Authors: Dorothea Benton Frank
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary
“We are not used to—or I mean, we are not completely unfamiliar with the insides of a kitchen,” she said. “I think, if we all pitch in and do a little, everybody doing something, we can certainly get Christmas Eve and Christmas-day dinner on the table. Right? I mean, why can’t we?”
Faces were frozen in trepidation. Paranoid fantasies of food poisoning even crossed
mind. What about burns and mad dashes to the emergency room? Did we even
an aloe plant? Did we know a plastic surgeon? A good gastroenterologist? There was a weighty
silence as everyone considered Barbara’s lack of expertise with anything beyond the microwave she engaged for heating leftovers.
“Let’s try to be optimistic. Perhaps this Jewel, if she shows up, will know how to cook. Perhaps she will be useful,” Cleland said, shrugging his shoulders toward my Barbara. “If not, your mother can make her specialty—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” He chuckled at his ridiculous joke. No one else joined in.
Not nice, I thought. I have already confessed that Barbara is not the next incarnation of Julia Child. So what? I decided she could absolutely produce a turkey dinner with all the trimmings if I supervised her and the others kept the floor dry. We could certainly make a simple pasta dish for Christmas Eve, couldn’t we? Was it necessary for Cleland to be so sarcastic?
“Well, I can’t do dishes,” Lynette said. “I just spent forty-something dollars to get these here nails put on.”
She held out for inspection her long barber-pole French-manicured fingernails, which, through the wonders of airbrushing or stencils, resembled candy canes. It was a bold remark for Lynette and a vulgar one.
“Lynette? You know what I think about fake nails,” George said.
Lynette blushed. Fake
never sat well with George, even though I was certain his hair was tinted. To say nothing of her, ahem, red hair. Try as he might,
he would never transform her into a socialite. Here’s something else.
Lynette was the nicest one of the bunch, which should tell you something.
“Hon? You’ll wear gloves like those housewives on television and you’ll manage,” Camille said, as though she had never washed a dish in her life and had no intention of washing one during this holiday, either.
“Excuse me,” I said. They all froze and looked at me as though I had stopped by from another planet. “It is almost Christmas Eve. It may well be my last. If anyone cares to know what
like for Christmas, I wish for once, just for the next two days, that you all would
to each other. That’s all I wish.”
There was not one peep from any of them.
“It’s not too much to ask, is it?”
Silence begat silence.
“Well then, it’s almost nine. I’m going to bed,” I said. “If Eliza calls, please wake me. Good night.”
I went to each one of them and gave them a little air kiss on the cheek and hugged my great-grandchildren.
I leaned down to the little impertinent Teddie, and with the most serious face I could muster, I said, “If
don’t believe in Santa,
doesn’t come. So if I were you, I’d reconsider my position.”
Teddie turned red as a beet and spun on her heel toward George, burying herself in his side. George did not utter a syllable in rebuttal. I looked to Camille, Bar
bara, and Cleland. They appeared slightly chastened. Good!
Not my pudgy little Andrew. He was guilty of nothing! His beautiful chocolate eyes grew wide and he smiled at me.
“Do you believe in Santa?” he said.
“I surely do,” I said, squeezing both of his shoulders.
“I love you, Gigi.”
Andrew called me Gigi, which stood for great-grandmother.
“I love you, too.”
Heaven knows, that child was an absolute angel. How he’d wound up in this family was anybody’s guess.
I stood to my full height, which was a fraction less than it had been in prior years, and surveyed them, this small sea of dissatisfied faces bobbing before me like wontons in a bowl of soup, lives of privilege, good health, safety, reasonable intelligence—and what? They didn’t have a toothpick of gratitude for all they had been given. I nodded to them and left the room. I left them in silence, and then, to my surprise, I heard Cleland clear his throat and mutter something to George about how I was right! See? He wasn’t always a skunk!
It was going on ten o’clock and I was exhausted.
