Mother was still as we drove the meandering roadway quickly becoming snow-covered. She faced the side window, watching the swirling snow, and mumbling sharp words I couldn’t make out. I mumbled too, aggravated that a jack-knifed semi blocked the expressway and we had to battle back roads in a snow storm. I had to get us home before she breached her fragile containment and had a meltdown.
Had I known two weeks ago how bad the weather would be this Christmas Eve, I’d have given up my attempt at a traditional family Christmas. Though Mom’s mind was elsewhere, lost as if it had flitted into the snowy forest, at least she would join Sandy and me and the kids. We hoped for one last holiday before the teens drifted away into college, jobs, and marriages that threatened to fling them from coast to coast, and before Mom’s mind wandered into some dark wormhole permanently.
Rounding a curve, we hit a patch of ice and slid sideways. Mom, hands still resting in her lap, hollered “Whe-e-e.” I breathed a prayer as I eased off the gas and steered out of the skid.
The sky lightened. The snow-covered woods glistened in the weak afternoon sunlight like a Currier and Ives Christmas card sprinkled with glitter. Progress was agonizingly slow, but perhaps the storm would end and we’d just have an uneventful drive and a picture-perfect holiday. Suddenly we were free-wheeling … right towards a massive oak.
I gripped the wheel. God, please, help …
“James, these horses are a bit frisky,” Mom said. “Can’t you rein them in?”
I grunted. What does one say when one’s mother thinks she talking with one’s father? When she doesn’t know what age she is or that a car is about to ram a tree?
Sliding into the snow along the road’s edge, we gained traction and I righted the car, pointing us toward home again.
“James,” she said, looking square at me. “How soon do we arrive? We’ve been a very long time, and I’m cold in this sleigh.”
“It’s me, Mom. Travis.” I glanced over to see how she’d take my intrusion into her fantasy world.
She glared at me. “What have you done with my husband?” Her words reverberated through the car, and held a shade of panic laced in the bluster.
“Nothing, Mom. He’ll be back soon.”
“I should hope so. I don’t take rides with strange men.” She scooted closer to the door.
Well, at least she didn’t appear too terrified of this strange man at the moment. I wondered how long before I morphed into Dad again, and if her imaginings brought her comfort. She remained quiet as we crawled along the winding road. Finally we pulled into the driveway. The front door flew open.
Sandy scurried out along with TJ, our eldest son. “Merry Christmas, Mom,” Sandy said. “Let me help you.”
As usual, Mom looked bewildered, but allowed Sandy and TJ to grasp an elbow and walked her toward the house. Karl stood sentry, holding the door open for her as if she were a queen.
I gave him a thumb’s up. Of all the kids, at three years old he should have been most confused by his grandmother’s unpredictability. Yet he seemed unfazed by her nonsequiturs and how she drifted away mid-sentence.
I put the car in the garage and tramped inside. Sandy had Mom seated at the dining room table with Karl as he prepared snacks. Sandy and I went into the kitchen where the smell of garlic and roasting beef mingled with coffee. I poured myself a cup and she returned to tending casseroles and pans of whatever. “I heard about the accident. We’ve been on pins and needles waiting for you. I’m so glad you weren’t caught in all that.”
“Avoided it, but the back roads were no breeze. I’m not certain we can get mom back tonight.”
She put a pan on the stove. “But, Trav—”
“I know.” I shrugged. “She hates unfamiliar territory. But the road was risky enough in daylight. I’m not taking chances after dark.”
“Maybe a salt truck will come by.”
I looked askance. “Christmas Eve? This far out?”
She smiled and jiggled her curly head. “If not, we’ll just have to take turns sitting up with her.”
“You’re a brick.” I kissed her cheek. “Anything you want me to do?”
She poured steaming cocoa into a mug depicting a woodland trail and a sleigh. Was she a mind reader? “Would you take this in to her? She might be chilled.”
“Go sit and enjoy her while …” Her smile faded.
