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The Meaning of Christmas
Four more weeks. Four more weeks, then winter break. Ugh, why can’t it be sooner? Chloe frowned. My bed misses me as much as I miss it.
Shivering into her long overcoat, she shifted her backpack on her shoulders and crunched through the frozen mud. Two Fords and a Toyota inched by, their headlights blazing across the blackened streets. Daintily a snowflake caressed Chloe’s cheek and disappeared into her long black hair. More snowflakes shimmered as they tumbled through the weak streetlights’ rays.
To her chilled feet, home seemed miles away -– the fourth one down the block, on the west side of the street. The familiar blue and green LED lights glared down the avenue while the neighbors’ meek red and yellow bulbs cowered in the bushes. The muffled melody of “Silent Night” floated from the second house.
Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace… Chloe hummed along. Then she sighed. Carols already? Thanksgiving was only four days ago.
Four days? Oh, Mom’ll be starting her Christmas shopping soon, then. That’s gonna be…fun. Nah, who am I kidding? It’s gonna be bad. Why does she always get crazy stressed whenever another holiday comes around? Always busy setting plans, getting gifts, cleaning rooms, making lists…and always fighting with Dad over who’s “right.” She doesn’t even smile when the holidays come around anymore. Like last Halloween. I remember: I was having an awesome time thinking about what costume I was gonna wear. But all she was thinking about? “What kinds of candy do the neighborhood kids like?” “How much should we get?” “How many will be trick-or-treating this year? The number’s been getting smaller every year.” “When do we give Chili the tranquilizer pills so he doesn’t bark at all the little kids?”
But then the candy’s replaced by turkey, and Mom’s rushing around the kitchen cooking stuffing and cranberry sauce. Then she’s got Dad pulling the lights out of the garage and choosing a little tree to stand on the dining room table. And then she’s planning for all of us to go to her friend Sharon’s house on New Year’s Eve. One after the other -- no sentiment, no spirit. To her, all of those holidays are candles; she lights them, gets them burning, and then just before they reach the brightest blaze, she snaps them out…
Ugh, I need to get away from my textbooks. I’m thinking in metaphors again.
Chloe blinked and shoved through foot-tall snow banks down the endless boulevard home. A cold drip fell from the magnolia trees onto her scalp; she brushed it off.
But why doesn’t she enjoy it anymore? What happened to playing Christmas carols on the piano together, decorating the tree? What happened to those Christmases where we’d dig out those little drummer boy bells and plug ‘em in and let ‘em chime away? What happened to cookies for Santa--?
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. With a start, Chloe dug it out of her deep coat pocket and slid it open. “New Year’s Eve party, my place, 7:00. Coming? -- Diana.”
New Year’s already? Planning so far ahead… Slight disappointment blanketed Chloe’s thoughts. Only November and already Christmas is boxed up and shoved to the back of the closet.
Chloe’s breath clouded the frigid air with relief as she came closer to home. Wearily, she unlocked the door and wrestled her way past boxes and assorted trinkets scattered across the kitchen floor. The house was warm -- hot, even -- and Chloe detected a gaseous odor; no doubt the heater had been on for a few hours already. She pulled her sopping shoes off in the kitchen, dropped her backpack near the dining room table and tossed her jacket on a chair.
“Hi, Mom,” Chloe yawned.
Silence, then: “Hi, honey.”
“You okay?” Chloe peered into the living room. Her mom lay along the couch, propped up by a stack of pillows with an equally hefty stack of papers on her lap -– typical for this hour of the evening.
“Yeah. Tired,” her mom sighed, pulling off her glasses and setting them on the coffee table nearby. Chloe could tell this was one of her mom’s “less than four hours of sleep” days. Her mom’s salt-and-pepper bangs swung unkempt across her forehead and shadowy bags tugged at her lower eyelids. Gently, she set her pen down across the papers. “Thank God Christmas isn’t for weeks. I couldn’t find anything on Christian’s wish list today. Where can I find these kinds of trading cards? I’ve never heard of this series before.” She showed Chloe the list and pointed to one line.
“They have those at almost every toy store I can think of. Did you already check the one near Gail’s?”
“Yeah. They must have run out or something. I’ll check again tomorrow.” After confirming the next day’s plans in her head, her mom sighed again and looked up at Chloe. “How was your day?”
“Tiring. I need a nap,” Chloe mumbled. Already her eyelids twitched and her knees trembled.
