Mandie was not sure what or who inspired her to put up a tree this year. She had been adamant that she would not bother with the hassle of hauling it out of the storage closet, putting the pieces together, weaving lights and garlands around the branches, and hanging up the decorations onto it. What would be the purpose of it all? The decorations only made her cry. She would only be putting it all away within a couple of weeks. Who was going to look at it?
Yet, here she was, standing the middle of the living room with the box lying like a coffin at her feet. The lid was partly open and she could see the branches that had been shoved into it hurriedly last year and were now unravelling and trying to push their way out again, seemingly of their own volition.
It was all a farce. The tree was nothing but metal and plastic – a mockery of a tree, not even dead since it had never been alive to begin with. It had been her attempt to keep up the tradition of decorating the house for Christmas even as her family had withered to dust, her dreams of a bustling household of children washed away in water and blood. Plenty of families had artificial trees, but theirs had never had any presents underneath it except for a meager exchange between herself and Matt. It had always been perfectly decorated with ornaments in a store-bought set – no small hands had hung all of the baubles at the bottom and there had never been any handmade snowflakes grace its branches.
This year, there would be nothing. Matt was gone. He had been her world – her rock, anchor, or whatever other metaphor anyone wanted to call him. Even throughout his illness, he had kept her sane. Everyone thought that she was the one looking after him, but the two of them knew better. In fact, Matt had often joked that it was a good thing that he was sick so that Mandie had something to focus on. It was only after the burial that she had realised he had not been joking. The summer and autumn had disappeared in a fog, and now she found herself alone in the second week of December, staring at an empty apartment.
She had first opened a box of trinkets – a candelabra for the window, some ornaments to hang about the entryway and kitchen, and a wreath for above her bed that had once belonged to her mother. That had been the easy box. It was her tree that made her cry.
Despite however long that she stood sobbing in the living room, she still managed to put the tree up in its usual place in the corner and string the lights and garland around it as though she were a robot. What did it matter that it looked scruffy? she wondered to herself. She was the only one who would care.
All that remained in the tree’s coffin was the angel for the top. Even last year, when Matt could barely stand up straight, this had been her husband’s department. He had always put the angel up, with or without her assistance, and Mandie realised that even after twenty-seven Christmases together, she had no idea how Matt had managed to secure the angel amid the highest branches. This year, the angel looked rather tipsy and the cornucopia in her hand more resembled a punch bowl as Mandie climbed down from the stepladder to cringe over her handiwork.
“You and me both, Angel,” she whispered through her tears before bursting into hysterical laughter.
Putting up the ornaments themselves was straightforward: spread the matching baubles around the tree in a relatively even pattern. Then came the twenty-seven years: each year represented by an ornament that she had purchased on their anniversary every October to commemorate that they had survived another year of marriage together. Each one reminded her of the memories – the good and the bad – and was hung up as lovingly or as quickly as those memories demanded. Pure newlywed joy in 1987. Bittersweet joy and tears in 2001. Loving misery in 1995. Defeat in 2013.
Her eight little angels came next. They were adorable things! Sweet babies, with puffy cheeks, red lips, curly and wavy hair, and contented smiles as they slept. Three little boys in blue robes, three little girls in pink robes, and two that could have been either wearing yellow. When she had bought them, she had remained stoic and listened to the saleswoman prattle on about her grandchildren. The woman had of course assumed that Mandie, who had been somewhat younger at the time, was buying the ornaments in honour of her grandchildren.
“Yep, I must really be a hard drinker,” she had eventually laughed after crying into Matt’s arms at the saleswoman’s remark.
She wished that she could have had even just one of those eight children by her side to help her with the decorations, or at least to come home for Christmas, and if only she could have had eight grandchildren! She always had trouble imagining those babies growing up, but at least one of those boys surely would have been as tall as Matt and easily able to put the angel on the top branch without making her look as though she needed another drink.
Next, she put up the Nativity set. She had always set up the whole thing at once, including the baby Jesus, since she figured she was the youngest in her little household. However, she held Him back this year, putting him in the end-table drawer under the rest of the set.
“This year, You and me will do this properly, all right? I can wait until Christmas Eve like any good little girl.”
Finally, she pulled out the stockings. There were only two, emblazoned with MATT and MANDIE on the felt. Matt’s had a fire engine stitched into it in needlepoint, while Mandie’s had a poinsettia. The stockings were small by modern standards. Last year, Matt had managed to fit bath salts, perfume, and a paperback book into hers, along with a bookmark and a candy cane. The stocking had been stretched full.
She hung the stockings from the bookshelf and could not keep from smiling as she remembered how beautiful they had been.
“A candy cane?” She had been mystified, as the candy cane (wrapped in a red ribbon) was the only thing initially visible.
Matt was grinning at her, his eyes radiating joy far eclipsing the pain of illness.
“After twenty-seven years, I think I finally got it right!”
She had pulled out the candy cane to discover the rest of the gift.
“Oh, this is lovely!” she had exclaimed breathlessly. “All of my favourites!”
“You take such good care of me – I want you to have a nice hot bath with your book for Christmas. You will always be my beautiful wife.”
His stocking had been rather more difficult to fill. What kind of present did you get for a dying man? Something practical? Something that sent out the message that you had forgotten that they were sick? Something that they blatantly could not use? Something that you expected to get back after the funeral?
