The house, of course, was too big. All six of her children were grown, in their 20s, away at college or moved into professions, and it left Patricia O'Mahony alone amid the 11 oversized rooms, the Currier and Ives prints and the huge fieldstone fireplace that was lit every winter evening.
She was alone now, but had been, in some basic way, ever since 1954 when right before Christmas, her husband, my father, died.
He became sick in September, the skin had gone yellow: hepatitis; No, worse. By October, he was in the hospital, the bleeding red leaves fell, and he was sicker. Death was quick: cancer. On a cold gray November day, leaves gone, no birds singing, he was buried. On the morning of the funeral, the children spoke among themselves: "Where's Daddy?" "Dead." "What's dead?" "Dead is heaven." Just before my mother left for church, one of the children ran to her room, where the woman was sitting on her bed, dressed in black, face frozen, no smiles, silently heaving. She seemed to be crying but not quite. The sobs were so pure there was no sound.
A high requiem mass was held, full of ritual and hymn, incense and incantation. The children did not attend; years later, Patricia O'Mahony would explain: "It would have been too woebegone; all you children, with your big eyes, half orphaned, two of you still in diapers." When the mass was over, the mourners left the church, slowly, a cadenced procession; outside in the barren gray day, no sun shining, they said the predictable: "There is no dignity in the death of the young, just heartbreak." They said the obvious: "The horror of it . . . so unexpected . . . so close to Christmas." Crossing themselves, they said what the nuns and the priests taught them to say: "Requiescat in pace." May he rest in peace.
There was no peace in the house in the weeks following his death. But life goes on; that was one of my mother's less flaymboyant adages. During her lifetime, she has accumulaated adages the way others acquire wrinkles or wealth, and this was one of them: life sure goes on. Her first decision after the funeral was to keep the house. She had five children, and one on the way. Space was a necessity. It was a practical move based on spiritual considerations: the house would be rock, anchor; it would be living memory. Lizzie cavanaugh, my mother's longtime family housekeeper, was called out of retirement, where she had been living with her married sister in Springfield. My mother's borther, a bachelor, promised that he would visit on weekends.
Late every afternoon of that long autumn, my sister Mary, who was three, would stand by the picture window in one of the living rooms, waiting for her father.
She had great faith he would return. Lizzie tried to talk her out of it; his car had been sold soon after his death, and Lizzie said: "How could he be coming back? He took his Cadillac, didn't he" A man who takes his Cadillac is not coming back." But Mary's faith was based on evidence, evidence almost as strong as a car: he did not take his hat.Somehow, by Christmas, a tree was set up, a few gifts purchased, a carol or two sung to the Christ child. Under the tree for me was a present that soon became my favorite doll; grief and greed were confused in my mind - after any trauma, my first impulse is to buy a new dress. Once Christmas passed, and my father did not return, my sister no longer waited by the window.
And so, in 1974, a generation later, 20 years gone by, another Christmas was upon the family. It would be the final Christmas in the big house. For my mother, the passage of time was unconvincing: it had happened so quickly.
On a lightly snowing Sunday in early December of that year, she sat in front of the fireplace, and her eyes wandered among her possessions, taking stock of what she owned. Her gaze focused for a moment on a painting of a tower in Ireland where her mother had been born in a little town called "Ballyluska" in Gaelic, "Burning Village" in English, named after what the British had done to it. Whenever she faces a crisis, she tries to figure out how Rose Kennedy would react. The hitch, of course, is that Rose, as my mother says, "has had too much practice with assassinations, and not enough with normal problems like money."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Mom muttered. "Goddamn taxes."
Blasphemy served her like a trumpet. A decision had been reached. The best way to face loss was to celebrate it; it was the way of her people, Irish wakes, Last Hurrahs. Everyone must come home; her children were scattered up and down America's largest surburd, the Eastern seaboard. There would be no excuses tolerated; no absenteeism permitted. They must all come home and take part in the ritual of the last Christmas Eve in the big house. Should she encounter any resistance, she would quote Robert Frost: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." The mother of six would wear the diamond necklace she reserved for special occasions. It was not just holiday: it was elegy.
