In this quiet way Christmas approached. I put out Emma’s old Advent wreath, and she made it part of her daily schedule of wandering to pause at the wreath and rearrange all the candles. Each evening she sat in front of the wreath, mesmerized, and watched the flames flicker and dance, and I would watch her through the flames, wondering what other little secrets were hidden in her mind, and whether I cared enough to know anymore. Now I was the remote one, automatically giving generic replies to her generic remarks. If Emma noticed that I’d withdrawn from her, she didn’t let it get her down. She was still delighted to see me every day, and told me so. She was still grateful for my help each evening, though by now I accepted her gratitude as my due. She was never wounded by my sarcasm or offended by my passivity. She was untouchable in her own little world.
As I avoided the library, Emma took to haunting it, pulling books off the shelves and flipping through them. Several times I found books in her drawers or tucked in with the dishes, but usually she would take down a volume, page through it and read a few words here and there, and put it back in some other spot in the room. Sometimes she would sit watching TV with a book in her lap, every now and then calling a cheery observation to me as I decorated the tree or cleaned out the old fireplace.
Peggy Harriman next door had offered to keep half an eye on the house and the sleeping Emma while I attended midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and I accepted eagerly. I would take Emma to morning Mass, but the Vigil was to be my own time.
The preparations of the day -- the baking and laundering and bathing -- had wound Emma up. She hovered at my door as I pulled on my good boots and smoothed my thick wool skirt and knotted my scarf.
“When I was your age, we didn’t bother about pinning our hair up,” she said, watching me twist my hair into a bun. “We kept it short, let me tell you! None of this fuss! Let me have a brush, and I’ll show you how you should fix it.” By this time she was behind me, trying to pull out my bobby pins. I twisted in frustration.
“No, Emma! I like my hair this way!” I tried to grab her fingers as she unwound my hair. “I never brush my hair unless I have to. It gets fluffy. Ow! Emma, stop!” She was trying to comb through my hair with her fingers, but now she turned and left the room. I picked up my box of pins that had fallen off my bed and searched for the scattered contents, wondering if Emma was offended. But she reappeared in the doorway holding her own hairbrush.
“Here, honey, I’ll fix you up,” she said, sitting on the bed and patting the spot next to her. I edged out of reach of the brush.
“How about I fix you up?” I countered. “I’ll brush your hair, Emma, and make you look all nice.”
To my relief she handed me the hairbrush without protest, and I knelt on the bed behind her and gently smoothed her thinning hair.
“You look nice tonight, honey,” she murmured contentedly.
“Thank you, Aunt Emma,” I said. “I’m going to Mass tonight. It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, I should get ready,” she cried, dismayed, but I continued to stroke her hair.
“No, no, Emma, you’re going to Mass in the morning. You’ll have more time to get ready then, don’t you think?” I ran the hairbrush softly over her head, and her shoulders relaxed. “Peggy Harriman is going to keep an eye on the house while I’m gone, but don’t worry about it. You’ll be sleeping peacefully. Don’t you think it’s time to get ready for bed?”
Emma brightened at the mention of Peggy. “I haven’t seen Peggy in so long,” she said. “I ought to go over there and chat. When is she coming over?”
“No, Emma, she’s going to be at her house, but she’ll be watching out for you.”
“She’ll be watching me?” Emma didn’t like that. “I don’t like her watching me. When are the folks coming?” Her hands fidgeted in her lap, and she raised one as if to take the hairbrush.
“The folks will be around,” I said easily, sliding the brush through her hair. “Don’t you worry. Now, shouldn’t you get some beauty sleep before Christmas?”
Emma sighed and got up, and I handed her the hairbrush. She puttered slowly down the hall to the bathroom, speaking quietly to herself of Peggy and the folks and visiting. I sighed as well, overwhelmed by an intense yearning to be by myself at the Vigil Mass, to dissolve into the beauty and the peace of Christmas Eve, responsible for no one but myself.
