Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 15


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It was likely that somewhere, old-timers were rocking in chairs exclaiming over how this had been the worst winter for snow in living memory, but Jill had no idea where old-timers in Luxembourg were likely to gather and swap tales. Anyway, no one was gathering today. The town was under a level three snow emergency. 

Jill had spent the day at the Inn, since she couldn’t go anywhere else. She checked the inventory of supplies. She consulted the service records for crucial systems: electrical, HVAC, backup generator. She reviewed the employee scheduling and talked with the manager about skeleton staff and overtime pay. She spent time working on paperwork and accounts.

 Amita helped with this, in a cursory fashion, but she was floating in another genre, snow-bound in a country inn with a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. For that matter, Jill was in the same situation, but somehow Amita’s holiday fantasy was playing out with lights and music, whereas Jill was stuck in a windowless office doing her mother’s job. Would Amita be having such a good time if her family were here? Maybe so; Jill had met her parents, and they were peaceful, loving people, a bit overbearing maybe, but clearly proud of their daughter and wanting the best for her. 

What did her own family look like from the outside? Mother, the matriarch; Reagan, the mother; Del, the wife; and Jill, the prodigal daughter and now the resentful older child as well, dutifully cleaning up messes with no clear path to reward. Did people think that they were happy? Did it look like the O’Learys were in a golden age? Did Mother’s friends envy her her three established daughters?

Jill pushed aside her laptop. Time to stop grinding her teeth and get some goddamn Christmas spirit. So they were stuck on Christmas Eve. Well, the Inn wasn’t the worst place in the world to be. They had heat, they had a tree, and most importantly, they had food. And they were going to be merry if it killed her. She stopped into the manager’s office and announced that they were going to be hosting a hot chocolate social for all the guests trapped in the hotel. 

That evening, the tree glistened, the tunes were cranked, and guests were gathered, chatting and laughing, around the gas fireplace with mugs and plates of cheese and little donut holes appropriated from the continental breakfast supply. Amita and Mr. Singh sat across the fire from one another and basked in the flattering, flickering light. A few intrepid souls were even trying to carol around the grand piano with the help of an iPad. Jill, sipping her own cocoa, found the tension melting from her shoulders. She’d done it. She’d improved a bad situation. She’d made people happy. Food, fun, new friends — this was the essence of Christmas, right? She had found her Christmas spirit.

A moment later she lost her Christmas spirit, as Reagan’s name popped up on her phone.

“Jill, I need you to do me a favor.” Reagan’s voice was as tight as Saran wrap over a bowl of jello salad. “Go over to Mother’s house and look through her medicine cabinet.” 

“What on earth? Why?”

“Because Mother took Quennedey to midnight mass…”

“But it’s only 8:00.”

“Midnight mass can be whenever.” Reagan dismissed mass times as irrelevant. “It’s just a phrase. Anyway, they left, and Mother forgot her phone here, and she got a text just now. It was an automated message from her pharmacy, saying that it’s been a few weeks since she refilled her prescriptions.”

“Wait,” said Jill. “I thought you were joking when you said Mother had gone off her meds.”

“I was joking!” Reagan sobbed. “Please, Jill, please. I need to know if Mother is driving my daughter in a blizzard when she hasn’t taken her anti-depressants in weeks.”

“Why on earth did you agree to let Mother take her in this weather in the first place?” Jill demanded, following the first rule of crisis management: Find someone to blame. 

Reagan, for once, was open to self-recrimination. “I don’t know. It’s Christmas, and church, and Mother seemed so set on it, and Quennedey can be really exhausting, and it’s nice to have someone else in charge of her for a while…”

“I’m sorry,” said Jill, more shaken by this new honesty of Reagan’s than by anything else. “What do you want me to do?”

“Go over to Mother’s and check her medicine bottles.”

“How can I get in?”

“She always keeps a house key in her desk drawer there at the inn. Go. Please. You can get there faster than I can in this weather.”

