Totem Poles

November

Forty minutes on the timer until the casserole is done doesn’t seem long enough to take a bath, but then, she hasn’t had a bath in so long, any length of time would do. She sets the faucets running, knowing she won’t get the temperature right on the first try. She collects the usual suspects in terms of paraphernalia—magazine, candle, glass of wine—and arranges the towels on the floor.

When she steps in, the water scalds her feet and she curses out loud. Out she goes, flipping through the magazine while the cold water faucet does its thing, damp fingers sticking to perfume ads. The steam lessens and she tries again, buttocks clenched and jawline taut as if an armor of hardened musculature will defend against the heat.

It’s tolerable. Water splashes over the side and splatters the magazine. She does not bother to blot it dry.

She catches a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror before she sits. Her dark hair is long and the ends cover her breasts perfectly, like something a Hollywood director would have arranged for under the scene direction: heroine steps coyly into tub. The temperature is better, but still boiling, and she can stand it for only ten minutes at a time before perching on the lip like a seabird gone to shore.

She has just slid back beneath the bubbles when her cell phone rings.

She peers over marble-tiled siding to the floor below. There, nestled between the folds of a green-and-gold damask-patterned towel, is the offending party. It comes to her immediately, this bathtime faux pas she’s committed. She’d placed the phone on the dresser in the guestroom, meaning to leave it behind to engage in ‘a little me-time,’ as her mother likes to call it. Remembering that the fate of the casserole was relying on the iPhone’s timer, and forgetting that a cell phone was the antithesis of relaxation, she’d grabbed it from the dresser without a second thought.

She thinks about letting it ring, but knows it will be Sean. One arm shoots through the bubbles like a jet through the clouds, makes a pit stop at the edge of the towel for a quick drying off, and comes in for the landing half a second too late.

Sean Wallace, Missed Call, the phone taunts her.

She enters her passcode and locates his name in the recent calls log. She waits through the Game of Thrones ringback tone, holding the phone away from her wet hair. Gone is the coy Hollywood heroine with the perfectly placed locks. With her stringy hair and streaks of mascara like burn marks in the side of a mountain, she’d be lucky to land the part of decent-looking friend who dies first in a low-budget horror film.

Sean answers as the Game of Thrones violins are reaching a mournful crescendo. “Hold on one sec, babe.” He sounds out of breath.

She holds, using the silence to contemplate whether or not she will shave her legs.

“Okay, sorry about that. Michael was just here. He offered to come by tomorrow and give me a hand with these doors. I’ve been at it all day, and I don’t think I’ve even made a dent.”

She frowns, but says nothing. It’s not Sean’s fault they’re behind on the house. It’s someone’s fault, but not Sean’s.

“Babe? You there?”

“What? Oh. Sorry, I’m here. So what are you thinking? Any chance we’ll be in by the weekend?”

The sound Sean makes is in a separate ballpark from optimistic.

“No problem,” she says, with a strained sort of cheer. “We’ll just stay at my parents’ a little longer.”

Sean pauses. She thinks he’s going to say something derisive, but she hears the scratch of a Bic and realizes he’s lighting a cigarette. As if the sellers weren’t bad enough for postponing the closing, now the stress accompanying the purchase of the house on Bardsley Lane has caused Sean to rejoin that exclusive club populated by ten-dollar-a-day squanderers, coughers with yellow fingernails, and proprietors of cellophane-littered passenger seat floor mats.

“What are you up to?” he asks, after a heavy exhale.

She tells him, feeling guilty for the dichotomy between their current circumstances.

Sean is unperturbed. “Good. You deserve some downtime. You’ve been working like a dog the last few days.”

He’s being diplomatic; they’ve both been working like dogs, ever since the calendar page flipped to September first, their apartment lease terminated, and the house on Bardsley Lane still resembled a demolition zone.

“Speaking of dogs, how’s Rowling?”

“Please. How do you think? Lying around my parents’ house like she owns the place, convincing my dad she’s a little closer to starvation with each meal she’s not delivered a handwritten invitation to. I’ll be lucky if she’s not ten pounds heavier by the time we leave.”

Sean’s laughter degenerates into a fit of coughing. She refrains from nagging him to pick up the Chantix from the pharmacy. He’ll pick it up when he picks it up.

