The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Aunt Judy slid her finger over the top of the bookshelf in the hallway and looked horrified by what she saw. “Now, Jennifer, I thought you would have been a little bit more considerate about hosting Christmas this year. If you’re not careful, you’re going to get spiders. They can really ruin your day.” She paused, giving me plenty of time to see her aghast look as she thrust the dusty finger in my face. The dust rested in the wrinkles of her skin highlighting her age more than the shoulder pads in her dress. “You did after all ask for your turn to host, but I just don’t know if you are ready. Your sister’s party last year is going to be pretty hard to beat. She made your grandfather’s angel simply shine on top of her tree. I think you could have spent a little more time with your own tree; it’s so messy. You must have let you boyfriend decorate it.” She gave a snort from her giant nose and I could smell the alcohol from her breath. “Poor man probably hasn’t seen a Christmas tree in his life.” She started cackling reminding me of a dying hyena.
I gritted my teeth and faked a smile. “Thank you for you concern, Aunt Judy, but Matt and I had a great time decorating the tree. I just hope you have a good time right now.” I doubted Aunt Judy had ever had a good time in her life. Matt always said her thick hair was tied too tight, which released all the hot air in her skull. There was always something she could find to complain about.
“Yes, me too.” She wiped the dusty finger on a doily laying on the bookshelf and headed toward the kitchen. I loved my family, but sometimes I wished everyone would take a Valium before Christmas.
When I reached the kitchen, Matt noticed the effect Judy had on me. He pulled me aside and ran his hands through my hair. “Jen, what happened? You’re wearing the Aunt Judy frown again.”
“It’s nothing. You know how she get’s to me.” I grabbed some dishes and started washing them, ignoring the laughter coming from the living room. Matt and I worked in silence as I washed and he dried.
“It’s because of me, isn’t it?” Matt wasn’t looking for answer. I knew he felt helpless. He had done everything in his power to make sure everything went right, but my family had had a difficult time adjusting to our relationship; Judy especially. They weren’t happy I had broken tradition and started dating a “Jewish boy” as my Aunt called Matt.
I stopped doing the dishes and looked at him. “I almost didn’t get the angel this year,” I blurted, tears forming at my eyes. I hated myself the moment I let those words out, but I couldn’t stop. “The only reason it is sitting on top of our damn tree is because Grandpa smuggled the angel in with him this morning.” My cheeks were burning, and I could feel myself blushing. Grandpa was the only one who actually liked Matt. Everyone else simply tolerated him. Aunt Judy had thrown a fit when she saw the angel on top of the tree, but she couldn’t argue because the angle technically belonged to Grandpa and he had the choice to do with it as he pleased. Everyone knew Judy was waiting for Grandpa Joe to croak so she could inherit it. The angle had been one of the only things his family had brought with them when they emigrated from Germany. It had been in the family for five generations and it was the highest honor to have it sitting on top of your tree on Christmas day. My sister hosted the party last year and she had displayed the angel in the middle of her living room sitting gracefully atop the tree. It had been beautiful and I remembered looking forward to having it my tree. Now it was finally my turn, and I didn’t even know if I wanted it anymore.
Grandpa’s booming voice, startled us from our discussion, calling us into the living room; postponing the fight I knew we would have later. The best part about the living room was that not even Aunt Judy could dampen the ambience of it all. Matt and I had gone all out decorating it this year and it looked as if the Saint Nicolas had thrown up all over the room. Judy was right in assuming this was Matt’s first Christmas. His family was not very orthodox, but Matt still had never owned a tree, much less celebrated Christmas. I think he understood what this holiday meant to me because it had been his idea to host the party this year. The windows were plastered with Christmas stickers, green garland bordered the walls like plastic vines and draped over the TV stand. As for the gold garland, it lay on the window seal and was taped to every flat surface in the room, from the edge of the coffee table in front of the couch to the border of the TV. Intertwined in the garland on the walls hung colorful Christmas lights; some blinking, others omitting a constant warm glow. My favorites were the twinkling Christmas candy cane lights above the sofa.
