Gordon, where are you?
Betsy, a middle-aged yellow Lab, looked up as if she had heard Nora speaking. The two — owner and pet — had been best friends for so long that the twins frequently teased their mother about mental telepathy — with a dog. Betsy thumped her tail and gazed up from her self- assigned spot at Nora’s feet.
Leaving the bay- window seat, where she’d been staring out at the moon lighting fire to the frost-encrusted winter lawn, which sloped down to the lakeshore, Nora crossed the kitchen to set the teakettle to boiling. Tea always helped in times of distress. She brought out the rose-sprinkled china teapot and filled it with hot water. Tonight was not a mug night but a “stoke up the reserves” night. If there had been snow on the ground, this was the kind of night, with the moon so bright every blade of grass glinted, when she would have hit the ski trails. An hour of cross-country skiing and she’d have been relaxed enough to fall asleep whether Gordon called or not. So, instead, she drank tea. As if copious cups would make her sleep deeply rather than toss and turn. Perhaps she would work on the business plan if she got enough caffeine into her system.
Betsy’s ears perked up and she went and stood in front of the door to the garage.
Nora’s heart leaped. Gordon must be home after all. But why hadn’t he called to say he was at the airport? His business trip to Stuttgart, Germany, had already been prolonged and here they were trying to get ready — with just four days until Christmas. The last one for which she could guarantee the twins would still be home. Her last chance for perfection. When he’d told her a week ago he had to fl y to Stuttgart again, the word “again” had echoed in her head. Betsy’s tail increased the wag speed and she backed up as the door opened.
“Mom, I’m home.” Charlie, the older twin by two minutes, and named after his father, Charles Gordon Peterson, came through the door in his usual rush. “Oh, there you are.” Grinning up at his mother, he paused to pet the waiting dog. “Good girl, Bets, did you take good care of Mom?” Betsy wagged her tail and caught the tip of his nose with her black- spotted tongue. “Smells good in here.” He glanced around the kitchen, zeroing in on the plate of powdered-sugar–dusted brownies. “Heard from Dad?”
“No.” Nora cupped her elbows with her hands and leaned against the counter. At five-seven, she found that the raised counter fit right into the small of her back. When they’d built the house, she and Gordon had chosen cabinets two inches higher than normal, since they were both tall. Made for easier work surfaces. “Go ahead, quit drooling and eat. There’s a plate in the fridge for you to pop in the microwave.” “Where’s Christi?” Charlie asked around a mouthful of walnut- laced brownie.
“Upstairs. I think she’s finishing a Christmas present.”
“Are we going to decorate the tree tonight?”
“We were waiting on you.” And your father, but somehow he always manages to not be here at tree- decorating time.
While Gordon was not a “bah, humbug” kind of guy, his idea of a perfect Christmas was skiing in Colorado. They’d done his last year, with his promise to help make hers perfect this year. Right. Big help from across the Atlantic. While Nora knew he’d not deliberately chosen to be gone this week before Christmas, it still rankled, irritating under her skin like a fine cactus spine, hard to see and harder to dig out. Charlie retrieved his plate from the fridge and slid it into the microwave, all the while filling his mother in on the antics of the children standing in line to visit Santa. Charlie excelled as one of Santa’s elves, a big elf at six feet, with dark curly hair and hazel eyes, which sparkled with delight. Charlie loved little kids; so when this perfect job came up, he took it and entertained them all in his green- and- red elf suit. He could turn the saddest tears into laughter. Santa told him not to grow up, he’d need elves forever.
“One little girl had the bluest round eyes you ever saw.” Charlie took his warmed plate out and pulled a stool up to the counter so he could eat. “She had this one great big tear trickling down her cheek, but I hid behind my hands” — he demonstrated peekaboo with his fingers — “and she sniffed, ducked into Santa, caught herself and peeked back at me. When he did his ‘ho ho ho,’ she looked up at him with the cutest grin.” He deepened his voice. “ ‘And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?’ ” Charlie shifted into shy little girl: “ ‘ I — I want a kitty. My mommy’s kitty died and she needs a new one.’ ” He paused. “ ‘And make sure it has a good motor. My mommy likes to hold one that purrs.’ ” Charlie came back to himself. “Can you believe that, Mom? That’s all she wanted. She reached up and kissed his cheek, slid off his lap and waved good- bye.” “What a little sweetheart.”
