As she had nearly every morning since she was a little girl, Emma Snyder rose along with the sun. It was Monday, the start of a new week, and there was breakfast to be cooked and lunches to be prepared and packed. It didn’t make any difference whatsoever that she had given birth only weeks earlier to a baby girl, and that the fussy infant had awakened her several times during the night. The thirty-four year old wife and mother would lie down for a nap at some point later in the day, after she had done all the things that needed to be done to send her husband and four oldest children off to work and school well fed and cared for. It was the same nurturing way she had learned from her own beloved mother (God rest her soul), and it was what Emma did every weekday morning, no matter what else was going on.
Slender and rosy complexioned with long, curly hair cascading down her back, she bustled about the kitchen at Snyder Farm, making sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast, while a flurry of other activity went on around her-Seth and Iva arguing noisily about whose turn it was to get into the shower, Caleb searching for his missing homework assignment, and Ellie agonizing over the decision of which of several possible show and tell items she should take to school that day.
Once the children had finally sat down to breakfast, Emma started making their lunches. After cutting the last of four peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in half, she made her way toward the door leading upstairs to see if her husband would be coming down soon, and tripped over his work boots, lying, not for the first time, haphazardly in the middle of the floor.
She barely managed to catch herself from falling flat on her face. Shaking her head in annoyance at the boots, she picked them up and placed them along the wall next to the back door-where they should have been in the first place, as she constantly reminded him.
“Harvey Joseph Snyder, whatever am I going to do with you?” she asked with a deep sigh.
The door to the upstairs swung open and there stood the man himself, holding their toddler son in his arms. At only two years old, Holden already resembled his father more strikingly than any of his siblings, and it seemed a likely bet he would grow up to be the spitting image of Harvey.
“Did someone say my full name?” he asked jovially, flashing his wife a bright smile. “That usually means I’m in a heap of trouble.”
She put her hands on her hips. “You left your boots in the middle of the floor again,” she informed him, in a vain attempt at sternness. His guiltily amused expression and playfully dancing eyes were already softening her level of irritation with him. She had loved this handsome, charming, and warmhearted man since the day they had met as young teenagers at a Church picnic, and sixteen happy years of marriage and six children later, she had grown to love him ever deeper.
“I swear I’m not trying to kill you, Em,” Harvey insisted, placing his free hand on her shoulder. “But I’m starting to think if I do that one more time, I’m liable to be the first man to ever be beaten to death with a Hubbard squash.” He raised an eyebrow teasingly.
She laughed out loud, his fault already being put out of her mind. The thing she had first recognized about him all those years ago -after his considerable good lucks, of course- was how funny he was. She had a tendency to become too serious and rigid at times, and his vibrant and easygoing spirit had proven to be the perfect balance for her.
“I doubt I’d be able to lift the squash by myself to do the deed,” she commented wryly. “And that would hardly be an efficient murder weapon when I’ve got three guns and a dozen knives right here in the house already.”
“And this is why I never, ever worry about you being home by yourself,” Harvey replied with a chuckle, handing Holden over to her. “I’m far more worried for anyone that would be stupid enough to try and mess with you. When all those guys at the Men’s Club talk about how hard they work to take care of their wives, I tell them, ‘No way, fellas, my wife doesn’t need anybody to take care of her. She’s tougher than I am, by a country mile.’”
Emma smiled shyly back at him. What a blessing it was to be married to a man who respected her as a person and saw her as his equal in every way. She knew many of her friends in small town Oakdale weren’t nearly as lucky as her in that regard. It made constantly tripping over his boots seem like such a very small annoyance.
“Come and get your breakfast before it gets cold, Mr. Snyder,” she finally told him, with a nod toward the table where their children were devouring the hearty portions on their plates.
“Why, thank you, Mrs. Snyder,” he replied, leaning down to plant a soft kiss on her lips before moving to the counter to fix his plate.
Emma held little Holden in her arms and looked around the kitchen at her beautiful family. They were not rich people by any means, but as far as she was concerned, they had everything.
Luke had never felt more nervous about going to pay his Grandma a visit.
She had been back in town for weeks already, but he had continually found excuses to put off going to see her, trying to delay the inevitable, uncomfortable exchange.
