“What do you mean you won’t be home for Christmas?” Emily Springer was sure she couldn’t have heard correctly. She pressed the telephone receiver harder against her ear, as though that would clarify her daughter’s words.
“Mom, I know you’re disappointed….”
That didn’t even begin to cover it. Emily had scraped and sacrificed in order to save airfare home for her only daughter, a student at Harvard. They always spent the holidays together, and now Heather was telling her she wouldn’t be back for Christmas.
“What could possibly be more important than Christmas with your family?” Emily asked, struggling to hide her distress.
Her daughter hesitated. “It’s just that I’ve got so much going on during those two weeks. I’d love to be home with you, I really would, but…I can’t.”
Emily swallowed past the lump in her throat. Heather was twenty-one; Emily realized her daughter was becoming an independent adult, but for the last eleven years it had been just the two of them. The thought of being separated from her only child over Christmas brought tears to her eyes.
“You’ve got all the neighbor kids to spoil,” Heather continued.
Yes, the six Kennedy children would be more than happy to gobble up Emily’s homemade cookies, candies and other traditional holiday treats. But it wouldn’t be the same.
“I was home a few months ago,” Heather reminded her next.
Emily opened her mouth to argue. True, her daughter had spent the summer in Leavenworth, but she’d been busy working and saving money for school. If she wasn’t at her library job, she was with her friends. Emily knew that Heather had her own life now, her own friends, her own priorities and plans. That was to be expected and natural, and Emily told herself she should be proud. But spending Christmas on opposite sides of the country was simply too hard—especially for the two of them, who’d once been so close.
“What about the money I saved for your airfare?” Emily asked lamely, as if that would change anything.
“I’ll fly out for Easter, Mom. I’ll use it then.”
Easter was months away, and Emily didn’t know if she could last that long. This was dreadful. Three weeks before Christmas, and she’d lost every shred of holiday spirit.
“I have to hang up now, Mom.”
“I know, but…can’t we talk about this? I mean, there’s got to be a way for us to be together.”
Heather hesitated once more. “You’ll be fine without me.”
“Of course I will,” Emily said, dredging up the remnants of her pride. The last thing she wanted was to look pathetic to her daughter—or to heap on the guilt—so she spoke with an enthusiasm she didn’t feel. Disappointment pounded through her with every beat of her heart. She had to remember she wasn’t the only one who’d be alone, though. Heather would be missing out, too. “What about you?” Emily asked. Caught up in her own distress, she hadn’t been thinking about her daughter’s feelings. “Will you be all alone?”
“For Christmas, you mean?” Heather said. Her voice fell slightly, and it sounded as if she too was putting on a brave front. “I have friends here, and I’ll probably get together with them—but it won’t be the same.”
That had been Emily’s reaction: It won’t be the same. This Christmas marked the beginning of a new stage in their relationship. It was inevitable—but Christmas was still Christmas, and she vowed that wherever Heather was in future years, they’d spend the holiday together. Emily squared her shoulders. “We’ll make it through this,” she said stoutly.
“Of course we will.”
“I’ll be in touch soon,” Emily promised.
“I knew you’d be a trouper about this, Mom.”
Heather actually seemed proud of her, but Emily was no heroine. After a brief farewell, she placed the portable phone back in the charger and slumped into the closest chair.
Moping around, Emily tried to fight off a sense of depression that had begun to descend. She couldn’t concentrate on anything, too restless to read or watch TV. The house felt…bleak. Uncharacteristically so. Maybe because she hadn’t put up the Christmas decorations, knowing how much Heather loved helping her.
They had their own traditions. Heather always decorated the fireplace mantel, starting with her favorite piece, a small almost-antique angel that had belonged to Emily’s mother. While she did that, Emily worked on the windowsills around the dining room, arranging garlands, candles and poinsettias. Then together, using the ornaments Emily had collected over the years, they’d decorate the Christmas tree. Not an artificial one, either, despite warnings that they were safer than fresh trees.
It sometimes took them half a day to choose their Christmas tree. Leavenworth was a small Washington town tucked in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and it offered a stunning array of firs and pines.
This year, without Heather, there would be no tree. Emily wouldn’t bother. Really, why go to that much effort when she’d be the only one there to enjoy it. Why decorate the house at all?
