Friday, December 30, 2011

No Ordinary Joe

She is dead to me. I tried to speak the words. Instead I swallowed them, bitter as bile, moments after Mother delivered the news.
            “Sit,” she said when I entered the room for the midday meal. She pushed a cup across the table. More wine than water. “Drink.”
            Parched from the morning’s work and wood dust, I gulped the contents. Mother used her hip to nudge me over on the bench. Covered my hands with hers.
            “It is thickening, Joseph,” she said.
            My eyes narrowed. “What is?”
            Mother brushed my knuckles with her thumb. “Her waist,” she said. “Your Mary’s.”
            My Mary? At first I didn’t understand. Her waist? What? Then I knew. I coughed. Couldn’t stop. I clutched at my chest. Hacked. Tried to stand but the room seemed to tilt and take flight. My knees felt watery. My cup struck the floor with a clank. Rolled.
            Mother pounded my back several times. My eyes teared. She’d spoken so casually. How could she be calm? Who? Who had told her this thing?
            “I didn’t believe my sisters, so I searched for her, your Mary, in the market. When she embraced me, Joseph, I discovered . . . They were right.”
            I attempted speech. Failed. I summoned spit to wet my throat. Rasped out words.
            “Perhaps her cousin Elizabeth is gifted with food,” I said. “Mary was there for three months, you know. In the hill country.” She was there for three months. A young woman. Lovely. Alone.
            Mother circled my waist with her arms. Laid her cheek against my shoulder. Sighed.     
            “Her girth is firm, my son. Not soft. It is as they say.” Her tongue made a clicking sound. “I’m sorry.”

I stumbled out to Father’s shop. Had to find my way by memory since tears had stolen my vision. I swallowed air in great gulps. Over and over. Prayed my father would be there working. Hoped he wouldn’t be. Inside I collapsed in a corner. Rocked and keened, no care for who might hear. Thoughts churned. Visions tormented. Finally through the window I observed the moon as it settled into position for the night.
           "My Mary," I whispered to the stars. My very own angel. I’d thought. We’d said our vows. She was mine except for the wedding night and the subsequent feast. I’d planned it out. Every last detail. I would leave my father and mother. Go to claim her. The wedding party would see my torch and proclaim my approach. My Mary would drop everything and don her wedding dress. I knew she would be radiant. Shining with purity and anticipation. 
            After the ceremony I would lead her to the home my father and I had prepared for her. There, in a bed made by my own hands, we would become one flesh. Blood pounded in my ears at the thought.
            On our marriage bed I would arrange myself behind her. Remove her headcovering and see her hair, her crowning glory, at last. I imagined she braided and pinned it into a thick coil every morning before she concealed it. I’d release its constraints, watch the tresses tumble free in the lamp light. I would call her my dove in the cleft of the rocks. She would liken me to a gazelle or a young stag. In the moonlight I would fit my front to her back. Our bodies would line up perfectly—curve to curve, swell to swell. My breath would extinguish the lamp and in the night my innocence would find hers and—
            “Another has it!” My words ricocheted around the room gone cold. “Her purity is lost. To him. To a man in the hill country of Judea.”
            I gathered fistfuls of dust and ground them into my hair. Slapped more into my beard. Moaned from a place beneath my stomach. My eyes searched the ceiling. What kind of man must he be? To tempt Mary to sacrifice everything? My Mary. Mary who blushed whenever my sandal touched hers. Mary whose tunics were both worn at the knees due to her copious prayers. In the end I could only fathom that he must be wonderful. Much more so than I. Perfect even.

