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We’re in a field looking at Vermont’s impossibly green hills, sitting where generations of writers have come to learn the craft. Our instructor tells us she wants a short, short story about something that deeply affected us, told in the point of view of someone else. She says our work merely skirts human emotion and we must go deeper. “Try letting yourself out through another’s eyes.”
Then she quotes Robert Frost who was an early and frequent teacher, presenter, and mentor at our Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
So I called up my daughter’s voice and channeled my last real family Christmas—through what I thought might be … her eyes.
THE BEST GIFT
When I pull into the driveway I count five cars parked in the first winter snow next to the stone wall under the pines. The camp’s green walls are holiday card perfect with wispy flakes on sills and roof. I see that Mum has, as always, tucked red bows into pine branches hanging from window boxes. Red, green and white. So it’s going to be a traditional Christmas is it?
Wood smoke blows low across the deck, pushed by a bad-weather-wind toward the lake where ice is rattling in small rafts of cubes. One morning we will wake and find the cove glued into ice- hard silence. It could happen that fast. Lots can happen that fast. Overnight.
No tracks; everyone’s been inside for hours unwrapping presents, eating Mum’s coffee cake, probably made with berries she froze last summer anticipating weekends of blue-flecked muffins and family Scrabble games. Sam, the youngest nephew, is probably walled inside a castle of toys and gifts and well on his way to an early afternoon breakdown from getting too much of what he wants.
And what do I want? I want this to be over. I want to crawl into the bed I’ve had since I was two, pull Pooh Bear under the covers with me, and when I wake up, find my father on the roof, shoveling great clots of snow into a mound I will make into a snow cave.
Before I can get up the stairs to that Christmas wish, I have to open the door—to what?
Will we be pretending today? After fifteen years of camp family holidays, that seems likely.
They hear the front door and spill into the front room to hug me. The chaos is familiar and washes over me like a bright wave of welcome water.
“What took you so long?”
“How were the roads? Icy?”
“We saved all our Annie presents to have Christmas part two with you!”
“Look at all the dragons I got. They’re on the floor breathing fire on each other. Some just got killed.”
I look around for Mum The living room floor is awash in paper, ribbon, half chewed dog toys and plates of cake crumbs. There’s a monument of a tree in the living room, easily over ten feet tall and it looks like every light and ornament is out of storage and propped on its limbs. My aunt is setting the long dining room table with the traditional red cloth, and my grandmother is attempting to settle Sam with a story.
The walls of pictures are rearranged. My Dad is missing except for early baby pictures of us together. There are no pictures of my parents together. There’s a lighter space on the wall where my dad’s tarpon used to hang over the bar counter. I wonder how long it will take for the wall’s fish outline to disappear into the smoke darkened panels beside it. I wonder what new wall he’s put it on and what new people are looking at it now.
I climb up to drop my bag in my small room at the top of the stairs. Mum has put the Santa music box on my bedside table. I wind it up to hear its familiar holiday song: “you better not cry” in tinkling tones. As Santa revolves, his serious eyes meet mine for a few seconds in each turn. “You better not cry.” This is the first time I’ve been home since I lost my family. Nothing has changed in my room; pictures of us together sit on my bureau and bookcase. Sitting on the bed I can sort out the smells of roasting turkey and simmering garlic from the spicier ones of pumpkin pie.
Mum must be in the kitchen, but then suddenly she is there at my door. She might look the same to her family. I can see the effort she’s made to be dry-eyed and energetic, but I think she looks too pale, even for winter. She’s made no effort to re-color the grey wisps at her temples, and under the apron she’s just thrown on an old T-shirt that’s inside out.
She hugs me and sits on the bed. “If you don’t want to, we don’t have to do this anymore,” she says. “It was too late to change it this year.”
I nod. “This will be our last Christmas like this,” I say firmly. “It’s over.”
“Let’s make a new tradition when we get this sorted out,” she sighs. “Everyone’s waiting for us to open your presents. Let’s go down.”
“Mum.” I lean on her. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Anne. You are the best gift that I ever got.”
And since she has said that to me with tears in her eyes on every birthday and every Christmas, just as she’s saying it today, I feel stronger. We hold hands and climb down the stairs.
Author’s note: Pictures illustrating this story came from my family albums.
Sandy’s novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a Mystery Writers of America award and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest. This year, she’s been nominated for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novel at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” will be published in 2019.