'Tis the Season by James W George
The Christmas music emanating from the elegant viola was breathtaking. Of that, there could be no doubt.
It was a frosty morning and the second Sunday of December, but the local United Methodist Church was warm and inviting. The sanctuary was decorated, as usual, in a festive but tasteful manner. Attendance was indeed impressive, and every worshipper was absolutely enthralled by the beautiful music.
Thirty-two-year-old Heather Goodwin was in her element. She was an absolute virtuoso, and the captivating, athletic mother-of-one closed her eyes as her performance climaxed with the rousing chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Heather had already treated her audience to an emotional rendition of Silent Night, which was followed by a very poignant interpretation of Joy to the World. And now? Handel as the grand finale. Absolute perfection.
“All-e-lu-ia! All-e-lu-ia! All-ay-uh-lu-lia!”
Nestled snugly in the eighth row of the right-hand side, in the same pew she had commandeered forty-one years ago and had never relinquished, sat the redoubtable Millicent Ann Haverty. And she hated every second of the allegedly joyful noise.
Millicent Ann Haverty, or Millie Ann to her friends and allies, was a stern but diligent seventy-two-year-old grandmother. She was well-mannered but plain-spoken, tastefully attired in a manner befitting Sunday worship, and at that particular moment, was inadvertently grinding her dentures. She fidgeted in the pew, adjusted the buttons on her matronly pantsuit, and impatiently tapped her displeasure with her sensible footwear.
Millie Ann absolutely despised Heather Goodwin. That Goodwin woman was her most loathsome nemesis. In fact, Heather Goodwin was so loathsome she had absolutely no idea she even was Millie Ann’s nemesis. She was utterly oblivious to the struggle while lost in her smug, triathlontraining, viola-playing, orthodontist-marrying, perfect-mothering, daily routine. She was utterly vile.
Of course, Millie Ann Haverty was a reasonable woman. She had raised three children, two Labradoodles, one insubordinate Bassett hound, and had even managed to keep her lackadaisical husband, Herbert, on the straight and narrow these last five decades. She was grateful for the things she had been given, and she knew her limits.
She knew she was a plump septuagenarian, and had no right to be jealous of Heather’s rippling triceps, revealingly accentuated every week with her scandalous, short-sleeved blouses. Millie Ann took great pride in her own age-appropriate silver curls, and did not begrudge Heather for her silky but enticingly short brunette locks. Despite three decades of forcing squirming, sugar-maddened toddlers to sit upright during piano lessons, Millie harbored no jealousy for Heather’s musical gifts. (Besides, a viola seemed to be an oddly pretentious, European choice for music making. You would 2 think she could have chosen something more American.) And Millie had to concede that the one perfect daughter sired by the dreamy orthodontist was, in fact, quite adorable.
All things considered, in a different world, Millie Ann and Heather could have been friends. Well, not friends. Allies? Comrades? Fellow Methodist ladies beating away the moral turpitude so rampant in their community? Something like that. But it was not to be.
It was the cookies.
Millie Ann did not think herself to be a vain woman. After all, we lift our glory unto the Lord. She did not need much in this world. She did not need the fawning praise, the shameless adulation, and the lustful, probing glances constantly bestowed upon Heather. Millie Ann would willfully concede athletic talent, musical gifts, stunning good looks, and the certainty that Heather’s four-year old daughter, Vanessa Morgan Goodwin, was headed for her choice of Ivy-League schools in a mere fourteen years.
But the cookies. That was Millie Ann’s domain, and this sweet, picture-perfect interloper had brazenly stomped through Millie Ann’s sacred territory. Enough was enough.
For years if not decades, Millie Ann triumphantly ran roughshod over the feeble competition during the cookie exchange. Enthusiasts came from miles away to bask in the heavenly glory of her cranberry chocolate bars. Her German Lebkuchen honey cookies were so phenomenal, she would make room in her curio for another blue ribbon before she even baked them. Oh, and the iced pumpkin. The delectable iced pumpkin cookies. Millie Ann dominated the realm of competitive cookie-baking, and all was right with the universe.
And then, she arrived.
Three years ago, the Goodwins pulled into town and impulsively moved into that brand-new five-bedroom McMansion situated in the up-and-coming outskirts of town rife with overpriced coffee shops, foreign-sounding retailers, and refurbished taverns allegedly catering to alternative lifestyles. (Millie Ann’s idea of an alternative lifestyle was Episcopalian, so she thought it best to leave well enough alone.) Five bedrooms for one infant! Oh, how the congregation oohed-and-awwed over baby Vanessa.
The beautiful music had now ceased, and the applause was deafening. Reverend Morrision was shamelessly heaping gratitude and compliments upon Heather-the-glorified-fiddle-player, and Millie Ann felt she might be ill. Fortunately, the reverend had transitioned into his weekly sermon, and his gentle monotone filled her ears as her imaginary sickness mercifully subsided.
“Brothers and sisters, hear with me now, the words of the prophet, Isaiah. There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge...”
Millie Ann knew she should be focusing exclusively on the sermon, but her mind was given to wandering, and she drifted back to that unthinkable, fateful day three years ago. “Delicious! Heather, dear, where have you been all these years? These cookies are heaven-sent! What? They’re gluten free? You mean my Uncle Frank can have these? And lactose free as well? Oh, thank goodness. They’re what? Veee-gann? Oh, Heather, they’re so healthy and so scrumptious!”