“I checked with Annie, who was taking the pictures, and got their address. You think we could find a kitten that has a good motor at the Humane Society?”
“Ask Christi, she’d know.” Christi volunteered one afternoon a week at the Riverbend Humane Society and would bring home every condemned animal if they let her. She’d fostered more dogs and cats in the last year than most people did in a lifetime. She’d found homes for them too, except for Bushy, an older white fluffy cat, with one black ear and one black paw. His green eyes captivated her, or at least that was the excuse for his taking up permanent residence. “I will. Be nice if there was a half- grown one with a loud motor.”
“Loud motor for what?” Christi, Bushy draped across her arm, wandered into the kitchen, a smear of Sap Green oil paint on her right cheek, matching the blob on the back of her right forefinger. Tall at five-nine, with an oval face and haunting grayish blue eyes, she looked every bit the traditional blond Norwegian. As much as Charlie entertained the world, she observed and translated what she saw onto canvases that burst with color and yet drew the eye into the shadows, where peace and serenity lurked. Christi would rather paint than eat or even breathe at times.
“A little girl asked Santa for a kitty for her mother” — he shifted into mimic — “ ‘ ’Cause Mommy’s kitty died and she is sad.’ ” “That’s all she wanted?”
“Gee, that’s what I thought too.” Nora motioned toward the teapot and Christi nodded. While her mother poured the tea, Christi absently rubbed the paint spot on her cheek. “There are three cats for adoption right now. I like the gold one, she loves to be held. The other two would rather roughhouse.”
“You think it would still be there until after school?” “I’ll call Shawna and tell her to hold it for you. Are you sure you want to do this? What happens if she doesn’t really want it?”
“Can anyone turn down one of Santa’s elves?”
“You’d go in costume?”
“I could paint you a card.”
“Sure, have one started. All I need to do is change the color of the cat. Luckily, I made it white, like Bushy here.” She rubbed her cheek on the cat’s fluffy head. “How long until we decorate the tree?”
“Give me five minutes.”
“Okay, you two start on the lights and I’ll finish the card. You want me to sign it for you?” Christi had taken classes in calligraphy and had taught her mother how to sign all the Christmas cards in perfect script.
“You know, you’re all right for a girl.” Charlie bounded up the stairs to his room, where all his herpetological friends lived. Arnold, a three- foot rosy boa that should have been named Houdini, was his favorite.
Nora handed Christi her mug of tea. “Take a brownie with you.”
“Thanks, Mom. You heard from Dad yet?”
“No.” Nora knew her answer was a bit clipped. “Something must be wrong.” Christi’s eyes darkened in concern. “Did you call him?”
“I tried, cell went right to voice mail.”
“So, he was on it?”
“Or he let the battery run out.” As efficient as Gordon was, you’d think he could remember to plug his phone into the charger. The two women of the family shared an eye rolling.
“Unless he’s broken down someplace.”
“You always tell me not to worry.”
“Well, advising and doing are two different things.” Nora set her cup and saucer in the dishwasher. “Want to help me unroll the lights?”
“I was going up to finish that card.”
Nora checked her watch. “Ten minutes?” “Done.” Christi scooped Bushy up off the counter, where he’d flopped, and headed up the stairs, not leaping like her brother, but lithe and regal, the residuals of her years of ballet and modern dance.
Nora and Betsy headed for the living room, but when the phone rang, she did an about- face and a near dive for the wall phone in the desk alcove. “Hello.”
“Nora, I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner.”
“There, you did it again.” She tried to sound harsh, but relief turned her to quivering Jell- O.
“Apologize. Now I can’t be mad at you.” His chuckle reminded her of how much she missed him when he was gone.
