SERIAL NOVEL: “In Search of Thanksgiving,” by Danae, Daniqua, and Danyelle Whyte
My name is Kristopher Chapel. In my 14th year of life, I learned what it means to be truly thankful and grateful, a concept which, admittedly, I failed to readily embrace at that age. See, my fourteenth year of life was the year my familiar world was shaken and, as a result, became disfigured. Surely, almost everyone who has lived for any significant length of time can point back to a time in their life when things seemed to change for the worse. Great lessons are to be learned from these moments and certain meanings can be made clear in their wake. People get bitter or become better under such changing circumstances. I am now twenty-eight years old, but the lesson I learned through life over a dozen years ago about true thanksgiving has stayed with me and maximized in my heart ever since.
I’d say this particular time in my fourteenth year of life saw its start early that Thanksgiving morning. I stared out from the backseat of my family’s car at the beautiful fall scenery which laced the winding Indiana road we traversed annually to get to my mother’s parents’ house for the holiday. I loved the fall season and I loved my maternal grandparents. I loved converging at their modest farm with many, if not all, of my aunts, uncles, and cousins on my mother’s side. Even so, I was eagerly looking forward to flying out to New Hampshire to be with my father’s parents during Christmas time at their magnificent mansion, which was always exquisitely decorated inside and out. This is how we had always spent these two holidays — splitting equal time between each parent’s family at the respective matriarch and patriarch’s house. Although I would never voice this sentiment out loud, inwardly, at that age, I felt as if I enjoyed the times with my father’s family just a little bit more only because they were quite well-to-do, had money, and were able to spend it on fancy gifts for me which caused my friends back in Indiana a good deal of envy.
My mind wandered with the road we were on. I turned my attention from the leafy scene outside the car window and focused on the back of my parents’ heads. Since they had not gifted me with any siblings, there was no one to pummel in the back seat, or entertain, and no one to distract me from thinking serious thoughts. Though my parents appeared to be relatively comfortable sitting next to each other as my dad drove us that morning, I had begun to notice the tectonic plates of their relationship shifting over the past several months. At the time, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was causing fissures to appear. All I knew was that the affection between them had diminished and fear had settled into my mother’s eyes over my father as if she was afraid of losing her grip on him. Looking back, it had seemed as if most of the time my mother needed my father more than he needed her. This imbalance often allowed a spirit of unease to permeate our household. These thoughts — and other thoughts of my grandmother’s mouth-watering breakfast biscuits — swirled in my head as the hypnotizing effect of the car in motion made me doze off again.
About thirty minutes later I awoke to my father, Kurt, pinching my chin. The car was parked on my grandparents’ lush property. “Kris, we’re here,” he said before getting out of the car to unlock the trunk. “Come get your bag.”
My mother, Chrissy, glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Let’s go have another good time,” she said smiling.
My mother, father, and I walked up to the porch of my grandparent’s house with luggage in hand. I heard voices and laughter coming from the backyard. The front door was already ajar. My father pushed it open with his shoulder and we stepped into the toasty hall.
“We’re here, Mr. and Mrs. Cooke,” my father called out.
Now, as I said before, at this youthful stage in my life, I enjoyed spending the Christmas holiday with my father’s family a little bit more for reasons aforementioned, not because they were a nicer group of people than my mother’s family. I know some people say you ought not to have favorite family members; however, I don’t necessarily agree with that, especially if it’s because of who they are and who they help you to become. And if it ever came down to choosing between my two grandmothers, my maternal grandmother, Grandma Charlotte, would be the clear winner. There seemed to exist a special bond between us ever since I can remember. Perhaps it was because my mother said I came out the womb sharing an old soul similar to grandmother’s. Not to mention, my maternal grandmother was the better cook and always exuded a warm and genuine love to everyone she crossed paths with.
I couldn’t say the same about my paternal grandmother. Although she adored me just the same as her other grandchildren, I don’t think she approved of my mother very much. Whenever we made our annual visit, she was formal at best and abrasive at worst with her. I believe she looked down on my mother because she was not the caliber of woman she wanted my father to marry. There was also the time I accidentally broke one of her exquisite glass dishes (which was never used) while playing in the house and saw how it tore her up inside, causing tears to stream down her face. Thankfully, she composed herself for the remainder of that Christmas holiday and our relationship was restored after I replaced the dish.
Grandma Charlotte came out of the kitchen in an orange apron dusted with flour.
“Hello! Hello! There’s my favorite grandson,” she exclaimed, meaning me, of course.
She gave all three of us a hug and kiss before telling us where our rooms would be for that year’s stay. The farmhouse only had five bedrooms which naturally meant some of us had to bunk together. This year I was rooming with my younger cousin, Danny. After showing us our rooms, Grandma Charlotte informed us that breakfast would be served in the dining room soon. I needed something immediately, and since her delicious biscuits were already in their spot as the centerpiece of the table, I eagerly stuffed one of them down.
Afterwards, I went outside while father did some unpacking and mother joined Grandma and one of her sisters, Charise, in the kitchen for a joy-filled time of planning and putting together the special dinner. I often wondered why the women kept all the fun of cooking to themselves and looked at me with mock disdain if I did so much as step foot in the kitchen and inhale. Anyway, on my mother’s side, I have three uncles and two aunts. My uncles were all married and had five children amongst themselves. Everybody had arrived except one of my aunts. She was the youngest child in my mother’s family, and despite not being married and only having to take care of herself, was almost always the last to arrive at the farmhouse for Thanksgiving. Some of my cousins were already playing a game outside while my uncles stood around talking with each other. I didn’t care to interrupt anyone, so I sat down on the porch with Pop’s labrador, Buddy, and watched the other children play, but my grandfather wouldn’t let me go unnoticed.
“Kristopher! It’s so good to see you again, I’m glad you guys could make it.” He said this every year even though we’d always come ever since I could remember.
“Me too,” I said, examining how much his salt-and-pepper speckled beard had grown since the last time I saw it.
“Are you ready to go fishing tomorrow?”
I nodded. There was a lake a few miles from the farm and every year, my uncles, Pop, and I went fishing the day after Thanksgiving. My cousins were either too young to participate or not yet interested in participating. There was no Black Friday shopping for us.
“Good. You know, me and your Uncle Charlie are going to do something special with the turkey this year,” he said.
“Special? What kind of special?” I asked. Since turkey was not my favorite kind of bird to eat, the slightest mention of making some new adjustment to the turkey caused me to become rather suspicious.
“Fry it! We’re going to fry it this year,” Pop said. “Some folk say it tastes best that way.”
“Sounds good,” I said, because it did. “Maybe I’ll help you out with it.”
Just then, the back door opened and Grandma stuck her head out. “Breakfast!” she called. Everyone stopped what they were doing and saying and made their way inside the house. Good food will do that to you.
Grandma had fixed the same breakfast we had every Thanksgiving morning at her house: fried eggs, sausage and potatoes, those mouth-watering biscuits, cinnamon rolls, orange juice and iced coffee with eggnog. After Pop prayed, we dug in and conversation around the table began. My mother and her siblings were catching up with each other as were my father and Grandma, Pop and my cousins. I ate quietly for the most part, laughed at the funny bits in conversations I was not apart of, and got seconds. While we were eating, mother’s youngest sibling, my perpetually-late aunt, Gigi, finally arrived, greeted us and immediately went to her room to eat. As usual, she was joked mercilessly for being late, and she excused herself by saying she was too tired from the drive to be around such “collective energy”.
After breakfast, as holidays normally go, the day seemed to progress rather quickly. Pop informed us that he and Uncle Charlie weren’t going to fry the turkey until a little before dinnertime because frying a turkey doesn’t take half as long as baking one. For the rest of the day, we all played touch football, watched television, and napped from traveling. Before anyone knew it, it was 5:30, and the football game was on TV, marking two more hours before dinner. Pop and Uncle Charlie went outside to fry the turkey. I joined them but popped back inside to watch parts of the game while Grandma, my mother, her sisters, and sisters-in-law garnished the rest of the Thanksgiving meal. At exactly 7:30, soon after the fried turkey was finished, everyone gathered around the dinner table. The other dishes set out consisted of green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and sausage, cornbread, and cranberry sauce. There would be five types of pies and ice cream for dessert. It turned out Grandma had still baked another turkey, acting on her fears that something might go awry with the fried one. In case it hasn’t been hinted at already, at 14-years-old, I had a big appetite even though I was a fairly thin kid, so I decided to sample both turkeys. No need for me to state what I did with all five pies.
“Let’s pray,” Pop said. We all joined hands. “Heavenly Father, thank You for bringing us to this special day – another Thanksgiving. We thank You for the time of fellowship and fun that has already been had, and we now thank You for the food that has been prepared and set before us. We thank You more so for the dear hands that prepared it with hearts full of love. Let us not forget those who are less fortunate than we are and who have been all year. Please give us all a heart of overflowing thanks and praise for all You have done for us and given us. Amen.”
“Amen,” we chorused and started passing around dishes. Just as the macaroni and cheese reached me, Grandma Charlotte stood up and began to tap her drinking glass.
“Everyone, please listen up,” she said.
