Christmas on Time

The Drive to Christmas

It wasn’t the way a boy of eleven expected to spend his Christmas vacation, but there was Michael walking to the Greyhound bus stop, trying to find his mother. She was supposed to have arrived on yesterday’s bus, but when he went to meet her, she was not there. When he went home and waited for a phone call; it never came.

What is she always angry about, Michael thought, and just who is the kid around here anyway? Last weekend she was so irritable that she slammed the door to her room on Friday night and never came out until Saturday afternoon.

It was more annoying than alarming. Michael wondered why his mother couldn’t just accept the way things were and enjoy Christmas, as he did. You buy a tree–it doesn’t have to be perfect–you hang a few ornaments, wrap a few trinkets to put under it. It’s a simple formula. It’s easy to enjoy the holidays. You can do a lot with an inexpensive bag of flour. Christmas cookery always seemed to make TV mothers ecstatic. Instead, Christmas was predictably the worst, the most depressing time of the year for his mother.

I’m a practical kid, he thought to himself, and she doesn’t appreciate it. Who else would collect all the old wrapping paper after the family Christmas party and iron it for next year? What other kid?

Michael could not remember a time when there was any money to spare. His mother had worked at the Uptown Bakery in Detroit for eight years, since 1953. ever since Michael’s father “flew the coop,” as his mother put it, when Michael was three. She earned enough to pay for her room in the city and to pay for Michael’s keep while he stayed with his grandmother. On weekends, his mother came out to the farm to be with her mother and son. She always arrived laden with day-old bread, cakes and cookies, on the Greyhound bus. From there, since she would rather die than be indebted to relatives, she walked, even in the dark, unless the weather was positively wretched, to the rather dilapidated farm house, which sat alongside the newly paved blacktop less than one mile from the village limit.

Grandma was the opposite of her daughter. Michael might try to be optimistic, but Grandma was the original Pollyanna. She viewed every tribulation as an opportunity to declaim one of her truisms. The neighbors’ barn burned down and she said, “Look on the bright side,” pointing out that they would soon have a brand new barn. Michael figured all the sides were bright when the thing was on fire. It wasn’t that she was insensitive. Grandma was always saving sparrows from the cat or hugging her grandchildren, but when you asked her for advice she would say, “Smile and the world smiles with you; cry and you cry alone.” Michael recalled once when Grandma had pushed the optimism to its outer limits and his mother told her that if she heard another word out of her she would hop the next freight train to Toledo.

“My goodness,” Grandma said.

“Your goodness,” her daughter replied, “is enough to drive me crazy.”

Michael walked on toward town, past the Cloverleaf Market with its Christmas trees leaning against the east wall and a string of lights rocking lazily above them. It was a damp Michigan day–too warm for December. What should have been snow had come down all morning as chilling sleet. Bleak was the word for it–the muddy water in the roadside ditches, the bare trees in Kramer’s Orchard skeletal against the silent grey sky.

The bus stop was located at the Peerless Cafe. Michael looked through the plate glass window. Two men in wool overcoats sat at the counter sipping from heavy green glass cups. Michael entered and sat in one of the six booths that lined one wall. He looked at the clock.

“Can I help you?” the waitress called from across the counter.

“Is the Greyhound bus due at five?” he asked.

“Yup. Can I get you something to eat?” the waitress said.

“No thanks. I’ll just sit here until the bus comes.” He had half an hour to wait.

The waitress and the two men smiled at each other and laughed.

“Sure,” she said, “go ahead.”

At precisely five, the bus pulled up near the cafe entrance. Eight people got off. Michael’s mother was not among them.

Michael sat for a moment contemplating the seriousness of the situation. Was it foolish to be alarmed? She could simply have forgotten to call yesterday. She had spent the weekend in the city without him before, expecially when the weather was bad. But she had always telephoned.

Michael looked up. The waitress was standing over him, a pencil stuck behind her ear. “Anything wrong? she said, “this is the second time this week.”

“No,” Michael answered, “no, everything’s fine.”

He headed for the exit and started the walk back home. The first thing notto do is panic, he thought. She probably has to work tomorrow. Outside, it was dark and still. The yellow traffic light blinked behind Michael as he headed down the street and out of town.

For the last month, his mother had been coming home from the bakery exhausted, depressed. She would throw herself on her bed and sleep through dinner, then wake up angry, stagger to the bathroom, set her hair in brush rollers and smear her face with greasy cold cream. “Anything on that damn TV?” she would say in disgust, holding a cold piece of dinner between two slices of day-old bread.

