In which Claire and Emma visit Martha after Christmas
Trystene and Robbie invited Claire and Emma to join Trystene’s extended family for Thanksgiving dinner. It was unlike any Thanksgiving they had ever had. Usually they made cinnamon rolls for breakfast, stayed in their pajamas all day, did a movie marathon, and had roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, Brussel sprouts, and pecan pie for dinner.
This year was different. Trystene’s parents lived on a ten-acre farm about 45 minutes outside of town. The house wasn’t fancy, but the dining room was big enough for the big table with all its leaves plus two more card tables added at the end. There was no kids’ table. There was, however, the buffet, a makeshift contraption of 2×4’s and plywood that rested on the back of the couch. Once the football game was over, the buffet was created and soon laden with turkey, ham, goose, three gravies, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and oranges, green bean casserole, roasted green beans, roasted Brussel sprouts, creamed corn, oyster stew, green salad, fruit salad, jello salad, biscuits, rolls, ciabatta, butter, margarine, blackberry freezer jelly, and Irish soda bread.
Trystene’s Kiwitinis started the feast and Emma’s pumpkin with Chinese five-spice powder cheesecake ended it. As they left, Claire thanked Trystene’s parents effusively and genuinely, and asked if they would just give her and Emma a little push; they were so full they could just roll home.
“Claire, dear, might I have word?” Alice stuck her head in Claire’s office the Monday after Thanksgiving.
“Sure. Come in. Should I close the door?”
“Perhaps, yes, that would be good. Listen, dear, I wanted to let you know that the Saints take an extended holiday during the holidays. We don’t meet so there will be no Prune Drop cookies showing up at coffee hour.”
“Thank you for letting me know. I should also thank you for not messing with the bulletin.”
“When the core group met when Martha was in town in October, we agreed that we could get the word out in a different way. I know you think the world of Trystene. So you see, we’re not all bad, are we?”
Claire smiled ever so slightly. She still had not decided what to do. No series of lists had given her any insight. There were people meeting at her church for covert purposes. Even if their purposes were well-intended, even if what they were doing brought joy to the world, there was still the fog of all the lies they told.
“Is that what you wanted to see me about, Alice?”
“Not entirely. I wanted to make sure that someone told you about how Christmas Eve works here. We have our traditions and while we on the search committee said we wanted you to try new things, I did want to warn you that Christmas Eve probably had better not be one of them.”
Claire felt grateful as Alice described St. Rahab’s Christmas Eve candlelight service. What they did was beautiful and reverential. Singing. Light and darkness. Candle lighting. Perfect.
“Alice, that will be just fine. Thank you for the warning.”
“So dear, how is Bill Hill doing? I’ve noticed he and Gladys aren’t in church as often as they used to be.”
“They are okay. The treatment has taken a lot out of Bill. I think Gladys would appreciate a call from you.”
“I’ll call her this afternoon. Listen, dear, I know you’re busy. I’ll be off. Toodles!”
Toodles? Claire thought. Dear Lord, help me.
A few weeks later over dinner, Claire announced that she was giving Emma one of her Christmas presents a little early.
“But Mom, we always wait until Christmas to open our presents.”
“I know, but this year is different. Hang on a second.” Claire went to her desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out an envelope calligraphied with “Emma” on the cover.
Emma gave her mother a look and cautiously opened the enveloped. Her eyes got bigger and bigger and then welled up with tears.
“Oh my gosh, we’re going to visit Aunt Martha after Christmas? We’re going back to Minneapolis? We’re actually going to have a white Christmas? Oh Mom, thank you so much!”
“We both need a break, honey, and Martha invited us when she was visiting this fall. We agreed to keep it a secret from you, but before you made a lot of plans for Christmas break, I wanted to let you know.”
“You are the best! I’ll do the dishes tonight!”
“You will study for exams tonight. I’ve got the dishes. Now go.”
Christmas Eve was as lovely as Claire expected, except for the young man in the congregation who threw up during the prayer. The ushers were on it, and had him out and cleaned up, and the pew cleaned up and roped off, before many realized what had happened.