“Okay, okay,” said Jill, infected by Reagan’s alarm. “I’m going now. Don’t worry, Reagan. It’s probably nothing. ”

Fifteen minutes later, bundled up to her nose, she was dripping melting snow in Mother’s bathroom as she stood with two bottles in her hand, doing hasty calculations as to how long ago they were prescribed and what the dose was. The math was not reassuring: If Mother had been taking her medicine as prescribed, she would have run out at the beginning of December.

“Jill,” Reagan wailed thinly over the phone. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god. I’m going out to get my baby.”

“Listen to me, Reagan,” Jill pleaded. “Call Del to come over and sit with you. She lives so close it won’t matter if she drives a little. Let me go down to church and find Quennedey and bring her and Mother home. Reagan, are you listening to me? Text me when Del gets there.”

In the hallway, Jill tried to marshal her thoughts. The weather was apocalyptic. Should she call the police to get Quennedey? She pictured Mother’s reaction to officers pushing their way through the crowds of worshippers at St. Boniface, and quickly dismissed that idea. Quennedey probably wasn’t in any imminent danger. Mother had been living with Reagan for the past week without harming anything but Reagan’s nerves. But the snow was extreme. Mother shouldn’t be driving in it with impaired judgment. Were there penalties for driving around during a snow emergency? But this was an emergency too, of a sort. She wished she had someone to consult.

Above her head, the white berries of the mistletoe gleamed with the light of the electric candles in the window. Jill felt a sudden stab of loneliness and longing. She sighed, swallowed her pride, and dialed Garrett.

“Garrett, please, I have to ask you something.” She sounded pathetic, just like Reagan when she’d first called. “You see, Mother took Quennedey to midnight mass at St. Boniface…”

“There is no midnight mass,” said Garrett.

“Yes, I know, it’s at 10:00 or something. It’s just a phrase.”

“No, Jill, there’s no midnight mass. Level three snow emergency, everything was canceled. There will be mass at St. Boniface tomorrow morning at 9:30. She said she was going to St. Boniface?”

“No,” said Jill, feeling each slow heartbeat in her throat . “She just said she was going to midnight mass.”

“The only parish anywhere around here holding a midnight mass is St. Joe’s in Milton Corner.”

“Oh my god. That’s fifteen miles down the road.” The room swam for a moment. A chair rose up to support her. Grasping for anything to say that wasn’t going to end up in Reagan-esque waterworks, she blurted, “How do you know all these schedules?”

“I’d been considering going to St. Joe’s myself.”

This bizarre statement functioned as effectively as a slap to jolt Jill out of her building hysteria. “You’re Catholic?”

“I’m in RCIA.”

“Well, I never.” That was the kind of dumb thing Daddy used to say in moments of shock. Great, she was turning into her father in her old age.

“Is there something wrong with that?” Garrett asked.

“No! No, I mean… I just thought being Catholic was something you left, not something anyone joined.”

“How could there be an RCIA class if there weren’t people wanting to join the Church?” Garrett said reasonably, and Jill had no answer for that.

“So your mom is taking Quennedey to Milton Corner,” he said, back to business. “That’s bad, but she’ll call if they have a problem, right? Can you get a hold of her?”

“She left her phone at Reagan’s.”

“Does Quennedey have a phone?”

“Yes, but she might not know there’s a problem.”

“How do you mean?”

“We just discovered that Mother probably hasn’t taken her antidepressants for more than three weeks.”

“Oh,” said Garrett. “That explains a lot.”

Jill was about to retort, but sudden memories of Mother’s recent behavior convinced her that Garrett, if anyone, had a right to comment. 

“Reagan is freaking out,” she said. “She wants Quennedey home now.”

“Is Regina a threat?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Jill dubiously. “But taking a child on the back roads to Milton Corner in a level three snow emergency is just about certifiable.”

“So the best thing to do would be to trace their route, which is pretty straightforward. But on a night like this you’d need a snow plow to be sure of getting through safely.”

“I do have a snow plow,” Jill said, a light slowly dawning upon her. “Or at least, there’s one at the garage. I’ll call Heath Albany. He ought to drive out for us — I mean, technically, Mother owns the plow.” She was suddenly urgent to be moving, doing anything to resolve this situation. “Thanks so much, Garrett. I’ll call you back when I know something.”

