All is Calm
Something a little different in honor of the holiday – a short story that has a special place in my heart because it’s the first fiction I ever had published. Some of you may have read it before. At any rate, I wish for all of you a blessed holiday season – whatever holiday you celebrate – and many good things in the coming year.
All is Calm
I set the last candle, swirled a little frosting around its base, and stepped back to inspect my handiwork. A tad lopsided. Otherwise, not too bad. A leaning tower of love. That’s what I’d call it. In my family, we like sentimental, hokey things. In that, we’re in agreement, if not much else.
My father is Timothy Connell, grandson of a proud rebel who left Derry in 1920, three short hops ahead of the Black and Tan; my mother, the former Naomi Herskovitz, is the child of Jews savvy enough to get out of Babi Yar six months before the arrival of the infamous killing squads. So you can see why I treasure small points of agreement – and why parties including both sides of the family are not, for me, an everyday event.
“Sarah! The balloons are up.” David’s voice, from the basement rec room. “Come have a look.”
Doesn’t he know how busy I am?
“You’re going to be impressed.”
Doesn’t have a clue.
“Sarah?” Swift footsteps, then, “Here you are.”
“Where’d you expect me to be?”
“I was calling you.”
“Well?” He looked genuinely puzzled. “Something wrong?”
It was impossible not to respond to his innocence. “Nothing wrong,” I told him. “Just a lot to do. I want everything perfect.”
“Benny’ll think it’s perfect – no matter what.”
Benny has Downs Syndrome. I guess that’s why I think of him as my little brother even though he’s two years older than I am and why I always try to make his birthday perfect. Falling on December 21, it would be easy to lose in the holiday madness of disparate celebrations, but we don’t let that happen – another area in which both sides of the family are united.
David put his arms around me and rested his chin on the top of my head. I leaned into him, trying to absorb his confidence. When the doorbell rang, he held me close for a brief moment before we moved apart. No need to answer the bell. We knew who would be first to arrive and that she would come on it.
“I came early to help,” Aunt Judith announced. She set a platter of latkes on the counter with her usual flourish, then turned a blush-enhanced cheek to be kissed. A former ballerina, her smallest action always seemed a statement, a statement that I found impossible to ignore. Aunt Judith is my mother’s twin, and one of the pillars of my life. “There’s more in the car,” she said, tilting her head gracefully in David’s direction.
He jumped to attention. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Be careful of the goose.”
“Aunt Judith! I told you not to. I made lasagna. Something everybody likes.” I looked at the large pans fresh from the oven, still bubbling, an aromatic compromise.
But my aunt is not by nature a compromiser.
I was saved from reprimand by the clattering appearance of my sons. Childless, Aunt Judith dotes on the young of each generation as they come along, and Daniel and Patrick were special favorites, a mixed blessing for them, since to be a favorite of Aunt Judith’s meant meeting her rigorous standards. “I love little boys,” she was fond of saying, only half kidding, “There’s so much room for improvement.”
Each boy, in turn, kissed Aunt Judith and stood tall for inspection, just as I had always done.
“Somebody get the door,” David called from the front porch.
Daniel opened the door for his father, and we all took a minute to admire what was surely the world’s largest goose, skin crisp and brown, glistening with fat, swelled with the chestnut and apple stuffing that nobody makes like Aunt Judith. David set it on the counter between my cake and the lasagna, where it rested, massive and proud. The little tower seemed to lean more, and the bubbles on the lasagna to deflate. Oh well, I told myself, it doesn’t matter. Anything that makes Benny feel important is good.
“I couldn’t carry everything,” David said, “Danny, why don’t you run get the bag out of the trunk.”
“Where should I put this stuff?” Danny asked when he came back with a bulging shopping bag. Aunt Judith turned to me and, with only the slightest lift of a dark, perfected-shaped eyebrow, asked where the presents should go.
“Basement. On the ping pong table.”
I watched David and the boys take the presents downstairs and took a couple of deep breaths.
“That’s right. Relax.” Aunt Judith put both arms around me. As always, I was awed by the strength that emanated from her diminutive form. “Stop worrying. Everything will be fine,” she said. “It always is.”
The commotion at the front door was a welcome distraction
Daddy pushed open the door and, convivial as always, sang out, “You can start the party now,” then stepped back to let Mom and Benny come in ahead of him before he added, “We brought the birthday boy.”
Seeing Daddy and Benny together, it’s hard to believe they related at all – much less father and son. Daddy is tall, straight-backed, has about him an air of go-to-hellish elegance. “Handsome as a Cossack,” is how Grandma Herskovitz used to describe him. Benny is stubby, hunched, and always seemed to be trying to keep up.
Daddy’s two widowed sisters drove up before he made it into the house. He went to help Aunt Meg out of the car and up the three steps, then came to gather me up in a bear hug. “How’s my princess?’ he asked, rubbing his face against mine.
I knew the exact instant he became aware of Aunt Judith’s presence. I felt his tight hug go slack and he stepped back at precisely the moment his sisters stepped forward – Sinn Feiners closing rank.
I winced at the look in Aunt Judith’s eyes when she saw that Aunt Meg now needed a cane and that Aunt Betsy had put on weight. Please, I prayed silently and vaguely to the God who surely watched over both Connells and Herskovitzes.
“It’s been a while,” Aunt Judith said, her voice absolutely level, too polite.
“Too long,” Daddy answered, though he must have known her comment had been directed to his sisters. Aunt Judith’s eyes narrowed. I held my breath. Neither of the Connell aunts spoke. They just stood there, flanking their brother, vigilant.
