This month's "Featured Reading" is a short story I wrote that was originally published in "Holiday Sampler," an anthology from the Writers Cooperative of the Pacific Northwest.
The opening notes of singer Mariah Carey's iconic classic, "All I Want For Christmas Is You," were just starting to stream from the radio as Molly parked her car outside her cousin's house.
"Yeah, I don't need to hear that song," Molly muttered to herself as she turned off the ignition. She reached up and twisted the rearview mirror to the left so she could freshen her lipstick and smooth her hair, then grabbed the holiday wine bag that held a bottle of five-year-old Pinot Noir, her hostess gift. She hesitated as she reached for the driver's side door handle. It wasn't too late to change her mind. After all, that's what all the literature said, right? You have the right to celebrate or not celebrate the holidays. No one else can tell you how to handle your grief during this difficult time. For a moment she stared straight ahead, trying to be "mindful" of her surroundings, an exercise she had learned in a widows' support group. Through the windshield she noted the barren deciduous trees that lined the sidewalks, looking forlorn now that their colorful leaves had been stripped away. A few of the neighboring houses boasted large wire displays of reindeer, Santa, and other Christmas favorites in their front yards, biding their time until they could show off their sparkly splendor after dark. "Alright, I'm being mindful," Molly said out loud. "I know where I am."
She stepped out into the chilly afternoon air. She was glad she didn't have to walk too far, as she had forgotten her scarf and gloves. She was still forgetting things all the time. At least the stupid things. It was the important things she could not forget. Especially the one important thing.
But now was not the time to think about that. Molly glanced at her cousin's driveway as she walked briskly down the sidewalk. It was a long driveway, but it was already filled with cars. She stepped from the sidewalk onto the walkway that led to the house, her steps slightly less brisk. She could hear Christmas music playing as she approached the front door. Before pressing the doorbell, she took a moment to take a deep breath through her nose and let it fill her lungs, picturing it cleansing the sadness from her body as she breathed out. Okay, I'm ready for Other People's Christmases again, she thought as she rang the doorbell.
"Molly!" her cousin Linda smiled broadly as she enveloped Molly in a hug. "I'm SO glad you made it!" she said. "Come on in!"
Molly stepped inside the small foyer and complimented her cousin's festive holiday décor as her coat was taken and her wine selection was admired. "I'll take this to the kitchen," Linda said, motioning toward the open doorway to the left of the foyer. "Go on in and join everyone in the family room. Besides Gary's family, we invited a few other friends this year. Gary will fix you a drink."
Molly was beginning to feel a few familiar pangs of anxiety as she walked the short distance to the family room. She had hoped her panic attacks were a thing of the past, a "symptom" of widowhood that would be short-lived. Breathe, just breathe. She was relieved that the first person she saw was her cousin's adult daughter, Emma. Emma was holding her baby, whose first birthday was rapidly approaching. "Oh, Molly, hi!" Emma said with a weary, sleep-deprived-mother smile. "How are you?"
Molly recited her customary response that she was fine as she oohed and aahed over the baby for a few minutes. Last Christmas the adorable little girl hadn't yet entered the world, but much of the conversation had centered around her impending birth.
Last year was Molly's first holiday season without her husband Bill, and she had appreciated her cousin Linda's kindness in inviting her to join their family celebration. Since Molly's parents were deceased, Molly and Bill had usually spent Christmas with his family in California. After Bill died, though, she hadn't heard much from his family. As summer turned to fall and no invitation seemed forthcoming, Molly realized she was on her own. "Maybe it's just too hard for them to see you," a friend had suggested. "Maybe it brings up grief they don't want to deal with."
In early December she had received a Christmas card with a picture of baby Jesus in a manger on the front and a message inside. "We received an invitation from Henry's brother to go to Palm Desert this year," her mother-in-law had written in her spidery handwriting. "We hope you have a nice Christmas with your family." Molly had never met her father-in-law's brother Henry, so of course she couldn't expect to have been invited to join them in Palm Desert. That was the logical way to look at it, right? There was no good, intellectual reason for the piercing stab of pain Molly felt in her heart. She folded the ensuing hurt and disappointment into the fabric of her new life and accepted her cousin Linda's invitation.
She hadn't expected it to be easy, but she was still surprised when Christmas Day had turned out to be so excruciating. It wasn't her cousin's fault. It wasn't anyone's fault. No one could have known that every minute of every hour that day would tick by with a voice in her head insistently whispering, "Bill-Bill-Bill-Bill."
When her cousin's mother-in-law admired the beautiful diamond earrings Gary had given Linda, Molly thought about the gifts she would never again receive from Bill. When they talked about leaving for a skiing trip after Christmas, Molly thought about the trips she would never take with Bill. When her second cousin Emma complained about being as big as Santa now that she was in her eighth month of pregnancy, Molly thought about the plans she and her husband had made to adopt a child before they turned forty. At that point Molly had suddenly felt her chest tightening and her heart pounding wildly, and she had abruptly excused herself to go to the bathroom.
When she returned to the party, she had gamely smiled and laughed and offered suggestions for baby names.
"Molly, sorry, but I think I need to change her," Emma was saying, wrinkling her nose in distaste as she bent her head closer to her baby. Molly realized she hadn't been listening to Emma for the past few minutes. Mindfulness! she admonished herself. Forget last year. Stay present in the moment! "Oh, of course," Molly replied. "Go ahead. I'm going to go get that drink from your dad."
