Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Santa Tradition by Diane Burton- Part One

The Santa Tradition - Part One
by Diane Burton

I'd never seen a Santa suit used in quite that way. I was tired, grubby, and sweaty, probably had cobwebs in my hair from packing. But the faded snapshot made me forget all that. James would love this picture of his dad dressed as Santa on top of the hook-and-ladder truck. He must have had a great time back at the firehouse--out of sight of the children he entertained each year. The pants hung from the ladder and the beard waved from a side mirror. He wore boxers decorated with elves under the Santa top. His grin captured the essence of the man I loved as much as my own father.

   "James?" I called as I climbed the basement stairs. "You have to see this."
   I found sitting on his mother’s godawful blue-flowered sofa. His head hung low, shoulders hunched, more defeated than I’d ever seen him. Worse than when the company decided after twenty-five years they didn’t need him anymore.
   He’d weathered the Great Recession, taking on the extra work from others they’d already let go. It wasn’t unusual for him to work twelve to fourteen hours a day. Being downsized was almost a relief. But after nearly a year of sending out resumes, going on interviews, and receiving polite rejection letters, James was a downtrodden man. Not the vibrant, carefree guy I married thirty years ago.
   Losing his dad three months ago compounded his depression. Mind you, I’m not a doctor. But just like a Mom knows better than doctors when a child is sick, I knew my husband was depressed. I’d even suggested he talk to his doctor, which of course James rejected. “Nothing matter with me.” I interpreted that as “I’m a guy and guys don’t need help.”
   Everyone needs help now and then. Or grief counseling. Not my guy.
   "Take a look at this picture." I held it out.
   He didn't even look up.
   “Is everything all right?” I asked.
   He didn’t answer. Didn’t move.
   “James? What’s going on?”
   Again, no answer.
   When I knelt on one knee in front of him, he stared off into space, not seeing me, not seeing anything. I touched his hand dangling between his jeans-clad knees.
   “Are you finished in the attic?” I asked.
   He blinked, returning to this world. “Huh? Sorry, Meg. Did you say something?”
   “I asked if you’d finished packing up the things in the attic.”
   “Uh, no. Didn’t start.”
   When he offered no further explanation, I lost it. I stood, backed into the stack of boxes I’d packed that morning, and placed my hands on my hips. “I have been working down in the basement for the past four hours, going through all the junk your folks never threw away. The least you could do—since it’s your parents’ house—is help.”
   With the slowness of an old man, not one of forty-eight, he pushed himself off the sofa. “I’m sorry, Meg. I’ll get back to work.”
   When he didn’t move toward the attic, I said, “Okay, Jamie. What’s going on?”
   I knew from my own experience that grief from losing a parent can manifest itself in different ways. When my mom died, I plunged into work—settling her estate, cleaning out her condo then selling it. I kept my grief at bay by being busy. That only worked for so long. Then James’ mother passed and all my pent-up grief came to the fore. Poor guy, he didn’t know what to do with me. How he wanted to fix me! To make me feel better. If only.
   Eventually, the grief eased, but it took time. In my heart, I knew he needed time to work through the grief of losing his father so soon after losing his job. But we’d put off dealing with sixty years’ of accumulation by people so affected by the Depression they never threw out anything. I’d tried to convince him we needed to get his parents’ house listed while the market was still on the upswing. I didn’t add that we could use the money from the sale.
   Thanksgiving, early this year, had been rather quiet. James hadn’t wanted me to accept my sister’s invitation. He wanted to stay home. So it was just the four of us. Josie and Mark, home from college, acted like they couldn’t wait to go back. Most of the time, tears formed in Josie’s eyes at the mere mention of her beloved grandfather. Mark, so like his father, didn’t talk.
   Christmas was right around the corner. It would not be a repeat. Not if I could help it. By golly, we were going to finish the packing, move everything we wanted to keep into our garage and basement then get this house on the market. We had to. My dear, sweet father-in-law had remortgaged the house to finance his wife’s nursing home care.
   Three months of carrying two mortgages and the expenses of two houses, plus the kids’ college tuitions had stretched our budget to the breaking point. Between my job at a nonprofit and his temporary job, we couldn’t do it. Our savings were depleted. We might not make any money on the house sale, but at least we wouldn’t have all the expenses.
   When James discovered what his father had done, he’d been pole-axed. We could manage, Cheerleader Meg had said. Once we got the house on the market, our troubles would be over. Rah, rah, rah.
   Major problem. James didn’t want to make decisions on what to keep, what to throw away, and what to put in the estate sale. He’d left it all up to me. I just couldn’t manage everything. I dug a tissue out of my jeans’ pocket, turned my back on the man I loved, and blew my nose. Surreptitiously, or so I thought, I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye.
   Strong hands gripped my shoulders. James pulled me back against him and wrapped his arms around me. “Don’t break down on me now, Meggie. I need your strength.”
   My throat clogged. I squeezed my eyes shut to hold the tears at bay. I patted his arm around my middle. “Okay.”
   I didn’t tell him I was tired of being the strong one.
   We used to take turns. He’d be strong when I needed it and I did the same. I learned long ago that marriage was not a fifty-fifty proposition. Sometimes one person gave a hundred percent. And sometimes the other had to give. Since he lost his job, I felt like I was giving and giving. Isn’t it time we reversed that deal?
   I wanted to kick him in his still well-shaped butt.
   James hadn’t let himself go soft as many executives did. He’d always worked out. Much better than I ever did. With free gym membership because of my job, he continued his routine. As much as I loved being held against his strong chest, the work awaited both of us. And it wasn’t getting done while he held me in his arms.
   When I tried to pull away, he tightened his hold. “Don’t,” he said with unexpected sharpness.
   “This house—”
   “—can wait. I need you, Meg.” A shudder rippled through him.
   I turned in his arms, needing to see his face. Something was very wrong. When I looked at his ravaged expression, I wished I hadn’t turned around.
   “What’s wrong, Jamie?” I cupped his bristly jaw with both hands. “Tell me.”
   “He wasn’t my father.”

Return tomorrow for Part Two of The Santa Tradition.


Margo Hoornstra said...

Wow! Now there's one heck of a hook! See you tomorrow, Diane.

Jannine Gallant said...

I feel for this guy. I hope he finds some peace in this situation.

Christine DePetrillo said...

What a twist! Nice!

Rolynn Anderson said...

I'll be back, Diane. Good job laying out the 'troubles.' Realistic. Grim. Truthful.

Alison Henderson said...

Diane, this was so realistic it was difficult to read on a personal level. Except for the last line, this could have been my house. I AM Meg - have been for twenty years. You're so right about marriage not being 50/50.

Diane Burton said...

Wow! Thanks, ladies. I achieved what I was going for. Alison, I've been Meg, too.

Patricia Kiyono said...

Wow! I didn't see that coming. I can't wait to read the rest. Great opening!

KatB said...

Holy cow! Fantastic story, Diane - I can't wait to read the rest. Your realism is incredible. Great job.

Melissa Keir said...

What a twist at the end! Can't wait to read more!

Donna Michaels said...

Wow, great hook, Diane! I'd say sorry I'm late, but since I can now go and read the rest, I admit it. I'm not sorry...hehe

Alicia Dean said...

Love the hook and the realism in your chapter. What a great start to an enticing story. Like Donna, I'm almost glad I'm late. I don't have to wait! :)