Now that everything in this house is fixed so far (knocks on wood to avoid further calamity), here are a couple of things I learned from a week that included little to no water usage (needed to get the black stack routed out), a pre-lit tree with only half the lights working, and the heat going out.
1. I love showers. This is why I do not camp.
2. Dishwashers are gifts from the gods.
3. Real Christmas trees are amazingly wonderful.
4. I love showers.
5. Electronic starters for heating units suck and go out occasionally, striking fear in the hearts of many homeowners. The good, old-fashioned pilot light was a much more reliable system.
6. I love showers.
To get in the Christmas spirit, I offer an excerpt from my holiday short story, "A Bibliophile Christmas," on sale on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, and Kobo all month for just 99¢.
A Bibliophile Christmas
By Karen Wojcik Berner
“God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay…”
Of course, men need not dismay, Sarah Anderson thought. What did they have to do for the holidays anyhow? Show up? Wow, that was taxing.
Her husband slammed the lid of his suitcase. “I’ll be back on Friday. Will you pick me up, or do you want me to take a cab?”
“If you’re back on Friday, you might as well go straight to the lawyer’s office.”
“Christ, Sarah. That’s extreme.”
“Friday’s December twenty-sixth.”
“Christmas is this week?”
“And they pay you the big bucks? You’d better be here on the twenty-third. The boys would be heartbroken if you missed Christmas Eve.” She lowered her voice. “You have to help me with the you-know-whats.” Let Tom think the kids cared if he made it home for Christmas all he wanted, as long as he returned in time to assemble the various cars and bikes slated to magically appear under the tree on Christmas morning. That was the one thing on her “To Do” list with the initial “T” next to it, one measly task among the never-ending items marked with an “S.”
“Four days? How the hell am I going to get the system up and running in only four days?” He picked up his suitcase, laptop backpack, and phone. “I’ve got to call Deanna and Shrevani and move Wednesday’s meeting to early Tuesday.”
She trailed him through the kitchen, family room, and down the hall. He stopped briefly at the front door to dial a number on his phone.
She leaned toward him. “Have a good trip?”
He merely nodded, shushing her, as he balanced the phone between his cheek and shoulder. Picking up his luggage, he dashed outside to the waiting limousine.
Silly her, she had thought he might actually give her a kiss. “No need for formal good-byes,” she muttered, slamming the front door so hard that the pinecones almost flew off the wreath.
Seven days until the big event. By this stage of the game, Sarah had already completed seventy-five percent of her list. Christmas cards depicting Santa’s workshop were signed, addressed, stamped, and mailed, complete with the requisite darling photo of the boys. The tree was decorated, wrapped boxes containing cinder blocks placed strategically around it, a barrier through which two-year-old Alex couldn’t pass. Since he had become mobile, Alex had spent most of the last year climbing. First, it was stairs. Going up was no problem. Watching him come down was the part that nearly gave Sarah a heart attack after seeing him tumble and land with a thud. Blood trickled over his mouth and chin from his nose banging on the last stair. Eventually, the little tyke learned how to scoot safely down each step on his bottom. After stairs, Alex graduated to the backyard fort’s ladder, followed by the rigging leading to the fort’s top tier. Each stage was accompanied by many “Oh, shit!” moments that required several deep breaths for Mommy and the secret desire to down a bazillion martinis to calm her nerves.
The Christmas presents had been purchased, wrapped, and hidden someplace high and safe from prying eyes. Nicky was getting older and had heard some rumors questioning the validity of a certain round fellow typically clad in red. Other gifts, like those for the extended family, were also hidden in case Alex couldn’t control himself again. Last year, he had flown through all the presents on Christmas Eve like some sort of Tasmanian Devil. What did he know? He couldn’t read, an oversight her sister-in-law Marjorie could not get past. “When Peter was that age, he was already reading Cat in the Hat.”
Really? Her son could barely form a two-word sentence. He would be lucky not to flunk second grade.
The only items left on the “To Do” list were grocery shopping, cleaning, baking, and cooking. Tight, but doable. Maybe she and the boys would bake a batch of cookies together tomorrow. Anyhow, Tom would be home to occupy the kids while she prepared as much of Christmas dinner as possible before they left for the Andersons’. She was heading into the home stretch.
Sarah snapped Alex into a fresh, one-piece footie pajama. Yawning, he cuddled into her arms as they read Goodnight Moon. Somewhere between saying goodnight to the stars and air, Sarah kissed his damp head, a whiff of sweet honey combined with baby shampoo filling her nostrils.