“Where are you?”
“Still in Stuttgart. Art and I got to talking and I didn’t realize the time passing. I had to get some sleep.” “You’re up awfully early.”
“I know. Trying to finish up. Is the tree up yet?”
“What, are you trying to outwait me?” “What ever gave you that idea?” He coughed to clear his throat.
“Just a tickle. Look, I should be on my way home this afternoon. I’ve got to wrap this thing up, but I told them the deadline is noon and I’m heading for the airport at three, come he- heaven or high water.”
“Well, don’t worry about the tree.” She slipped into suffering servant to make him laugh again. “The kids and I’ll get that done tonight.” It worked. His chuckle always made her smile back, even when he couldn’t see her. “They have school tomorrow, right?”
“Right. Last day, so there’ll be parties. I have goodie trays all ready to take.”
“You made Julekaka for the teachers again?” Nora chuckled. “Gotta keep my place as favorite mother of high- school students.”
“Is that Dad?” Charlie called from the stairs. “Tell him to hurry home. I have to . . .” The rest of his words were lost in his rush.
“Charlie says to hurry home.”
“I heard him. Give them both hugs from me.” “Do you need a ride from the airport?” She glanced at the clock. Nine p.m. here meant four a.m. in Germany. Good thing Gordon was a morning person.
“No, I’ll take a cab. I love you.”
“You better.” She hung up on both their chuckles. How come just hearing his voice upped the wattage on the lights? And after twenty- two years of marriage. As people so often told them, they were indeed the lucky ones. “Please, Lord, take good care of him,” she whispered as she blew him a silent kiss. She joined Charlie in the living room, where a blue spruce graced the bay window overlooking the front yard, where she and Gordon had festooned tiny white lights on the naked branches of the maple, which burst into fiery color in the fall, and the privet hedge, which bordered the drive. Lights in icicle mode graced the front eaves, while two tall white candles guarded the front steps. She’d filled pots with holly up the flagstone stairs and hung a swag of pine boughs, red balls and a huge gold mesh bow on the door. “Here.” Charlie handed her the reel of tiny white lights and pulled on the end to plug it in.
“I already checked them all this afternoon. Just start at the top of the tree.”
They had a third of the lights on the eight- foot tree when Christi joined them, setting the finished card on the mantel to dry.
“I didn’t put it in the envelope yet, so don’t forget this in the morning, or are you coming home before going over there? Shawna said she’ll put your name on the golden cat. She’s already been fixed, so she is ready for her new home.” Christi picked up another reel of light strings. “You need to put them closer together.”
“Yeah, right, Miss Queen Bee has spoken,” Charlie mumbled from behind the tree.
“You don’t have to get huffy.”
“You don’t have to be bossy.”
“All right, let’s just get the lights on.” All they had to do was get through this drudgery part and then all would be well. Gordon always tried to skimp on the lights too. Like father, like son. Silence reigned as they wound the lights around the tree branches, punctuated only by a “hand me another reel, please” and “ouch” when a spruce needle dug into the tender spot under the nail. Nora sucked on her finger for a moment to ease the stinging. Inhaling the intoxicating spruce scent brought back memories of the last years and made her grateful again for all the joys they’d had. One more thing to miss tonight, the rehash she and Gordon always did post–tree trimming, when the children had gone to bed, like Monday morning quarterbacking, only with more smiles and laughter. Much of the laughter came because of Charlie’s clowning around.
“What if she doesn’t like the cat?” Charlie asked.
“Then we’ll take it back,” Christi said matter-of-factly.
“By ‘back,’ I’m sure you mean to the Humane Society. Bushy would not like another cat around here.” Nora’s hands stilled. This she needed to clarify.
“Of course, Mom.”
Nora looked up in time to catch a head shake from her daughter and one of the “I’m trying to be patient” looks Christi was so good at. Why was it so quiet? “Oh, I forgot to put the music on. Messiah all right?”
