The Worst Christmas
“Come inside anyway.”
With that, the big man—who made six-two Jim look small—tramped through the snow toward the big, white Victorian house with brightly-lit windows. He waited at the bottom of the steps that led to a wide porch.
“Gotta clear those stairs again.” He tsked. “Be careful now.”
“Wait.” She shuffled through the thick snow, Jim holding onto her arm, and Nate bringing up the rear. “Did you mean there isn’t room for us?”
“Don’t worry. We’re find space for you.”
Mariana breathed a short sigh of relief as the front door opened.
“George? What was that noise—” A large woman in a cable-knit sweater, flannel pants, and fleece-lined clogs stood in the doorway. “Oh, my goodness. You poor dears. Come in, come in.”
Mariana held onto the rail with one hand and Jim with the other as she climbed steps slick with snow. George had better shovel quickly and put down deicer, or someone could get hurt.
“Cora, their car is in the ditch. I’ll get the tractor in the morning and hauled it out. Meanwhile, we gotta take care of them. They can’t go anywhere.”
“Of course, come in.” Cora’s sweet smile and kind eyes reminded Mariana of her grandmother. With a step back, the woman held the heavy front door open for them.
Heavenly aromas of cinnamon and fresh pine hit Mariana as she eagerly entered the home. The foyer welcomed her with its warmth, gaily-decorated evergreen boughs, and lit candles inside hurricane lamps. Off to the right, a large lighted tree stood in front of a picture window. Though Mariana could hear voices, she didn’t see anyone.
An elderly gentleman, clad in country tweeds, came toward them. “The more the merrier, eh, Cora?”
“Dad, take their coats while I get an ice bag for her face. Looks like you’ve got a nasty cut there, ma’am.” Cora left them standing in the foyer.
Her father pointed to a wood bench against the short wall on the left. “Sit down, folks. Give me your coats and take off those boots.”
Mariana looked at her husband who appeared as overwhelmed as she by the rapid orders from the innkeeper and her father. Didn’t seem to bother Nate, though. He leaned against the bench and toed off his boots while she and Jim sat. Driving for hours in the blizzard followed by plummeting into the ditch caught up with her. She couldn’t even think what to do next. Weariness weighed down on her, crushing her spirit. What kind of a Christmas is this? Stranded in the middle of nowhere. No room at the inn. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
“Mom? Are you okay?” Nate, sweet dependable Nate, stooped in front of her and unlaced her boots. Jim helped her off with her coat.
All she could do was cry. This was the worst Christmas of her life.
* * *
After Cora ushered them from the foyer into a warm kitchen and gave them hot chocolate to drink, she disappeared. Moments later, George came in from outside. He sat at the country table and pushed a plate of snickerdoodles closer to them. He asked about the roads and where they were from. All the usual questions innkeepers asked their guests. The momentary break, cookies, and chocolate drink helped Mariana compose herself. She was about to ask about the accommodations when Cora reappeared.
“Okay, folks. Come this way. George, take care of the young man.”
She led Jim and Mariana down a hall, family photos hanging on both sides—a “rogue’s gallery” her mother would have described it. Cora opened the door to a bedroom at the end. “Here you go. George brought in your luggage. If you need anything, just ask.”
A weary-to-the-bone Mariana flopped across the big sleigh bed, icepack on her nose while Jim unpacked her small carryon bag. When she realized her son hadn’t followed, she asked, “Where’s Nate?”
“He’s settled down in the sitting room with the other kids. George gave him blankets and a pillow. The kids grouped themselves in front of the fire. Big ones on one side, little ones on the other.” Jim carried her cosmetics bag and his shaving kit into the attached bathroom.
“Hey, hon?” he called. “I think this is their bedroom.”
“George and Cora. I think this is their bedroom.”
She sat up so abruptly the room swam. Holding the ice bag against her nose, she looked around. Formal family pictures hung over a long dresser, covered with a lacy scarf and more casual family photos, similar to the ones in the hall. This was, indeed, the owners’ bedroom. Cora must have run in there and prepared the room for guests. How very kind.
And selfless. Where would they sleep? They weren’t young people to sleep on the floor. Yet, they gave up their bed for strangers.
Tears ran down her cheeks.
“Okay, babe. What’s going on?” Jim sat on the edge of the bed next to her. When he put his arm around her shoulders, she leaned into him and rested her head against his chest. Though they’d only been married three years, he’d become her rock. Always there for her, comforting her, giving her strength.
“Are you still shaken by the accident?” His breath fluttered her hair.
She shook her head. “Yes. And no.”
His chuckle rumbled under her ear. “Decisive, as always. Seriously, where do you hurt? Besides your nose.” He gently touched that feature. “You are going to have a shiner. Or two.”
“I didn’t want to come on this trip.”
“You’ve made that clear from the get-go.” He sounded more disappointed than sarcastic, which would’ve been her attitude if their roles were reversed. “I’ve tried to understand.” That, he had. “But I can’t figure out why you’re so opposed to spending Christmas with my family.”
