For the past three years I haven’t come home for Christmas, not because I dislike my family but simply because I had travel plans. This year, newly single and with friends who all have significant others, I had nowhere to fall but back on my own family. As soon as I settled back into my childhood room, Mother told me that if I was going to be at home for Christmas this year, I would have to help Grandma put up the lights.
Grandma always has the brightest house on the block. She thinks her Christmas lights and tree show just how much she loves the season. Her light display grows bigger every year even if, in most recent years, she’s lost the ability to hang them herself. That’s where my family and I come in. Grandma doesn’t want a Christmas to go by without any lights. It’s almost sacrilegious to her. Since she can’t decorate herself, any family who has time and is nearby has to help Grandma decorate.
Perhaps I sound like Scrooge, but you’d understand if you had a family like mine. My grandmother, who can barely care for herself, also takes care of her diabetic husband and loony sister. Grandpa doesn’t really make trouble, but Aunt Bea, Grandma’s elderly and mentally ill sister, can be a real handful when she’s riled up and has forgotten her medication.
The family arrived early in the morning to hang Christmas lights and put up the Christmas tree. I was already exhausted from tossing and turning all night, and we hadn’t even begun working yet. We were all sure we would be there into the evening, hanging lights and ornaments. In an attempt to give us space, Aunt Bea, who has an annoying habit of getting underneath the feet of others, had been asked to help Grandma relax and watch television. Of course, Aunt Bea doesn’t exactly like directions.
“Mary!” she yelled as soon as she saw me.
“I’m not Mary, I’m Mariah,” I had to remind her. I look a lot like my mother, and Aunt Bea is easily confused. I’m the only female grandchild though, so you would think she could remember that, especially when my mother is standing next to me.
“Oh, Mariah! I have such a story to tell you,” Aunt Bea said.
Since Aunt Bea told lots of stories, I had no idea which one would surface. Oftentimes she told about when she was young and beautiful, how she used to model because she was skinny and tall — “Like you,” she would add, though I was neither tall nor skinny.
“Oh, okay,” I said, a little warily. Other members of my family were walking upstairs to gather decorations from the attic. I was being left behind.
“Many, many years ago, I was working at a department store,” Aunt Bea began.
I winced. I had believed that Aunt Bea was going to tell me a recent story since she seemed so excited about it. A quick story, at least. “Aunt Bea, I need to decorate. Can you tell me later?”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” she said. She waited at the foot of the stairs while I ascended after my family, perhaps to wait for when I came down again. She wasn’t there when I returned with a heavy storage box though, and for that I was thankful.
Unfortunately, Aunt Bea didn’t have a great sense of time. ‘Later’ to her meant five minutes, maybe an hour depending on when she felt like walking around the house, but no matter when she found me, I always had a heavy box in my arms.
“Mariah, I have a story to tell you!” she would yell as soon as she caught me nearby.
“Not now,” I would grunt, heaving another box into the living room to decorate Grandma’s fourteen foot Christmas tree. I could see my two uncles were outside the windows, one balanced precariously on the top of a ladder while another fed him lights for the roof line. It seemed that no one was in a good spot to hear Aunt Bea’s story.
The dance went the same for most of the day. Aunt Bea tried to tell me her story, and I tried to decorate like a good granddaughter should. By the time the decorations were completed, night had fallen and the outdoor lights lit up the sky while the indoor lights made the house look warm and cheery. We had done a good job in my opinion, and Grandma seemed pleased. Fortunately for me, we were finished past Aunt Bea’s bedtime, a stark 8:00 pm at night, and she had already retreated to her small bedroom upstairs. Whatever her story, I would not hear it that day.
Though I forgot about the story in the following weeks as my attention was pulled between Christmas shopping and other holiday events, Aunt Bea did not. She ruminated on the story, keeping it ready for when I returned for Christmas dinner; it was of utmost importance that I hear her tale.
Every year our holiday dinner is on Christmas day and, like most winter days in Connecticut, Christmas arrived snowy and cold. My mother and I bundled in our warm jackets, mittens, and scarves, and walked hand in hand towards Grandmother’s house. The entire town was lit with multicolor twinkling lights and several snowflake motifs adorned power poles. I imagined the smell of warm cookies wafting in the air before I realized how empty my stomach felt. I picked up my pace, wanting to reach Grandmother’s house as quickly as possible.
The walk felt longer than it was. As I entered my grandmother’s house and removed my snow-flaked jacket, I realized that Aunt Bea was lurking near the door with wide eyes behind her thick glasses.
“Mary!” she said as soon as she glimpsed me.
“It’s Mariah,” I patiently reminded her.
“Oh, Mariah. You’ve grown! I have a story for you,” Aunt Bea said. “Many, many years ago I worked at a department store, and there was a man who came in with his wife,” Aunt Bea began.
This story again, I thought dismally. She had been so intent to tell it to me while we were decorating that it seemed a shame to break her away from it again. Still, we had a table to set and food to cook, so I politely asked her, “Why don’t you tell me this story later?”
“Okay, I will,” Aunt Bea promised.
Despite the rush, I did not forget about Aunt Bea’s looming story. I kept in the kitchen and browned the rolls, heated up the casserole, and sliced the ham. We all set the table and placed the food amidst it. The family sat down, and I realized with horror that there were not enough seats for everyone — specifically, me. I had not been to a family dinner in three years, and in that time, children had grown into teenagers, teenagers had grown into adults, and those adults had given birth to more kids.
“Oh, Mariah, we can scoot over and make room,” my mother said, but the table was cramped as it was.
