This is a short story I wrote last year. There is an alternate story that accompanies “Christmas After Mom” entitled “Home for the Holidays”. Please let me know which version you prefer.
“Christmas After Mom”
Mindy M. Wara
They wait at the front door after knocking. Christmas Eve visiting murmurs through the heavy door. The living room glows against the evening and onto the snow. Lena can make out several figures through the almost sheer curtains, none of whom she knows. None of whom she particularly wants to know. She knows there will be a lot of people here, but judging from the cars lining the street in front of the house, there are more than her father had let on over the phone.
Mason squeezes her hand through their gloves, “It’s going to be fine. We talk to your Dad, eat some turkey, and take off.” Mason knocks for the second time and the door swings open. The balding man at the door is unfamiliar but ushers them in and returns to the living room leaving Mason and Lena in the hallway.
Lena does not want to take off her coat and let the warmth of the house touch her. The guy who opened the door is the only one that had seen them so far; they could leave now and call her father on the way back to Oshkosh. She would tell him Mason had some bad eggnog the night before and that they couldn’t make it down.
“Lena, hi! Let me take your coat,” Jillian pops out of the kitchen with her over-sized grin and out of date curls. Lena gives in and unbuttons her coat. “This must be Mason; we are just so excited to finally meet you.”
Mason hands over his coat and Lena does the same, “Thank you for inviting us.”
“It’s no problem at all, we are happy you have you. Frank!” Jillian yells back to the kitchen as she pushs past Mason to the already stuffed closet, “Frank! Lena and Mason are here!”
Lena’s father, Frank, pops out of the kitchen the same way Jillian had. He wears a reindeer sweater over a pressed collared shirt. In the entire time Lena’s mother had been alive she had never gotten him to dress nicely for a family event, let alone wear a ridiculously festive Christmas sweater. “I am so glad you made it down alright. Were the roads bad?” He hugs Lena close to him, he smells like whiskey and a cologne she has never smelled on him before. He smells young, as if he had rubbed a magazine ad for Ax on his neck. “And this must be Mason,” Frank extends his hand to Mason, “it is nice to finally meet you. How were the roads on the way down?”
Mason shakes Frank’s hand, “Nice to meet you too, Sir. The roads were fine, it stopped snowing about half way down.”
“Well that’s fine, that’s just fine. If the snow picks up again you kids can stay here. Jillian’s got one of the spare rooms all set up for you just in case.”
Mason smiles, “Thank you.”
“Dad, we are not staying the night, I’m sure the roads will be fine.”
Jillian has been quiet long enough, “Frank, why don’t I introduce the kids to everyone and you can get back to Tammy,” Jillian shoos Frank back to the kitchen and steers her over-sized hips towards the living room. Lena and Mason follow. “Your father is the sweetest man. He is lending my sister Tammy his extra snow mobile next weekend so she can go out with her fiancé up north.”
Lena stops in her tracks, “It isn’t an extra snow mobile. It was my mother’s snow mobile.”
The smile leaves Jillian’s face and isreplaced by uncomfortableness. “Well of course it was your mother’s, Sweetie. You knew what I meant.” Walking deeper into the living room, Jillian takes center stage among the couches, cousins, and television set.
“Jilly, hey, you’re blocking the show,” barks the balding man from the overstuffed sectional couch. He sits next to another man that looks a lot like him. Lena doesn’t know which of the two men had opened the door for them.
“Dan, this is Frank’s daughter and her boyfriend Mason. Lena, this is my brother Dan, my other brother Scott, his wife Amy…”
After the first couple of names Lena knows she won’t remember and that she probably will have little reason to remember them anyway. She can’t shake the idea of her mother’s snow mobile being “extra”. Her mother had only passed away the summer before; and now Lena is in her dad’s girlfriend’s house for Christmas. It just doesn’t seem right. She doesn’t know if she is angrier with Jillian for being so disgustingly nice or with her father for expecting Lena to spend the holidays in this woman’s house. Everything about Jillian and her house seems too big: big hips, big grin, big hair, big family, big couch, big TV, and her father had mentioned over the phone how big the goddamn turkey she would be cooking is.
She watches Mason shake hands with Jillian’s family on the couch and Lena nods cordially, the corners of her mouth twists into a slight smile. She wonders how much time her father spends here instead of at home. The house Lena grew up in is 20 minutes from here and farther south from her father’s job at Cooper Inc. Their house is small, with just enough room for her mother, father, and Lena.
Their holidays had always just been the three of them since her grandparents lived out in Montana. She remembers the small, but real, Christmas tree they chopped down every year and the presents for her that would appear on Christmas morning. She remembers the whole house smelling like pine needles and searching for her stocking like it was an Easter basket. Her mother always hid it in the same shelf in the pantry behind the canned foods. Lena always pretended not to know where it was.
She remembered her mother’s pajamas. She always wore the same faded flannel nightgown on Christmas morning. The previous year her mother was so thin she nearly drowned in the worn flannel and had to wear a sweater to keep from shivering. After months of chemotherapy she only weighed 85 of the 150 pounds she once was. Last Christmas Lena and her father joined her mother in bed to open their gifts. She wanted to go home, curl up in her mother’s comforter and fall asleep.
