Keep Calm and Merry On
December 12, 2011
At first glance I’d say there were about eight people in there eating. They were all sitting alone, chewing quietly as the voice of Andy Williams was piped through the tiny speakers on the ceiling. He was going on about it being the most wonderful time of the year, and upset as I was, the irony wasn’t lost on me.
I figured all of the people sitting there were from out of town and had tried to make it home in time for Christmas but something had come up. A last minute meeting to close a deal perhaps, or a delayed flight because of the light dusting of snow that had fallen on Albany the night before. Either way, looking at them I knew they were feeling the exact same thing I was as I stood there in the restaurant of the Wolf Road Marriott— they’d rather be anywhere but here.
“Okay kids, let’s see what they’ve got,” Dad said rubbing his hands together as though we were about to embark on a journey for hidden treasure. He looked tired, the bags under his eyes having grown larger over the past months, yet his profile was still the same–strong, distinct, in charge. He was trying so hard to stay positive that it almost made me feel worse. The moment we walked in to the quiet lobby of the hotel I wanted to turn around and walk back out.
I looked at Maria with trepidation, a look of, is this really happening? She nodded slowly. It was our job now, we knew, to keep it together for Dad if nothing else. These were unusual circumstances. Standing in a hotel restaurant in the middle of my hometown it was as though we were stranded in a foreign country without a guidebook and all we knew how to do was order coffee and talk about the weather.
I nodded back. We took deep breaths and followed Dad up to where he was already standing, holding a tray at the empty buffet line scoping out the options.
“Just a quick reminder to you folks that we’re going to be closing down the Christmas brunch at two o’clock.”
The man speaking was about Dad’s age, early 60’s and he had on a crisp white short sleeved collared shirt that matched the color of his hair. His name tag read Robert, and as he flashed his teeth at us I figured that he too just wanted to get the hell out of there. The three of us looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 1:45. When it pushed ahead to 1:46 it felt as though the minute hand stabbed directly through my heart.
Dad nodded reluctantly while still maintaining his smile. I tried to tell myself not to worry and that everything was going to be fine. We’d come this far after all, I thought, let’s keep pushing forward. If nothing else the three of us had become good at that. Keep moving, no matter what. Forward is the only option.
The initial assessment told me a few things quickly, namely that pancakes and French toast were the hot brunch items because they were wiped clean. I spotted small boxes of cereal, the ones you get in packs of six at the grocery store that give you a portion fit for a toddler. I considered them for a moment and then thought, Frosted Flakes for Christmas brunch? Surely not.I moved on. There was someone in charge of making omelets but Dad had gotten to them first. In the essence of time I decided to skip it. The bacon was gone, a few sausage links lingered but looked cold.
I spied Maria a ways down with the long sleeve of her black dress pushed up to her elbow. She was scooping oatmeal into a bowl out of out of a large metal vat. I shrugged. Oatmeal it is. We tried to spruce it up with raisins and brown sugar, but when we sat down it still lacked a certain…something. It was like the Cratchit’s on Christmas morning before Scrooge shows up with the goose.
I looked up expectantly to the door of the restaurant. There was no one.
“This is depressing,” I said. Maria and I were sitting next to each other at a table and I noticed the song had changed; Brenda Lee was singing about rocking around the Christmas tree. As we sat there, our bowls of oatmeal quickly growing cold before us, we watched Dad across the big dining hall spattered with empty chairs as the finishing touches were made to his eggs.
“I mean, it is what it is,” she said and shrugged. I turned to give her a look. When did she become so sensible? Only older than me by two years, but since Mom died 328 days ago she’s been acting more like she’s 46 not 26.
“I just wish we didn’t have to be here,” I said. “I wish we could have gone to Aunt Bridget and Uncle Frank’s. I don’t see why that wasn’t even an option. I mean they invited us, couldn’t we have at least put it to a vote?”
“You know what Dad said. He didn’t want to be around Mom’s brother and other people because he wasn’t sure how he was going to handle this, if he’d start crying or whatever.”
I knew better than anyone that in the face of such a loss one doesn’t know what little thing is going to set you off, what commercial or perfume or gesture is going to remind you of the one thing that has been on your mind every day, every minute, every second since the person you love died – how much you miss them.
“I get that, but I just don’t think sitting here is going to make any of us feel better.”
“I know, but Dad had the right idea not wanting to be at the house, for us to try something different. Unfortunately brunch in Albany on Christmas Day isn’t exactly the same thing as brunch in Manhattan.”
Maria went back to her oatmeal and I pictured my apartment on East 72nd Street, my furniture all quietly sitting there waiting for me. Suddenly I missed it. I looked up and noticed that the tables around us had now been emptied, save for one younger looking man talking into his cell phone and referencing the papers spread out on the table in front of him. I heard the echo of another minute pass from the clock on the wall.