Tucked against the wall at Our Lady of Lourdes, I tried to shut my mind to the ever-swelling crowd in the church. My back pew, which had been empty when I had slipped into it, was now shared with a man in glasses quietly studying a missal, and flustered young parents sitting guard on either side of a minute baby sleeping in a carrier. I ignored them all. I wanted to lose myself in the beauty of the church and the quiet of the painted creche on the steps of the altar. Ever since I was a child, Christmas Vigil has been the most momentous night of the year to me: all waiting culminating in the joy of the angels and the gentle smile of the Madonna gazing at her miraculous infant. If I were Mary, I would never have put my baby in a manger for animals to sniff and shepherds to gawk at. I would have held my baby close and warm and kept him all to myself, so that no one could steal him from me and ever cause us pain. I thought of Stacy and her tiny baby sheltered safely within her womb, and was surprised to feel a stab of jealousy at her happiness. Being the oldest, she had beaten me to husband and child, and now she was going to spend Christmas in a happy nauseous glow rather than with a senile old woman.
The choir coughed, the organ rumbled into a prelude, and I unclenched my hands as the familiar strains of Silent Night restored a measure of my peace and perspective. I was even able to smile sympathetically at the man when he murmured an apology for being shoved against me by the young couple scooting down to make room for another arrival, an impeccably dressed gentleman of immense proportions. This newcomer removed his hat, settled his stately bulk, nodded graciously down the pew, and reposed, unmovable, a bulwark against further encroachment by latecomers. Before us, a mass of people filled the church; behind us, the standing crowds teemed and shuffled. Soon I felt myself wrapped in warm anonymity, and my troubled thoughts eased and cooled.
At that moment the choir burst into Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and the congregation struggled to its feet in a flutter of songbooks and missalettes. The acolytes, lectors, and priests processed in, followed by a press of people seeking the last inch of seating. An usher cast a speculative eye on our pew and beckoned toward the doors. People parted with difficulty, and a walker slowly emerged, pushed by an elderly woman in a turquoise jacket. She shuffled to the pew and carefully parked her conveyance as the massive gentleman grunted and edged against the young couple, who were striving to shift copious amounts of baby paraphernalia down the pew. The man and I looked at each other in alarm as we were squeezed even closer to the wall.
Inside his cocoon of blankets the baby, awakened by the commotion, began to wail. His parents flew into a flurry of action, unstrapping him from the car seat, bouncing him, excavating in the diaper bag for his pacifier. He would not be pacified, but squalled with increasing fury. As the organ swelled out the Gloria, his mother dropped onto the pew and began the laborious process of draping the tiny ball of rage in order to nurse him. The space against the wall grew tighter, if that was possible. I gave up trying to follow the words in the flimsy missalette, and, as I was almost wrapped in the man’s arms anyway, I read along in his handsome volume.
The priest having prayed the Collect, everyone sat as best he could. The elderly lady, once settled, had not risen from her seat. The large gentleman conscientiously gave her plenty of breathing room, so that the young husband had to deposit the diaper bag precariously atop the baby seat. His wife was wrapped up in the baby and his blankets. I perched as formally as possible without actually sitting on the man’s lap. The church quieted. And then my phone vibrated in my purse.
In a situation of this density, the easiest thing to do would have been to ignore the buzzing. But at midnight on Christmas Eve, the only person who could possibly been trying to reach me would be Peggy Harriman, calling about Emma. And my purse was tucked carefully under the pew, under the feet of the nursing mother.
“Please,” I whispered to the man, “please, can you reach my purse? I’m afraid it might be important.” He glanced at my pale face and silently rummaged beneath the seat, straightening a moment later to hand me the prize. As I fished for the phone, he tried to push a lock of hair out of his eyes without elbowing the snorting infant. The baby, outraged at having fallen off the breast, howled in time to the refrain of the psalm. His mother’s harried efforts to reattach him pushed the man even closer to me, so that he couldn’t help reading the text over my shoulder: Front door open. Emma not in house.
Emma not in house. Emma had gotten out, was in the cold and snow wandering, perhaps in her pajamas and slippers. Where could she be trying to go? A sick wave of panic washed over me, but I fought it down as I dropped the phone back in my purse.
