The First Nowell
The Chrismas decorations went up in the stores shortly after the pumpkins came down. The first carols were heard around mid-November. But in the Blaisdell household, the Christmas season didn't begin until the day after Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, Peter thought, was a curious holiday. When he'd asked about its origins at the orphanage, they'd looked at him like he had three heads--everybody knew about Thanksgiving. Well, he didn't, so it made him feel even stupider than usual, and he hated the holiday when it came around.
He asked the Blaisdells about it again, and this time he wasn't treated like an idiot; Annie told him all about the Pilgrims and the Indians. But near as he could figure out, these days Thanksgiving had little to do with giving thanks, or even with the harvest festival it was based on. Mostly, it had to do with gorging yourself 'til you couldn't move, and watching football.
Annie explained that it was also a time for families to get together. And this particular Thanksgiving, she told him, was special--because it was his first as part of the Blaisdell family. Peter liked being a part of the family, even if sometimes he didn't feel too much like he belonged. But the way they celebrated holidays bewildered him. There had been festivals at the temple, of course, but they were different, usually more serious--with religious overtones. Well, the New Year celebration wasn't too serious, but it lasted for days; not like Thanksgiving--all this preparation for one day, then poof, it was over.
Thanksgiving was the first time Peter got to meet the extended Blaisdell/Hoffman family. They'd been told, of course, that Paul and Annie had taken a boy into foster care. But apparently, Paul hadn't been too specific in his description. Paul's brother, David, and his wife, Bonnie, arrived for Thanksgiving dinner and Bonnie, a well-meaning but tactless woman with that vague flutteriness specific to well-bred southern ladies, blurted, "My lands, this is the boy you took in? Why he's nearly a man, Paul. I thought you were taking in a child. This one is old enough to take care of himself!"
Peter flushed bright red, torn between deathly embarrassment and rage at her blatant inference that he didn't belong here. But before he could think of a suitable reply, Paul draped an arm casually but protectively around his shoulder. "Don't let the height fool you, Bonnie," he smiled, "he's barely fifteen. He needs a family all right. We're just glad we can be that family for him. Right, kiddo?" He patted Peter's chest.
Peter looked at the floor and nodded, too embarrassed to say anything.
"But what about your girls, Paul? Aren't you nervous, having this big teenager around them?"
"Not at all" Paul answered lightly, but Peter could hear the strain in his voice. "As far as the girls are concerned, Peter's their brother. That's the way they treat him, and he treats them like sisters."
"Honey, I'm sure Paul knows what he's doing," Paul's brother told his wife. David looked like an older, heavier version of Paul, and his wife looked like nothing so much as a dyed-blonde, well-manicured marshmallow.
The family, fortunately, wasn't very big. David and Bonnie had one son, Tim, who was a college student and wouldn't be joining them. Peter was a little disappointed; he was kind of looking forward to meeting the oldest of the Blaisdell cousins. Paul's mother lived out east and wasn't in very good health, so she didn't fly out for the holiday; Paul and Annie were making plans to fly back east to visit her after the first of the year. Annie's father also lived out east, but was divorced from Annie's mother, who lived upstate, and it was a not-discussed family policy that when Annie's mother came to a family gathering, her father did not. They'd see him when they went to visit Paul's mother. Annie also had a younger sister, Cathy, who would be coming down with her mother, bringing her new fiance, Mike.
As awkward as meeting the Blaisdells had been, it was equally as easy meeting the Hoffmans. Annie's mother and sister were nice and friendly, Mrs. Hoffman immediately making Peter feel at ease around her. She had a handshake just like Annie's, and a smile that was almost the same. Cathy looked even more like her sister, though her hair was a little darker, and her eyes a brighter blue. And Mike seemed friendly, too. He was tall, dark and quiet, just the opposite of fair, petite, bubbly Cathy. He joked with Peter that as the "new kids", maybe they ought to compare notes.