I climbed the stairs and went to my room. After changing into my nightclothes and moisturizing—for the sake of itch not to sustain youth—I got into my
bed and kissed the picture of Fred that I kept beside my bed. It was true enough that my grief over losing him was at least partially responsible for the household gloom and I reminded myself to buck up, at least for the sake of the children.
On a brighter note, I loved my room. It was one of six on the safer haven of the second floor. I actually liked it better than the master bedroom. It was less chilly and had a fireplace with a lovely gray-and-white marble mantelpiece. A marginally refurbished bathroom was attached to the room, so that gave me additional privacy. When I traded bedrooms with Barbara and Cleland, I redecorated this room with beautiful yellow jacquard chintz that was covered in pink flowers and green leaves. It was very cheerful, and just being there was like getting a shot of vitamin B
. I had a large comfortable club chair and ottoman near the window that was positioned for beautiful afternoon light for reading. Books were my passion and my escape from the madness.
At the other end of the floor, Cleland and Barbara were ensconced in the room I had once shared with Fred after my parents passed on. I’d sensed that Cleland was just dying to assume the grandest bedroom, so I let them have it, rather than making them wait around for me to go dancing into eternity with the Grim Reaper. I didn’t care. I would have done
I could to make Cleland feel like the lord of the manor. I always hoped that those concessions and my financial contributions to the house would make him be a little nicer to my daughter. If I had to hang a title on his general demeanor, I would say that Cleland was
to his marriage. It was not and never had been a source of great joy for him. So my efforts were probably futile, as you couldn’t make someone love and adore somebody when they plainly did not.
Fortunately, the square footage of the house kept us at a pleasant enough distance from one another. The room next to mine was a guest room, which we referred to as the Green Room, even though it had not been green for eons. When they came to visit, George and Lynette stayed in the room opposite it, which was called the Bridal Suite for some reason I can’t recall—probably since it was decorated in hues and patterns of ivory and it housed a beautiful old rock-crystal chandelier. Teddie occupied the room next to them, which was wallpapered in pastel shades of pink and green. It was so feminine and sweet. I sighed thinking how it would be so lovely if these qualities rubbed off on her, but then, she was at a difficult age, poor child. But she was not a stupid child, just inconsiderate and insensitive. I decided I would spend some time with her, if she would let me, and we would talk about life and how to make it beautiful for everyone around you. That was
it! I would use every trick in my book to pound a little grace into her.
Cleland used the room next to the master bedroom as his study, which buffered any sounds that might have echoed through the walls from the others’ arguing or late-night television, which they turned up when they argued.
Since the end of November, right after Thanksgiving, Camille and Andrew had been staying on the third floor, about which I had increasing concern. I was afraid that it might become a permanent arrangement if she didn’t get things sorted out with Grayson, who, to the best of my knowledge, was in Atlanta.
The greatest positive aspect about having them all under one roof for the holiday was the hope that they would perhaps recognize their own foolishness by witnessing it in one another and, somehow, shape up. It was a lot to hope for and I knew it, but it was the last thought I remembered before I fell into a deep sleep.
Then the terrible dreams, the worst nightmares of my entire life began.
I dreamed of Pearl and my grandmother Dora, for whom I was named. I was a little girl and we were all in the kitchen baking cookies for Christmas, just simple sugar cookies. They were the kind you rolled out and cut into shapes—bells, stars, trees, and so forth—with metal cookie cutters. Even in my dreams, I could smell
the butter and sugar as they swirled through the air. I would have sworn, except for the fact that ladies don’t swear, that the smell was real and that my mouth actually watered. We were all happy. Then Pearl turned to me and she was angry, angrier than I had ever seen her.
“How did you let them turn out to be like this? How? Didn’t I teach you better?”
“I’m just a little girl!” I said. “Who are you talking about?”
