“Home for the Holidays” is the alternate version of “Christmas After Mom”. Which story do you prefer?
“Home for the Holidays”
Mindy M. Wara
It looks exactly the same. The house is old, but well kept. The new siding she helped her father put up last June is doing well despite the Wisconsin snow and ice. The driveway and sidewalk is shoveled, as usual, even though it continues to snow. She knows her father will shovel again later that night. He doesn’t want it to pile up. The wreath her mother had made during her last December merrily hangs from the hook on the door. Lena knocks and waits.
“You’ll get a kick out of my dad, he is something else. Don’t be offended if he starts talking about politics or anything; he is really set in his ways and – ”
“You’re dad isn’t going to offend me. You’ve met my parents. If they aren’t offensive I don’t know who is.” Mason squeezes her hand through their gloves.
Lena knocks again and decides to walk in, she knows the door will be open. The living room lights she saw from outside are the only lights on in the house. There is no tree. There is no mistletoe tacked to the middle of the door frame.
“Dad! We’re here!” There is no answer. Lena leaves Mason at the door and goes to the kitchen. She flips on the light – no snowman dish towels, no plastic poinsettia centerpiece on the four person dining table. There isa note magneted to the fridge:
Went out to the store. Be back soon.
“Dad’s at the store. Come on, let’s put our bags away.” Mason leaves his boots by the door, picks up his duffle bag, and rolls Lena’s over the carpet. The one hallway is narrow with pictures lining the wall: Lena’s school pictures from kindergarten to high school graduation, her parents’ wedding picture, grandparents, and one of Lena’s mother, a dark wooden frame with braided details along the edges, ivory and gold matting surround a picture of her smiling through rosy cheeks sitting on top of her snow mobile. To the side of the hazy picture:
Literal Meaning: Merry, Lively
She loved to snow mobile with her husband, Randy and daughter, Lena
Gail was caring and honest
She was known for her apple pies and cheerful smile
She was most skillful with her hands
“Just set those in here. This used to be my room.” Mason sets the bags on the pink comforter. The room is edged with a pink rose boarder and pictures of Lena and her friends from school.
Mason stops to take in a few of the pictures, “Nice braces”.
“Don’t start. I’ve seen your mom’s picture albums. You weren’t exactly a stud in middle school either,” Lena looks around the room, “he hasn’t changed the room at all.”
“Why would he?”
“I’m just saying, nothing in the house has really changed. My mom’s stuff is still all over the living room. I bet her clothes are still in the closet in their room.”
Lena and Mason wait at the kitchen table. The backdoor struggles to open as Lena’s father and three grocery bags make their way through. Mason opens the door as her father tumbles in.
Putting down the grocery bags, “sorry I’m late. I ran into Dan at the store and you know how once he starts talking you can’t shut him up. I got you some cranberry sauce. This must be Mason,” sticking out his hand to Mason, “Nice to finally meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Sir.”
“Dad, where are the Christmas decorations?”
“I don’t know where to put anything. Your mother always did that, Lena.”
“You didn’t even get a tree?” The house smells plain and there are no pine needles covering the carpet.
“I didn’t get a chance. They’ve been offering overtime and so I’ve been working twelve hour days.”
Lena doesn’t know what to say, “did you pick up some eggnog?”
“That I did remember,” her father digs into the grocery bag and pulls out two pints of eggnog. He sets one on the counter and the other inside the door of the fridge. Pulling three mismatched glasses from the cupboard, Lena wonders where her mother’s holly etched tumblers are as her father pours.
“Oh, Dad, Mason is allergic to eggs, he can’t have any.”
“Sorry about that,” he carefully pours the contents of one glass back into the carton, “do you want a whiskey or something? A beer?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“You sure? I’ve still got the Gentleman Jack that Lena got me for my birthday.”
“What do you take it with?” He rummages through the cupboard.
“Coke, if you have it.”
“We got some RC, that’s about the same.” He pours Mason’s drink and adds some Gentleman Jack to his own eggnog, “Lena, you want some Jack?”
“No thanks. Dad, we could put up some of the Christmas decorations. Don’t we have Grandma’s old fake tree in the basement somewhere?”
