Christmas that particular year occurred during a strange period in our lives. Unlike with my father back when I was a teenager—my father who died of a lingering cancer four years after he separated from my Mother and left us to return to Pittsburgh—mother’s sudden death when I was in my mid-twenties hovered over my family like a dreadful fog, and, though my brothers and sisters and I tried to move on, that particular Christmas we were still caught within its pervasive embrace.
Looking back, I realize how young we all were. On that Christmas, I was still in my twenties and staying with my oldest sister Holly and her husband Pete. Holly, now the head of our family, was only in her mid-thirties and Pete, who took over my mother’s restaurant, was only a year or two older. Their two children, Little Pete and Anne, at that time were still quite young. In fact, all of us were way too young to deal with loss and having to rebuild our lives, especially when our lives in so many ways had yet to be defined.
After my mother’s death, Holly and Pete moved into a large house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and wanted me and my sister, Allison, and my brothers, Charley and Jerry, especially my younger brother Jerry who was still in high school at the time, to treat this location as our new family home. By that Christmas, though, with the house we grew up in only three blocks away, emptied and sold and now the twinkling home of a new family, little remained of our earlier lives either at Holly or Pete’s or in the small, battlefield-dominated town.
For me, staying with Holly and Pete over the holidays was a continual reminder of my mother’s death, a cataclysmic event that would never go away. That Christmas I was in the last year of graduate school in North Carolina; returning to Gettysburg was a financial necessity, a place to live for free for several weeks until the final semester started and I could go back to work for the University. Graduate school had been an escape, but, now with it coming to an end, I had no idea what I would do next. I knew, though, that I would never return to live in Gettysburg and, except that I had no money during that particular period of my life, I had no desire at all to be with family.
When I arrived at Holly and Pete’s house a week before Christmas, after driving the seven hours to Gettysburg, I was surprised to see how unprepared they were for the holidays. On a residential street of festive lights and colorful wreaths, their house was the only one dark and undecorated. Though a Christmas tree had been put up in the living room in front of the large picture window, it stood with no strands of electric lights woven around its branches, no colorful bulbs and ornaments to showcase their many fond family memories, and no dangling silvery tinsel to set it off whether standing next to the tree with eggnog or caroling on the street. In fact the whole house lacked any Christmas tidings what so ever: nothing on the mantel above the fireplace, no stockings hanging with care, no garlands weaving up the banister to the bedrooms, no display on the dining room table. Nothing.
This was unusual and not at all like the previous Christmases spent at their house. That night, I asked Holly what was going on. Holly, leading me up the stairwell to their son’s room where my brother, Jerry, and I would sleep, said simply, “We’re late getting organized this year.” She had bought the tree and brought it home and my brother-in-law Pete had carried it into the house and put it up earlier in the week, but they hadn’t gotten around to bringing down the boxes from the attic, the boxes packed with all of their Christmas stuff—their own bulbs and special ornaments along with the last of my Mother’s memories.
“I’m not concerned,” she said. “Everything will be ready by the big day.”
Still the tree remained unadorned the entire week I was home. That week, too, something was different with Holly and Pete. Though they were happy to see Jerry and me, they, themselves, seemed miles apart from each other and us. Pete, a tall and typically gregarious man, went to work when he got up in the morning and didn’t return until late at night. Even Holly, my loving sister who always was interested in a good conversation, seemed distracted.
“What’s going on,” I asked Jerry the second morning I was home. Jerry had come back from his junior year at college in West Virginia a week before me. Now that we shared a bunk bed in Little Pete’s room, I thought maybe he would confide in me, but Jerry didn’t talk much and typically confided in no one. I was putting on a pair of pants and a shirt to go downstairs; Jerry, who was in the upper bed, didn’t appear to be moving anytime soon.
Jerry shrugged and shifted the blankets to cover more of his head. “You tell me. How would I know?”
Downstairs Little Pete and Anne were watching cartoons. Both were in their pajamas and eating cereal. Neither of them looked at me when I said “hi,” though it had been nearly a year since I had seen them. Holly was in the kitchen cleaning up from the night before. She was at the sink in a short black skirt, white shirt, and tennis shoes. She was washing what looked like a baked casserole dish.
“Hey, what’s new?” she asked when she saw me. “The coffee is not fresh, but you can make some more. Pete made it earlier before going to work.” A racket ball bag was on the kitchen table, the black handle of a racket stuck out of the top.