And then, the dreaded moment. The source of all of Millie Ann’s present misery. “She’s only been with us a few short months, but hands-down, our winner this year is Heather Goodwin! Let’s give her a round of applause.” Uggh. No milk, flour, butter, or eggs. That’s not how cookies are made.
Of course, it was only a one-time fluke. Once the novelty of this youthful, radiant newcomer and her new-fangled, healthy ways wore off, Millie Ann would be back on top where she belonged. But, during that subsequent year, when the blue ribbon was once again deviously torn from her, Millie Ann was apoplectic. What was even worse was, day-by-day that conniving little wife-of-anorthodontist was exerting undue influence in Millie Ann’s established circle. “Heather, how should I baste my Thanksgiving turkey? Heather, should I serve ham or lamb chops this Easter? Heather, who can you recommend for children’s piano lessons?” How revulsive.
When there was no blue ribbon triumphantly mounted in her curio for a third straight year, Millie Ann could take no more. The seventeen blue ribbons previously accrued seemed lonely and pathetic, and she knew something had to change. Another cookie exchange was upon them, and the time for action was now.
But what could she do? Perhaps she should throw in the towel and become a Lutheran? No, that would be ridiculous. Besides, some of those Scandinavian Lutheran women were quite devoted to their craft, and there could be no guarantee of subsequent cookie triumph. If they were patient enough to make Lutefisk, then there was no telling what kind of dessert concoctions those women were capable of.
Could she send Heather out of town, somehow? How could she possibly do that? Could she fabricate a fake contest and notify the Goodwins of their good fortune? Perhaps an all-expense paid trip to the big city? No, this was more lunacy. Besides, Dr. Goodwin-the-orthodontist wouldn’t close up shop on a weekday. Think, Millie Ann, think! There had to be a way!
Reverend Morrison seemed to be just getting warmed up, and Millie Ann leaned back to make herself comfortable. It would be a long sermon. She peered at Herbert, who stared glassily into the distance, nodding mechanically. She focused once again on the sermon, and as she ruminated carefully on the true meaning of the holiday season, she had an epiphany.
Yes. That would be the best way, perhaps the only way. But how? Once Heather’s cookies arrived at the church, they would be zealously guarded like a Vatican treasure in order to ward away the probing hands of misbehaved urchins and gluttonous husbands. If Millie Ann hoped to successfully execute her mission, she would have to surreptitiously infiltrate the Goodwin McMansion.
Millie Ann had read a Tom Clancy novel eleven years ago, so she knew she was quite knowledgeable about special operations and covert sabotage. She knew she would first need a joint staff, or a team of experts spanning the entire spectrum of military planning. First, she knew she would need a “J1” in order to manage all the human resources that would be associated with the operation. She could do that herself, since no one seemed more attuned to the personal information of the congregation than she.
Additionally, she would need a “J2” representative to manage the intelligence associated with this venture. Clearly, she was more intelligent than Herbert, or her neighbor Gladys and her ne’er-dowell husband, so once again, she was the obvious choice. Besides, the operation would require careful reconnaissance of the Goodwin McMansion, and Herbert couldn’t be trusted not to lose the binoculars.
“J3” was the real meat and potatoes. Operations. Clearly, she would be the one conducting the operation, sabotaging Heather’s cookie offering with salt, garlic, and onion powder. So, it would appear she would single-handedly be the J1, J2 and J3, which so far, added up to a very impressive sounding “J6.”
“J4” was logistics, which as she well knew, was a fancy word for stuff. Her grandfather was a supply sergeant in the Great War, and little did he know one day his line of work would be logistics. 4 La-de-da. She knew she couldn’t do everything herself, so hopefully she could put Herbert in charge of the logistics.
She suspected the ideal time for the operation would be early in the morning, when her nemesis would be off on her five, ten, or fifty-mile run (or some other crazy thing). She would need a disguise, and she seemed to remember Herbert had a Santa suit tucked away somewhere from his days with the Rotarians (the logistics). She hoped there was nothing sinful about her imminent cross-dressing, but after all, this was a mission in support of the church.
She would also need a rope of some fashion, because if the front door was locked, she would be compelled to go down the chimney in accordance with her undercover identity. If discovered, she would have to concoct a story about why Santa was visiting the Goodwin house in broad daylight several days before Christmas, but she could delegate that to her J2 intelligence directorate.
Millie Ann became so fixated on her diabolical subterfuge that her situational awareness had quickly melted away. There now seemed to be a commotion of some kind, and as she stirred, she noticed the congregation rising to leave. Even worse, Herbert was sound asleep and snoring. How embarrassing. Of course, she hadn’t been sleeping. Or dreaming. Had she?
Little four-year-old Vanessa was adorable in her mother’s arms as the Goodwins made their way out of the pews. Millie Ann could overhear their discreet whispering. “Mommy, the old people were sleeping in church!”
“Shh. Be polite, darling.”
“I’ll bet they were having wonderful dreams, Mommy! I’ll bet they were dreaming of Christmas presents, and Santa Claus, and yummy Christmas cookies!”
“I’m sure they were, darling. It really is a magical season.”