Everything was perfect.
I stood back and surveyed my hard work. The house was spotless, decked with sprigs of fir and mistletoe. The Christmas tree stood strategically placed in the front window, twinkling with lights, heavy with all of my best heirloom ornaments, and strung with white garland that glittered like fresh snow. Underneath lay an assortment of beautifully-wrapped presents—well, empty boxes, really, since my husband and I never did an ounce of Christmas shopping until the week of, and, moreover, never got around to wrapping them. The dining room table was set with my best china, gleaming in the light of festive candles. From the kitchen wafted the scents of succulent turkey and baking pies. Even Mother Nature had cooperated and blessed us with an inch of gorgeous, powdery snow.
I clasped my hands together in delight. I had done it this year, I was sure of it. I had put together a Christmas party even my mother would be proud of. And I had done it all by myself.
The front door slammed and Sam came clattering in, stomping his boots and dropping his workbags on the floor. He started toward me with a smile, but I stopped him short.
“Could you take your boots off first? I just mopped in here.”
“I see that,” he said as he kicked off his boots. “It looks great. You look great.” He grabbed my waist and kissed me. “Did I get the time for the party wrong? Should I be dressed already?”
“Oh, no,” I replied, waving my hand. “I just got ready early. Everything has to be perfect by the time everyone gets here, and if I know my mother, she’ll be here an hour or two before I told her to be.”
“Do you need any help? Wow, it smells great in here. You really did the turkey all by yourself?”
I smiled. “Yep. And three homemade pies. And mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole, and rolls, and cranberry sauce...”
“Honey,” Sam interrupted. “When did you find time for all of this? I’ve only been gone for a day.”
“I’ve had a very busy day,” I replied.
He gave me a knowing look. “You didn’t sleep at all last night, did you?”
I opened my mouth to make an excuse but knew he wouldn’t buy it. “Not a wink. But I’m not at all tired. And you can’t even see the circles under my eyes....”
Sam tucked a ringlet of hair behind my ear. “Babe, why would you do that to yourself? Plenty of people would have been more than happy to give you a hand with everything. Your mother especially.”
“My mother,” I scoffed. “Sure, she would have helped. And rubbed in my face the entire time that she wouldn’t have needed any help. No, Sam. This is my Christmas party. The first chance I’ve ever had to show my mom I know how to do it. My only chance. If I mess one thing up, or ask for an ounce of help, she’ll never trust me to host the Christmas party again.”
Sam reached for a serving tray of fudge but I slapped his hand away. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, scowling. “It’s a family tradition, right? So the whole family should participate in putting it together.”
“This party is my mother’s claim-to-fame. There is nothing she puts more work into, and it’s always amazing. The fact that she’s allowing me to host it is mind-boggling. If I mess it up, it’s her reputation on the line.”
“It’s Christmas,” Sam shrugged. “Who cares about reputations and whether your china is shiny enough? Isn’t the point of a Christmas party for everyone to get together and have a good time?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Sam,” I snapped.
“That’s not fair. I’m trying to understand. I want you to enjoy your party, Lucy, not spend the whole time watching your mother’s reaction.”
I crossed my arms. “If it’s all a joke to you, then don’t bother coming. Go play pool with your friends or something.”
“Who said anything about it being a joke? If it’s important to you it’s important to me. I just...”
“Forget it Sam, ok? Just go get changed. And put your bags away.”
I wandered into the dining room, straightening the already-straight table cloth and rearranging the place cards in an attempt to vent my frustration. Sam had no idea how important this party was to me. I growled to myself as I picked up a plate and studied it, satisfied that my reflection shone in its surface.
I didn’t have long to wallow in my self-pity. True to form, my mother arrived several hours early, looking lovely in a satin dress of Christmas red. My father hung on her arm, trying not to look like he’d been dragged here against his will.
Mother flitted from room to room as I showed her all my hard work. To my surprise and delight, I didn’t once hear her say, “Oh, Lucy, I would have done this....” By the time I had her and my father seated in the living room, sipping hot apple cider, my smile had brightened considerably. Apparently I was a natural at this party-hosting business.
“I have never seen such a lovely tree,” Mother declared.
