Fran tucked a curl behind her ear, embracing the brisk fall breeze. Sitting by the boardwalk, sun beaming down, with a twinkle in her eye, she grinned at friendly Beachers passing by. Her dog, Max, lay patiently under the bench. When the light began to fade, Fran stood up. Through Kew Gardens, down Queen and up Elmer Ave, she walked to the home where she’d lived for thirty-five years.
It seemed like a good night for stew. Max burst through the door and went right for his bowl. It wasn’t more than a minute before Max started whining.
“I know!” Fran grunted as she scooped a cup of dog food out.
The floor squeaked as Fran stepped around the kitchen island to pour herself a glass of wine. She glanced at her answering machine and saw four new messages. Fran was a creature of silence, and didn’t want to pick up the phone. “I’ll wait until tomorrow,” she thought.
Moving across the kitchen, she pulled stewing beef out of the fridge. She set the oil to simmer, threw in garlic and onions, and browned the beef. A bit of wine, salt, pepper, spices and soup stock. Sliced & diced vegetables, then set the timer for 45 minutes.
Fran sat down at the front window. Brown bags full of leaves lined the street. It was getting dark earlier, the air was crisp, and Christmas was on its way. But for now, she embraced the autumn evening with stew brewing & red wine beside her. It was an Oscar Peterson kind of night. “How fitting,” she thought, “Autumn in New York.” Well, it wasn’t New York, but she was ready. Ready for this leisurely evening, ready for fall to be here…but not quite ready for Christmas to arrive.
“Hun, have you talked to him yet?”
Jake sighed. “No, not yet,” he responded.
Jake wasn’t exactly sure what to say to his son Alistair. Nor was he exactly sure what Suzie wanted him to say to Alistair. He knew his wife was concerned about Alistair, that she felt something was missing in his life - and somehow, she thought Jake could fix it.
“How about Allison? Have you talk to her this week?”
Jake sighed again, “No, not yet.” Allison was their eldest. Sharp as a tack, ready to come home for Christmas.
“Well, babe, when are you going to talk to them?!” Suzie gasped.
“I’m on it,” Jake retorted. He wasn’t on it. In fact he was avoiding it. Relating to his teenage son wasn’t easy. His kid had everything he needed. “He just feels the weight of the world, you know?” Suzie would often say. “I know,” Jake would reply, but he didn’t, not really. But he did know that as soon as Allison picked up the phone, his ‘to-do’ list would expand exponentially.
Christmas was pure joy for Allison. She had excelled in high school. The holidays were a time for catching up, reminiscing and gossiping. And all the boys were back in town. If Allison had a fault, Jake mused, it was her superiority complex. Jake admired her confidence while Suzie was dumbfounded and overwhelmed by it, which is how many of her peers felt, too. Alistair admired her for it, but he didn’t want to be her. Suzie was sure that Alistair saw the enduring reality of life in the web of relationships their family had spun. Yes, he was overwhelmed by them, but the fabric of them, their complexity, is what drew Alistair inwards. If only Suzie could get him to talk about it.
But Suzie had her own kettle of fish to deal with. If only she could figure out which fish to cook, which ones to freeze, and which ones to discard. There were the women in the Beach she simultaneously despised and envied, the ones whose Christmases were going to be Williams & Sonoma perfect... There were her children, growing up and growing away… There was her husband, still somehow a mystery to her…. And there was her mother. Really, it was her own mother that required the most ‘batter’ at this time of year.
Although Suzie wouldn’t dare say it, for how naive it sounded, all she wanted this Christmas was peace. Peace on her earth.
Thomas lay on the family room floor in a fetal position, fiists clenched, grunting.
“Dan, can you take care of Thomas, please?” Heather asked.
Dan scooped his oldest up and sat down on the couch.
“What’s up buddy”? Dan asked Thomas.