I awoke when the door to the workshop opened. Father’s form filled the doorway. I rubbed my face. Picked at the dried mud.
            “So Mother told you.”
            I began to sob again, my cries raw and hollow in the workroom. 
            “What now, Abba?” I said. “What now?”
            Father joined me on the floor. Drew me so close I could barely breathe but I didn’t want him to stop. I felt the warmth of him—his compassion, his sorrow on my account, enter through my skin. At last he released me. He reached up and patted his workbench. Brought down a knife and stub of wood. He carved as he spoke, sending tiny curls of wood to their doom in the dirt.
            “In times of trouble, son, I search the scriptures.”
            I dabbed at my nose with my sleeve. “As do I.”
            He smiled at the shape in his hands. “I know you do, son,” he said. “You’re a good man.”
            He used the edge of his garment to remove dust from his work. “It has always been my hope that I, and you, would inherit the wisdom of our forefather—”
            “Solomon?” I said.
            He nodded. “Yes, and today a scripture came to me. For such a time as this.”
            I turned my face to his. Held my breath.
            “Two are better than one, Joseph. If either falls down, the one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”
            I cleared my throat. It burned still. “Actually, I have decided to divorce her, Father. Quietly, of course.”
            I watched Father’s chin push forward, his mouth drop open. “Oh, Joseph,” he said. “Surely not. You cannot leave her alone in her circumstance. The law—”
            I held up my hand. “Hear me out,” I said. “I have to free her from our betrothal so that when he comes for her she will not be bound to me. And he will return for her, Father. How can he not? There is none more beautiful—”
            Father shook his head. “I disagree. If that was the case, would he have let her leave Judea in the first place?”
            He stood. Extended his hand to help me up. He embraced me again and I inhaled his woody fragrance, always a part of him.
            “Perhaps he needs to save money,"  I said to the air behind him as we made our way back to the house. "For the bride price, before he can send for her. Maybe there is more to this than we know.”
            Outside the door my father turned to face me. Took my hands in his.
            “Do not be hasty, my son,” he said. “Promise me you’ll sleep on this. Pray about it. Perhaps we should fast. For wisdom.”
            I squeezed his hands and nodded. “I promise, Abba. I will sleep on it.”

“Awake! Awake, o sleepers!” Two nights later I practically sang the words to my parents as I shook them from their slumber. “The Lord, our God, the Mighty One, has done a great thing! He sent an angel. In a dream.”
            Mother and Father stumbled into the common room huddled under a single blanket.
            I stood before them, wildly gesturing. “’I will die this night.’ That was my first thought when I opened my eyes. I was sure the light of him, this being as massive as Goliath, would consume me.”
            At the table my father rubbed his eyes as my mother brought out bread and water. Their brows were furrowed. With lack of understanding? Or disbelief?
            “He said I am not to be afraid to bring Mary here as my wife. That the babe in her womb is from the Holy Spirit, the Most High God himself! Truly He has changed my mourning into dancing!”
            I scooped my mother up into my arms. Spun her around the room. Clapped and grinned like a fool. I ran to the window and shouted to all of Nazareth.
            “Mary, my Mary, is a virtuous girl. Call me a prophet for I say one day you will all call her blessed.”
            I spun to face my parents. “I am to give him the name of Jesus,” I said. “That’s what the man from heaven told me, commanded me. Because he will save his people from their sins.”
            Mother fell to her knees. Lifted her hands to heaven. “Thanks be to God for he has taken your shame, my son, and refashioned it into joy.” Tears streamed down her face.     
            Father clasped his hands together. Raised his gaze to the ceiling. 
            “This is indeed good tidings. Our Lord is both gracious and compassionate.” He stood and beckoned toward the door. “We will need to finish the addition, Joseph. Quickly.”
            Mother gasped and clutched at her chest. “A feast. I must prepare a feast,” she said. “A week from today?” She extended a hand toward Father. “Can you have their quarters completed in seven days? You and Joseph?”
            My father and I were of one mind. We spoke in unison. “Surely, nothing is impossible with the Lord.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

*The Best Christmas Eve Ever--Part Two"

The Christmas Eve house tour ended up back in the kitchen. “So every room has a fireplace and a Christmas tree?”
            “Just about.”
            “And nativities,” I said. “Do you collect them?”
            “We do.” She picked up a carved manger scene and placed it in my hand. “This one’s from Israel, like Jesus.”
            I held it up to the light and examined it this way and that. “It’s gorgeous.”
            “Sit,” she said, gesturing to a bench in front of the fireplace. “I’ll make coffee.”
            I leaned close to the fire until my cheeks burned. I pressed my palms to my face. 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 coolness instantly soothed. I turned my head to relieve the other side. Caressed the chilly counter.

            “Let me guess. Italian?”
            She smiled and nodded.
            I peered at the soaring ceiling with its tic, tac, toe beams. “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
            Her eyes followed my gaze. “Do you get Metropolitan Home magazine?”
            My mouth fell open. “Whoa!”
            She pulled a stool out from under the island and I did the same. We sat. Neither of us spoke for awhile but it was fine.
            “When I grow up, I wanna be just like you.”
            I peeked at her from under my lashes. One side of her mouth was higher.
            I bit my lip. “Did I say that out loud?”
            The other corner rose.
            I returned my face to 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, followed by John, burst into the room, in song. “Here we come a-caroling . . .”