All chatter immediately began to fade. Grandma had started a tradition of issuing a challenge to the family every Thanksgiving for the past five or so years – a few of them rather comical and the others more meaningful. I immediately snapped to attention, wondering what that year’s Thanksgiving challenge would be.
“Everyone, I’m so glad we’re all gathered here together for another Thanksgiving as we have done many times in the past,” she said. “I just want to give this out really quickly and then you can all go back to enjoying your food. This year, I challenge you to write down something you are thankful for every week until next Thanksgiving and look forward to sharing it with us all on that glorious day. Some weeks, you may feel as if you have nothing to be thankful for, but you probably won’t have to look long and hard to find that there is always something you have to be grateful for. I believe Thanksgiving can be everyday if you allow heavenly gratitude to live inside you daily. That’s my little challenge to you all this year. And Gigi, I don’t want any excuses.” She winked before sitting down as some of the adults jokingly groaned and my younger cousins voiced their excitement for the challenge.
“First thing I’m writing down is I’m thankful for Grandma’s sweet potatoes and Aunt Gigi’s mac-and-cheese,” Danny announced. “And if I run out of things to be thankful for throughout the year, I’ll just write down the rest of these dishes. Nobody steal my idea.”
I laughed and began to think. Find something to be thankful for every week. That shouldn’t be too difficult.
It was customary on Thanksgiving for the men and older boys (of which I was one) to relieve the women of having to clean the dishes and the kitchen since they had expended themselves a good deal in fixing the day’s delicious feast. Once or twice, I wondered what would happen if the food in fact was not delicious for some reason or another: Would the women volunteer to do the dishes then? This was never the case, at least not with Grandma directing things, so I didn’t get to find out.
Admittedly, this cleanup work was the only part of spending the Thanksgiving holiday with my mother’s family that I didn’t particularly enjoy. However, there was pie awaiting us once the process was finished and this always caused me to attack my job of drying the dishes with a little more heartiness than I would have otherwise. I gathered the plates and bowls up from the dining table, scraped the food remains off of them, then stationed myself near the sink with dishtowel in hand.
Uncle Charlie filled the sink up with soapy water and he and Uncle Godric took turns washing and handing me the dishes. Uncle Dallas was in charge of wrapping up all the leftovers. Pop entered the kitchen initially to give us a slight pep talk about making sure we cleaned everything to perfection to show our appreciation to “the loves of our lives.” (These words were mainly directed at my father and uncles and drew a good chuckle from everyone.) After his speech, Pop and my father went outside to clean the fryer.
No sooner had they left then Danny began complaining. “Why can’t we just use the dishwasher and get this over with faster?” he said.
“Well, for one, there are too many dishes for that,” Uncle Charlie said. “And we can’t stuff the pots and pans into the machine together at once. It’ll break.”
“Besides, dishwashers are overrated,” I said. “The invention needs a revolution because you still have to do all the hard stuff like scraping food off the plates and rinsing them before you can put the machine to work. But that’s just my opinion.”
“I agree,” Uncle Godric said. “And, Danny, why are you the one whining? You aren’t doing any work anyway.”
“I am doing work. I’m sweeping,” Danny said, although his “sweeping” was more like dancing around with the broom. He whacked Godric on the back with the broomstick.
“Oh no you didn’t,” Godric said before playfully dousing Danny’s hair with sudsy water. Danny dropped the broom, plunged his hands in the sink and brought up a handful of water which he promptly slung at Godric and me. I ducked, but without success. It was on. Instead of scolding us, Uncle Charlie and Uncle Dallas contributed to our water fight, even utilizing the sink-hose. In a matter of minutes, a large portion of the floor and a smaller portion of ourselves was covered in soap and water — just another mess, albeit a joyful one, in need of cleanup.
Just then, Pop returned to the kitchen with a look of disapproval on his face. “Boys, finish up in here! Charlotte has something she wants to give you.”
“Yes, sir,” we echoed each other, holding back any lingering laughs. He took a stack of small plates for pie from one of the cabinets and disappeared outside.
“Are we having two Christmases this year or what?” Danny asked. “I can’t wait to see what Grandma has for us.”
“Just hurry up so we can find out,” I said.
We finished up the rest of the dishes quickly and mopped the floor as best we could before joining Grandma, Pop, and the rest of the family on the veranda. I was first out under the sighing evening sky, beating Danny who almost always ran to his destination. We took our seats with our plates of pie.
“Well,” Grandma began. “I have a gift for all of you.”
“I thought gifts were only given on Christmas and birthdays, Grandma,” one of my cousins, Sunny, said.
“No dear, gifts can be given any time,” Grandma Charlotte said. “But this gift I’m giving to you in hopes that it will help you in your endeavours to keep the challenge of finding and recording something to be thankful for every day.”
“Good,” Danny said. “Because I already thought of two more things to be thankful for: water and dishes to wash.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Grandma said. “Gigi, you’re first.”
The gift was a journal. A few of my younger cousins were less than enthused. Everyone got one, including Pop, but they all had different designs. For example, Aunt Gigi’s journal was pink with bedazzled flowers on its cover and Danny’s was blue with green seaweeds shooting up on every page. Grandma handed me mine last. I was surprised and very pleased with it as it was one from her collection of leather journals which she had purchased during her time in Venice, the only trip she’d taken overseas. They first came to my attention while I helped her with summer cleaning two years earlier. I had told her that I wanted one just like it. And now one of them was mine to keep.
“Oh, thank you Grandma!” I said. I hugged her.
She squeezed me tight. “You’re quite welcome.”
As everyone finished their pie, Pop, my mother, and Aunt Charise took turns telling funny stories of family life. Pop had told most of his stories dozens of times but they never ceased to make me laugh. Soon after, we all made our way to bed and fell off into deep and peaceful sleep on full stomachs.
I awoke with a start the morning after Thanksgiving day. I couldn’t explain it at the moment but it seemed as if a certain warmth had fled the farmhouse during the night. I turned on my side and looked at the clock on the nightstand through bleary eyes. It was early—only 5:50. There were sounds coming through the bedroom door and shadows cast by someone’s feet flickering into the room courtesy of the tiny space between the bottom of the door and the carpeted floor. I looked over at my younger cousin, Danny, who was still deep in sleep in his bed. Resisting the temptation to snuggle back beneath my soft comforter, I slipped my cold feet into my boots with the purpose of finding out the reason for the early morning stir. I opened the door to find two EMTs conversing in whispered tones. Before I could get a word of curiosity out, they excused themselves and proceeded down the hall.
I went downstairs. Most of the house remained shrouded in darkness—everywhere, except the large living room and some of the hall lights. The front door was open and I could see an ambulance parked outside. My mother, my father, Charise, Gigi, and Godrick were in the living room—some sitting, some standing. Mother and her sisters were hugging each other and father and Charise’s husband were talking to each other.
“Mom, what’s going on?” I asked.
She looked up at me with tears in her eyes. Mute.
Father came over and put his arm around my shoulder. “Grandpa told us he got up about an hour ago to get some water and he noticed that your grandmother had gone cold and wasn’t breathing,” he said. “He woke some of us up and we called 911.”
“Yeah, I saw the EMTs upstairs,” I said. “Where’s Grandma and Pop at now?” I asked.
“Grandpa’s getting ready to go. They’ve already put Grandma in the back of the ambulance.”
“Can I go see her?” I asked.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Uncle Godrick said.
“They’re trying to revive her. They’re taking her to the hospital and we’re following them, though someone has to stay here with the little ones,” father said. “You can stay here if you like.”
“No, I’m coming too,” I said.
“Well, get dressed quickly. And don’t worry, Kristopher, everything’s going to be all right.”
Mother shot her weeping eyes at father. “You don’t know that,” she said.
I was ready to go in seconds with time available to pour some tea in my thermos. Silence permeated our drive to the hospital. The sun came out eventually but hid behind clouds for the most part. I sat in the waiting room with my parents for what seemed like hours after the EMTs ushered Grandma into the emergency room. My mother paced the floor with her arms crossed and a look of worry on her face. She refused to stop even when father beckoned for her to sit down beside him and rest in his arms. Her worst fear came true when the doctor came out and led us to a private area before informing us that all efforts to revive Grandma were to no avail. She had died from a ruptured aorta in her sleep.
Mother collapsed into a jumble of heaving limbs and uncontrollable tears at the news. Father held her as the doctor offered his condolences and stood with us for a minute. I thought back to a discussion I had had with a few of my friends just earlier in the year—a couple of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds slightly bragging about how we weren’t afraid of death. I remembered telling them that I even liked to think about dying because it made me think about doing, about making life count. I still wasn’t afraid of death after learning Grandma was gone, not for myself at least, but no one had prepared me for the death of someone else, someone close who I loved. Though I knew she was in Heaven, I was startled by the suddenness with which her light on earth had been snuffed out, the suddenness with which she had crossed the brink of eternity. There was no deterioration. I went numb.