“Don’t sleep too long; you’ve still got homework,” her mom reminded.
“I’ve only got a few things, won’t take me more than two hours today!” Chloe announced. But her insides stiffened at her mother’s remark.
Don’t even go there, she bristled at her mother. You’ve been reminding me of homework ever since senior year began!
Chloe sighed. She knew how to act tired, but she faked nothing as she recounted her homework list for the evening. “Four chapters of Crime and Punishment, twelve problems for calculus, and a short essay for Japanese.”
“And you’re doing better in calculus? What about physics?”
“Calculus, I have an A. Physics, still a B.”
“Make sure to study more; the semester’s almost over for physics. And you know that keeping your GPA at a 4.0, like you have been, will make it much easier to input for your college apps later.” With a flicker of paper, she turned her list over and dismissed Chloe.
“Yeah, yeah.” Chloe trudged off to her bedroom, changed into pajamas and fell heavily across her bed.
Homework, homework, homework, Chloe pondered with resentment. Almost all of that conversation was homework. Why is it always homework? It’s not like I have F’s, or even C’s in any of my classes. Why are you so anal about everything?!
She rolled onto her side and stared at the wall, tracing its blankness with her gaze. Her eyes slid shut.
Chloe’s eyes shot back open.
What the -- ?
Chloe strained to hear a response, but could only make out strings of low, heated obscenities.
Oh, Dad’s home.
She could only make out a few words of what her mom and dad said.
So he broke a glass or two. So what? Sheesh. Overreaction, much? There’s this thing called “breathing,” Dad, works wonders; you should try it sometime.
Chloe’s brow creased as she silently fumed. Vaguely she felt an ache festering in her ribs, permeating outward to her brain and stomach.
Ugh, stress pains. Right. Now I’ve gotta breathe, too…
The pain dissipated as she inhaled, but still loud voices continued across the house. Chloe concluded that though the topic had digressed slightly, the argument remained heated as ever.
How did they ever get married? she pondered. Once more, she closed her eyes.
“Hey, Chloe, get up! It’s 8:00!”
Chloe groggily rubbed her eyes. She pushed herself up into a sitting position and started tugging snarls out of her hair.
“Get up!” her mom repeated. “You’ve got homework, right?”
“Don’t waste time; I want you asleep before 11:00. I don’t want you complaining about how you don’t have time for anything, after you’ve slept for three hours!” She turned and left, leaving the bedroom door open. Chloe made a face.
AGAIN WITH THE FREAKIN’ HOMEWORK! God, can’t you just be grateful that I DO my homework?
Abruptly the pain in her torso flared up again.
You’d think she’d understand that this isn’t freshman year anymore, Chloe pondered condemningly. Guess not.
Chloe impatiently tugged her backpack next to her bed and pulled out her planner.
Tonight’s work, Greek mythology project…three applications…plan club activities…study Japanese and Economics…write back to Yuki…
…It never ends…
Even as she cracked Crime and Punishment open, Chloe found her mind wandering.
Mom and her stupid Christmas shopping. Always about the gifts, never the giving. It’s like the captain on that cop show once said: “Never let the job get in the way of the job.” More like “Never let the holidays get in the way of the holidays.”
Three weeks later, a blizzard threatened the city with chilling winds. Chloe kicked through the snow banks, thoughts cold as her nose.
Okay, really, Cassie? Really? So I didn’t say something correctly in Economics today. How is it your business to correct me on something as insignificant as my grammar? It’s not like I was doing a presentation; I was just talking to you and Blaine, for God’s sake! And Natasha, what were you thinking, butting in –- literally! –- between me and Damon when we finally had time to ourselves? Could you NOT see who I was with? And for what –- just to ask what the homework was? No apology either -— !
The door opened slowly before Chloe could pull out her key. Gruffly yet quietly Chloe stormed in and dropped her belongings in their places. Her backpack, overwhelmed by the angry force with which she threw it, keeled over and lay piteously on one side.
“Hey, careful!” Her mom grappled with a large cardboard box and bettered her grip behind Chloe.
“Sorry,” Chloe mumbled.
“Hey, why are you talking to me like that?”
“You’re using a tone with me again. What happened? Something at school?”
Again with school?! Is that all you think about?! Wake up! I’m not just a student, I’m your freakin’ daughter!
“People at school.” Chloe was pleased at how calm she could make herself sound; she knew that while she couldn’t think rationally at that moment, she could certainly sound as such.