Word soon spread among her offspring: Mom has sold the house. The two sons, who happened to be the oldest and the youngest of her children, both promised: "I'll be there."
Among the daughters, the reaction wa more complicated. "Finally," I said, the eldest daughter. I was then in my third year of law school, studying to be practical. "It is the best thing. It has been an albatross."
"Don't you feel sentimental at all?" said Mary, who was always feeling sentimental. She is a social worker.
"Good," said Tess, short for Theresa. She is a cheerful sort who tends to wear bold primary colors, in keeping with her job as kindergarten teacher. Her goal in life is to make little children fit for society, teaching them to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and obey policemen and eat cookies without making crumbs. She would also like to make her immediate family fit for society: "The new house will be much smaller and much easier to take care of."
The fourth daughter, Ceil, was still in college. She has a serene unflappable unflappable air that serves her well in her chosen field, special education. She is endlessly patient, and it does not seem to be an act; she will never get ulcers. "How is Mother taking it?" she asked calmly.
My mother and father were newcomers when they transported themselves and their growing family to the big white house with red shutters in the center of a small slow-paced New England town. Both had grown up in nearby manufacturing cities (his, paper; hers, many things-the city's slogan was "industriae variae."), and for my father North Dana contained the prestige of clean air and open fields. As a boy, he had worked there as a farmhand. When he grew up, he went to college, medical school and joined the Navy as an officer during World War II. But all along his goal was to move to North Dana and buy a house and raise a family, giving his children what he had wished for himself as a child. My mother went along with the choice. Deep down, she felt, with er usual genteel sense of euphemism, that the town lacked distinction. She would have preferred a place that was known for producing something, if only frail reclusive poets, like nearby amherst, where Emily Dickinson was born. My father insisted on North Dana. He would farm the field out back as a hobby; he had a tractor. My mother was always worred he would fall off and break an arm; he was a surgeon, and she often said, "His arms are his livelihood, you know." "Don't worry," he would tell her, "I won't fall off." She had been a schoolteacher before she was married, but now she would never have to work again. She would have children and once or twice a year, she would travel by train to New York City and buy dresses and, at a store called Tall Gals, quadruple A hoes for her narrow feet, one of what she considered several signs of her latent aristocracy. My father and my mother were part of an America growing increasingly prosperous. The war had been won - my father helped win it - and their children were part of the baby boom, each a sign of faith in the world's future.
By the time they moved to North Dana in 1951, three children had been : my older brother Kevin, me and Mary. Tess was born a year later; Ceil within a year of Tes,, making them "Irish twins." Michael was born six months after my father died.
He was never home during the day, my father, and I used to wonder what he did all day long when he disappeared. Once, in a hurry on his way out, he said, "I make money." His answer was direct; my interpretation roundabout. I assumed he drew dollars, and that it must be hard work because he put in long hours. I also thought he must be good at it, becuase my young life, at that point, was flush with tricycles and cookies. "My father draws dollars," I told my playmates. "My mother has babies."
The house my father chose to buy came with a traditional New England setting. Across the street was a stately town common, lined with giant oaks and cheerful maples, where once cows grazed, now the site of Grange fairs and Lion's Club picnics. Rising above the common, directly across from our house, was the Congregational Church with a tall steeple. For us, the world was divided into two groups, the Catholics and the Protestants. Children of both religions played in the overgrown field behind the church. We specialized in building pretend log cabins and playing early colonial settlers, speaking to each other in the wooden accents of the first flinty immigrants. We would pretend to prepare for what was always going to be a harsh winter and we would fend off fake attacks by imaginary Indians. We were rank patriots. This was probably becuase a great deal of our time in elementary school was spent on air raid drills. North Dana was only a few miles from an air force base, now defunct. The rumor back then was that in the event of Communist attack, Western Massachusetts was a prime target. Some place in Texas - Lackland? - took first place honors in the holocaust sweepstakes, but back then coming in second still meant something. It was terrifying, but thrilling, had a red carpet installed on the front staircase. A quixotic but engaging man, he is a lawyer who missed his real calling: he should have been a professor of history. He found children truly interesting only when they began to discuss Napoleon or the Spanish American War; until that time, he saw children as so many potentially muddy feet. In order to protect the red carpet, he set down an unbreakable rule: children had to use the back stairs, which were covered with lowly linoleum, except on birthdays or at Christmas. As children, we joined our friends in various misdeeds. But nothing, absolutely nothing, was quite so felonious, or quite as likely to be reported to Uncle Joe with vindictive glee, as a child's audacity to use the front stairs not on his birthday or not at Christmas.
