On waking, I saw that I had slept through til nearly first light with my tablet lying on the futon beside my head. I had been reading an odd novel poorly translated from Norwegian. Its premise had been promising, but I had read several earlier works in the series and steeled myself for clumsy phrasing. It made for a good bedtime distraction but left me wondering if it read better in its native tongue.
I had thought the noise of the trains would bother me but I fought sleep for the time it took to settle. Then at dawn, the intermittent rising and retreating thunder of the cars on the tracks sent a reassuring hum into the window. As I pulled myself from sleep, I remembered. Christmas Eve. A stack of gold-wrapped presents stand on a table in a corner of my son's living room. I'm nine hours from Kansas City and a lifetime north of home.
My mother and I stand in the doorway between the hallway and the living room where the lights of the tree wink their rainbow glow on the window. I'm past the point of believing so I have spent the last hour wrapping the gifts from Santa to my little brothers. At ten, I've already developed a slight maternalistic sheen towards my little brothers Frank and Steve, who at seven and six still reverently carried the plate of cookies and glass of milk for Santa. Frank lit the Mary candle to light the way for the Christ child; Steve placed the baby Jesus in his spot in the creche. I stood behind them feeling smug. Then they got sent to bed while I rummaged in the wide closet between my mother's room and the breakfast room for wrapping paper, scissors, and tape.
My mother carried the gifts from the North Pole to her little boys and gently placed them on the breakfast room table. She gestured to me to move quietly so the boys could not hear through the curtains on the French door to the sunroom where they slept. A little thrill rolled through my body. I felt so grown -- let into a private club of people who know that Mom is Santa Claus.
I made the corners of the presents sharp and crisp, securing each flap with tape as Mom taught me. I averted my eyes as Mother wrapped the presents for me. I knew that the labels would bear a special message in her writing: "Merry Christmas to Mary Corinne". She never forgot, like the little kiss before you go off to school in the morning with a belly full of warm cocoa.
It took a half an hour to carry all the boxes into the living room. My father sat in his chair with the evening paper while we worked. He had read the Bible story before the boys scampered off to bed. His Christmas duty extended no further. Mother and I arranged the presents, heaviest in the back, smallest on top, the ones from me to my parents to the side. We kids drew names for gifts to each other, so eight small gifts already stood under the tree. Mother carefully lifted those to make sure they could be easily found, for each gifter would present to each recipient.
When we had finished, we stood in the doorway surveying the lot. My father hoisted himself out of his chair with a grunt and moved between us to go into the kitchen and rinse his coffee cup. Mother lifted her arm and wrapped it around my shoulders. Neither of us spoke. The Christmas tree rose nearly to the ceiling, its shower of tinsel glistening in the warmth of the twinkling lights.
I don't know what thoughts weighed heavily on my mother's heart but I felt a long shuddering sigh course through her body. She finally broken the silence and said, "I hope everybody likes their presents." I turned and hugged her, nestling my face against her shoulder. "Oh Mom," I exclaimed. "They will! They will!" And so we lingered, mother and daughter, until my father came behind us and said he thought they should be getting some sleep.
I lay in bed until I heard the older children trooping home just after midnight mass. The murmur of their voices lulled me to sleep. Right before I drifted off, I realized that snow had begun to fall outside my window.
Five decades later I know so much more about my mother, though not from anything she told me. I've worked so long with domestic violence victims that her stress and worry have finally found a name. I've also met enough returning veterans to understand the trauma which my father suffered as he drove his mule through the muck and mud on the Burma trail in 1945. The vagaries of war ravaged his young mind, sending his neuro-pathways in directions that his DNA had not been programmed to traverse. I'm not excusing him. Nor can I say that my mother should have rebelled against the milieu of 1950s America to leave her abusive husband. But from this distance, I have a little empathy for them. I have an inkling of the quagmire my mother's fears, and the mess behind my father's gruffness and his fury. On some level, that sigh on Christmas Eve makes so much more sense.
As I lay in bed awake this morning, my mother's face rose in my mind. I hear again her voice above my head that Christmas Eve so long ago as I stood snuggled against her slim body. Merry Christmas, Mary Corinne, she whispers. Merry Christmas, Momma, I tell her. And God bless us, each and every one.