“Yeah. And Natasha, and Penny, and Rosanne--”
“What did they do?”
“Do you really want me to start from the beginning?” Chloe felt her tonal mistake as soon as the syllables left her lips. Her mom’s eyes darkened.
Crud, now I’ve “done it.” Here we go, time for her lecture about politeness and behavior, for the third time in five days.
“I said watch your tone,” her mom warned. The gaze flashed.
“I’m not using a tone,” Chloe insisted. “I was just trying to -- “
“Well, it sounds like a tone to me,” her mom cut her off.
…Great. Another person against me. JUST what I need.
“How many times do we have to discuss this, Chloe?” she continued on. “How many times have I had to remind you? As long as you live in this house, you treat me and everyone else here with respect!”
“Mom, I get it! I--“
“Well, evidently, you don’t,” her mom interrupted. “If you knew how to control your tone better, we wouldn’t be--“
But before her mom could draw a breath to continue her lecture, her eyes grew big as she looked past Chloe into the kitchen.
“Terrence, no, stop. That’s too much!” Quickly she pushed past her daughter and into the kitchen, scolding him for –- Chloe tried to discern and found the topic –- giving the dog too many treats.
“We’re trying to get him to lose some weight. His joint is still so swollen! He can’t put too much weight on it!”
“Well,” rang out Chloe’s dad’s strong, defiant voice, “I was just rewarding him. He was well-behaved!”
“Don’t give him so much! Only two, not a whole handful!”
Ugh, fighting, fighting, FIGHTING! Chloe sighed to herself, exasperated. Why does it never end? Screw this, I’m going to bed.
She turned and stalked through the hall door, slamming it.
Try bugging me about homework NOW, Mom; you won’t find any tonight.
She changed into clean pajamas and flopped angrily onto her bed, just as her phone vibrated on her electric piano under the window.
Are you KIDDING ME?!
The caller I.D. read “Damon A.”
The tension in Chloe’s heart loosened as it skipped a beat.
“Oh, thank God!” she breathed. She clicked “Accept Call.” “Hey, Damon.”
“Hey.” Her boyfriend’s voice sounded morose.
Uh-oh, something’s wrong.
Chloe snuggled down under the quilt. “Hey, are you okay? You sound a little…down.”
“Nah, I’m fine. It’s just that…you looked so sad when I saw you today. I wanted to ask if you were okay but you left so quickly…”
Chloe smiled despite herself. God, I love you. “You’re sweet. But…nah, I’m not really okay today. Thanks for asking though.”
“You wanna talk about it? I’m here to listen.”
“Well,” she admitted, pulling her covers up and settling on her pillow, “there isn’t a whole lot to say. It’s all stuff I’ve told you before. People just…trying to tell me what to do, or be my conscience and stuff like that. Today I got it all at once, from everywhere. I guess people honestly believe that I always need help, everywhere. And people keep expecting so much of me. I’m only one person! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
“Awwww, I’m sorry. Is your mom one of those people, too?”
“Yeah. She keeps bugging me about my homework, and focusing, and not texting so much, and not using a tone and blah, blah, blah. But all of my grades are A’s except for that one B in physics! I don’t understand why she’s so insistent about it. I know that she’s got her own stuff to worry about with my grandma and my puppy both needing extra care lately. And I bet the holiday shopping has got her in a tight spot, too. I bet –- well, no, I know -– that she’s really stressed. But still: if she won’t allow me to let out my frustrations at home, then where does she expect me to let ‘em out?! She can’t even see how much I try to make things work. It’s not like I want to fight. I just can’t talk to her without trespassing on some nerves.”
Chloe massaged her right temple as she awaited Damon’s response. The pain of her budding headache squeezed moisture out of one eye; her tear slipped down her cheek and seeped into her quilt.
“Well, yeah, you’re right; she’s probably just stressed out like you are. But it’s also unfair for her to do that. I’m sorry -- “
Chloe’s mom appeared in the doorway. “Hey, you ready to go?”
Her daughter held up a hand. Five more minutes, she mouthed.
“No. Talk to whoever it is later. We’re gonna be late.”
“Hey, sorry, I gotta go. There’re a few more things I still need to do,” Chloe grudgingly lied to the phone. “Can we talk later?”
“Oh…is your mom there?”
“Oooh. Yeah, sure. Good luck!”
She clicked “End Call” and looked up at her mom, expecting an explanation. When her mom remained silent, Chloe finally asked, “Late for what?”