“I have to get out,” I explained to the man, in a voice I hoped was reasonably calm. “It’s an emergency, and I need to leave now.”
He and I jostled awkwardly as we rose together so I could slide past him. The nursing mother looked up in irritation, having gotten her baby back to sleep, and whether from inability or disinclination, refused to move. The car seat blocked my passage. The immense gentleman took up the same amount of space sitting or standing. The elderly woman was oblivious to the confusion by the wall, and her walker blocked the opening of the pew. In dismay I squeezed back past the man, but the pew was hard against the wall and would admit no exit. I looked up at the man, who seemed to be my sole ally, and said, “I have to get out.”
He considered me for a moment -- his eyes were gray, shot through with green -- before he surveyed the impassable pew, the tight crowd near the door, and, with a glance at the altar, the progress of the mass. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, he put his missal in the pocket of his coat, swung himself over the back of the pew, and held out his hands to me. Now it was my turn to hesitate, as I imagined trying to clamber around in my skirt and boots.
“Isn’t there some other way?” I whispered.
“Do you want to get out or not?” he whispered back, but the corner of his mouth twitched as I climbed with as much dignity as I could muster onto the bench and balanced with one foot on the back of the pew, pondering how best to get over without kicking baby or mother. I was sure he was laughing at me when I put my hands on his shoulders and prepared to jump. But as I stepped up I felt a firm grasp on my waist, lifting and lowering me gently to the ground.
At this moment the congregation stood for the gospel. The crowd behind us surged forward, and my ankle knocked painfully against the pew. Stifling a gasp, I clutched at the man and sagged against him for a second, pressing my head against the wool of his coat and inhaling the faint scent of bay rum until my vision cleared. He clasped me tightly against his side and began to shove through the protesting crowd, carrying me along until we emerged out the great doors into the sharp midnight air, the first snowflakes already swirling around us.
The chill, after the stifling atmosphere of the packed church, braced me. He was watching me curiously, and I realized that I was still holding onto his coat.
“Thank you,” I said, straightening up and smoothing my hair, which had escaped from the last of the hairpins in the struggle to get out. “I’m very grateful, and there’s no way for me to repay you.” I had remembered where I had parked, and now I tested my foot on the stairs as I leaned on the brass railing.
“You’re welcome,” he replied. I could feel his eyes on me as I limped cautiously down the icy steps, favoring my wobbly ankle. “Will you be all right?”
I turned my head to reply, but there were so many answers that could be given to this question, and there was so much riding on my being okay, and it had been so long since anyone had asked me how I was doing, that I could only stare mutely at him. My breath began to rise in shuddering gasps and I clamped my lips tight and clutched the rail. For the second time that evening he seemed to hesitate slightly, then he strode down the stairs to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and guided me briskly down to the parking lot.
“Where are you parked?” he asked. His spurt of action cleared my head and focused me.
“Against the wall in the back.”
We made a rapid pace against an intensifying bombardment of tiny snowflakes.
“Who is Emma?” he asked after a moment.
“My aunt. My Great-Aunt. I live with her. She has Alzheimer’s. She must be out in the cold, and I have to find her quickly. She could be freezing to death in this weather...” My voice trailed off as I paused to regard the cars parked two and three deep.
“Which one is yours?”
I gestured at the old green Toyota trapped against the wall, not just double but triple parked. We stood silently for a moment. Then I let out my breath and started for the parking lot gate.
“Wait,” he called. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll walk home. I don’t live far away.”
“But your foot...”
“Is better. Thank you.” I crunched on with determination, calculating the fastest route home on foot.
“Stop,” he said, seizing my arm and catching up to me. “You can’t walk home in this weather.”
“My aunt is already walking in it!” I said, shaking him off. He placed himself squarely in my path. The rising wind lashed my hair into wild curls which whipped across my eyes. I shoved it back and piled it against my head as I faced him.
“You’ve already been a great help,” I said firmly, “but you don’t have to concern yourself. I need to go, please.”
