.

 

Last January, a routine blood test showed he had prostate cancer. Additional tests indicated that it was a moderately aggressive type, with the possibility it had spread. The doctor had recommended surgery as soon as possible, plus radiation therapy six months later.

 

Due to a scheduling backlog at the hospital, the operation was delayed until April. Radiation treatments started in October and lasted through November. The ordeal had been difficult for both Ben and Abby, who were on pins and needles the whole time, worrying about the outcome.

 

They were now awaiting results of a post-radiation blood test. Abby knew everything depended on it. If the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) result was zero, or close to it, Ben would be in the clear. If not, there would be more treatments, and an uncertain future.

 

The thought of losing her husband brought Abby to the brink of tears. She quickly stepped closer to the tree, inhaling deeply. Its sweet pine scent reminded her of her childhood and comforted her. Ben felt the same way about the menorah. He wasn’t especially religious, but lighting it put him in touch with his roots, he said. And now that Tiana had introduced the family to Kwanzaa, they had even more to celebrate.

 

Abby stepped back from the tree and checked her watch. “Ben,” she called out. “It’s almost midnight. Can we start Alphabet Christmas soon?”

 

“I’ll be right there,” Ben answered from upstairs. “Where’d you put the tape?”

 

“It’s in the tape drawer, down here,” she said. “But you don’t have to wrap my present.”

 

“Yes I do,” Ben replied.

 

Abby sighed. She was in a hurry for Alphabet Christmas, their own special ritual. They’d made it up one night during their first year of parenthood. It was their way of teaching Charlie the alphabet, while paying tribute to the two icons of their relationship: the dictionary and the Scrabble game.

 

It was a simple tradition. Each year on Christmas, the first presents they’d exchange with each other would have to begin with a specific letter of the alphabet – starting with A the first year, all the way to Z by year twenty-six.

 

“We’ll both be fifty-three by that time!” Abby had exclaimed. Neither of them could imagine being that old.

 

For Charlie’s first Christmas, twenty-six years ago, Abby had presented him with an abacus, and she gave Ben an alarm clock. Ben gave Charlie a stuffed alligator. His gift to Abby was a necklace with a 14-karat gold initial, the letter A.

 

“Technically, this starts with the letter N,” Abby teased, “but I’ll make an exception this time.”

 

The following year, their gift exchange included a bracelet, a bib, a bandana, and a Bee Gees album. The album was for Charlie. “I want him to grow up with an appreciation for the classics,” Ben had said.

 

The tradition had continued for the next twenty-three years. Abby was momentarily stumped by the letter Q until she found a framed map of Qatar for Ben and a vinyl Queen album for Charlie. Ben didn’t think Q was that difficult. He bought Abby a quilted potholder, which she reminded him started with a P, not a Q, and, for Charlie, he went out on Christmas morning and brought back a Quarter-Pounder from McDonald’s.

 

“I know, I know. It’s technically a hamburger … do you want me to return it?” Ben teased Charlie.

 

“No way,” Charlie answered, devouring his gift on the spot.

 

* * * * *

 

Ben walked in, interrupting Abby’s memories, and placed a small, slender box under the tree. “Year twenty-six!” he said. “Letter Z at last! How’d we get this old?”

 

“You’re only as old as you feel,” Abby stated.

 

“In that case, I’m a hundred and five. Can we open our presents now?”

 

“That’s what I’ve been waiting for,” Abby replied. “Charlie and Tiana will have to wait until we see them tomorrow, but let’s get started.” She retrieved the envelope from the console and handed it to Ben. He carefully opened it and found a small white stone in the shape of a bear.

 

“A stone? A bear?” he asked. “But where’s the Z?”

 

“It’s a Zuni carving, made by Zuni Indians. The bear is a symbol of healing.”

 

“Oh, wow. This is great! Thanks so much, sweetheart. Now it’s your turn.” Ben grabbed Abby’s gift from under the tree and passed it to her with an expectant expression.