            Amy looked at Mom, then me. “C'mon. It’s time! To the music room.”
             “You didn’t show me that one,” I said to Mom.
             She shrugged. “I knew we’d end up there eventually.”
             Suddenly the side door to the kitchen opened and a sparkly wind whooshed a man inside. The crown of his fedora brushed the doorframe as he entered. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold.
             His eyes swept the room and  came to rest on me. “John's sister, no doubt," he said. "You’ve got your brother’s eyes. Welcome. And Merry Christmas.”
             He turned to John. “The fireplaces are hungry,” he said. “We must appease them.”
            “I’ll get my coat,” my brother said.
            Amy and Mom led me down a back hall. I hung back so I could gawk to my heart’s content. You know you’re in a rich person’s house when there’s a music room. And, when just about every wall is glass and you’re not cold, even in the dead of winter.
            In the music room we gathered around the grand-not-baby piano and sang all the Christmas carols in the hymnal. Mom played beautifully. Her fingers had perfect piano playing posture, all high and curved. Amy’s voice was a sweet, clear soprano. When she hit the high note in O Holy Night, I almost wept. At some point I heard male voices behind me. I grinned at my song sheet. 

            “It’s time,” Dad said when there were no more songs to sing.
            My eyes darted from face to face. “For what?”
            No one answered. Instead they followed him into the room with the biggest fireplace of all. The tallest tree. It shimmered with silver and gold pinecones and opalescent garland. The room was furnished with Shaker pieces—elegant but not soft. I opted for a floor cushion almost the size of my car.
            When everyone was seated and quiet, Dad spoke. “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 heated my heart. After he said, “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart,” he reached into one of the baskets beside the hearth. He brought out a candle and lit it from the fire. I held out my hand. He repeated the action four more times, one for each of us.
            My cheeks ached. Because I couldn’t stop smiling. It’s perfect, I thought. I didn’t think this night could get any better, but it did.
            We sat there in our little circle for the longest time, each of us mesmerized by the moment. We watched as our flames flickered and bowed. I allowed a drop of hot wax to splash onto my palm. Pressed my thumb into it to make a print. I chuckled.
            Somewhere in the house, a clock struck. I closed my eyes and counted the chimes. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. A contented sigh escaped me. I opened my eyes to see if anyone heard. Saw Amy’s lips moving around the lyrics of “Silent Night.” One by one, we joined in. I lifted my gaze to the ceiling. Steepled my fingers. Adopt me. Please.
When I got out of the Toyota back at my apartment, I noticed a basket on the back seat. They gave me presents? My eyes stung and I sniffed as I carried the basket inside and put the packages under our little tree. Tonight, or tomorrow? After a few minutes I unplugged the lights and headed back to my bedroom.
            Five minutes later, I ran back out. Lit the tree and sat cross-legged beside it in my pajamas and robe. One by one I opened the presents. They’d given me the slippers I’d worn. And a pair of  polka-dotted mittens. Nestled in a fist-sized box was the nativity from Israel. I stroked the smooth wood and shook my head in wonder.
            The shine of the aluminum foil star on top of the tree caught my eye. I spoke to it.
“Star light. Star bright.” I stopped. Picked up the little manger scene and held it against my heart. “Actually, I don’t need 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."

Friday, December 16, 2011

*The Best Christmas Eve Ever--Part One"

It was snowing for real now. Cottonballs from the sky. I sprinted over to Dart Drug for a bag of kitty litter—emergency traction for the car, just in case. Back at the apartment I filled my Jazzercise water bottle and grabbed a Snickers bar—emergency sustenance for my stomach, just in case. In my bedroom I threw my afghan over my shoulder—the one Mom made me when she learned to crochet.
            “That should be good,” I told the door as I locked it.
            Back outside my breath came out in little cloudy mushrooms as I scraped and brushed ice and snow off my blue Toyota. As I waited for the windshield to defrost, I examined the blackened palms of my French’s Mustard yellow gloves. They’re wrecked. My mouth pulled to the side for a moment, then up into a grin. There’s always after Christmas sales.

            “Sis, it’s me. I’m here in D.C.,” my brother had said when he called.
            “Since when?”
            “I took the train from Charlottesville this morning. Thought I’d come up and surprise 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. Get a pen and paper. She’ll give you directions.”

