By John Thomas Tuft

Frannie always had a to-do list going in her head. Sometimes she would find a piece of paper and scribble down some of the items, but there was always more. Sometimes the last item on the list simply read “make a new list.” When she laid her head down at night, sleep had to wait while she reviewed the list for tomorrow, hoping someday she could check off ‘centering prayer’ in her quest for a relationship with the divine. Her husband, Preacher Eddie, had basically been of the mind that God is a verb, stewardship was the selling of generosity with godguilt, and that the anointings of the Spirit were simply another way to not take responsibility for what we do with our own combination of talent, intellect and imagination. Which might explain why his church “calls” dried up and he took a job as a rigger on an offshore drilling platform. Then off to the Alaskan North Shore great oil rush, sending home what money he could for her and their infant son, Johnny.

Eddie’s letters encouraged Frannie in her pursuit of a degree in nursing while she juggled things at home raising Johnny and getting her studying done. Making lists kept her straight on which end was up as the days became overcrowded with responsibility, endless chores and demands, and a yearning to feel not so alone in it all. If she could control it, she could bear it. Make a list and check it off. Eddie regaled her with tales of life in the north, conveniently leaving out the dangerous and lonely parts, and recounting his fascination with the Inuit people. In particular, he liked their language and the word ‘iktsuarpok’ which is the feeling of anticipation for someone’s arrival that makes you go outside and keep checking for them. Frannie just wanted him to come home, to hold and to help. Lots of holding and lots and lots of helping.

At long last, Eddie was due to come home for Christmas. Frannie had lists of gifts to buy and wrap, lists of decorations to dig out and hang, cookies to bake, cards to mail out. She dressed two-year old Johnnie in the cutest elf outfit and wrapped her college diploma to proudly present to Eddie so they could share the joy of her accomplishment. The time drew near, and in her excitement Frannie kept going to the door, opening it and scanning the snowy street. Finally, a car approached. She ran down the walk, only to see that it was a police car. The officer brought the sad news that Eddie had been on his way when a drunk driver ran a light. There is no list in the world that ever completely delineates the agony and grief.

Frannie picked herself up and moved on. She had a son to raise and responsibilities as a nurse now. But Christmas was never the same, and rightly so, she figured. Now her lists were ways to keep her sane, help her keep the pain of grief at a safe distance. At the hospital, there were always new lists of patients to attend to, lists of medications to administer, lists of tasks to accomplish before her shift ended. While at home, she did her best to help her son grow up without his father. She kept lists of bills to pay, ways to save for college, things to teach Johnny to avoid and lists of fears she had about him and the future. She became the nursing supervisor at the hospital and Johnny grew into a fine young man. After college, he announced that he was enlisting in the Marines.

After officer’s school and training, Johnny was sent overseas. A year went by and Johnny wrote her that he would try to be home for Christmas, but he could not promise. Frannie decided she had to make it special and made lists, of course. Lists of food, lists of gifts, lists of how to decorate, lists of friends to invite to show off her wonderful son. It had to be perfect. She got busy and got everything on her list done. She was ready. A few days before Christmas she began to anticipate his arrival. Every evening she would watch out the window. Then she would open the door, step out and look down the street. Then she would go down the sidewalk and stare down the street, willing him to come home to her.

Christmas Eve came and went. No Johnny. Christmas day dawned and the presents sat unopened. No Johnny. Christmas evening Frannie took up one last vigil, her heart close to breaking. She watched out the window. She watched from the open door. She went down the sidewalk and watched on tiptoes. No Johnny. Slowly, she returned to the house and closed the door. With a heavy heart, Frannie went to the kitchen and flipped on the lights. There, in full dress uniform, stood Johnny, with a mischievous grin. “I made it, Momma. Christmas is a surprise. Isn’t it?”

That night Frannie picked up her list and smiled as she finally checked off: learn to pray.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.