It was snowing for real. Cottonballs from the sky.
I ran over to Dart Drug to buy a bag of kitty litter—for the car, just in case. Back at the apartment, I filled my Jazzercise water bottle and grabbed a Snickers bar—for my stomach, just in case. Went back to my bedroom and threw my afghan—varying shades of blue in a mountain range pattern—over my shoulder. That’s as far as I went with regards to safety measures. I was in a hurry. When you want something as bad as I did, you throw caution to the sled dogs.
I was excited. My breath came out in little cloudy mushrooms as I brushed and scraped snow and ice off my blue Toyota. I looked at my French’s mustard yellow gloves and frowned. Wrecked. My mouth pulled to the side for a moment, then up into a smile. After Christmas sales.
“Sis, it’s me. I’m here in D.C.,” my brother had said when he called.
“I took the train from Charlottesville this morning. Thought I’d come up and spend Christmas with Amy and her family.”
“Oh.” So, you won’t be alone on Christmas Eve.
“They want you to come out,” he said. “Amy’s family says no one should be alone on Christmas Eve.”
I looked up at my bangs. “They said that?”
“Yeah. I’m going to put Amy on. She’ll give you directions. ‘kay?”
I drove Route 50 to the Beltway. Then to an exit. And then some more. I looked in my rearview mirror. All I saw were the parallel black lines my Toyota had left in the powdered sugar snow.
It occurred to me that usually I was afraid to drive in the snow, especially if I was going to work. But tonight was Christmas Eve, and I was going to Christmas in the country. Surely, Christmas there would be different . . . better . . .
I turned right onto their private road. It wasn’t paved but it wasn’t terribly bumpy. Seemed like it had been scraped recently. Bet they have a John Deere something or other for times like this.
I turned off the radio and cracked the window so I could hear the silence. Country silence is quieter than city silence. That night it was if the world was wrapped in Santa’s beard or in the wool of one of the sheep in the Christmas story.
The road seemed to go on forever. I was getting to the point where I thought maybe I’d taken a wrong turn. Then I saw the light. It was golden and dim. I squinted. What makes that kind of light?
As I got closer, I saw that the light was lights and they were coming out of the ground. I pulled over to the right and shifted into park. Set the emergency brake. I got out. In the headlight glow, I saw that the light came from bowls, made of ice, holding creamy, chubby pillar candles. Their flames shimmied and bowed to the wind.
I looked up from the ground lights and peered up the road. Where’d that come from? I guess I’d been watching only what my headlights illuminated. At the top of the hill, was a house, very grand and beautiful. There was greenery and a red bow on the outside of every window. There was a candle on the inside of each as well.
I decided to walk the rest of the way. I didn’t want my tire tracks to mess up the perfect snow in front of their house. I got back in my car and flipped down my visor. I watched myself put on Revlon Cherries in the Snow lipstick. I turned the velvet collar of my dress coat up to keep the back of my neck warm.
I walked up the road towards the house. I squinted at it. I’ve seen this house before. Then I remembered where. It looked like the inside of a snow globe I’d seen at the Christmas Shop in Manteo, North Carolina.
When I was about fifty yards from the house, I stopped. After a minute or two, it occurred to me that I was waiting for them to lift up the edge of the glass dome and let me in. Into their world.
I was twenty feet from the porch when the front door opened. My brother and his girlfriend filled the doorway. His buzz cut and her mass of flame-colored waves were backlit. I don’t know why, but I didn’t say anything. I stood in the shadows by the side of the road, watching them.
“She’s here! She’s here!” I heard Amy say. “I can see her car out there.”
“Hallo!” my brother called. “Hallo!” the echoes multiplied.
I stepped into the porch light glow and waved. “Merry Christmas!” I said. My greeting went far, in every direction, in the navy night.
Amy waved excitedly like it would bring me to her faster. I climbed the steps and she threw her arms around me. I’ve never met you, but you sure do seem to like me.
Inside the front door, Amy held her hands out. “Coat, slippers, cocoa.”
I tilted my head. “Huh?”
She spoke slower. “Give me your coat. Change into slippers. Then get cocoa from my mom.”
I handed her my coat. I added my boots to the line beside the door. There was a basket of brand new slippers, all colors and sizes, on the other side of the door.
I bent down. “I’ll take . . . fuzzy and red, size small.”
When I stood up, there was Mom with a mug of cocoa and a smile.
“You’re beautiful,” came out of my mouth before I could stop it.
“And you,” she said, as she handed me my cup.
I stuck my nose inside and felt cocoa steam collect on my face. I lifted my head but kept my eyes closed. I inhaled.
“What do you smell?” Mom said.
My face squinched in concentration. “A peppermint at the bottom of the cocoa . . . pine . . . a wood fire . . . paperwhites . . . wassail maybe? Or is it oranges studded with cloves?”
I opened my eyes. She was still smiling. “You should be a sommelier.”
“A some of what?”
She chuckled and tucked her arm inside mine. “A sommelier--sort of a wine expert,” she said. “You have an excellent nose.”