Now, in my dream I knew I was a grown-up and that Pearl and my grandmother were dead. I realized but did not want to acknowledge that Pearl was referring to the generations of us that she and my grandmother had left behind to spiral down into a bucket of rattlesnakes. With that thought, rattlesnakes began to crawl from all the pots on the stove until they covered the floor of the kitchen. They threatened and hissed, rising and squirming. I tried to scream. No noise would come from my throat.
In a flash, the hazy light of my dream changed to a midday clarity, and my grandmother disappeared. Pearl and I were in the kitchen alone. The snakes were gone. I was my present age and I knew beyond a doubt that this was no longer a dream. It was a visitation. If you thought the snakes were bad, this was worse. Much worse. Pearl looked at me with those spooky brown-rimmed, hazel eyes of hers and set her jaw like she was
going to kill me dead. She exhaled so long and hard I could actually feel the heat of her breath on my arm.
“What is the matter with your family?”
“Please help me, Pearl!”
“Help you? I spent a lifetime helping you!”
“What have I done? Why are you so angry?”
“It is not what you have done, Ms. Theodora! It is what you have
“What can I do now? I’m so old! No one cares what I think! No one!”
She must have realized the truth of what I said. She calmed down a little and was quiet. She said, “Listen up, ’eah? I gots one more t’ing to do to get in dem Pearly Gate and I guess your hard heads be it. I gwine set dem all straight and den I gets my wing. Gawd he’p dem that gets in my way.”
For the rest of the night, I lay in my bed with my eyelids glued together, perspiring and shaking all over. I was terrified, listening to the earsplitting wind howling and screeching all around the house. Every window in the house rattled to the point where they should have fallen from their frames. Above and below, the floors creaked from footsteps, even though I knew everyone was in bed, fast asleep for hours. Something from beyond the natural world was coming closer and closer. Crazy as this sounds, I knew it was real as sure as I knew anything. All our ghosts were rising up in
protest against us and in support of Pearl. For the thousandth time, I beseeched the Almighty for protection.
It wasn’t the noises that were so terrible, it was the vision of Pearl. She was beyond furious with me. In fact, it made me highly nervous.
All at once, the world became as quiet as could be. The only sound I could hear was the rapid beating of my own heart. I reached for my glasses and looked at my alarm clock beside the bed. It was eight o’clock in the morning! Morning had come and I had slept! How was this possible? I was always up by six! I was sure that I would wake up in the kitchen, but I did not. I woke up in my bed and my old heart was slamming against my ribs like a butcher trying to tenderize a bargain cut of steak. Short of breath and pulse racing, I took what seemed like an eternity to calm myself. I wasn’t sure if what I remembered was a dream. I concluded that it
have been. Either it was a dream or at long last I was losing my marbles. Had the screaming wind been a dream, too? All the rattles and creaks? Or was Pearl
I felt perfectly rested, so I must’ve slept more soundly than I thought. Something told me I was going to need extra stamina to get through the day.
I crept out from under my covers and gasped as I looked out through the window, astounded. The air was so thick with fog it was as though a stew had rolled in
across the harbor. I had not seen such a dense fog cover in the entirety of my days. If it had not been Christmas Eve, it would have been the perfect occasion to crawl right back into bed and sleep the day away. Not that I had ever done that.
I was confused. Very confused. I tried to focus on what there was to be done. I
to help Barbara produce a successful holiday. Maybe then Pearl, wherever she was, would forgive my sloth. I could not fail Barbara!
As quickly as I could, I dressed for Christmas Eve in my favorite red knit dress and jacket and attached the same pin I had worn yesterday to the lapel. As I swallowed the arsenal of pills I took each day to keep my wheels turning, I looked at myself in the full-length mirror. I decided that I could pass for eighty any day of the week. Not bad. Just as I was descending the center-hall stairs, the doorbell rang. Barbara answered before I could reach it.
“You must be Jewel! Thank you for coming! Come in! Come in!”
Barbara stepped aside to let this great shadowy figure of a woman carrying a small suitcase pass.
It was Pearl.