Gary greeted her warmly and handed her the requested glass of wine. Molly glanced around. Gary's family members and a handful of guests she didn't recognize seemed to be actively engaged in conversation with one another, so she meandered over to the huge Christmas tree in the corner of the room. Linda's holiday theme this year was a warm red and gold palette, a change from the cool and elegant silver and white she favored last year.
"The tree is beautiful, isn't it?" Hearing this comment, Molly turned toward the woman who had appeared behind her. She wore a friendly smile and a bright red sweater decorated with a small gold Christmas tree brooch.
"Yes, it is. Linda did a wonderful job of decorating this year, as usual." Molly held out her hand. "I'm Molly, Linda's cousin. Are you related to Gary?"
The woman shook Molly's hand and introduced herself. "Nice to meet you. I'm Carol. No, I'm not a relative. I'm a friend of Gary's sister..." She pointed out a woman near the window, wearing a Santa hat. "She invited me to come." Carol laughed. "So I guess you could say I'm a 'stray.'"
"A stray?" Molly repeated.
"Yeah, you know, someone with nowhere to go for Christmas."
Molly laughed, too. "Well, in that case I'm a stray, too. I lost my husband a year-and-a-half ago and I don't have any family other than Linda. Well, I thought I did, but it turned out I didn't."
The woman's eyes immediately turned serious. "I'm so sorry," she said, her voice heavy with compassion. "I'm a widow, too."
Molly blinked in surprise. "Oh, my gosh, I'm sorry for your loss, too. I didn't realize there would be another widow here."
"Oh, I doubt your cousin even knows," Carol replied. "In fact, I don't even mention it to anyone any more. It makes people uncomfortable. They don't know what to say."
"I get it," Molly said. She glanced over at a couple of chairs in the corner of the room that had been recently vacated. "Hey, do you want to sit down for a few minutes?"
"I'd love to," Carol replied.
Molly sat down and placed her wine glass on a side table. She wasn't sure how to start the conversation, so she hesitated for a moment.
Thankfully, Carol stepped into the awkward silence. "So Molly," she said, "what's your husband's name?"
Her husband's name? Relief flooded Molly's body. She could feel the tightness in her chest easing. "His name is--was--Bill," she said. "We were married for fifteen years." The words poured out of her, random thoughts about Bill, about how kind he was, about how he always had flowers waiting on the dining room table when she came downstairs on Christmas morning, about how he always bought extra Christmas cards for her and signed them on behalf of their two dogs, about the Christmas they had flown to Mexico and promptly gotten sick... The minutes flew by, and when she had finally expelled the toxic oxygen of all the pent-up memories and sadness from her lungs, she asked Carol about her husband and she listened intently, finding comfort in the stories of a smart and funny man who had died without warning five years earlier and the woman who had managed to find a way to survive and eventually laugh off the idea of being invited as a "stray" to someone else's Christmas.
"Well, you two seem to be deep in conversation!" Molly looked up to see her cousin Linda standing next to the side table. "I just wanted to let you know that dinner's ready if you want to head into the dining room."
"Thanks! We're coming," Molly replied. She and Carol rose and made their way into the dining room. Soon everyone was seated and compliments about the mouth-watering array of culinary dishes began to fly Linda's way. The menu was basically the same as last year--ham, turkey, traditional side dishes, and a few salads. To Molly, however, it was different from last year. The golden roasted turkey looked more appetizing. The colors of the flowers in the centerpiece seemed brighter. She glanced down at her table setting and wondered if the beautiful china plate in front of her, decorated around the edges with painted poinsettia leaves, was new. Perhaps she just hadn't noticed it last year.
Gary asked those who wanted to do so to bow their heads, then he said grace. Molly recalled briefly how she had bowed her head last year but had nothing to say to God except how could you do this to me. Now she bowed her head and listened as Gary spoke. His words of thankfulness and praise still sounded foreign to her, but she was willing to hear them, at least.
Gary clinked his wine glass with a spoon to get everyone's attention. "Let's have a toast," he said. "To all our friends and family, we're so glad you're here sharing Christmas with us today."
"Hear, hear," his wife Linda echoed, and on the heels of her words, Carol the 'stray' spoke up.
"And let's also have a toast to my late husband Michael and Molly's husband, Bill. This day cannot go by without remembering what wonderful men they were and how much they loved us."
Tears sprang to Molly's eyes, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather, they were tears of relief and validation and gratitude. Unlike last year, this year her husband Bill had been invited to Christmas dinner. "Thank you," she whispered to Carol when their fellow diners put their glasses down and dug into the holiday feast.
As dusk was beginning to fall, Molly prepared to take her leave. A number of guests, including Carol, had already left. "Hey, it's snowing!" Gary called out as he stood by the window in the family room. "What?" Linda said as she and Molly rushed over to look outside. "It's coming down fast. You'd better drive carefully, Molly."
Molly gathered up her things and said goodbye to her cousin. As she stepped off the porch she could feel the snowflakes as they gently brushed her face. She imagined them as kisses sent from her husband from up above, and she couldn't help but smile as she got into the car. Pulling the seatbelt across her chest, she noticed the forlorn, barren trees lining the street were now beautifully clothed in a thin layer of fresh snow. The cheerful, twinkling blue lights illuminating a front-yard reindeer caught her attention as she pulled away from the curb. She didn't need to remind herself to be mindful of the beauty around her at that moment.
She hadn't expected much from this day other than maybe a little less pain than last year, but as it turned out, she had received the perfect Christmas gift.
"The Gift." Copyright 2018 Stephanie Larkin & Ahadi Publications. All Rights Reserved.