“It’s Friday night. Children’s shelter, remember?”
“Can I just stay home today? I don’t feel too good…”
But her mom interrupted her.
“You stayed home last week to take care of your homework. You need to go in tonight. They’re counting on both of us being there to help out.”
“But I don’t think -- “
“C’mon, it’s only an hour. Change your clothes and get your jacket.”
Chloe resented the long drive over to the children’s shelter. She didn’t want to go in, not the slightest bit. She couldn’t act happy to please the children when such unsettling thoughts percolated in her mind. Her brain needed to unwind; she needed to sleep. That was all she needed -- a few extra hours of sleep and she’d feel good again --
No, I won’t, she cut herself off. When was the last time I felt that way? Before Grandma got sick? Before the dog got sick? …I can’t even remember. Maybe sleep can’t be it, after all --
“Hey, we’re here, let’s go,” her mom cut into her thoughts.
The younger children gathered to Chloe’s mom, shrieking incoherent joy, and crowded around for story time.
“And the ghost of Jacob Marley rattled his chains in Scrooge’s face!” Here Chloe’s mom lifted and shook her arms, feigning shackles, as the children screamed and laughed in mirth. As her mom continued on, Chloe noticed a small girl sitting alone at one of the round tables. Her curly blonde hair fell untied to her waist, barely smoothed back by a thick plaid headband that matched her dress. She looked no older than six. With a smashed green crayon, the girl scribbled with unusual concentration, as though ensuring the accuracy of every line. Chloe crawled over to her on her hands and knees and peered over her shoulder; she didn’t have the heart to pay attention to “A Christmas Carol” for the third time this month anyway.
“Whatcha doin’ there, sweetie?” she asked the little girl.
The little girl paused, shifted her crayon hand off of her paper and looked up. Her eyes struck Chloe -- blue, wide and innocent, with such clarity that Chloe could have sworn she was peering into a tide pool.
The little girl spoke in a high, clear voice.
“Ms. Lida told me that Mommy and Daddy joined God when I was really little,” she explained with nearly-adult gravity. “And that I must thank God for lifting them up to Heaven so that I may join them when my time comes. This is a letter to Mommy and Daddy. I hope God can give it to them for Christmas.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Chloe noted. She forced a smile; the young girl’s thoughts were so cute and cheery. But it would be so hard for the young girl to realize, later, that her parents would never see that card. But Chloe shook her jaded sentiments away and looked at the girl again. “Can I see?”
The girl shifted her pale little hand and proudly revealed the card to Chloe. On it was a small green triangle -- a Christmas tree -- with a big yellow star and several red ornaments scrawled on it. The little girl opened the card. She had written a message, large and sprawling, on the inside page:
“Dear Mommy and Daddy,
Merry Christmas! I miss you! Does Heaven have Christmas trees too?
But what Chloe paid most attention to was what Penny drew on the back of the card. There were three stick figures: a tall one with some small scribbles for hair, and two shorter ones with long lines for hair.
“Is this your daddy, Penny?” Chloe asked, pointing to the figure with the short scribbles.
“Yeah, and this is Mommy, and me.” She pointed to each with a short, skinny finger, smudged slightly in what looked like crayon wax. Each figure had a yellow ring around its head -- a halo. Penny took up a new topic of conversation. “Ms. Lida said that she was going to give me this for Christmas, but I was good, so she gave it to me early.” She reached up to her neck and tugged off a thin metal chain, handing it to Chloe in her closed fist. Gently, Chloe accepted it and opened her hand. The chain held a small silver cross charm. Up the spine were engraved the tiny letters “P.A.M.”
“Yup. Penelope Annabelle Michaelson. That’s me.”
“That’s a pretty name -- ”
But Chloe suddenly remembered why the name Michaelson seemed so familiar.
Oh…the fire in 2008.
Chloe remembered the stories her mom brought home over the weeks that followed that fire. The Michaelsons were a young couple, newlyweds with a baby girl. One night, when their daughter was only about two years old, the heater short-circuited and caught fire. It didn’t take long for it to spread through the rest of the house; the smoke alarm somehow malfunctioned and would not sound; the air blackened with smoke in minutes. Mr. and Mrs. Michaelson, both badly burned and suffocating, covered their toddler in their only flame-resistant blanket and carried her out. Both parents died within the week of burns and bleeding. Since the Michaelsons had no close family members who were capable of taking another child in, their daughter was sent to the children’s shelter, where she was raised by Ms. Lida and the other shelter staff.