Dinner was--amazing. Peter understood for the first time what "all the trimmings" really meant, and by the end thought that gorging yourself then watching football actually had a lot to recommend it.
After dinner, he and the girls, with Paul's assistance, got relegated to clean-up detail in the kitchen while Annie talked to her guests.
"I'm sorry I didn't warn you about Bonnie ahead of time, kid," Paul told him. "Every year, I keep hoping she'll have changed, but every year it's exactly the same. Things come out of her mouth which invariably insult one or the other of us. Annie's been ready to throttle her on more than one occasion."
Carolyn snickered. "Remember the one year she insisted on helping Mom in the kitchen? She kept dropping things because Aunt Bonnie kept getting in her way. So then of course she figured Mom was completely helpless."
"She means well," Paul continued, "but I'm not sure there's a well-thought-out idea in her head."
"She didn't like me," Peter mumbled.
"She doesn't know you," Paul corrected. "I told David we'd fostered a young man. He must have told her we'd taken in a boy, and she assumed that meant little boy. Though why Annie and I would want to look after a toddler is beyond me." He smiled. "Just put up with her, kid. We don't see her very often, and like it or not, she is my brother's wife. I'm just sorry Tim didn't come; you'd like him, he's a good kid."
"I always felt sorry for him, having a mother like that," Carolyn added.
"I'm sure she's a very good mother," Paul cautioned his daughter.
"How does she do anything, with those fingernails?" she asked.
"Maybe she hires a maid," Peter mused. Then he laughed. "I'll bet they'd be good for back-scratches." Paul and the girls laughed, too.
It was almost 10:00 when David and Bonnie finally left, and the Hoffmans made moves to leave shortly thereafter.
"Tomorrow at the usual time?" Cathy asked her sister as she tugged on her coat.
"Sounds good," Annie smiled. "Is Mike joining us?"
Mike looked lost for a moment. "I don't know, am I?" he asked.
"Tell you what, Mike," Paul came to the rescue. "Why don't we join them for breakfast, then let them do their thing, and you can come back here with me. The state playoff tournament is on all weekend."
"Works for me," Mike agreed.
"What do you want to do, Peter?" Paul was asking him.
"Do you want to go shopping with Annie and the girls, or do you want to come back and watch basketball with me and Mike."
"Oh, come with us, Peter," Carolyn begged. "You've never seen the windows and the decorations. They're sooo cool!"
Wandering around looking at the Christmas decorations had some appeal. Peter remembered the simple decorations they did in the town, and the meager way the orphanage decorated, but he'd never seen the city decked out in its Christmas finery--except in pictures. On the other hand, did he really want to be the only guy, going shopping with Annie, her sister, her mother, Carolyn and Kelly?
"Umm--I dunno," he answered truthfully.
"Well, think about it, you can decide tomorrow," Paul told him.
They said good night, and Peter found himself hugged by Annie's mother and sister. He decided it must be hereditary--they were all great huggers!
After all the company was gone, Annie and the girls cleaned up the last of the dessert plates and coffee cups, and Paul put a hand on the back of Peter's neck and led him into the family room.
"What's up?" Peter frowned.
"Nothing," Paul smiled. "I mean nothing bad. It's just we haven't really talked much about Christmas, and I thought we'd better do that--before you get tossed in the middle of it. Just so you know what to expect."
"I know about Christmas," Peter defended. "I mean, I know it's a big Christian holiday. The biggest. The birth of Christ, right?"
"That's right. But I meant more about how we celebrate Christmas here with the family. I know you always prefer to know what's going on, so I thought we ought to go over it all, before we get caught up in the rush."
"Okay," Peter shrugged. He wondered if he'd ever really understand the way they celebrated holidays.
Paul pulled out his wallet and handed Peter two $20s and a $10.
"What's this for?"
"Christmas presents. The girls each get money, too, to buy presents. It's traditional for each family member to get everybody else a present. You can make it, or you can buy it. And you can use any of your allowance money as well, but this is to supplement allowance money."