He was sure she had already been told. During the time she was away, she had kept in close touch with his Dad, so he had no doubt Holden had already broken the news to her that he and Reid were dating.
Luke imagined she must be deeply disappointed. She had already been confused and upset enough to find out that he and Noah had broken up prior to the surgery. He expected to receive a piece of her mind over him moving on so quickly, and with Noah’s doctor, of all people.
Luke had always appreciated the deep bond of affection between his grandmother and boyfriend…ex-boyfriend. But now that he and Noah were no longer together and he was with someone else, that bond seemed like a looming elephant in the room. His parents had agreed to accept his decision, but he wasn’t sure if Emma would. She’d be nothing but gracious and welcoming to Reid, of course. That was just who she was. But he wasn’t sure if he would have her blessing on this new relationship, at least not for a long time.
Luke was at peace with his decision…he was. It was perfectly reasonable that he still missed Noah, that he frequently contemplated calling him, that he kept having recurring dreams about him. When someone had been such a big part of your life for so long, when you had shared something so special, you didn’t just shake that off in a few months. It would take time. What they had was beautiful…but it was over.
He hoped his Grandma could understand that.
He had arrived at the Farm, walked up to the back door, and took a deep breath before opening it and stepping inside.
Emma was sitting at the kitchen table with her back to him. At hearing his entrance, she turned around and broke into a huge grin.
“There’s my boy,” she said fondly, standing up to wrap him in a tight embrace. “I was wondering when I would finally be seeing you.”
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get over here, Grandma,” he apologized. “I’ve just been so busy lately with the Foundation and the Hospital Board.”
“You’re an important person doing important things,” she assured him warmly, with a wave of her hand. “I’m just glad you’re here now.”
“Me, too,” he replied, giving her a sincere smile. His eyes traveled to where she had been seated at the table. On the tabletop, sitting on a towel, were a pair of worn, dirty work boots.
“What are those?” he asked, pointing at the boots.
“Oh,” she began to answer, somewhat sheepishly, “those are your Grandpa’s old work boots. I usually keep them in a closet upstairs, but I pulled them out today because he’s on my mind. Today would have been his birthday, you know? He’d have turned seventy-five.”
Luke felt a little ashamed at the fact that he had no idea it was his Grandpa Harvey’s birthday. He had died long before Luke was born, and although Luke had seen all the family pictures and heard countless stories about what a wonderful husband and father he had been, it was often all too easy to forget about him when they’d never shared a personal connection or, for that matter, been alive at the same time.
“I donated a lot of his clothes and things after he passed, and gave some of them to your Dad and uncles,” Emma continued. “But I couldn’t let go of these ratty old boots. They’re one of the few things of his I’ve held onto all these years.”
“And what’s so special about them?” Luke asked.
“Well, nothing, really,” she replied. “They’re just...symbolic, in a way, of everything that was us. He wasn’t a particularly orderly person, and, as you can imagine, that drove me crazy. He had this terrible habit of kicking these boots off in the middle of the floor when he came in from outside, and I’d usually end up tripping over them later when I was hurrying around. But, somehow, all the things that drove me crazy about him also made me love him even more. He was my other half, the love of my life, and when he was gone, one of the things I missed most was tripping over his boots.”
Tears stood in her eyes, and Luke found a lump of emotion forming in his throat, as well. His grandmother had been a strong and independent widow as long as he’d ever known her. In some ways, her marriage had always seemed like some distant abstraction to him, and not a flesh and blood reality. But for decades now, he realized, she had been soldiering on through life without her soulmate by her side.
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” was all he could think to say.
“It’s alright, Luke,” she told him, smiling through her tears. “Like they say, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It’s just important for me to take the time to remember.”
He stood next to her in front of the table for a while staring at the old boot, an item that was not significant in and of itself, but meant the world to her because of the memories it evoked.
“What do you think he would have thought about having a gay grandson?” he asked suddenly. It was not a question he had ever thought to ask before.
“He would have loved and accepted you exactly the way you are,” she answered, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze. “He was actually a lot more forward thinking than I was. He’d be so proud of you…He is so proud of you, Luke. Because I believe he’s looking down on us and that he knows you, even if you never got the chance to know him.”