 

It didn’t weigh much at all. “Well, it’s either a picture of the zodiac or a very small zebra,” she joked. What she found instead was a folded piece of white paper sitting atop a few sheets of tissue paper.

 

She pulled the folded paper from the box, opened it, and began reading. Instantly, tears formed in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She threw her arms around Ben and whispered, “Thank you.”

 

The paper – a medical lab report – slipped from Abby’s hand, floated to the floor, and lay there, bathed in the red and green glow of the Christmas tree. Ben’s most recent PSA score – zero – was circled in red.

 

“When did you get it?” Abby finally managed to ask.

 

“It was in my online medical chart this morning. I decided to surprise you. Oh, and if you check under the tissue paper, there’s something else in there.”

 

Abby reached into the box again. Her fingers touched something small and square. It was a single Scrabble tile.

 

“The letter Z!” she shouted. “Ten points!”

 

“Thirty, if you put it on a triple letter square,” Ben reminded her.

 

“Of course,” Abby nodded. “And I deserve every single one of them.”

 

Abby’s phone started buzzing in the next room. “Who could that be at this hour?” she said as she ran to answer it. And a few seconds later: “It’s Charlie! I’ll put him on speaker.”

 

“Merry Christmas,” Charlie said, yawning. “It’s been a long day. Tiana went into labor this morning, or I guess it was yesterday morning, I’ve lost track. She’s sleeping now. Anyway, um, congratulations! You have a beautiful, healthy grandchild.”

 

“That’s wonderful, Charlie!” Abby shouted into the phone. “A girl or a boy?”

 

“Girl,” Charlie said. “And … we decided to name her Zöe. It’s our letter Z year, after all. Did you remember?”

 

“Oh, we remembered, all right,” Ben said, winking at Abby. “Wait till you hear what I got your mom.”

 

* * * * *

 

A week later, Charlie stopped by to wish his parents a happy new year and to drop off his gifts for them: a Frank Zappa t-shirt for Ben, and a ZZ Top t-shirt for Abby.

 

“Why didn’t I think of those?” Abby exclaimed.

 

“Here’s your gift from both of us,” Ben said, handing Charlie a can of soup. “You can make dinner for Tiana tonight.”

 

“Soup?” asked Charlie. “What’s that got to do with Z?”

 

“It’s zuppa, in Italy,” Ben told him. “And it’s not just any soup. It’s alphabet soup. There’s probably a Z in the can somewhere.”

 

Charlie laughed, and Abby noticed, as she always had, the lovely dimples he’d gotten from Ben.

 

“We’ll be starting Alphabet Christmas for Zöe next year,” Charlie said on his way out the door, “so start planning your presents now.”

 

Later that night, Abby and Ben lit the Kwanzaa candles and curled up next to each other on the sofa. “What will we do next year?” Abby asked Ben, leaning her head on his shoulder. “Start over again with A?”

 

“Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” Ben said. “I’ve loved Alphabet Christmas. My favorite year was letter X, when Charlie gave you the Xerox copy of his hand.”

 

“Yeah,” Abby added, “and I gave you that book, ‘The Art of Xeriscaping,’ which you never read, and you gave me the Xbox game that I still haven’t figured out how to play.”

 

“I know. So maybe instead of giving gifts to each other next year, you and I should start a new tradition. How about volunteering at a soup kitchen? Would you want to do that?”

 

“I would,” Abby said. “Was it Charlie’s can of soup that gave you the idea?”

 

“No,” Ben replied. “It was being in the hospital and dealing with cancer that did it. It sort of forced me to sit back and take stock of my life. And it got me pondering how I want to spend the rest of it.”

 

“That’s wonderful,” Abby said. “But did you just say ‘stock,’ as in soup?”

 

“Yeah, I guess I did,” Ben grinned, which was exactly the reaction Abby had been waiting for. She never got tired of seeing him smile. 

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