The week following immediately after Grandma Charlotte’s death went by in a blur. When mother, father, and I returned home from the hospital and broke the news to the family members who didn’t yet know, it seemed most everyone went into a daze, unsure of what to do without Grandma there to direct things, unsure of how to operate with the gaping hole of her non-earthly existence being blown into our lives so swiftly. We all tried to rally around Pop and support him because we figured that he was just a bit more devastated than the rest of us. However, though it was obvious Pop was grieving, he remained his strong self, providing more support for us.
“We’re lucky,” he said. “Since Charlotte had to go, she went at the best time she could – with us all here to see her off together and comfort each other.”
It took about three days for us to make preparations for the funeral and to invite all of Grandma’s close friends and other surviving family members. We all pitched in and contributed with ideas to make it nice. The typical funeral day is portrayed as overcast and dreary with rain constantly threatening to fall, but this wasn’t the case the day of Grandma’s funeral. Fittingly for her spirit, the sun came out in the morning and shone throughout the day, but it failed to do much to cheer us. When we arrived at the church and saw many people filing in for the memorial service, I was surprised by how many people knew Grandma Charlotte and how much they all loved her. After singing some of Grandma’s favorite hymns and remembering some of the things that she had done for the community, the church, and the individuals she had helped, Pop, her children (minus mother), and some of her friends each gave a brief eulogy. Gigi tried to push mother to join her at the microphone, but each time mother declined to do so, and instead sat on the pew between father and me, silently crying and wiping her eyes every few minutes. I felt that father was a little disconcerted with her becoming so emotional for some reason because, more than once, he sighed and glanced at her. The pastor delivered a final word on Grandma’s life and prayed. Afterwards, we all rose and hugged and shook hands with each other before going to the cemetery for the burial. Once there, we said our final goodbyes to Grandma and placed flowers in the coffin before watching as it was lowered into the earth. Though I had confidence that I would see her again, an unnerving sensation still swept over me letting me know for a surety that our bodies were never meant to go into rigor mortis and be placed six feet under or thereabouts in the first place.
Everything and almost everyone settled into a calmer state after the funeral. Uncles, aunts, and cousins started to leave. Mother, father, and I were the second to last ones to go as mother’s oldest brother, Charlie, and his family stayed behind to make sure Pop would be all right by himself. He assured us he was perfectly fine and could take care of himself, but mother seemed not to believe him because she kept going back inside the farmhouse and talking to him for as long as she could.
Unlike our drive up, there was an unmistakably tense spirit in the car as we made the rather short return trip home. Nobody had said anything at all since we started out, but I felt like a few harsh long-held-in remarks would erupt from within my father or mother’s innermost being at any time. About two hours into the drive, father broke the silence with some non-combative words.
“We’ll be stopping in the next town for gas and a break,” he said. “If you guys want something to eat, just let me know.”
My mother suddenly let out a sob from the passenger seat.
“Chrissy, what on earth–?” my father said.
“I can’t… I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
“What? Can’t believe I’m doing what?” he asked. I could tell my father was trying hard to keep his cool.
“My mother… She dies and you just keep going on like this. We couldn’t even stay there until next week. You act like you don’t even care all that much or anything…when my father is there alone—” Then my Mother went on rambling about other things.
“Well, what do you expect me to do except move on? I loved her too but, yes, your mother is gone now, and we have to keep living our lives,” my father said, his voice rising. “She’s in a better place, don’t you believe that? And believe me, your father is more stable than you are. The last thing he needs is for you to be moping around him when he’s displaying some optimism and faith. I understand your grief, but I know how this thing works. It’s really time for you to get over yourself–”
“Get over myself? Kurt, I really can’t believe you’re saying this!”
“What else is there to say? Everyone dies.”
I was pretty sure this last statement could be found on a list somewhere titled 101 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One, but I remained silent as father continued.
“You’ve been this way for months in fact, way before your mother’s death, acting like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders for no reason at all when I’m the only one working to provide money while you sit in the house daily doing I don’t even know what.”
“So you want me to get a job even though we don’t need the income?” my mother asked incredulously.
“No, that’s not what this is about,” father said. “But maybe it would help you personally. I mean, seriously, you act so, so–”
Now I knew my father was about to say what I had noticed and what had been on his mind for nearly a year now.
“Dad, I really don’t think now’s the time,” I quietly cautioned from the backseat.
“–so needy!” he blurted out, not allowing himself to hear me. “And you know what else? Sometimes you don’t think about anyone else but yourself and–” he muttered the rest to himself and hit the steering wheel with one hand.
Damage had been done. I put on my headphones and closed my eyes. Turns out we didn’t stop at the planned gas station — just headed straight home. My father’s disdain for mother’s neediness which was enhanced by her extreme sadness and my mother’s hatred for what she thought was his lack of sympathy during this crucial time had set us all on the edge of a very long knife ready to split us in two.
Once back home, things started to settle down, at least on the surface, as we got back to normal life. Relations between my parents were still tense, especially considering how much mother’s emotional complexion had changed in such a short amount of time. This explains why on my first day back to school between Thanksgiving and Christmas break, I found that nothing had been prepared for me to eat for breakfast and left on the dining room table as it usually was. I quickly poured a bowl of cereal and toasted (or slightly burnt) two pieces of bread smothered in butter and cream cheese. I had just sat down, said “grace”, and begun to eat when father came down the stairs.
“Morning, Kristopher. I’m taking you to school today, but I’m going to be late for work, so hurry up,” he said. My father primarily worked as a yachtmaster in the spring and summer seasons, as being on the water was one of his passions and he was one of the arguably few in this world who had the luxury and the guts to follow their passion wherever it may take them, even on to high and dangerous seas. In the fall and winter, father worked at a financial advisory firm which some of his buddies’ fathers had launched. Though he received more in payment through this job, I still sensed he did it because he wanted to. Evidently numbers were one of his passions too.
“Hey dad. Where’s mom?” I asked, wondering within myself what could have caused her absence from the kitchen and breakfast table.
“Your mother’s in her room. She’s not acting stable enough to drive you right now. I suggest you try not to bother her too much today,” he answered.
“Hm, okay.” I grabbed my bookbag and we headed out to father’s sleek black town car. Since our return from the farmhouse it seemed that not a day went by without them having a disagreement or argument of some kind. In one such scenario, father had simply asked mother to pick up his clothes from the dry cleaners for a business trip he was taking in about two weeks. She didn’t do so, opting to sit in the living room all that day, sipping a glass of hot cider, looking miserable. Switch to a few days later when father came home and started raising his voice at her for not carrying out his simple request, letting his clothes stay at the cleaners for two extra days. Mother made it worse by basically ignoring him, only mumbling a response.
My thoughts were interrupted as we arrived in front of the school building. The school I attended was a private school situated on a lush green campus with rich and vibrant academic and athletic programs for students of all ages. I was lucky my father could afford the school’s rather pricey tuition, although it did offer generous scholarships and aid packages to certain students and their parents who couldn’t pay the tuition. I got out from the passenger’s side, waved goodbye to Dad and joined my best friend, Lin Lugo Madera on the school quad.
“Hey, Kris!” he said, loudly. Lin was significantly more hyper than me and loved freestyling, calling his rhymes “butterflies”. His shoulder length brown hair was kept silky and he was always flashing his signature big, friendly smile.
“Hey, Lin,” I said. “How was your holiday?”
“Wonderful, per usual. My family had a big get together at Disney World. It was hype. My cousins and I did some crazy things. I can show you the pictures during lunchtime,” Lin said.
“Let’s do it now. I think we have enough time,” I said, as we entered a hallway full of kids to get to our lockers.
“No, because I need to know about you right now. You sound kind of down. What’s up?” Lin asked. “Did ya’ll make it to your grandparents?”
“Yeah, but…well, my grandmother died the day after Thanksgiving. Of course, we still stayed over a few days more, only this time we were attending her funeral. I think her death is taking a serious toll on my mother because she and my Dad have been acting pretty much disgusted with each other ever since,” I said with a sigh.
“Oh,” Lin said. He went quiet for a moment before continuing. “I always told myself I’d never simply follow protocol and say ‘I’m sorry’ after someone dies unless I had something to do with it. I didn’t cause your grandma to die, at least not as far as I know. Did you happen to tell her about me or something?”
While some people might have taken Lin’s comments as insensitive, I chuckled. I knew he was only trying to make me laugh. “No,” I said. “Although some things you’ve said might have made her blush.”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Truly though, I am sorry to hear that your grandmother died. I’m sure everything will be okay, maybe not now, but later – soon, in fact,” he said. “My parents had problems too for a while when I was younger, but they got over it. You should pray about it, God will work it out.”
I was encouraged and just slightly embarrassed as well since I had not even considered praying about things. I failed to mention earlier that Lin was much wiser than me as well. “Thanks, Lin,” I said, as I dumped everything out of my backpack and stuffed it into my locker before heading to our first class of the day.
My school sport of choice was lacrosse. Our team moniker was the Lightning Cardinals (named after the Indiana state bird). I must admit, I was quite good at lacrosse. As Lin, our fellow teammates, and I headed out to the field to practice later on in the day, I stopped by my locker to retrieve my lacrosse stick which I had misplaced. I was a little surprised when the journal Grandma Charlotte had given me fell out.