Mandie had settled on a paperback book, a notebook, and some fancy pens and pencils. The notebook had proven to be a good idea. In it, Matt had written all of his words of advice for their youngest nephew, David, and he had specifically entrusted Mandie to give the notebook to him. Mandie had not read the contents of the notebook, but she noticed that David treated it as though it was a holy relic. Someday, perhaps, she would ask the young man what message her husband had left. Then again, she had many notes left for her.
She hung the stockings on the bookshelf as she had done every year. Her own by itself seemed too lonely, so she put Matt’s up beside it for comfort. She supposed it didn’t matter either way – neither of them would be filled this year.
Her phone rang as she sat beside the tree, pouring herself a glass of wine.
“Hello? McCallaghan residence, Mandie speaking,” she answered automatically. She still did so, even after five months of being the only resident at her apartment.
“Hi Mandie!” Her cousin’s cheerful voice contrasted heavily with Mandie’s mood. “It’s Toni. How are you doing?”
“Fine,” she lied. “Just finished putting up the Christmas decorations.”
“Oh, how nice! You’ll have to have me over for tea so I can see them.”
“Listen, Mandie, I’m wondering if you want to come down to the cemetery with me? I want to take Brian his Christmas wreath and candle. Have you gone down yet?”
“I try to go every Sunday. Haven’t got a wreath yet, though.”
Toni’s cheerfulness quickly dissipated.
“I’m sorry, here I go, treating this like it’s just some Christmas party! I can’t believe I’ve gotten so used to it…”
Not to Mandie’s surprise, her cousin and best friend dissolved into tears. Mandie soon followed.
“Oh, here we go, the two of us crying!” Toni sobbed. “Why don’t I come by and we’ll go pick out a nice wreath for Matt, and then we can get to the cemetery before dark. Afterward, we can have our usual pre-Christmas drink. Anthony just came home and he and Frankie will be down there shooting pool.”
She couldn’t help giggling as she cried.
“We’ll embarrass them, two old ladies crying!”
“Then that’s their problem. It was our bar first! Wine and pepperoni pizza, booth six!”
Toni’s house was strangely quiet when Mandie arrived the afternoon of Christmas Eve. She followed her cousin into the living room and added her gifts to the gigantic pile under the Kellihers’ Christmas tree.
“Where is everyone? Are you sure you’re having the whole family over?”
Her cousin sighed.
“Thank God they are all old enough to get themselves sorted out! Of course, I miss the old days, but I must admit, the quiet time is nice. Tea? Coffee? Wine?”
“Tea, believe it or not. We’ll have wine later.”
“As for where everyone is, Frankie doesn’t get off-shift until just before Mass, so he won’t be joining us until afterward. Patrick, Becky, and the baby will meet us at the church, and Anthony, Siobhan, David, and Gracie went skating.”
“Well, aren’t you almost the empty-nester!”
“Ha! By the time Gracie is out of school, who knows how many grandkids there’ll be?”
“And I’ll just be crazy old Great-Aunt Mandie.”
“At least they’ll get to know Great-Aunt Mandie.” Toni began to cry again as she poured their tea. Mandie jumped up to comfort her, forgetting for a moment her own loss.
“It’s okay, Toto,” she whispered, using her childhood pet name. “We’ll get through this together.”
“I can’t believe I still go to pieces after thirteen years! But here we are, the first Christmas with a six-month-old grandson and another son about to get married – heck, a twelve-year-old daughter! And it keeps hitting me how Brian’s never going to be here to see any of it! And I know you must be feeling worse, Mandie, and I feel so guilty about crying like this when I’ve got five great kids, two daughters-in-law, and a grandson, and you just lost the love of your life…but…I can’t help it!”
“So what? We’re both gonna cry, that’s what! It’s Christmas. This was always going to be awful. Let’s have our tea, pour ourselves some wine, and get started on the food for tomorrow. Brian and Matt would not want us wallowing in tears on the couch.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“Thank you for making me go to the cemetery with you. I realized that I couldn’t just feel sorry for myself. I’ve got a loving family in Heaven and a loving family here with you and the kids. Speaking of which, let me just go put up my stocking.”
She marched determinedly back into the living room and pulled open her handbag.
“I brought it over just as you suggested. Where shall I hang it?”
“Over beside mine, next to Patrick and Becky’s.”
Mandie pulled out a second stocking from her handbag.
“So then, I should hang Matt’s up beside mine again?”
Toni nodded, sipping her tea and wiping her eyes.
“I talked it over with Becky – she didn’t mind. Her mother made little Matthew Brian his own stocking for her house, but since they’ll be here overnight, he’ll need one here too.”
“She doesn’t mind the fire engine?”
“I don’t think I mentioned the fire engine, but she did dress him up in a little fireman costume for Hallowe’en.”
“Oh, thank God, I was thinking she would want little Matthew Brian to grow up to be a stockbroker like his other grandpa.”
“Not nearly as romantic!”
“I suppose not. Are they going to make his name shorter? Matthew Brian is somewhat long for a little boy.”
“Maybe he’ll grow into it?”
Mandie hung Matt’s old stocking beside her own.
“Or else, she could just go by what’s on the stocking. Little Matt has a nice ring to it.”
“All right, time for wine! And Merry Christmas to our dear husbands!”
The two women clinked their glasses as the sun disappeared on the horizon.
Copyright 2013 Katherine Gilks