“I guess not.”
December 25th had been looming on the calendar, waiting for us for months. Ever since she died every holiday, no matter how small, was there at the end of a week or month and the three of us would have to talk, dread in our voices, about how we were going to handle it. My birthday, Mother’s Day, Mom’s birthday, Dad’s birthday, July 4th weekend, their 34th wedding anniversary. We had somehow managed to make it through Thanksgiving. I suggested my apartment in Manhattan and the three of us watched the parade in Times Square and then I cooked my first turkey in my mini oven. I even managed pumpkin pie and potatoes and Mom’s sausage and celery dressing. Crouched around my coffee table eating off of plates on our laps, none of it tasted the same.
For Christmas, the next and ultimate hurdle of our first year without Mom, Dad had come up with a few ideas. Maybe Manhattan, but after the whole Thanksgiving debacle I had the feeling Dad had soured on the big city for a while. Florida, but Maria didn’t like Florida. Maybe we’d finally take that trip to Italy to find our Sicilian relatives, but Dad didn’t want to go without Mom. In the end Albany was the only option. Maria and I were to go home and the three of us would attempt to figure out how to pretend like the whole thing wasn’t happening.
The Plan was no tree or presents or holiday decorations of any kind. Because Mom had been such huge a proponent of Christmas, Dad feared any reminder of that might cause us all too much pain. So, for the first time in my life, on Christmas the house I grew up in looked like it did on every other day of the year. It felt empty as I walked down the stairs early that morning, and I almost couldn’t remember anymore how it felt when I was little, how it felt to be so unflinchingly happy and free, screaming my head off with excitement as Maria and I pushed our way to the bright green glowing tree and tore at the wrapped packages below as Mom and Dad looked on with smiling faces. Had those days even happened to us? Most of the time my childhood and all the days that led up to the day Mom died felt like they’d happened to somebody else. I was still in my pajamas when I reached the bottom of the stairs and found Dad sitting on the couch watching the Weather Channel in his robe. He was drinking coffee and a mahogany side table with an antique lamp was in the place where the tree should have been. I stood there and looked at it, at Dad and the room and the pictures of Mom on the mantle above the fireplace that used to hold our stockings and I closed my eyes. I willed myself to hear her coming down the stairs. The sound, the cadence of her step, the pace, the fast rhythm of her slippered feet against the hardwood.
After a while I almost thought I did.
“I’m finished with my decaf so if you want to make real coffee you can go ahead,” Dad said. I opened my eyes. He spoke to me over his shoulder before looking back to the television. I picked up my own feet in silence, and as I moved toward the kitchen I heard him quietly say, “Merry Christmas.”
I wasn’t sure but I thought I could hear it in his voice that he was holding back tears, tears along with all the emotion of the past and how we knew, even though we weren’t saying it, how much we missed it.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, and didn’t look back.
The Plan also consisted of mass at noon on Christmas Day. This was a new attempt as the four of us always used to go to church on Christmas Eve. We’d get dressed up and I’d be ready early and would wait in the living room with Dad. He would sit on the couch in a suit and tie sipping scotch, quietly looking at our tree and listening to the 24-hour holiday music station on the radio. I’d sit next to him, my saddle shoes barely reaching over the edge of the sofa. I could smell his aftershave and the pine from the tree. Maria would join us and then Mom would come down last and I’d rush to the bottom of the stairs to see her descent. She always looked so beautiful. I remember thinking she was like a model on a runway, perfectly done hair, a smile on her face, her bright blue eyes beaming. She’d glide in heels and an elegant dress, her earrings sparkling in the hallway light. I’d look at her and think to myself: I want to look just like her when I grow up.
This year, however, things were different. After my coffee and breakfast I showered and was ready early, but the downstairs was quiet. I sat alone on the couch in the cold living room waiting for Maria and Dad. I looked up at the picture of Mom on the wall and remembered sitting on this very couch just last year telling Maria that I was scared about us one day having to come home for Christmas and there being only one of them. An inevitable ending that all children must face, yes, however when I said it I thought it was so very far away. We’d be married by then, have families of our own. I was only 23, surely we were meant to have more time. As I sat there I realized how quickly things change, how I had taken it for granted, all of it, all of those years when everything was normal and perfect and warm and we were happy. In that moment I missed my mother so much I felt like I couldn’t breathe when I realized I could never get back all that I had lost. That time was gone now, that life was no longer mine. Soon, Dad came downstairs followed by Maria, and as we silently left the house and piled into car in the brisk December air, I understood that the more we tried keep things the same as before, the more obvious it was what we were missing.