The Toyota crept from Route 50 to the Beltway. Past Fair Oaks Mall, then to an exit. Further still. I glanced in my rearview mirror. All I could see were the parallel black lines my Toyota tires had carved in the pillowy snow.
            “Usually I’m scared to drive when it’s like this,” I said to no one. “But that’s when I’m going to work. This is different.”
            I was headed for Christmas in the country. Surely, a country Christmas would be different. Better.
            I checked my odometer and slowed down. The turn should be— Oh, there it was. The private road wasn’t paved but it had been scraped recently. Bet they have a John Deere something or other for times like this.
            I cracked the window so I could hear the silence. Country silence is quieter than city silence. I imagined the world wrapped in Santa’s beard or in the wool of one of the sheep in the Christmas story.
            I shivered. Rolled up the window. The road seemed to go on forever.
            “Am I lost?” I asked the windshield. “Maybe I took a wrong turn. But—”
            Then I saw the light or rather, the lights. Dim golden polka dots lined both sides of the road up ahead. I pulled over. To see what exactly would make that kind of glow. My boots made a squawnky sound on the packed surface. The light, I discovered, came from deep bowls made of ice. Someone had snuggled them down into the knee-deep snow, about one every ten feet. Each bowl held a creamy, chubby pillar candle. The flames shimmied and bowed in the snow sequined night.
            I stood and peered up the road. Where did that come from? At the top of the hill was a house, grand and lovely. Greenery and a red bow adorned the outside of every window. A candle flickered on the inside of each as well.
            I decided to walk the rest of the way so my tire tracks wouldn’t defile the perfect snow in front of their house. Before I set out, I brushed the snow from my pants and tucked them inside my boots. Puckered my lips and applied Cherries in the Snow lipstick. I flipped up the velvet collar of my dress coat to keep the back of my neck warm, plunged my hands deep in my pockets, and headed up the hill.
            As I neared the house, my brow scrunched. I’ve seen this place before. Then I remembered where. The scene reminded me of a snow globe I’d purchased at the Christmas Shop in Manteo, North Carolina. I smiled, at the thought of the Outer Banks. And summertime.
            When I was about fifty yards from the house, I stopped. Watched the plume of my breath appear every thirty seconds or so.
            “What are you waiting for?” I asked the night. After a few minutes, it occurred to me I was wanting someone, the family who lived on top of the hill maybe, to lift 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. The silhouettes of my brother and a young woman 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 a word. I hung back in the shadows by the side of the road watching them.
            “She’s here! She’s here!” I heard Amy say. “Her car’s out there. But where’s she?”
            “Hallo!” my brother called.
            “Hallo!” the echoes multiplied through the woods behind the house.
            I stepped into the porch light shine 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 while I was stomping the snow off my boots.
            “I’m Amy,” she said. “Merry Christmas to you!”
            I smiled into her hair. I’ve never met you, but you sure do seem to like me.
            Inside the front door, my brother lifted me in a bear hug. Beside him, Amy counted on her fingers.
            “Coat, slippers, cocoa.”
            I tilted my head. “Hunh?”
            She spoke slower. “Give John your coat. Change into slippers. Get cocoa from my mom.”
            I handed my brother my coat. Added my boots to the line against the wall. There was a basket of slippers, all colors and sizes, tags still on, behind the door.
            I stooped. “I’ll take . . . fuzzy and red, size small.”
            When I straightened, John and Amy had disappeared and there was Mom.
            “You’re beautiful,” came out of my mouth before I could stop it. Amy looks just like you.
            “And you,” she said, as she pressed an oversized mug into my hands.
            I stuck my nose close to the marshmallows and felt steam collect on my cheeks. I lifted my chin 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 are there 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.
            “Where are my manners?” she said. She rested her hands on my shoulders and kissed the air beside each of my ears. I caught a waft of her perfume—peonies and vanilla maybe.
            “Welcome, and Merry Christmas, dear.”
            I peeked into a room. “Where is everyone?”
            “You mean, your brother? And Amy?” she said. “Probably under the mistletoe somewhere. We’ll find them. Sooner or later. Would you like a tour?”
            I nodded, my eyes huge. “Yes, please!”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Gift Gap

(Guest Post by Catherine Whitworth, MPA)

Some time ago, my husband Steve and I served as Peace Corps volunteers in the enchanting Central American country of Guatemala.  It is often said that Peace Corps volunteers gain more than they contribute in the countries where they live and work.  Some of the most important lessons I have learned in my life were from the children of Guatemala.  One child, Maria, who visited us frequently, taught me the true meaning of giving.