He doesn’t answer. No matter how much she wants it, Christmas is not going to be like it was the year before. Lena sits close to Mason on the couch, his warm leg matchs up against hers. Mason and her father talk about the Packer game and the likelihood of them making it to the Super Bowl. She fells alone.
Holidays had always been just Lena and her parents 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 home to feel like home and to curl up in her mother’s comforter and fall asleep.
“I am getting pretty tired, I think I am going to bed.”
“Lena, it’s only nine,” Mason grabs her hand in a plea to stay.
“I know, but I have a bit of a headache. You two can stay up. Bond. I just need aspirin and some sleep.”
“Okay, good night.” Mason lets go of her hand. Lena breezes her lips past his briefly before heading for her room.
“Good night, Lena,” her father calls after her.
She lays on her childhood bed, still dressed, and starring out the window at the falling winter. 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.
She can’t stand the thought of waking up Christmas morning to no tree, no lights, and probably no church since her father only ever went because of her mother. She thinks about how awkward it will be. Will her father make a morning drink too? She wonders about what it will be like if she and Mason have kids someday. Willthey even come to visit her father for Christmas?
Mason’s parent’s house was all decked out for Thanksgiving – Thanksgiving! Lena didn’t realize how many decorations were possible for Thanksgiving until entering through their pilgrim themed door decorations last month. She wishes they would have gone there for Christmas instead. She imagines a tree adorn with homemade ornaments from when Mason was little, a tree skirt his mother had sewn, and warm candlelight coming off of the piano in the corner of their living room.
With warm images of where she would rather be, Lena falls asleep.
Lena wakes up next to Mason. For a moment she thinks her father might surprise her by getting a tree and decorating the house while she was sleeping. For a moment she feels the rush of Christmas morning the way she did as a child. She slips out of bed and into her bathrobe so as not to wake Mason. She creeps to the living room just to check. Nothing. It is just as it had been the night before. She picks up the empty glasses her father and Mason left out the night before, rinses them, and sets them in the kitchen sink.
She slinks back into her bedroom, slips her jeans on, and leaves her bathrobe on the edge of the bed. Mason hasn’t moved. Lena returns to the kitchen. She opts for her father’s over-sized heavy coat instead of her own peacoat and pulls on her boots. Gently closing the door behind her, she feels the chill of December lick her cheeks. She breathes in the cold, it nips at her lungs, but takes every ounce of sleep out of her. She treks to the shed in search of her father’s saw. She finds it amongst the sawdust of a project he had abandoned in August. She blows the sawdust off the handle and struggles to pick it up in her gloved hands. Frustrated, she shoves the gloves in her pocket. Her liberated fingers pick up the saw.
There is one tree in the backyard. It is a scraggly jack pine that has been on her father’s to do list of things to take care of since her mother passed. Lena nestles down into the needles and snow and begins sawing. At first she cannot get a groove started, but the faster her arms moved back and forth, the further into the wood she cuts. She doesn’t notice how soar her shoulder is from lying in the snow with her weight pressed down upon it, only that her blade is getting closer and closer to the other side of the trunk. She has made it through, the tree falls hard away from where she laid. She stays in the snow a moment catching her breath. Her sweat incubating her body, she takes off her father’s coat and leaves it in the yard.
Finally standing up, Lena grabs the rough bark of the trunk and drags the tree towards the house. Guiding it through the snow is easy, maneuvering it up the back steps is difficult. She doesn’t care if she wakes Mason or her father anymore. She flings the door open, it slams the kitchen wall hard. Tracking in all of the mud and snow from outside, Lena tries to pull the pine through the door. She doesn’t care that the lower branches are much wider than the door frame, she is getting this damn tree in the house.
Her father enters the kitchen. He doesn’t say a word, just grabs the end of the trunk and starts pulling. The tree shoots into the kitchen, shedding needles everywhere.
“I’ll grab the tree stand,” he hurries down the basement stairs and returnes with a rusted green stand for the trunk of the tree. Lena drags it to the living room and steadies it while her father holds the stand in place.