Stomping away, I turned at the door and shouted with a voice that sounded like my father’s, “Bah, humbug!”
There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.
—A Christmas Carol
A mother was only as happy as her most unhappy child.
I watched my son turn his back on me and stride from the kitchen, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. His every movement radiated anger and disappointment, and it hit me like a tidal wave.
Bah, humbug. Miller was a bright boy, and he knew that his quoting Scrooge, after my definition of the phrase, would deliver all the more impact. I tightened my lips, trying to still my careening emotions. Those were not sentiments a ten-year-old boy should feel at Christmas.
I brought my shaking fingertips to my lips and closed my eyes tight. A mother was the foundation of her family, I believed. It was up to me to create a home rich with traditions, values, and morals that would instill confidence in my children. At no time was this more true than at Christmas. Wasn’t this the holiday that brought families together? A happy time meant for laughter, sentimental gifts, and love? And this holiday was extra special because Taylor was coming home from war. We had so much to be thankful for, so much to celebrate.
I sniffed and straightened my shoulders. This wasn’t the time for weakness or tears. We were having tough times, sure, but love and laughter were not things that could be purchased—they came from the heart. It was up to me as the mother to make this holiday the happiest Christmas ever. I pulled the stray strands of hair from my face and tightened the elastic, wiped my hands on my apron, then determinedly walked to the turkey potpie resting on the table. My fingers began to move expertly around the crust, pinching the dough to tighten the seal. As I worked, I saw again Miller’s face when his father had shouted no. Pinch. The crumpling of dreams, the wide eyes of sorrow filling with tears. Pinch. His head buried in his arms. Pinch. Finally his defiant anger and his rejection of Christmas.
My hands stilled, my head lowered, and my shoulders slumped with the weight of my son’s unhappiness. I felt his crushing disappointment in my heart. I wanted to make his dream come true with the puppy. But I didn’t have the money, and more, I wouldn’t cross my husband on this. What could I do to make Miller feel better? I wondered. My anguish came from realizing nothing would. He’d see my efforts as nothing more than this turkey potpie, a desperate attempt to recycle tidbits from holidays past.
Three days passed and Miller was still giving us the cold shoulder. When I called out, “Good morning,” Miller ignored me and sat sullenly at the kitchen table and shoved cereal in his mouth in silent protest. It was more of the same at dinner. I let him sulk, understanding he needed time to get over his disappointment. But when the weekend arrived and he was still acting this way, I decided enough was enough.
A December cold front had settled in the lowcountry. When I awoke, I peered out the bedroom window to see a coating of frost sparkling on the tips of the grass. A knowing smile crossed my lips. My grandmother once told me the best time to gather from the woods was after a frost had killed off the bugs. Old wives’ tale, perhaps, but it signaled it was time for the Christmas Forage.
Even though it was Saturday, Alistair had risen and left before dawn to spend the day out on a shrimp boat. The season would soon end, and I worried he’d take a job on a boat in Florida. That would mean months away from home. I’d heard the tales of women whose husbands followed the shrimp south, of the floozies who hung around the bars the way laughing gulls did docks, and the drinks that led to bad choices. Many marriages ended after a few of the rowdier trips, and I didn’t want to be another statistic. But he was hell-bent on earning money for his family, and there was no stopping the Captain when his mind was made up. I had seen the shame in his eyes when he’d told his son he couldn’t afford a dog. He’d always been a proud man, the best captain in these parts. The disgrace of docking his boat was coming down hard on him and could make him mean. I was walking a thin line between support and frustration.
I dressed quickly in jeans and a thick sweater. As I walked down the hall toward the stairs, I paused at Taylor’s room. Pushing open the door, I couldn’t help but peer inside. The scent of pine soap permeated the room, fresh and clean. I’d spent most of yesterday afternoon freshening it up for his arrival. The small navy-and-white room was just as he’d left it four years earlier when he’d entered the Marines. The Corps insignia hung on the wall beside that of the Citadel. I leaned against the doorframe and allowed myself the luxury of wandering back in my memories to when Taylor was a small boy. How many times had I tucked him into bed in this room? Taylor had been our only child for most of his childhood. He could do no wrong in my eyes and he rarely disappointed me. His father doted on him, too—despite their rows. The problem was they were too much alike. Taylor had Alistair’s good qualities—he was fair-minded, honest, hardworking, a natural leader, and deeply kind. They were both big men, broad shouldered and square jawed. Taylor also shared some of his father’s not-so-good traits. They could be stubborn and opinionated. Also like Alistair, Taylor was a man of few words, but when he spoke, his words were well thought out and people listened.
I let my fingertips glide over the bedpost and the navy coverlet, and smiled, remembering how at bedtime a young Taylor would sometimes ask for “a chat with the light out.” Those were golden moments. Taylor didn’t share his feelings readily, yet somehow the darkness allowed him to open up. He’d lie on his back, hands under his head, and tell me about his day, just rambling on about this or that. I’d listen, capturing each word. It was music to my ears.
I sighed, bringing my hand to my cheek. Taylor was twenty-six now and hadn’t shared anything personal with me in a long time. I hadn’t even seen him in over a year. I felt his absence deeply. It was almost five months since he’d arrived back in the States. I’d wanted to fly to Andrews Air Force Base to greet him when he got off the plane. But he’d been firm when he’d told me not to come. Money being tight, I’d agreed, but it still niggled at me. I could have surprised him. The thought that my son had arrived back on American soil injured and alone still hurt. But I was careful never to complain. Every day I thanked God that my baby had come home alive.
And he’d be home in a few more days, I reminded myself, pushing off from the wall. I was going to spoil him rotten! I’d start by giving him the welcome home he deserved. Oh, what a party I’d planned! Wouldn’t he be surprised? I smiled and crossed the room, eager to get my day rolling.