Maria was 12 years old when we met.  She was repeating the third grade for the third time in a rural school where I worked.  She was desperately poor, owned no shoes, and both of her parents were tragic alcoholics.  Maria visited our home frequently to chat or to bathe. She had no clean water in her home.  In the indigenous villages of Guatemala, children do not play as much as children here.  Each child works and contributes to the survival and well-being of the family.  It seemed that many, especially the girls, didn’t even know how to play and were too self-conscious to do so, so when Maria visited, we usually sat around a table sipping coffee and talking. 
      We answered flurries of questions about North Americans.  “Is it true that you steal children?”  “Is it true that you only eat canned food?”  “You gringos are all rich, right?”  “Gringos don’t like tortillas, do they?”  “How much do your shoes cost?”  “What does it cost to go to the U.S.?”  and “Why on earth don’t you have children yet?” 
      She described how her family was relatively prosperous at one time; they were weavers and operated twelve looms.  But they had to sell all but one loom because of her parents’ drinking and they were “pobres.”  Maria chatted about such things very  matter-of-factly, her expressions conveying neither shame nor sorrow.
      Every now and again, we passed along extra items of clothing or food that we did not need to Maria.  We had been admonished by Peace Corps administration to avoid “paternalistic giving”  and not create a “gift gap” that would make people in our communities feel uncomfortable.  So we kept our gifts small.... chicken necks and backs we weren’t going to eat, an old sweater with a hole in it, old calendars from previous years...and we felt generous about this.  I recall once giving  Maria a cookie to have with her coffee.  She broke it into 5 pieces and tucked it into her apron to carry home to her brothers and sisters.
      While some who visited us, half-jokingly hinted that we should “gift” them our more flashy belongings such as our radio and toaster oven, Maria never expressed interest in such things.  During our last days in Totonicapan, the one material thing Maria very shyly and tentatively asked us about was if we would take our “tinaja” (plastic jug for carrying water on one’s head) back to the U.S..  I told her that we didn’t need tinajas in the U.S. because everyone had running water and asked her if she would like it.  She was very pleased with this shabby, battered gift.  It meant her family could collect an extra gallon of water during the two hours a day that water was available in the village.  Again, I felt generous.

On our last night in Totonicapan, Maria and countless others brought us gifts to remember them by.  One boy gave Steve a hat. An old soul in a droopy cowboy hat dropped 5 kernels of dry corn into my hands. Maria brought us some bread and a woven tortilla napkin.  We knew this had cost her family either money or time, both in short supply for a struggling family.  I explained that we didn’t want her to spend what little they had on us.  She just smiled and said it wouldn’t be giving if nothing was given up. 
       Later, I pondered Maria’s words and thought about the generosity routinely bestowed on us by the people of Guatemala.  People who invited us to dinner and served us their best arroz con pollo recipe as they and their children ate only beans and tortillas, or sometimes just tortillas and salt.  The ancient ones sporting broad, toothless grins handing us apples, just because we strolled past their adobe homes. 
       It seemed that what Maria and many other Guatemalan people did without thinking was a foreign concept to us.  They gave what they could not spare and we never gave away anything that we would actually miss.  Talk about a “gift gap”.


This timely post is by my dear friend, Catherine Whitworth. Catherine Whitworth, MPA, is a tobacco dependence treatment specialist and policy analyst at West Virginia University.  She served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala from 1989 to 1992.  There she met and married another volunteer, Stephen DiFazio.  Catherine and Steve live in Morgantown with their two teenagers.  In her spare time Catherine works to get smoke free laws passed in local communities.

