By Max Schilling
We were in love that Christmas.
Brenda was 19, I was 22. As students, we didn’t have much. We were kids, really. We didn’t know much. But we were both away from home, still trying to figure out who we were and who we would yet become. And somewhere along the line we found each other.
Actually, I had no choice but to pursue her. I worked part time in a convenience store and she came in one night to pay for her gas. Her smile melted me and her eyes just danced. I had pretty much avoided girls after high school. I was like any other guy but I was serious about getting through school.
But I knew right away she was special. She moved right. She was unpretentious. She carried herself as if she was trying to please only herself and she didn’t seem to care if anyone noticed her. That made me notice her.
I had never seen her before. When she wrote a check for her gas I made sure to look at her ID, although it wasn’t really required in our little town. That told me where she was from and how old she was. And her check had her phone number on it. I was still a year away from being finished with school. I figured that was close enough. I wanted to get to know this girl.
So, I called her and told her a lie. I told her that the check she wrote had bounced. She got very upset and told me she’d be down right away. I didn’t think I’d be able to see her so soon. I wasn’t quite prepared either. I didn’t know how I was going to tell her that I made the whole thing up just to see her again.
Brenda came in, cheeks flushed, and asked for me by name. She was wearing sweats, her hair in a pony tail. I figured she was just studying in her dorm room when I called with my little lie. She was devastating not only to look at but to talk to. I found myself completely without words.
Finally, I just told her the truth. She smiled with those big teeth and slapped me on the arm. She wasn’t mad. She blushed and accused me of having the world’s most unique approach. And in that second I poured my heart out to her with one simple truth: just seeing her affected me in a way I could not explain. I asked if I could see her again.
And that was how it all started. I had lied and took the biggest risk of my entire life. It was a moment that changed me forever.
We were from two different worlds. I was working my way through school, coming from a background that didn’t provide for education and suffering from an academic record that didn’t make getting it easy. She was there on a scholarship. She wasn’t the class president or the homecoming queen, and her parents didn’t have a lot of money. But she had always known she would go to college. And so there she was.
We couldn’t be more different. I was physical, into athletics and all things mechanical. She was more of a bookworm, prone to stay in and savor her surroundings.
But from August through November we shared what little we had in common together. Music. Movies. A love of the outdoors and the seasons. I learned she had a profound love for living things. As a child she hid pets she had adopted on the way home from school. At one point, her mother later told me, she had a turtle, a hamster, a stray cat and a bird. And her parents had obtained none of them for her.
Brenda was an avid gardner. Even in her dorm room her window sill was filled with plants. When we would walk places she would stop and study plants that she didn’t know or take the time to explain to me the ones that she did. She was majoring in English — but she could have been a botanist or a vet. Life and living things seemed to attract her and thrive around her.
That Christmas season was one of complete joy to me. Brenda loved Christmas and was steeped in tradition. She insisted that we get a tree together, that we decorate our respective dorm rooms together and we even spent time hanging lights together on a public domain tree in front of the library. We had such fun celebrating the season.
I found in her a friend like no other I had ever known. We could talk about anything. If I was angry, she listened. She felt my pain when I chose to be sorry for myself. She absorbed my every emotion and was interested in all that I felt. We grew to the point where I could know what she would say before she said it. And she finished my own sentences too.
We never got around to talking about our future. I know I thought about it. I am sure she did too. She told me at one point that she loved me. But it all happened so fast. It seemed too soon to talk about a wedding, a home, and children.
We never got to talk about it. Brenda was taken from me a week before Christmas in 1989. She had gone home to participate in a family Christmas party for the weekend — some 300 miles away. And a drunk driver took her life on her return trip.
It was for me a difficult time. Our relationship had been pretty much our own secret. Things had happened so fast that I didn’t really share with my family how close we were and she didn’t mention it to hers either. Brenda just vanished. There was no word one way or the other for weeks about what had happened.
We were supposed to be together just after Christmas. But she never showed up to finish the term or even to collect her belongings. I checked with all her friends. But no one had any information about her. A long winter for me turned in to a bitter spring.
Finally, not sure what had really happened or why, I wrote a letter to her and sent it to the address I had written down from her driver’s license that night at the convenience store.
Within days I received a phone call. The voice was not one I recognized. It was Brenda’s mother, and she was in tears. She explained to me what had happened. And then, carefully, she asked me who I was to her daughter.
Without even thinking, I told her mother that I was to be her husband. Brenda’s mom gasped, and I cried like I never have before or since.
I found myself shortly visiting a town I did not know, a family I hadn’t ever met and sharing grief with people I did not know. I gathered Brenda’s things and took them to her mother. I sat on Brenda’s bed in her room as her mother, almost without thinking, put them away as if Brenda would soon be home to use them herself.
Everything in that room was her. Just being there helped me to feel her again. From the plants on the window sill to the books under the bed, it was all so…her. As we said goodbye in the family’s front yard, my eye caught a glimpse of a stunning bed of tulips, blossoming now in neat rows in front of the family porch.
“Brenda did that,” I said, pointing to the tulips.
“Yes,” her mother told me. “She and her father were out here two days before Christmas trying to get the bulbs into the ground. It was so cold that the ground was hard and Brenda broke her nails trying to plant them. She said that in the spring we’d see something called Little Waltons. They look like regular tulips to me.”
I was in tears before she could finish the story. My friends call me Max but my first given name is Walton, after my maternal grandfather. Brenda loved that name and often called me Walton when we were together.
Christmas that year didn’t come until spring. But it came with such comforting warmth. She gave me a most precious gift that Christmas. Those flowers are long since gone but her memory is bright. I gained not only her friendship and love and devotion but I made dear friends with her family. Together for a while we grieved, our relationship built on a sad foundation. But over time we have healed and we continue to cherish the memory of one we lost too soon.
Brenda’s Mom was there for me when my mother passed away from breast cancer. When I married, Brenda’s family acted as my own in attending the festivities and wishing us well. When my daughter, also named Brenda, was born, they celebrated as if she is their own grandchild. How blessed all our lives continue to be because we knew and loved Brenda that Christmas.
I can never forget her. She is, to me, what makes Christmas so special.