The five-acre yard was divided into parts. They were called the front yard, the side yard, the big yard and the garden yard. Every autumn they filled with leaves and it was our endless task to rake them: shades of Sisyphus. The garden yard was the most poetic, blooming with forsythia and other perennials every spring. It had a small sunken pond long ago filled in with sand. My mother, a humanitarian, said she did this to keep us from drowning. The pond that was no long a pond was presided over a statue of St. Francis, patron saint of nature, gray cement birds resting on his shoulders, a benign gray cement expression on his face.
It is impossible to say which was the centerpiece of the big yard, the red barn or the gnarled apple tree which shed white blossoms every spring, snow in May. Under the tree, much younger, my full-skirted mother would read Water Baies or The Wind in the Willows . Sometimes she ran haiku contests: "Who can think of the best 17-syllable poem that evokes a season?" It was always hard to master that form, like trying to catch butterflies without a net: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, five in the third. My mother spurred us on, saying in that lofty way: "I like small things, of fragile beauty."
The barn was really just a bucolic bonus, a rustic flourish, as superfluous as four front treeth. The reason is that with six young children my mother thought it would be too costly, or at least too confusing, to try to raise animals as well. From time to time, there were pets, mostly 4-H projects in the form of rabbits. At one point, the children were allowed to raise a lamb, but it was eventually sent to the slaughterhouse for terrorizing a neighbor's chickens. The rabbits all seemed to be name Snow White, after their fur. The lamb, which was the closest we ever came to owning a dog, was named Bluebell. In fact, the children behaved as if it were a dog, which is probably what started Bluebell on the chickens in the first place. North Dana is one of those places about which people are always saying, "Don't blink, or you'll miss it." As if to defy the cliche, the children sometimes attached a long rope to Bluebell's collar and paraded her up and down the main street. Passing motorists would slow down and smile. We felt, toward them, the condescension of natives toward tourists; how silly they were to marvel at the commonplace. The lamb was sent to the slaughterhouse on March, and when Easter rolled around, my mother made the tactical error of serving the traditional Pascal meal, lamb.Mary, golden-hearted Mary, stared at the meat, aghast, stammering finally, darkly, sotto voce: "But what if this is Bluebell?" The conjecture hit the gathering with the force of gale winds blowing leaves on the lawn. On cue, six children wept, innocents mourning an innocent. Arms folded, faces set in the grim look of "J'accuse," we went on strike against the main course, boycotting the meat. The adults all said no, it was impossible, they were certain it was not Bluebell. The adults were ignored. Finally, revising a famous quote from history, my exasperated uncle said, "Let them eat mint jelly sandwiches." We washed them down with tears and wine.
But throughout childhood, no matter what else happened, Christmas was the most important day of the year. First of all, the children could use the front stairs, but beyond that it was the culmination of at least a month's worth of sleepless anticipation and whispered intrigues. Tess, the most organized member of the family, used to incorporate her excitement into a time table. She was a listmaker. Although she wound up a teacher of kindergarten, my mother used to say she would grow up to be secretary to the president of Chase Manhattan Bank; this was before the days when women themselves were though of as executive material. In any big family, different children get reputations for different talents. Tess was always given credit for being able to find lost objects. For a long time, the rest of the children considered this a bit of a hoax, manly because she was the only one allowed to look for them. The others had to kneel and pray to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost objects: "Dear St. Anthony, we beseech you to grant your grace and aid to your humble earthly servants and help Tess find the keys to Mom's car." Doubt of Tess's powers grew into conviction when we used to beg her to find the Christmas gifts, and she never could, though her failure to do so probably resulted from never looking in the attic, which was rumored to have mice and cobwebs and other creaturey things that did not sit well with her orderly and fastidious nature.