Peter stared at the bills, frowning. "Wait a minute--"
"You give me money so I can buy you a present? That seems kind of stupid. I mean, you're giving me money so I can give it back to you."
"But it's the idea of giving that's the important one here," Paul told him. "If you were working, or had your own income, then it would be different. But as it is, your income comes from me, so does your Christmas spending money."
"How much am I supposed to spend?"
"However much seems appropriate, given the amount of money you have, and the number of gifts you need to buy," Paul said.
Peter thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I still don't get it."
"Which part don't you get?"
"Well, I guess--why do we buy each other gifts at all? I mean, you don't do that at Thanksgiving, or the 4th of July."
Paul sighed and rubbed his brow. "You want a beer?" he asked. He'd refused Peter's request for wine at dinner, saying Bonnie would never understand it; so Peter had drunk milk just like his sisters.
"Sure, but you're avoiding the question," Peter grinned.
Paul chuckled. "No, I'll answer. I just have to figure out how. Go get a beer--just one, we'll split it. Tell Mom if she asks I said you could."
Peter jumped up and went to the kitchen. He returned with the beer, which Paul opened, took a sip, and passed it on to his foster son.
"Now, as you know, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ."
"So when Christ was born, many people came to pay homage to him--"
"How did they know?"
"How did they know he was born?"
"His birth had been foretold--prophesied. At his birth, there appeared a new star in the east, which the wise seers and prophets interpreted to be a sign signifying the birth of the promised savior. With me so far?"
"In any case, many people came to pay homage to him, and they brought with them gifts with which to honor him. Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh. These were very valuable things--incense, spice, precious metals. So far so good?"
"Well, I understand giving him gifts, especially if you think of them like--well, birthday presents. But why do we give each other gifts? I mean, why not, I dunno, give him gifts. Or something."
Paul sighed. "Best answer I can give you is that it's traditional. Somewhere along the line, bringing gifts to the Christ child--or a representation of him, changed to giving each other gifts. Many of the things we've come to associate with Christmas have their basis in history or legend, and have simply become incorporated into the "tradition" of Christmas. In many countries, the custom of giving gifts to the baby Jesus is still practiced. Gift giving isn't the national sport that it is here. It just depends on local customs."
"I see--I think." Peter still didn't think it made much sense. That was one of the things that struck him whenever he learned about Christianity--how illogical it was. But maybe it only seemed illogical because he didn't understand it. There was a lot about the Tao he didn't understand, either.
"Sometimes you have to accept things, kid," Paul told him, "without so many questions."
Peter just shrugged. But they both knew, without it being said, that Peter would continue to ask his questions, and Paul would continue to try and answer them--even the unanswerable ones.
"So, you want to go shopping with Mom and the girls?" Paul asked.
"I dunno--where are they going?"
"They go downtown. Fry's department store serves breakfast around a huge Christmas tree. Then they shop at the big stores downtown, look at the decorations and the windows. Fry's does some pretty special window displays. It's become sort of a tradition, the day after Thanksgiving, to go down and get into the Christmas spirit. It's the busiest shopping day of the year. I can't stand the crowds, myself, but they all seem to enjoy it--we've been doing it since the girls were little."
"How--how does Mom, you know, how does she look at the decorations? I mean, isn't it kind of pointless for her?"
"Well, she may not see them, but she hears the bustle and the carols, she smells the pine and the roasted chestnuts. And she enjoys it, as long as she can keep a firm grip on somebody she trusts. That's why I'm so glad her mother and Cathy go with them. Means I don't have to." He grinned.
"Oh," Peter nodded. "I--I've never been Christmas shopping...."
"Then I think you should go, just so you can see what it's all about. If you don't like it, then next year you can stay home and watch the basketball tournament with me. But it's up to you."
