The Gift of the Maggie
A Christmas Story of love lost and found
Pocahontas County, West Virginia, Christmas Eve 2012
Charlie Greer’s morning routine was several years in the mak- ing after the death of his wife. He needed routine to take his mind off how much he missed Carol. Such strategies seldom work, though. Grief always has a way of seeping in, despite efforts to the contrary.
On this Christmas Eve morning, Charlie pushed through his morning rituals of coffee, listening to the news on the radio, and tending to his garden and chickens, unaware that this would be the most extraordinary and happiest day of his life.
Charlie and Carol were incredibly tight as a couple. They tried hard to have children, but endometriosis prevented Carol from carrying a baby to full term. In 1996, they met a struggling young mother who approached the Greers about adopting her infant son. Carol and Charlie were overjoyed and readily agreed. Soon, their modest farmhouse sheltered two doting parents and a boisterous baby named Jason.
Their lives were now perfect, but we cannot predict how fate can tear one’s life to shreds without warning.
When Jason was sixteen, he and a couple of school chums bought an inflatable raft from an army surplus store. After a few months of paddling the Greenbrier River, the gentle waters became monotonous to the adventuresome boys.
The trio decided to try their hand at something more challenging. Unbeknownst to their parents, they chose to paddle the Upper Gauley River early one morning in October during the dam release.
This amounts to going straight from paddling flat water to running a river like the one in “Deliverance.” The boys were no match for the Class 4 and 5 rapids they would encounter. The raft turned turtle in the Iron Curtain Rapid, spilling all three boys into the maelstrom.
Jason’s friends made it downstream and were picked up in an eddy by paddlers in another raft. Jason, however, was trapped in an undercut rock. His body was recovered later in the day when it washed out of the hydraulic and floated downstream.
Charlie and Carol were inconsolable when they got the call from the Fayette County Sheriff’s office. Their house suddenly became silent as sorrow overtook their lives for several years. It was as if the emotion of joy went out of their lives; they were prostrate with grief.
Apache National Forest, Arizona, October 12, 1976
Charlie, a young food writer from West Virginia, was on the return trip from California, where he had been gathering information for an article searching for the best pies in the U.S.
He arrived at a campground in Apache National Forest just before dark. Charlie made a quick meal of fresh artichokes he had picked up in California earlier that day.
After dinner, Charlie sat under a giant ponderosa pine, sipping a beer and marveling at the night sky. Before the bottle was empty, drowsiness sent his travel-worn body into his sleeping bag.
Early the following day, he sat at a picnic table, organizing his notes. Nineteen restaurants and bakeries in 34 days represents a lot of pie consumed for the sake of journalism, but who’s complaining?
A large green pickup truck with Park Ranger plastered on the door pulled alongside Charlie’s tent. He dashed for his wallet to pay for his campsite. A svelte young woman wearing a Smokey the Bear hat and a badge stepped out of the truck.
Her stunning looks, complemented by a spray of freckles across her cheeks and long red hair, nearly caused him to stumble over his lawn chair. He felt his heart flutter and desperately hoped to form intelligible sentences that wouldn’t give away his near swoon at the sight of this woman.
Seeing the wallet in Charlie’s hands, she said, “Oh, no, sir, you’re on a primitive campsite, which is paid for on the honor system. On your way out, you’ll see a metal box by the gate.”
The ranger thrust her hand out to Charlie and said, “I’m Margaret Swearingen, but I prefer just Maggie. What’s your name and where are you from?”
After the brief introductions and a more extended conversation, Charlie summoned the nerve to ask Maggie, “Are you up for a hike?”
“Sure, I can walk a short way with you, but I have four more campgrounds to check before my shift ends,” answered Maggie. There was an immediate connection between the two young people, what we sometimes call “chemistry.”
Charlie and Maggie walked and talked for the hour it took to hike the loop trail around a small lake next to the campground. Then, there was one of those uncomfortable moments when neither wanted to part ways so abruptly, and, clearly, they enjoyed each other’s company.
Charlie walked Maggie over to her truck and suggested she accompany him on his writing assignment about pies. Maggie exclaimed, “Why, you know it’s only an hour’s drive to Pie Town, New Mexico, right?”
“Actually, I did not, but that sounds like a place that must have a decent slab of apple pie. Are you up for it?” Charlie asked. Ellie briefly pondered his invitation and smiled, “Well, it sounds like quite a culinary adventure. I get off at three p.m., so when do you want me back here?”
“At three p.m.,” replied Charlie, unabashedly smiling ear to ear.
The two talked non-stop for the entire drive to Pie Town, a dusty town named by the cowboys passing through on cattle drives. According to the town’s postmistress, when the town got a post office and had to have a name for the unincorporated burg, they called it the same thing the cowboys called it – Pie Town.
Why, you ask?
