The truth inside the story is what the storyteller aims for…
--- MAEVE MAHONEY to KARA LARSON
Jimmy Sullivan --- God bless his soul --- wrote the perfect Christmas song. Now, I’m not the only one who says this, so don’t go thinking this is just my opinion. This was so perfect a song that it almost ruined him.
When Jimmy wrote this song it was his first holiday season with Charlotte. Well, not technically his first, but when it comes to storytelling I’m not really sure if the word “technically” should enter our minds or hearts. Pure love formed this song. Of course, this is where the best stories, melodies, and lyrics are born: love. You might not believe that a mere song can change a life, but I’m here to tell you that it can and it did.
It was Thanksgiving morning when the Unknown Souls band tour bus pulled up to the Larson family house. Brothers Jack and Jimmy Sullivan were asleep in the backseat, exhausted after their Savannah concert the previous night. It was a balmy coastal morning in Palmetto Pointe, South Carolina, the air infused with the rain of the past two weeks. The palms bent low in submission from the constant beating of wind and rain, the ground damp with the sweet smell of earth, sea, and life combined --- an aroma of their childhood. Jack woke first and shook Jimmy. “We’re here, bro, and you’re staying for the day. No arguments.”
Now, normally Jimmy wouldn’t want to be staying for this family thing; he’d rather hang out with the band. The poor boy just wasn’t much on domestic events (I’ll tell you more about that soon), even if the family belonged to his brother’s girlfriend, Kara, who was his childhood next-door neighbor. But the one thing that can change a man’s mind made Jimmy stay --- the love of a woman. Kara’s best friend, Charlotte, would be here today, and Jimmy was falling in love with her. He’d known Charlotte briefly as a child, and he denied this blooming love to his brother and anyone who would listen. No one believed him. Love like that is obvious to everyone within a heart’s distance.
“We have to be on the road by 9:00 a.m. for the concert in Nashville,” Isabelle, one of the backup singers, called from the back of the bus, her voice still as brittle and hard as it had been since Jack admitted his love for Kara. She couldn’t help it --- love denied sometimes hardens the heart. It doesn’t have to be this way, and Isabelle’s heart will soften with time. Jack and Jimmy stood at the bus door when Porter Larson, Kara’s dad, appeared and poked his head into the bus. He hugged Jack. Now, this right here was a Thanks - giving miracle because Mr. Larson was none too keen on Kara’s breaking up with Mr. Hotshot Golfer to hook up with an old neighbor who was now in a country band. But Porter’s smile and hug sang of a changed heart.
“Hello there!” Porter hollered, uncomfortable around the band, but wanting to be friendly. “What’s everyone doing for Thanksgiving?” He glanced around the bus.
Isabelle answered for the group. “Happy Thanksgiving to you, Mr. Larson. I think we’re headed to the beach for the afternoon. We have a concert tomorrow, so…”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Porter said. “You’re coming to spend the day with us.”
Luke, the band director, stood up and walked toward the front of the bus. “We’re fine, Mr. Larson. You’ve got your hands full with the Sullivan boys here.”
“Please,” Porter said. “We’d love it and we have plenty of food. Kara and Charlotte have been cooking for days.”
The band members shrugged and laughed (except for Isabelle). Harry, the drummer, stood, holding drumsticks in his hand as he always did. He played the air when he couldn’t play the drums. “I’m betting Kara Larson’s turkey is better than our sub sandwiches.”
The house was bright and warm that morning as the bedraggled group followed Mr. Larson to the living room. Jimmy burst through the door, hugging and greeting the entire family. The smell of cinnamon, pine, and something cooking in the back of the house filled Jimmy with a longing for things lost and never had. He wondered how he, so undeserving, could be blessed enough to walk into this house, into this family, and toward the open arms of Charlotte Carrington.
Then the noise began. Kara’s sister and brother-in-law, Deidre and Bill, came through the front door at the same time, hollering for help with the food and case of wine. Then came Kara’s brother, Brian.
