The First Day of Christmas
Just before dawn on December 13, my daughter Megan tugs at my nightshirt.
“Mom, we missed the school bus.”
Disoriented and still half asleep, I start calling commands to my children before my feet hit the floor.
“Splash water on your face! Get dressed! We’ve got bananas and granola bars in the kitchen for breakfast. I’ll get the car heated up, but we have to leave in ten minutes!”
Megan dashes off as directed, while I rouse her less cooperative brothers.
When I hear movement in all of their bedrooms, I take a two-minute bath, swipe on makeup, and pummel my hair with baby powder to give it poof. A dark suit hanging on the back of the bathroom door becomes my ensemble for the day. The vision in the mirror is not enchanting, but at least my red eyes and rumpled clothes seem to match.
“I dare anyone to criticize,” I say, pointing at my reflection.
I check on the readiness of my three Smiths--Megan, ten; Nick, twelve; and Ben, seventeen--dig car keys from my purse, and toss four coats onto the couch.
“Two minutes,” I holler. “Everybody outside.”
I whisper a plea for even a few weak rays of sunshine as I open the front door, but instead I meet typical weather for Bellbrook, Ohio, less than two weeks before Christmas: gray, wet, and cold. It has always been the warmth of the people, our neighbors, the community, mooring us to this southern suburb of Dayton. But this December, I only feel the chill.
In my haste to heat up the car, I nearly knock over a poinsettia sitting outside our front door. Raindrops on its holiday wrapper sparkle in the porch light.
“What the heck?”
Megan peeks around me, and her face lights up.
“It’s so pretty!”
That’s my Meg: ever hopeful even after we’ve been through so much. I wish I could be more like her, but then again, I’m not ten.
“Yes, real pretty. Where are your brothers? Get your brothers.”
“Where did it come from, Mom? Let’s bring it in.”
I stand at the door watching the cold rain beat down on the plant’s four blood-red blooms. For me, bringing the flower into the house offers as much appeal as inviting in a wet, rabid dog for the holidays. I absolutely understand Scrooge now. I want to go to bed tonight and wake up on December 26. No shopping. No baking. No tree with lights. I’m not in a mood to make memories. The ones I have just hurt; I can’t imagine new ones will feel any better. I don’t expect to avoid the holiday altogether. I merely hope to minimize the affair as much as possible. Christmas is supposed to be about family, and ours has a larger-than-life-sized hole. The flower can’t fill it.
I imagine my husband standing next to the closet he lined with shelves last December. Beside him, our fully trimmed Canadian fir stands in a growing puddle of pine needles.
“You’re killing the Christmas tree,” I scolded, pointing to the mounting evidence on the floor. He tested my theory with a whack of his hammer on the closet shelf. Needles pirouetted from the branches.
“At least these shelves aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “Neither am I.”
So why am I alone?
I search for him in the shadows of the house in the hours between good night kisses and the morning alarm, even though I know he’s not there. My back throbs from the continual jabbing of a broken coil in the sofa, but I can’t bring myself to sleep upstairs in the bed we shared. I won’t even shift to his side of the sofa.
The space Rick filled, it’s empty.
Megan needs Christmas, but I’m not ready to descend into fa-la-la land. The appearance of this flower is sure to jump-start the nagging about buying a Christmas tree and scavenging through boxes in the basement for our collection of Santa Claus figurines. I consider asking Rick’s brother Tom and his wife, Charlotte, to let the kids spend the holidays with them, just a day or two. I could hide from the season while they shower my children with gifts and stuff them with turkey and banana pudding. The kids would only be a few miles away if I got needy, but I could delegate the Christmas trimmings to Tom and Char. Delivery of the idea will be tricky. I can hear the chorus of “No way,” and recognize my voice as the loudest. I don’t want the holidays, but I do want my kids home with me.
The clock on the mantle chimes seven a.m., and I snap back into my “single mom with children nearly late for school” mode.
“I don’t know where the flower came from, Meg. But I’m not bringing it in. It’s wet, and the potting soil looks like a mudslide.”