At around two weeks before Christmas, my mother would gather us at her knees and begin an after-dinner serial reading of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol , the winter version of haiku under the apple tree.The children shuddered at Scrooge's early-on blasphemy when he said he wanted every fool who goes around wishing people Merry Christmas to be "boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly in his beat." We would marvel at Scroogehs slow conversion to a holiday enthusism that began to match our own. By the time Tiny Tim said "God Bless us, everyone," my mother had six intent, but tearful children at her knees.
On the day before Christmas, we gathered to decorate the tree, which always stayed up until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. We always used red lights exclusively - they matched the shutters on the house. By the plain tastes of North Dana, this was considered almost avantgarde. As children, we used to lobby, in vain, on behalf of the rest of the spectrum. At some point, we too became monochromatic snobs and lamented to gaucheries that prompted others to use multicolored lights. Presents from Santa Claus appeared under the tree on Christmas Eve; we always opened the gifts on Christmas Eve because six young children, by their very nature, are not adept at delayed gratification. It was easier for the adult superstructure to arrange for Santa's visit then rather than at four the next morning. Santa Claus usually made his appearance when we were out caroling with other children from the neighborhood. When we were older and the only presents were the ones on the piano in the green room (the place for gifts from just the family), the tradition of caroling lingered and fed on itself. It died off at around the same time the nation lost its innocence, in the late '60s; a war was on and we found ourselves, feeling extremely improbable, singing outside the houses of people with whom we had little in common other than the history of this annual opportunity for them to stretch out their hands in a waist-high salute and say, "We remember you when you were this high."
And so, by 1974, another ritual faced extinction, the gathering of the clan on Christmas Eve. The children were all between the had been stored the attic and most probably creaturely things lurked within the satin and the lace, she would have been quite content to wear an ordinary summer dress. The house had become unreliable, forgetful, like a person in the first stages of senescence. It was a burden. My mother planned to move at the end of January.
The miracle, of course, was that she had kept the house as long as she had. My mother is not a practical woman. She often complains that she is not mechanical, and she prides herself on a certain inability to cope with everyday life. She could never, for instance, open cans; when they came out with childproof caps for aspirin a few years ago, her only recourse was to stop getting headaches. She always drove on backroads, often doubling the amount of time it takes to get some place. Over the years she expressed a profound fear of turnpikes; she spoke of them in such an atmosphere of wickedness that for a while her children were convinced they were lined with casinos and naked, writhing dancers. She finds it hard to find channels on the television; Ceil once put a dab of pink fingernail polish on the dial to help her remember the educational station. Her television set itself reflects her profound fear of betrayal by technology; the antenna consists of a jerryrigged assemblage of coat hangers which no one is allowed to touch. And yet, despite this, she managed for years to do the most sensible and sane and mundane thing there is: she managed to keep her lands in order.
In a way, it seems as if the tone of that last Christmas Eve, the entire mood, was engineered by the women in the family. If, as it sometimes seems true, at least according to some sort of ancient division of labor, it is up to the men to build the future, if only out of contrition because their wars have destroyed the present, then it is women who preserve the past, who suffer a lunar urge to honor pattern for its own sake. The afternoon of Christmas Eve of that year certainly conformed to the old ways. The men - who consisted of two brothers, one uncle, one husband and one boyfrield - all took off pursuing male pleasures, buying last minute gifts, stopping off for a fraternal beer. It was up to the four sisters to go to Atkins' farm and fetch a tree, and the tree they chose was a plump green Douglas fir, top of the line. "You girls are my fussiest customers this year," said the man who sold us the tree.
We brought it home and propped it in the auxiliary living room, in the same corner where every year the tree stood. We acted in concert, as a unit, hoisting the tree into its red and green stand, sorting ornaments and lights.