“Are your parents home? Do you want me to grab takeout when I’m done, so your mom doesn’t have to cook?”

She swirls a loose strand of hair around the acrylic surface of the tub. “Nope. No need. Your mother dropped off a homemade casserole about an hour ago. We better watch out. Between my parents giving us a place to stay and yours dropping off food several times a week, we’re in danger of losing our standing as self-sufficient adults.”

“Bah, humbug,” Sean says.

She minimizes the call on the screen and checks the timer. Ten minutes to go, and she hasn’t even shampooed her hair yet. “So, don’t worry about dinner,” she says, by way of goodbye. “I’ll leave it in the oven for when you come home. See you then?”

“Sounds good. See you then.”

She tosses the phone onto the towel and runs through the rituals—lather, rinse, repeat—quicker than she would have liked. As she’s toweling off, the alarm begins to trill.

She wraps the towel around her hair, folds a bathrobe across her torso, and pads down the stairs toward the kitchen. The rush of air when she opens the oven door is heavy with the smell of winter squash and melted brie, and her stomach growls.

She cuts into it too soon, and the mountain of noodles, spinach, squash, and cheese topple on her plate. She blows on it, chastising herself for her impatience. She can’t be credited with cooking dinner, neither can she be trusted to reheat it properly. Still, her lack of domesticity doesn’t stop her from digging in, and she reaches for the RE/MAX folder on the counter to peruse while she eats.

 

July

She knows that come November, if everything goes according to plan, dealing with the massive oaks will be a drain on both their patience and their wallets. Truckloads of leaves will fall to the earth and blanket the one-and-a-half acres, as unwelcome as a down comforter on a humid night. Tangerine sunlight and blinding blue sky peek through the infinite green of the leaves, and she thinks of the paint-by-numbers that used to vex her as a child. She considers how this backyard would have appeared to her little girl self. The possibility that it might soon belong to her and Sean makes her feel giddy.

She turns from her spot at the edge of the lawn in time to see Pam Anselmo speed down the dead end and into the drive. The realtor brings her black Range Rover to a screeching halt, startling a flock of sparrows perched on the fence of the adjacent garden. A moment later, Pam is strutting across the pavement on sky-high heels, adjusting the hemline of her dress over tanned and muscular legs, a guileless smile playing across her lips.

They shake hands, and in response to Pam’s scanning of the yard and back deck, she says, “Sean should be here any minute.”

As if on cue, the sound of an engine reaches their ears, but it’s not Sean’s truck that appears a moment later. Instead, a pale-skinned woman with sleek brown hair and a deadly serious expression maneuvers a silver Audi into the driveway and parks next to Pam.

“Is that the inspector?” she asks, and while it was Sean who’d contacted the company with the date and time Pam had cleared with the sellers, she somehow knows that this woman in the shiny new car with the expensive haircut is not the inspector.

Pam shakes her head slowly. “That’s Carmella Campania. One of the three Campania sisters.” The realtor withers under her sharp look, but finishes her thought. “One of the sellers.”

“What is she doing here? Is there a problem? Is it—?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Pam interrupts, eyeing the Audi warily. When she turns to face her again, Pam’s expression is apologetic. “The last time I spoke to them, Maria Campania mentioned that she wanted a member of the family to be present at the inspection. I explained that this wasn’t necessary, wasn’t entirely appropriate even. She didn’t say anything else about it and so I’d assumed they’d gotten the point.”

She watches Carmella emerge from the driver’s seat, looking around like the survivor of a shipwreck, her eyes full of a painful nostalgia.

“I see that I have assumed wrong,” Pam says.

She has countless questions, not least of which is the legality of one of the sellers being present for the inspection, and whether Pam’s role as realtor for both seller and buyer was becoming a conflict of interest. Carmella is on them before she’s able to articulate any of it.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh!” Carmella’s greeting is saturated with energy and emotion.

She marvels at the armful of Tiffany bracelets on Carmella’s wrists as the middle Campania daughter pulls Pam in for a hug. She endeavors to move out of the tornado’s path, but Carmella spins toward her, the bangle-heavy hands coming down on her shoulders. Before she can arrange her features into a more agreeable amalgamation, Carmella Campania is looking deep into her eyes.