This was also the one time of the year I was able to use Aunt Judy’s gifts. Every year, she gave my sisters and me ceramic snowmen; the ones people always find by their grandma’s fire place. She said it was classy. After more than twenty-five years, I had enough to create a small army on the coffee table. But my favorite part of the living was the tree crammed in the corner of the living room. The tree itself was six feet tall and it was covered in blinking lights and colorful bulbs from top to bottom. The beautiful glass angel sat perched at the top of tree. It sat erect on the tree, it’s regal wings open and it’s hands folded is if in prayer.
Grandpa Joe rose from his chair as we entered. “There you are, Jennifer. I was just telling the rest of the room we couldn’t start presents without the beautiful host.” His laughter was the only thing getting me through this day. Everyone else quickly joined in on the laughter. While genuine from the kids scattered around the floor, the laughter alone could not hide the tension in the air.
Grandpa Joe motioned to Matt. “Why don’t you pick the first present and then we’ll go from there. “Uh…sure, Joe.” A dozen beady eyes watched Matt as he gingerly walked toward the tree. He spent a few moments searching for a specific present.
“I don’t think he knows how to Christmas.” I cringed as Molly’s voice pierced the silence. Only twelve years old, she obviously heard that from her mother. “Mom said you hate Christmas. Is that true?” Matt’s face flushed brighter than Judy’s lipstick.
I could have sliced the tension with a knife. No body was sure what to say; yet I knew they were all thinking the same thing. Matt walked over and led me to the back of the room. “I’m sorry Jen, but I can’t do this. I tried…I thought I could pull this off, but I underestimated your family.” He turned his attention to Judy, sending a glare in her direction “You think it is hard sitting in the same room as a Jew. Imagine how I feel.”
I stood frozen to the floor, embarrassed both by Judy’s behavior and Matt’s as well. This was the worst possible thing he could have said. I had thought he was alright, but it was clear this had been bothering longer than I had imagined. “Matt please don’t do this right now.” I tried to smile; fake that everything was fine, but it was no use. Matt dropped the present and walked toward the kitchen. “Matt, where are you going?” his eyes were glistening and I knew he couldn’t hold his composure much longer.
After a moment, he finally spoke up. “Sorry, everyone. I need to get some fresh air. Why don’t you start opening presents without me?” I started to follow him out, but he stopped me. “I need some fresh air, alone.”
I looked at my parents and sisters for help, but they all sat there with their heads hung low, refusing to look me in the eye. Only Grandpa was willing to give me a smile of encouragement. He walked over and gave me a hug. “Why don’t I go in the kitchen and make us all some coffee while we wait for Matt.” He gave me a gentle kiss on the forehead and walked out.
“Well, look what you did, Jennifer. I knew you weren’t ready to host, but I had no idea how unprepared Matt would be. Didn’t you teach him anything about Christmas?” She wore a smile more frightening than I thought possible. “I warned you what would happen if you let spiders into your house. They destroy everything.”
“Don’t you dare talk about Matt like that! You think you know everything, Aunt Judy, and you couldn’t resist keeping you damn mouth shut.” My voice began to tremble either from tears or anger, I wasn’t sure. “I think we all know who the spider of the family is.”
“You witch!” Judy’s eyes bulged out of her head. Bushey strands of black hair sprung out of the bun on her head. Judy stood in front of me with her teeth bared and body rigid as if ready to strike. “Anne, tell your daughter to control her attitude,” seethed the woman.
My mother sprang from her chair and slapped her sister across the face. “Don’t you dare talk to my daughter that way. Why do you have to ruin Christmas every year? You are a grown adult for goodness sake, and lay off the alcohol.” My mother was not prone to violence. The only things she ever smacked were bugs that found their into her house. Sensing danger, several family members backed up or headed into the kitchen to help Grandpa with the coffee.
After a few moments of silent shock, the storm arrived. Judy launched herself at her sister, slapping her and pulling hair. My father quickly jumped into the mix, trying desperately to separate the women, but to no avail. They were tangled up like a web. Grandpa ran in to see the reason for the commotion but any words of comfort from him were drowned out by the yells of everyone else in the room. I felt useless, watching like rest of my family. Finally, broken from my trance I went to help my dad pry Judy off of my mother. My father held one arm and I took the other and together we managed to release Judy’s hold of my mother’s dress.