“Mommy loves you,” she whispered. Alex smiled and pointed at the book, reminding her she wasn’t finished. After the last page, she tucked him in, turned on his teddy bear music box, and closed his door halfway.
“Hey, wanna watch Frosty?”
“Shush, honey! I just put Alex down.”
“Oops, sorry,” Nicky whispered. “Let’s go downstairs.”
They crept along, soft strains of Brahms’ “Lullaby” echoing down the hall, mindful that any creak of the floor could potentially wake up Alex, whom they still referred to as “the baby,” even though he was firmly into the toddler stage and would be going to preschool next year. Sarah didn’t want to think of that right now.
She had to get through Christmas first.
Annie Jacobs hung faux crystal icicles on her flocked Christmas tree. The winter wonderland was beginning to take shape. Her tree. Her condo. Her life. Everything was new, from the sleek, contemporary sectional sofa to every dish in her kitchen cabinets.
Only the books remained, illustrating the story of Annie’s life as much as the characters within: Little Women, Peter Pan, and the Little House series from her youth and works by the English Romantic Poets from college. Byron and Shelley sat without Keats, however, whose work had been donated along with almost all of the contents of the house at 208 W. Muirfield after she and John split up. Her ex-husband had brought her to the Keats House next to the Spanish Steps in Rome on her twenty-first birthday, their first date. No, there would be no Keats in her condo.
She had run into the ass-in-law, Ralph, at the mall a few days ago. Well, ex-ass-in-law now. Ralph had delighted in telling her that John had moved to Milwaukee to live with Melanie and help raise their baby, Michael, as Annie had known all along he would.
Some days, she barely got through without that feeling of constantly being punched in the solar plexus. Others, she was grateful for the solitude and not having to keep up appearances. Working from home, unshowered and in pajamas, proved to be very fulfilling.
She was getting back on track in her position at Jones and MacGregor Public Relations. She would never be able to repay her mentor, Harry Jones, for all of the support and understanding throughout the past year. Ninety percent of bosses would have fired her. Christian, a junior member of her team had even tried to make the case for Annie’s incompetence to take advantage of the opportunity to further his own career. Harry would not hear any of it and actually demoted Christian, who ended up quitting a few months later.
Annie strung beads on the branches in large swoops, white sparkling lights reflecting in their silvery strands. She stood back, admiring her work. Designer quality, if she could be so bold. Her tree was nothing like the ones they’d had at 208 W. Muirfield. In those days, their trees had been thrown together with a hodgepodge of ornaments from their travels, all of which had also been donated to Goodwill, except for the Venetian mask from Carnevale, which she kept wrapped in tissue paper and stuffed in the very back of her dresser drawer.
Sitting cross-legged on her sofa, Annie sipped Cabernet and glanced around the condo, content with what she saw—an uncluttered mix of dark browns and various greens. Earthy. Relaxing. Comforting. Six days until Christmas. For the first time, she had no shopping to do. Harry had taken care of all the company gifts. As for family, Grandma Mary had passed away the previous year, followed two months later by Grandpa Bill, who seemed to have lost his will to live once his beloved had been taken from him. The last time she had spoken to her mother was when she called to impart the news that her divorce was final.
“I don’t understand how you could let yourself get so obsessed. It was only a baby, for goodness sake. Plenty of people lead perfectly good lives without children. I don’t see why you couldn’t have been one of them. Now look what you did. You drove your husband right into the arms of another woman!”
Annie had promptly told Marian to go to hell and slammed down the phone. Although supportive during the in vitro fertilization cycles, her father eventually succumbed to Marian’s constant harping, finding it easier to go along with his life putzing around the house doing odd jobs in the winter and golfing as much as was humanly possible rather than uttering any more words in Annie’s defense. That decision left Annie basically orphaned, which was fine by her. A clean break from her old life was what she needed. It was the only way to rebuild Annie McDonnell, a stronger version of the previous Annie Jacobs, who had gone back to using her maiden name as soon as the divorce papers were signed.
She had finally sold that stupid suit of armor, the proceeds of which had funded much of her new decor. It turned out to be good for something after all. She had no need for a family heirloom if she didn’t have anyone to pass it down to or elders who insisted she keep it.
Her books. Her job. Her book club meetings. Those were the only things left from her old life, all blissfully John-free. He was not a reader and had never met any of the Bibliophiles, for which she was grateful.