“You must be Mrs. Wallace!” Carmella coos. Her eyes are wide and tear up quickly, two nimbus clouds ready to jettison their weight.

She doesn’t correct her, doesn’t inform her that she and Sean are not yet married. She is angry with herself for this, knows that as long as they show up on the day of the closing with their checkbooks, and apply their signatures to whatever document their lawyer puts in front of them, this woman’s opinion of her and Sean’s relationship matters not at all. Still, she keeps the truth to herself.

Whether she corrects her matters not, for Carmella has released her shoulders, bringing her hands to her face to stifle an onslaught of wracking sobs.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe we’re actually selling Mother and Daddy’s house.”

She stands apart while Pam does her best to comfort the grieving woman, feeling disconcerted by the unabashed spectacle, and strangely guilty for her part in causing it. By the time the inspector arrives a few minutes later, Carmella’s sobs have quieted to staccato hiccups. Sean pulls in as the inspector—Jim Frenzen, if the side of his truck is to be believed—begins to rummage around the pickup bed, unearthing myriad equipment.

Sean grins at her from across the driveway. Spotting Carmella, the grin goes lopsided with puzzlement. Frenzen approaches Sean, gestures over his shoulder at the garage. The inspection has begun. She wants to go to them, but Carmella is saying something to her, keeping her from introducing herself and hearing the plan, from asserting herself as another player in this transaction.

“So, tell me about you and Sean,” Carmella says. “Are you two first-time home buyers? What drew you to Mother and Daddy’s place?”

Thus, the interminable afternoon begins, the nonstop interrogation, the countless anecdotes relayed, the moments of reflection. A thick, New York accent is the bow that ties up Carmella’s gift of gab; she can’t help thinking this was one present she hadn’t asked for.

Each time Sean and Jim linger over one aspect of the house or another—the chimney is in need of repairs, the garage lacks a layer of fireproof insulation, the electricity requires rewiring, an insurance company will mandate a new radon system be installed, the house hasn’t been treated for termites since it was built—she inches toward them, only to be delivered a new barrage of questions, feel a hand on her arm guiding her toward some new totem of memory. Pam trades stoicism for distraction, scrolling through her phone while Carmella prattles on about growing up in the house on Bardsley Lane.

She corrals them into the kitchen. The two women sit at the table while Carmella paces the otherwise empty room, a General haranguing her tired soldiers. Carmella asks her where she and Sean live now, and emits a whale-like keening when she discovers the apartment is next door to Apple Rehab, the nursing home Berto and Ines Campania moved into when living on their own was no longer prudent.

“It’s fate,” she says, and she and Pam are forced to agree.

Carmella stops her pacing to look out the window over the sink. She gasps so loudly, Pam jumps and drops her phone.

“Have you seen them yet?” she asks, not turning around.

She takes the bait and goes to the window.

A three-headed monster adorns the back yard, horrible, twiggy fingers reaching up toward the window. She is about to convey her disgust at this bizarre attempt at a totem pole, realizing that this is the object of Carmella’s affection in time to keep her teeth clamped around her tongue. She grimaces a smile at Carmella, trying hard to engage her eyes along with the corners of her lips, before returning her attention to the thing in the yard.

It had been carved into the dead bark of what had once been a large oak; she judges that the trunk is too thick to wrap her arms around. The top portion of the tree had been hacked off with minimal finesse, some of the branches below this fissure having suffered the same fate.

But the derelict appearance of the tree itself is not the problem. It’s the faces. The faces carved into the wood. They are crude, childish even, sculpted and painted by a person to whom artistic talent had not been bequeathed. There are three, each more savage-looking than the one beneath it, etched in colors reminiscent of war; reds and blacks and mustard yellows.

Worse still, some sort of slate patio had been fashioned at its base. Concrete slabs, metal sheets, springs, aluminum pipes, and other, inexplicable scrap metal had been erected in a makeshift workshop around the macabre “art.” It will require a small army, outfitted with chainsaws and jackhammers, to clear out the area.

Carmella has begun to pull herself together, dabbing at her eyes and sniffling in rapid, airy bursts. “They’re good luck you know. The totem poles. My father made them.”