“I hope so,” he replied, squeezing her hand back. After a hesitant pause, he asked, “And how about you, Grandma? Are you proud of me right now?”
She turned toward him in confusion. “What? Luke, of course I’m proud of you! Why wouldn’t I be proud-”
“I mean about my ending things with Noah and getting together with Reid,” he cut in. His eyes locked in on hers, searching for signs of disappointment.
She began shaking her head from side to side, but did not break his eye contact. “Luke, I can’t tell you how to live your life, I know that. And I know that decisions about your relationships are yours to make, not mine. I love Noah, and I will continue to love and care for that boy, whether you and he are together or not. And I think you know that.”
“I do know that,” Luke affirmed. “And I’m happy about that.”
“I trust you, Luke,” she told him sincerely, “and I trust that things will work out the way they’re meant to.”
Luke didn’t even necessarily trust that things would work out the way they were meant to, so he was very impressed that she did.
“And why’s that, Grandma?” he asked.
“Because true love always works out,” she replied, with an impish grin and wink. “Whatever that may end up meaning for you.”
She stepped away from him to go to the sink and fill herself a glass of water. As Luke thought about the words she had just spoken, his eyes came to rest on the old boots sitting in front of him on the table.
Those were definitely words of wisdom from a woman who knew all about true love.
Luke wasn’t sure how he had ended up there, but he was standing next to the bench. Their bench.
When he had left the Farm after spending several hours with his Grandma, he had decided to take a stroll through Oldtown and clear his head. It obviously hadn’t worked, since he had zoned out so completely he hadn’t even been aware of where he was headed.
And now there he was, standing next to the bench that held so many memories for them. Wonderful memories of happier days.
“Like they say, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It’s just important for me to take the time to remember.”
Someone had left behind a to-go coffee cup on the bench. For reasons he couldn’t explain, Luke found himself picking it up. It was half full and still warm.
He pulled the lid off the top of it and lifted the cup to his nose, inhaling the familiar aroma of Java coffee.
But, no, not just the familiar aroma of Java coffee, he suddenly realized, but the familiar aroma of Noah’s preferred flavored creamer.
He inhaled once more, deeply, as if trying to take the entire essence of the aroma into his being.
Then, he lifted the cup just a little higher and, without even thinking about it, placed a kiss on the side of the cup.
A hand coming to rest on his shoulder broke him from the almost trancelike state he was in, and he jerked his head around to face its owner.
Noah stood staring at him, his brow furrowed in a mix of confusion and concern.
“Luke, what are you doing with my coffee?” he asked slowly.
Luke had no sane sounding answer for that question, so instead he asked one of his own. “This is your coffee?”
“Yeah. I got a phone call and got distracted, and walked away without it.” He regarded Luke for a long moment. “Did you want it? The coffee, I mean.”
Luke shook his head slowly. “No,” he said, taking a deep breath, “no, I don’t want I-I don’t want the coffee, Noah. I-I want you. I want you.”
Silence filled the next few seconds, as Luke waited for Noah to process what he had just heard.
“You want me?” Noah asked, and it broke Luke’s heart that the expression on his face and sound in his voice both managed to simultaneously convey shock, relief, and fear.
“I miss you so much, Noah.” Luke’s voice was barely above a whisper and his eyes had flooded with tears. “I don’t know how I ever thought I could let you go.”
Noah’s strong arms enveloped him in a tender embrace. “I’m so sorry, Luke,” he told him.
“I’m sorry, too.” In his hand, now pressed against Noah’s back, he still held the cup of coffee. Just an ordinary cup of coffee that Noah had gotten to provide him with his daily caffeine fix, but yet it had suddenly become the most important cup of coffee ever. A cup of coffee that was left sitting on a bench, a bench that wasn’t significant in any way, other than the fact that it had come to symbolize everything that was them.
There was still so much more they needed to say, still so much more they needed to figure out, but for the moment, they just stood in front of their bench and held each other close.
As he stood with his arms wrapped around the man he loved, Luke imagined telling everyone that they were back together, and how excited they would all be.
Well, except Reid, of course.
And he thought about what his Grandma had told him earlier, and he hoped she was right. He hoped his Grandpa was looking down on him in this moment.
Luke would never again forget his grandfather’s birthday.