When both twins shrugged, she knew they’d rather have something else, but were giving her the choice. She crossed to the sound system, hit the number three button and waited a moment for Mariah Carey’s voice to flow out. She’d play the Messiah after they went to bed. They’d all attended the “ Sing-Along Messiah” concert the second weekend in December.
At least Gordon had been home for that tradition. A bit later they all three stepped back with matching sighs. “All right, throw the switch.” She looked at Charlie, who had taken over that job years earlier. This certainly was a night for memories.
When the tree sprang to life, they swapped grins and nods. The ornaments were the easy part. By unspoken agreement, they decided to hang the ornaments, which they’d bought one per year on their annual family shopping trip and dinner- out tradition, higher in the tree to keep away from batting cat’s paws and a dog’s wagging tail. While the twins snorted at her sentimentality, she hung the ornaments they’d made through the years, some like the Santa face with a cotton ball beard, beginning to look more than a bit scruffy, but dear nevertheless. The ornaments that their Tante Karen had given them through the years on their Christmas presents brought up memories and set the two to recalling each year and what their interest had been then. Nora knew that her sister watched both the twins and the shops carefully through the year to find just the perfect ornament. When the twins had trees of their own, they would already have seventeen ornaments each to take with them. The thought made Nora pause. The home tree would look mighty bare. She hung the crocheted and stiffened snowflakes she had made one year and had given for gifts. Then three little folded- paper- and- waxed stars she’d made in Girl Scouts took their own places.
When they’d hung the final ornament, they stared at the box with the glorious angel that always smiled benignly from the top of the tree.
“Let’s leave that for Dad.” Christi turned toward her mother. “I agree.” Setting the angel just right with a light inside her to make her shimmer was always Gordon’s job — for years because he was the only one tall enough and now because they wanted him to have a part, no matter how many miles separated them.
Charlie shrugged. “I am tall enough, you know.” “I know.” Nora gathered her two chicks to her sides and they admired the tree together. “Thank you. I know it is late, with school tomorrow, but I really appreciate your helping the tradition continue.” She tried not to sniff, but her body went on automatic pilot.
Charlie’s arm around her back squeezed and Christi leaned her head against her mother’s. Together they turned and surveyed all the decorations; the mantel was the only thing that Nora changed year after year, and all was done but hanging the Christmas stockings. The hooks waited. Charlie picked up the fl at box that held the cross- stitched or quilted stockings and they each hung up their own. Nora hung hers and Gordon’s, while the kids hung the ones for Bushy and Betsy. “Now Santa can come.” Christi smoothed the satin surfaces of her crazy- quilt stocking, with every satin or velvet piece decorated with intricate embroidery stitches, cross- stitch, daisy chain and feather. “When I get married, will you make my husband a sock to match?”
“I will.” Just please don’t be in too big a hurry. Not that Christi was dating anyone. She often said she left all the flirting up to her brother, since all the girls were after him all the time. But Nora often wondered if Christi was a bit jealous, not that she would ask. Her daughter talked more with her father than she did with her mother. Unless, of course, it was a real female thing.
“Anyone for cocoa? The real kind? I can make it while you get ready for bed. I’ll bring the tray up.” “And brownies?” Charlie asked.
“Fattigman?” Christi loved the traditional Norwegian goodies Nora made only at Christmastime. “Of course, and since you’ll be getting home early tomorrow, you can help me with the sandbakles.” Charlie groaned. Pressing the buttery dough into the small fluted tins was not his idea of fun.
“ ‘He who eats must press.’ ” Christi sang out the line her mother had often repeated since the time they were little. Nora watched her two swap shoulder punches as they climbed the stairs. No matter how much they teased each other or argued, the bond between them ran deeper than most siblings. Gordon called it spooky; she figured it was a gift from God.
Time to make cocoa, as her family had called it. In her mind, hot chocolate came in a packet or tin. Good thing she’d picked up the miniature marshmallows. Betsy padding beside her, she returned to the kitchen to fix the tray. If only Gordon were here. Carrying the tray up the stairs was his job.
Copyright © 2008 by Lauraine Snelling