The house filled with noise in that gorgeous way of family, of laughter and private jokes. The band crowded the living room, men and women with guitars and drumsticks looking misplaced on the prissy antique furniture of Mr. Larson’s living room, which looked exactly the same as the day his wife, Margarite, passed away, twenty years ago. Damask curtains fell to the floor where Isabelle sat cross-legged, and she began to tell the stories, the ones about Jimmy and his antics on the road. She is good at this, and laughter rang out like the sound of hope as she told the story about Jimmy’s hiring a girl to run up on stage and dance around Jack, trying to rope him with a lasso as he sang the Toby Keith song “Shoulda Been a Cowboy.”
Jack shook his head. “I’m telling you, I almost killed him, but what would we do without Jimmy’s jokes on tour? I think sometimes they save us from insanity, even when we beg him to stop.” The combined voices and warm food, the cold wine and deep laughter, filled the room.
Sometimes Thanksgiving Day is all it should be in a family, in a home. That day inside the Larson home was one of those. In the simple and undeserved way of love, hearts mended and relationships were stitched together over food, twinkling lights, bad jokes, laughter, and melancholy memories. They talked about Maeve Mahoney, the Irish woman Kara believes brought her back to Jack. They spoke of Margarite and how both Margarite and Maeve seemed to be present in all that was said and done that day. They spoke of Jack and Jimmy’s sweet mother, Andrea, now in California. Even Isabelle’s mouth broke into a smile that didn’t leave her face for the remainder of the day.
Charlotte brought her mother, Rosie, and soon the house filled with a light that Jimmy believed only he could see. He watched Charlotte with her wide smile and long blonde curls, Charlotte with her sweet laugh, tender touch and gentle words. Families had never been a safe place for Jimmy, and he’d believed they never would be, like growing up in a war-torn country and then believing that all lands are the same. But here he was beginning to relax into the rhythm of a new place where Charlotte inhabited not only the Lowcountry, but also his heart.
Charlotte and Jimmy met as all the best lovers do --- when they weren’t looking for love, when they were too busy to notice they’d stumbled upon treasure. They were brought back together when Kara and Jack reunited.
Now, Kara and Jack’s love story has been told, but it is so beautiful that I love to tell it again and again, recalling the events with long, beautiful sighs.
You see, Jack and Kara were childhood sweethearts, yet were separated when they were twelve years old. You can split a boy and girl apart, but here’s what you can’t do: take the love out of their hearts. No, you just can’t. Love is alive inside a heart the same way blood moves inside a body --- running and thrumming through every cell and unseen thing that make us who we are.
The story of how they ended up together is much more complicated than just finding one another again. It had been in May of the previous year, and sweet Kara was engaged to the wrong man. Not a bad man. No, not that. Just wrong for her. Now, poor Kara had lost her mother when she was nine, and her daddy was a strict man who just wanted the best for his daughter and thought that her famous fiancé was the best thing for her. She wanted to please her daddy. Who doesn’t? This is built into the human soul like a building block.
Kara was working for the PGA Tour, not only a grand job in her father’s eyes but a vocation that allowed her to meet Peyton Ellers, who was and is a star on the tour. Peyton was all those things a girl like Kara, a good girl trying to do all the right things at the right time, would have looked for and loved. And sometimes when everything looks just right, we think it is just right when it merely looks that way. We have to search a little deeper.
About this time in Kara’s very perfect life entered this batty old lady named Maeve Mahoney. Well, to be precise, Kara entered Maeve’s life when Kara walked through the front doors of the Verandah Nursing Home and into Maeve’s room, stating, “I’m here to spend some time with you.”
You see, although Kara was “spending time” with Maeve, these times were “volunteer” hours mandated by the Service League, hours that Kara needed to fulfill in order to avoid being fined. Kara showed up with a pleasant-enough attitude, but yes, she was assigned to spend time with this woman. Maeve immediately saw that Kara was leafing through a wedding magazine, and that she was harried, hurried, and preoccupied, so Maeve began to speak about true love, narrating first-love stories. Now, let me tell you, Kara merely and only tolerated this woman’s ramblings at first, believing that Maeve was crazy and had confused life and love and Ireland and Palmetto Pointe into a mishmash of memories. But soon it became evident that Maeve was telling a love story, one that sounded a lot like the tale of the Claddagh ring, a story clouded in myth and legend with a little blarney thrown in for good measure. Is there any better kind of story?
