The Green Snowflake: A Christmastime Story
NIGHT BEYOND THE WINDOWS. The tree alone is glimmering like a swirled candy that can unwrap itself. I start to think it might be nice to have a count on these presents. I’m not so mature I’m beyond asking for a pre-gift tomorrow.
“Christmas sucks this year.”
Suddenly Cori is beside me. Sometimes Corianna is eight going on twenty-two, not that I know what twenty-two is like, but I can guess. She is up past her bedtime, but she has a point.
“Cori, It’s only Christmas eve eve. Why,” I say, “‘Cuz the Russians dropped a bomb near LA?” Because two days ago they did. Naturally the everyone is more than tense about it, and its caused our parents and aunts and uncles to freak a bit and get uppity with each other, trying to keep Grandma Betty away from the news feed in the den, which they themselves have been ravenously consuming since. For Betty, the news is her next favorite pastime when she isn’t burning cinnamon rolls in the toaster or grooming her four Persian cats or asking the rest of my cousins and I if we are sure we don’t want haircuts. “Grandma Betty was born with scissors in her hand” is a fond family saying, even though it inspires a gruesome visual.
“Yeah… And we’re all probably gonna get sick or something.”
“Maybe not. We live in Florida, Cori. Anyway I feel bad for everyone who gets sick there. Or anywhere. Don’t you? Some people were out getting their tree when it happened. Maybe we should have a good holiday here because now they can’t.”
Fumbling with the old doll from the attic whose hair she was combing she says nothing.
“Let me get you some scissors, you can practice being Grandma Betty.” She looks up and me and smirks before punching my leg.
MY FAMILY IS PRETTY BIG. Five children and their spouses. I have eight cousins not including me and am the third eldest of them. Most of us amass every year at Grandma Betty and Grampa James’ house out of healthy habit- it can accommodate all of us and amazingly is still standing. Grandpa James kicked off going on two years ago. He was the one I enjoyed the most. But I’ve still got Corianna.
I am sitting beside this epic tannenbaum drinking a beer. I’m sixteen but my parents don’t care. If mom were here she’d be putting tequila in the egg nog. Maybe she’s doing that this minute while she’s saving the world over in California. An “oral surgeon and lifetime member of the Red Cross with extensive first responder experience” my hero mother. I take a deep breath, hold it, then let it out. Of course I’m proud of mom and her efforts, but I still wish she were here instead.
Corianna peeks in again: “Uncle Johnny says we’re going to do the cake now.”
I follow Cori back through the house toward voices getting louder. Friends of the fam have just arrived. The cake is another family tradition to honor Aunt Emma who was born on December 23rd and battled cancer nearly her whole life. After her fifth radiation treatment she nicknamed herself “The Atomic Queen.”
Her birthday cake, just like always, is white with whips of green frosting. An elaborate snowflake drawn on top in bright verdant gel.
The kitchen is packed and alive with everyone coming in. Dad pipes up with the happy birthday song, and slings his arm around Uncle Johnny who is beating back tears.
“Happy Atomic Queen day to you,
Happy Atomic Queen day to you,
Happy Atomic Queen day, Auntie Emma.
Happy Atomic Queen day, to you.”
We all lean in and blow on the cake candles. Hollering and hugging. Laughing and clapping at once. It’s the sort of moment you know you can’t keep, just like you can’t freeze time, so instead you just look right into everyone’s smile and wish on the future for more moments just like it.
A cat jumps onto the table and someone shoos it down. Uncle Johnny is talking “…Emma said it had special powers. But she loved the mystery. Christmas is a good mystery, I think.” He looks down at Corianna clinging to his leg and pets her hair. “Happy Atomic Queen day, littlest one.” He says.
THE GREEN SNOWFLAKE. There’s a plastic one on the tree. An ornament that Corianna loves to hang every year and not even Aunt Emma knew where it came from. It’s always just been there. Aunt Becca puts a plate and fork in my hand and the sugary sponginess is distractingly delicious…
…I wake up after eleven to Corianna coming into the bunkhouse room where Jake and Seth and Hank and I sleep. They are still passed out while I’ve been lying awake for about ten minutes feeling heavy in my body on this crummy cot but warm under the scratchy mohair. Watching the white cat at Hank’s feet, licking its own chest.