“Someone has to watch the kids,” I said, looking over towards the smaller table in the next room over where kids ages three to ten were sitting. “I’ll keep an eye on them.”
My mother watched me go. So, apparently, did Aunt Bea.
As I settled at the kid’s table with my food, Aunt Bea came and sat across from me. She hadn’t brought her food with her. “Hello, Aunt Bea,” I said as some peas washed over the edge of my little cousin’s plate and decorated the table.
“I have a story to tell you, Mariah,” Aunt Bea said.
“Okay, then tell me,” I said, ready to listen at last as I helped Johnny scoop his peas onto a napkin for later disposal.
“Many years ago I worked at a department store, and there was a man who came into the store with his wife. They were buying Christmas presents. I noticed them because they seemed like they were in love. A few days later, the man comes back and asks to buy a fur coat for a woman. He asks me to try the coat on since I was the same size as the woman. Well, I tell you what, I was not the same size as his wife!” Aunt Bea said.
I politely faked a laugh. This was obviously a punch line. I filled my mouth with ham as she continued.
“The man bought the jacket, and Christmas passed. I remember that jacket because it was our most expensive one, and it was a gorgeous shade of brown. It was so soft.” Aunt Bea leaned forward in an attempt to lower her voice. She did this when she was gossiping, acting very much like a teenage girl. “This woman comes in after Christmas with a gift receipt and that jacket, and she says, ‘I can’t have this jacket.’ I ask her why, because it’s such a fine jacket. ‘Does it not fit?’ I asked. She said, ‘No, it fits. I just can’t have it because —’ And then she stops talking and lifts a hand to her eyes, and she’s trying not to cry. And she says that she has to return it because she’s having an affair with a man, and he bought it for her and she just can’t accept something like that,” Aunt Bea said.
Her story seemed so much like gossip to me that I didn’t understand the point. She was very calm in the telling of her story, as she was usually, and she told it as if the occurrence had happened the day before, not years ago. “Is this story child appropriate, Aunt Bea?” I asked, looking around the table at the younger generation. They, however, were not paying attention to the ‘old people’ in their midst while they chatted animatedly about Yugioh cards.
“I tell her that she should take the coat, that he bought it for her and it’s such a nice coat. If she doesn’t want to have an affair, then she shouldn’t—but that coat was hers!” Aunt Bea continued, heedless to my words. “The lady left, and I was happy. She kept the coat. I actually saw her exactly a year later. At that time, I was in the Hunter Parish Mental Health Facility, and she was there, too.”
I looked up quickly from my food. I had never known that Aunt Bea had been hospitalized for her mental disease. I had simply known that she had one, and that my grandmother cared for her because of it. I felt guilty that I hadn’t bothered to ask after my aunt, that I hadn’t cared enough to learn more about her. I realized that I knew so little about Aunt Bea, that she had had an entire lifetime to be herself before I was even born. It was like a slap in the face, and I suddenly saw a glimpse of the woman Aunt Bea must have once been.
“You can only have a few of your belongings in there,” Aunt Bea continued. “And this woman brought her fur coat! When she saw me, she smiled, and we talked like old friends. The affair had not gone well.” Aunt Bea began shaking her head and looking closely at me. “The man had beaten her when she wanted to leave. Her life had gotten bad, but she still kept the coat because it was hers, just like I said it was. It made her feel like a beautiful woman. That coat, she said, hugged her when no one else would.” I watched as Aunt Bea spoke, wondering if she found anything strange about such an attachment to a coat, no less a coat from an abusive man. “I envied the coat,” Aunt Bea confessed, “It just looked so warm, and I had never owned something like that. That Christmas I got to borrow that fur coat, and I wore it with pride. I had never worn something so expensive since the day I tried that coat on. I was always cold in the Facility. So cold there… but that fur coat kept me warm, and we sang carols together!”
Aunt Bea paused, and I was too stunned at her story to respond. The only time I had ever noticed a sadness in her tone was when she had noted how cold the facility had been. I shivered just thinking about it. Aunt Bea must have been so lonely. Like her friend, she had merely wanted a hug.
“That was the best Christmas I ever had,” Aunt Bea said. She smiled at me, stood from the table, and went to join the rest of the family beside my grandmother where her food awaited her.
I didn’t know what to say to Aunt Bea or anyone else regarding what I had heard. Part of me wanted to relay the story to my mother; another part of me wanted to keep it a secret. The story highlighted so much about the way we had been living with Aunt Bea that I felt selfish for never listening to the story before. For all these years, she had not had a better Christmas than sharing a fur coat in an asylum. My family, me included, had always held Aunt Bea at arm’s length simply because of her disease. I felt terrible. I most certainly didn’t feel like finishing my Christmas dinner.
After the family finished red velvet cake for dessert, which I declined, we moved into the den to open presents. “Aunt Bea,” I called. “Sit by me.” Aunt Bea smiled and came to sit in a winged back chair beside my stool. I had deliberately given her the more comfortable chair.
We passed around presents, and I noticed that Aunt Bea only had one present from my Grandma and Grandpa. No one had thought to purchase her anything for Christmas. Her small gift, a new salmon colored top, made her smile, but I felt terrible that I was rolling in presents and she only had one.
Then I remembered her story. There had been only one thing she really wanted all this time, even during her time in the asylum. With that thought in mind, I reached over to Aunt Bea with tears in my eyes and hugged her. “Merry Christmas, Aunt Bea. I love you,” I told her.
Her smile became radiant, and I saw a touch of youth to her face. “Thank you, thank you,” Aunt Bea said, patting my arm with her wrinkled hand. “This is the best Christmas I have ever had.”
credits: Lindsey Lewis, author