“Nothing’s new,” I said as I walked by her, moved her bag off the morning paper, and sat down. Somebody in the county had died, I saw in the paper, somebody who was way too young. Somebody else who lived in the middle of nowhere was arrested for killing him. I looked at Holly expecting her to turn around, but she kept washing pans in the sink. Her dark-red hair, tied in a ponytail, swished when she moved her head.
“Guess, you’re playing racket ball again this morning,” I said. “Did you read, somebody in the county was killed last night? That doesn’t happen too often.”
“Yeah, I saw,” she said, “It happens all the time. Listen, I’ve got to get going. You should have enough to eat, bread in the drawer, whatever you find in the fridge. I still have to go to the store. Little Pete and Anne should be getting dressed soon. I hate it when they watch that stupid TV all morning.”
“What’s with the racket ball?” I asked. “I mean, really, racket ball?” I never knew Holly to play racket ball. Even when Mother was alive, Holly was more of a stay-home-mother-type than a racket ball player.
Her hands paused in the sink. “If I want to play racket ball, that’s what I’ll do,” she said, turning around, staring at me as if we were having an argument. “Besides, why do you care? I’m trying to make friends there. It’s healthy. It’s a good thing. What’s it to you?”
Maybe she was right. What was it to me? Why did I care?
Holly turned back to the sink and put the final pot on the drying rack. She wiped her hands on a paper towel and looked at me again. “Look, it’s no big deal. I’ll probably be back after lunch,” she said. “We’ll see. I might go to the store first.” She took the black scrunchie out of her hair and retied her ponytail, smoothing her dark hair with her fingers.
She stood at the sink staring at me. We stared at each other. She looked tired. Stressed around the eyes. Not so young any more.
“What am I to do?” she asked, suddenly. “You’re back in school, Charley’s in the military, Allison’s in Florida, I can’t stay cooped up here all day. I hate it here.”
She laughed. “Everyone’s so crazy. It’s like we all need to get settled or something. What about you? Are you okay?”
Okay with what?
“Guess I’ll go to the restaurant and say hi to Pete,” I said. “I haven’t seen him since I’ve been back. Maybe buy a present somewhere, something for Little Pete and Anne.”
“Maybe I’ll have some time tomorrow,” Holly said. She went into the laundry room and came back wearing a black winter coat that nearly covered her skirt. With her white sneakers her legs looked too pale and naked to go outside.
She buttoned her coat. “At the restaurant,” she instructed, “don’t be a nuisance.” She paused as if looking for the right words. “Pete’s pretty stressed with how things are.”
With how things are? How are things?
Did I want to know? Pete had taken over my mother’s restaurant, but over the past few years things hadn’t been going well financially. Did I care? After all the years of working for my mother—going from middle school, through high school and college, to even the first few years after her death—did I even care anymore, care about Pete’s problem?
“Maybe the holidays will turn it around.” Holly sighed, opening her purse on the counter, checking for her keys. She turned and reached for her bag on the table. “Maybe he can get it back to the way it was. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
He could never get it back to the way it was.
For all of the nights back in Gettysburg since I started graduate school, for all the nights when I got drunk with my old high school friends, for all the laughs and the talk of local girls and everyone getting married, and for the complaints of how meaningless their jobs were, it was remarkable how little I cared about any of it. How glad I was to be away.
But still, shouldn’t I care about my family?
“And Little Pete and Anne? What happens after they get dressed?” I asked almost as an afterthought.
“They’ll be all right,” Holly said. “I told them to clean their rooms. Jerry will make them lunch.” She looked at her watch, as if realizing she had no more time. Shaking her head, she walked past the washer and dryer and opened the back door. “Don’t worry,” she said without turning. “They’ll play until I get back.”
I wasn’t worried about them, I realized. Instead, I wanted to shout at her something like, ”Christmas is a couple days away, you look exhausted, the restaurant is failing, the house hasn’t been decorated, your kids are on their own watching cartoons all morning, or worse, hanging out all afternoon with Jerry—Jerry who is such a slug—don’t you think you have a problem?” But, I didn’t say anything.
I looked down at the paper. Someone had been killed all right, but it was out in the middle of nowhere. I remembered the paper’s headline five years earlier, “Local Business Woman Killed in Plane Crash,” or something like that. No one saved that paper. “Local Woman Killed in the Middle of Nowhere”, “Local Woman Who Shouldn’t Have Been on that Fucking Plane Killed near Gettysburg”, “Local Woman Flying in Fucking Horrible Weather Killed for No Fucking Good Reason”—My god, what was I doing to myself?