Man, I thought, I forgot to write down what I’m thankful for already. With my grandmother dead, and my parents having problems as they were, I didn’t know if it was worth writing something down after all. Well, it’s at least a good way to honor Grandma, I figured. Find something to be thankful for, find something to be thankful for. I looked out the glass doors and saw Lin goofing around with his lacrosse stick.
I opened the journal and wrote: I’m thankful for Lin. Funny, energetic, freestyling Lin. I’m thankful for his friendship.
The incident which frustrated my father most and sent him missing from our family equation occurred a week before Christmas break. Father had left for his brief business trip to New York and I had a big lacrosse game coming up that Thursday, not to mention the ever-present grind of taking in and churning out school assignments. Several times, my father had expressed his desire for me to accompany him on one of his travels. He asked me again before leaving for New York.
“Kristopher, you ready to go with me this time around?” he asked as he packed his bag into the car early in the morning. A few stars could still be seen speckled across the slowly-lightening sky. I stood in the garage combing my hair and observing him preparing to leave.
“No. Sorry, Dad,” I said. And I truly was. Growing up, I felt as if my father had a beautiful song in his heart and by spending more time with him one-on-one, notes of it would get lodged in my own heart, making me all the better for it.
“You know, New York’s going to be amazing,” he teased. “I didn’t think you’d want to miss out on it.”
“I don’t, but I have to ace my exams this week and coach is counting on me to be with the team for our game on Thursday.” I sighed.
“How is it that you have more commitments than I do and I’m the adult?” Father said, smiling. “Don’t worry, it gets easier when you get older.”
“Maybe,” I said. “If I can grow up to be as incredible as you are.”
He ruffled my hair, messing it up again. “What are you talking about? That’s an easy feat. You’ve almost surpassed me already. Almost,” he emphasized, a twinkle in his eye. “Now, tell your mother I still love her. See you soon, son.”
“You still love her?” I said. “How is she supposed to take that?”
Father waved his hand. “Anyway she likes. It’ll be all right.”
“You will be here to see me play in January?” I asked as he backed out of the garage.
And with that he was off.
A slight icy drizzle fell as Thursday morning dawned. Mother managed to drag herself out of the doldrums once more to drive me to school in our SUV. My private school did have a bus, but for the most part it was not put to use, only for students who absolutely needed it. It seemed parents were simply expected to drop off their children daily. Usually, during these weekday commutes to and from school with my mother, we enjoyed listening to the radio and she would give me advice about any problems she foresaw me going through in the near future. This time around, there wasn’t much talking. I reminded my mother that when she came to pick me up at three, she had to take me to the school we were playing against for our lacrosse match. It was located in a neighboring city, about a thirty-minute drive away.
She sighed. “Why aren’t you guys going on the bus?”
“The bus is out of commision,” I said. “Everyone’s parents are taking them since they’re attending anyway. I guess we have to do the same.”
“I don’t think I can watch this time, honey,” Mother said. “I don’t feel well, so I’ll drop you off there and come pick you up when it’s over, okay?”
It was my turn to sigh. “Fine. Bye. I love you,” I said. At least one of the girls I fancied as my girlfriend at the time would be in attendance, I thought. Elizabeth Moss. And her parents who are nice people.
The school day flew by quickly, lunch period and all. Thankfully, mother was on time to pick me up and we made it to our competitor’s turf safely.
“Are you sure you can’t stay?” I asked her. I still liked to have either my father or mother, if not both of them, watch me play, and I didn’t see the sense in Mother having to come back in about an hour or so.
“Yes, I’m sorry,” she said. A distant look was in her eyes. She wished me “good luck” before heading back home.
The game went well. Our team, the Lightning Cardinals, was on fire. Personally, it was my best game yet as an attackman. I scored 5 points, one more than Lin, and he ribbed me about it before leaving with his parents. For the team’s good play, Coach McHenry promised us a pizza outing on Friday after classes. As I noticed everyone dispersing, I searched the parking lot for my mother, but to no avail. I sat on my gym bag on the sidewalk waiting.
Coach McHenry exited the school building toting some equipment. “Hey, Kristopher,” he called. “Are your parents coming? Do you need a ride home?”
“No, I’m good,” I said. “My mom’s coming to pick me up.”
“You sure?” he asked. “Looks like almost everyone’s left already. We don’t want our star player getting stuck out here.”
I chuckled. “She’ll come in a few minutes,” I said confidently. “Thanks.”
After more than a few minutes passed and mother still had not come, I decided to ring her up but received no answer after multiple tries. So I called father next. Surprisingly, he picked up on the first ring, ready to launch into a funny story about his hotel room. When he concluded, I explained my predicament and asked if he could try and contact mother. However, his attempts were fruitless as well.
“Where are you exactly?” he questioned. “By yourself, in another city. What time is it? Almost seven o’clock!” He was not happy.
“Calm down, Dad,” I said. “If she doesn’t show soon, I’ll just take a bus or something. I saw a bus stop a few blocks away when we were coming here. I’m not going to walk. It’s cold out here.”
“Yeah, I don’t want you doing that,” he said. “Listen, I don’t know where she’s at or what’s going on with her now but this is inexcusable.” He muttered something else. “I’m sorry about this.”
I stayed on the phone with my father until the transit bus came around 7:30. I paid the driver with some of my allowance, boarded, and took a seat in the back. Looking out the window, I wondered if mother had finally made it to the school and was searching for me frantically. The icy drizzle began to fall again.
The bus dropped me off a few blocks from our neighborhood. By then, I was certain that mother was not out searching for me as she still had not called. I got off the bus, zipped up my jacket, and ran the rest of the way to our house. Curiosity quickened my every step. When I reached the front porch, I picked up one of the potted plants by the door and pulled out the spare key from underneath.
I entered the house. All the lights were off. Thanks to the many crime shows I spent binge-watching on lazy summer nights, several suspicious thoughts immediately came to mind. What if something bad happened? What if mother was kidnapped? I wandered through the house flipping the light switches.
“Mom?” I called out, bracing myself for the unknown. No answer.
Having played my heart out in the lacrosse game, a pool of hunger was beginning to well up in my stomach, so I went into the kitchen first to get something to eat. I emptied a box of macaroni and cheese into a pot on the stove, then looked in the refrigerator to see what was good. Ah, leftover pizza. I placed it in the microwave to warm up and grabbed a CapriSun juice pouch before heading up the stairs to look for mother.
“Mom?” I called again, louder this time. But again, no answer. I went down the hall looking in each room until I came to the master bedroom. I knocked. There was no reply. Slowly, I opened the door and looked in. Although the room was dark like all the others had been, I could make out my mother’s silhoutte on the bed. I walked over to the bedside table and turned on the lamp. She was still in her dress clothes, lying in bed asleep. I shook her shoulder.
“Mom, wake up. I made it back,” I said.
She stirred and then lay still.
Her eyes flickered open. “What? Who is that?” She said groggily as she turned her head in an attempt to block out the lamplight.
“Mom, wake up. It’s me. Kristopher,” I said.
“Kristopher?” she said, finally sitting up and looking around her as if she didn’t recognize where she was. “Oh my goodness. What’s going on? I thought you were at…at the game. What time is it?”
“I was at the game,” I said. “It finished nearly two hours ago. You were supposed to pick me up, remember? What happened?”
“Oh, Kristopher, I’m so sorry. I took these pills and…” She gestured to the bedside table. I glanced down and saw an open bottle with a name difficult to pronounce on the label. The clock read 9:23 PM. “They must’ve knocked me out and I forgot all about it,” she continued. Guilt was etched on her face. She took my hand. “Are you okay? Who brought you back home?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I took a bus, but dad wasn’t happy to hear it.”
She sighed. “Well, you didn’t have to tell him,” she said.
“Come on, Mom.” I was certain I didn’t need to tell her that this wasn’t my fault, that someone had been irresponsible and that ‘someone’ wasn’t me. “He was the only adult I could get in contact with. Coach had already left and my friends had already left with their parents. I was waiting for you to come.”
I pulled my hand out of hers and went towards the bedroom door. “I’m going to get something to eat, then I’m going to my room,” I told her.
“Kristopher, wait, I’m sorry. I’ll fix dinner,” mother called after me.
“It’s okay, I got it,” I said.
I went downstairs and got my food out of the microwave along with a carton of ice cream from the freezer before closing myself in my room to study. I finished eating and tried to read my textbook, but the long day was taking it’s toll and I could hardly keep my eyes open to make it to the last required reading page. I decided I was too tired and would just have to wake up early and finish the chapter before school the next day. I put my pajamas on, got into bed and went out like a light before I knew it.
It seemed like only five minutes had gone past before I was being pulled out of my slumber. However, the glaring numbers on my clock let me know otherwise: it was already several hours into Friday morning.
“Kristopher, Kristopher,” someone called.
I rubbed the grit from my eyes to see my father standing over me.
“You’re back early,” I said. “Is this a dream?”
“No, I was going to leave out later on today, but I was able to catch a night flight out of New York,” he said. “Did you get home safely? What happened with your mother?”
“Yeah, she was asleep,” I said. ”I think she was feeling sick or something.”
“Right,” he muttered. “What time did you get here?”