We walked down the central hallway. Suddenly she stopped and turned to face me. “I’m sorry,” she said. She put her hands on my shoulders and kissed the air beside each of my cheeks. I smelled her perfume—Ralph Lauren’s Lauren. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas.”
I looked away from her eyes. They looked like swimming pools and I felt like I was falling . . .
“Where is everyone?”
“Probably under mistletoe somewhere,” she said. “We’ll find them. Sooner or later. Would you like a tour?”
I nodded, my eyes huge.
We ended up in the kitchen. “Does every room have a fireplace and a Christmas tree?”
“And nativities,” I said. “Do you collect them?”
“We do.” She picked one up and put it in my hand. “This one’s from Israel, like Jesus.”
I sat in front of the fireplace in the kitchen ‘til my cheeks burned. I put my fingertips to them. Hot. Dry.
“Come here,” Mom said.
I joined her at the island in the middle of the kitchen.
She patted the marble surface. “Put your face here.”
The marble instantly soothed. I flipped my face to cool the other cheek. I stroked the chilly top. “Italian?”
I looked up at the soaring ceiling with its tic, tac, toe beams. “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
She gazed up too. “Do you get Metropolitan Home magazine?”
My mouth fell open. “Wow!”
We were silent for awhile and it was fine.
“When I grow up, I wanna be just like you.”
She smiled a little.
I bit my lip. “Did I say that out loud?”
Her smile grew.
I put my face back on the marble. “Sometimes I think I have Tourette's.”
She reached across the island and rested her hand on my hair. “You’re so much like your brother.”
I sat up when Amy burst into the room, in song. “Here we come a caroling . . .” She looked at Mom, then me. “It’s time! To the music room.”
I looked at Mom. “You didn’t show me that one.”
She shrugged. “I knew we’d end up there eventually.”
My brother stood behind Amy at the island. Amy drummed her fingernails and took turns staring at me, then Mom.
The side door to the kitchen opened and a sparkly wind blew a man in. He was tall and his cheeks had been whipped ruddy by the wind.
He looked around the room and then his eyes camped on me. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas!” He squinted. “You’ve got your brother’s blue eyes.”
He turned to face my brother. “The fireplaces are hungry,” he said. “We must appease them.”
Together they went out into the night.
Amy and Mom led me down a back hall. “Was Dad a Marine or a model?” I said to their backs.
“A lot of the first. A little of the second,” Amy said over her shoulder.
You know you’re in a rich person’s house, when there’s a music room. And, you know you’re in a rich person’s home when just about every wall is glass and you’re not cold, even in the dead of winter.
We stood around the grand, not a baby, piano and sang every Christmas carol in the hymnal. Mom played beautifully. Her fingers had perfect piano playing posture. Amy sang beautifully, her voice a sweet, clear soprano. When she sang O Holy Night, I almost cried.
“It’s time,” Dad said when there were no more songs to sing.
I looked from face to face. “For what?”
Everyone followed him into the room with the biggest fireplace of all. The furniture was Shaker—elegant but not soft, so I opted for a floor cushion the size of my car.
When everyone was seated and staring at him, Dad began. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” He recited the whole thing from memory--no notes, no Bible.
The fire warmed my cheeks. The story warmed my heart. After he said, “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,” he reached into a basket beside him. He took out a candle and lit it from the fireplace. He handed it to me. He did it four more times, one for each of us.
It’s perfect. I didn’t think this night could get better, but now it is.
We sat in our little circle, each of us staring at our flames. We watched them flicker and bow. I let a drop of hot wax splash into my palm. I pressed a finger into it, to make a print. I smiled.
I glanced at my watch. Midnite, on the dot. I closed my eyes and sighed. I opened them when I heard Amy sing.
“Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.” One by one, we joined her. I looked up at the ceiling. Adopt me. Please.
Part of me didn’t want to leave, but part of me did. I wanted to stay with them forever, but I also wanted to go home and write everything down. So I wouldn’t forget. Ever.
When I got out of the Toyota back at my apartment, I saw a basket on the back seat. There were presents in it. I carried it inside and put the packages under our little tree. I unplugged the lights and headed back to my bedroom.
Five minutes later, I came back out. I plugged in the tree and sat cross-legged beside it in my pajamas and robe. I opened the presents. They’d given me the slippers I’d worn. And, there was a pair of beautiful, fuzzy mittens. In a box the size of a coffee cup, I found the nativity from Israel. I stroked the smooth wood.
I looked up at the white paper star on top of the tree. “Star light. Star bright,” I said, then I stopped. I picked up the little wooden nativity and cradled it in my hand. “Actually, I don’t want to make a wish. I want to say thanks. No one should be alone on Christmas Eve, and I wasn’t. And Christmas in the country? It was different . . . and better."
Every Christmas season, I think of that night. The memories are treasures to me. I don’t remember what the people looked like so much as I remember how they made me feel. Even though I wasn’t part of their family, they treated me like I was. Even though I wasn’t a believer, they treated me like I was.