Thomas didn’t respond, but melted into his father’s arms, starting to cry. This had been happening more often as Heather’s due date approached. Tessa, on the other hand, Thomas’ two year-old sister, sat in the high chair playing happily with Cheerios.
“It’s okay buddy. Come on, let's get your jacket and lunch pail. Okay?” Thomas nodded, wiping tears away with his fist. In a matter of minutes, father and son were out the door with kisses from everyone. Tessa, still in her high chair, smiled from ear to ear waving her hands excitedly in the air.
After Dan dropped Thomas off at kindergarten, he walked to the Salvation Army Shelter where he worked. The men he served there greeted him with pleasure. Dan smiled gently in return. He was home. Home with these peddlers, pushers, and sinners. It’s where Dan experienced God most. He felt a strong sense of connection to Jesus here, like he was doing God’s work. It was a refuge for him as much as it was a place of ministry. It was a place he could bring his own brokenness.
Heather knew Dan’s heart was still wounded from the miscarriage, even though they didn’t talk about it much. Dan didn’t know how to. But they both agreed they wanted to try again right away. They wanted their kids to be close in age. So here they were, a month away from Christmas, nervously awaiting their fourth child.
Tessa was too young to understand the weight of it all. She was only one when it happened. It wouldn’t be until later in life when she put the pieces together. For now, she was patiently awaiting the arrival of her baby brother.
“Baby come, mommy. Baby come…now?!” Tessa asked as she rested her head on Heather’s tummy.
“Yes, Tessa, baby is coming soon.”
Suzie and Jake awaited Allison and Alistair's arrival home. The kids had been out with friends all day... “They’d better be home for church,” Suzie exclaimed. If there was one thing Suzie wouldn’t budge on, it was family traditions. They kept her grounded and gave meaning to the feelings of chaos in her life. Jake silently texted both of his “grown up” children: ‘You’d better be home soon.’
Dan, Heather, Thomas and Tessa showed up just in time for the family service. The place was swarming with kids and visitors. The two young parents, wide-eyed, plunked down in a side aisle seat. Dan took Tessa in his arms, ready to take two kids down to the Sunday School area where the pageant was being prepped.
“I’ll be back!” he exclaimed, and she nodded with affection at his bewildered state.
Dan, however, did not come back. Thomas clung to his leg like bark to a tree. As it turned out they’d have four wise men this year, one of which far outgrew the others! Suzie smiled and laughed as Dan appeared with the three wise men, a paper crown standing tall on his head. Tessa shone like the little angel she was. Christmas was here.
Fran came to the family service, too. She couldn’t resist the pageant. As much as she loved silence, there was nothing that captured Christ’s birth as much as pageant chaos. Everything was planned, but unprepared. The children’s behaviour was unpredictable. Each year, without fail, some child from an unexpecting family would be the outright star of the show, unintentionally upstaging the Christ child. She waited expectantly in her pew for a star to be born.
Jake dropped Suzie and the kids at the front door before circling the block in search of parking. They’d barely made it to church on time. The minister was already welcoming people, and the odd head turned around as Jake apologetically stepped over a family to get to his own. Suzie slid her hand into Jake’s. Jake clasped hers and they exchanged a love bird smile. Their kids were home. They were all together. The gospel reader proclaimed, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,the Lord.”
After the family service Fran took the long way home. The boardwalk was quiet but well lit, and she smiled into the icy air. Fran thought about her sister Mary, who she’d call later. As she walked along the lake, with the small waves lapping, Fran wooed the Christ Child close to her heart and let him rest there. Breathing in peace, comfort and hope. This is what Fran had been waiting for.
The kids were in bed. The cookies and milk were out for Santa, and Suzie was busy with final touches. “I’ll be back in a few,” Dan assured her as he grabbed his coat. There were a couple things they needed, although not really tonight. He just wanted a breather, to get out of the house and clear his mind. But he didn’t get far before he got a text from Suzie, “My water broke.”
updated by @americymru: 11/16/16 11:02:06PM