At the end of “Silent Night”, when all the lights were turned off and everyone in the congregation was illumined by candlelight, Claire stepped into the pulpit and read her favorite Christmas story, the beginning of John’s gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
There’s that word again, Claire thought. Truth.
As the introduction to “Joy to the World” began, and as the lights came up, Claire looked out and saw the faces of those who had become quite dear to her. Emma, of course. Bill and Gladys, and Meri and Junie and their families with them. Alice and Garrett and some assortment of their kids. Toledo was there, thankfully in the middle of the pews. Trystene and Robbie were there, with one of her brothers and his family. Bill Carr leaned against the door at the back, and gave Claire a nod and slight smile.
“A very Merry Christmas to you all.”
“And also with you!” a tipsy voice shouted from the back. Everyone laughed, and went home to wrap presents and stuff stockings.
Claire and Emma had planned to spend Christmas day in their pajamas, but at ten the phone rang. “Claire? It’s Gladys. I am so sorry to bother you on Christmas Day, but Bill went to the ER this morning and they’ve admitted him. I know you’re leaving town tomorrow, and I hate to ask, but could you possibly stop by today and say a prayer with him? This latest bout has him a bit spooked.”
“Of course. Will you be there, and would it be okay if I brought Emma with me? She loves you both, you know.”
“Yes, a quick visit from both of you would be the perfect Christmas present. See you soon. And thank you.”
Claire and Emma had breakfast at eleven and then opened presents. Rex pounced among the wrapping paper, ignoring the new toys Santa had brought him. They dressed, and headed to the hospital.
Gladys was outside the room. “They’re just finishing up a few things. Emma, why don’t you come with me? I could use a cup of coffee.”
When the nurse came out of the room, Claire went in.
“Merry Christmas, Bill,” she said softly.
Bill gave her a weak smile. “Gladys shouldn’t have called. But I’m glad she did. Thank you, Claire, for coming by. Listen, I don’t think the Grim Reaper is on Santa’s heels; I will not have shuffled off this mortal coil before you get back from your vacation. And I’m glad you and Emma get some down time. But I did want to tell you that the doc thinks I’ve got a few months, tops. I don’t know how much energy or interest I’ll have in things as I get worse. But I wanted to have a little conversation with you. Think of it as my Christmas present to you.
“You are the best thing that has happened to St. Rabab’s in a long, long time. We – and I mean all of us at the church – we know that you love us, genuinely. You have shared your heart with us without getting all soft about it. You inspire us to care about things and people. The church has been blessed these last six months. And Gladys and I think of you and Emma as family. I just wanted you to know that.”
Claire began to cry. Bill handed her a box of tissues. They sat in silence for a good five minutes while Claire got herself together.
When Gladys and Emma returned, they all held hands while Claire said a prayer. She and Emma wished the Hills a Merry Christmas, and headed home.
“Shall we pack?” Claire asked her daughter.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
The next day Martha met them at the airport in full Christmas regalia. Red and green striped tights, a black knee-length sweater dress, and a velvet hat adorned with holly and ivy.
“Merry Christmas, my dears! Are we going to have fun or what?”
And they did.
Their last night in Minneapolis, Claire and Martha stayed up late talking. The two women had found the rhythm of their friendship again, though it was now underlined by the strange secret they shared.
“What are you going to do about the Saints, Claire?”
“Honestly I don’t know. I’m still so mad about the lies, Martha. I don’t understand why you don’t bring the truth out. What would be so bad? Doing all this good while lying makes you all hypocrites, not saints.”
“Claire, you are my best friend. For months I have heard you go on and on about how hypocritical we are, how we lie, how we undo all the good with do by keeping our light under the bushel. I have accepted the critique as valid. We have changed some of our ways. But my dear darling Morag Claire Grayson, I have now officially had it.”
Claire wasn’t sure she liked where the conversation was headed.
“How dare you accuse us of being lying hypocrites when you’ve never told Emma the truth about her father?”