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The Christmas season is the best time of the year-not because of Santa Claus or Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole, but because of Mother and her extraordinary faith and her jocose disposition. It snows less than once in a blue moon here in Louisiana, yet Mother has the power and proclivity to make a white Christmas for everyone who crosses her path at this time of the year.
One of Mother’s favorite things to do during the holiday season is shopping around for the perfect gifts for everyone, making sure that each gift is as unique as it can possibly be to the person who will receive it. She’s never given a gift that a recipient didn’t like. But my favorite part-and everyone else’s, too-about the gifts is that Mother includes a special hand-drawn card in each gift that identifies with the recipient’s interests. Mother never forgets to include the emblem of my favorite football team-the New Orleans Saints-in my card every year.
I also love the Christmas Eve lunch that Mother prepares for the whole family every year. There are all of the traditional dishes (sweet potato casserole is both my and Mother’s favorite), but Mother always twists it to match her spontaneity by making anomalous and sometimes anachronistic desserts: her famous caramel apple crème brulée, key lime pie, and dreamsicle ambrosia, just to name a few. Grandmother Catheryne always brings her famed Mexican chocolate sheet cake, which is far more traditional, but that is the defining antithetical caliber between Mother and Grandmother Catheryne.
Mother is jolly year-round, but the Christmas season is when her jubilant attitude shines the brightest. Before I was born, Mother acquired the soubriquet ‘Mother Christmas’ from my older brother Dale. At first, Mother thought it was a bit of a hyperbole concerning her jubilant fervor, saying that it is merely her undying faith in God that allows her to act and live in such a way, but it has been proven to be a perfect fit time and time again.
It’s five days before Christmas, and Mother has been preparing since the day after Thanksgiving for all of the festivities of the season. She does most of it on her own, with a minimal amount of help from Dad, but this year Dad is overseas involved in the Iraq war effort. I can tell that Mother really misses him because her smile is not quite as wide as it normally is. I think that there is more to it inside of her, but Dad told her to never deviate from her zealous modus vivendi. I’m pretty sure that raised her spirits tremendously.
“Ariane, could you go get me the dictionary and the thesaurus?” Mother asks me.
Mother is writing a poem for Dad; it is one of the yearly Christmas traditions. Mother has written poetry since she was a teenager, and she has had several poetry collections published since then. The poems she writes for Dad, however, are just for him to see.
“What kind of poem are you writing for Dad this year?” I ask Mother, as I give her the dictionary and the thesaurus.
“It’s called Sonnet of a Soldier in Iraq. But it’s not a sonnet in the full sense of the word, because I don’t like constant rhythm.”
Mother never upholds all of the standards of poetry, because she believes that it detracts from the uniqueness of poems. I find this philosophy to be analogous to Outback Steakhouse’s radio jingle, which ends with the powerful declaration ‘No rules, just right!’. When she was a teenager, Mother wrote an allegory based on three turbulent and momentous months of her life in high school. She claims that it is probable that she will write another autobiographical allegory about her life during the months that Dad has been gone.
Every year, just a few days before Christmas, Mother gifts herself with a special dress to wear on Christmas Eve when our family comes over. She likes to look dressed up since she is the hostess for all of our family’s holiday gatherings. When there’s no party to host, Mother will wear her formal dresses to church despite the fact that everyone else is dressed more casually. But, of course, it is like Mother to stand out from the crowd, and it doesn’t take fancy dresses to achieve that.
We are in Dillard’s in Bossier City, and I am helping Mother find the perfect dress for this year, as I do every year. I know what Mother likes.
Most of my friends could never dream of being able to help their mom pick out clothes, but Mother does have an advantage over my friends’ moms: Mother is forty-five years old, but she could easily pass off for twenty-five years old. I believe that her optimism, her faith, and her jocosity have kept her young through and through.
As I am thinking about this, I suddenly lay my eyes on the perfect dress-not just the perfect dress for this Christmas, but the perfect dress. I can tell simply by how incredibly deviant it is from the current fashion trends and how unique it is. Of course there is more than one of them so that there can be sizes to complement nearly every American woman, but it doesn’t look like this dress has sold much. That alone is enough for it to be a Mother-magnet.
The dress is ivory with tulle fabric over silk and is covered in a red glitter pattern that looks like a hundred vines intertwined with each other, and it has both off-the-shoulder sleeves and a halter neckline with the ties attached to a giant gold metal ring.
“Mother, come look at this one!” I entreat her.