Friday, December 9, 2011

*Prelude to the Best Christmas Ever*

It was a Christmas Eve in the 80s, my first one after college.  My roommate had headed home for the holidays at noon—his home being Moundsville, West Virginia.  My boyfriend would celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes with his family that night, then he'd get up early the next morning and drive three hours, probably way too fast, so we could be together before noon on Christmas Day.  
            Around six that evening, I wiggled into my winter coat.  Slipped my feet into duck boots which were knockoffs of the real ones you can order from Lands’ End. I tied the long laces in double bows, tucked a scarf around my throat, and ventured outside to inspect the silent night. 
            Out in the cold, I shuffled through the snow. Tried to make a solid line with my feet instead of a dotted one.  As I balanced on the curb at the edge of Route 50 in Fairfax, Virginia, my breath seemed like a diaphanous megaphone.  Go team, I breathed. I mean, go me. Nowhere. I lifted my chin. The street lights each had halos.  Rainbowy. Shimmery.
            I faced left toward Fairfax Circle then right toward Washington D.C..  I began to count cars. One. Two. Three.  Big gap. That one turned before it passed me. I waved at the fourth one.  Five minutes later I abandoned the car count.
            I squinted across the way. Tried to see inside the slightly fogged windows of the Dart Drug.  Only the manager was there.  He looked lonely too. Even with a Santa hat on.
            I tilted my head back.  Sighed.  No starsCity lights and puffy snow clouds concealed any and all heavenly bodies. 
            I glanced over at Dart Drug again.  The lights on the Christmas tree in the window winked at me.  Seemed to flash the rhythm of Jingle Bells--Blink, blink, bliiiink.  Blink, blink, bliiink. 
            The star on top of the drugstore tree was big.  Too big really.  It looked like it was fashioned out of gold foil, studded with yellow mini lights.  As I stared at its five points, it seemed to shoot out light beams.  I had a thought.  Star light.  Star bright.  First star I see tonight.  I wish I may.  I wish I might.  Have the wish, I wish tonight.
            I narrowed my eyes and focused intently on the star.  "I wish . . . I wish I wasn't alone on Christmas Eve."  I said it out loud, so whoever was in charge would hear me.  I waited.  I expected.  Zilch.

I plodded back to my building.  Outside my door I stomped snow and ice clods onto the coir doormat that proclaimed, "'Tis the season!"  Inside the apartment I left a trail of hat, boots, mittens, muffler, coat. Who cares?
            In the kitchen, I watched my reflection in the window as it filled a mug with half water, half skim milk.  The Times Journal cup disappeared inside the microwave.  A finger pushed Beverage then Start.  The image girl leaned against the cabinet.  Drummed her fingers on the counter.  Startled when the microwave dinged.  Three scoops of International Coffee powder, hazelnut flavor, went into the mug.  The reflection paused its stirring. Tasted. Added another spoonful of mix.  Hummed a song from Mary Poppins.
            I tilted my head at image girl. She seemed tired. Or sad. Before she turned away.

            I opened the fridge and grinned.  "You’re still here," I said to the can of whipped cream.  I shook it then sculpted an ascending spiral on top of the steaming foam.  I took a step toward the fridge, whipped topping in hand. I paused. Glanced left and right. As if. I giggled and opened wide. Aimed the whipped cream nozzle at my uvula and sprayed until it sputtered. 
            In the dining area, I sank into one of the two folding chairs beside the card table.  Hummed "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in between sips of fake coffee.  When it was gone, I swirled my finger around the inside of the mug to collect the hazelnut dregs.  Slurped my finger as I relocated to the sofa.
            I plopped my feet on the Ikea coffee table and stared at our tiny flashing Christmas tree in the corner.  It wore only two things—multi-colored lights and white snowflakes.  I'd snipped the snowflakes out of a couple sheets of Xerox paper I brought home from work. 
            "Note to self, " I said to the empty room. "Get Christmas decorations for next year. Real ones."  Maybe boyfriend and I'd order Poinsettias or Mimosas at Sunday brunch before we shopped.  Cocktails always seemed to help us locate better bargains.
            I stirred my bangs with a puff of air.  If I went to bed now, night would go faster and  morning would come sooner.  I glanced at the VCR under the TV.  Not even nine o’clock.  Pa-thetic.  I rocked myself up and off the sofa and headed back to my bedroom.
            I was stepping out of my jeans when the phone rang. I straightened, one leg in, one leg out of my pants. The clanging ricocheted around the room.  Sounded sort of like a Salvation Army bell being rung really fast, pause, really fast.  I considered not answering it.  Maybe I want to be alone on Christmas Eve, just to know what it feels like, just this once. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

*The Worst Christmas Ever*

I knew I was in trouble when my husband questioned the pile of packages by the front door.
            “I have a good excuse,” I said.
            One of his eyebrows arched. “Really?”
            Both of my eyebrows went up. “Really,” I said. “These are the Christmas presents I bought and wrapped for your mother to give the kids.”
            “She already did that .”
            My heart hiccupped. I squinted. “She did? Why?”
            “’Cause she wanted to.”
            “But, this is how we always do things. She buys. I fly.”
            “Not this year.”
            Inside me, my holiday spirit engine gasped. Shimmied. Chugged, then stopped. The Christmas carol soundtrack in my head ceased. The skippy spring to my step flattened.