In the late 1800s, a woman in town knew the schedules of the cattle drives and sold the drovers her much-loved pies. You may think that all cowboys are the strong and silent type, but many a cowhand has sat around a campfire discussing the delicate crusts and perfect meringue of the pies in Pie Town.
Maggie asked her if someone was still making pie. As it happens, descendants of the same woman who put a smile on the cowboys’ faces still get up at three each morning to make pies.
“And where might that be?” Maggie asked.
The postmistress walked the two outside and proudly pointed at the Thunderbird Café, saying, “You’ll not find better pie anywhere.” And that’s precisely where Maggie and Charlie headed. Since the objective was to try the pies for Charlie’s article, they did something we all dream about but might be too embarrassing to actually do: the couple ordered six different pies and two cups of coffee. They had fun sampling those delicious fruit and cream pies.
They arrived back at the campground just in time for a full moon flooding the forest around them. They held hands as they walked the trail down to the crystal-clear lake surrounded by brilliant aspens in full color, the golden leaves clattered in the warm breeze.
They just sat on the shore with their arms around each other, saying little for some time. Finally, the emotions and the moonlight collaborated to create the perfect mood, so Maggie and Charlie got to know each other exponentially better.
Unfortunately, life, careers, and fate conspired to ensure the two young lovers would never see each other again. Oh, they tried to contact each other, but with no success.
These were the days before the Internet and social media, so tracking someone down, even someone you care for, took a lot of work. Charlie sent a letter to the regional forest service office inquiring about Maggie. The reply stated that Maggie was no longer employed there, and they had no idea of her whereabouts.
For her part, Maggie made several attempts to locate Charlie when she saw the article about Pie Town in an airline magazine. She called the publisher, and they told her that Charlie no longer wrote about food, and they had heard he was a freelance war correspondent. They went on to say they did not know where he was presently posted.
Charlie was very fond of Maggie, and it would be another decade before he fell in love again. This time, he kept in touch with his love interest. A month later, he drove to Nevada and brought Carol back to West Virginia to be his wife.
Maggie had decided it was time to get a full-time job, and shortly after her stint with the Forest Service, she used her doctorate in nursing to snag a prestigious teaching job in Chicago. She found a lovely apartment near the college with everything she needed to raise her infant daughter, Ellie.
Chicago, Illinois, April 12, 1986
Maggie had cancer, a glioblastoma to be precise, and it was time to tell her daughter, Ellie, about her condition and what to expect. She knew that, without a father present, Ellie would have a rough time of it. But Maggie was tough, and she raised her 10-year-old daughter to be equally so.
Maggie’s mother was sheepish and under the total control of her dominating father, but Maggie vowed to give Ellie what she called “Nerve and Verve.” Ellie was as intelligent as she was strong, and she knew she would soon lose her mother. She also knew that she would have to deal with it without the help of her mother’s family; Maggie severed those ties years ago.
As Maggie expected, Ellie lived in many foster homes; most were good, a few could be summed up as just an unpleasant experience, and one could be deemed abusive. She left the foster system as strong and indepen- dent as Maggie intended.
When asked about her mother, Ellie would simply say that she died from cancer. But when asked about her father, she had no answers. Besides, her mother was somewhat evasive about the subject every time Ellie brought it up.
All Ellie learned about her father from Maggie was that he was a great guy and a freelance writer for travel and airline magazines. Maggie did tell Ellie that she had attempted unsuccessfully to contact him, but unknown to her and Charlie, each had moved away to further their careers.
Ellie would have loved to know more about her father, but that is all the information her mother provided for reasons she did not share. Maybe Maggie, an independent young woman, planned to live her own life before getting tied down. And that is something we will never know.
Chicago, Illinois, November 11, 2012, Veterans Day.
Charlie knew he had to leave the house for a while; it was becoming more a prison of grief and loneliness than Carol’s “Home Sweet Home,” like the needlepoint hanging on the kitchen wall read.
Christmas was coming, and he couldn’t bring himself to decorate the house, not even a sorry-looking Charlie Brown Christmas tree with a single bulb.
In a matter of just a few years, he had cut himself off from much of the outside world, and now he was paying the price of abject loneliness and perhaps even depression.
Charlie called a former Army buddy he served with in Vietnam. Paul Hammond became an architect after the war and moved to Chicago. Although the two had not seen each other for years, Paul demanded that Charlie jump in his truck and head on up to the Windy City for the Veteran’s Day Celebration in Grant Park.
“How do you know that I own a truck? Charlie asked, laughing.
“I thought everyone drove a big badass truck in West Virginia,” replied Paul.
“Well,” thought Charlie, “Old Hammond hasn’t changed a bit since Nam; always a wisecracker.”
Charlie knew that a visit with Paul might be just what the doctor ordered, so he packed a duffel bag, threw it in the back of his badass pickup and headed north to Chicago.