“They?” she asks, trying for polite curiosity rather than horrified disbelief. There’s more than one?

Carmella points out the window toward the back corner of the yard where another, shorter totem pole lurks by the garden. “There’s a third in the front by the ‘no trespassing sign.’ My father was an artist. That was one of his workshops there. See the electrical cord running up the side of the concrete block? He wired it himself, to be able to work at night. He was a genius. He is a genius. Alzheimer’s is a greedy mistress, but growing up, he was unstoppable.

“He emigrated from Calabria at eighteen with my mother, whom he’d married the previous year. My mother was already pregnant with my older sister Maria when they arrived in the United States. He got a job at the University of Rhode Island as a janitor. He worked there for forty-two years. Can you believe that? Forty-two years, enough time for all four of his children to attend college there.”

“I’m a URI grad myself,” Pam chimes in.

Carmella purses her lips. “My sisters and I graduated. My brother dropped out to pursue…other options.”

“I know your brother,” Pam said. “He lives here in town, right?

“Tony lives in Westerly, yes, as does my younger sister, Rosa. I live outside Manhattan, and Maria lives in Greenwich.”

Carmella launches into a soliloquy on the benefits of working in the city. She knows now why Maria Campania had insisted one of the sisters be present today. To interrogate her and Sean, yes, but also to make sure the buyers realized what it was they were making an offer on. Not a house. A legacy.

“What do you think, Mrs. Wallace?” Carmella is asking her.

The mental hot air balloon, fueled by frustration, pops, and she comes back down to Earth. “It’s actually not Mrs. Wallace. Sean and I are engaged, but we’re not married yet. The wedding is early next year.”

The instant the words are out of her mouth, she wishes she could take them back. Carmella doesn’t look disappointed, however, only surprised. “Wallace…is Sean Italian? Are you Italian?” Carmella raises one eyebrow ironically, as if well aware of the bias she harbors.

“We both are actually. Sean’s a quarter Italian, and I’m half. My grandfather on my mother’s side was born in Italy.”

“Ahhh!” Carmella’s utterance is more a lengthy outpouring of air than a word. “That is great news. Daddy will be so happy to hear that you’re both Italian.”

She doesn’t know how to respond to this, but what comes to mind is: ‘I could be Charles Manson out on parole, and as long as I have the asking price, how your father feels about my nationality is irrelevant.’

It’s the lack of consideration that irks her most, Carmella’s ignorance to the purpose of the afternoon. The inspection is for her and Sean, to shadow Jim Frenzen and learn about their new home, not cater to the sentimentality of this woman so rooted in the past, feigning appreciation for the monstrous tree-totems parading as art in the backyard.

Despite this inner turmoil, she wasn’t raised to be rude or disrespectful. She smiles, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, and says, “I’m glad to hear that, Carmella.”

Pam gives her an indebted smile. Just then, Sean and Jim cross the entryway foyer, heading for the living room.

Not about to let the opportunity slip through her fingers, she darts after them.

Between the time of the first showing, a grey day of unceasing rain and heavy winds, and now, she had forgotten about the giant Gothic mirror above the fireplace, rigged from the ceiling beams with thick wire cords. She stares up at the wide expanse of glass at her reflection, grateful that she and Sean won’t be responsible for disposing of the heavy wall adornment.

That keening wail, a teakettle whistling for all it’s worth, comes from behind her. Carmella’s high-pitched voice comes between the sobs: “Daddy’s mirror!”

Jim busies himself in the fireplace, while Sean shoots her a ‘what the hell?’ look. She shrugs.

Carmella composes herself and says, “See the way that it’s angled? That’s so Daddy could see the couch from the kitchen. To make sure there was no monkey business going on between his daughters and their boyfriends.” She grins an impish grin through her tears. “Always the ingénue,” Carmella continues. “Always outdoing himself with his resourcefulness…”

She feels the smile cut a fissure across her face, and places one hand on the wall, hanging on for dear life…

 

September

Sweat pours off Sean’s face as he fights with the oversized mirror, trying not to lose his footing.