Dinner is chaotic. Jillian and Frank line the island in the kitchen with Tupperware dishes – green bean casserole, lime Jell-o molded like a Christmas tree, and three-cheese-potatoes among other dishes she does not recognize. The turkey is shredded; the white meat mixes with the dark creating a poultry collage that cannot be weeded out. The gizzard and innards mesh with the meat. As Lena listened to Jillian’s relatives argue over who gets to eat the heart, she remembers her mother’s turkey – white meat and dark meat separated and sliced. No innards. No turkey heart. Mason’s plate brims with turkey shards and he is deep in conversation with her father and Jillian’s brothers over the recent Packer game. “They may go all the way this year.” “That was a hell of a game. I didn’t think they were going to make it to the playoffs, but I’ll be damned…”
She doesn’t want to interrupt, regardless of the circumstances, she is glad her father and Mason are getting along. Lena brings her mostly empty plate outside. Nobody notices the gust of December air enter the house. She sits down on the steps; she doesn’t care that her jeans are not thick enough to keep the biting chill of the concrete from entering her skin. The snow begins to fall again. She watches it float down from the blackness above and disappear into the already whitened yard. Each flake suspended in the air seems to stop in time. The few that fell on the recently shoveled driveway melted on contact.
She wishes she would have remembered to grab her coat from the closet but does not want to go back inside to retrieve it. After hours of television blaring too loudly, laughter too hardy, and pushing her way through the house to find a quiet spot, she finally found one. She breathes in the cold and enjoys the silence. It is quieter outside than when she had arrived – everyone is stuffing their faces and it has stifled their incessant banter. She takes a bite of the roll that had been sitting on her plate. They are different than her mom’s rolls. She isn’t hungry.
The door creaks behind her and the inside noise grew louder. “We wondered where you went off to.” It is Frank. “What are you doing out here? Where’s your jacket?”
“Well, Jesus, you’re going to freeze. Here,” Frank removes his heavy coat and wraps it around Lena’s shoulders. The coat is warm and smells like she is used to her father smelling. It smells like garage and work. It makes her want to cry.
“I’m fine, Dad. I just wanted some space. It is really crowded in there.”
“You barely took any food. You hungry?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Frank takes a seat next to Lena on the step. His leg brushes against hers, warming on contact. “Jillian’s family is pretty nice, huh? Her brother’s are something else. It took me a while to get used to all the commotion, but they are nice enough.”
Lena smiles a little and shakes her head.
“Mason’s a good guy. He treats you good?” It is more of a comment than a question.
“That’s good. He’s a good guy.”
Neither of them know what to say, so they don’t. Lena wants to burry herself in his neck and sob. She wants to punch him in the stomach. She wants her mother.
“It’s snowing pretty good now, you sure you don’t want to come inside?”
“I’m fine. You can go in if you want to.”
“You and Mason might have to stay the night. I don’t want you driving back up to Oshkosh in this mess.”
“Its fine, Dad, really. Mason’s truck has four-wheel-drive and –”
“No, I think you should stay here. It is really coming down.”
“Dad, we’ll be fine.”
“Is it because you want to stay in the same room? You’re a grown woman; I guess you can stay in the same room with Mason. Jillian and I talked about that before you kids came down and she convinced me that it makes sense.”
“Dad – ”
“No, it’s fine.”
“Dad, we aren’t staying here. If it is bad, we will just drive to the house.” Lena can’t stand the idea of her father in bed with Jillian. She can’t stand the idea of going back inside. If her phone wasn’t in her coat pocket, she would have texted Mason to come outside and take her home about fifteen minutes ago.
“What’s the matter with you, Lena? You have been like this all night. Did I do something?”
“Did Jillian do something?”
“Then what? What is your problem? Jillian thinks you don’t like her and she went out of her way to put everything together. What is it?”
“What’s your problem? Do you seriously think I want to be here? Jesus Christ, Dad. Mom just died in July and you’re already practically living with Jillian? It’s like you disappeared into her house and her family or something and just forgot about Mom. Her snow mobile is just an “extra” snow mobile now? You’re lending it out to Jillian’s goddamn sister? How the fuck am I supposed to be okay with this? How is this supposed to be a Merry fucking Christmas?”
“Lena, I – ”
“No, I don’t want to talk about it. I think it is time for Mason and me to go.”
Lena stands up and realizes she has to go back inside in order to leave. She doesn’t want to face Jillian and her big smile.
“You’re just fine with me leaving? It’s Christmas, Dad!”
“I know, Lena. What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know.” Lena takes her place on the step again. The concrete had time to cool and the cold stings when she sits down.
“Do you think it is easy being at the house alone? You are at school most of the time; the house is empty. It’s still full of your mom’s stuff. You think I wanted to be there alone on Christmas? I know this is not how you wanted to spend Christmas, but did you think about what it would be like at home? There’s nothing there. She’s not there. Being at the house isn’t going to make Christmas the way you want it.”
“Dammit Lena, you act like you’re the only one who misses your mother. You know I loved your mother, but she is gone. What do you want me to do? Am I supposed to just be lonely? Jillian is a good woman.”
“I know, Dad.”
“I want you two to get along. She really wants you to like her. She makes me happy.”
“I’m glad she makes you happy. This just sucks.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
Frank hugs Lena close to him. His neck is cold against her cheek and she can’t help but cry into his shoulder. She doesn’t want to punch him anymore. She doesn’t want to let go.