"Jacob's Wish," Part 3
Grandpa Burke’s nativity set on the mantle seemed to wake us up, and we stepped into the holiday season after all. We would all gather for a chili supper on Christmas Eve, then go to midnight Mass, camp out all over the house, and celebrate Christmas Day together, with the usual feast. Mom was cooking three days ahead of time. She set Marci and me to cleaning the entire house and making sure all the linens and towels were clean. I didn’t enjoy the work, but it revved up my heart to think of my family at Christmas. Dan was enough older than me that I’d always looked up to him, and I looked forward to his presence and Allie’s attention. I secretly believed that I was David’s favorite relative. He had teased, comforted, helped, and inspired me since I could remember. It really hurt that he wasn’t around much anymore. And it made my stomach knot to hear him go around and around with our parents. I hoped that for once things would go smoothly between them. Maybe they could call a truce for the holiday.
The first thing that went wrong was our oven stopped working late on December 23. I have rarely seen my mother panic—with five kids and eight pets, you learn to keep your head—but the sounds she made in the kitchen that day made me fear for the fate of the whole world. She and Dad went back and forth behind closed doors for nearly an hour. From the intermittent phrases that Marci and I could make out, we deduced that there wasn’t money to buy a new cooking range, that the present one wasn’t that old and probably only needed one part repaired, and that Mom couldn’t get a repairman until two days after the holiday. Suddenly, Mom’s despair flared up again, and we heard, “And I’ve invited the Berringers to eat with us on Christmas! I’ve got to be able to bake that turkey, John!” The Berringers were an elderly couple from church who lived three doors down and spent most holidays alone because two of their children had died and the other worked in Singapore and rarely made it back here. Bob and Elda Berringer were regular guests at our table, and I couldn’t understand why Mom thought it impossible to simply explain to them that her oven was broken.
Then the kitchen became very quiet. After a few moments, the door opened and Dad walked out, looking exhausted. We heard Mom at the phone. “Elda? We’re looking forward to seeing you on Christmas. But I have a strange request. Does your oven work?”
Jonathan became the courier over the next thirty-six hours, running between the Berringers’ kitchen and ours. Marci and I kept a low profile and cleaned with more energy than ever. It was something like nineteen degrees outside, and we hoped to avoid becoming Jonathan’s assistants. The poor guy—every few hours being handed a pan full of pumpkin bread batter or green bean casserole, covered in foil and then wrapped in towels, which he would carry down the street; then after awhile the phone would ring and he’d put on his coat and scarf and cap and gloves and hurry down there, come back with the same parcel but now freshly baked. Dad was devising a metal shelf in front of the fireplace on which they could reheat casseroles and dinner rolls. (Ah, the days before the common microwave!) At least when it came time to deal with the turkey, Dad drove it over. That was Christmas Eve, just before we headed to Mass.
By ten o’clock on Christmas Eve, a freezing rain had slicked all streets and sidewalks. Dan and Allie were running so late, navigating the roads, that we had to leave without them. Marci was the crankiest I’d ever seen her, screaming at Arnold for getting dog snot on her good sweater, then crying because her bangs looked crooked. I wished Mom would just send her to her room or something, but no, it was Midnight Mass and we WOULD go to church.
Of course, David didn’t show up, which made Dad angry and Mom tearful. Of course he hadn’t called to tell us he was late or not coming. Both slammed their car doors and Marci, Jonathan, and I squeezed into the back seat as quietly as we could.
At least Dan and Allie got to the service before the Eucharist. Everything was somewhat better then. They noticed David missing and decided not to bring it up, which was wise.
We got home and discovered that Bessie had thrown up all over the Christmas gifts. It wasn’t unusual for her to get an upset stomach, but only as the result of us giving her scraps of something spicy or with dairy in it. Like I said, Bessie wouldn’t eat unless someone was with her. She’d had nothing but dry dog food all day.
But there’s a first time for everything. Mom found the cellophane in the kitchen floor, wet and mangled. “Oh no. That was the pecan-cheese ball. Bessie!” This explained the color of the vomit in the living room.
“Okay, okay.” Dad had his coat off and was carefully reading the names on the spoiled packages. He handed two to me. “Joanna, these are not for you, so you can take them into our bedroom—get the wrapping paper out of the closet—and just rewrap them.”
“Yeah, well. It’s just Bessie.”