Sometimes she would go out of her way to find something Michael or her mother was doing wrong: “Really Mother, is soup the only thing you know how to make?” “Michael, do you have to wrap your lips around the glass when you drink your milk?” And Michael and Grandma would sit and listen to these complaints, knowing that she was tired and worked hard and had a perfect, if pointless, reason to be nasty.

Maybe if I tried a little harder, I’d really know what was troubling my own mother, Michael thought. Now, all he could do was guess where she was and why and for how long.

This year’s Christmas depression all started, he figured, with his Aunt Peggy. “”Your aunt-in-law,” his mother always corrected. “That woman is no blood relative of ours.” Why her brother ever married that so-and-so, she said, was beyond her. Anyway, Aunt Peggy dropped by one Sunday after church and spent an hour and a half bragging to her mother-in-law about her elaborate Christmas plans–the party she was throwing for her friends, the gifts she was buying for the kids, and fishing around to find out whether “Mother Dear” would prefer “a new range or a few things to brighten up your wardrobe.”

Michael remembered the whole scene. His mother was fuming as she served coffee to the ladies at the table, doubly irritated by her mother’s inane comments: “Oh, that’s a lovely idea, thank you, but I really don’t need anything.”

I need an aspirin,” his mother said, and headed out of the room.

“That woman insults her clothes,” Michael’s mother muttered to him in the kitchen, “and she thanks her for it. Oh, excuse me, she’s leaving; I have to go throw myself on the floor so she’ll have something to walk on as she goes.”

“That cat!” his mother screamed after Peggy left. “And honestly,” she glared at Grandma, “you fall for it.”

“Oh pooh,” Grandma said, “she means well.”

“Don’t start with that stuff,” her daughter answered. “I don’t want to hear it. Peggy may glitter, Mother, but she is not gold.”

“Michael, I want to tell you a story about your aunt-in-law.” His mother shooed him into the kitchen where she could have the last word. “You know,” she confided, “we went to school together; we’re exactly the same age. When we were in the fifth grade, she got the lead in this little Christmas play our class was putting on. I was a stagehand. It was my job to make this star move above her while she sang a solo dressed up as an angel. Well, the string broke and while she was singing the star fell on her head. She has never forgiven me for that Michael, not to this day. I never imagined she would end up marrying my brother!”

Michael looked at his mother skeptically.

“All right,” she concluded angrily, “what I’m really saying is I’m sick and tired of pulling the strings while someone else sings the solo.”

Michael felt that this Christmas depression was somehow connected to these events, and to the prevailing attitude that this was the season to be jolly and you were pretty much a leper if you weren’t. He had decided that as long as his mother felt so bad, there was no point in torturing her with the latest set of Christmas carols he had memorized, or in hanging up that worn-out plastic mistletoe that lay buried at the bottom of the Christmas decorations. None of those precautions had helped.

When he got home from the bus stop, his grandmother said, “Michael, I know your mother. She’ll be here for Christmas. You’ll see. Good things come to those who wait.” She told him to bring in the spruce tree that had stood on the porch dripping all morning.

When Michael came inside, his grandmother was on the telephone.

“Your mother is fine,” she said, hanging up. “She had to work this weekend and that’s the problem. She’ll be here tomorrow, or Christmas Eve for sure. Smile!”

She was lying. Michael could tell. The situation was serious. He could see it. What he could not figure out was just exactly what his mother had done.

On Sunday morning Michael got up early and helped his grandmother feed the chickens. The birds arose and flapped with one unanimous squawk as the door to the coop opened. Grandma called, “chick, chick, chick” and scattered feed. Michael hurried to the vacated nests to grab the eggs.

“Look, Grandma,” he said, “that hen looks just like Aunt Peggy.”

“Hush,” his grandmother scolded, smiling.

After all the chores were done, they put on their good clothes for church. Uncle Karl came for them in his pickup.

Where’s your mother?” his uncle asked.

“She had to work the weekend,” Michael answered, “but she might be home later, or tomorrow for sure.”

“Work on Sunday?” Karl looked at his mother. Well, for sure she won’t be home today–there’s no bus comes through town on Sunday.”

“Well, it’s the holiday weekend, you know,” Grandma told her son. “Everything’s kind of mixed up.” She looked out the window as she spoke. Then she turned and said, “And how’s Peggy and the kids?”

Well, she certainly isn’t very good at lying, Michael thought to himself.

At church, Michael saw Grandma muttering prayers nonstop all through the homily. A bad sign, he reasoned.