"Okay," he agreed and Paul squeezed his shoulder. Peter took another swig of the beer, passing it back to Paul, who finished it up.
"Come on, kiddo," Paul said, "it's late--big day tomorrow."
Annie and the girls had already gone upstairs, so they moved through the house turning off lights.
"We'll be getting up early in the morning to go downtown--there's usually a line, so the earlier we can go, the better."
Peter nodded. He wasn't very tired, not even after the beer, but figured he'd read his English Lit assignment, A Tale of Two Cities, which ought to put him right to sleep. He followed Paul upstairs.
Annie was just coming out of Kelly's room. "I was wondering what happened to you," she smiled.
"We were just talking about Christmas traditions," Paul told her.
"Oh, good. Do you have any questions?" she asked Peter.
"He's always got questions," Paul winked at him, "but we'll answer them the best we can, right?"
"Yeah," Peter nodded, flushing.
"The girls are already in bed, Peter--time for you to turn in, too," Annie said. "Go and clean up; I'll be in in a few minutes."
Paul put an arm around Peter's shoulder. "Good night, son, see you in the morning."
"Night," Peter hugged back.
He'd finished washing up and had just crawled into bed when Annie knocked. "You decent?" she teased, knowing how much he hated changing in front of her, despite the fact that she couldn't see.
"Yep," he grinned.
She crossed to the bed and sat on its edge. "Did you have a good time today, honey?" she asked, reaching a hand to smooth his hair.
"Yeah, I did," he answered. "Dinner was great!"
"Well, I'm glad you liked it, because we're eating leftovers for the next week."
"I--I like your family," he said shyly.
"I'm so glad, because they liked you, too," Annie smiled.
"Your mom--she's an awful lot like you. I mean, you're like her."
Annie chuckled. "I know what you mean. I guess I am like her. Cathy's even more like her, I think."
"I like Cathy, too. And I liked Mike, but he was so quiet, mostly."
"So were you," she said. "Mike was probably as overwhelmed as you were. I'm glad he's going to be spending tomorrow with Paul--give them a chance to get to know each other. Cathy and I have always been close; it'll help if our husbands like each other."
"Um--Paul says I should go shopping with you, so I can see what it's all about."
"Well, I'd like to have you come along, but it's up to you. If it would make you too uncomfortable as the only male shopping with a gaggle of girls, I'll understand."
"It's just--it's just that I've never been Christmas shopping before. If we're supposed to get gifts for each other, how do I know what to get for everybody?"
"You ask. Or you notice if someone mentions something they'd like. For instance, Kelly's had her eye on a jewelry making kit that would be in your price range. As for Carolyn, why don't you watch her tomorrow--see what she looks at, see if it gives you any ideas. If not, we'll talk some more about it later."
"What about you and Paul?"
She smiled. "You know I always like perfume, or music, or books. Paul likes books, too--usually thrillers. There's a new one out by Len Deighton. He usually waits for the paperback, but I know he wouldn't mind getting the hardcover.
"Or," she continued, "anything else you think he'd like. That's part of why we go shopping--to get ideas."
Peter sighed. "I guess I'll get the hang of it, eventually."
"You will," she soothed. "Just be patient--go with the flow. Remember, Christmas is supposed to be a happy time, not one for fretting and worrying about who's getting what. People tend to lose sight of that. Paul and I would be just as content with a gift of your love for another year."
"Then why do it at all?" Peter asked again.
"Because it's doing something nice for someone else. The idea is to give something the other person wouldn't ordinarily give themselves. Something that they can look at throughout the year, or maybe for many years, and remember the person who gave them such a thoughtful gift. In many ways, the old adage about "it's the thought that counts" is really true.
"Now come on, time for you to get some sleep. We tend to shop 'til we drop, so you don't want to poop out on us, do you?"
Peter laughed. "I'll be able to keep up, don't worry."
"Ahh," she shook her finger. "I'll hold you to that." She leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Good night, honey, sweet dreams."
