From my book…I Heard You.
Getting to know the family, all over again and realizing that the “perfect” family…well…isn’t perfect.
A Real Christmas Story.
Cheryl frowned at her husband’s suggestion.
“Cherry, c’mon, you know a fake tree isn’t the way to go. I mean it’s all about going out, walking through the snow, finding the perfect tree and then dragging it home. The kids and grandkids look forward to it. It’s kind of a family tradition now.”
Cheryl shook her head. “It’s a lot of work, Tom. Bundling the little ones up, listening to them complain about how cold it is, how wet they get, and then having them be all cranky. It’s not that good of a time.”
Tom nodded. “True, on all points. But these are the memories they’ll carry with them long after we’re gone. Memories I hope they’ll share with their families.”
Cheryl smiled. She liked how sentimental her husband got at times like this. “You’re such a softie.”
Tom crossed the living room and took his wife into his arms. He kissed her softly on the lips. “Shh, don’t tell anyone.”
Cheryl wrapped her arms around her husband. “Sorry, hun, I think they already know.”
“So what time is everyone getting here?” Tom said.
“Kara, Jim and the boys should be here anytime now and Sue will be here a little later.”
“Perfect. I know exactly where the tree is. I scoped it out last week on my walk through the woods.”
“How far back is it?”
“To the first corner of the property. It’s not a long walk, but it’s far enough so that you and the girls can catch-up, while me and the boys are out.”
Cheryl kissed her husband again. “Thanks Tom. I’ve really been missing my girls.”
“I know. But if you keep kissing me like that I’m gonna have to take you in the bedroom for a quickie before they get here.”
Cheryl laughed and gently pushed him away. “No time for that and you know it. Although a walk through the woods after everybody’s settled might re-energize me.”
Tom squeezed Cheryl’s butt. “It’s been awhile since we’ve been at one with nature. I’ll definitely make time for ‘our’ walk.”
“You do that. Now let me start on that turkey, it’s not going to stuff itself.”
Tom chuckled and watched his wife walk into the kitchen. He couldn’t believe how much he still loved her, even after twenty-five years of marriage. “I’ll go get the chainsaw ready.”
As Cheryl went about making stuffing, she heard the chainsaw roar to life. Fifteen minutes later their family came bounding into the house.
She heard her grandsons before she saw them.
“I wanna build a great big skyscraper!”
“And I’ll build all the roads and cars!”
As they crashed through the door, Cheryl barely got a hello before the boys were racing to the spare bedroom. She had spent most of yesterday making sure all their favorite toys were waiting for them.
“Hi Grandma!” the boys yelled.
Kara’s voice was loud over theirs, “hey! Both of you give grandma a hug and kiss before you start playing!”
With a sigh, the boys stopped and turned around. Cheryl bent down to receive their hugs.
“Seth, Bobby,” she opened her arms and they fell into them.
“Hi Grandma,” they repeated their greetings as Cheryl kissed each one on the cheek.
“Love you guys. Now go ahead, go play.”
They turned around and ran down the hallway. Their excited voices leading the way.
Kara came up and put her arms around her mother. “Hi Mom. All they’ve been talking about on the ride up is those Legos. Like they don’t have any at home.”
Cheryl smiled and returned her daughter’s hug. “Well, they haven’t built anything here, it’s like a brand-new challenge. How are you?”
“Glad to be here. I’ve missed you.”
“And I’ve missed you.”
Jim came up behind them carrying three giant shopping bags. He placed them on the sofa before coming to hug Cheryl.
His hug was strong and Cheryl leaned into it. “Hi Mom. You ready for all the noise and commotion?”
Cheryl nodded. “I am. A little noise is good. Tom’s got a whole weekend planned for you guys. Starting with finding a Christmas tree.”
“Good. I told the boys that’s what we’d be doing and they’re excited. Nothing better for them, then a trudge through the woods.”
“Burn off some energy, I hope,” Kara said.
“It will,” Cheryl agreed.
“So, what do you have going on?” Kara asked her mother as she walked into the kitchen.
“I just started the stuffing.”
Kara grabbed one of the aprons her mother kept hanging beside the refrigerator. “What do you want me to start working on?”
“Can you peel the potatoes?”
Kara nodded. “No problem. When’s Sue going to be here?”
“Not for a little while. She’s fighting traffic.”
“She never leaves early enough.”
“You know how your sister is, she’s always late. That’s why I’m leaving the pie crust for her.”
Kara laughed. “Good, she hates making pie crust. That’ll teach her for being late.”
Cheryl laughed along with her daughter.
Jim walked over to his wife and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m going downstairs to see how Tom’s doing. I heard him ripping the chainsaw. You ladies can stand around and gossip without me.”
“Aww, honey, but you get to know us better when we gossip,” Kara teased her husband.
“Yeh, after six Christmases with you two, I think I know you both pretty well. I’d rather be listening to the noise of a chainsaw. I’ll check on the boys before I go downstairs.”
“Thanks honey. Love you.”
