With Christmas Eve came Amanda’s desire for family tenderness, the kind she saw in movies and read about in books: a blazing fire, her family sitting around playing games or telling stories while outside a dusting of snow turned the world into a glittery holiday card. And even though she didn’t like eggnog, she liked the idea of eggnog, and so her perfect family would be sipping on that. The same went for fruitcake.
She wanted all of Christmas: the innocent peck on the cheek under the mistletoe; the jars of candy canes; the oranges poked with cloves; the popcorn and cranberry strands draping the mantle; her family sitting around a table decorated in pine cones and holly and thick, red candles; a luscious turkey overflowing with stuffing.
As Christmas Eve day meandered its way into Christmas Eve night; the second-to-last Advent Calendar window peeled back; the outdoor electric lights plugged in; Amanda would wait for a click or a swoosh, a waft or a snap, something, anything, that would usher in the specialness she longed for. But as usual, her brothers were focused on a droning TV, their eyes blank with boredom; her dad out buying last-minute presents to be last-minute tucked under the tree (price tags on and in the bags they came in); her mother doing her crossword puzzles in the kitchen as the turkey roll and boxed mashed potatoes sat waiting to be cooked; and sitting on the entry table by the door, amid a pile of junk mail, the baby Jesus in her grandmother’s dusty crèche lay face down while the camels and donkeys had been arranged to smell each other’s butts.
But this Christmas Eve, as she stood in the doorway to her grandmother’s living room, her miss-matched socks and rumpled blue pajamas clashing with her grandmother’s spick and span tidiness, Amanda could think of no place she’d rather be than home. She was small for her eight years of age, the only big thing about her being her hair, a unruly mop of brown, which no matter how hard she tried to keep it neat, would never turn out that way.
Inside the living room sat Amanda’s grandmother, prim and perched at the small table by the window. Her back was to Amanda and she was sorting through a bag of papers, the Christmas music turned down low. Her grandmother always dressed like she was going to church, high heels and matching “sets” as she called them. Some sets had pants, some had skirts, but they all had tunics. Today’s set she had worn to church, a red and white print tunic over white slacks with a wide white belt, white pumps, and a white purse. She’d taken Amanda to the Christmas Eve service. Any hope Amanda had that the service might trim the night with specialness was eclipsed by her grandmother’s need to tell everyone about Amanda’s mom “making a little baby sister for Amanda.” She told them before the service while people were settling into their pews, she told them after the service during the cookies and juice, even once during the service when she whispered it to someone sitting in the pew in front of them. It had been embarrassing, and tinged with her grandmother’s dislike of Amanda’s dad. “Where are they going to put her?” she’d said when she thought Amanda was out of earshot, “That house is busting at the seams as it is!” Then she’d clucked her tongue and said, “No, I don’t suppose this one was planned.” Before church, her grandmother had fed her ham, real mashed potatoes, and a green bean casserole; she even let Amanda have two Christmas cupcakes. Still, Amanda felt no click or swoosh, waft or snap.
Before Amanda even understood that her mom had gone into labor, she and her brothers had been divvied up between relatives with what her dad had jokingly called an “open-ended return date,” as if the they were packages of meat or loaves of bread that the storekeeper forgot to stamp with expiration dates. Then her dad went to the hospital to help her mom have the baby.
Amanda wasn’t sure she wanted a little sister. She liked being the youngest. And the only girl. She also wasn’t wild about the timing of this little sister’s arrival. It wouldn’t just mess up this Christmas, she reasoned, but all the Christmases to come. From now on, each Christmas would have to share the limelight with her new sister’s birthday.
She’d been sent to bed over an hour ago, her grandmother saying, “Santa won’t come if he knows you’re awake,” as if Amanda still believed in Santa. She lay there staring into the shadowy darkness of the sewing room, her head not six inches from the porcupine pincushion, her mind trying to interpret the meaning of her troubled tummy. It was one thing for her to not want a little sister, but it bothered her that her grandmother didn’t seem to want her either. Grandmothers were supposed to love grandchildren; it was their job. Staring at the motionless ceiling fan above the foldout bed, she struggled with what she might say to her grandmother to get her point across and was so inspired with the words she’d come up with that she had to write them down. She plucked a scrap of paper from the trash and wrote by the glow of the nightlight. Once the words were committed to paper it seemed a shame not to speak them aloud. The words were, in her opinion, laid out in perfect order and meaning. She slipped the scrap of paper into her pajama waistband. She had no intention of reading the words from the paper; they were simple enough to remember. She stuck them there for good luck.
The words were these:
Nana, Mom and Dad know what they’re doing. Stop treating them like don’t. If you can’t stop, I’m going to have to stop loving you. Thank you. Amanda.
And now here she stood in the doorway of the living room, realizing there was a big difference between writing words down and speaking them aloud. Especially when it came to her grandmother, who had little patience for the mixed-up feelings of eight-year old girls. She noticed the Christmas tree lights were still on, and that there were more presents under the tree than when she’d last seen it. At least someone in all the hustle-bustle of getting out of the house had remembered the presents. She was pretty sure she was getting the Spirograph she’d asked for; when she’d asked her mom about it, her mom had wiggled her eyebrows and said, “We’ll see,” which usually meant yes. There were none of her dad’s last-minute presents though.
Amanda wrenched her attention away from the presents, reminding herself of her cause. She took another step into the room, hoping to muster the courage to coax the words from her waistband to her throat. But nothing about her grandmother’s house seemed conducive to speaking one’s mind. Even the big green and blue parrot, who was supposed to be able to speak, wouldn’t speak. Even after Amanda and her brothers spent two whole afternoons repeating “Open sesame!” and “Your wish is my command!” and “Who farted?” But she was just going to have to do it, her new little sister was going to have a hard enough time as it was, having her birthday on Christmas. She’d need all the love she could get.
Then the phone rang and her grandmother retreated into the kitchen to answer it. Amanda’s heart began to race. Was it her dad? Was the baby born? Would they be spending Christmas together after all? She slipped behind the Christmas tree to eavesdrop. But from the sound of it, the call was from one of her Grandmother’s many friends. Still, Amanda waited until she was sure, until her grandmother grabbed her ashtray and lit a cigarette, a sure sign that she was in for a long gossipy chat.
Sighing, Amanda made a beeline out of the room, stopping only to pluck a candy cane from the tree. Once upstairs in the starched sewing room, she opened the window to the brisk night and climbed out onto the bit of starlit roof outside. Down below, short drifts of dirty snow lined the driveway. The neighbors were having a party; an owl hooted. She could see her breath. Shivering, and with the scrap of paper bearing the words “Mom and Dad know what they’re doing” chafing the skin of her tender belly, she slipped the cellophane from her candy cane, stuck the sweet stick into her mouth, and listened to the sounds of her life changing.