People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)
Neda smiled at her creations—cider house pork on cracked wheat rolls, bread and butter pickles, creamed corn, slow cooker baked beans, divine fruit ambrosia, a triple layer Lord Baltimore cake—the very best her hands could provide. She had cooked half the night, reasoning that it wasn’t every day the Morrison clan, all twenty-one of them, got together.
The living room clock chimed once and sent her heart racing. Half an hour and the back porch would be pure clamor. She scurried out to deposit plates, cups, napkins and plastic ware on the food table, then back in to fill the coolers with ice, then back out to check the sunflower centerpieces. But where was Howard? And where were the metal folding chairs they had borrowed from the church?
As if in answer, a low whistle sounded from behind the detached garage, followed by
a sharp staccato of ear deafening pops. “Howard!” She took off running. “I told you no firecrackers!”
When she came storming around the corner, he quickly blew out the match, pocketed the package of black cats, gave her a sheepish grin, and marched off to his truck. Retired men! They were worse than kids!
Lillian and Pete arrived first with their brood of four; Sarah’s family next, followed by Rachel and her all-male horde. While grandchildren invaded the backyard, her daughters produced baskets and bowls of homemade delicacies. Neda felt her heart swell. She and Howard had done right by the girls; they’d married good men, become wonderful moms, dedicated housekeepers and refined cooks…If only Mitchell could find someone like—perhaps she would invite Annie Johnson over while he was home on leave.
“Son of a gun! Would you look at that uniform!”
A familiar figure stepped around the corner-Mitchell, her baby, looking so handsome. The family swarmed around him, but parted as Neda drew near, tears streaming down her cheeks, Howard behind her. A whole year in Germany. But finally home. She reached up to hug him and found herself swallowed in his embrace. My, how strong he was. But who was this red head at his side?
“Mom, I’d like you to meet Cassandra.” Her son’s eyes fairly danced. “My fiancée.”
The air fizzled out of her lungs as Neda took in the petite young woman—her sassy hairdo, her sparkling green eyes, her pale skin, her flounced sundress, and her fingernails, the longest Neda had ever seen, painted a deep purple.
As the young woman extended a smooth white hand, Neda slid out her own hand, speckled with milk spots and chapped from scrubbing bathrooms all morning. “It’s so nice to meet you, Mrs. Morrison. Mitch has told me all about you.”
Mitch? Neda forced herself to smile, burble words of congratulations, wondering all the while at the sudden sourness in her stomach.
“Oh! I almost forgot,” said the exquisite creature. “This is for the potluck.”
Cassandra extended a grocery bag while Mitchell slid his arm around her tiny waist and accepted hugs and back slaps from the rest of the family.
Something hard and cold and square filled Neda’s hands. She peered in. A plastic container of store bought potato salad. She scrutinized the nutritional label, but couldn’t make out the contents without her reading glasses. She turned the box upside down. Expiration date: 7/19/08. How could potato salad last for two whole weeks? Probably chockfull of preservatives and no telling what else.
Neda felt a few heart palpitations as she scooted Rachel’s pea salad to the side and wedged the plastic box between sparkling white Corning ware, hand woven baskets and stoneware platters. While she pulled foil off of Sarah’s pecan pie, Howard idled up the steps, Lillian’s youngest atop his shoulders, squealing happily at her piggy-back ride. Neda gave him a terse glance.
“Howard, bless the food, but keep it short. Everyone’s starving.”
Much to her annoyance, he saluted, then plucked young Jan from his shoulders and whistled. Like fire ants to bare feet, the family swarmed the porch. But before Howard could even say ‘amen’, the food was marching off: children first, then husbands, then the women. Neda watched the progression, then picked up a plate, her stomach churning as she approached Cassandra’s offering. She wasn’t particularly fond of potato salad. Besides, her plate was almost full and she simply had to try Lillian’s squash casserole…
“Mrs. Morrison, where did you get these? They’re fabulous!”
Cassandra was at her elbow, a cracked wheat roll in each hand. Neda cleared her throat. Twice. “Well, actually, I made them.”
“You made these?” The young woman’s enormous eyes widened even more.
“Incredible.” Cassandra’s eyes closed as she burrowed her dainty nose in a roll and inhaled. After a moment, her eyes popped back open. “I’ve always wanted to learn to cook.”
Neda blinked several times. “Well…if you’d like…that is, if you’re available…maybe, I could give you a few pointers.”
The young woman had perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth. “Oh, Mrs. Morrison, that would be stellar! Mitch would love that.”
Neda found herself nodding. Yes, Mitchell would love that.
Cassandra flitted back to her seat, then jumped up again to get Mitchell more iced tea. At the thoughtful gesture, a warm sensation stitched itself around Neda’s heart. She looked again at the potato salad, then reached for the spoon. Maybe she should give it a try after all.