“But I’m…,” said Garrett, but Jill was already ringing off. 

There was no point in calling the garage on Christmas Eve. As Heath’s cell phone rang, Jill prayed that he was home, observing the snow emergency. Would God be mad if Heath’s phone rang in church? Surely a snow plow operator would know better than to go to church in this weather. Would his wife be mad at Jill for asking Heath to drive out on Christmas Eve when he should be spending family time, or filling stockings, or assembling toys, or doing whatever parents did? 

As usual, Jill was worried about all the wrong things.

“I’m completely blind,” said Heath.

“Look,” said Jill, fighting against the urge to fly off the handle again. “I know we have history, but I thought we were past that. If you don’t want to go out because it’s Christmas Eve, because it’s me, just say so…”

“I do want to help, don’t get me wrong,” said Heath, who seemed to understand how feeble this excuse sounded, “but there is no way I can drive tonight. I literally cannot see. I was out plowing the roads yesterday afternoon when the sun suddenly came out so strongly. It was the strangest thing. It was like rainbows flashing everywhere. I have such a terrible case of snow blindness that I’ve been in bed all day. I can barely open my eyes right now.”

“Oh my god.” In one way or another, people had been appealing to the Almighty all night. Was he ever going to answer? Probably he was waiting for someone to ask him for help a bit more reverently. Jill drew a deep breath and breathed out a prayer. Maybe God would send a miracle.

Heath spoke hesitantly, stepping gingerly around her temper. “I’m really sorry I can’t help, but if you’d feel comfortable taking the snow plow out yourself… It’s probably the safest thing you can drive tonight.”

Thanks, God.

“I can’t go alone,” Jill protested, more to God than to Heath. “It’s dangerous out there, I don’t know what I’m looking for, it’s been twelve years since I’ve driven to Milton Corners, and it’s a pitch black whiteout.”

As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Garrett French, bulky, bundled, ridiculously pink of nose and cheek, heaven-sent, stood on the porch. 

“I started driving over as soon as you called,” he said. 

***

The snow plow was big and heavy and warm, a moving fortress rumbling over the caked roads. Jill, at the wheel for insurance purposes, fought against the lure of false security as the lights illuminated the snow flakes driving at them against the blackness. These are the voyages of the snow ship Enterprise, floating on its five year mission, in no way likely to skid off the road or get trapped in a drift. 

“If this were a movie, we’d know exactly what we were trying to do,” she said irritably to Garrett, as they crept their way past the last lights of town. “There would be some definite way we were going to save the day. Maybe we’d be rescuing Mother and Quennedey from an accident, or taking someone to the hospital, or delivering presents on Santa’s behalf, or doing something heroic. Instead, we’re in a big-ass snow plow in a level three snow emergency. On spec! A couple of chumps trying to get themselves killed.”

“We’ll be making sure Regina and Quennedey don’t get themselves killed,” Garrett pointed out. “There’s nothing spec about that.”

“Why are you being such a white knight about of this?” Jill demanded. “You don’t even have a personal stake in this whole rescue mission. I’m snapping, I’m falling apart, I’m rude, and you don’t even lose your temper.”

“We can’t both be losing our temper at the same time,” Garrett replied, reasonable as always. They sat in silence for a moment, until he added, with only the slightest of preliminary deep breaths, “And I do have a personal stake.”

A wave of warmth that had nothing to do with the blasting heater swept across Jill’s cheeks. She swallowed hard and plunged in before he said anything else.

“Look, I need to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I don’t know why I was so ugly to you. I’m an adult. I know I shouldn’t take out my frustrations on people around me. And I do know — believe me, I do — how terrible it is to throw accusations at people just to get a rise. I don’t know anything about your dad except that Mother thinks he’s a good bludgeon to use against you. I am very sorry, and I’ve been sorry ever since the moment you walked away from the table.”

She spared a glance away from the road to see what he was doing, but he was staring straight ahead in the faint green glow of the dashboard lights.