“You’re almost there,” she says, when the angle is ideal. Sean reaches up and clips the cord with wire cutters. He leans one gold-plated corner on top of the ladder, Sean’s friend, Brian, holding the other, gritting his teeth at the extra weight.

For a moment, it looks like Sean will make it to the other side before Brian loses his grip. Then, the ladder shifts, and the glass begins to slide. The mirror swings heavily, crashing into the side of the stone fireplace, sending up a cloud of dust and taking off the corner of the dark wood mantel with an ear-splitting crack.

“Fuck!” Sean shouts. He throws the wire cutters to the floor, already feeling around his pockets for his cigarettes and lighter.

“I’m sorry, man,” Brian says. “I tried to hang onto it. That thing is a beast!”

“It’s not your fault.” Sean’s tone is bitter. “Just more salt in the wounds.”

It is September twenty-sixth. Two months have passed since the closing, one since she and Sean had begun staying at her parents’ place, since the realization that they wouldn’t be moving into the house on Bardsley Lane anytime soon.

The faces in the wood had leered at her as she wandered around the yard those first few days, their lewd faces and unblinking eyes suggesting they’d known something she hadn’t. And perhaps they had known. Known their creator’s days had been numbered.

The day they’d called their realtor to make an offer, a somber Pam Anselmo informed them that Berto Campania had passed away earlier that morning, his room at the Apple Rehab crowded with family, his three daughters standing vigil at the foot of his bed. Hearing the news, she’d been certain the sisters would pull out, too grief-stricken to go through with the sale of the place where their father had last been well.

It surprised her to hear that the opposite had, in fact, been true, Pam passing on Carmella’s belief that her father had made the decision to leave this world precisely because an offer had been made on the house on Bardsley Lane. That he was content knowing his daughters would be financially secure. She and Sean heard all about it at the closing, another milestone that should have been business-as-usual turned sob-session and trip-down-memory-lane.

When the final document had been signed, Maria, seemingly unwilling to fraternize with her parents’ successors in the house on Bardsley Lane, left the room without a word. Rosa, whom she swore she recognized from somewhere, and Carmella, hung back to offer up teary congratulations and well wishes.

“One more thing,” Rosa had said, and she thought more than ever that the youngest Campania sister looked familiar. “When Mother and Daddy were still living at the house, Daddy lost his wedding ring working in one of the gardens. If you ever see a speck of gold in the dirt, and happen to uncover it, please, please mail it to this address.” Rosa had pressed a folded up piece of paper into Sean’s hand, and they’d nodded dutifully.

“Great,” she’d said to Sean later, sitting in the empty living room, a bottle of champagne between them. “As if there weren’t enough ghosts to contend with in this house, now every time I work in the garden, I’ll be looking for a dead man’s wedding ring.”

A week later, and she would come to wish that a missing wedding ring was the only piece of metal she had to deal with.

At first glance, it appeared as if the Campania sisters complied with directives to remove all trash from the premises prior to closing. She would come to think of the house on Bardsley Lane as one big optical illusion, akin to the Magic Eye books she had stared at for hours as a child, the ones where the pictures changed the closer you got. They started cleanup efforts in the garage, the projected storage locale for furniture and boxes while contractors installed the hardwood floors.

The two-car garage appeared empty. Upon closer inspection, they discovered that the “walls” were actually layers of various building material: plywood, mesh wire, sheets of polyurethane, metal plates. They’d been fashioned so as to give the impression of sturdiness and durability. She had reached out to test it; the outer layer wobbled precariously before the plywood slipped on concrete and crashed to the floor.

The adjacent basement was equal to or greater than the garage in its chaos. Ceiling tiles harbored piles of scrap metal, metal pipes were propped in corners like dystopian wildflowers, wire clothes hanger hooks hung three or four to a wall. Their trips to the rented dumpster in the driveway took on a Sisyphus-and-the-boulder quality. And that was before she’d begun to peruse the grounds of the house on Bardsley Lane.

The acre-and-a-half lot, which included a gated, inground swimming pool, large back deck, quaint front porch, and multiple gardens, was a landscaper’s nightmare. As she walked the perimeter of their property, taking silent stock of what could be trimmed back, and what could be chopped down, she happened to look up.