“I don’t know exactly. Around nine or something,” I said.
My father shook his head.
“Dad, I’m fine,” I assured him. “Can I go back to sleep now?”
“Sure, goodnight.” The tone of father’s voice completely changed once he left my bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him. “Chrissy!” I heard him shout my mother’s name as I drifted back off to sleep.
Chapter 10: Gone
Thirty minutes before the start of school on Friday, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and took the stairs two at a time as I did almost every morning. My dreams had not been particularly good, especially since they were punctuated with my parents’ tense voices throughout the night. I entered the kitchen half-expecting to see my father, perhaps a bit huffy, preparing one of his healthy breakfast recipes which would most likely consist of scrambled eggs, cheese and tomatoes, and chopped, smoked salmon. Then I would have to tell him for at least the third time that I didn’t like cheese with my tomatoes and he would say, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” Then I would ask, ‘Where’s mother?’ But this time, it was the other way around. Mother had already fixed breakfast and was seated at the dining table with her head resting on one hand. She was staring at her plate and mine, but not with hungry eyes. She looked worried.
“Morning, Mom,” I said. “Where’s Dad?” It seemed these days I was always asking one parent about the other and vice versa. It was a small wonder to me that they never seemed tired of answering.
“He’s gone,” she said.
“Gone? Gone where?” I asked.
She waited for me to sit down before speaking again. “He’s just gone. And I don’t know where.” A look of fear had flooded her eyes and her voice had taken on a bitter edge. Or it might’ve been panic that I sensed. I couldn’t tell exactly, but I did understand her words.
“You mean he left?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “A few hours ago. He was mad at me even though I tried to explain what happened. You probably heard us arguing so I’m sorry if we woke you. It wasn’t just that though….He brought up stuff from earlier in the year.” She shook her head. “I probably should have just taken responsibility though. I was afraid he’d leave me again.”
“Again?” I said.
“Yes. I never mentioned it to you, but, about four years into our relationship, he displayed this…this habit of just vanishing when things got…” Mother halted, searching for the right word. “When things dimmed, I guess, between us, or when things simply dipped down to normal levels. He did it twice. I suppose you were too young to remember. Twice we were engaged and twice he called it off before finally coming to the altar with me.”
“But he always came back,” I said, not knowing what to make of this revelation. At least I could remind her of the hope that loomed large in her small, seemingly ever darkening universe.
She sighed. “Yeah, but I’m almost certain this time he won’t. He acted so tired of me.”
“Well, it’s normal for people to go away when they’re angry,” I said.
“No, not for as long as he does,” mother said. She seemed sure. “You’ll see.” Then she proceeded to tell me about my father as if I didn’t know him. “Your father’s always been a roamer, an adventurer,” she said. “I thought that’s what attracted me to him.”
I knew this much was true. My father exuded likability. Everyone who came around appeared to enjoy him as a person. Fourteen years spent around him had taught me that father was spontaneous, a man who refused to be boxed in by the confines of an average life. He seemed happiest when traveling or out on the high seas managing yachts, occasionally battling the natural elements (at least in my imagination). Like Bruce Springsteen sung, I guess my mother was trying to say father had a “Hungry Heart.” In fact, I remembered that he loved that song. The first stanza in particular oftentimes ignited his vocal chords as he was working: Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back, Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going. In father’s spare time, which he didn’t have much of, I could always find him reading some popular account of an exotic adventure or real-life expedition disaster such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. In fact, I had bought him one of these books for the past five Father’s Days. Now, my head was beginning to spin.
“This can’t be about another woman,” Mother’s muttering broke into my train of thought.
“No, he wouldn’t do that and you know it,” I said defensively and a little too loudly.
“No, you’re right,” she agreed. “I shouldn’t think that way. He just doesn’t know how to handle grief…or he never learned how to grow up. I guess I married a boy. You have to be the man now.”
My mind was beginning to spin. I pushed away from the table, food left untouched. I didn’t know what to say and suddenly I wanted to get away from the house, so I decided to be lighthearted about things in that moment. “Well, this ‘man’ still has school in less than five minutes,” I told her. A frown came over my face as I led the way to the garage.
Chapter 11 – Hope
Five days after father vanished from our homestead, school had let out for the rest of the year and we had received the season’s first snowfall. The glistening, crunchy stuff lay lightly on the ground, adorning trees and roofs of buildings everywhere in sight. It was Christmas break. The usual festive spirit was in the air but the contagiousness of it had failed to reach me for perhaps the first time in my fourteen years of existence. I had not heard anything from father. I wondered daily when, not if, he would return. Thursday afternoon, two days before the actual dawning of Christmas, I sat in my room reading a novel. After months of engaging with school textbooks, getting some fun reading done was high on my agenda of things to do over break. The book had reached its climax and I was especially engaged when the sound of something crashing reached my ears. Regretfully, I dog eared the page and went across the hall. I found mother in the bedroom she and father had shared. She was kneeling on the floor in front of an open dresser drawer. I had taken it upon myself to start checking in on mother regularly. Almost every time I did so, she was involved in some recreational activity or other, but they failed to do much to lighten her spirit.
“What happened?” I asked. “I heard something fall.”
Mother turned around. “Oh, don’t worry about it, honey,” she said. “It’s just this old drawer.”
“Why are you packing? Where are we going?” I asked, observing the travel bags she had on the floor and the clothes strewn on the bed.
“To your father’s parents’ house,” she said, “for Christmas. How could you forget?”
“Oh.” Actually I hadn’t forgotten. I had just assumed we simply weren’t going since father had left and it was his parents’ house. Perhaps things would be best that way. I remembered the frigid formality that pervaded mother’s relationship with father’s mother, Reba, my paternal grandmother. A slight tug-of-war seemed to be going on between them during our annual visits. I hated the tension, especially how Gramma Reba seemed to quietly scrutinize some of the ways mother did things. Because of this state of affairs and because of mother’s seeming instability, I was hesitant to bring up the visit to her. Instead, I had successfully pushed it to the back of my mind. But now I had a feeling that mother was secretly hoping father would be there temporarily hiding out at his parents’ in New Hampshire. “Are you sure we should still go?” I asked cautiously. Inwardly, I was hoping she would say ‘yes’.
“Well, we already have the plane tickets, so why not?” Father purchased them a couple weeks early each year. Mother looked up at me expectantly. “Pack your things tonight. We’re leaving in the morning.”
I set my alarm clock for 8:40 AM and awoke to its familiar jingle on time the next day. Rolling out of my warm blankets, I went through my morning ritual, quickly meeting up with mother around the dining table for breakfast. She had fried omelettes and served sliced peaches as well.
“Our flight is at nine thirty, so eat quickly,” she said. I didn’t have to be told twice. As we ate and talked intermittently, I couldn’t help but notice dad’s vacant seat and feel the void he left behind which we couldn’t fill.
Before departing, I double checked my room to make sure I had everything I needed. I did. Mother and I rode to the Indianapolis International Airport in silence. Once again, the scenery whizzed past, casting the world in all directions in dizzying fashion. I thought of the many unending roads crisscrossing earth and where the road we were traversing would take us. We arrived at the airport and the officials checked our tickets and baggage. Once on the plane, I claimed the window seat (which wasn’t really much of a claim considering mother did not put up a fight for it). I looked out the window as we took off into the sky. I missed how father and I jockeyed for the window seat and how he would entertain me so that I barely took notice of the length of the flight. He was always keen on complaining about the “unsavoury” airplane food. I wondered what father would say if he was in fact in New Hampshire when we arrived. Would he come back home? I truly hoped so. I couldn’t fathom not seeing him again.
I fished in my carry-on bag for something to do to relieve my mind of these thoughts. I took out the book I had been reading the day before, my pen, and the journal Grandma Charlotte had given me. I opened the journal and stared at the page for a moment. Then I wrote: I’m thankful for hope.
Mother shook me awake just as the airplane pilot told everyone to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. I took off my headphones, placed them in my bag, and looked out the window as the plane descended onto the tarmac of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. Once we deplaned, mother looked for our rental car which seemed to always be a hassle even when father accompanied us. However, eventually, as usual, we had success in finding it, loaded our luggage into the trunk, and started on the scenic drive to my grandparents’ house. In past years when we made this annual trip for the Christmas holiday, dad’s father, Ruben, would come and pick us up at the airport. As we made our way to their homestead, he would talk about business and sports, mostly about how good or bad the New England Patriots’ season was going. This time, however, silence lingered in the car between me and mother. She turned the radio on, I guess just to hear someone speak.
After tapping the code into the keypad at the gate, we took the narrow, winding road into the neighborhood. Large, brick, mansion-like houses stood back from the road atop perfectly snow-covered hills. We arrived in the evening time, when the sun was setting in a fiery red and orange sky, which made the neighborhood look especially beautiful, like something out of a painting. The surface snow seemed to be set alight. A warm golden glow emitted from the occasional window, and that too reflected onto the white ground. At this time of the year, the trees were all stripped bare of their leaves, but in the fall, the neighborhood looked very inviting with the houses nestled among groves of orange and red-leafed trees. Not a sound could be heard as we drove through. Even though I had been here yearly with my parents, I still thought that my grandparents’ neighborhood looked like it had come right out of a postcard. I said so and mother agreed.
