The ocean looked inviting as Jena made her way to school. She slowed and put her right foot down to touch the ground and stabilize the bike while she paused to watch as her habit was each morning. There was something restful about the Pacific Ocean with its ebb and flow of waves washing white sands of this bay area. She loved this vantage point down the road from her grandpa’s vacation home she now occupied since father had died. They sold their home in the city and moved while her mom adjusted to the new reality of being the bread winner of the family. The view was spectacular from this spot where the lane from her grandpa’s home joined the main road which she’d descend soon for the five kilometres bike ride along the ocean face to school.
Grandpa lived in the city where her mom and dad previously lived. When Jena’s dad died her Mom Gwen Claridge realized she was not going to be able to cover mortgage payments on a single salary. Dad had worked for one of the major banks and between husband and wife they’d enjoyed an upmarket lifestyle until cancer had broken into their tranquil life. Gwen’s job with a lawyer’s office was only part time and they’d helped her when grief at her husband’s passing temporarily put her into a mental freeze. It was under their advice during that traumatic period she rapidly put the house on the market, paid out the bank loan and deposited what was left over after sale while she recovered and was able to figure her future out.
Living with her parents permanently was out of the question as Gwen’s brother and his family were already living there and there was no more room. So, the family in counsel organized a move to this place on the coast. The holiday home would become her base while she got her life together. With the help of the city lawyer firm by chance having a branch office in this seaside town Gwen was given a full-time job with them so her days were full on as she struggled to support her young child Jena.
Jena was still traumatized by the loss of her father Barry. He’d been her rock. She could remember monopolizing him of an evening when he returned home from work each day. Her Mom would take her to school and head for work to return from work to pick Jena up when her day in class ended. On weekends they’d spend time with neighbours or often head for the coast and grandpa’s holiday home, so Jena was familiar with the area long before they moved here. The neighbours in this seaside town had been most supportive as they’d known them over the years from family frequent visits there. Grandparents were frequent visitors to give whatever support they could as they adjusted to life without husband and father.
Jena looked at her watch and sighed. She could spend all day watching activities this curved beach area offered. It was a tourist area so there were always people on the beach and people riding the waves. Occasionally an ocean liner followed the deep-water channel as it came within easy viewing distance then turned to follow that channel out into the Pacific Ocean headed north to Asia or the Americas.
But Jena had to be responsible. She’d promised her mom Gwen she’d faithfully attend school and be a good student. That had been the last words her dad had spoken to her before the hospital informed them next morning he’d died unexpectedly during the night. She steadied the bike and sped down the hill heading for her school. Soon the school would recess for Christmas holidays, and she’d have all the time in the world to appreciate this view during the day while Mom was at work.
Jena liked school. While she was desperately sad inside. she kept that under control and anyone meeting her for the first time would judge her a well adjusted and outgoing person not even guessing she struggled to deal with her private grief. She made friends easily and was soon considered by students and teachers a definite asset to the school. She excelled academically and participated in sports events and extracurricular activities provided by her school.
This was to be the third Christmas break since they’d moved from the capital city. Usually, her grandparents made that as special a day as possible under the circumstances by moving in for a week and the rest of Gwen’s siblings made the trip to spend Christmas day with them. The holiday home was one of the few remaining properties that hadn’t been converted into high rises to maximize returns from tourist traffic. Grandpa had been offered big money for the property by developers but had retained it with its spacious grounds set up with swimming pool and outdoor entertainment areas. Grandpa had eyed it as a future retirement place, but realities of old age were beginning to steer him toward a retirement village as the most practical place where he wouldn’t have to deal with maintaining a property with his health conditions preventing that now.
That had been the reason for Gwen’s brother to move in with his parents to support them with housework and grounds maintenance. Grandpa had already specified the distribution of assets between his children after they’d moved to a retirement complex and Gwen was to be given ownership of the holiday home where she and her daughter Jena now lived. Grandpa had started his adult years with a small machine shop supplying companies with needed parts but demand for his high-quality products had exploded until he’d had to move to larger and larger industrial premises. Both Gwen’s siblings had eventually taken over management and built that small beginning into an industrial empire worth millions of dollars.