“What is it?-Oh, my gosh, that is perfect!” she exclaims.
I knew she would go crazy for it. She starts rooting through the rack for her size. “Double zero, zero, two, another two, four, yes!”
Mother has it easy when it comes to finding her size because size six is right in the middle, whereas I often have to order my size since I’m only a size two and very short like Grandmother Catheryne.
“I’m going to try this one on now,” says Mother. She hands me the rest of the dresses she was holding.
None of the other dresses can compare to the one I found, even though they are pretty offbeat as well. Even the black and gold dress encrusted with jewels, sequins, and grommets doesn’t say ‘Mother’ in the way that the ivory and red glitter dress with two necklines in one does.
“Tell me if you agree,” implores Mother before she is within my sight.
I agree indeed. It is perfect. “I think we’re through with dress shopping, Mother.”
“I certainly wouldn’t have found it without you, Ariane,” says Mother, as she hands me a twenty-dollar bill as remuneration for my shopping expertise. But it is definitely not the usual pay: it is four times what I normally receive.
“Are you sure that you want to pay me this much, Mother?” I ask her.
“Of course I’m sure. This dress is by far the prettiest one I’ll have. I just wish that your Dad could see me in it.”
“We can take a picture.”
“Yeah, I know, but it won’t be the same.”
It is Christmas Eve, and I am helping Grandmother Catheryne cook while Mother gets dressed. Mother has already done her part comme cuisiner, so it’s Grandmother Catheryne’s turn to finish the dressing and make her spinach and walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette dressing while Grandfather Brandon tends to the ham in the smoke grill. Uncle Darrell and Aunt Rhonda are keeping my younger brother Oliver busy, because Oliver likes to be an irritant during busy times. One would have thought that he had grown out of such a modus vivendi by the time he became a freshman in high school, but I have a feeling that he will always be the way he is. It’s a good thing that I have come to expect it, because it is a heavy chore to throw fire back at his dragon tongue.
“Did you help your Mother find a dress for this year, Ariane?” Grandmother Catheryne asks me.
“Of course, Grandmother. I always do,” I reply matter-of-factly while striving to maintain a high enough level of deference to please decorum-demanding Grandmother Catheryne.
“Is it like last year’s?”
“No, it’s much different. I picked it out for her, and she didn’t hesitate to agree.”
“As usual. You are very in-tune with Louise’s-I mean, your Mother’s-fashion sense. How different is the dress from last year’s?”
“Now, Grandmother, you know that I’m not going to spoil it before you see it!”
Grandmother Catheryne stifles a laugh. “You are just like your Mother. She never spoiled surprises and never spilled secrets. Every time I tried to gain insight on her Christmas and birthday gifts to me, she would never tell and always remind me that surprises were meant to be surprises. Her outlook on life she simply explained by saying, ‘Life surprises you!’.”
“And she claims to have established her literary philosophy of ‘Shock the world!’ before she ever went to print.”
Grandmother Catheryne rolls her eyes. “Yes, she did. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff she wrote when she was sixteen and seventeen years old. I have no idea how she made her books and poetry sound like she had lived every walk of life imaginable. I know that she read a lot, and that she believes that people who read a lot almost live what they read while they are reading, but I still don’t get it.”
“The mind of the author is a truly unchained and uncontained vortex of insight that is incomprehensible to non-authors.”
“I take it that you are quoting your Mother.”
“Yes, but what she said is true. I can’t relate fully to her mind.”
“But I’m sure you can more than others can.”
“True, but I’m pretty sure that what I see of her mind is only a minuscule part of her unchained and uncontained vortex of insight and introspection.”
Yes, behind jocose and outgoing Mother is complexity that I have little doubt would be beyond the cognizance of Albert Einstein. I’m definitely the most intellectual of Mother’s scion, but I’m nothing compared to Mother, in spite of what people tell me. ‘Oh, you’re just like your Mother!’ Ha. What a good one! Mother and I get along famously, but we’re definitely not twin souls; we don’t even have the same favorite football team! If only everyone could have seen Mother going insanely and almost obstreperously wild when her team, the Carolina Panthers, beat the Saints this year. But, of course, Mother called ‘good game’ with me immediately after and let me drown my loss in my favorite ice cream while she celebrated her victory with her favorite cheesecake when we got home the next day.
Grandfather Brandon enters the kitchen. “Somebody tried to take a little misadventure!” Grandfather Brandon places Tokyo the obstreperous Bombay kitten on the kitchen floor.