This Christmas was destined to be her worst since Peter had died. Her husband had been killed in a logging accident eleven years earlier. Before his death, her life had been idyllic—exactly what she’d wanted it to be. They’d been high-school sweethearts and married the summer after graduation. From the start, their marriage was close and companionable. A year later Heather had arrived. Peter had supported Emily’s efforts to obtain her teaching degree and they’d postponed adding to their family. The three of them had been contented, happy with their little household—and then, overnight, her entire world had collapsed.
Peter’s life insurance had paid for the funeral and al lowed her to deal with the financial chaos. Emily had invested the funds wisely; she’d also continued with her job as a kindergarten teacher. She and Heather were as close as a mother and daughter could be. In her heart, Emily knew Peter would have been so proud of Heather.
The scholarship to Harvard was well deserved but it wasn’t enough to meet all of Heather’s expenses. Emily periodically cashed in some of her investments to pay her daughter’s living costs—her dorm room, her transportation, her textbooks and entertainment. Emily lived frugally, and her one and only extravagance was Christmas. For the last two years, they’d somehow managed to be together even though Heather had moved to Boston. Now this…
Still overwhelmed by her disappointment, Emily wandered into the study and stared at the blank computer screen. Her friend Faith would understand how she felt. Faith would give her the sympathy she needed. They communicated frequently via e-mail. Although Faith was ten years younger, they’d become good friends. They were both teachers; Faith had done her student teaching in Leavenworth and they’d stayed in touch.
Faith—braver than Emily—taught junior-high literature. Emily cringed at the thought of not only facing a hundred thirteen-year-olds every school day but trying to interest them in things like poetry. Divorced for the past five years, Faith lived in the Oakland Bay area of San Francisco.
This news about Heather’s change in plans couldn’t be delivered by e-mail, Emily decided. She needed immediate comfort. She needed Faith to assure her that she could get through the holidays by herself.
She reached for the phone and hit speed dial for Faith’s number. Her one hope was that Faith would be home on a Sunday afternoon—and to Emily’s relief, Faith snatched up the receiver after the second ring.
“Hi! It’s Emily,” she said, doing her best to sound cheerful.
How well Faith knew her. In a flood of emotion, Emily spilled out everything Heather had told her.
“She’s got a boyfriend,” Faith announced as if it were a foregone conclusion.
“Well, she has mentioned a boy named Ben a few times, but the relationship doesn’t sound serious.”
“Don’t you believe it!”
Faith tended to be something of a cynic, especially when it came to relationships. Emily didn’t blame her; Faith had married her college boyfriend and stayed in the marriage for five miserable years. She’d moved to Leavenworth shortly after her divorce. Her connection with Emily had been forged during a time of loneliness, and they’d each found solace in their friendship.
“I’m sure Heather would tell me if this had to do with a man in her life,” Emily said fretfully, “but she didn’t say one word. It’s school and work and all the pressures. I understand, or at least I’m trying to, but I feel so…so cheated.”
“Those are just excuses. Trust me, there’s a man involved.”
Not wanting to accept it but unwilling to argue the point, Emily sighed deeply. “Boyfriend or not,” she muttered, “I’ll be alone over the holidays. How can I possibly celebrate Christmas by myself?”
Faith laughed—which Emily didn’t consider very sympathetic. “All you have to do is look out your front window.”
That was true enough. Leavenworth was about as close to Santa’s village as any place could get. The entire town entered the Christmas spirit. Tourists from all over the country visited the small community, originally founded by immigrants from Germany, and marveled at its festive atmosphere. Every year there were train rides and Christmas-tree-lighting ceremonies, three in all, plus winter sports and sleigh rides and Christmas parades and more.
Emily’s home was sixty years old and one block from the heart of downtown. The city park was across the street. Starting in early December, groups of carolers strolled through the neighborhood dressed in old-fashioned regalia. With the horse-drawn sleigh, and groups of men and women in greatcoats and long dresses gathered under streetlamps, the town looked like a Currier & Ives print.
“Everyone else can be in the holiday spirit, but I won’t—not without Heather,” Emily said. “I’m not even going to put up a tree.”
“You don’t mean that,” Faith told her bracingly.
“I do so,” Emily insisted. She couldn’t imagine anything that would salvage Christmas for her.
“What you need is a shot of holiday cheer. Watch Miracle on 34th Street or—”
“It won’t help,” Emily cried. “Nothing will.”
