Once Anne and the children disappeared upstairs with a short stack of Christmas stories, Sara, David, and Ellie went to work preparing the seafood stew. Sara had done all the prep work earlier, so it was just a matter of assembling the ingredients. They talked about life on Cape Cod, past Christmases, and family off-Cape.
Ellie came from a rather large clan, most of whom, including her parents, had emigrated from the Cape over the years for work. She'd stayed behind and married Danny, also a lifelong Cape Codder. His parents had moved to Florida long ago, and his only sibling, an older brother, had relocated to New Bedford. It was just the two of them and their children, left behind in Eastham. Ellie had little to no family support easily available. A neighbor watched the children while she worked, but that was it.
"Perhaps it's time I move off-Cape too," she mused as she helped Sara fill the pot with the ingredients for the seafood stew. "My sister knows someone with an available apartment a block away from her house, and someone else who hires nurses at the hospital. But it would break my heart to move away from the Cape's natural beauty and raise my children in the city."
"I understand," said Sara. She dropped a handful of succulent scallops into the pot. "Jack and I came here on our honeymoon and made sure to return every year for at least two weeks. When we got to the time in our lives when we could permanently relocate we built this house, and plan to stay here forever."
"Anne and I live way up in Boston," David said as he dredged the oysters in flour, preparing them for the fryer. "It's like another world compared to the Cape."
"I want my children to grow up with an appreciation for the natural world," Ellie said. "The ocean, the beaches, the wildlife. Clean air. Room to breathe." She looked down at her hands, chapped and rough, and dropped them to her lap to hide her bitten nails. "But if I can't make enough money to live on, and don't have anyone to help raise them, I guess we'll need to make some sacrifices."
"Maybe you can move back in a few years." Sara tried to sound encouraging.
"A temporary move," Ellie said thoughtfully. "I hadn't thought of that." She gave Sara a hopeful smile.
While the stew simmered, Sara fried the calamari and oysters, and David stirred the pot on the stove with the dipping sauce.
Anne joined them, looking pleased with herself.
"Are they asleep?" Ellie asked.
Anne nodded. "Only took four stories."
"A record," Ellie noted.
"They're darlings," Anne said.
"Thank you. I do my best."
"You're doing a great job."
It was almost nine when the calamari and oysters were gone, and the stew had simmered long enough. Sara ladled the rich mixture of seafood laced with potatoes, celery, and onions in a milky broth into soup crocks, and set a bowl before each of them. No one uttered a word until the last bowl was empty.
"Delicious." Ellie patted her round belly. "I can't thank you enough for sharing your Christmas Eve meal with me."
"Having you here made it so much better," Sara said.
"Seconds anyone?" offered David.
Anne and Ellie proffered their bowls and he filled them again.
Sara sat back, a satisfied smile on her face. "You know, when I woke up this morning I had no idea I'd be sitting around the table tonight with two sweet children asleep upstairs. This is truly a gift for me."
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