Judy brushed my father’s hands away from her. “Let me go.” She forced my hands off her as well. “I said get your hands off of me.” She pushed me hard enough that I lost my balance and began to fall backwards.
My body rocked back and forth; my arms flailed in an attempt to stay upright, but to no prevail. I knew the moment my shoulders made impact with tree that everything about to happen was beyond the point of no return. The fall felt like a lifetime; every bulb that fell from the tree made me wince as if I shared their pain. I could here my mother screams of concern as I became entangled in the tree. Grandpa rushed to catch me, but he was too late. By the time he reached my body, the tree and I lay in an entangled embrace. He helped me up and I could here him say something, but my attention was focused on the mess that lay in front of me. Bulbs lay scattered all over the floor, some shattered into a thousand pieces. Tree needles covered the room in a layer of green. And, among the ruins lay the beautiful fallen angel in the middle of the room. I made an inaudible noise that mingled with the gasps of the rest of my family.
The living room had become a crime scene and in the middle of it all lay the angel, shattered into many brilliantly shining pieces. Both wings lay several inches from the torso and the praying hands rested near its feet. At the base of the tree lay the angel’s head; its face staring at the heavens as if silently crying out to God to save it. The angel had survived five generations and two world wars without a single scratch. All thoughts of a victorious Christmas vanished before my eyes. My living room had become filled with sounds of mourning rather than laughter. Beady-eyed glares from family members darted from my aunt, my mother, and myself.
Matt’s entrance disturbed the silence of the room. He stood dumbfounded at the entrance of the living room, trying to take in the mess that lay before him. “What happened in here?” He gingerly walked over to me, trying to avoid the shattered bulbs that lay strewn across the floor. Although careful, the Christmas tree remains still crunched beneath his feet. He walked past Judy, and helped me to my feet.
I gingerly walked over to the angel’s remains and held its body in my hands. The tears dropped from my nose and splattered onto the angel. I was speechless. How many years had I watched my mother toil over Christmas to make it perfect? Had I not learned anything from her? Maybe there was some truth in Aunt Judy’s words after all. My tears turned into sobs as I thought about the angel. I couldn’t look Grandpa Joe in the eyes. I had never seen him upset, but I felt that that was about to change. Matt gave me another hug. My sobs soaked his jacket; I could feel hot mucus draining down his shirt, but he didn’t move. Finally, He began to pick up the pieces and put them on the coffee table. After he had carefully placed all the pieces down, he headed to the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” I managed through sniffles.
Moments later, Matt returned with a bottle of epoxy glue in hand. “I can fix this.” I knew he meant much more than the angel. I could see the guilt in his eyes; guilt that he did not deserve. He didn’t break the angel I did. He opened the glue bottle, but Grandpa Joe stopped him.
“Don’t fix it.” The looks of surprise on everyone’s faces were almost greater than that of the destruction of the angel. Grandpa Joe took the glue from Matt hand and replaced it with his own hand. His demeanor was daunting and he glowed almost as bright as the angel. “I think apologies are in order…from everyone. What’s done is done, and it’s time to move forward.”
Looks of shame filled the room. The children sat huddled together, unsure of what to do. The adults stared in different directions, some with tears in their eyes.
“What about the angel, Dad?” piped up my mother.
Surprisingly, Grandpa gave out a laugh. Nobody was sure how to respond. “There’s no bringing that angel back to life. It’s finally gone to heaven,” he chuckled. “But you know what they say, ‘It’s never so bad, unless it’s good for something.’”
“That doesn’t make and sense, Joe,” piped up Matt. He looked confused by our smiles, obvious that he was missing some kind of joke.
“That’s right,” Joe intervened with a smile, “It doesn’t.”
Leanna Nielsen is a Junior at Gustavus Adolphus College where she is pursuing a degree in English with a Writing Emphasis and Communication Studies. Leanna’s interests lie in the outdoors, working with children, chocolate, and of course writing. Finding an occupation that involves all four would be her dream. This is Leanna’s first published piece.