When we reached my grandparents’ house, we gathered our luggage and rang the doorbell.
“Coming,” a voice inside called out.
After a few minutes, the door was flung open. It was Grandpa Ruben. His floppy white hair seemed to compete with the snow as he smothered me and mother in hugs. Even though he was now one to two inches shorter than me, he squeezed me as tight as he had during previous visits.
“Chrissy! Kristopher! So glad to see you guys made it once again. I also see that you’ve gained a few inches on me since last time you were here, Kristopher. What’s the deal?” he said, a wry grin spreading across his face.
I laughed. “Well, you know, it’s not that hard.”
“All right, all right,” Grandpa Ruben conceded. He pulled his plaid pajama robe tighter around him and stepped further inside the house after holding the door open for us. “Come in, come in! I had no idea you all were going to make it this time around because you didn’t call ahead as usual. Why’s that?”
“Oh, at first we weren’t sure about getting here this year either. We just decided to surprise you…and ourselves…kind of, anyway,” mother said with a sheepish smile. She looked around the house as we walked behind Grandpa Ruben.
Motioning to the door, Grandpa Ruben asked, “Aren’t we missing somebody?” He halted abruptly, turned, and flung open the door again, peering outside, squinting at the car in the driveway. “Is Kurt out there? That boy always got mad when I left him for a hot minute when he was little,” he said with a chuckle, talking about my father of course.
Mother sighed. This meant father was not hiding out at his parents’ after all. “That’s funny,” she said. “No, you’re not leaving him this time. He left us.”
I looked at her, believing she was reading into Grandpa Ruben’s statement too much.
“I mean, he didn’t come with us – not this time,” she said quickly. “I don’t think he’s coming at all this year.”
Grandpa Ruben turned around from the open front door. “What? How come?”
“We had a sort of disagreement, I guess, a few days ago and he just left. We haven’t seen him since. And he’s not answering my calls or anything.”
“Oh, I see. That doesn’t sound like Kurt, but he can be disagreeable at times. I’ll be sure to call him myself.” Grandpa Ruben looked out the door once more and then shut it. He led us into the living room where he had been watching sports highlights on TV. “Well, you guys know where your rooms are; treat the house like it’s yours.”
“Thank you. Where’s Reba?” mother asked anxiously. As usual, when we came up to my grandparents’ house for Christmas, mother was not looking forward to seeing her mother-in-law.
“Oh, we’re going to have some friends over for Christmas, so she’s out shopping for some last-minute items. Cookies, pies, you know, some of that stuff. I think she’ll be back in a little while,” Grandpa Ruben said. As far as I knew, Grandma Reba never cooked for the holidays. She always ordered ready-made gourmet Christmas dinners that must have cost a fortune. However, whenever someone complimented her on the food during dinner, she nodded her head and raised her eyebrows as if she knew exactly what it took to prepare such a well-cooked, extensive and delicious dinner. The only thing she made herself were cookies. She baked them mainly for holiday cookie exchanges with her friends and, oftentimes, she gave me a “specially-made” cookie box for the flight or drive back to Indiana.
“Well, Kristopher, how about some Wii or Madden?” Grandpa Ruben asked me. “I don’t think there’ll be any wrestling this year since you’re taller than me now.”
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s do the Wii.” Playing the Wii or Madden and wrestling each other was mine and Grandpa Ruben’s favorite pastime whenever I visited with mother and father.
“Great! I’ll get everything set up. But how about something to eat first. I know you two must be hungry. Reba won’t like me messing up her perfect kitchen, but there’s lots of food in there. Come on, Kristopher,” Grandpa Ruben said, chuckling.
I followed him into the kitchen.
“Chrissy, do you want something to eat?” Grandpa Ruben called out.
“No, I’ll pass. I’m going to unpack,” mother said. Again, I knew she had been hoping that father would be here at his parents’ house. If she had been certain he wouldn’t be, mother probably wouldn’t have come at all because now she had to prepare for a barrage of questions and more than usual disdainful looks from Grandmother Reba and others.
Piece of a Woman
My heart constricted a little when the front door opened and I heard Grandmother Reba’s lilting voice in the hallway.
“I’m back,” she said. I heard some rustling in the kitchen as she set her purchases down before entering the living room and shrugging off her faux fur coat. “Oh, they made it! I was just about to ask you why that car was out front, Ruben.” She rounded the corner of the couch and pulled me up into a hug. Her short auburn hair tickled my forehead. “There’s my favorite grandchild! Isn’t that what the young people say about each other today: ‘You’re my fave’?”
I laughed at her attempt to sound hip and Grandpa Ruben chuckled as well. “Well, yeah, something like that,” I said. “But I’m your only grandchild too.”
“My only and my fave. How about that?” Grandmother Reba said. She rubbed my shoulders and threw her head back in amusement.
“Well, there goes any affection for me,” Grandpa Ruben joked. He knew Grandmother Reba lavished love and attention on me from the moment I came to the moment I left.
“Oh, you stop it, Ruben,” she said. “Now where’s Kurt and Chrissy? I’ll have to get on him for not calling me in over a month.”
As if on queue, Mother appeared on the staircase in her nightgown. She came down the steps but stopped short of entering the living room. “Hi, Reba,” she said.
Grandmother Reba’s regal form stiffened. Her hands dropped from my shoulders as she turned to face my mother. I stood awkwardly between them, glancing from one to the other then down at the floor.
“Hello, Chrissy,” Grandmother Reba said. “Nice to see you again. Where’s my son?”
Mother hesitated. I suspected she was internally debating how best to fudge the truth in order to avoid the brunt of Reba’s vocal displeasure. Fortunately or unfortunately, Grandpa Ruben swooped in to save her the trouble. “She said they had a disagreement of sorts, like all couples do, and Kurt left for a bit, decided not to come this time around,” he blurted out.
Mother hung her head under Grandma Reba’s withering gaze. “Just decided not to come?” Grandma Reba said. “That’s not like Kurt at all. Nothing would keep him away from seeing us around Christmas, unless it was something very drastic. I knew this would happen. What did you do to my son, Chrissy?”
To my surprise, mother raised her head defiantly. “Why is it that I’m always the one who must’ve done something?” she said. “Maybe he did something wrong by leaving.”
Grandma Reba’s grey eyes flashed. “Are you accusing my son when he’s not here to defend himself?”
“Calm down, Reba,” Grandpa Ruben said as he got up off the couch. “I’m sure dear Chrissy did nothing to him. Kurt is a grown man and can decide for himself whether to come see us or stay away.”
“Not when he’s married to this piece of a woman I didn’t approve of,” Grandma Reba muttered. She raised her voice a pitch. “Listen, Chrissy, Ruben may be fine with this, but I’m not. Since my son’s not here, perhaps you shouldn’t be here either.”
Grandpa Ruben put his face in his hands. Reba’s statements against my mother were making me angrier and angrier but no words came to mind in that moment that would shut her down.
“I’ve never done anything to you except fall in love with your son, yet you’ve always hated me!” Mother said.
Grandma Reba resorted to muttering again. Her venom for my mother was on full display. “It took you long enough to notice,” she said with a smirk. “I didn’t tell you to supposedly ‘fall in love’ with my son.”
Mother flinched. “In case nobody ever told you, you don’t run the world, Reba!”
“Yes, maybe not the world,” Grandma Reba retorted. “But I run my world and Kurt is a part of it.”
“I can’t believe this,” Mother said. “I think I’ll accept your invitation to leave!” She pushed past us quickly and ran to the front door, her eyes blinded by tears.
“Chrissy, wait!” Grandpa Ruben called out before turning to Reba. “You know I love you, but it is a shame that I have to deal with your inner ‘mean girl’ still in our fortieth year of marriage. Honey, you are a shame in that regard.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just how I was raised,” Grandma Reba said lamely.
“I’m bringing her back and you will apologize,” Grandpa Ruben commanded. With that, he stepped into the hallway and pulled on his boots and a jacket which was hanging from the coat rack. “She doesn’t even have a coat on,” he said to himself. I watched as Grandpa Ruben went out the front door into the gently swirling snow in pursuit of Mother. He slammed the door behind him leaving me and Grandma Reba staring into the embers of the fireplace in the living room which had suddenly been overcome with shadows.
Chapter 14: Apologize
The fiery glow from the embers in the fireplace subsided slowly. It was hard to tell exactly how many minutes Grandmother Reba and I stood staring at it after Ruben left to bring back my mother. Eventually, Grandma Reba straightened her shoulders and said gently, “Looks like the fire could use some more wood. Listen, I’m sorry you had to be caught in the middle of that…that…spat.”
I eyed her warily. At the time, I didn’t feel like she had to apologize to me for her words or how she acted towards my mother every year during our annual holiday visit, so I told her so. “I’m not the one you should be apologizing to,” I said.
“Oh, I know,” she said indifferently, clasping her hands. “It’s just that I don’t want to set a bad example for you, my Kristopher. At least, I don’t mean to, you know.”