“Yeah.” I went down the hall and stopped at the dining table. Karl had a silver platter arranged with crackers and cheese. Now his face scrunched as he tried piling chucky peanut butter in—not all over—celery stalks. He already had a half dozen lined up, but practice didn’t seem to make the task easier.
I placed Mom’s cocoa in front of her, then ruffled Karl’s mop of brown hair. “Want some help? I could put the cranberries on top for you.”
“Daddy,” he said, pulling a pout. “That’s the fun part.”
I chuckled. “Okay. I’ll sit with Grandma. We’ll be your cheerleaders.”
He just nodded, his tongue busily working, as if helping guide his knife.
I patted Mom’s hand. It felt chilly. “Mom, you warm enough?”
She glanced at me vacantly, then went back to observing Karl’s every move.
“This will warm you up,” I said, moving the cocoa right beside her hand. I sat across the table, hoping to see any expressions of recognition or joy fly across her face. Working a holiday around her needs, with a rowdy quintet of kids, was a challenge at best. I’d hoped seeing family at home might … No sense wishing. Clearly she still floated in an Alzheimer’s haze. But maybe we’d still have a joyful holiday—if nothing sent her mind and emotions hurtling down some path of terror and shrieking.
A blob of peanut butter fell off Karl’s knife, thankfully landing on the cracker plate. He swiped it up with a finger and dropped it into his mouth, then tried again. Half the gooey stuff stayed in the celery, the other sliding over the edge. Quick as a wink he licked the overflow off and held the stalk up for inspection.
“Travis James!” Mother said.
Karl and I both startled and turned to her.
She wagged a finger at my son. “Don’t you dare put that on the serving tray, young man. I’ve told you if you lick off the excess, put the celery on a separate plate. Even family might not appreciate second-hand turtles-on-a-log.”
Karl gaped at her a moment before peeking at me. I wondered if he heard anything beyond her calling him by my name. Then he beamed at her. “Yes, ma’am.”
With a smile she passed him a saucer, leaving a solo china cup on the table. “That’s a good boy.” She turned to me. “James, our boy is polite and a quick learner. He will go far in this world.”
I nodded as a smile warred with piercing sadness. Though she couldn’t say it to my face, she was proud of me. That was an unexpected Christmas present, and I’d hang on to the memory a long while.
She nodded as if providing the exclamation point to her announcement. Then rose and reached toward me. “Shall we go to the parlor and listen to some music?”
I glanced at Karl who gave me a smile and returned to his task. I took her arm, hoping I was “playing along” correctly.
We walked into the family room. I guided her to the piano. She stopped, and her hand drifted to the gleaming walnut top. “Why, James, when did we get a new piano? Where is our …” She began scanning the room.
I tensed, ready to run for Sandy who always managed to soothe mother whenever something rose up and knocked her out of awareness and into who-knew-what territory. “Um … Merry Christmas, Katherine.”
She glanced at me, a question in her watery eyes, then she stroked the shiny surface. “Well, don’t you beat all? It’s lovely.”
Dodged a bullet. I relaxed, enjoying the serene smile on her face.
She glanced at me. “James, you always have the best surprises.”
Her world was jumbled, yes. But it hadn’t completely evaporated. Dad had given her a piano. A birthday gift, but hey, the memory was still in there somewhere. “Try it out.” I urged her toward the bench.
She stepped over and regally sat, lifting her thin arms and holding her gnarled hands above the keys. Staring off into space, she began to play. Slowly, stiffly. The melody came in fits and starts. But as her hands loosened, the tune flowed. And her face took on a luminescence I hadn’t seen in years. Decades more like.
Karl appeared at the doorway behind her and watched, nodding to the beat. Slowly the others joined him as Mom continued playing carols. The room seemed like old—happy—Christmases, and I stood there enjoying it. This might be the closest we’d come to the Christmas of my hopes.
Mom finished and sat straighter as the echo of the piano faded. She smiled broadly at me. “Merry Christmas, Travis.”
“Merry Christmas, Mom.”
— by Mary Kay Moody