It was like that sometimes: the four sisters were a blur, indistinguishable. Our voices sounded alike and each had some feature echoed in another. Growing up, we often responded to each other's names. We had been raised to deny all rivalry in public; if someone asked, as often happened, which brother or sister do you like the best, the answer, rehearsed, was always the same: "We like each other equally." Which is not to say that was true, not to say we were unaware of distinctions among each other. As a child, I had been bossy and reclusive: at one point I took to charging admission to my room, a penny, to keep the others out. Mary was sweet, too sweet, easily swayed; once she actually said, "Poor birdies have to go to the bathroom outside; poor birdies have no bathroom; they can use mine." Tess could be snippy, a perfectionist, drawn if not by the thing itself than by the appearance of perfection: in high school, she chose her friends by their looks.Ceil could be obdurate, impervious, capable of a damnable regal calm: she was the only sister who managed not to go to a Catholic college, something the others admired and envied.
Now they were friends, but as children they fought, swiping at each other shamelesssly. Just before the teen-aged years, the violence was reduced to two forms: spitting and hair-pulling. Finally, at early adolescence, as the forces of biological womanhood took hold, direct expressions of physical combat ceased, giving way to more subtle tactics, threats of "I'll wreck your bed" or "I'll spill your bureau drawers." Finally, they devised the ultimate invasion - they went around writing fake entries in each other's diaries. Now older, they recognized the force of the blood knot; they deferred to tribal ties; they acknowledged as unbreakable the bond that comes from doing time in the same womb, living under the same roof. And they understood that at any moment, the shell of their adult lives could crack and they would revert to their old roles. It happened that afternoon, as the late dayhs sun poured through the picture window, the same window where once Mary stood in her little girl's vigil, holding her father's hat against the sill. The sun shone with a December vengeance, promissing more warmth than it delivered. It happened in an instant, for an instant, as they talked about the loss of the house.
"I'm glad," I said, conveying the hardliner's attitude. In law school, I was studying to be practical, studying to argue any side of any issue, studying, it sometimes seemed, to have no moral center. I was training to be a hired gun to the point of view with the highest salary, and in the matter of the sale of the house, my employer was common sense. "It is a monument to the past," I said, forcefully, too forcefully.
"Oh, Dory, you really can be coldhearted," said Mary. "I don't know why you won't admit it's sad."
"Well, at least Mom can get a new car," said Tess. "She can go to Europe in the spring."
"First", Ceil reminded everybody, as usual, in her quiet way, going to the heart of the issue, "Mom has to find a new house."
Mary sighed: "She hates everything she's been so far. She calls them miniatures. And worst of all, they all seem to have sump pumps. I am not sure what they are, but mother is reacting to them as if they were very wicked. Like turnpikes."
Just then, my walked in; "You can't come in here now," said Tess. "We're discussing your gift." For the past 20 years, starting at around Thanksgiving, the way to lure someone out of your presence was to tell them that their gift was being discussed. The ploy worked. "I'm going to set the table," said my mother, passing through the pass doors leading to the dining room, and shutting them.
The silence of industry prevailed for the next half-hour or so, as we sorted through boxes. The pure concentration was broken only to recall the history of an old tattered ornament: "My God, I made this in the second grade" or "I made this in Girl Scouts. Actually my troop leader made it, but because mine was the worst of everybody's she let me take hers home." Someone asked Tess whether the tree in her own house had red lights or lots of colors.
"Lots," she said.
"I thought so," said one sister.
"Figured as much," said another.
"Well, it's what everybody else does," she said. "It's the normal thing." She sighed. "Bob says I use the word 'normal' too much to be a normal person."
Silence again reigned, as the sisters spread the strand of lights of lights out on the floor, as if they were setting up a toy train. They tried to untangle them. Through the windowed doors, it was possible to see Patricia O'Mahony in the dining room, preparing the table, carefully polishing the mahogony of the table and then spreading the lace tablecloth. She place the goblets and silver just so. On this evening, she planned to use her best plates - Haviland Limoges china, white plates with gold rims, the wedding band pattern. She had tried very hard to tutor her daughters in the ins and outs of fine china, just as she believed in providing them with all the other basics. They had been given piano lessons, which she said would be quite a calling card at parties when the got older. There had even been elocution lessions: she believed that a cultivated speaking voice was the best asset a woman could have. As soon as the daughers reached puberty, which she judged to be at about the same time they stopped reading the evening spread out upon the floor and began to assume an air of dignified alertness by reading it in an armchair, she packed them off the ballroom dancing lessons where they wore white gloves, danced with boys who were shorter, and incurred terrible blisters, sometimes lasting a month, courting their attention with a fervor none of their short dancing partners had shown. The mothers all sat in the balcony congratulating each other on their children's poise.