“Seeing as I’m missing Christmas Vigil for this, I might as well consider myself involved already,” he said. “Listen to me. How can you help your aunt by trudging through the snow and making yourself sick? You need to find her fast. Let me drive you.”
I fought down my first, unreasonable instinct to refuse his offer. “You’re very kind,” I snapped.
We hurried back up the parking lot, the man keeping a stride ahead of me. His brown hair faded to yellow as we passed under the harsh glare of a street light, and he pushed it out of his eyes in an echo of my own struggle against the wind. Suddenly ashamed of my lack of graciousness, I swallowed and sighed. “Thank you. Again. I seem to be singularly ineffective tonight.”
“You don’t have to do everything yourself, you know,” he answered, with the same hint of amusement he had displayed when I was about to jump off the pew.
“Often I do,” I answered in all seriousness, and with a sidelong glance at me, he bit off whatever snappy reply had been on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he unlocked the passenger door of a small silver car and held it open for me. I slid in and laid my head back against the rest, closing my eyes, willing the rising panic in my stomach to calm and dissipate. My willpower achieved precisely nothing, but the slam of his door gave me a therapeutic jolt, and the way he peeled out of the parking lot was positively cathartic.
As we sped through the deserted streets, I gave him directions to Emma’s house. He looked at me oddly, but said nothing. We rode in silence while I exchanged frantic texts with Peggy. It had been twenty minutes since I’d first received her message. Emma had not been found yet and Peggy was ready to call the police. She was on her home phone with her husband John, who was driving an opposite route from the one that would bring us home from church. I had to refrain myself from pressing on the imaginary passenger-side accelerator to hurry us along. In every shadow between every street light lurked the potential terror of a collapsed body slowly freezing to death.
“Look,” the man said urgently, and then I too saw a figure moving slowly down the dark sidewalk, huddled against the wind. She wore a bulky sweater and a scarf over her head, but over her thick elastic stockings were nothing but slippers. We pulled over and I leapt from the car, screaming her name. The man, close behind me, wrapped her in his coat. I flung open the car door as he rushed her into the back seat, and then I squeezed in beside her and placed my own coat over her legs.
“Emma, Emma, what were you doing?” I cried, chafing her hands between my own. “You’re almost frozen! What were you thinking?”
“Hi, honey,” she croaked. “It sure is cold out.”
I thought I heard a choked laugh from the driver’s seat.
“This is nice,” Emma chattered, looking around the interior of the car. “Howard has done well for himself. You tell him to take me home now.”
“This isn’t Howard’s car,” I said. “Emma, where were you going? What were you trying to do?”
“The folks never came over,” she said as we sped the short distance home. “I couldn’t find Peggy’s house with the big tree. You remember Peggy? She’s my neighbor, but I can’t find her tree.”
“That tree blew down in a storm three years ago,” was the man’s unexpected remark as we pulled in Emma’s driveway. Peggy flew out of her kitchen door, and I could see her bawling into the phone as we bundled Emma out of the car and into the house. Peggy and the man hustled her to her bed while I seized every blanket I could carry, including the electric blanket, and tossed them over her. He and I set to tucking Emma in while Peggy headed to the kitchen to heat water for tea.
Being back in the familiar environment was like a tonic to my jittery nerves, such that I could start to feel some pity for the ordeal Peggy must have endured. In her hysteria she was babbling at the man as if they were old friends.
“I was getting so desperate, I was going to call you next,” she yelled to him as she rattled around the kitchen making hot drinks.
“I don’t know why I should fall last on your list of emergency heroes,” he said easily. I had to admire his composure; he accepted even this bit of incongruity with complete equanimity.
“You two get under the blankets with her and keep her warm,” came the order from the kitchen. “The more body heat, the better.”
He and I pressed ourselves on either side of the uncomplaining Emma and eyed each other over her icy body.
“This is my great-aunt Emma,” I said, all embarrassment at the whole situation finally evaporated, “and my name is Emma too. Emma Trapnel.”
“I’m Martin Harriman,” he said, as sociably as if we were chatting at a dinner party. “Peggy is my aunt.”
“Aren’t we cozy?” purred Aunt Emma, and she patted his cheek.