“But, Mom, it’s a Christmas flower.”
Megan presses her plea for the plant, as Ben walks up the steps from his basement bedroom. I know he was out until nearly three a.m., and I’m not fool enough to believe he was studying. He doesn’t give me a chance to say good morning or to question him about the missed curfew.
“I don’t see why I have to go to school. Most of my friends have already left town for winter break.”
The thought of having this conversation, again, makes me weary. I want to crawl back under the covers and tell him to do the same, but it’s not an option for either of us.
“Just get your coat. You’ve already missed too many days of school.”
Megan stands between us.
“Look, Ben. Look what we found on the porch.”
I’m not sure why or exactly when, but she has become the peacemaker of the family in the last two months.
“Where’d it come from?”
Ben moves past me to retrieve the flower. I put a hand up to stop him.
“Whoa.” Ben throws his arms up in surrender, but his eyes warn me a battle is brewing. I know there are words to soothe him, but they aren’t in my vocabulary this morning.
“Please, just go get your book bag.”
Ben disappears back down the basement stairs just as Nick leaps down three steps at a time from his bedroom upstairs. Megan draws him into the poinsettia debate.
“Mom doesn’t want to bring it in, but I think we should. It’s too cold outside for a such a pretty little flower.”
Nick glances out the door and immediately loses interest.
“Better not bring it in,” he whispers to Meg. “Might be a bomb disguised as a flower. Yeah. It’s probably okay as long as it’s outside where the temperature is nearly freezing, but bring it into a warm house and kaboom!”
Megan jumps, “Mom!”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll bring it in.” I acquire several fingernails full of wet potting soil, and muddy raindrops mark a trail across the living room carpet to the kitchen.
“Don’t say that,” Megan scolds. “Hey, there’s something else.”
Megan follows me into the kitchen carrying a plastic bag with a homemade Christmas card inside. The note is written on yellow parchment with ripped edges, giving it an aged look. Someone has penned the message in an elegant cursive hand and sketched a holly leaf in the corner. The verse is a familiar one, though some of the lines are different:
On the first day of Christmas
your true friends give to you,
one Poinsettia for all of you.
Megan converts the note to song and starts dancing around the kitchen. Our blue-eyed Siberian husky, Bella, begins howling in unison. Nick grabs the parchment.
“What friends? Was it Aunt Char? Uncle Tom? Someone from school? A teacher maybe?”
I can’t answer him.
Right now, I don’t feel as if we have any friends. Telephone calls to chat and make plans for weekend gatherings have stopped. There are no Christmas cards in our mailbox, only bills.
Ben takes advantage of the commotion to announce he is not going to school.
“I’ve got a headache. I’m going back to bed.”
I want to put my arms around Ben and tell him that I understand his need to banish that song and everything relating to the holidays from our lives, but I don’t have the energy. Instead, I think of their father’s voice, bellowing the loudest when we sang that same carol as he drove us to a Christmas tree farm just outside of Yellow Springs.
After nearly twenty years of marriage, I had grown accustomed to Rick’s often off-key chorus, but still I had been grateful for the closed truck windows. At the tree lot, we had meandered down rows of Scotch and white pines, Canadian firs, and blue spruce. Megan begged for one of each. Nick set his heart on a fifteen-footer, though our family room is only twelve feet tall, floor to ceiling. Ben’s only request was that the tree branches be sparse near the bottom.
“More room for presents,” he had explained.
Together, we had selected the perfect tree, then Rick had shooed the kids and me back into the warm truck to share a thermos of hot chocolate that I’d made for the occasion and brought with us. He alone braved temperatures in the low twenties, chipping away at the stubborn tree trunk with a dull ax. Wearing a red-and-black flannel shirt, dark jeans, and knit cap, he had looked like a lumberjack as he dragged the tree to the truck, strong, healthy, and rugged but with adorable rosy cheeks.
That was my man.
Standing six feet five, with wavy black hair and hands large enough to schlep an eight-pound infant in his palm like a pizza, Rick had reveled in his role of protector, provider, “the Big Dad.” He always had his huge arms wrapped around us.