Jena paused outside the office of the school Chaplain and Counsellor. Her teacher had taken her to him a year ago when she’d noticed Jena in tears by herself after gym practice one day and drew out of her gently the reason for her sadness. Despite years since her father’s death memories of precious time spent with him evenings sometimes broke through her protective wall of stifled emotions. The Counsellor Mr Riches listened and spoke soothing words to her. He told her he fully understood her sorrow because he’d lost his wife leaving, he and his son Jamie to grieve her passing. Jamie was in her class and that news had bonded both in their common loss of a parent, so they hung out together after school and did their homework together often while Jena waited for her mother to come home from work. She was the envy of other girls who had a crush on Jamie Riches because of his outstanding sports records. Jena knocked on Mr Riches door and he shouted an invitation to come in and greeted her warmly.
Kevin Riches was not only chaplain and counsellor for this school but one of the movers and shakers of a large nearby church with an active youth program that provided camps and excursions for youth during vacation. He was into sports in a big way and helped the teacher charged with physical education making him a popular figure on campus. While this was a decidedly secular campus a significant group of students attended these church camps to be in company of their cool school counsellor.
This was to be the first year Jena’s mom would permit her to attend one of these camps and she could hardly wait for that to happen having heard glowing reports of fun experienced by students who’d attended before. Mr Riches helped Jena fill in papers necessary before one could be accepted and showed her where her mother was to sign her approval. She was to return the signed form to him next day. He inquired if she needed help with the fee and she assured him her mother would be able to cover the costs. She knew though that it would be her grandparents covering costs just as they did for her schooling. She lacked nothing. Well, nothing except the most valued thing she could hope for. Her father.
At first Gwen was alarmed at this increasing reference to Mr Riches the counsellor and seeming hero of the school. Working in a lawyer’s office one becomes aware of cases where unhealthy relationships developed out of too close contacts with adults outside a family relationship and sometimes in family relationships. So, Gwen did careful background checks and these yielded positive reports. Fears allayed she still quizzed her daughter carefully about any encounters just to make sure.
The camp was a huge success, and an excited Jena reported every day the events to her mother who smiled as she remembered attending similar camps in her childhood years on weekends. It was on her return Jena asked her mom’s permission to attend youth meetings at Mr Riches church. Gwen said she’d accompany her to one meeting to check on their bona fides before allowing her to attend alone and she did. Gwen had such a good time there and was surprised when a tall muscular man came up to her after the program with a young man in tow. Jena whispered to her mother excitedly.
“It’s Mr Riches with Jamie.”
Gwen studied him with a lawyer’s gaze as he approached and gave him a mental tick of approval. She smiled as he arrived. “So, you’re the school counsellor who captured the heart of school students including my daughter. She has not stopped talking about her experience at the camp. You people run an excellent program it seems.”
Kevin Riches laughed pleasantly. “Not sure about capturing hearts that’s not the purpose of our activities. We try to put on programs that will keep the kids out of harms way on the streets around here and wish we could influence more than we do to engage in wholesome activities. You can be proud of your daughter. She’s well appreciated at school and excels academically and in sports and extracurricular programs run by the school. Nice to see her joining our group here too today.”
Gwen warmed to this man who she’d had doubts about and created a file on to make sure her daughter was in safe hands. She knew after meeting him he certainly was a safe person to entrust her with and respected boundaries. She liked him a lot.
“I’m so grateful to you for helping Jena through her grief at the loss of her father. It’s been a few years now but both of us still struggle at times and you’ve been a help in her adjustment.”
“Thank you, Mrs Claridge, it’s nice to get that feedback as some parents are not as supportive. I guess having lost my wife I can understand how she feels as it’s been hard for me to see my son Jamie suffer that loss and be strong for him when I’m hurting myself. You can be sure I can empathize with her and with other students who go through some family trauma. You’d be surprised to know just how many students in our school carry grief with them every day and the majority have both parents but no love in the home.”
“You’re a good man Mr Riches.” Gwen was deeply moved as it sunk in how important it must be to have someone these students could turn to when apparently because of dysfunctional families they had no one in the family to talk to as they went through adolescence.
“Call me Kevin. I must mingle with others who’ve come for the first time so please excuse me. I hope to see you again Mrs Claridge.”
“My name is Gwen Kevin.”
He smiled taking her in appreciatively. She was a good-looking woman. Then he turned and headed for some others to make them feel welcome.
Jena turned to her mom. “What do you think of Mr Riches and Jamie mom?”
“I like him very much Jena.”
