Christmas dinner had become remarkably less busy than it had been for Antonia in the days when she had five children at home. Now, with her youngest married and twenty-four years old, Christmas dinner consisted of simply five adults who could prepare the meal and then clean it up so quickly that she wondered if it had all been a dream. At least this year, her darling Frankie did not have to run off for a shift. He and his new brother-in-law were now out on the back deck and sharing a Christmas cigar. Unfortunately, there were only the two of them.
Antonia relaxed into the sofa, sipping her wine and staring at the Christmas tree. This had been the first Christmas without her youngest son, David. The loss of her son had rendered the holiday subdued and difficult – even moreso than the loss of her husband had. Twenty-five years had gone by since her husband had died – her daughter’s entire lifetime. But two months had barely passed since Antonia had been awakened by her cousin’s frantic phone call.
Aside from a brief visit two days before Christmas to drop off gifts for her daughter-in-law and grandsons, it felt to Antonia that her youngest son’s existence had been dispensed with altogether. Every mention of his name, such as at the beginning of dinner during the blessing, had been followed by someone bursting into tears. His widow had refused to join them for Christmas Eve, which had stung Antonia. It had felt to her as though she was being deprived of David’s children as well as him, even as she understood what Melodie was going through. The young woman had a new baby and a two-year-old. She needed the support of her own mother. She had promised to bring the boys over to visit Antonia on New Year’s. Antonia prayed that she would be able to keep such a promise.
Lord, help me not to be jealous of Melodie’s mama or angry at her, she prayed. Help us all to do our best for Luke and Nicolas. The last thing they need is their grandmothers fighting over them.
As for the rest of her family, Christmas Eve had seen her three children still living in New York all gathered at her house after Mass, along with two spouses, four grandchildren, and her dearest cousin and best friend, Mandie. Her other son even called from Chicago and had been able to visit with the rest of the family for an hour this year. Antonia had talked with her three granddaughters and admired their new dresses. They had then listened in on the Christmas stories that their Uncle Patrick read every year – a Christmas Eve highlight at the Kelliher house.
But by early afternoon the next day, Patrick and his family were off to his in-laws, her son in Chicago was busy with his wife’s relatives, and only Frankie and Gracie were left. Luckily for Antonia, her son-in-law’s parents were more enamoured with having their family together for New Year’s, so Gracie and Ricky could spend all of Christmas with her. She was grateful to have their bubbly personalities at the dinner table. Even as their jubilation had been muted this year, it had shone through as they told stories of their latest teaching adventures. Mandie and Frankie had chimed in with tales of their own. Now that she was retired, Antonia had little to share in the way of dinner conversation. She was once again what her husband had always endearingly called her: his little mouse.
Mandie and Gracie packed up the last of the apple pie and poured themselves a pot of tea. The men were enjoying the brisk but pleasant evening air (as much as it could be pleasant with the contaminating aroma of cigar, Mandie thought to herself) and Antonia seemed to be lost in her thoughts in the living room.
“Do you want any tea, Mama?” Gracie called out, setting three cups down on the counter. “We’re making a pot of Earl Grey.”
There was no response from the living room.
“Mama?” Still nothing.
“How about some hot chocolate?” Mandie asked. “You can try out one of the gourmet flavours that Frankie got me for Christmas.”
“All right,” was the soft reply from the sofa.
Nothing gets in the way of my cousin and her hot chocolate, Mandie smiled to herself.
“Is Mama okay?” Gracie whispered to her Auntie Mandie. Her mother had seemed to be handling the holiday well through dinner, considering the circumstances.
“She’ll be fine, eventually.”
“She was fussing over you all this past week, but…”
“Sometimes, it’s best to do that,” Mandie admitted. “But then, when the one you’re fussing over is gone or starts to get better, you can be left doubly empty. Remember how I was when your Uncle Matt died?”
“I felt as though I was useless. No kids, no husband, no family that needed me. Your mother reminded me how wrong I was. I figure there’s enough of you kids and grandkids to keep me busy loving you all ‘til I wear out.”
“Even without David,” Gracie whispered sadly.
“Yes, even without him. He’s with God and your dad and your Uncle Matt – and he’s finally got to spend Christmas with his cousin Lorenzo. I always pray for them together, you know.”
