I should warn you. This is not a Christmas story. It happen around Christmas and it is Christmas-related, but this is not a Christmas story. Just so that you know.
This year, things seemed to be different, even though everyone pretended that everything was just fine. You could feel the effort they all put into their act, from the way they had carefully dressed to the way they acted around each other, the put-on politeness at the dinner table, the merriment during the singing of the carols and the ad-like cheerfulness while we opened the presents on the following morning.
It would have been fine. Honestly, it would have been just fine, had it not been for my mother, who watched me too attentively as I was coming down the stairs and then tried to cover up the fact that she was worried sick by speaking in her most chipper voice about how much she hoped that the roast would turn out fine and telling my sister that she should start setting the table for dinner. She didn´t give me any tasks, which was very unusual and aroused my suspicion momentarily, because if you knew my mother you´d know that she was great at delegating tasks just to keep everyone busy and out of the kitchen, which, even by the modern standards of emancipation in our household, was still her domain.
My sister scurried past me and into the dining room to set the table and from where I sat on the last step on the staircase I could see my brother and my dad decorating the Christmas tree in the adjacent living room. I´ve heard how Jenna from two doors over told her friends in school that they had a Christmas tree that had to stand in the foyer, because it was the room with the highest ceiling. She seemed awfully proud of that big tree that was too big to fit into the living room and I wondered if Jenna´s family celebrated Christmas in the foyer as well. Is that where they sang their carols so that the light of the Christmas candles could put them in a Christmas mood? Is it where Jenna and her two sisters watched the presents with awe, wondering which of the big ones was for them and what was in them? Is it where they would open their presents on Christmas morning, their feet cold from the marble floor that – thank you very much – had not been scratched a single bit when the two workmen had put the tree up or otherwise mum would have fired them right away.
I wondered about Jenna a little while longer and I decided that we were better off with the Christmas tree in the living room and when I looked up again, mum was standing a few feet away from me, drying her hands on her apron. It was the one I had given to her for last Christmas and I wondered if she had decided to put it on to put me in a good mood. It did nothing to cheer me up and I wondered if I should tell her to drop the act and just be, but I knew that was not how this day would go about and I wondered if they would go on pretending even if I would tell them not to. I wondered a lot.
“Sam”, my mum breathed, her favorite manner of speaking to me ever since last year. “Do you mind terribly helping your dad and your brother with the decoration of the Christmas tree? I don´t think they remember that this year´s decoration color scheme was meant to be blue and silver.”
I sighed. Not because I minded helping my dad and my brother. I always thought that decorating the Christmas tree was kind of fun. I just felt helpless at this impenetrable show that my mum had decided to put on for my benefit. I wished she would just stop and let me be, like she had every other year, but I guess that last year´s event had put a spotlight onto the right corner of the stage where I used to hide and now I was there for all to see and notice, and because this is where everyone used to exit the stage, just walking past me, they can´t do that anymore now, not with the big spotlight lighting up my corner. The sad thing about it is that the dynamic of our family is totally messed up now and I just wished they would turn the spotlight off and leave me be, but they must have forgotten where the switch is.
I decided not to wonder about stags and spotlights anymore and agreed that the best thing for me to do was to go and help my brother and my father with the decoration of the Christmas tree, because I had done so every year, even last year and I was always the one to make the final decision regarding the color scheme and I was kind of proud of it. It was my special Christmas task, or so my parents had called it. You see, I am ten years younger than my sister and twelve years younger than my brother and being the youngest (by far) somehow makes your parents always do special things for you, even though they don´t really mean to. On the first Christmas, the first I can remember, that is, I cried because my brother had made me believe that babies weren´t allowed to help with the decoration of the Christmas tree and my dad, fearing for the valuable glass ornaments, said that he was quite right and that only kids older than fifteen were allowed to help. Because that didn´t stop me from crying and because not even my mum´s amazing Christmas chocolate chip cookies would calm me down, they came up with my new job, one that only I would be allowed to perform and that no one could to any better than me. The first few years I was all amazed with picking the color scheme, but once I saw through their lie, I put no more effort into picking the colors. This year, I had just pointed to my mum´s sweater and then her ring, signaling that I wanted blue and silver and she had sighed and nodded and had passed the message on.
See, I don´t really talk anymore. I guess I can skip telling you about how we decorated the tree, even though my brother tried to smuggle red ornaments on the tree, which my father took off again, quickly glancing over to me. Honestly, I couldn´t care less and it was kind of a tradition that my brother tried to ruin the color scheme by decorating the tree with ornaments of a totally different color, so I didn´t mind him doing so, but my dad was tightly bound to the charade my mum had decided to play and it meant to keep me happy all the time and avoid me having a meltdown. Like the one I had last year.