“Emily, this doesn’t sound like you. Besides,” Faith said, “Heather’s twenty-one. She’s creating her own life, and that’s completely appropriate. So she can’t make it this year—you’ll have next Christmas with her.”
Emily didn’t respond. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Might I remind you that I no longer live in Leavenworth?”
“Fine, join one in Oakland.”
“That’s not the point, Em,” her friend said. “You’ve been so wrapped up in Heather that you don’t have enough going on in your life.”
“You know that’s not true!” Emily could see that talking to Faith wasn’t having the desired effect. “I called because I need sympathy,” Emily said, her tone a bit petulant even to her own ears.
Faith laughed softly. “I’ve failed you, then.”
“Yes.” Emily figured she might as well tell the truth. “Of all people, I thought you’d understand.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Em.”
Her friend didn’t sound sorry.
“I actually think being apart over the holidays might be good for you—and for Heather.”
Emily was aghast that Faith would suggest such a thing. “How can you say that?”
“Heather might appreciate you more and you might just discover that there are other possibilities at Christmas than spending it with your daughter.”
Emily knew she’d adjust much more easily if she wasn’t a widow. Being alone at this time of year was hard, had been hard ever since Peter’s death. Perhaps Faith was right. Perhaps she’d clung to her daughter emotionally, but Emily felt that in her circumstances, it was forgivable.
“I’ll be fine,” she managed, but she didn’t believe it for a moment.
“I know you will,” Faith said.
Even more distressed than before, Emily finished the conversation and hung up the phone. Never having had children, Faith didn’t understand how devastating Heather’s news had been. And if Emily was guilty of relying on her daughter too much, Christmas was hardly the time of year to deal with it. But wait a minute. She’d encouraged Heather’s independence, hadn’t she? After all, the girl was attending school clear across the country. Surely a few days at Christmas wasn’t too much to ask.
Emily decided a walk would help her sort through these complicated emotions. She put on her heavy wool coat, laced up her boots and wrapped her hand-knitted red scarf around her neck. She’d knitted an identical scarf for her daughter, although Heather’s was purple instead of red, and mailed it off before Thanksgiving. Finally she thrust her hands into warm mittens. It’d snowed overnight and the wind was cold enough to cut to the bone.
The Kennedy kids—ranging from six years old to thirteen—had their sleds out and were racing down the hill in the park. In order of age and size, they scrambled up the steep incline, dragging their sleds behind them. When they reached the top, they all waved excitedly at Emily. Sarah, the youngest, ran over to join her.
“Hello, Mrs. Springer.” The youngster smiled up at her with two bottom teeth missing.
“Sarah,” Emily said, feigning shock. “Did you lose those two teeth?”
The girl nodded proudly. “My mom pulled them out and I didn’t even cry.”
“Did the tooth fairy visit?”
“Yes,” Sarah told her. “James said there wasn’t any such thing, but I put my teeth under my pillow and in the morning there was fifty cents. Mom said if I wanted to believe in the tooth fairy, I could. So I believed and I got two quarters.”
“Good for you.”
With all the wisdom of her six years, Sarah nodded. “You’ve got to believe.”
“Right,” Emily agreed.
“In Santa, too!”
As the youngest, Sarah had four older brothers and a sister all too eager to inform her that Santa Claus and his helpers bore a strong resemblance to Mom and Dad.
“Do you believe, Mrs. Springer?”
Right now that was a difficult question. Emily was no longer sure. She wanted to believe in the power of love and family, but her daughter’s phone call had forced her to question that. At least a little…
“Do you?” Sarah repeated, staring intently up at Emily.
“Ah…” Then it hit her. She suddenly saw what should’ve been obvious from the moment she answered the phone that afternoon. “Yes, Sarah,” she said, bending down to hug her former kindergarten student.
It was as simple as talking to a child. Sarah understood; sometimes Emily hadn’t. You’ve got to believe. There was always a way, and in this instance it was for Emily to book a flight to Boston. If Heather couldn’t join her for Christmas, then she’d go to Heather.
The fact that this answer now seemed so effortless unnerved her. The solution had been there from the first, but she’d been so caught up in her sense of loss she’d been blind to it.
Emily had the money for airfare. All she needed was to find a place to stay. Heather would be so surprised, she thought happily. In that instant Emily decided not to tell her, but to make it a genuine surprise—a Christmas gift.
Emily reversed her earlier conviction. What could’ve been the worst Christmas of her life was destined to be the best!