More metal in the trees. Metal pipes. Aluminum siding. Copper wire. All of it obscured by leaves, wedged between forked branches, and reinforced with electrical cords, gift ribbon, duct tape, and, grotesquely enough, dank and cloudy breathing tubes.

Everyone who came to the house had a similar explanation: ‘Berto was an old Italian man who couldn’t bear to throw anything away.’ Her mother pointed out that her own grandfather was the same way to a certain extent.

“Grandpa likes to repurpose glass jars for homemade sauce and melanzane sott’olio, not stockpile enough raw material to build a nuclear fallout shelter. This isn’t a case of reuse and recycle. Berto Campania had to go out of his way to possess ninety-five percent of what was in this house. Even still, there’s a word for not being able to throw anything away. It’s called, ‘hoarding.'”

 

October

Standing beside her mother in the receiving line, she finds she cannot help but think of Berto Campania. She tries to focus on the mourners in front of her, nods at their expressions of condolence, agrees that her grandfather is in a better place. She catches her mother’s eye and reaches out to squeeze her hand, but she hears Carmella Campania’s voice in her head saying, ‘Alzheimer’s is a greedy mistress.’

In her grandfather’s case, it had been Lewy body dementia that came to rob him of his faculties, and complications following a second heart attack, and several infections, which claimed what the progressive brain disease did not.

She thinks of all the times her grandfather sang to her as a little girl (I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck…), of all the times he sang out loud to anyone who would listen (Love and marriage, love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage…), and an arrow of sorrow shoots through her chest, pinging off her ribcage before lodging into her heart. Still, for all her grief, she can’t help but think that the prospect of her grandfather belting out Frank Sinatra was greater now than it had been when he’d occupied the hospital bed of his upstate New York nursing home.

Also unlikely was the prospect of losing both her grandfathers over a period of three weeks, but it had happened. She hadn’t been as close with her grandfather on her father’s side, but the hole his passing had left in her father’s heart was enough to give her pause and wish things had been different. Wish her grandfather had had more time to live so her father had had more time to say goodbye.

At the reception following the funeral the next day, she sees her cousin approach Sean, and the two men embrace with a genial, one-armed hug. She tries on a smile. Several of her relatives pull up chairs, and someone asks her about the new house.

“You have to tell them about the couple who lived there before you and Sean,” her mother says, and while she’s surprised by this request, she figures her mother wants to keep the conversation on more inconsequential matters, distract herself from the reason why they’re in this private banquet hall in the first place.

“Tell them about the father’s obsession with metal. And about the three sisters.”

And so, with a captive audience of aunts and uncles, family friends, great aunts, and third cousins twice removed, she does.

 

November

She washes the casserole dish and walks the RE/MAX folder upstairs to where the rest of her belongings have been tossed about the guest bedroom as if she lives there. Her parents should be home soon—they went out to dinner with some friends—and it’s almost time to feed Rowling, the dog not one to take being fed late lightly, but the hot bath and heavy meal have left her sleepy.

Her plan is to lie down for twenty minutes, after which she will wake up refreshed, perhaps energized enough to drive Sean’s dinner over to the house on Bardsley Lane and check on his progress.

She collapses onto the bed and draws the comforter up to her chin. She turns to dim the light, wanting nothing more than to sleep, but catches sight of her open laptop on the dresser across the room. Though the reflection staring back at her from the dark screen is her own, it gives the impression that the computer is fixing her with a reproachful look.

Her email has gone unchecked all day; the new role she has taken on at work deems this unacceptable. She spends the twenty minutes she would have napped organizing her inbox, and by the time she’s done, her drowsiness has abated. She opens Facebook, and has just liked a friend’s new profile picture when the little red number ‘1’ appears, indicating she has a new message. She clicks the icon.

The message is from Amanda Cardinal. She’s spoken to Amanda just once in the thirteen years since graduating high school, a year or two ago when Amanda needed advice for the boyfriend of a ‘friend’ who was abusing prescription painkillers. As a therapist (and now Clinical Director) at a substance abuse and mental health facility, she had obliged, withholding unnecessary questions and any kind of judgement. It occurs to her that Amanda may be reaching out for advice on a similar issue, but she abandons this theory after only the first sentence of what is not an insubstantial message.