“You need something, Brandon?” asks Grandmother Catheryne.
“Yes, I would like to ask my granddaughter where her Mother is.”
“She’s getting ready, Grandfather,” I reply.
“Gosh, your Mother has always taken a long time to get ready!”
“Well, you’re one to talk! You’re a guy and it takes you only ten or fifteen minutes to get ready because all you have to do is take a quick shower and get dressed.”
“You’re just like your mother! That’s what she’s always told me.”
Well, one can’t say that Mother doesn’t make sense on that front.
“Okay, is everybody here?” Mother asks from behind her door before she makes her grand entrance.
“Ready and waiting,” enthusiastically replies Dale. “Come on out of there already!”
Mother opens the door to a sea of camera flashes and Dale coming to embrace her like he always does every time he sees her. There is no one in this world who loves Mother so reverently as does Dale.
“Dazzling as always, Mother Christmas!” compliments Dale. Dale takes after Mother’s jubilant fervor more than do Oliver and I.
“And you’re stage-ready as always!” reciprocates Mother. Dale is the guitarist in a rock band he created with his best friends.
“I should have expected you to choose an offbeat dress such as that one,” says Grandmother Catheryne.
Everyone else except for Grandfather Brandon laughs indecorously loud.
“What did you expect me to sport? Cinderella’s classic blue ballgown?” sarcastically counters Mother.
Grandmother Catheryne elicits no desire to reply.
“Let’s go eat, y’all!” decrees Mother.
Our family has a tacitly established seating arrangement at the dining room table at my house: Mother at the head seat, Dale to her left, Grandmother Catheryne across from Dale, Grandfather Brandon next to Grandmother Catheryne, me across from Grandfather Brandon, and Oliver at the foot of the table. When Dad is here, which he usually is, he pulls up a chair at the head seat so that he can share the spotlight with Mother. It is an ideal arrangement because even though I am sitting on the inside, Dale is also left-handed, so we don’t bump elbows. Dale and I both take after Mother on that front.
“Hey, pass down the sweet potatoes, Ariane,” Dale tells me. “Don’t eat my share!”
Considering that sweet potatoes are one of my favorite foods, I might unconsciously eat Dale’s share, so I pass him the sweet potatoes.
“Has Xavier told you when he’s coming back?” asks Grandmother Catheryne.
I can’t believe that Grandmother Catheryne just brought up the subject of Father! She knows that Mother doesn’t want to talk about him being overseas.
“No, he doesn’t know when he gets to come back,” sternly answers Mother.
“Well, when did he last call you?” continues Grandmother Catheryne.
When Mother is terse like that, it is her way of evincing that she wants the subject changed immediately.
“When is he going to know when he gets back?”
“I don’t know, Mom; now, if I may be excused for a moment…”
“Go ahead, Louise,” says Grandfather Brandon.
Mother leaves the kitchen and heads for her room. I know that this can’t be good, so I follow her.
“Mother, what’s wrong? You never show your emotions to be drained when you’re around others,” I say when Mother and I are in her bedroom.
“Your Grandmother Catheryne knows that I don’t want the subject of your Dad’s being in Iraq brought up-especially not at the table in front of others. I wish she could be as decorous as she demands be done unto her!” complains Mother.
“Grandmother Catheryne is probably just as worried, if not more, than you, about Dad. And Grandmother Catheryne is always on your case. I know how you feel, but don’t let your intrusive and overly inquisitive Mom get to you.”
“Yeah, all right. I know that you’re quoting me, so I have to agree. I just want your Dad to be okay.”
“Dad will be fine so long as we say prayers for him.”
“Yes, so keep on saying prayers for your Dad. It would take the world’s end for me to stop, so let it be that way for you, too.”
“Let’s go back and finish eating,” I suggest. Mother follows me into the kitchen.
“Is everything okay, Louise?” asks Grandfather Brandon.
“Yes, Dad, everything is fine,” answers Mother.
“Someone saved your seat for you, Mother Christmas,” says Dale.
Indeed, Tokyo the obstreperous Bombay kitten is in Mother’s chair. Mother lifts Tokyo, who lets out a shrill meow, and places him in her lap. Tokyo is calm when he is sitting with Mother.
Everyone is handing out their gifts to each other now. Mother is digging under the Christmas tree and handing me the gifts to dole out before she herself hand-delivers everyone’s Christmas cards.