Jena thought about that encounter on the way home and into the evening. She missed her dad, but it would be nice if Mr Riches were her father now in her real father’s absence. She was happy her mom liked him too. And in the days coming up to Christmas Jena couldn’t get that thought out of her mind.
Because they were careful with their money now Gwen liked to ask what each member of the family would like for Christmas instead of buying gifts that people wouldn’t possibly like or find useless for their needs. She gave gift certificates to nephews and nieces and found modern youth enjoyed buying for themselves rather than unwrapping gifts they didn’t want. But in Jena’s case she made an exception and gave her money to buy a personal gift for her mom she wanted and not tell her what to buy. Gwen would treasure that even if it were useless to her because it came from the heart. But she always asked Jena to tell her what she wanted, and each would wrap the gifts and put them under the tree for the extended family visit. So, she asked again this year what Jena would find useful as a present.
Jena had been thinking long and hard about the question she knew would be forthcoming before Christmas and without hesitation replied.-
“My chosen present for this year is something you don’t have to wrap mom. I want you to invite Mr Riches and Jamie to our Christmas party.”
Gwen’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “That’s not a present Jena!”
“It is to me mom.”
“I couldn’t do that Jena the man would be terribly embarrassed. He will have his own family to visit at Christmas.”
“Can I ask him mom?”
Gwen was too surprised to answer for a while. It was an impossibility! What would he think of her being that forward as to ask him to a family gathering? It would look like the act of a desperate woman looking for a man and she certainly was not that kind of woman.
“I have to think about that Jena but probably the answer will have to be no. I do like him, but you have to understand he would be embarrassed.”
Jena went away to think some more, and it soon became an obsession. Her mother liked Mr Riches, she liked Mr Riches. Why couldn’t she have he and Jamie for a Christmas present?
So, the next day she sought out her friend Jamie and told him how much she’d like to have them over as her present on Christmas day and Jamie clapped his hands enthusiastically. No, they had no place to go on Christmas days. Kevin Riches parents lived in England he’d met his Australian wife on a holiday in Australia and had stayed and settled, so they usually attended a church lunch on Christmas day and Jamie envied those who had family gatherings. Jamie poured the story out to his father that evening.
Kevin had been impressed with Gwen at the time of their encounter at the church youth meeting and had wondered how he could meet her to know her better in an appropriate way. Hearing the story his son had relayed from Jena he understood the sensitivity of such an invite from Gwen’s point of view. Perhaps he should take the initiative in establishing a connection between the two of them by asking her out? The idea appealed so much to him that he picked up his cell phone and did a search for the number of Gwen Claridge in the telephone white pages. Armed with that and heart beating fast he punched in the number. He could use his birthday as an excuse.
“Hello Gwen Claridge?”
“Yes, who is this speaking.”
“This is Kevin Riches. We met briefly at the church meeting on the weekend. I was wondering if you have a free evening on Wednesday. I have a birthday and am kind of tired of celebrating by myself each year. Would you be able to join me?”
There was a moment of silence. “Kevin has my daughter been talking to you by any chance?”
“I haven’t talked to Jena for a couple of days Gwen, why what is the problem with her?” His conscience pricked him a little. Well, it was true he hadn’t talked with Jena but certainly Jena had got his thoughts aligned in this direction.
“Oh no problem with Jena I was just asking.”
“Well would you be able to make it on Wednesday evening, so I have someone to celebrate with Gwen?” He was beginning to feel foolish now and wished he hadn’t phoned. He was certain now the answer would be no and waited for a reply. The silence was beginning to make him feel uneasy.
But eventually the answer did come.
“Yes, that would be nice Kevin. I haven’t been to a restaurant for years, but I’ll have to find someone to look after Jena so will get back to you if that’s not possible. Give me your phone number.”
“No, bring Jena and I’ll bring Jamie to keep her company if that’s OK with you.”
“Perfect! I’m looking forward to that. What’s the time and place so I can meet you there?”
“I’ll pick you up. Would 6.30 pm be OK for a pickup time? I’ll make the reservation for 7 pm.
Gwen felt her spirits lift more than they had for a long time. She was really looking forward to that date.
Wednesday was a huge success the two families bonded instantly, and this was followed by shared events at sports venues and beach parties.
Kevin made a huge impression on Gwen’s parents and siblings at the Christmas lunch that year and one year following that on Kevin’s birthday Kevin and Gwen exchanged marriage vows at his church.
Jena’s Christmas wish had come true.
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