Kara and Cheryl resumed their Christmas kitchen duties in comfortable silence, the sound of Cheryl’s Christmas CD making background noise for their bustle in the kitchen.
Twenty minutes later, Cheryl’s youngest daughter came through the door.
“Mom!” she went directly to her mother and planted a kiss on her cheek.
Cheryl wiped her hands on her apron before embracing her daughter. “Sue.”
Cheryl leaned back and placed her hand softly on her daughter’s cheek, then touched her silky blonde hair. “How’s my baby?”
Sue placed her hand over her mother’s and smiled. “I’m good. God, it’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you so much.”
“And I’ve missed you,” Cheryl said.
Kara came over to join them. “Hey sis.”
Sue pulled out of her mother’s embrace and stepped into her older sister’s arms.
Kara was surprised by the frailty of her sister’s body as she hugged her.
“Jeez-us, it’s like a hugging a bird. You’re so thin.”
Sue smiled weakly at her sister. “Yeh, I’ve got a lot going on right now. Haven’t really been eating too good.”
Sue shrugged, but didn’t answer.
Cheryl watched the two of them interact. She loved both her girls so much, but Sue had always been the more emotional one. She took everything to heart and had always been in troubled relationships. Her latest with Jeff had taken its toll on her. She had loved him deeply, but he had cheated and lied to her throughout their entire time together.
Cheryl had tried to convince her daughter to dump Jeff and meet someone who would treat her with the love and respect she deserved. Sue hadn’t listened though, she had been determined to believe that Jeff was the one; that he would make all her dreams come true. She had convinced herself that if she loved him enough, he would someday love her back. It hadn’t happened and when he left her to be with another woman, Sue had been devastated.
Kara, on the other hand, had always been strong and never took any crap from anyone, especially a man. She and Jim had been married for over six years now and their marriage seemed stronger than ever. The boys kept them stable and secure.
Kara had always looked out for her younger sister, had even fought battles for her when they were kids.
Whenever someone had started picking on Sue, Kara had been there to stand up for her sister and fight her battles. Cheryl couldn’t even count how many times Kara had been kicked out of school for fighting. Kara had never apologized though, or felt her actions were wrong.
“They deserved a beat down Mom. Nobody picks on my little sister and gets away with it. You always told me to look out for her and I did. You can’t punish me for that.”
And Cheryl rarely had. Kara throwing her own words back at her had always been her defense for anything she did regarding her sister.
The girls were looking at her, “Mom?”
Cheryl shook her head at her memories and focused on her daughters once again.
“I’m sorry, what?”
Kara laughed. “In your own world again?”
Cheryl smiled and nodded. “Yeh, it happens a lot lately.”
Kara poked her sister. “See what old gets you?”
Sue laughed. “Let’s never go there, O.K.?”
“Too late, I’m already halfway there.”
“I’m not too far behind,” Sue said.
“You’re just a pup.”
Kara turned away from her sister and looked at her mother. “So, what do you think?”
Cheryl shook her head. “About what?”
“You really were in your own world, weren’t you? Anyway, I was saying do you think Dad and Jim are ready to go tree hunting?’
Cheryl nodded. “Probably. Why don’t you go check and I’ll get Sue set up rolling out the pie crusts?”
Sue moaned, “really Mom? You know how much I hate doing pie crusts. It’s messy and they never come out right when I make them.”
“They will this time. Now grab an apron and get to it.”
As Sue tied on her apron, Kara went downstairs to check on her husband and father. She was back moments later.
“Dad and Jim are ready. I’m going to go get the boys ready.”
Cheryl heard the boys excited cries as their mother told them to get their boots and jackets on, so they could help grandpa and Daddy get the Christmas tree. Cheryl knew they’d be gone for a few hours and she relished the time with her girls. It had been a year since they’d all been together and as she took the wineglasses out of the cupboard, she sighed and felt thankful that they were here with her.
An hour later and three glasses of wine between the three of them, the conversation and confessions were flowing as easily as the wine. The girls became talkative and Cheryl realized how little she knew about her own children.
Despite having Jeff out of her life, Sue was struggling with her emotions. She was now seeing a therapist to discuss why she kept falling into relationships, that in her heart, she knew weren’t right for her. Her self-confidence was low and she found herself depending on prescription pills in order to get through the day.
“Are you sure taking pills is the answer?” Cheryl asked her.
Sue shook her head. “No, but they help me get out of my funk and on with my day. Working helps as well. I’ve taken on extra shifts so that I don’t have to think all the time. If I’m busy, I don’t have time to dwell.”
“But isn’t that just ignoring the problem instead of dealing with it? I mean your therapist must have told you that. You need to face why you keep repeating the same patterns,” Kara said.
Sue nodded. “She has. But it’s just too painful and it just makes me even more depressed.”
Cheryl reached for her daughter’s hand. “Honey, you can’t keep this all bottled up inside. You have to face the reasons and deal with them in order to get past them.”