She turned off the light and closed the door. Peter considered getting back up, turning on the bedside light, and reading 'til he got tired. While he was contemplating this, he fell asleep.
Peter leaned on the railing, gazing down to the floor below. Shoppers buzzed past, cash registers rang up sales, the drone of Christmas carols over the PA mingled with the hum of voices. Peter ignored it all.
For the past hour, his attention had been wholly captured by the model railroad Fry's department store had running throughout their first floor departments. Each merchandise island was decorated like a tiny village or country scene, and the trains traveled high above the shoppers' heads, crossing from island to island on magnificent, elaborate suspension bridges. From below, the shoppers were only marginally aware of what was going on over their heads; sometimes they would stop and look up, pointing--especially if a train went by blowing its whistle. But the true impact of the layout could only be grasped from above--from one of the several balconies which overlooked the floor below. It was here Peter had stationed himself, never tiring of watching the four separate engines circle their intricate track throughout the store.
When Peter saw the elaborate setup, while waiting in line for breakfast, he'd been mesmerized, and couldn't wait to get back and look at it closely. He remembered watching the trains go by in the town when he was younger. There was a hillside behind the temple where he'd go to sometimes to watch for trains. He could just see one small section of track from his vantage point. He'd wait until a train went by, watching as it disappeared around the cliff, imagining where it was going. To Peter, a train symbolized the gateway to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, his one and only train trip had been the one which had brought him from the temple ruins to the city, a journey that had been shrouded in pain and sadness.
But trains were still magical things to Peter, signifying everything free and adventurous about the human spirit. He was content to watch the endless circling of the model train display, imagining himself on board one of them, flying over snow-covered countryside, mountain passes and tiny villages, heading to who knew where.
The rest of the family had abandoned him and continued with their shopping, with the reminder from Annie that they'd be back to pick him up in an hour. He was pleased to let them go. While he'd enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas in the city, the actual shopping part bored him. Though at least Carolyn had given him an idea about what to get her when she cooed over a pair of earrings. She'd gotten her ears pierced over the summer, and earrings were her new passion.
"There he is." A voice cut through his ruminations. "Right where we left him." Peter turned around to see Mrs. Hoffman, who insisted that he call her Grandma, with the rest of the family.
"Jeez, Peter," Carolyn shook her head, "didn't you move at all?"
"Sure I did," he defended. "I watched from that balcony for awhile," he pointed across the atrium, "and from that one there...."
The others laughed. They were all carrying bags and parcels.
"Ready to go?" Annie asked, reaching for his hand. He took it and her mother let go of Annie's other arm, turning her over to him.
"Yep," he nodded.
"I didn't know you liked trains so well, Peter," she said.
"Oh yeah--they're neat. I've only ever been on one, though."
"We'll have to see about changing that," she smiled and patted his arm.
"That would be--great!" he gushed and she chuckled.
They looked at the outside window displays; Fry's had another model railroad running from window panel to window panel, tying them all together. They looked at the windows in the other stores, and shopped in some of them, too, but none of them were as impressive as Fry's. And none of them had trains.
After a late lunch, they stopped by an outdoor rink and watched the skaters.
"Do you skate, Peter?" Cathy asked.
"Not on ice skates," he answered.
"Huh?" Carolyn frowned.
"We used to play--well, it was like hockey, only we didn't have skates or anything, so we just--slid--in our shoes. It was fun anyway."
"Kelly's starting lessons again, maybe you could take some, too," Annie told him.
"Nah," he shook his head. "I don't know about lessons. But I'd like to try real ice skates sometime."
"Mom, can we do it now?" Carolyn begged. "They rent skates."
Annie frowned. "How long is the line?"
"It's not bad," Carolyn insisted.
"Let's go see."
They went around to the entrance of the rink, but found out it would be at least 30 minutes before they could could get on the ice, so gave up the idea promptly.