Cori crouches down. She looks like Cindy-Lu-Who in her pink nightgown with half-nelsoned fuzzy teddy bear, both covered in cat hair. We look at each other and don’t say anything. This is the they-who-smile-first-lose game. Our eyes shine at the same time as she pulls the box of animal crackers out from behind her back with a giggle. She eats one and throws one.
I pull the blanket down over my chin to grab it “Go back to bed. Or bring me toast, your choice.” I croak and close my eyes. She just giggles and repeats the snack and throw.
GRANDMA BETTY IS FRETTING OUT LOUD WITH A CAT IN HER LAP in front of the news around noon-thirty when Cori, Jake, Seth and I finally come down. Hank will sleep until two, then rally everyone for soccer in the park, so we leave him. Becca and Johnny are on the couch across from her and altho’ their bodies are relaxed, mugs in hand, their faces have a furrow that says they are intently listening but barely caffeinated. Time to turn on the grandkids routine. I shake a tiny box of Apple Jacks in Grandma Betty’s face, the kind you can open up from the side and pour the milk straight into as a bowl and say “Thank you for getting my favorite cereal, Grandma!”
“Mine too! Yay!” Jake shakes the yellow corn pops box and the blue one with Crispix back and forth like they were toy instruments. Becca and Johnny start up another conversation and change the channel to something with loud music. Cori picks up the cat over her shoulder and bounces around with it. Betty watches us dance. Jake and I are teenagers but in her mind we’ll always be little babies who get off on candy canes in our hot chocolate and replacing the baby Jesus in the crèche manger with a tootsie roll. Building forts out of domino sets and the stunning collection of greeting cards she keeps in several baskets around the house. “Oh you young dears,” she says and grins like a committed patient getting their morning meds.
Holiday after holiday, we’re proving once again even if the gas fireplace isn’t roaring and the player piano hasn’t yet been cranked, the den is always where the action is.
AFTER BREAKFAST AND SOCCER, MOM CALLS AND SOUNDS ALRIGHT. She’ll be back in a week. I only cry a little after I get off the phone. I eat too many M&M’s and watch too much TV, but not news. I think there’s a chance we might get some radiation illness, but when Cori asks me later if the Russians are bad people I will still say no.
Cori is the last one who still believes in Santa and she gets him. She knows he’s the true manifestation of the sprit of giving. Giving freely and abundantly with the chance of nothing in return. Sure, we’re kids and Christmas is for us and we’re spoiled a bit, but we’re still asked to do the dishes and sweep up, and even that is something to feel oddly grateful for. Who knows, we might not get another one.
She and I write the letter and make sure the milk and cookies are out. We go up to the tall window nook in the attic filled with old toys and games and crap still there from when our parents grew up, where Cori insists on sleeping in a lumpy mess of blankets and pillows, and look out into the dark tinged with stars. The houses further out with their trees and lights in their windows. We joke about reindeer and what they get each other for gifts. We watch cars moving lazily through the neighborhood. The music downstairs has stopped and it’s quiet.
I look over and Corianna is stretched flat like a toy on top of a pile of toys. Aunt Becca comes up and we tuck her in together.
OUTSIDE, IT’S AS IF THE TEMPERATURE PLUNGES WITH ONE DEEP EXHALE. I meet my dad where he’s putting a butt out against his shoe, then into his puffy jacket pocket. I don’t care how he smells, I need a hug. He kisses the top of my head and says “Mom is going to be okay, you know that. She loves us both very very much, but this is what she does. It’s a noble thing too, to love the world. Merry Christmas, kiddo.”
The air smells charged. I put my hand out into the black where the icy glitter dots are forming. A silent powder puff collects gently in my palm and flashes a soft glow like pale emerald algae. Radiant in the darkness. I lick it up and make a wish.