Grandma decided they could wait no longer to decorate the tree, and so, half-heartedly, they hung the colored balls and garland speaking little and hoping for the phone to ring or the back door to suddenly open. They added strands of foil tinsel at the very end, for that was usually his mother’s job. Christmas Eve it was, and barely half over before Grandma admitted that she was “worried sick.”

“Michael, I have to tell you this,” she said, holding a cup of coffee and some strands of tinsel, “I don’t know where your mother is. There, I’ve said it, and I have to do something. I’m going to start calling everyone she knows.”

She walked over the to telephone table. “Start looking up numbers,” she said, “and I’ll dial them.” Michael started with Sophie Anczak, who worked with his mother in the bakery.

Two hours later, they had called everyone who could possibly know where his missing mother might be, all the way through the alphabet to Anna Zabawski. No one knew. The last person to see her on Saturday afternoon said she was on her way to the Sears Roebuck department store.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Grandma said, without a shred of optimism, “she probably had some shopping to do while we sit here and worry ourselves to death.”

“I’m going to call your uncle, Michael, and then I’m calling the police,” she said. “I knew I should have had a talk with her last weekend. “Ill never forgive myself if anything has happened to her.”

“What do you mean?” Michael asked. “What could she have done? Maybe she just needed time to think. You know how she gets. It’s just the time of year to be depressed.”

“Sure,” his grandmother said, “and maybe some maniac got ahold of her. Oh why does she have to work in Detroit. She could work in the dime store, the cafe, the post office, anywhere. It’s just not safe in that city.” She was raising her voice.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Michael reassured her. It was so unlike her to think the worst. “Let’s give it a little more time.” Then he added, “Should we call the police now?”

Grandma looked at him. “I’m going to call your uncle first.”

Michael sat in the rocker and listened to what seemed like an endless phone call as Grandma went over all the details of the weekend.

At once, they both heard the sound of an engine outside. “I’ll call you back,” his grandmother said and hung up.

Michael and Grandma ran to the window. A taxi cab had pulled into the driveway. A woman lifted one nyloned leg out onto the gravel. She passed money to the driver, who nodded and waved at the two startled faces in the window. “Merry Christmas,” she was calling over a stack of gift-wrapped packages she could barely carry. It was Michael’s mother wrapped in a fur coat and wearing a black felt hat with a veil over her eyes. She was wearing more than a little jewelry and toeless shoes with unbelievably high heels.

Michael and his grandmother stared at her as she came through the door. “Good heavens, she’s robbed the cash register,” Grandma said, her hands clasped in prayer position.

His mother swooped over Michael, fur brushing against his face, her sweet perfume enveloping him. She deposited a kiss on his cheek. “Mother is very happy,” she said.”I know you’ve been worried, forgive me, but your mother is very happy, happy to be able to give the two of you all of these.” She slid the pile of presents to the floor under the Christmas tree.

“Young lady,” Grandma said, “do you know I’ve been sick with fright.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t call, but I had some important things to do,” she said grinning. “I did something wonderful.”

Michael and Grandma stood there with blank faces.

“Open your presents,” she ordered. “Merry Christmas. Go on, go on, go on,” she insisted.

They unwrapped the presents slowly, marveling at the huge read bows and heavy silver foil. Each gift was more remarkable than the one before: lingerie, sweaters, dresses, and shoes for Grandma; shirts and sweaters, model cars and airplanes, a suede coat, a watch for Michael.

Michael was stunned. “How can we afford all this?” he said finally.

“Don’t worry,” his mother replied, “I charged it!” She modeled her mouton coat and held her hands up to her earrings.

“But,” Michael said, “we’ll end up paying more that way.”

“You lost me,” his mother said. “A few dollars a month, Michael, that’s all it takes!”

Michael and Grandma looked at one another and said almost at the same time, “Maybe you should take it all back….”

“Maybe somebody will die and leave us a million bucks,” his mother said as if that were an imminent possibility. “Who knows and who cares. Merry Christmas to you both. That’s all that matters.” She smiled down at them from her high heels, the curls of her brown hair framing her face beneath the veil. She looked at the tree. “Gorgeous,” she said, adding a few strands of tinsel, then reaching our her arms–one for her mother and one for her son. As she held them, Grandma sighed and said, “All’s well that ends well.” Then Michael watched his mother’s eyes sparkle as she surveyed the gifts. “I’ll take care of everything,” she said, and suddenly he knew that she would. He knew that she was in complete control.

Although based on real events, this short story is a work of fiction, written in the 1980s.

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