The Claddagh ring is that common symbol we all know --- two hands circling a crowned heart --- worn by lovers and friends all over the world. A symbol of love and fidelity. The tale goes something like this: There was a man from Claddagh, Ireland, Richard Joyce. In the seventeenth century he left the woman he loved and sailed to the West Indies for a job, but alas, on the way, he was kidnapped by Moorish pirates and sold into slavery. Eventually, he apprenticed to a goldsmith in Algiers, where he fashioned and crafted the first Claddagh ring of gold as a gift for the woman he loved back home, the woman he knew he would return to one day. When Richard was finally freed, he came home and discovered that his true love had waited; he gave her the ring, and they wed. Ah, the perfect love story, right? Well, soon the myth of Richard Joyce and Maeve’s own love story about a man also named Richard began to weave into one love story until Kara was quite sure that Maeve was mixing up life and myth, confusing fact and story --- Kara not yet knowing that all those can and often do combine into the most beautiful of all things: truth.
In broken fragments, Maeve told Kara of her own love, her own Richard, a man Maeve loved and lost and searched for and never found, a man who broke her heart and a man for whom she wished she’d had the tenacity and heart to have waited. This tender story opened Kara’s heart to what she had known all along: She still loved Jack Sullivan. Yet and still, Kara did not believe that Maeve’s story was “real,” as the details were far too close to the myth of the Claddagh ring.
During these days that Kara came to love Maeve and her legends and tales, she also came to realize that in many ways Maeve was also telling Kara’s story, asking Kara to look into her own heart to find the truth of her life. Soon Kara understood the lessons inside Maeve’s narrative, and it was then and only then that Kara began to listen to the hints and proddings of her own heart. And it was then that she went to look for Jack Sullivan.
Kara spent hours listening to Maeve, pondering the questions Maeve asked her, questions like: “If you knew he’d return, would you wait for him?” and “Who was your first love?” Yet Kara still did not believe Richard was a real man until she found historical documents about the man Maeve had once loved, Richard O’Leary. Only then had Kara finally believed in the truth.
Who can tell the exact moment when a woman or man believes in something? Who can tell the exact moment when someone falls in love? Same thing. Believing. Love. Same thing. So, you see, both Maeve’s myth and truth brought Jack and Kara back together. And sometimes, oh, sometimes, it is this kind of love that also changes everything else in their world. Which this love did do.
I’m sorry --- I know I digressed. Let me get back to how Jimmy and Charlotte came together because that is what this story of the song is all about. Well, really it’s all about undeserved love, but the story of the song and undeserved love are one and the same. You’ll see.
Charlotte is Kara’s best friend and has been since second grade. Kara and Charlotte found each other during that time in life when a mother’s death leaves a hollowed-out hole in the soul. Their common interest in art drew them together, although they could not have understood at that young age what brought them together; they merely felt that their hearts called out for one another in an immediate way.
The way an author wraps words around life to explain and describe, so Kara uses her camera and Charlotte her designs, both making sense of life through artistic expressions. And except for their deep love for one another, that is where their similarities end. Kara is organized and precise, whereas Charlotte is scattered and free-spirited; Kara’s hair is a deep brown, straight and controlled, whereas Charlotte’s loose blonde curls fall free and wild no matter what she tries to do with them. Kara’s cottage is a home on the water, filled with white furniture and clean lines; Charlotte’s apartment overflows with swatches of fabric, paint chips, and poster boards, toppling with ideas. Kara’s books are in painted bookcases lined up alphabetically by author, Charlotte’s books arranged in no order other than color and style.
Sometimes friendships form in the long flow of days, like a river carving a new path through the land, and yet other friendships are wrought together like iron to iron in a single moment. The day of Kara’s mother’s funeral, the adults, engulfed in their own grief, had left the girls alone for most of the day. Together they’d hidden under the branches and tangled roots of the old magnolia tree in the front yard. Curled into one another with ham sandwiches wrapped in flowered napkins, chocolate chip cookies melting in their pockets, they’d eaten, whispering stories of ghosts and angels, of where Margarite Larson was at that moment. Had she been able to talk to Jesus? After the devastation of chemotherapy, had all her hair grown back when they gave her a halo? They’d then fallen asleep to the lullaby of the wind, of the voices of adults wafting toward them, but never fully reaching their ears.