“This omelet doesn’t look too bad now does it?” Dad said as he sat down, unfolded his napkin and placed it on his lap. We were overdressed to be sure, coming from church and sitting there among the one remaining weary traveler far from home. Dad in his blue suit that looked a bit looser on him than it had last year. Maria, who looked so much more like Mom now than I did wearing a black dress and heels. I was wearing my tartan plaid skirt along with the same black flats I had worn to Mom’s funeral. I had been meaning to throw them out for a while now, along with everything else I’d worn the day we buried her.
I looked at Dad’s plate and wanted to tell him that I didn’t care if it was the best omelet he’d ever had, we weren’t supposed to be here. Couldn’t he see that? Didn’t he understand this wasn’t helping? But this is family and these are hard times and you don’t just come right out and say how you feel.
“Well you’ve got about five minutes to eat it,” Maria said checking the clock. I was sitting back in my chair next to her looking at Dad across the table as he lifted his first forkful to his mouth. Maria was stirring what was left of her oatmeal around in her bowl as though she were a painter mixing paints. I toyed with the pearl bracelet I had taken from Mom’s jewelry box that morning and watched the man a few tables over tell someone he loved them before closing up his cell phone and shuffling together the papers in front of him. Before long he was gone and so was everyone else.
We were alone now. The patrons, the omelet maker, Robert, everyone had somewhere else to go. Everyone except us.
“So what are we supposed to do next?” I asked knowing that was the question we all now wondered about the rest of our lives. The Plan had only taken us as far as brunch, and that clearly hadn’t panned out the way we had anticipated. Dad stopped chewing for a moment but then pressed on. Maria and I waited a long time for him to finally swallow and speak.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I guess…I guess I didn’t plan that far ahead. I wanted to go to the cemetery and put flowers down. We could do that.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Yeah that’s fine,” Maria said.
“Maybe we could go for a drive or something?” I said.
“A drive? That sounds boring,” Maria said.
“Well do you have a better idea?”
“No, but I’m sure we can think of something a bit more fun than driving around.”
“I saw on the Weather Channel this morning that it’s supposed to snow later,” Dad said. “I don’t want to be driving around in that.”
“If it’s going to snow later then wouldn’t that mean the flowers will just die?” Maria asked. Dad looked up, his eyes distant.
“Oh,” he said slowly. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
We sat there, deflated. Dad cut another piece off his omelet and Maria kept spinning her spoon around in her bowl. So this is it, I thought. This is Christmas. How was it possible that we, our family, had gotten to this place? As I sat there I wondered if it would always be like this, forever a dark mark at the end of the year filled with anxiety and heartache and us just being so…lost.
Then, as if almost on cue, through the silence of the empty restaurant I heard Frank Sinatra’s buttery voice come through the speakers and begin to tell us to have ourselves a merry little Christmas. In the empty room I think we all felt it, the three of us at the exact same time, those familiar notes, the words urging our hearts to be light. It was the song we had heard millions of times before when our hearts really had been light and now, after everything, none of us could remember what that felt like. And yet, if I couldn’t go back in time that song surely brought me there. I could see Mom on every Christmas I’d ever had with her, and in that moment I felt all the pressure of time, how fast it goes and how we let it pass through our lives like snow in a storm without ever giving it much thought. But soon, I realized, it disappears. That much you can always count on.
As the song continued it was as though Frank was singing directly to us. Have yourself a merry little Christmas now, he said, and for the first time that day I think we really saw ourselves and what we were trying to do and how much Mom wouldn’t have wanted this for us. Yes, the fates hadn’t allowed all of us to be together this year, but this place wasn’t the answer. Running never was.
“Well kids,” Dad said putting down his fork and sitting back in his chair. “What would you say about driving up to Bridget and Frank’s, I mean, if their offer still stands?” Maria and I looked at each other. Dad looked at the clock. “If we leave now we could make it up there before the snow starts.”
In our grief we had been lost at sea, the three of us treading against the current, and as the months passed we kept trying to figure out new ways to keep our heads above water. But the thing we were slowly learning was that trying to pretend like something isn’t happening doesn’t help your heart heal any faster. You must embrace the past, all of it, the good and the bad so that you can keep moving, no matter what. Forward is the only option.
As we got up to leave the three of us put our arms around each other like comrades in battle, prepared to step out once more onto the unknown field where a war was being waged on our souls. We were missing a mother, a wife, and life as we knew it, yet we took comfort in knowing that we still had each other and family who loved us. And, once we allowed ourselves, somewhere to go on Christmas.
Victoria Comella is a Senior Publicist at Penguin. She has previously been published in Slate, and in 2008 her short story was selected as one of the top 25 finalists in Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” contest. She is currently working on her first novel, and blogs at mightymanhattan.blogspot.com.