And Christmases Yet to Come

Lucille sat in the library with a book in her lap, one of her own she had brought when she moved here.  It was a pleasant enough room, with welcome sunlight pouring in through tall uncurtained windows, one of the few places she had found in the retirement home with sunlight unfiltered by the ubiquitous, gauzy curtains that blocked good light everywhere else.  Hard enough to see without the light being dimmed on purpose.  She liked the library, although she found its collection of coffee table and travel books both limited and banal, reflecting neither the care nor intellect of a librarian but rather books people thought too expensive to throw away. But hardly any other residents ever came here, and usually she had the place to herself.  Today, however, Tanisha was here, dusting the shelves and straightening the pillows on the sofa.  “Good morning, Miss Lucille,” chirped Tanisha, the young aide.  Feigning concentration, Lucille nodded back a greeting but didn’t speak.  She hated that appellation, “Miss Lucille.”  She thought it shrouded her with a white sheet of antebellum guilt, unearned and unwarranted.  She suspected Tanisha of some smart-aleck sabotage of simple courtesy, implying in her “good morning” that Lucille was just another old white woman harboring outdated racist thoughts. It irked her.  Lucille didn’t appreciate presumptions or prejudice of any sort.  “Christmas is coming fast. Almost time to put up your special tree.”  Lucille sighed as she put down her book and looked pointedly at Tanisha. “Yes, it is. Are you almost through in here?”

After Tanisha left, Lucille sat staring out the window at the bleak garden with its faded flowerheads and leafless maple trees. No one had been out to clear away the withered stalks or rake the leaves, a lapse in maintenance that bothered Lucille. They were certainly paying enough to hire someone to take care of the outside of this place.  But she quickly returned to Tanisha’s reminder about her “special tree.”  How ironic that the tree she had decorated her first Christmas at the retirement center had become the favorite, especially among the “memory care” residents.  Now she had become its prisoner, unable to fend off the requests to do the tree again as Christmas approached each year.  She stood and stared out the window, motionless, as her thoughts turned to events long past.

“These damn snowflakes again.  You just can’t get off that kick.  God dammit, Mousie! Every year of my life I have had to admire your damn crocheted snowflakes.  Not a Christmas goes by that I don’t open a present from you and find another god-damned snowflake.  This year it’s sparkle yarn but usually you pick some insipid pink or blue. Sometimes, they’re small; sometimes enormous, but they’re always the only gift you’ve ever given to me.  And I always have to hang every single one of the damn things on the Christmas tree while everyone admires you and says how precious you are.”

That was the Christmas after Lucille’s divorce. She was 45 and childless; “child-free,” she had said then.  Mousie had just given birth to a second much-wanted child, a daughter whom she named Lucille. And even with a toddler and the baby just a newborn, Mousie had managed to make her Christmas snowflakes again. Mousie’s was the metric Lucille used to assess her own life, and Lucille had never felt short-changed.

‘Mousie’…. Lucille had told her little sister once when they were still young that she was mousey, and Lucille was right.  Her sister was small and quiet, with nondescript brown hair and light brown eyes, four years younger than Lucille.  By then Lucille herself was already showing her eventual radiant beauty – dark, satin-smooth hair, expressive bright eyes, and a tall, model-lean frame.  Perhaps too young to be offended, her sister delighted in the name. From then on she asked to be called “Mousie.” She made it her theme – her stuffed animals were mice, her story books all had mice characters, she was always a mouse at Halloween.  Her friends loved it and joined in; painting mouse whiskers on their cheeks during recess was a favorite pastime in school.  Even in college and afterward, her friends knew her only as “Mousie.” Their parents laughed and wanted to call Lucille “Lucie.”  Lucille could just hear them, “…and here are our daughters, Lucie and Mousie.”  Lucille would have none of it and would answer only to “Lucille.”

“After all these years, our tree is nothing but goddamn snowflakes.  You would die if you knew how I truly felt.  If you knew how I trulyfelt you wouldjust die, and I could decorate your coffin with every goddamn snowflake in my precious collection.”  Lucille could still hear her own shrill voice, recalling every word she had hurled at her sister that Christmas afternoon.

Fifteen years later, Mousie was dead.  “We knew she wasn’t feeling well,” her daughter Lucie had told Lucille afterward, “but we never suspected her heart. Mother loved you so much.” Lucille had nothing in common with her namesake, save their shared name, and rarely saw her niece or responded to her letters, which, over the years had stopped coming so regularly now that young Lucie was grown with a family of her own. In fact, Lucille wasn’t even sure that her niece knew that she lived in this retirement home.

Still standing by the window in the now late-morning sun, Lucille mentally rehearsed the ritual of unpacking the snowflakes, each carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue paper, from the specially-labelled acrylic box that was kept in Lucille’s storage cabinet in the retirement home attic. She saw herself carefully placing each snowflake on the artificial Christmas tree that had been set aside as her “special tree.” As she stood there, sun-dried tears — crusts of stale sorrows — left tell-tale memory-lines down her lightly rouged cheeks.