Marci refused to touch anything befouled by dog barf, so Dad and I rewrapped the several packages affected, while Jonathan administered Pepto-Bismol to Bessie, then shut her in the laundry room for awhile. He then checked Arnold, who had cheese on his breath but seemed totally fine.
Allie helped in the kitchen, and we could hear Mom recounting the now-funny story of the broken oven. I caught Dad rolling his eyes. He and Dan drank eggnog and talked sports until their yawns prevented further communication. Only then did Dan venture to ask, “Hear anything from David?”
Dad’s lips were tight, and he just shook his head, staring at the tree.
“Shouldn’t you call him?” I asked. “Maybe he tried to get here but slid off the road or something.”
“Your mother’s tried him three times already. He’s grown and should have the sense to let us know if there’s a problem.”
I went to bed feeling sick to my stomach. When Jennifer hopped up on the bed, I cuddled her a few minutes before letting her squirm down under my blankets. It was a comfort to feel her breathing, the soft tummy moving rhythmically against my foot.
When I awoke the next morning, needing to use the bathroom, Marci was in there and wouldn’t unlock the door. This was ridiculous, because we sisters had been naked together in bathtubs and changing rooms for our entire history. I hissed at her until she let me in. She stood next to the sink, her nightgown hiked up, holding a washcloth to her crotch.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Go get Mom.”
“I’ve got to pee.”
“Well, then go get her.” The vanity cabinet doors were open, supplies of all sorts strewn on the floor. I realized then what was going on.
“You finally got your period?” For nearly two years, Marci had been anxiously awaiting the proof of her womanhood, and now at last she had reached the end of her personal sort of Advent. But she didn’t look relieved, or happy.
“Shhhhh!” She kept one hand on the washcloth, the other on her tummy. She looked pale, truly pale as opposed to the drama pale she could work up in three minutes.
“I’m dying. Oh, please, get Mom.”
When I brought Mom a few minutes later, Marci was doubled over on the toilet.
“Cramps pretty bad, honey?”
“Oh God yes. I need something for pain right now.”
Mom let the questionable use of the Lord’s name go by without comment. “I’ll give you some ibuprofen.”
“That’s all? Mom, I can’t take this—it’s like I’m trying to poop a rock!”
“That sounds about right. Do you have some pads?”
“I thought I told you to have some on hand.”
“I’ve got these.” Marci pointed to a small box of tampons on the vanity.
“That’s what Julie and Serena use.”
“But that’s not what you start with! You want to put one of these up inside, the way you’re cramping?”
Marci was crying now. “Please, Mom! Where’s the medicine?”
Mom gave her three little tablets. There was a soft knock on the door. We heard Allie’s voice. “Alice, is everything okay?”
“Yes . . . well, almost.”
“Can I come in?”
Mom opened the door, and Marci moaned. Mom looked at Allie. “You wouldn’t happen to have any pads on you?”
“Oh, Marci!” Allie bent down to look into my sister’s contorted face. Congratulations—you’re a woman now!”
Marci cried louder. Allie went back to David’s bedroom, which she and Dan now used on visits. She was back in a flash with what she called her “emergency supply.”
Marci managed to look nearly normal while we had our pancake and sausage breakfast and then opened gifts. But she went to her room afterward, and I truly felt sorry for my sister, feeling so miserable on the holiday. Even her dramatic flair didn’t make it easier. In fact, she had little energy for making a scene. Worst of all, in mixed company, she couldn’t play this landmark event for an audience. Later, I took her some hot tea. She was in bed with two heating pads, looking miserably through her magazines.
At ten o’clock, the kitchen phone rang. I was closest, slicing celery sticks at the far counter, and picked up.
“Hey, Jo.” It was David! “DON’T let anyone know it’s me. Just listen, okay?”
I nodded, then realized he couldn’t see me, so said as calmly as possible, “Okay.”
“I’m fine, but I need to talk to Dan. Just get him. I’ll explain later. Get him now.”
He didn’t sound scared or hurt. I looked toward the living room, where Dan and Dad were watching football. “Dan, it’s for you.”
Dan took the phone and did an admirable job of hiding all emotion or thought while he listened. Then he hung up, winked at me, and went over to Allie to murmur something in her ear. He pulled car keys out of his pocket and went out to the car, got in, and drove off.
[Part 3--and the end of the story--tomorrow!]