“See you later, I guess,” Holly said as she closed the door behind her.
Later that afternoon I walked uptown six blocks to the restaurant on Lincoln Square. It was cold outside and the jacket I wore from North Carolina was way too light for late December in Pennsylvania. Shivering, I stood on the square in front of the restaurant and instead of going inside, listened to the choral music piped onto the square. As always, the North Pole workshop on the other side of the Square, hosted by the volunteer fire department, offered children a chance to sit with a local fireman dressed up as Santa. Three plastic kings and a barnyard cow bordered a nativity scene on the grassy plaza in the middle of the square. Cars circling around the plaza kept baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in their centerpiece far removed from the tinny Mitch Miller music and Santa in the fireman boots.
I must have looked across the Square every year since I was a kid: rain or shine, life or death. What to buy for Christmas? What to buy my brothers and sisters? What to get Mother or Daddy before time ran out? Who was left? Who actually cared any more?
I turned back to the restaurant. The reflection of the cars in the plate glass windows made it difficult to see inside. Slowly I spotted Pete busy with a large lunch crowd. The restaurant, decked out for Christmas, looked warm and inviting. Pete, a big guy with a big smile, seemed happy in a red sweater rushing around cleaning tables, seating customers. From the assortment of packages in the booths, it looked like the restaurant was full of shoppers stopping in for lunch. My brother-in-law had to be glad to be busy.
Pete happened to look up while cleaning a booth near the door and saw me through the window. He smiled and came to the front door. “Damn, it’s cold,” he said when he stepped outside. “Why don’t you come in and say hi to everyone.”
“No, No. I need to do some shopping. Maybe later.”
“Okay, but it’s been a while and everyone thinks you’re…
“—dead?” I interjected.
Pete scrunched his forehead, “No, still at school. I told everyone you were coming home for the holiday, but no one has seen you.”
I looked away, a little embarrassed. “It’s always the same,” I said, looking across the Square. “Things change, but you would never know.”
“Well, life goes on,” Pete said with a shrug. “At least they’re not calling for snow and that’s good. Anyhow, the old crew would love to see you.” Pete smiled and paused, looking across the square. “We had some good times here, didn’t we, back in the day?”
“I’ll stop by later,” I said, though we both knew I wouldn’t.
Pete looked back at the restaurant. “It’s nice to be busy.” He was smaller somehow, smaller than my image of him. The place was taking everything out of him.
He opened the door to go inside, then, turned back to me one last time, “You okay?” he asked abruptly.
“Yeah,” I said, but why did he say that? What did he mean? Why wouldn’t I be okay? Compared to what? Compared to when I grew up in town as a kid, to when my mother was alive, to now?
Too many memories, I realized. Life goes on, but the memories become stifling, overwhelming all of the senses, too much to bear.
Pete went back inside and picked up some dirty dishes out of a tray stand. He nodded to me as a waitress walked by. She looked over and waved. I smiled and waved through the window, though I didn’t know her.
I decided to keep walking and ended up on the other side of town near the national cemetery. I was standing outside the brick arches of the local cemetery, peering into the quiet grounds. A number of the graves had Christmas wreaths and poinsettias placed on them or leaning against the headstones. This was where Holly buried Mother. Only I couldn’t remember where my mother was located. Holly had shown me after we had been drinking one afternoon, but it was in the summer a few years back.
How could I not know where my mother was? It took the State of Pennsylvania a couple of years to release her ashes, and though, by then, I was gone from Gettysburg, Holly called to say she had buried her—maybe by herself, or, maybe, with Pete and the kids—I wasn’t listening, I didn’t ask, and for the longest time, didn’t want to know. Drinking with Holly that summer: she pushed Mother’s grave on me. Still, now that I was here, couldn’t I close my eyes and walk to her grave? How could I not know where to go instinctively? But what would I say if I found her?
She had been cremated, as, in truth, so much of her had been destroyed when that plane flew into a mountainside in the middle of nowhere. Was there any essence remaining after the crack of the pines and the thud of the ground and lick of the crematorium. My mother had remarried when I was in college and her husband, a pilot, killed her. The son-of-a-bitch killed her and scattered her remains across a half-mile swath of forest.