She would have an uncomplicated, quiet Christmas.
Greg Williams tied a red bow around the slender box, which did not contain gloves or a scarf, as one would suspect, but rather Chicago Bulls tickets. Where the heck did he put the tags? Under the Santa wrapping paper? Maybe by the green foil embossed with holly leaves? Grabbing a pen, he filled out the “To” and paused. He should keep it simple. “To: Dad. From: Greg.” Somehow, those four words stung. The thought of celebrating the holidays without his mother was almost too much to bear, but he had to keep strong for Sarah. His mom would have wanted that. So far, his sister seemed okay, even with Tom out of town for most of the month, but it was only a matter of time before she cracked.
Last year, Sarah almost had a nervous breakdown on Christmas morning, and Mom had to talk her down and save the day. Well, Greg’s famous lasagna had helped, as well as enough wine for twenty people, even though only eight would be dining that night, two of whom were little boys. Good wine, too. But if he couldn’t share it with family and save Christmas, what good was it? Besides, his mushroom lasagna, with its delectable Béchamel sauce, was the only thing Nicky would eat, which showed he had a very advanced palate for a child of his age. Clearly, his nephew took after him. Perhaps they could watch the Food Channel together the next time the kids visited. Once a month, he took care of the boys while Sarah went to her book club meeting, each time giving his sister shit about “burdening” him, all the while loving the time spent with his nephews.
Greg stuck the tag on his father’s gift, careful not to smudge the writing. No one did Christmas like his mother had. He and Sarah used to joke around, calling her “The Christmas Queen.” After cooking a complete Thanksgiving feast the day before, Patty Williams never skipped a beat, starting bright and early the next day decorating for Christmas. The only indulgence she allowed herself was warming turkey leftovers for dinner that night so the decorating could forge on without her having to stop to cook dinner.
The self-help books all stated the same thing—year one was the most difficult, enduring all the “firsts.” The first Mother’s Day, their grief had been as raw as the black dirt covering Patty’s plot. Then, he had almost broken down at Steve’s on Independence Day. Watching Audrey and Mason run around with sparklers, “writing” their names in the midnight blue sky, flashed Greg back to his youth. He recalled a seven-year-old Sarah flitting about, laughing as she twirled with her sparkler. He, on the other hand, had barely moved, too scared an ember would leap off and scorch his five-year-old fingers.
“Come here, Greggie. Let me show you something.” His mom had lit a sparkler of her own and traced G-R-E-G in the night sky. Magic!
He wiped his eyes and reached for another gift to wrap.
“Knock. Knock.” Gingerly balancing one cup on top of another, Annie let herself into the Anderson home. “Pick-me-up time! Figured you might need a beverage break.”
Sarah greeted her wearing a flour-covered apron accented with smears of red and green frosting.
“You look like Betty Crocker threw up all over you.” Annie set the drinks on the only unoccupied square of the kitchen counter. Cookie sheets, bowls filled with icing, empty food-dye tubes, cooling racks, parchment paper, and oven mitts took up the rest of the space.
“Auntie Annie! I did this one just for you.” Nicky handed her a sugar cookie snowman with three eyes, a combination mouth/nose, and four green buttons, one of which looked oddly like a penis.
“Thank you, honey.”
Sarah darted toward a cabinet. “I’ll get you a plate.”
“Annie! Annie! Annie!” Alex kicked his feet and waved wildly in his chair, sending frosting flying halfway across the kitchen. “Cookies! Cookies! Cookies!”
“Hey, bud. See you graduated from a high chair into a whatever-that’s-called.”
“Booster seat,” Sarah interjected.
“A booster seat? High-five me, big man!” Annie couldn’t help but laugh. Such chaos. She smiled, grateful they weren’t in her kitchen.
Sarah eyed her peppermint mocha like Golem coveting the ring. She grabbed it, savoring its minty goodness.
Annie took a seat at the kitchen table. “So, are you ready?”
“This is my last big ‘To Do’ besides cooking for Christmas Day. I even have my shrimp marinating for tomorrow’s appetizer.”
“Well done. Hey, where’s Tom?”
“Supposed to be in at eight o’clock. Or is it eight thirty? Something like that.”
“Hope he gets here okay. I heard there’s another storm about to hit the east coast.”
“Oh, crap. Really? I haven’t even turned on the TV.”
“Crap! Crap! Crap!” Alex glommed onto his new word. Nicky giggled.
“Oh, shit! Alex, no!” Sarah put her hand to her mouth.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!”