“My parents got divorced when I was a baby,” he said, in a carefully even voice. “My dad got remarried right away, to the woman he was having an affair with. My brother is barely a year younger than I am. My mom and I moved from apartment to apartment, barely making ends meet even with the child support. She bounced from relationship to relationship, while my dad’s other family lived securely. When I went to his house on his weekends, I was a second-class citizen. His wife didn’t like me — still doesn’t, after thirty-five years. Her house, her rules. And my dad went along with it, because he was committed to his second marriage in a way he wouldn’t be to his first. 

“And who cared?” Now he was looking at her, and she was the one staring straight ahead, white-knuckled with the intensity of her listening. “Not the people at the church where my dad found Jesus. They saw a good husband to his wife, a good father to her son, saddled with a sullen kid from his sinful past. They said everyone was welcome, but I wasn’t welcome.” 

He started to light a cigarette, then caught himself. “Sorry, it’s a tension thing. Replacing one addiction with another.”

Jill let out the breath she’d been holding and dared to ask, “When did you start drinking?”

He shrugged. “In high school. All through college. I hit rock bottom — and your silver maple tree — ten years ago. Almost exactly. Dec. 21.” He laughed briefly, another tension thing. “Ten years, but people still remember. And they’re right, I guess. I caused a lot of harm, and I don’t want to gloss over that. But it’s funny what you can be forgiven for. My dad earned forgiveness for abandoning my mom because he had a successful second marriage. But I didn’t stop existing once he repented. To be honest, I can barely look at my brother sometimes. It’s not his fault. He’s a good enough guy. I don’t want to blame him for existing. I know how that feels. But I see his basic, normal life, every step right on time — college, job, house, nice wife, cute kids — and I wonder if that could have been me. Maybe I could have been a success too, with his advantages.”

Jill felt her way around her words. “I don’t know what you see in me. I can only see myself from the inside, and what I see right now is a hot mess. But I can see you from the outside, and what I see looks like a success. You have a little real-estate empire. You’ve been sober for ten years. You’re gracious and reliable and strong. You don’t let my mom provoke you. I don’t know if you realize how amazing that seems to me. You already are a success.”

“‘If I have not love, I am nothing,’ saith the apostle,” quoth Garrett, with mild bitterness. “I’m also thirty-five, unmarried, childless, alone.”

“I’m not a Scripture scholar,” said Jill with trepidation at having to essay a theological conclusion, “but I don’t think the apostle was writing about a Hallmark romance.”

Garrett burst out laughing. 

“Point to you,” he said, “or to the apostle.”

“While we’re talking about all the awkward things,” said Jill, distancing herself from the apostle, “what is it about your dad’s money? Why should my mom go on about it?”

“Because she likes to go about things,” said Garrett. “There’s nothing spectacular or unusual about it. My dad developed a conscience before he passed away, and felt like he owed me something, which he did. So he left the bulk of his investments and his local property to me rather than to my brother. His wife didn’t forgive me for that either, and we went a few rounds in court. I buy old buildings around town, and I restore them and rent them out.”

“So you’re responsible for maintaining the wholesome small-town charm,” said Jill.

“Wholesome, nothing,” said Garrett, suddenly on a soapbox. “There’s not much charming about Luxembourg these days. Do you know our county has a higher rate of overdose deaths than Cincinnati or Columbus? Do you know how the population has plummeted over the past decades? Do you know the stats on unemployment? We are a community without hope. But even people in rural, underpopulated, drug-addled Luxembourg deserve to be proud of their heritage. They deserve to have their history maintained instead of demolished to build strip malls that will decay in ten years. They deserve beauty.”

Jill’s pulse was pounding, her breath came in shallow gasps. Were it not for the restraint of her seat belt, and the effort of staying alive while operating a motor vehicle, she would have thrown herself into his arms.  She opened her mouth to say, “I love you,” but what came out, weakly, was, “Is it just me, or is it boiling in here?”

Garrett turned off the heat. “Look,” he said, “that’s the lights of St. Joe’s ahead. Vincero.”

Due to the vagaries of crossing the county line, Milton Corner was only at a level two snow emergency. St. Joe’s, on the outskirts of town, was on the cleared main road. A number of brave souls had trusted to God and the road crews and come out for midnight mass. Mother’s car was parked prominently near the church doors. Jill sent a reassuring text to Reagan and Del before she and Garrett crunched across the salty parking lot and slipped into a pew in the back of church.