And then it happened again. We stepped into my mom’s house less than a week later and her hearth was smothered with red and green packages adorned with smooshed and pointy pre-tied bows.
            My breath caught. My eyes widened. The two shopping bags of packages I was carrying dropped to the floor with a thunk and a rattle.
            “Uh . . . Mom? Did you forget how we do things—you buy, I fly?”
            She beamed from her lavender recliner. “I don’t know what got into me. One day I felt a burst of energy. And there was this great sale at the mall and . . . “
            For the second time in seven days my holiday spirit engine faltered. I stared at the fireplace for a few minutes—almost hypnotized by the blueish yellow flames that danced around the fake logs.
            “They got double presents,” I said, without moving my lips.
            “Excuse me?” Mom said.
            I walked down the hall to the bathroom and washed my hands. Put on sweet pea-scented hand lotion. Tried on every shade of lipstick on Mom’s vanity. I lowered the toilet lid and took a seat. I counted on my fingers. They got presents from my mom. They got gifts from his mom. They got stuff that I bought them from my mom. They got stuff that I bought them from his mom. They got presents from us. They got toys from Santa.
            I stood and surveyed my reflection in the mirror. Leaned forward and tugged my eyeskin to make the wrinkles disappear. I sighed. My mom was happy. Mother-in-law was too. The kids were ecstatic. And he was thrilled. Husband adores giving and receiving gifts. “Can’t take it with you when you die.” That’s one of his favorite sayings.
            I grinned at myself. "Faker," I hissed. Everyone was giddy with holiday joy but me. All the stress I’d put myself through—making the lists, checking them twice. Shopping all over hell’s half acre and the Internet. Wrapping, hiding. I didn’t need to do any of it. Well, I didn’t need to do half of it. I’d put myself out, way out, for nothing.  All that Advil gone to waste.
            And that’s not all. The double presents thing? It fed the fear inside me. The fear that all the gifts, the mile high stack of gadgets and sweaters that no one really needs, would make Christmas Day into Stuff Day. I worried that the intense focus on buying, giving, getting, repeat, would take the attention off little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
            Back in the living room, I sank into the sofa beside husband. He shushed me as I mumbled, “It’s gonna be Stuff Day, not Christmas Day.”  He stroked my back. Massaged my shoulders. Murmured, “There, there. Everything’ll be all right.”

A few nights later we gathered in the foyer. Donned hats and coats, mittens and gloves. Prepared to go to the last holiday party of the season—Christmas Eve at my mother-in law's. One of our children dawdled. Or whined. I don’t remember which. I snapped at her. A little too loud, a little too mean.
            All of a sudden the front door whooshed open. Frigid night air rushed the room. Husband slammed the door and turned to me, his eyes squinty and small.
            “Shut. Up,” he said. “You’re going to ruin Christmas Eve for everyone.”
            All three kids gawked at me, my husband, each other, then the floor. I winced and inspected my boots. I knew I deserved it. Not in front of the kids, but still . . .
            Husband stomped out into the night to start the car. After a few minutes, the kids followed. I locked the front door and slunk down the steps. It was bitter cold with no snow. There would be though. Eventually. I could smell it.
            I climbed into the SUV. Flipped my seat warmer on. The silence was too quiet, even on the Silent Night, so I pushed the stereo knob. Charlie Dodrill sang. To me. “I am under the impression that it’s all for me.” I rubbed my thighs with my Granny Smith apple green gloves and waited.  For someone to say, “Hey, he’s singing your song.”
            At husband's mother’s house, the kids raced up the sidewalk to get at the warmth, the seven fishes, and the gifts inside.  Husband gathered my sour green apple gloves into his black ones. I lifted my chin cautiously. Noticed the solidness of my breathless diaphragm. His mouth pulled to one side. “Sorry,” he whispered. I blinked slowly. “Me too.”

I realized something. A few days later. That particular Christmas Day was not Stuff Day. It was Grace Day. The day three kids received way more than they expected, way more than they needed. And they rejoiced. With hoots and hollers and declarations that this indeed had been the best Christmas ever.


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