The clock on the mantle chimes again, reminding me how late we really are. Meanwhile the poinsettia is creating a puddle of dirty water on the counter, forging a channel down the kitchen cabinet onto the floor. I pick up the pot, shiny paper and all, and toss it into the sink. It topples and splatters damp potting soil on the clean dishes left to drain after last night’s dinner.
“Shit. Shit. Shit. Everybody in the car,” I shout.
“Mommy . . .” Megan huffs, stomping her foot on the floor.
“I know. I know. Don’t say that.”
Megan straightens the plant before collecting her backpack and heading out to the car. Her brothers and I follow. The car is cold.
I deposit the still grumbling Ben at the high school and navigate through a jumble of parent traffic at the junior high that Nick attends.
“Learn something,” I call as he slams the car door. He just keeps walking.
Megan, who attends the intermediate school, starts classes later than her brothers, so she and I sit in the car for twenty minutes practicing her spelling words, all holiday related, of course.
“Ornament. O-r-n-a-m-e-n-t. Ornament. Poinsettia. P-o-i-n-s-e-t-t-i-a. Poinsettia. Do you think . . . do you suppose Daddy could’ve left it for us, Mom? You know, the p-o-i-n-s-e-t-t-i-a.”
She looks at me with chocolate eyes so like her Dad’s, but there’s a new yearning haunting them that wasn’t there until two months ago. I want to tell her that his love lingers all around us, but how can I say that if I’m not sure it’s true? Do I lie? It’s easier to stick to safe topics like school, basketball practice, and her Girl Scout troop.
She needs reassurance from me that we’ll be okay, but I’m not sure we will.
“What I think is that it’s time for you to go to class and earn a few A’s,” I say, pulling up the zipper on her bright yellow jacket. I plant a kiss on top of her head.
“Put your hood up, because . . .”
“Body heat escapes off your head.” We say it together and laugh.
She starts up the sidewalk toward the school but turns and runs back to the car. I check the seat to see what she’s forgotten, but it’s empty. Megan presses her nose against the car window just as I am about to roll it down. Her breath leaves a puff of steam on the glass.
“Can we get a Christmas tree this weekend, Mom? Please? Okay, great,” she says, without waiting for an answer.
“Maybe once you clean your room!” I call after her weakly, but she is already running toward the school. She waves before disappearing inside, taking what’s left of my heart with her.
Before I get the car into gear, tears are blurring my vision.
On my way to the office, I weave through town past Christmas decorations dangling from lampposts in the shopping plaza. By the time I reach the entrance ramp to the interstate, I feel like screaming.
I pound the steering wheel and accidentally hit the horn. An elderly gentleman in a black sedan pulls over into the slow lane, and I speed up guiltily. I am ashamed of my actions now, and of the sense of panic that moved into our home when Rick left us.
I am terrified of the growing cache of bills stowed out of sight in the kitchen drawer. The electric company has demanded a deposit, even though Rick and I have had an account with them for twenty years. The account, of course, was in his name. My name was unknown to most of our creditors, but they are learning it now.
My friend Kate tells me Rick is at peace. He is in a place where there is no pain, no worry, no angst, but I imagine Rick crazy angry with God. That steel-melting emotion burns in me, too. I can’t explain to the kids why this has happened, why other families have fathers and theirs doesn’t. I can’t tell them that I wish it had been me who died because Rick would know how to help them through this.
A driver hardly old enough to have a license lays on his horn, and I realize my car is straddling the dotted line between two lanes.
“Jesus, Jo, pay attention,” I say to myself, then mouth “sorry” to the kid, who responds with a flash of his middle finger. I consider returning the gesture, but my heart isn’t in it. I am grateful to him for riveting my attention back to the road.
By now I can feel warm air shooting from the vents of the car heater, but I am still shivering.
What would happen to the kids if something happened to me?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to fear every pain and sore muscle. Sometimes, I get nervous just walking the dog.
“You’re being paranoid,” I say out loud, and then realize I am still talking to myself. I think the driver in the tan truck in the lane to the left notices.