Once everyone receives their gifts from Mother, we all open them. Each one of us has a different way of unwrapping gifts: Oliver rips the paper as a lion would tear at an antelope carcass, and I, like Mother and Dale, carefully peel at the tape before jettisoning the undamaged paper on the floor.
Underneath the paper is a box, and inside the box, my gift is wrapped in tissue paper. I pick up the mass of tissue paper, and I can tell that there is a clothing item inside. I unwind the rolled tissue paper to reveal-is it a…yes, it is a monogrammed Saints jersey! I have been asking for one since my birthday in July.
“Thank you, Mother!” I elatedly tell her.
“Y’all are all welcome,” answers Mother as everyone else thanks her for their gifts. I can see the excitement in Dale’s eyes as he shows off the tickets for him and his girlfriend to the Green Day concert in Houston.
Mother then distributes the hand-drawn Christmas cards to everyone. On my card is a picture of me in all of my football gear; Mother did an amazing job with the drawing. I love how her drawings do not look like photographs, but are more like realistic pictures drawn in a cartoony way.
“Meow!” expectantly chimes Tokyo.
“Oh, yes, Mama has a present for you, too.” Mother opens a bag of salmon-flavored wafers for Tokyo and gives him one. It will be enough Neville Chamberlain treatment for the next five or ten minutes.
Mother has just sent us all upstairs for the night. We are forbidden to come down and open any gifts from Santa until Mother calls us downstairs in the morning. Dale, who spends every Christmas Eve night here despite the fact that he has his own apartment next to his college, which is just a fifteen minute drive from here, likes to prank Mother by beating his fist on the floor to make it sound like someone is coming downstairs. Dale has a big Christmas present from Santa this year: a bass guitar.
As I say my nightly prayer, I try to drown out Dale and Oliver’s whispers in the next room. Oliver has a trundle bed that Dale will sleep on as soon as he decides to quit the stair prank. Oh, well, as long as they don’t interrupt me, I’ll be fine.
Tonight, I’m skipping my own issues and talking about Dad instead. God’s way of drowning my fears for Dad is enough to satisfy me these days.
I hear the doorbell ring long after Dale and Oliver are asleep. I start to wonder who would be knocking on our door at this midnight hour, but I hear a voice in my head-I know that it is Jesus because it is not my own voice speaking in my head-that tells me to go downstairs.
I hear Mother opening the door and wonder what she is doing up so late. But when I get to the middle of the stairs, I figure out why she and I came down with a case of insomnia tonight, because I hear Mother jubilantly shout, “Xavier!”
Dad is home. Dad is home! Jesus’s voice tells me to go wake Dale and Oliver, so I race back upstairs.
“Dale! Oliver! Y’all get up now!” I command.
“It seriously can’t be morning!” groggily groans Dale.
“We get to open gifts already?” excitedly inquires Oliver.
“No, Oliver, it’s better than that,” I reply. “Y’all just come on downstairs.”
When we all get downstairs, Dad is embracing Mother as she praises Jesus for his return.
“Dad!” shouts Dale. “You’re home so soon!”
Dad releases Mother and greets the rest of us. “I got an early out. The commander let me come home because more troops had just arrived. And, as far as I know, I’m not going back.”
Mother’s narrow eyes suddenly become wide and bright as though they were Tokyo’s.
This is so great. But the best part about it is not the mere fact that it happened, or even the fact that Dad doesn’t have to leave again.
No, the best part is that when I was praying for Dad, I was also praying for Mother.
"Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not."-Jeremiah 33:3, King James Version
"Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path."-Psalm 119:105, New Living Translation
The present and future are not about who you were in the past-rather, they are about who you are and who you will become.
"Writing is truly glorious in that an author can put on paper the words that fear denies the voice to speak."-from my short story, "Set Free"
"...What you feel is what you are;
What you are is beautiful..."
-from "Slide" by the Goo Goo Dolls
Life surprises you! And I'm talking about the good stuff, because a bad surprise is not a surprise at all, it is just shock and horror. All of these good surprises, they are rewards, and the things that happen to remind you that you matter and that you should make yourself faithful so that you can be deserving of all of life's good surprises. Every wonderful surprise in life is a chance to flourish, so grab life by the horns-but don't ride, steer instead: life's horns are life's joystick. You can handle it, because your life's horns are made especially for you. If you don't give up, all of this will hold true and life will continue to surprise you.
Aubri, a. k. a. "Leopard Lady"