Tis the Season
There’s an expression that writers use when after putting it off for as long as possible, they have to “kill one of their darlings.” This story that appeared in the So Much Depends Upon . . . anthology in 2018 is one of those “darlings.” Enjoy!
Tis the Season
Three days before Christmas, Dad came home late after a holiday party with his poker-playing pals. He sounded a little too jolly out in the hall talking to Mom and his “ho, ho, ho’s” woke me up. When you live in a small house you can hear everything. Dad said I should be a newspaper reporter when I grow up. “You ask a lot of questions and are very observant.”
The next morning, he left for work early and waved goodbye from the front door, leaving the inside air so filled with tension I wanted to be outside even though it was snowing hard. Mom barely spoke to me or Bud the whole day so I stayed in my room and rearranged my storybook dolls. Just as we were finishing dinner, Mom looked daggers at Dad and said, “Since you were so full of the holiday spirit last night, you can keep it going without me.” She finished the dishes, left the kitchen, and a few minutes later shuffled into the living room in her bathrobe and slippers, carrying a pillow and a blanket. She made her bed on the couch and turned her back to us.
I didn’t see why Bud and I were being punished because of Dad or that Mom had the right to ruin the night we always bought our tree. I wanted her to be sweet like Jane’s mother.
Dad, Bud, and I stood frozen in the living room like shepherds in the nativity play at my school. Since Dad looked clueless, Bud jerked me by my arm and led me into the hall where we plotted in private.
“We have to get Dad on our side,” Bud said. I was glad he took the lead since I had to blink away tears. “Come on,” and marched us back into the living room.
“We want a damn tree,” Bud said with his hands on his hips, keeping his back to Mom.
“Yeah,” I chimed in. Take charge for once, Dad, I thought. Why do you always let Mom ruin things, but was smart enough to let Bud’s damn do the job.
Dad ran his hand over his bald head the way he did when he was thinking, which I took as a good sign. After a few minutes, he gestured for me and Bud to follow him.
“A Christmas tree it is, kids,” he said, with a smile—our hero—as we followed him into the hall.
I liked how he was going to be jolly about our situation even if he didn’t know exactly what to do. He reached up, pulled on the cord to lower the attic ladder and ascended.
Bud and I could hear him clomping around overhead looking for the boxes marked Xmas. Because the attic was unfinished, he had to step on the wide planks to keep from falling through the ceiling. We heard a minor crash and then “Shit” and then “It’s okay.” We stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up into the dark void of the attic like stargazers.
Finally, Dad came down carrying the boxes of lights and ornaments and handed them off to Bud. He went up again and came down with the tree stand, gave it to me and then closed the attic ladder.
“Get your coats, kids. Let’s go.” We ignored Mom. I was the last one out and let the front door stand open so that the cold air swept into the warm living room. She could get up and close it herself.
We went to the Boy Scout lot, bought a tree without the usual squabble, roped it to the top of the car, drove home, and brought it in through the front door.
Dad and Bud settled the tree in the stand and strung the lights while I assumed Mom’s role of ornament un-wrapper and handed them off one at a time. We had certain places where they went: first the glistening glass icicles from Uncle Paul, next came the prettiest ornaments that were breakable, and at the bottom were the dumb ones decorated with smeary globs of glitter that Bud and I had made when we were in kindergarten and first grade.
While Bud and I finished hanging the ornaments, Dad made hot chocolate with extra marshmallows for the three of us. We sipped our drinks and “oohed and ahhed” over the way the tree had come together. We pretended to be having a good time and ignored Mom, lying with her back to us, who alternated between sighing and sniffling. Bud and I tossed on the tinsel in clumps until it was our bedtime. Dad stayed up late collecting the silver snarls and neatly draped them, strand by strand.
I was too sleepy to stay awake but they must have talked because the next morning our nice mother was back. She left the couch and made breakfast as though nothing had happened. Like she’d used my Number 2 pencil’s rubber end. Erase. Erase.
This was how we did it—like the weatherman on the radio—storm approaching, it could be a big one, and then it passed.
Since Mom was in charge of the neighborhood caroling group that night, I helped her bake cookies all day. We would take them to the party for everyone in the basement of the corner store after the caroling was over. It was one of the most fun things we did about Christmas in our village. We collected for a charity and sang our hearts out for several hours in the snow and cold. Lucky Bud, he was chosen to go up, ring the doorbell, and ask for a donation for needy families.
While we hummed “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” he blurted out “trick or treat” by mistake. The man standing in his doorway smiled at my brother, patted him on the shoulder like grownups do when you’ve done something foolish, and then took some dollar bills out of his pocket and put them into the collection can. I felt bad for Bud who hurried on to the next house.
After caroling, everyone went to the party where they served hot cocoa, mulled cider and lots of cookies. I could smell the frost still clinging to our coats and didn’t want the party to end. Our neighbor, Lee, who was the handsomest man I’d ever seen in real life, caroled with us and joined my father out in the kitchen where the men kept a bottle of whiskey to add to their cider. After a few drinks Lee came into the group, gathered up me and Mom and hugged us to him. In his deep voice he started singing “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Clause” and gave us both a sweet peck on the cheek. Mom’s face was flushed; I purred like a kitten.
Much like Bud’s train set that we assembled under the tree, we chugged along with stops and starts through the rest of the holiday. I helped Mom get the house ready for Grandma Rosie and Grandpa John’s visit on Christmas Eve and Dad didn’t go to any more parties.
On Christmas Day we opened presents and ate lots of turkey, stuffing, and pie. I got the best present ever—the book Caddie Woodlawn. Every time the bookmobile came in the summer I checked the book out. I wanted to be like Caddie, make friends with Indians, and have great adventures. Mom must have noticed since I didn’t think to put it on my wish list. It was even better than the storybook doll for April.
That night we took my grandparents home in the early evening with a full box of leftovers. Instead of coming straight back we drove through Forest Park where the rich people decorate their mansions with lights and sparkly lawn displays. One house even had music playing outside. It was so beautiful I could still picture it in my mind when I closed my eyes just before I fell asleep.
This is your life. You are responsible for it. You will not live forever. Don’t wait.
– Natalie Goldberg