“Perhaps you should know that mom just lost her own mother in November,” I said attempting to pull some measure of sympathy and remorse from Grandma Reba. “She’s been really torn up about that and I don’t doubt that what you said to her caused her to hurt even more.”
For a brief moment, I witnessed a pang of guilt hit Grandmother Reba, causing her eyes to lower and her cheeks to flush, but her pride refused to let her emit any more signs of contrition than these. “Well, I am sorry to hear that, just like I’d be for anybody else,” she said. “Loss of that nature is to be expected however. Certainly, Chrissy must understand that. Loss is one of the inevitable elements of life. Let’s see…yes, just the other day, I lost this special, lovely little pendant Ruben bought for me several years ago. Your mother’s just so…so…”.
“No,” I said defensively, cutting her off. “Just because loss is expected doesn’t mean people can’t grieve when it happens and people aren’t pendants. They’re more than that.”
Grandmother Reba forcefully chuckled. “You certainly are, my Kristopher. You have always been so wise.”
I opened my mouth to say something else, but she put her finger to her lips. “Now, say no more please. Don’t make me feel bad or worse than I already do,” she said. “I am the adult here, not a child. Aren’t I? I’ve had my days of being reprimanded as a child and don’t need to see them again, dear.”
I thought differently but turned from her and went to my designated room, shutting the door soundly. I ended up falling asleep but awoke shortly thereafter around 10 pm. I descended the staircase softly to see if Grandfather Ruben and mother had made it back yet, at the same time trying to avoid running into Grandma Reba just then. Terse voices in the hall let me know that Grandfather Ruben had indeed returned with mother. I peeked around the corner of the hallway, observing their interaction. Ruben was glaring at Grandmother Reba, seemingly forcing an apology from her lips as she faced my mother who, judging by the dark expression on her face, had dropped several more levels into the emotionally murky depths.
“Chrissy, I apologize for what I said and whatever I may have done…or anything I did, if that’s more palatable to you.” Grandmother Reba’s voice drifted past my ears. She glanced at Grandpa Ruben before continuing. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
Mother quickly dismissed her words. “Your apology means nothing because I know Ruben made you give it,” she said. “On his behalf I accept it. But please know that what you said to me and about me earlier will never be forgiven or forgotten.”
As she pushed past Grandma Reba, Grandpa Ruben threw up his hands. I made a mad dash up the stairs.
Chapter 15: Christmas
Christmas day dawned. It was almost eleven o’clock when I awoke to bright sunlight streaming through the thin curtains which guarded the window in my guest bedroom. I got out of bed and looked outside. The snow had stopped falling sometime in the night, but the ground was still heavily covered in white. I went downstairs, still in my pajamas because it was a holiday and nobody would care. The house was unusually quiet, so I assumed I was the first one up. The living room was dark except for the light that came through the windows and the lights that glowed dimly on the Christmas tree.
“Hoping to open our presents early, are we?” a voice said behind me.
I jumped and turned around. It was Grandpa Ruben.
“Merry Christmas to you too,” I said with a little laugh. Honestly though, with the turbulence of the past day, Christmas presents were the last thing on my mind.
Grandpa Ruben smiled and motioned me into the kitchen. “We might be able to get some breakfast before Reba wakes up. You know she doesn’t like us in the kitchen messing with her food especially on holidays.”
I didn’t really feel hungry, but I joined Grandpa Ruben in sticking my head in the cupboards, observing all the food on the shelves, searching for that something which my tastebuds desired. I ended up opening a box of Kashi cereal, poured some in a bowl, and sat down at the dining table to eat. Grandpa began to fry some eggs and bacon. Just then, my mother walked into the kitchen.
“Morning, Mom. Merry Christmas!,” I said as cheerily as I could.
“Merry Christmas, honey,” she said, but there wasn’t an ounce of merriness or joy in her voice. She went straight to the fridge and took out a carton of spiced eggnog. She poured herself a glass and stood at the counter drinking it slowly. Grandpa began to whistle to himself as he cooked, attempting to diffuse the awkwardness and tension in the room. I finished eating my cereal in silence. Before I could escape the kitchen, Grandmother Reba walked in.
“Good morning everyone,” she said in a sing-song voice.
“Merry Christmas,” I said for the third time that day. She seemed to have forgotten that it was Christmas.
“Oh, merry Christmas, Kristopher! Now, what’s going on in here? Ruben, you know you’re not supposed to be messing with my stove. We have friends coming over for dinner and I don’t want any dysfunction with the appliances. You didn’t touch the ham, did you?” she needled.
“Of course not,” Grandpa Ruben said. “But I was tempted to.”
Grandma Reba spotted Mother by the sink and pursed her lips. “All right, everyone out of the kitchen, and please stay out the dining room as well until dinner tonight. Chrissy, I won’t be needing any help this time around,” she said.
“As if I would,” Mother mumbled. She stormed out of the kitchen.
I went upstairs and got dressed just to go outside. I couldn’t help thinking that, if father had been here, we would have had a blast with all the snow. As it were, I tried to have as much fun as possible by myself. I made a snowman and then built a fort, pretending I was fighting the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena. After about two hours of this, I went back inside to warm up and retrieve my Kindle from my room. Returning outside, I brought up the Christmas story from the Bible. I had almost forgotten about it, but every year, father and I read it together on Christmas eve. After I read the story, I set my camera to record me as I began to act it out as a one-man play. This was one thing I could show Lin when we returned from Christmas break. I didn’t care when some of the neighbors peeked outside and saw me seemingly talking to myself.
Before I knew it, it was almost six o’clock and Grandpa and Grandma’s friends started to arrive for the dinner, each one of them greeting me with approval. I watched as Grandma Reba ushered them all inside with hugs and smiles galore. About fifteen people had come, most of them between the ages of forty-five and sixty-five and a few even older than that. I had only met a couple of them before, so Grandma Reba proudly introduced me to those I did not know. We spent a good amount of time engaging in small talk before finally sitting down at the long dining table opposite the kitchen. It was beautifully decorated with candles and poinsettia. I took my place and glanced at Mother, wondering what she had done all day. I felt sad feeling certain she was expecting our time around the table to be pure torture.
Chapter 16: Presents
After Grandpa prayed, we began to eat. Grandma’s friends complimented her on how good the food tasted. She smiled and accepted every one of the compliments even though she knew she had barely any hand in making the food. After each dish was passed around, conversation began. I was sitting closest to Grandma’s end of the table and listened as she talked to one of her friends named Olivia. At first they were talking about some furniture they wanted to buy for an office space and then Olivia said, “By the way, where’s that son of yours? Kurt, isn’t it?”
“Unfortunately, Kurt couldn’t make it down here this year. I honestly don’t even know where he is. Ruben tried to call him multiple times yesterday, but he never picked up. We had to leave a message,” Grandma said.
“Really? Is this normal for him? Are you going to file a missing person report?” Olivia said.
“I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to Ruben about that, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary right now. Like I said, I have no idea where he is and his wife–” Grandma motioned to my mother who was sitting across the table from me — “She doesn’t know where he is either. She said something about some marital problems, but wouldn’t tell us any details. Frankly, she’s seems extremely unstable. And as far as I know, it’s not like Kurt to get upset over something without good reason–”
My mother suddenly pushed her chair back and stood up. Apparently, she had been listening to the conversation as well. She glared at Grandma, then turned to Grandpa and said, “Excuse me, I think I’ll go to my room.”
Grandpa nodded before giving Grandma a look across the table. She shrugged her shoulders and turned back to Olivia. I sighed. The rest of the dinner passed without incident.
After dinner, all of us except Mother, retired to the living room. Grandma Reba sat in the big velvet chair and she and her friends sipped hot chocolate and chatted about someone named ‘Marie,’ who must have been a great source of laughter to them, while I watched The Polar Express on TV. I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been a happier time had father been here.
Grandpa Ruben leaned over to me. “Kristopher, you should open your presents now,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. I went over to the Christmas tree where a number of colorfully wrapped boxes sat. I picked one up which read ‘Love, Grandma,’ and tore off the silver wrapping. Inside was a blue and silver Nerf gun and crossbow. “Cool! I’ve wanted one of these since forever. Thanks, Grandma,” I said giving her a hug.
“Oh, you’re very welcome,” she said with a smile.
I opened the next present eagerly, this one from Grandpa, which revealed to be a Funko Batman. “Grandpa, you get me this every year. I’ll add it to my collection. Thank you,” I said.
“Dear, I think Kris is too old for that sort of thing,” Grandma said, laughing.
Grandpa Ruben chuckled. “Never. You bring that collection next year and we’ll look it over together,” he said.
The next one from Grandma was a Lego Star Wars set and Grandpa gave me a pair of Spy Gear night goggles, which I thought were very cool. I opened the next present and pulled out a big box: a Millennium Falcon model kit.
“Thanks, Grandpa!” I said. I opened the last present from Grandma. Another big box was inside. It was a microscope kit. “Wow,” I said. “Thanks, Grandma. This will be lots of fun.” I gave her and Grandpa a hug. Our guests clapped and laughed.
“I know it will be. I got one when I was your age if I remember correctly. I always give the best presents, don’t I?” she ribbed Grandpa Ruben.