When the darkness settled into the crevices of the yard, and when the day they buried Kara’s mother finally ended, no one could find the best friends. Adults called their names, searched the neighbors’ homes and yards. Yet it was Jack who discovered them. It was Jack who knew where they’d gone and why. He slipped under the branches and woke them, knowing in that way that children know that the friends would not want anyone to see where they’d been. Together the three of them walked into the dark night, where Charlotte looked up to the brightest stars and said, “Do you think she can see us through those holes in the sky?”
“Those aren’t holes, Charlotte,” Kara said in a voice that was now more grown-up than it had been even a day before, death somehow transforming a child into an adult. Charlotte stopped, grabbed her best friend’s hand. “Tonight they can be holes in the sky, right?” Kara stood for the longest time staring up into the sky and even past the sky, farther and deeper, until she returned her gaze to Charlotte and Jack. “Yes, well, yes, they could be holes if we wanted them to be.”
And together the three friends slipped quietly into the house where the friendships that last forever tie their first knots into the soul. You see, there are moments, small and momentary, fleeting but defining, and Kara had decided right there, in that moment, on that night, that even with her mother gone, mystery still remained; with her best friend and Jack at her side, magic yet lingered.
And Jimmy, well, he is Jack’s brother. And let me tell you something, these boys have suffered in this world. Oh, my heart aches to think of their hurt. The pain a father can inflict on his son I think is almost the worst pain there is. And love heals even that. Yes, love heals the worst of all pain. It is why Love is here in this world, why Love came unasked and undeserved.
So Jimmy and Charlotte were, as I said, forced together by circumstance, yet their hearts came together with something altogether different from mere situation. Which brings me back to the song.
Jimmy sat in the Larson living room, and if love can be overwhelming (which, of course, it can be, or it isn’t love), it was at that moment. And this is what he thought when Charlotte walked across the room:
I cannot find or define the moment you entered my heart. When you entered and turned a light on in the deepest part.
Lyrics began to form in his mind as Jimmy grabbed a notepad and pen from the kitchen, and then slipped away quietly to the footbridge at the end of the road. He glanced backward at the house next door to the Larsons’, the house where he had grown up and left at sixteen years old. Yes, Jack and Jimmy grew up next door to Kara. The tangled memories often left Jimmy dizzy. How should he feel about a place where he had once had a mother as loving as his, a place that had allowed him to live in this quaint, coastal town, and yet a home where an abusive and drunk father hung like a noxious, poisonous cloud over their lives?
Only a woman like Charlotte could get him to return to this land and world to celebrate a holiday. Jimmy sat in the damp, quiet afternoon, the cicadas clicking the notes of the music, the river carrying lyrics, the air itself drenched with the song for Charlotte, the song about undeserved love entering a heart to change it forever. When he’d finished, he slipped the song into his back pocket and returned to the house, to Charlotte.
Now, Jimmy didn’t want to sing this song to Charlotte until Christmas Day (it would be the only present he could afford). He wanted to polish and fix the words, make it perfect, although it had arrived complete as it was --- the song, his secret.
When he returned to the house Charlotte stood in the kitchen washing dishes with Kara. There Charlotte stood with her blonde curls loose and tangled, the smell of soap and spice mixed into the warm kitchen, her voice soft and full. He came up behind her, kissed her ear. She turned to his smile. “Where have you been?”
“I just needed some fresh air.”
“We are all just too, too much sometimes, aren’t we?” she asked, lifting her gloved and soapy hand.
“Yes,” he said. “Sometimes.” He laughed. I love when this man laughs because for so many years he was unable.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know holidays are…not your favorite.”
“No, not my favorite,” he said. “But you are.”
She shook her head. “Oh, Jimmy.” She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed.
It is a blessed thing when a woman loves a man this way. It is where healing begins in a heart. Ah, but more must happen, because this was only the beginning.
Excerpted from The Perfect Love Song © Copyright 2012 by Patti Callahan Henry. Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.
The Perfect Love Song: A Holiday Story