Mother stood in the dining room folding the linen napkins, and, for a moment, the light caught her in the way that forces memory, recalling the younger woman who sat full-skirted, smiling, under the apple tree, running her haiku contests. Her face, then, had the stern official beauty of a rose: high cheekbones, full lips, blue eyes, rich dark hair. But time not only transforms, it also slanders: there were wrinkles now and sometimes the firm blue eyes reflected the watery sadness of too much knowledge. Still, in the right and wonderful light of that afternoon, her face flickered back into full form, back to the face of the woman we once worshipped When that younger face appeared, revelaing itself, an avatar, there was something about that look of restored youth that touched a chord, setting off that old feeling of blind love. We looked in on her quietly, one of us saying, "She looks pretty, doesn't she?" It is very important for daughters to think of their mothers as pretty. Patricia O'Mahony stood in the dining room, surveying the table, seeming to check things in her head. Her whole purpose was to invoke an elegant time long ago that was very elgant and, her children did not have the heart to tell her, in this age of crunchy granola and acid rock, a time that was also very gone. The precision with which she set the table was that of someone seeking refuge in formality as a way of avoiding pain.
Mother opened the glass doors, and joined us in the living room. She admired the tree. "The man said we were very choosy," Tess said. "This family always did have a good reputation for Christmas trees," my mother said. "He who steals my purse, steals trash; but he who steals my reputation for good Christmas trees, steals all," said Mary, paraphrasing one of my mother's favorite adages. The strands of the lights on the floor had been successfully untangled and Ceil plugged in the cord. The rug was festooned with red lights, some twinkling. They worked. "What a miracle," my mother said, "I can't believe how lucky we are." Her fear of technology, obviously, included electricity. Suddenly, her mood, or perhaps it was the mood of the whole slow afternoon, changed; there was a bustle in the air, the pace had quickened, it was time to gear up for the scenario of the last Christmas Eve in the old house. "Damn it," said my mother.
"Oh, oh" said Ceil. "Mom's about to make an announcement."
"You bet I am. The men will be back any minute. Miss Baker is coming 6:30. I want you girls out of those jeans and into something lovely. And I want one of you downstairs when Miss Baker gets here to take her mink stole and hang it up very carefully in the closet. It is quite a compliment, wearing that stole to our house every Christmas Eve."
Miss Baker was the next door neighbor, a flinty Yankee who lived alon and had spent Christmas Eve with our family ever since 1960, the same year Lizzie, the housekeeper, died in her sleep of a heart attack. Miss Baker was a hardy 80 years old. She had the slightly dry, crackly voice of an older person and was given to using the regional "ayup" instead of the word "yes." The weather was the only topic guaranteed to set her tongue wagging; she had a deep sense of discretion which made her trustworthy as a friend, especially at a family gathering, not always noted for the furious exchange of pleasantries. She always brought a present and it was always the same, a huge box of homemade candy. It include fudge made with integrity, from strach; penuche, row after row; as well as fluffy clouds of white, known as potato candy, a surprisingly tasty blend of mashed potatoes, confectionary sugar, concnut. Least popular, always were the chocolate-covered rasins and cherries; the healthful presence of fruit undercut the sugar high. And make no mistake, that candy was like a drug: as children, we went to sleep, drunk on it. Miss Baker's gift was always opened on Christmas Eve and by the next morning, there was nothing left save for some slightly gnawed cherries and a few stripped down raisins. The box had been ravaged, mysteriously in the night, like those cars that litter the West Side Highway in New York.
We used to give her an apron every year, but after noticing her gamy acceptance of a pre-dinner cocktail, two the utter limit, my mother started buying her a bottle of sherry instead. Sherry is a popular drink among the professorial set (where they seem to serve a special blend distilled from tweed and pipe tobacco) as well as among elderly ladies on a prim binge. As a former schoolteacher, now getting on, the qualified on both scores.