“Wait,” Grandpa Ruben said. “I have one more present for you, Kristopher.” He sprang up and left the room. We all waited expectantly to see what it was. Grandpa returned minutes later with a red blanket bundled in his arms.
“Here you go, Kristopher,” he said beaming.
“What is it?” I asked.
He flung back the blanket and handed me a beautiful golden-white puppy. All of us let out a collective “Aww.”
“A puppy? No way!” I exclaimed.
“You’re welcome, son. She’s a six-month old golden retriever,” he said smiling.
“Now, I think you’ve topped me this year,” Grandma said, reaching out to stroke the puppy. Grandpa Ruben could not stop smiling.
“We’ll have to think of a name for this little one,” one of Grandpa’s friends, Mario, said.
Everyone came over and petted the puppy, exclaiming over it’s huge brown-gold eyes.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked.
“It’s a girl,” Grandpa said. The puppy licked my face, happy, no doubt, to be the center of attention.
Later that night, I climbed the stairs to my bedroom, holding my new puppy, and wondering what to name her. Fluff? No. Lady? No. Snowy? No. Christmas? No. Nothing was working so I decided to sleep on it. Once in my room, I opened my drawer to get my pajamas and found my journal underneath. I sat on my bed and opened it.
“What do you want to be called?” I said, patting my puppy on her head. She yawned in response. Then I wrote: I’m thankful for my puppy and for Grandpa.
Chapter 17: Puppy Talk
Our send off from Ruben and Reba’s house was not the joyful affair it had been in past times. I mean, mother was glad to leave, and Grandma Reba was equally glad to see her go, especially this time around. Mother had quietly packed her things on Christmas night as I was unpacking my gifts, not least of which was the puppy. The next morning, she came into my room and told me I couldn’t sleep in because we were leaving right after breakfast. I wanted to protest since the holiday spirit had seemingly only just started seeping into my soul, but I decided not to, considering mother had had a rough time during our visit. It was difficult to hold back my objections to leaving because I knew if I asked Grandpa Ruben, he would take my side and pressure mother into staying a few more days. Mother was surprised when she noticed the golden retriever sleeping soundly on my chest. I kept a firm grip on her throughout the night as she showed no interest in sleep but only wanted to keep me laughing at her antics as she bounded across the bed back and forth. Eventually though, she tired herself out and I was able to catch a few hours of shut-eye. I’m pretty sure that night marked the first time in my life I slept with an uncontainable sloppy smile on my face.
“Is that yours?” mother asked. Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know they had gotten a dog.”
“It’s a she,” I corrected. “And yes, Grandpa Ruben gave her to me as a present. She’s all mine.” I kissed the puppy’s nose and smiled like a proud parent when she stuck out her tongue to lick my chin.
Mother continued to stare as she thought things over. She didn’t look too amused. “Well, I wish he’d asked me first,” she said finally. “Taking care of a dog is a big responsibility.” She stuck out her hand and stroked the puppy’s head.
“I know, and I will take care of everything for her,” I promised. “I’ll feed her. I’ll train her. I’ll bathe her. I’ll walk her. I’ll….” I stopped short of saying ‘clothe her.’ “I’ll love her,” I said instead. “You don’t even have to do that. My love for her is sufficient. You won’t have to do anything. I’ll never leave her or forsake her.”
Mother could not keep herself from laughing. Thankfully, my words did not trigger thoughts of father’s absence in her mind. “Now I know what it takes to get you to wax poetic,” she said.
“Mom, that’s from the Bible,” I said. “I just don’t know the reference or context, but I know that I mean it for her.”
“Well, what’s her name? You certainly can’t call it ‘she’ and ‘puppy’ all its life,” mother said.
“Her life,” I corrected again. “You have to afford her the same respect you do people.”
“Fine then, Mr. Bossy. Her. Her life. Now how would you like to have been called ‘boy’ all this time?” mother teased.
“I guess I would’ve minded,” I said. “And thought that you and dad were kind of lousy excuses for parents. But don’t worry, I’ll come up with a name for her really soon.”
“Can’t wait to hear it,” mother said.
Just before we departed, Grandfather Ruben pulled mother aside to give her some words of encouragement. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but Grandma Reba glanced over at them with a look of annoyance on her face before she turned to hug me again and coo over the puppy.
“Make sure you bring her next year,” she said. “She’s gonna be a big girl by then.”
I assured her I would.
Despite father’s absence and the negativity surrounding this particular holiday visit, I considered it to be one of my best Christmases ever due to the completely unexpected surprise of the puppy. I couldn’t wait to show her to Lin. She was the greatest thing that could have come out of what I considered to be a relatively dismal situation. As mother backed out of the driveway and we took to the winding road again, I looked back and watched the small mansion recede into the distance. The whole house seemed to sigh without the weight of our presence beneath its roof — or perhaps it was just the sigh of Grandmother Reba standing in the doorway.
Chapter 18: The Call
On New Year’s Eve, with school still out and my best friend Lin still away for the holiday season, I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom trying to piece together the Millennium Falcon model that Grandpa Ruben had gifted me for Christmas. Then my cellphone rang. I picked it up especially curious as to who was calling since Lin had told me that his parents sequestered his cellphone when they went on vacation as a family. I didn’t immediately recognize the number that popped up. Maybe he’s using someone else’s phone to sneak and call me, I thought.
“Hello?” I said. “Who’s this? This you, Lin?”
“Kristopher, hey! It’s me. Dad.”
I jumped up from the floor. Dad? I thought, then blurted the first words that came to mind: “Dad! Where are you? Where’ve you been? You missed Christmas!”
“I know. I’m sorry about that, buddy, but I’m in Indonesia right now. Everything’s fine,” he said.
“Should I get Mom?” I asked.
“No, no, please,” he said quickly.
“What are you doing in Indonesia?”
“Well, it can pass as being work-related…kinda,” Father said. He chuckled. “I mean, I didn’t have to leave when I did, but I felt I had to go, you know.”
I knew he wasn’t being honest about the trip being connected to his job. “Why? You just went on a business trip,” I said. There was a sigh and then silence on his end of the line. “Dad, you always tell me everything about your travels. Why didn’t you tell me you were going to leave so early back-to-back like this…and miss Christmas entirely?” I said.
“Okay, look, Kristopher, this may not make sense to you right now, but you know your mother and I have been having some problems lately. I understand her mother died and everything, but the problems started even before then. She’s always been extremely dependent and irresponsible, and I think it’s time she learns to grow up and take care of some things on her own without my aid. Marriage and family and relationships are a two-way street, you know. Her neediness has been so draining. Frankly, I think both of us just need some time away from each other.”
“Well, I understand how you feel, Dad,” I began, “but are you sure this is the right way to go about things — just to up and leave? I don’t mean to sound selfish or be disrespectful or anything, but what about me? Isn’t being a father your job — a job you can’t forsake so quickly?”
I was hoping he’d admit that he was the one being selfish, but the other end of the line was so deafeningly silent for a few moments that I thought I had offended him.
“Kristopher, nobody’s forsaking you. I’m not forsaking you,” he finally answered. His voice faltered just enough for me to notice. “I’m only taking a break from your mother, not from you. I’m really sorry things are the way they are and I know you can’t understand right now, but I think this separation is best for me and her. Hopefully, afterwards, things will be better for all of us.”
“Okay,” I said. I was disappointed because I desperately wanted father to say he had changed his mind, would be on his way back home the very next day, and that his absence had only been a short-lived showing of anger and frustration. Then we could start the new year off right.
“Kristopher, you know you mean the world to me?” Father said.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said after a brief pause.
“C’mon.” Father sounded sad this time.
“Yes,” I said more convincingly. “Do you want to talk to Mother now?”
“No, not right now. I might call back later. I love you, Kristopher,” he said.
“And sorry about Christmas. I meant to call, but I completely forgot. Had a lot on my mind, getting down here and everything.”
I decided to strike a more positive note. “It’s okay,” I said. “I got the awesomest present, though.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
“Grandpa Ruben gave me a puppy to keep. She’s a six-month-old golden retriever. I haven’t thought of a name for her yet.”
“Wow, that is awesome indeed! I always thought I would be the one to get you your first pet, but I guess my old man beat me to it…as always.” Father chuckled.
“Hey, maybe I can send you some pictures of her,” I said.
“I would love that, Kris.”
There was silence on both our ends this time which prompted father to say goodbye. “Look, I’m sorry, but I have to go now,” he said.
“Okay, but when are you coming home?” I asked.
Father sighed again. “I don’t know. Hopefully soon. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Yeah, love you, Dad,” I said. I kept the phone up to my ear until I heard the click. It was time for me to sigh as I tossed it onto my bed. The puppy, who had been yanking and gnawing on the blankets, lifted her head at the sudden disturbance. I threw myself down alongside her with a heavy heart and began to stroke her head.
“Hey, little honey, I think you might be my good luck charm. This is the first time Dad has called since he left. He’s not coming back right now, but at least he hasn’t forgotten about us. Maybe I should call you Lucky. Lucky Christmas. That sounds nice, don’t you think?”
Lucky looked at me with adoring eyes, sneezed, and went back to attacking the blankets.