Last year, they’d celebrated Christmas at the old farmhouse where she’d grown up. After her mother passed, she’d moved in when she realized her dad couldn’t live alone anymore. Her aunts (widowed, no children), Mariana’s seven sibs and their families gathered around the dining room table, like they’d done for years. A loud, boisterous group, clad in jeans and “ugly” sweatshirts, with kids ranging in age from fourteen (Nate and his cousin Alex) down to the babies (three of them now, with two more on the way). Laughter, tears of reminiscences, too much food.
Such a contrast to their first Christmas with Jim’s mother. Quiet, a catered affair, his sisters and their stuffy husbands, no children. Everyone dressed to the nines. The loudest noise was the clinking of silver against china, where her insecurities skyrocketed.
“Your mother hates me. Your sisters, too.”
“No, they don’t,” he said too quickly.
“You haven’t seen the way they look at me. Dumpy Mariana, Jim’s big mistake.”
He squeezed her shoulders. “Not a mistake. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she whispered. “I was repeating what they think.”
Pushing her away, yet gripping her shoulders, he stared at her, his piercing blue eyes hard. “They said that? I will talk to them.”
“Not in so many words, but I can tell. Their actions, their whispered asides. Not your mother so much as your sisters. Your mother just looks down her nose at me, which is a good trick since I’m eight inches taller.” She looked up to see if that got a grin. Nope. “I’m not good enough for her precious little boy.”
He snorted. “Suze and Amy are pains in the butt, always trying to protect their little brother. Don’t pay attention to them. They’ve run off every girl I brought home, which is why I didn’t let you meet them before the wedding. I told you I dated some real losers. I suppose my sisters mean well.”
“Yeah? That’s what I always say about my aunts when they butt into my affairs.” She gave him a small smile. “Ever since Mom died, they tried to take her place, cautioning me about men, telling me how to raise Nate. Even so, they think you walk on water.”
“Really?” He grinned. “Smart ladies.”
Mariana gave him a playful punch on the arm. “I wanted to stay home this Christmas.”
“I know you did, but Mom isn’t up to the long drive out to see us, and her doc said she can’t fly yet.” Jim cleared his throat. “I wanted to spend this Christmas with her. It might be her last.”
Guilt swept through her. “You never said that. I didn’t know you felt that way.”
He pulled her close again. “I didn’t want to burden you with my morbid thoughts. Besides, I thought it would be fun to take Nate and do some after-Christmas shopping down Michigan Avenue. He’ll go nuts in the Lego store.”
She thought about the hours her son spent designing and assembling airplanes and spacecraft with the tiny tight-fitting blocks. And how he devoured the catalog each time it arrived in their mailbox, dogearing pages and circling items on his wish list. “He would love that. Thank you for thinking of him.”
“Hey, he’s my son now, too. I can’t take his father’s place, but I can love him like my own.”
How did she get so lucky to find such an understanding man? She’d thought Tom was the only man she’d ever love. Turned out she was wrong about that.
Maybe she was wrong about other things.
In thinking about how awkward she felt with Jim’s family, she hadn’t considered that he missed them. In September, he’d flown up to Chicago for his mother’s heart surgery, a real scare for him. She couldn’t leave the farm because of her dad and the animals. Not that she’d wanted to go. Maybe she should’ve figured out how to be with him for support, the way she’d gotten her brothers to take over while she was gone now. After his mother’s heart attack, she should’ve realized Jim would want to spend this Christmas with her.
Again, guilt raced through her. Instead of focusing on her own insecurities, Mariana should have thought of Jim. She’d been alone, with just Nate, for ten years. Putting Jim and his needs first hadn’t occurred to her. Quiet, undemanding Jim supported her and her son, asking for nothing in return. How could she be so selfish?
Mariana stroked Jim’s jaw. “I’m sorry for being such a jerk about going to your mom’s. I’ll be on my best behavior.”
He clasped her hand. “No. I want you to be yourself. I know it will be hard on you but try not to let Suze and Amy get to you.”
She blew out a raspberry. “Easier said than done.” When he started to say something, she added, “I’ll try.”
“That’s my girl.” He kissed her soundly.
After checking on Nate, she crawled into bed next to Jim who was already sawing wood. She lay quietly, thinking about how she could make it up to him. She promised to accept his mother and sisters as they were. They were his family. Despite being uncomfortable with them, she would make the effort to be nice.
* * *
The next morning, the sun greeted everyone as it shone on the snow-covered trees. Cora prepared a breakfast that left no one hungry. But when they left the dining room, George had bad news.
“I towed your car out of the ditch, but it won’t start. I called Henry, best mechanic in town, and he can’t come out and look at it until he pulls other poor souls’ cars out of ditches. Won’t be until this afternoon, probably.”
Mariana glanced at Jim. “I am so sorry.”
“Not your fault. I’ll call my mother and tell her we’ll be late.”
“Uh, Mom, Jim?” Nate tugged on Mariana’s arm. “We need to talk. First.” He led them into the empty sitting room, where folded blankets and pillows had been stacked next to the fireplace.
“You probably want to sit down,” he said.
From her son’s expression, a frisson of fear shot through her. “What’s wrong?”
Nate shuffled his feet. “I, uh, might have done something bad.”
Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of The Worst Christmas.