As if to confirm my mother's secret feeling about herself that she possess psychic powers, the front door opened, and the men, suffused with beer-induced goodwill, poured into house. Uncle Joe had 10 poinsettia plants; apparently he had been at the Food Mart when they announced that all the plants had been reduced to a dollar. An expert on consumer law, part of his expertise seemed to stem from his own inability to resist a bargain.
Mother was the first one ready that evening. At 6:25 she descended the front stairs, walked into the main living room, arranged a fallend lamb in the manager scene and poked the fire. Then she turned the head in the house up to 68 degrees, saying to herself, no doubt, that this would be quite a treat. She tapped the barometer, which gave evidence that the mercury was falling and a storm was in the air. When the family came downstairs, she would predict a good old-fashioned blizzard. She stood in front of the fireplace, tucked in her white blouse, and fondly adjusted her diamond necklace. At 6:30, on the dot, the doorbell rang.
"Surprise, surprise," said Mary. We were upstairs in our old bedroom, within earshot of the front door. "I wonder who that could be." My mother and Miss Baker could be heard wishing each other "Merry Christmas" in unison. Then, just my mother's ovice: "Oh my, this is lovely! How beautifully wrapped, Winifred. Is this? . . . Oh, no, it can't be. Oh my, yes, it's realy holly. Here, let me put this on the piano. One of the girls will be down to take your wrap."
"That's our cue," murmured Mary, as we walked down the front stairs slowly, as if we were still children, trying to get our holidayhs worth out of the red carpet. There was an apocalyptic fervor in the air, a sense of patterns coming to an end: "That's the last time we put Miss Bakerhs gift on the piano," Mary said.
Soon, everybody was downstairs, formally dressed. The men all had on jackets and ties; they kept tugging at their ties the way men do when they think ties are unnecessary but they don't quite have the courage to remove them. "It's cold tonight. Looks like snow," said my uncle. "I predict a big storm," said my mother. "Ayup," said Miss Baker.
Uncle Joe poured himself a fresh drink, which was the signal that he was ready to launch into a "what this country needs" speech; sure enough: "Remember that Christmas eight years ago when it was 60 degrees out? Nobody appreciated it because oil was still cheap. People aren't waiting in line any more for gasoline and they are taking it for granted. What this country needs is a good strong energy policy, and I don't think Ford is the one to give it to us. He has to spend too much of his own energy living down Watergate. Wasn't Watergate something?" he said, urning to Miss Baker.
"Least said, soonest mended," was her reply. My uncle continued: "I blame it all all on these kids and their peace candidate, Mcgovern. What we really need in 1972 was someone like Humphrey. I'm a Humphrey man myself; you can trust Humphrey."
"My people, humble people, my people, Humphrey Democrats," Mary said to her new beau, Frank. Ceil told him: "The reason they're for Humphrey is because he's always giving speeches about how his family had to sell their house during the Depression."
It was time for dinner. Everybody adjourned to the candle-lit dining room, entering through the windowed doors. The opposite side of the room was also all window, permitting a view of the garden yard. St. Francis looked up at the house with that almost giddy expression of benevolence on his face; he too was trustworthy as an onlooker at family gatherings.
We stood by our chairs. Michael, who was the youngest, and so the sentimental odds-on favorite to play Tiny Tim in our own little drama, was asked to say grace. Grace said, dinner commenced, with everybody trying to eat in a more cadenced manner than usual, in keeping with the formality of the occasion and out of deference to my mother's stringent rules of etiquette. All our lives, she sternly oversaw our manners and any indiscretion rated a lofty outburst of "that's vulgar, common, of the people." A truly egregious breach of good taste, such as dunking or buttering one's bread in the air, meant someone's wrist was tapped hard with a fork and then the lament,"I would hate to see what would happen to you if you did that in public." For years, we all had nightmares that if we picked up a bone in a restaurant or spooned the soup in the wrong direction, the rest of the patrons would rise from their seats in protest and proceed to execute us with their forks, all properly held at the end, of course.
