In this excerpt from the novel "Skies," Jane has returned home for Christmas, to her parents' farm at Heverton, near Garden City, Kansas. It is Christmas Day, and the family is gathering to spend the holiday together with Jake and Evie, Jane's father and mother. Frannie and Bill, Jane's sister and brother-in-law, have already arrived with their three children: Eddie (about ten), Jennifer (nearly five), and little Jake (the toddler). Soon Charlie, Jane's brother, will arrive with his fiancee Dana Burnside. . .The next day, Jane was hard-pressed just to keep up. Her mother and father took her with them to church -- Evie had already been up for hours -- and the long service packed with Christmas hymns was the last rest she'd get for the remainder of the day.
Once back at home, she was swept up in an orderly sort of chaos. She and Frannie helped Evie get everything ready in the kitchen, while the men were supposed to be watching the children in the living room. But Jennifer kept running in asking what she could do, little Jake crawled over to the tree and nearly unwrapped a present (and swallowed the ribbon) before Jane, bringing the butter and jelly out to the dining room table, caught sight of him and rescued both the present and the toddler.
"It's football," Frannie sighed as Jane told her and Evie what had happened. "Once the game starts, you've lost them."
"Oh, a guy thing," Jane nodded wisely, folding the whipped cream into the Waldorf salad.
"Yep -- have you got the walnuts, Jane?"
"Mmhm, right here."
Evie set a huge bowl of mashed potatoes on the kitchen table. "I don't know, you think this is enough? Last year we ran out."
Frannie and Jane looked at the gigantic bowl, heaped with potatoes, and burst out laughing at the same time. "Mom," Frannie managed, "who are you feeding? Maybe we can give what's left over to Charlie -- he said he needed some plaster for the ceiling."
"Easy for you to say," Evie muttered. "Now where's the butter? Frannie, do you have it?"
"Right here, Mom."
Jane sprinkled some walnuts over the salad. "How's the house going anyway? I haven't had a chance to ask Charlie."
"Oh, it's beautiful," Frannie smiled, spooning carrots into a serving dish. "He's been working night and weekends on it, painting and fixing it up. We'll have to go out and take a look at it. It's amazing all the stuff he's done -- you should see the cupboards he fixed up in the bathroom! I told Bill I want the same thing done in mine."
"Poor Bill," Evie laughed. "Every time Frannie goes over to look at the house, she sees something she wants. He'll be bankrupt before Charlie and Dana move in!"
"They should be getting here soon," Frannie said, unfazed. "Charlie promised they'd just stop by Dana's mom and dad's for a minute before they came out here."
"Oh, but you know Eleanor Burnside," Evie shook her head. "Hand me the salt, Jane. Once she gets started, the roof could fall in and she wouldn't stop talking."
"I thought you liked Mrs. Burnside!" Jane responded in surprise.
"I do! But she does go on. And on. And on." The noise level in the living room suddenly increased and Evie's teasing smile turned to trepidation. "Either Charlie and Dana just got here, or little Jake pulled over the tree."
"I'll go see," Jane offered. "Give me the carrots, Frannie."
Little Jake was safely squeezed in between Bill and Eddie as Charlie and Dana shucked off their coats and Eddie gave them the score in the football game. "Dinner's just about ready," Jane assured them, taking their coats. "Dana, you can sit and watch the game if you want, we've pretty much got everything under control."
"Are you kidding?" Dana laughed, glancing at Charlie who had already sat down beside Bill to watch the game and was hollering at a pass completion. "I think it's safer in the kitchen!"
Not much later, they were all gathered around the dining room table, saying grace and then digging in. "I hope there's enough mashed potatoes," Jake rumbled. "You know we ran out last year, Evie."
"Honey, if we run out this year," laughed Evie, "I'll go grow some for you!"
"Take a while to mash 'em, wouldn't it?" he asked seriously. Then he turned to pass the carrots to Dana. "How's your folks?"
"Oh, fine," Dana smiled. "But I thought we'd never get out of there! Mom wanted to tell us about some new store in Garden City."
Evie shot Jane an I-told-you-so look and said to Dana, "Well, you got here in plenty of time."
Jane took a bite of turkey -- no one could roast a turkey like her mother -- and looked around the table as everyone chattered happily. She felt the same way she had in church this morning, with all of them squeezed into the pew at All Saints. I'm so lucky, she thought -- and then Jennifer was tugging at her sleeve and asking her to cut up her turkey, and little Jake pushed his mashed potatoes on the floor, and the pitcher of iced tea needed refilling, and her mother mentioned the gallery in San Francisco and everyone wanted to know what had happened....
After dinner, she and Frannie and Dana shooed Evie into the living room so they could clean up the dishes and put the leftovers away -- Evie was finally convinced when Frannie argued that somebody had to watch little Jake -- and when they finished in the kitchen, it was time to open the presents. Bill opened the first one, a camera, and used it to take pictures of Eddie trying on his Kansas Jayhawkers sweatshirt and Jennifer clutching her new Sesame Street books and Jane oohing and aahing at the pictures in the Western Artists book Charlie and Dana had given her. There was the usual chorus of "wait til they open their present" and "you're too slow!" and "oh, look at this!" and "give me that bow, we can use that next year, you know." Finally, the floor underneath the tree was bare and the rest of the carpet was covered with gifts and paper and crunched up cookies (little Jake was accountable for that, having dropped his frosted reindeer and then stepped on it as he wobbled around looking for it).
Jane leaned back against the sofa with a smile. "What a haul!"
"Well, we always managed to have Christmas," Evie smiled back. "Even though sometimes it wasn't much."
"Oh, come on, Mom," Frannie said, stuffing wrapping paper into a plastic garbage bag. "We always had the best Christmases."
"Yeah," Charlie chimed in, "remember the year I got my bike? I must have terrorized people in three counties with that thing!"
"Until you decided you were Evel Knievel," Jake grinned, "and tried to jump the creek with it."
"Almost made it," Charlie laughed. "How about you, Jane? What do you remember?"
"Oh, gosh -- well, there was the paintbox you gave me when I was twelve."
Charlie looked at her in surprise. "That old paintbox? It was just some watercolors, Jane, nothing special."
"You saved your allowance for weeks to get it for me!" Then she smiled impishly. "Remember what you put on the card?"
She turned to Dana. "He said, 'For Jane, to help her get famous.' Except he never could spell very well, and it came out f-a-m-u-s."
"He still spells it that way," Dana laughed, glancing at Charlie affectionately.
"I can't believe you remember all that, Jane," he shook his head.
"Well, it's better than what you got me the year before!"
Charlie tried to look wounded. "I kept telling you it was a really rare spider, Jane, and for pity's sake, it was even already dead!"
"We sure had our hands full, didn't we, Jake?" Evie said above the laughter.
"That we did," Jake agreed. "What do you think, Evie, would you do it again?"
The look on her face was more than enough to set them all off again.