“I hate you,” I wanted to say to her, to the last of her sterile gray bits of bone chips and dirty ash buried in a box in the ground. Holly and I were drunk that afternoon staring at her marker. Holly said the story was she pushed him to get her home, to her restaurant, to her family. But he should have known better. He was an experienced pilot and should have known better. Now we’re stuck here.
My brother Jerry was such a slug. He was six years younger than me, taller than me, thin as all get out, and lazy as shit. He wasn’t always so lazy, but Holly blamed it on the age. We didn’t talk a lot. We were drinking beer and watching football that Saturday at the house. I don’t think either of us knew what teams were on the TV. Maybe some local team, maybe not. I should have asked Jerry. Instead, Jerry asked me, “What was going on?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t know what’s going on.” I didn’t then and never did. Looking back, Holly and Pete divorced several years later. My mother’s restaurant was sold and later, so too, Holly and Pete’s house. They both found significant others and went on with their lives. We all did. As it turns out, if you don’t let yourself think about things or feel anything at all, it isn’t that hard.
“Maybe they’re just tired,” I said staring at the TV screen of black and orange football players. “Maybe we’re all tired. Maybe it’s time to just get through this and go back to school.”
“I’m being kicked out of school,” Jerry said. “I haven’t told anyone.”
I shifted in my chair. Why was he confiding in me?
“I live in an apartment with two losers,” Jerry said. “I haven’t been to class in weeks. When my grades come here, Holly is going to freak.” I thought of Mother and how disappointed she would be.
“I’m not going back to school,” Jerry said. “Do you think if I talked to Pete, I could work in the restaurant?”
“Do you want another beer?” I asked, getting up and going into the kitchen looking for something, maybe something to eat.
Late on the night prior to Christmas Eve, I came into the house somewhat drunk from rotating through the bars and saw Jerry in the glare of the television in the living room. He was slouched over on the couch, half-asleep with crushed beer cans on the coffee table and on floor around him. Beside him, Little Pete, was asleep in his clothes, his shoes still on his feet, a throw blanket barely covering him.
“Jerry, wake up. Where’s Holly and Pete?”
“I dunno. Some party or something,” Jerry mumbled. “Where have you been?”
“Little Pete should be in bed, for Christ’s sake.”
I picked up Little Pete and carried him upstairs to our room and put him in the bottom bunk. I let him sleep in his shirt and Hans Solo underpants. Anne was in her room sleeping soundly. She had knocked the quilt off her bed. I put it back over her.
I thought, for a second there, I thought I felt a touch of something inside me, something that I hadn’t felt in years. Little Pete and Anne were good kids, I guess. They deserved a nice Christmas. Well, why not, I thought, standing at the top of the stairwell.
Back downstairs, I shook Jerry awake. The glare of the television flashing across the empty tree was disheartening. I turned off the TV and turned on the overhead light.
“Ugh! It’s so bright.” Jerry said.
Christmas was upon us. It was time.
“Jerry, come on. Help me decorate the tree.”
“Hell, no. It’s their fucking tree. Let them decorate it.” Jerry stretched, gulped a beer and crushed the can.
I went into the kitchen; dinner plates and glasses were everywhere – the coffee pot still half-full from the morning. A big pizza box sat on the trashcan. In the dining room, the table was covered with clean clothes that had yet to be folded and an assortment of gift boxes, tissue paper and Christmas wrapping paper. I picked up the string and scissors and carried them into the living room.
“Come on, Jerry,” I said and started cutting the string into pieces. Slowly I placed them on the tree, dangling them off of the branches.
Soon, Jerry joined me. “You’re crazy,” he said. “It’s just like everyone says.”
Together we decorated the tree: no sparkling lights, no shiny bulbs, no special family ornaments, no silvery tinsel, just white string twirling on dark branches.
“This is crazy,” Jerry repeated. “Holly and Pete will never allow this. This is all a waste of time. You realize, it’s you, it’s only you. They will change this tomorrow.”
Holly and Pete’s Christmas tree appeared to be crying. I remember thinking how satisfied I was before turning off the overhead light. Maybe I liked the idea of the tree mourning my mother’s death, or our family in the aftermath of her crash, or her business falling apart, or my sister and brother-in-law overwhelmed and lost in the day-to-day of keeping it all going, or Jerry and me, what? Jerry failing in college, and me? Me? What? What?
Jerry was right. Holly and Pete would hate the tree when they came home, but I didn’t care. I went to bed that night and snuggled next to Little Pete. I loved being his age.