Everyone was kneeling after communion as the choir warbled a carol. In the front pew, sleek and pious, Mother bowed her head, while Quennedey slumped sleepily beside her and droned along with the music. Jill knelt next to Garrett, and put her face in her hands. Relief and anxiety and anger and love and desire roiled around her stomach and tore at her head. So much for the peaceful Christmas spirit she’d had earlier that day. Here she’d done one brave thing and had one frank conversation and accomplished one mission, but it wasn’t good enough. How could she make Mother understand how much worry and terror she’d caused? How could she break through her facade? Jill’s slapping hand was starting to itch as she looked at Mother’s perfect posture. Make her understand. Make her hurt like I’m hurting. Lord, where’s my Christmas spirit?

She looked at the stable scene, with the chaos of shepherds and sheep and donkeys and oxen and Joseph bending over the mother and child to shield them from all commotion, and in the midst of them Mary contemplating only her baby Jesus, pinkly serene in his swaddling clothes. 

This is not your fight, the mother said to her.

Not literally. The mouth of the statue didn’t move, and the expression didn’t change. But Jill heard the words in a mother’s voice — not her own mother’s voice, and not her voice, which had never said anything maternal ever. It annoyed her. Why should it not be my fight? I want it to be my fight. I’m hurting. I’m a casualty. Why should I not strike a blow for justice and responsibility?

This is not your fight.

Heh, thought Jill. Whose fight is it, then? 

Let the baby handle it.

Oh my god, thought Jill for the umpteenth time that evening. What does a baby know about handling anything? She gaped at the plaster infant, more oblivious than any living child.  Indeed, there were living children in the congregation. A few pews in front of her, a real baby fussed and writhed as its mother sat and jogged him on her lap. You go, kid, thought Jill. You handle it.

“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,” the choir sang in feeble harmony. Jill contemplated the baby in front of her as he were the baby Jesus. See baby Jesus suddenly buck and bang his Godhead on the pew in front of him. See his frustrated mother scoop him up and rush him down the aisle.  See the Godhead, veiled in flesh, bawling, big tears rolling down his screwed-up face. 

Poor little kid, Jill thought, as the screaming infant was swept past her. At least baby Jesus knows what you’re going through.

Mother seemed completely unfazed to see them after Mass. 

“So you came to church after all,” she said to Jill. “You might have told me beforehand. We all could have ridden out together.”

“We’re all going to ride back together,” said Jill lightly, borrowing a little Silent Night from the sleeping baby Jesus. “We’ll come back later in the week and get your car.”

The drive home was anticlimactic. Quennedey, oblivious to any snow emergency, slept. Jill, whose main desire was to get home safely, was now disinclined to pick a fight, and left the bulk of the conversation to Garrett, who mostly jollied Mother along. Jill was in a state of weariness in which her consciousness seemed to float above her body. Her hands moved the wheel as if on auto-pilot, steering the plow gently through the whiteness that extended on forever. In a daze, she escorted Mother and Quennedey to the front door where Reagan stood waiting with her arms crossed, tear-stained and white-lipped. This is not your fight, she thought as she pulled away again. This is not your fight.

On auto-pilot, Jill turned into Mother’s driveway and sat, heavy-lidded, as the lights of the parked plow illuminated the snowflakes against the backdrop of the house. Beside her, Garrett stirred drowsily. 

“Am I going home?” he mumbled. “My car is at the garage.”

“You can sleep in my bed,” said Jill.

“Ah?” said Garrett, opening his eyes. “And where will you be?”

“In Mother’s bed.”

In the hallway, they slogged to a stop under the mistletoe. 

“Merry Christmas,” said Garrett. As if on cue, they both yawned fit to split their heads open.

“Merry Christmas,” returned Jill, and they dragged themselves upstairs and shut their respective doors.

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1 comment:

Finicky Cat said...

Enjoying this! Glad you're feeling better...and not JUST because that means more instalments of the story.