“Thank you,” I beamed. “Sam cut it down himself.”
Her smile faltered for just a second. “Oh...how nice,” she said as if by “nice” she meant backwards and old-fashioned. “Sam always did dress like a lumberjack, didn’t he?”
As if on cue, Sam appeared in the doorway, decidedly un-lumberjack-looking in the carefully-pressed slacks and maroon dress shirt I had picked out for him Honestly, I don’t think I had ever seen Sam dressed so nice. I felt a burst of pride at the way my mother’s jaw hit the floor.
“You were saying?” I asked her.
She composed herself quickly. “Why Sam, I hardly recognized you!”
I took that as a compliment.
The rest of the guests arrived on time—my sister Josie and her husband Frank, my Aunt Lulu and Uncle Jake, and some of mother’s very stylish friends who pulled up in shiny sports cars. They entered the house in a whirlwind of icy air and fur-lined coats. I greeted them all with a smile and squeezed Sam’s hand every time they praised the beautiful decorations and our beautiful home.
“It’s a hit, Sam,” I whispered excitedly in his ear as all the guests gathered in the living room.
To my surprise he didn’t return my enthusiasm. “I need to go outside and get some air,” he said.
“What? It’s time for dinner.”
“Well I’m sure you don’t need my help with anything, do you?” he snapped as he opened the door and disappeared outside.
I stood stunned for a moment, not used to dramatics from my laid-back husband. I couldn’t think about it for long, though, because my mother appeared at my shoulder.
“Let’s gather the guests!” I bubbled a little too enthusiastically. “You’re going to love dinner.”
Oohs and ahhs gushed forth over the gorgeous place settings, the succulent smell of the turkey, the absolute perfection of my cranberry sauce. I stood at the head of the table and saw that everything really did look perfect, but my smile felt a little forced when I glanced at Sam’s empty seat.
“Where is Sam?” my mother whispered below the hum of conversation surrounding Uncle Jake’s latest trip to Rome .
“He just went outside to get some air.”
She raised her eyebrows. “How long does that take?”
I ignored her. “Would anyone like some more gravy?”
I was beginning to wonder myself how long it took, when the back door opened with a bang. The guests jumped. I leapt to my feet and ran to give my husband a piece of my mind. But he wasn’t alone at the back door. I found him stamping fresh snow off his boots with our grumpy old neighbor, Mr. Barlow, beside him.
“I...uh...hmmm...hello, Mr. Barlow. What brings you over?”
He blinked at me with his sharp gray eyes. “Your husband found me in the middle of a walk.”
“Oh, well we’d invite you to stay for dinner but unfortunately we don’t have any more chairs...”
“He can have mine,” Sam volunteered.
My eyes flicked angrily toward Sam. Didn’t he realize I was trying to come up with an excuse not to invite Mr. Barlow to stay?
Sam didn’t seem to notice. “I’m not very hungry anyway.”
I faked a smile. “Well, Mr. Barlow, you probably have a million things you’d rather do than eat with a bunch of whippersnappers...”
“I’ll stay,” Mr. Barlow replied, shoving his hands into his pockets.
I opened my mouth to speak but no sound came out. Sam took over. “Here, let me take your coat and Lucy will show you into the dining room.”
His coat. I wondered if it was a remnant from his days in the war, it was so stained and tattered. But the rest of his clothes weren’t much better, and he smelled like he had slept in the pasture with his cows.
He looked at me without much fondness, but then, from the day we met him, it was always Sam he seemed partial to. “Come on in, Mr. Barlow,” I said, my voice high and tight. “I’ll...um...introduce you to everyone.”
The dining room was so silent I could hear the bubbles popping in the sparkling cider. Everyone turned toward us as we entered, but I only looked at my mother. She was looking at the floor and the trail of mud Mr. Barlow left behind him.
“Everyone, this is our neighbor, Mr. Barlow.”
There were a few smiles and words of greeting. Mr. Barlow merely grunted and sat down. My mother waved a hand beneath her nose as he passed by. I returned to my seat, flushing under the heat of my mother’s glare, desperate for some clever way to turn the conversation but at a complete loss for words.