“I know, Mom. But right now, I just can’t. I know I’ll get through this, but in the meantime, I just need a little help. That’s all the pills are. A way to help me cope.”
“I don’t know, Sue,” Cheryl was doubtful.
Sue gave her mother a weak smile. “It’s alright Mom. I won’t need them forever.”
Cheryl didn’t push her daughter any further. “Alright then. But you know you can always talk to me or your sister.”
“I know. Thank you.”
Sue looked at her sister and turned the conversation in her direction. “What’s going on with you?”
Kara shrugged and blushed. “Not much.”
Cheryl looked at her older daughter and knew she was lying. Kara had never been a good liar.
“Kara? What’s going on?”
“Nothing Mom. We’re fine.”
Cheryl tilted her head. “Really?”
Kara blushed again. “Yeh. Everything’s good.”
Sue looked closely at her sister. “No, it’s not. Something’s going on. What is it?”
Kara leaned back into the cushions of the sofa. “Fine. We’re not doing well.”
Although Kara gave the impression that all was well in her marriage, Cheryl and Sue soon discovered that things weren’t as good as Kara made them seem.
Kara and Jim were in financial trouble. They were struggling to pay the mortgage on their house, were in fact on the verge of losing it, because Jim had decided to call it quits on his six-figure paycheck.
“I mean, I even encouraged him to get done with the company. He was coming home stressed and distracted. The hours were killing him and we never got to spend time together as a family. He was worried the boys were going to grow up not ever really knowing their father. He didn’t want them to think he was just the man who was always yelling at them to keep quiet, because he’s tired. I mean, that’s not the man I married. The man I married was always quick to joke and laugh. He was always up for an adventure. The man he’d become was distant and always pre-occupied. I wanted my man back, not this corporate puppet he’d become. Enough was enough. He quit four months ago. But now, we’re always worried about how we’re going to pay the bills. We skipped out on the truck payment in order to get presents for the boys. Children can’t get up on Christmas morning with no presents under the tree.
Kara realized she’d probably confessed too much and backtracked. “But, it’s O.K. Jim cashed out his 401K and that should hold us until he finds a new job. And I’m sure I’ll find something as well. I just hate the thought of not being at home with the boys.”
Cheryl touched her daughter’s shoulder. “Do you need your father and I to help out with money? We’d gladly do it, you know? That’s what it’s there for, to help out those you love.”
Cheryl could sense her daughter’s willingness to say yes, but also knew how much she was fighting it.
Kara shook her head. “No, Mom. But thanks for the offer. Jim would be angry if I accepted money, then he’d know I discussed our situation with you. He’s got a lot of pride when it comes to supporting his family.”
Cheryl nodded. “He does. Sometimes too much. I understand your point of view. Just know I’m always here.”
Sue joined in the conversation. “I’m here too, you know?”
Kara looked doubtfully at her sister. “You are? How so, sis? You barely make enough to pay your rent.”
Sue lifted her chin. “I have money.”
Kara laughed. “You do? Where are you hiding it?”
“I invested the money grandpa left us when he died and his house was sold.”
“Invested it? Grandpa died over three years ago. Jim and I spent that money long ago.”
Sue smirked. “I know. You guys blew your money on trips and toys.”
Kara became defensive. “We didn’t blow it. Jim needed a new truck. And the trip to Vegas was the honeymoon we never had.”
“How much did you guys give to the Casinos?”
“That’s not the point. We were making memories.”
“And how are those memories paying the mortgage on your house? Seems to me, they’re not. You’re gonna lose your house.”
Cheryl could see that Kara was ready to snap at her sister and she did what she’d always done when the girls were ready to go off on one another, she played mom-the peacemaker.
“Alright Sue, that’s enough.”
Sue sat back sullenly into the sofa and took a sip of her wine. Kara followed suit and glared at her sister from the other end of the sofa.
“C’mon now, both of you. The boys will be back soon and this is Christmas. Family squabbles are put to rest on Christmas.”
In unison, Sue and Kara automatically replied, “yes, mom.”
Moments later the sounds of her grandsons were heard as they barged into the house.
“Grandma! Grandma! Come see the tree we got!”
Cheryl looked at her daughters. “You two done?”
“Then come on, let’s go see the tree you’re both going to help drag in and set up.”
Kara placed her empty glass on the coffee table and Sue did the same.
As they stood, Sue looked at her sister, “I’m sorry. I was a jerk.”
Kara smiled. “Yeh, you were. But that’s no different than it’s always been.”
Kara gave her sister an affectionate shove then pulled her in for a hug. “You’re right though, we did squander grandpa’s money.”
Sue shrugged. “Well, like you said, you were making memories. And at least you two will have those to look back on when you’re all living in Jim’s big ass truck.”
Kara laughed. “It is pretty big. Plenty big enough to accommodate us all. Shit, maybe we’ll throw a camper on the back and call that home.”
“I’ll bring a string of party lights and hang ‘em around inside. Give it that real camper look.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Kara said.
Cheryl sighed. They did what they’d always done, looked out for one another.