Suddenly Chloe experienced another perspective of Penny’s card -- Penny’s perspective of lost love and separation. She was alone; her family was gone. And she made herself alone, here at the shelter, coloring apart from everyone else.
“That’s really pretty, Penny,” Chloe whispered, returning the necklace. Her palm felt cold where the warm metal disappeared. “Your Mommy and Daddy would be so proud of you.”
“I know,” Penny stated matter-of-factly. Then she smiled and picked up her crayon, resuming her intense scribbling.
Chloe gazed curiously at her.
She’s so happy. Even though everything she had was taken away from her, she’s still happy. Such character for such a young body…
Such a strong girl. Rather remarkable.
After story time ended the children dispersed and clustered at the small tables. While Penny prattled with the other children, Chloe escaped to the restroom to avoid the usual “interrogation” by the shelter staff. No doubt Mom’s already told them where I’m applying to college. They’ll be asking me endless questions about that. I don’t need any more attention on my academics; Mom already does that enough --
The bathroom door creaked open and Chloe froze inside her stall.
“--onsense, you’re a wonderful shelter mother, Serena!” exclaimed a voice entering the restroom. Chloe recognized the voice as Mimi, one of the other shelter volunteers. Serena was Chloe’s mother’s name.
So she’s here too. Fan-ta-stic. Ugh, I can’t even get fifteen minutes without her standing in the same room!
Mimi continued, “The children all love you! You should hear them gush about your story time readings; they absolutely love them. A few of them have even started reading themselves -- stories that you read to them.”
Chloe’s mom chuckled. “Well, I’m flattered. But…I don’t think it’s the shelter children I’m really concerned about right now.”
“Who do you mean, then?”
“My own child.”
“Chloe? What about her? Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know. She’s just seemed…distracted, lately. She just goes to her room and sleeps every day, even though she’s full of energy when she wakes up each morning. She doesn’t talk to me -- or to Terrence, either. The other night she said she was gonna go sleep so I asked her not to sleep long; she still had some homework to do.”
Yeah, of COURSE you’d bring that up. Only natural to discuss your kid’s schoolwork. What next, discussing my grades? Yup, here it comes -- that “B” in physics.
“I remember, she told me that she had to read a little bit for English, do a few problems for calculus and write an essay for Japanese. So unless she finished everything at school, I figured she still had some of that left.”
Ugh, you…wait, what? You remember that?
“And when I went to wake her up -- it was, like, three hours later -- she was so mad to be disturbed…”
“But you did what you had to, Serena,” Mimi insisted. “You’re looking out for your baby.”
“I’m trying. But I can’t connect to her anymore, no matter how much I try. I don’t know whether she’s shutting everyone out, or if it’s just me or what.”
“Things’ll get better, honey,” Mimi comforted. The door creaked once more and they left.
Chloe sat in disbelief in her suddenly crowded little stall.
She’s…concerned? About me?
I’m shutting HER out?
The ride home was spent in awkward silence. As they entered the house, Chloe finally spoke.
Chloe’s mom turned back to look at her daughter.
“…I’m sorry. About earlier. And a few weeks ago. I…I heard what you and Mimi were talking about in the bathroom.”
Her mom looked a little surprised, and remained silent. Then she ran her hand through her hair and sighed, puffing her cheeks out and blowing out her lips.
“It’s okay. You know it’s true. …Right?”
“I’m just concerned about you. It’s not like I want to make you do your work; I really don’t. I don’t want to wake you up when you’re sleeping either. I know you have Dad’s tendency to sleep for half a day at a time.”
Chloe smiled despite the tightness in her throat.
“But Chloe, I only do it because I don’t want you to lose time. I’ve done that so many times that I know what that kind of regret feels like. All that early Christmas shopping? All those neurotic lists I make? I make them because I don’t like not having enough time. I know you’re busy. I just want you to have more time to do what you want to do. …But I guess that’s not how you saw it, huh?”
Chloe shook her head. A tear plopped down onto the dirty linoleum.
Her mom hugged her and kissed her hair. “I’m sorry.”
They stood in silence as the snow floated by in the wind outside. Chloe flashed back to Penny and her loneliness for her parents.
Such a strong girl. Continuing on without parents, without family…
But I’m glad I don’t have to be that kind of strong. Not yet. This Christmas, I’ve still got them. Mom and Dad, I’ve still got them.