Paul and his family lived in the near north end of Chi-cago in a gentrified area that seemed just right for Paul, a real urbane urbanite. Charlie got a room at a hotel on Michigan Avenue, a 30-minute walk to the Hammonds.
Charlie picked up a nice bottle of wine on the walk uptown, where he met Paul’s delightful wife and two of the three adult children. Being among Paul’s gregarious family for the evening was emotionally uplifting. They agreed to meet in Grant Park the next morning for the Veterans Day celebration. After a final nightcap, Charlie said his goodbyes and began walking back to his hotel.
He decided to walk back along the bike path that parallels Lakeshore Drive. It was late evening, and few people were on the trail.
As Charlie exited one of the tunnels under Lakeshore Drive, a man stepped out of the bushes, holding a knife. Charlie had learned a lot from his days in a war zone and managed to wrest the knife away from the mugger, but not before his right arm received some deep slashes.
After kicking the mugger’s ass, Charlie wrapped his bleeding arm with his jacket and walked himself to a downtown hospital.
It was after midnight, but the emergency room was full of injured people. (Hey, it’s Chicago) But because Charley was still bleeding, they got right to work on him. His doctor, a striking woman, stitched up his forearm using no less than 105 stitches.
One cut went right through the middle of an unusual tattoo. The doctor asked him about his tattoo, which had a chef’s carving knife and an old-fashioned ink pen in the form of crossed swords. Below the figures was the French homage to culinary delights, “Bon Appetit.”
He mentioned that getting the tattoo was a youthful impulse and was a design usually reserved for food writers and chefs.
Doctor Ellie Swearingen held up his arm and intently stared at the tattoo. She gently laid his forearm back on the gurney and said, “You know, Mr. Greer, this tattoo looks quite familiar, but I don’t know why.”
“Getting to know you, getting to know all about you.” Oscar Hammerstein
When he returned home to West Virginia, Charlie realized that his short visit with an old friend in Chicago was a huge lift to his spirits, but in the long run, it was merely a band-aid.
Walking back into his empty and quiet home, his loneliness and depression was more profound. He soon began to question his relevance and saw little reason to continue a life without hope – he had lost almost everyone who meant anything to him.
To add to Charlie’s emotional burden, he was not in the least motivated to do much of anything. “Why go on?” he asked himself, “My future offers only more desolation.” Charlie Greer was teetering on the edge of the precipice, while far away, a gentle wind was blowing his way.
Dr. Ellie Swearingen was puzzled over why a patient’s tattoo looked familiar. She had no body art herself and normally wouldn’t pay much attention to tattoos. Yet, this one caught her eye as being something vaguely familiar. She felt compelled to seek an answer to her puzzlement, and, most peculiarly, she did not know why.
Like a computer in search mode, her brain unconsciously sought the answer to her enigma. It would take nearly three weeks before it suddenly, and in the middle of the night, dawned on her where she might look for an answer.
Ellie had not opened the cardboard box her mother had given her in several years. She felt an impulse to jump out of bed and search her attic for the box. So, that is what she did.
Ellie lugged the heavy container downstairs and placed it on the kitchen table. She made coffee and began to go through the box – item by item. As often happens, the very thing she was searching for was the very last thing she uncovered.
Ellie was stunned when leafing through an old airline magazine from the box and stumbled upon an article about pies. There was a photograph of her mother and a young man seated before a table covered with slabs of pie.
Her mother looked much younger, maybe in her early 20s, while the man had long hair and a beard and wore round glasses like the ones John Lennon made famous.
Ellie vaguely remembered seeing the picture several years after her mother died when she was still in high school.
She drew in a breath when she noticed the tattoo on the young man’s right forearm – it was exactly like the one worn by the mugging victim she stitched up.
She carried the magazine into her office and turned on a brighter light, studying the young man’s features for several minutes. Excitement coursed through her body; she now knew who her father was.
And there was no way she would let that man get away without knowing his own daughter.
In a real sense, both Ellie and her father were lonely people. Likewise, both yearned for some meaningful family connections. After all, what are we without loved ones, be they family or friends?
Shortly before midnight on Christmas Eve, the wall-mounted phone in Charlie’s kitchen rang. Already in bed and nearly asleep, Charlie debated answering the phone, thinking, “Who in the world calls at this time of night?”
A strong impulse drove him out of his warm bed and downstairs to the kitchen. He grabbed the phone, hesitated momentarily, and said, “Hello, the Greer’s residence.”
“Mr. Greer, I’m Ellie Swearingen, the doctor who patched you up in Chicago a few weeks ago. I’m Maggie Swearingen’s daughter. But that’s not all. I’m your daughter, too.”
And thus began the most joyful conversation of Charlie and Ellie’s lives, and the best Christmas ever!
Merry Christmas to all.