Last year – and I guess I should tell you, even though I don´t really know how to, because whenever I try to do so, my throat closes and I can´t breathe anymore and my head starts to spin and I feel all dizzy and I have to rest for a while – last year, I lost my gran. Well, we lost our gran. I sometimes forget that she was my mother´s mum and my sibling´s grandmother and my dad´s mother-in-law and that I was not the only one who loved her, even though it seems like I was.
My gran had good and bad days, sunny and rainy days. On sunny days, she would be in the kitchen, baking our favorite cookies and cakes and telling us about the time she had met her husband and how dangerous it had been to climb out of her window and down the rain gutter to meet him in the middle of the night, because her parent´s hadn´t approved of him and had told her to never see him again. On sunny days, she would sit in the living room and would read her poetry to us, enchant us with her word magic that no one could resist, not even my father who said he hated poetry from the bottom of his heart.
On rainy days, my gran would not only forget who she was, she would forget us and she would run around frantically yelling at everybody, fearing we would be after her blood, her jewelry or her valuable possession, which only consisted of faded letters she had written to my grandpa while he was fighting in the war. On rainy days, my gran would sit in her favorite chair and stare our into the backyard, not seeing anything at all, as if the world stopped right in front of her eyes and all she could see was white and nothing at all.
She couldn´t remember the rainy days. My parents had a hard time being angry at her for making them feel the way they did, which I never quite understood, because my parents aren´t really communicative when it comes to their feelings. I mean, they told us that they love us on more than just one occasion, but they always held back talking about their feelings toward gran, which was fine by me, because gran never forgot about me, not even on her rainy days. On sunny days, she would be out and about with me, exploring the neighborhood, telling me how this world had looked like 20, 30, 40 years ago. I loved to hear her speak of the past and I loved it when she took me by the hand and said “Sam, let´s go exploring” with that amazingly youthful sparkle in her eyes. On rainy days, she sometimes told me to sit by her side and watch the world with her. We would sit for hours and I even though I knew she wouldn´t speak to me or even remember anything about that day, I still told her stories. Stories that I had read, stories that I had heard or stories that she had told me. My mum used to say that it was what kept my gran alive, even if she couldn´t remember it.
On Christmas, my gran had a rainy day and everyone was barking mad at her, because she had taken the large knife from the kitchen drawer and had yelled at us to stay away from her and that she would kill us all if we dared to hurt her. My mum had spoken to her in a silent way, but to no avail. My dad had threatened to call the hospital, my brother had tried to take the knife from her, my sister had cried, and Christmas was ruined. I ran upstairs to get my grandpa´s picture from my gran´s bedside table, because it always seemed to calm her down, even on rainy days and when I ran back downstairs, I saw that my brother was holding my sister who was still crying and my dad was on the phone calling the hospital to send someone to get her and mum was on the verge of crying as well and she was talking to her mother in a calm manner, but gran was still holding up the knife.
I held the picture up and started telling her about grandpa and she looked at me all funny and I thought it was working just fine, because she dropped the hand that was holding the knife, but then she lunged at me, ripped the picture from my hand and swung the knife in my direction, cutting my shirt open and leaving a bloody red trail on my chest, a wound ripping me open from one side of my body to the other.
I hear my mother whisper “What have you done?” to my grandma. And then I hear the silence. I see it all. My grandma clutching the picture of her husband to her chest. My mum hurrying forward to catch me as I fall. My sister´s open mouth and the shocked look on my brother´s face and my father with his back turned to us, listening to what the person on the phone tells him.
The wound was bleeding, but it wasn´t deep and I could tell that it was the shock that drained my body from all emotions and the ability to feel the pain, a build-in safety mechanism that protected me from realizing the shock of the attack, while my brain tried to process the event. I looked up to my grandma, while my father rushed to my side, while my mother pressed a towel to my chest. All the while, my grandma was staring at the picture in her hand and I could see her smile and I knew that the face she was looking at was the only face besides mine that she always remembered, no matter if it was a rainy or a sunny day and I forgave her right then and there.