When my mother told me about two months ago that there was a nice young couple looking at my Nani and Da’s house, I had mixed emotions. She didn’t tell me who the couple was, and at the time, I hadn’t wanted to know. Then, when my grandfather passed away, and my mother, Rosa, was heading out to meet my aunts at the closing, I asked her who the couple was, and she told me it was you and Sean.

That house, the yard, the pool, the garden…that’s where I grew up. It was magic to me when I was a little girl. My grandfather put so much of his life into everything he did there. It was his sanctuary, and mine too. I pray you are blessed there. The past few weeks have been sad ones for my family, but I find so much peace in knowing you two are the ones who will create new memories, and a life there. I hope it’s just as special to you as it was to us.

I know my grandfather is looking down, and that he is at peace with this. May you have health and happiness in that house, which I consider to be a little piece of heaven. Much love, Amanda.

Oh, and one more thing…make sure you take advantage of the holly tree in the front yard. It will bloom like crazy come winter. Every December for the past ten years (my son is ten now), we’d go to Nani and Da’s to trim holly from their tree and make a wreath for our front door. It had become a bit of a tradition, but is now a memory to keep close to our hearts as we work on moving forward.

 

December

Snow is falling with that slow steadiness that hints at the whiteout to come. She’s peering through the driver’s side window for number twenty-seven, hoping she didn’t miss it in the dwindling light. She’s on the verge of pulling into the next drive to turn around when she spots it, the plaque saved from icy obscurity by the roof over the porch.

It’s a small but handsome house, with a tidy yard and a tire swing hanging from a tree. She parks and retrieves what she’s come to deliver from the backseat, checking to be sure the ride over hasn’t upset the contents of the handwoven basket. She treks up the stone walkway, her boots crunching on the accumulating snow.

When she rings the bell, she wonders briefly if she’s making a mistake. But the hallway light is on and the door is swinging open and Amanda Cardinal is standing in the doorway, the sound of Christmas music and the smell of baking cookies spilling out with her into the snowy night. Recognition alters her features. Then, understanding.

“No,” Amanda whispers, and with that one word, some of the resignation of the pain in losing her grandfather melts away.

She holds out the wreath of holly, painstakingly crafted and fastened with a red velvet bow not nearly as bright as the festive hue of the holly berries.

Amanda takes the gift as if she’s been tasked with cradling a newborn baby. A tall, moon-faced boy appears at her side.

“Who is it, Mom?” he asks.

“It’s a friend of Mommy’s, honey. Run along and check on the cookies, I’ll be in in a minute.”

The little boy scampers out of sight. She can hear him humming ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ along with Bobby Helms.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Amanda says. Tears threaten to breach the flimsy barriers of her mascaraed eyelashes.

“I wanted to,” she says, and it’s the truth. “I wanted you to have something to remember your grandfather by, your first Christmas without him.” She almost mentions her own grandfathers, both of them gone in the span of three weeks, but decides not to. “And as a thank you for writing to me.”

Amanda smiles. She’s pretty, but the big smile, with her big teeth, makes her prettier. “You know, after I sent you that message, I realized you might not feel the same about that holly tree as I did. Who was I to tell you to enjoy it when for all I knew, you and Sean were going to cut it down.”

She smiles wistfully. “We thought about it.” She doesn’t mention the totem poles. “A lot of trees and shrubs were overgrown. But in the end, we decided it should stay.”

“I would have understood if you had cut it down,” Amanda says. “Really, I would have. I understand that you and Sean have to make your own memories there. Create your own traditions.” Amanda searches her face. “What made you change your mind?”

The music coming from Amanda’s house changes tracks. Frank Sinatra implores that they have themselves a merry little Christmas. She thinks of her grandfather singing to her on the back deck of his old house on Cape Cod, where the beach roses bloomed like wildfire.

“Because,” she says, looking into Amanda’s pretty face, her big smile. “There’s room for two sets of memories in the house on Bardsley Lane.”

Christa Carmen lives in Westerly, Rhode Island, with her husband and a beagle who rivals her in stubbornness. Her work has appeared in a myriad of anthologies and ezines, and she is currently pursuing an MFA from Harvard Extension School.

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