My father finally broke the silence. “Well, Mr. Barlow, I’ve heard about you. You live just up the street, don’t you? Run a dairy of sorts?”
Mr. Barlow was busy loading his plate full of turkey and mashed potatoes and didn’t answer right away. “No ‘of sorts’ about it,” he grumbled. “A dairy’s a dairy.”
“You smell like it,” my mother muttered just loud enough that only I could hear.
“Do you make pretty good money with it?” one of the men asked.
“Don’t do it fer the money.” Mr. Barlow glared at the man with those eyes that made me feel two-feet tall.
“Well what do you do it for, then?”
“Been in the family fer years.”
“I bet you’d get a good price if you sold it.”
Mr. Barlow looked at the man as if he’d just suggested selling his heart on the black market. “Is that all you think about, young man? Money?”
“I make a living off of it,” the man laughed.
Mr. Barlow apparently didn’t feel a comment like that deserved a reply, so he turned his attention to his plate; he shoveled food into his mouth at such a rapid pace he hardly had time to chew in between bites. I just stared. I couldn’t help it. The hours I had spent on the party seemed wasted as I watched gravy dribble on the table. I knew just from the corner of my eye that my mother was horrified. And I despised Mr. Barlow for it.
Josie and Frank were the first to leave, pleading the need to get home to their kids. One of mother’s friends piped up that she thought she had left the oven on at home. Another suddenly complained of a splitting headache.
As the table emptied long before it was supposed to, I glanced at my mother and read in her eyes that I needed to show Mr. Barlow to the door. I wanted to. But how?
“Would you like some pie, Mr. Barlow?” I asked. Maybe rushing him through dinner and dessert would get him out of here faster.
He shook his head. “No one can make a pie the way Abigail did.”
Indignation flared inside of me. I had slaved over those pies for hours; they were absolute perfection. “You might give mine a try,” I snapped. “Your wife is dead, after all.”
The words were out of my mouth before I could snatch them back. Aunt Lulu dropped her fork to the table with a clatter. Everyone stared at me. Mr. Barlow’s hard eyes grew sad for the first time I could ever remember.
“I, um, I meant...” There was no amending what I’d done.
Mr. Barlow scooted his chair back and left the room.
Well, I had been successful in getting rid of him. But I felt no satisfaction. Giving little thought to my remaining guests, I jumped to my feet and followed him.
He was at the back door putting on his old coat. “Mr. Barlow, please don’t go.”
He didn’t even look at me.
“Please. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that about your wife.”
He looked at me then, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. “Well, it’s true. She is dead.”
“I know. You live in that big house all by yourself. And I didn’t even have the decency to invite you to our Christmas party.”
“It’s a very nice party.” I had never heard a compliment pass his lips. “I reckon you thought I wouldn’t fit in.”
Shame welled inside me. He was exactly right. But suddenly I realized that my focus on perfection had been completely misplaced. The party no longer mattered so much. In fact, I wanted to laugh at how much I had agonized over such trivial details. And cry over how badly I had forgotten what really mattered.
“You most definitely fit in,” I replied. “You’re my friend. I don’t even know half those people. I just invited them because they’re my mother’s friends.”
“Doesn’t sound like a very fun party.”
“No,” I laughed. “I’ve been so stressed out I couldn’t see straight. But suddenly...I feel like I can breathe again.”
Mr. Barlow smiled. It was a very nice, warm smile. “I would like to try some of that pie of yours.”
“So you’ll stay?”
“Yes, Lucy, I will.”
I smiled back. “Wonderful. But if I give you some pie, you have to tell me about your wife. Sam says she was quite the lady.”
His wife was the one subject that pulled Mr. Barlow out of his reticence. We returned to the dining room to find it empty, but I didn’t care. Sam came inside, having seen the guests off, sat down beside me and slipped his hand in mine. And as we laughed over Mr. Barlow’s story of the first time his wife milked a cow, I recognized the Christmas perfection I had been searching for all day long.
What I liked best: Very good sense of place; strong sensory images. I'm a sucker for these "true meaning of Christmas" stories.
Publication ready: Very close. The change of heart at the end feels a little rushed. I'd add more there, and include a scene of her mother leaving. Under consideration for the book.