On the 16th Day of Christmas Linda McMullen gave to me…
My parents didn’t create the Christmas-ornaments-as-Hanukkah-gifts schtick. But Wikipedia will probably give them credit (generations hence) for the virgin birth of the double-barrel meshugga Christanukkah guilt trip: “Have you been to mass already, or –” Mom warbles, as Dad registers my empty hands and sighs, “So the lox is still in your fridge.”
“Happy to see you,” I mutter, hugging them both, and musing – not for the first time – that everyone under this roof has bought into the whole prodigal child story. “Sorry – busy at work – and… I forgot.” My parents exchange resigned looks. “Ben here?” I add. My darling brother has surely not disappointed our parents. Not on Christmas Eve.
“Not yet. He and Leah left late –” says Dad.
“Apparently,” clarifies Mom, checking the lamb in the oven, and swearing softly as she excavates an overdone latke from the pan. “Get out the applesauce, Grace. And stay away from those cut-out cookies, they’re dessert.”
They don’t ask me about Jesse, but his and my glossy faces remain frozen in last year’s silver-framed joy-gasps on the mantel, peering out between the branches of the menorah. And despite the panoply of succulent aromas emanating from Mom’s kitchen, my stomach knots.
“How’s…” Mom glances at the bare spot on my left hand. “…work?”
“Fine,” I say. I mumble something about our six-figure fundraising, the kids we’ll feed across several war zones.
We don’t speak about the ring under the tree last year. Or that I caught Jesse ringing in Rosh Hashanah by screwing a girl called Faith (no, seriously) when I dropped in for a surprise visit.
Mom favors me with her compassionate Madonna-look. I resist an urge to bawl by offering to set the table. “Seven places,” says Mom. “Ben and Leah said they’re bringing two more.”
“Really!” An un-merry vortex of surprise, exhaustion, exasperation. Mom pats my cheek and hands off Corelle dishes, napkins, and assorted cutlery.
Ben and Leah tumble through the door with the verve of sixteen or seventeen unwalked puppies. Ben hands Dad a bag of bagels. Dad grins, then turns up Leon Redbone’s Christmas Island over the din. Behind them – carrying a bouquet of Christmas roses and looking impressively unfazed – stands a dark-haired gentleman.
Hugs, handshakes. Ben and Leah – a nurse – introduce her colleague Rashid as a medical resident. Leah, sotto voce, to my mom: “His parents couldn’t get visas…”
Mom nods – then frowns. “But where’s your other friend?”
“What?” says Ben.
“You said you were bringing two people.”
Leah’s face glows like a shamash. “Strictly speaking… the other one won’t need a place at the table until May…”
Rampant joy, heartfelt hugs smelling of bagels and spattered oil, shouted congratulations… from me, too, in spite of myself. “Can’t wait to be an aunt!”
At dinner, Rashid sits beside me; we discuss our work. About doing something meaningful when so much else sucks. About trying to save just one person at a time.
I might just have a happy holiday after all.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in over thirty literary magazines, including, most recently, The Passed Note, Luna Station Quarterly, Ripples in Space, Write Ahead/The Future Looms Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and Turnpike.
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