But she turned and the shock I felt mirrors on her face, as her brain emerged from the cloudiness of the rainy day. Looking at the knife in her hand and my bleeding wound, she puts two and two together, and the knife dropped from her hand and fell to the floor. She ran past us and I could hear the front door close, even though my sister was crying and my brother was yelling at her to stop the wailing and my dad told my mum not to panic and help him lift me and carry me into the car. And all I worried about was that my grandma wouldn´t run too far from the house, because you never know when the rain hit and she won´t be able to find her way back home then.
She wasn´t home when we returned from the hospital. She didn´t come home on Christmas morning. On the day after Christmas, two police officers showed up and told us that they had found her. She had drowned herself in the icy cold river just outside of town.
I was on the couch in the living room, my mind numb with the pain killers they had given me in the hospital, my chest neatly covered in bandages. I hadn´t even needed stitches and the wound would heal by itself in no time, and I had protested when my parents had said that I should go and rest in my room. I had put my foot down and had told them that I would wait in the living room for gran to return so that I could tell her I was alright. When I heard of her death and felt my family staring at me, something in my brain broke and I was never quite the same afterward. My sister had told me that I had gone all white and that my eyes had glazed over and I hadn´t reacted to anything or anyone for over two hours. I had started crying and hadn´t stopped until New Year. And I was never the same anymore. I hadn´t said a word since my grandma´s death and I wondered if I would ever find the strength to do so ever again. I feared that I wouldn´t, but then I stopped worrying about speaking altogether.
My meltdown, my breakdown, was never spoken of again. My parents thought it wise to continue as though nothing had happened, but I noticed that they had taken gran´s picture off the wall in the hallway and had replaced it with a family picture taken way back. My mum had turned gran´s room into a guest room and to all family holidays, my brother and sister would return home even though the wouldn´t normally, and we would celebrate the holiday together.
I sensed that Christmas was difficult for all of them, but it was only difficult because they wanted me to forget all about what had happened a year ago, and I could tell that they knew I couldn´t.
During dinner, my brother and my sister didn´t argue like they normally would. My sister didn´t tease my brother and he didn´t kick her under the table. They would usually act like they were my age and not way older, which had always made me believe that something about returning home from your adult life made you go back in time and turned you into a child again. I had always liked that about them.
My dad cut the roast and my mum didn´t criticize the thickness of his slices, even though she always had, until he would sigh and would give her the knife so that she could do it herself. She made nice conversation, asked about my brother´s job and my sister´s love life and about my dad´s work and said that this was an especially merry Christmas, since all her children were with her and that she was blessed to have such wonderful kids. I wondered if she had always felt like she was blessed, if she even thought she really was or if it was just another thing she said to keep me happy and distract me from all the bad memories I now connected to this particular holiday.
After dinner, we all returned into the living room. We always opened one present after dinner and the rest on Christmas morning, and I wasn´t surprised when my mother knelt down and picked up a present she would then hand me. I knew she would give me the first present. It was the only thing that made sense.
“It´s been here a while”, she said in her calm voice.
My glance dropped to the present in my hand and I recognized the old-fashioned wrapping paper with the dark red roses as the one my grandmother had always used to wrap her presents in.
“It´s from gran”, my mother said, her nervous glance meeting my dad´s, “She had bought it for Christmas last year and we have never gotten around to opening it.”
She cleared her throat and I felt all weird. Maybe, she hadn´t even put on a show, because she had wanted me to feel better, but because she knew that a present from gran was sitting under the tree, waiting for me to unwrap it. Maybe she had been so chipper and so merry, because she needed to persuade herself that giving this present to me would be alright. And I loved her for her consideration and I wished I were able to tell her.
“Go on, open it”, my brother said and he was all excited, but he always was, because he always wanted to know what we all got for Christmas and I was grateful for this gesture of normality piercing the cloak of pretense.
Carefully, I opened the presents and pushed the wrapping paper aside, revealing the purposefully picked present.
“What is it?” my brother asked.
I let the wrapping paper drop to the floor. My head was spinning and I felt light, like I could rise into the air any minute now, floating around in the air, detached from life and earth and all of that. My grandma had given me the story book she had always taken with her wherever she went, the one I had gotten out on rainy days to read her favorite stories to her, the one she had brought up to our rooms when we were sick and had to stay in bed, the one that had carried us through both rainy and sunny days.
With shaking hands, I opened the book and saw that my grandma had written a little note onto the first blank page of the book. My view was blinded as tears filled my eyes.
Dear Sam, I want you to have my stories. They have accompanied me through good and bad days. And I know they will do the same for you. Through rainy and sunny days. Love, Gran
And while my brother got up and walked over to me to see what grandma had given me for Christmas, I exhaled softly and wondered if she was right.