Alongside the paperback release, The Sweet By and By is also now available as an audiobook - listen here.

Chapter Two


It’s Christmas time again!” That’s what everybody keeps on saying. I hear it on television too, somebody always selling something with a verse or two of “We Wish You a Merry” or “Jingle Bells.” I’ve always hated “Jingle Bells” myself, except when there are children around, which in this place there clearly are not. And nobody is likely to ever go dashing through the snow any time soon in this part of Carolina, I’d bet my last nickel on that. When it comes to carols, I myself like a good slow hymn with a little bit of a sad sound in it like “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.” At least with a song like that you don’t have to put on a happy face just because everybody thinks you ought to. I put on enough as it is just getting through.

Lorraine plops me as soft as she can into the wheelchair that’s parked full-time beside my bed in case I need it, ever since I fell and hurt my hip. With her as the engine, we roll out the door, first time I’ve left this room in four days—last time was when they had a fire drill. In the hall I get an eyeful, I mean right now. Gold garland hanging in scraggly strands above everybody’s door. Red plastic shiny balls with the color chipping off at the top. I know it all came from the dime store, and I’m all for working on a budget, as long as something doesn’t look like it came from the dime store.

I try to get comfortable and tap Lorraine’s arm. “Okay, let’s roll, honey. I don’t want to miss anything.”

“You know nobody’s gon start nothing without you,” Lorraine lowers her voice, “there’d be hell to pay.”

There are already ten people in the party room in various states of sleep, propped up on multiple pillows, falling over, or sitting straight as sticks except with their eyes closed. Lorraine takes Bernice and me over to the wall nearest the refreshment table, away from the door, which I know means that she intends me to stay for the whole affair.

Ada Everett, the all-too-pleasant woman who is in charge of this entire operation, walks up to the front of the room once everybody has gathered and says, “Well I’m just as pleased as I can be to be here with y’all so we can say ‘Merry Christmas’ all together. We have some special music planned and some presents to open, and we might even have a visit from the North Pole!” she chirps like she’s talking to a bunch of six-year-olds. “And we’re going to enjoy some of these fine refreshments that Twin Oaks Baptist has so kindly provided, but before we do that, I thought we might play a little game to get us all in the Christmas spirit, okay? Have any of y’all ever been in a spelling bee?”

There’s dead silence in the room. She might as well be talking to trees. And I myself am one of the few who could answer her if I wanted to, but that’s one true pleasure about being old; you realize every day how many things are more trouble than they’re worth, and how much time you could have saved yourself over the years if you had only had that precious knowledge at a time when you could have actually done something with it.

“Well here’s how it works, we’ll just all take turns spelling holiday words, and the last one in gets a prize, okay? Okay. Now. The first word is . . .”

She reaches into a box wrapped in shiny red foil and pulls out a small light blue strip of paper.

“. . . ‘Joy.’ How ’bout that? There’s a simple one for you.”

An old lady on the end of the row yells out, “J-O-Y, J-O-Y—that was my grandmama’s name, J-O-Y!”

“Good for you, Mrs. Bain!” Ada chirps. “How ’bout another word? Let’s see . . . ‘mistletoe’! Mr. Tart, do you want to give that one a try?”

Vinnie Tart used to be a history teacher and he’s smart as a whip, but he had a stroke and it’s harder for him to speak now. He also sometimes gets words and names mixed up. So when he spells “mistletoe” with two S’s, I know darn well that it isn’t because he doesn’t know how to spell it. They ought to let it go, but I reckon rules are rules.

And so it goes on for a while—I get out on “potpourri,” which I’ve always thought was one of the most stupid things I could think of anyway, especially since some of Ann’s Realtor friends insist on giving me something just that useless on every single occasion when they feel like they ought to bring a present. After me, there are only two people left, the hard-of-hearing woman they call Miss Inez and crazy Bernice, who has somehow made it all the way through without having to spell anything harder than “eggnog.”

Ada looks to Miss Inez and says, “Okay now think hard, the next word is . . . ‘Christmas’!”

“ ‘Liquor’?” Miss Inez scrunches up her face like she doesn’t understand Ada.

“No dear, ‘Christmas’!” Ada smiles.

“ ‘Liquor’?!” Miss Inez repeats in a loud voice.

“No, not liquor, Miss Inez. Now listen. ‘CHRIST-MAS!’ Like ‘we wish you a MERRY CHRISTMAS’!” Ada is almost yelling at this point.

Miss Inez looks at me sharply, “Is that girl yonder saying ‘liquor’?”

I shake my head, and Ada, clearly exasperated, replies with a testiness in her voice which delights me because I know the veil of her patience is lifting, “Honestly, Miss Inez. Go on and spell it. That’s what Christmas is to some people anyway.”

Inez starts spelling. “L-I-Q-U . . .” She pauses. “. . . E-R.”

“Oh no, honey, I’m so sorry.” Ada fake pouts, reveling in her private victory. “Bernice, how about you? Spell ‘Christmas.’ ”

Bernice grins and yells, “L-I-Q-U-O-R!”

Ada Everett is dumbstruck for a second because that isn’t the word she was supposed to spell, but I start clapping immediately and cry out, “Hurray Bernice, you won, sweetheart!” and then other people wake up and start clapping too. Ada, clearly dismayed that she has somehow lost control of the situation, says simply, “So she did,” then looks back over to Miss Inez whose head is now over to one side, sound asleep.