“Oh, really? No, I didn’t.”
“They’d have been about the same age. That’s why Toni let David spend so much time with me and Matt.”
“Guess it would have been fun having another boy to boss around. What kind of hot chocolate does Mama want?”
“Nothing too fancy – maybe the mint fudge one? Or no, how about the icewine?”
“Icewine it is.”
“Decisions are the bane of grieving people,” Mandie explained. “Stupid little things like hot chocolate flavours can open up floodgates.”
“Whatever happened to Lorenzo, Auntie?” Gracie wondered. “You mention him sometimes and I know there’s a marker for him beside Uncle Matt, but…I mean, I’ve always wondered.”
Mandie fought back tears as the image of her baby boy appeared to her as though he had been set beside the teapot.
“He was a beautiful, perfect little boy,” she whispered. “Nothing wrong with him. He was just too early – his lungs were just a bit too small. He might have made it today – hospitals keep getting better. We’d have done anything to save him – spent any money that we had!”
Gracie wrapped her arms around Mandie as she began to weep softly, but the older woman kept talking through her tears. She hugged Gracie and then motioned for her to keep pouring the tea and hot chocolate. Grabbing a tissue, she continued.
“He was lovely – he looked a lot like David and Frankie did as babies. I imagine him being tall and dark like them. ‘Course, maybe he’d have had bright blue eyes like his father. All babies have blue eyes, so I don’t know if they’d have gone dark or not. He was too weak to cry much – just a few whimpers, really. He sounded like a kitten. He was a good size, though. He’d have been a big baby if I hadn’t got sick.”
“What did you get sick with?”
“Oh, just a bad cold, really, but then there was a big fire and Matt went missing for three days. I got so stressed out and frantic…”
“Oh.” Gracie took a sip of her tea.
“Matt was okay, though,” Mandie rushed to finish. “It was all right – just lost communication between firehalls. He was not even injured. He came to be with me in the hospital right away. I was too sick to be with Lorenzo long after he was born – so Matt spent all of our boy’s short life with him.”
“Did David name Luke after Lorenzo? I noticed in the cemetery…”
“Yes, he did. Melodie didn’t want to call him Lorenzo. I’m thankful to her for that – I don’t think I could have used the name without crying.”
“Do you think he missed having a cousin – you know, one who have teamed up with him against Frankie?”
“Probably. Then again, I always imagine those two playing together like puppies – a bit of fighting here and there. Take the hot chocolate into the living room to your mother. I’ll bring in the tea.”
The young woman did as instructed and quietly made her way over to the sofa. Mandie followed, wishing that David and Lorenzo were both out on the back deck with Frankie and Ricky. Of all her lost children, he had been the closest to life. He had survived one day – longer than his older sister. Both of them might have lived had they been born recently. The others had been much too early, mere tiny things that more resembled space aliens than babies. She had no graves in the cemetery for them.
“I’m sorry, Mandie,” Antonia whimpered as her cousin sat down beside her.
“What for? We gladly made the hot chocolate.”
“No, for everything…”
“You didn’t do anything, Toni. You’ve been there for me.” She gave her a strong hug. “We will get through this.”
“I don’t know…”
“’Course we will.”
“How did you stand it, losing so many?”
As Gracie had got up to call in the men, only Mandie and Antonia were left beside the Christmas tree.
“Had no choice. Couldn’t bring them back.”
“I thought I understood…but I…”
“My babies were younger. You got to raise David thirty years! Naturally, you got more attached. He just got married, had two little boys of his own – he had lots of life left, so we thought. Of course, it is different for you.”
“I guess I was relying on my kids more than I thought!”
“You still got four of them, plus their families. And you’ve got me! Go on thinking that I need lots of taking care of.”
“We should kick out Frankie and move you into this house. Then I could keep an eye on you!”
“No, we’ll keep him around for the shovelling and repairs. We’re getting to be old ladies, Toto!”
“Speak for yourself! Merry Christmas, Mandie!” She raised her empty wine glass. “I’d propose a toast, but…”
Mandie grabbed the glass and put it down.
“We’ll use our mugs instead. Merry Christmas, Toni!”
“And let’s hope for a happier new year!”
For last year’s story about the same family, Christmas Stockings, see here.