Then everyone started arriving at once, another aunt and uncle, cousins, spouses, kids. Of course, everyone brought food: a huge tureen of Russian vegetable soup, hearty enough for a main course; an whiskey cake, redolent of the degeneracy my mother had been warned against when she married into the Connell family; butter cookies decorated with blue sugar; tree-shaped cookies iced in green; Uncle Walter’s to-die-for rye bread; a sinfully-creamy potato casserole.
Greeting, kissing, admiring the food, everyone talked at once, creating a collective good will. Amid the jumble of voices, I heard Aunt Betsy ask David if he’d get the ham out of her car.
Not her too! “Aunt Betsy, I told you not to go to any trouble.”
“No trouble,” she said. “It’s just a ham. Same old, same old.” She lowered her eyes with becoming modesty.
“Loaded with salt,” Aunt Judith said, just loud enough.
Aunt Meg looked ready to respond, but Aunt Betsy chimed in, “With all these hungry mouths to feed, I’m sure a ham won’t go to waste.”
Aunt Judith’s eyes flashed, but her lips remained curved in a smile.
Thank you, God, for favors, large and small.
One of the cousins asked, “Did you bring your guitar, Benny?”
“It’s in the car.”
“You going to serenade us later?”
“Yet bet.” Benny’s slightly slanted eyes squeezed shut in pleasure before he remembered his manners and added, “If you insist.” He loved playing for an audience, but Mom had taught him that he had to wait to be asked.
“We insist.” Herskovitz and Connell voices united.
David came in with Aunt Betsy’s ham, its surface studded with fragrant cloves nestled among delicate flowers fashioned from bits of pineapple and cherries, a mouth-watering work of art. It was worth of a moment of silent contemplation, but Aunt Judith’s wrinkled nose and the lineup of expectant faces reminded me to keep things moving along.
I sent Benny to get his guitar and took Aunt Meg’s arm to help her down the steps to the rec room. Her tentative shuffle almost broke my heart. It didn’t seem that long ago she had been helping me – demonstrating the fine art of belly flopping – shining tangles of red hair streaming behind her, running through the snow, throwing herself and the sled at the earth, looking up at me laughing, daring me to follow.
Everyone pitched in to move the food downstairs. Aunt Judith composed her face and picked up the platter with the ham.
Cooperation. My heart surged with love. How could I have doubted these people? Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.
I turned in time to see the ham slide off the platter, hit the floor and bounce down the steps – an obese blob, spewing a trail of clove-dark pellets, mingled with bright bits of red and yellow.
“I don’t know how I could be so clumsy!” Aunt Judith, who had never made a clumsy move in her life, said. Her mouth was arranged in a contrite, solemn line, but the look in her eyes was pleasure, pure and unadulterated, a mouse who’d just sprung the trap and stolen the cheese.
Aunt Betsy, the most ladylike of my aunts, glared at her the merest half second before she looked at me and said, “Don’t worry about it.”
I sent up a silent thank you that there was only one Aunt Judith.
A dramatic sweep of Aunt Meg’s cane cut short that prayer. Fat exploded from crisp brown skin as Aunt Judith’s goose left the table in a spinning trajectory, orbited by particles of bread crumbs, apples, chestnuts, and raisins.
Radiant innocence lighted Aunt Meg’s clear blue eyes as she placed the fat-glistened tip of her cane firmly on the floor, managing, just, to find a clear spot. “We’re none of us as graceful as we used to be,” she said, and smiled angelically at Aunt Judith.
I heard a quick intake of breath, then a barely-repressed chuckle – my mother and my father respectively – I knew without looking.
When Benny appeared, guitar in hand, his eyes went immediately to the greasy mess on the floor, then to our mother’s face. She signaled something to him in the secret language the two of them share. I didn’t know what Mom’s message told Benny, but I knew I would never forgive my aunts – and vowed that next year David and I would take Benny to a nice restaurant to celebrate his birthday among civilized people
I cleaned up enough to make the rec room usable and we all filled our plates and found places to sit: Daddy, Aunt Meg, and Aunt Betsy on the west side of the basement with the Connell cousins, Mom and Aunt Judith on the east with the Herskovitz tribe. David and I sat with Benny between the two, hoping to keep the twain from meeting.
I guess it’s true that good food maketh good fellows because we made it through the meal without incident – also without much conversation, but, at this point, I counted that a blessing.
Benny opened his gifts to the appropriate oohs and ahs, and I breathed a little easier. We’d almost made it, but I knew his birthday celebration wouldn’t be complete if he didn’t get to sing. At least a song or two. Surely the aunts could tolerate each other that long.
“Ready to serenade us, Benny?” I asked.
No need to say more. “Any requests?” he said as he picked up the guitar.
We answered in chorus – different words, diverse tones, overlapping, braiding themselves into one sentiment: “Anything you like, Benny.”
I watched his face, shining and pure, as I listened to the familiar words: How many nights … his stubby fingers caressed the strings, some instinct telling him that a minor key was needed to contrast the festive message …’til we light the candles? He continued to sing, far beyond the one or two songs I had dared hope for him and no one seemed anxious, or even willing, to end our time together. Silent night … His voice was harsh, with a hint of a lisp, not pleasant, and yet, it was the voice that united and soothed and healed us. All is calm.
All is Calm is one of three stories in the ebook Beyond the Fairy Light, available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/HYZREn