“No, Alex! Nicky, stop laughing. You’re encouraging him. Go upstairs and get cleaned up, please. Thank you.”
“Shit! Shit! Shit!”
Sarah wiped off the toddler’s hands and untied his bib, careful not to drop all the cookie crumbs on the floor.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!”
“Alex, honey, that is not a good word to use.”
“Honey, Mommy made a mistake. Please don’t use that word again.” Off went Alex, climbing the stairs in search of his brother. Sarah rejoined Annie. “That should assure me a Mother of the Year nomination. Tom’s always harping on about polite society and the deterioration of the language. If he hears Alex yelling ‘shit’…”
“He will laugh his ass off, just like Nicky. That was a precious moment. Best thing that’s happened to me all day.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
“Ah, the beauty of working from home. I can get out of the condo anytime I please. Besides, most everyone took the week off. Harry’s actually encouraging it. Very European, don’t you think? Joyeux Noel. Buon Natale. Frohe Weihnachten. How about Polish? Boże Narodzenie.”
Sarah laughed. “How do you know that?”
“Choir in high school. We sang this international piece that blended ‘Merry Christmas’ in eight or so languages.”
“I didn’t know you sang.” Sarah smirked and pushed Annie’s arm. “Sing something.”
“Why do people do that? If you find out someone’s a heart surgeon, you don’t ask her to perform an operation.”
“It would be kind of awesome for a doctor to break into surgery and crack somebody’s ribs right in front of you.”
“Not for the patient. Take it easy, Sweeney Todd.”
“So, what are you doing tomorrow?” Sarah took another sip of mocha.
“Not sure.” Annie shifted in her seat.
“What about your parents?”
“I have no desire to sit there drinking sherry with those two while…” Annie closed her eyes and sighed. “You might as well know. John moved to Milwaukee. One big, happy family now, I guess.”
Sarah reached across the table for Annie’s hand.
“I ran into the ass-in-law last week. Couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it. How John and Melanie brought the baby—little Michael, that’s his name—down for Thanksgiving. Never seen John happier, he said.” Tears dotted Annie’s cheeks.
Sarah got her some tissues. “You absolutely must come here for Christmas. I insist.”
Annie blew her nose and tried to compose herself. “I can’t. Don’t want to spoil your holiday. Besides, I am planning on spending both days snuggled up with a bottle of Grey Goose in front of the fireplace.”
“Vodka is not a satisfactory holiday companion.”
“I think many people would beg to differ, Mrs. Anderson. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
A loud thud came from upstairs, followed by a wail.
“Mom! Alex tried to climb my dresser!”
“Oh, shit!” Sarah got up to run, then glanced at Annie.
“No, you go! I’ll let myself out.”
Seeing Alex toddling down the hallway, rubbing his head, Sarah yelled for Annie to wait a second, but her friend had already gone.
“Where the hell is he?” Sarah rolled the dough with such force, Greg could almost see the counter through it.
“Take it easy, booger brain. You are going to ruin your piecrust, and then you’ll really be pissed. I’ll check online. I bet he’s stuck on the tarmac with no power or food.”
“Good. Serves him right for traveling on business the week before Christmas.”
“Hush, the kids will hear you.” Greg opened his sister’s laptop and started clicking. “When did you talk to him?”
“Last night. He was stuck at Logan Airport. No planes in or out.” Sarah plopped the cinnamon-apple mixture on top of the bottom crust. “I tried calling him this morning, but it kept going to voice mail.” She covered the apples with the top crust and folded the ends, pinching the crust intermittently between her fingers.
“Smells good in here.” Nicky grabbed a pouch drink from the refrigerator. “Uncle Greg, are you making that awesome lasagna from last year?”
“Not this time, but don’t worry. Your mom and I are working on an extraordinary feast of yuletide cheer.”
“Nicky, would you check on Alex for me? I need to finish this pie.” Quiet Alex equaled climbing Alex.
Her first-born grinned. “For a cookie.”
“Get Alex, and both of you can have a snack.” Eleven o’clock. They were due at Tom’s parents’ house at five. What if he was still stuck at the airport? Sarah put the dough holly leaves on top of the pie and placed it in the oven. Alex’s “big red car” sat in parts in its equally large box. And what about Nicky’s bike?
Tom had insisted on saving money on assembly. “Don’t worry, Sarah. I’ve done it a million times.”
Copyright © 2012 by Karen Wojcik Berner