During the inevitable lull when everybody was eating properly, my mother asked, as she did at every holiday dinner, how much the Waterford glas pitcher would be worth if it weren't cracked. "A thousand dollars," came the answer in a chorus. Then she told the story about how her grandfather had emigrated to his country with nothing in his trunk except shimmering examples Waterford's finest crystal, which he used to barter for rent and food during his first year here, the cracked pitcher being the only remaining relic of his ingenuity.
Inevitably, at any family gathering, my uncle gets around to saying, as he did that year: "The family dinner is a ritual, the first ritual. It is the beginning of community. In a way, you could blame the entire degeneracy of american culture on the ever-growing popularity of McDonald's."
Then my mother said what she said to us each, separately, when she told us that the house had been sold: "I know you children think it would fashionalble not to come home for Christmas, but 'home is the place where, when you have to go there, they hve to take you in.'"
It was odd, at dinner, how the sale of the house was not mentioned, as if it were the uninvited guest that everyone chose to ignore.
After dinner, it was back to the living room and the bright fire to open gifts. My mother proclaimed herself an Irish mystic because three weeks previously she dreamed she was going to get a green wallet and sure enough, she did: "Oh, psychic me," she said. Mostly it was the standard fare: ties, gloves, scarves and sweaters. We sat around, sometimes breaking into song, fellowship fueled by after-dinner eggnog. Every half hour or so, my mother would contribute to the energy crisis by flinging open the front door in a vain search for snow: "I can't dunderstand it," she said. "The barometer has never been wrong," she added, staring at it as if it had betrayed, suddenly transmogrified into a can of soup she could not open. We talked about old times: the forts we used to build, the cows we tried to terrorize, the times we had confessed walking on the red carpet to the parish priest. We talked about how much we hated raking leaves and someone tried, in vain, to remember a favorite haiku. A moment of silence was observed for the lamb Bluebell, and when my uncle misplaced his new Christmas tie, Tess was commissioned to find it.
It was after midnight when Miss Baker got up to leave and Ceil went to fetch her one indulgent possession, that marvelous lapse from Yankee frugality, that black mink stole she must have dared herself to buy and which she saved for special occasions. My mother thanked her for joining us once again, and then, once again fondly arranging her diamond necklace, my mother prepared to recite her favorite adage of all time: "It has been quite a day. Days after all make up years. 'The years go by, like great dark cattle, driven by the master herdsmen, God.'"
Mary walked Miss Baker to her house, a few hundred yards in the distance. At her doorstep, Mary later reported, they chatted a little and Miss Baker glanced toward the old house, all still and white. The moon transfigured it, giving it a look of grace restored. "You know," said Miss Baker, in what for her ranked as a rare display of emotion, a sharp departure from her usual reserve, "I will really miss your mother and your family." Mary did not know how to answer. "Oh, look," said Miss Baker. A few flakes of snow had started to fall. "Your mother is getting her snow after all."
And the snow did come that night. It was the snow of our childhood: news not a nuisance. On Christmas Day, there was a great whiteness underfoot, but as often happens when it snows, especially on windless days, it was surprisingly warm outside when we went for a walk. We went down an old dirt road where the trees sunddenly thinned to reveal a scene which my mother declared to be straight out of a Currier and Ives print, "the low flat frame building, the white snow, the pink and gray muted skies. . ." Back at the house, we built our last Christmas Day fire, its warmth an invisible blanket to cuddle us. The sisters sat together, three of us. Ceil had disappeared outdoors for a bit. No one was really talking about it, but there was a sense of loss in the air, that peculiar loss of an inanimate object that is truly a living, breathing thing. The anchor holding us together would soon be gone: where to find the rock? There was a growing knowledge that Christmas future would never be the same.
Ceil returned indoors, trampling snow off her boots, and we asked where she had been. "To the barn," she said, sheepishly, slightly embarrassed. "I went to say goodbye to the barn."
"What do you say when you say goodbye to a barn," we asked. "I wasn't sure how," she said in a voice that was low and deep and true. Of all of us, she is the one who plays her voice like a musical instrument. "All I said was 'bye." And, then, on the way back in, I made up a haiku:
I, for the first time in my life, this winter's day, truly feel orphaned.