"We'll get you some skates back home, Peter," Annie said, "then you and the girls can go anytime."
"I'd like that," he said.
They looked at a few more Christmas sights, then Kelly squealed, "Oh, look--a horse and buggy!"
Next to the curb were two carriage rigs, their horses decked out in red trim and bells.
"Can we go for a carriage ride, Mom?" Carolyn asked.
"Oh, can we, Mom?" Kelly repeated.
Grandma and Cathy looked at each other, then at Annie. "What do you think?" Cathy asked.
Annie shrugged. "It's the holidays--it's not like we do this all the time. Let's do it." She paid the driver to the chorus of cheers from her daughters, and they all piled into the carriage. It was a big black thing with a canopy, but open sides, the better to see out of. The tour took them out of the shopping district and through the park before depositing them back where they began, some 30 minutes later. It had been fun, though Peter decided it wasn't exactly an efficient way to travel. He was sure he could have walked it faster than the horse did. But Annie insisted that the point wasn't how fast you got there, the point was what you saw on the way.
It was starting to get dark, so they hailed a cab, which took them to the commuter rail station.
Peter's eyes went wide. "We're taking a train?"
"Well, it's a little train, and it's electric, but yes, I suppose it's a train after a fashion." Annie fished in her purse for some change, and had Peter lead her to a pay-phone, where she called Paul and told him what time to pick them up.
The trip home was fun; Peter spent it with his nose glued to the window, watching the city go by, watching it slowly become bathed in the rose light of a fading sun.
Paul met them at the station, arms held wide. "Where are we going to put all this stuff?" he shook his head. "We're gonna have to tie Kelly to the roof."
"Daddy!" Kelly protested.
Paul chuckled and hugged his youngest daughter. "Come on, baby, we'll find room for it all."
Eventually, everything got crammed into the trunk, and all the people managed to wedge into the car.
Paul and Mike had been busy; there was a big pot of chili on the stove waiting for them, and the kids told their father what they'd seen, Peter going on and on about the model railroad.
The Hoffmans left in the early evening after supper, and Annie put a stack of Christmas albums on the turntable, filling the house with music. Peter decided that he could easily get sick of Christmas carols.
But not yet.
He ran up to his room and brought down the small parcel he'd bought. "Mom?" he said.
"Um--I got something, for Carolyn. I wanted to see what you thought."
"I'm sure it's fine, Peter, but you can show me if you want."
He took the small box out of its bag. "It's earrings. She saw them at Fry's."
Annie opened the box and floated her sensitive fingers over the dangling baubles. "They're crystals," she commented. "What color are they?"
"The hook thing is gold, then there's a gold bead, a black one, another gold one, and the bottom's this kind of sparkly blue--dark blue with flecks of gold."
"They sound lovely, Peter. I'm sure she'll like them. They were within your price range?"
"Yeah--they were $12."
"There, you see? That wasn't too difficult, now was it?"
"I guess not," he shrugged. "I just noticed that she was looking at them. So I figured she'd like them."
"Right. That's how it's done. So you've got one out of the way."
"Yeah," he smiled, and took the box back, slipping it into its bag. "Mom?"
"I have a question."
She sighed. "Go on."
"It's about Christmas." At her nod, he continued. "I know we celebrate Christmas because it symbolizes the birth of Christ. But--who was Christ? I mean, was he a real person?"
"Yes. He lived during the early days of the Roman Empire. His name was Jesus, Christ is sort of a title of honor, meaning the Messiah, or savior."
"Christmas carols and stuff call him the son of God. I don't understand that part. I mean, if you believe that we were all created by God, then aren't we all sons and daughters of God?"
"Well, yes, that's true. But Jesus was literally the son of God. He had no earthly father, and the woman who bore him, Mary, was a virgin."
Peter shook his head. "No way."
Annie smiled. "Well, that's the way it happened."
"Can they prove it?"
"Could they prove it--that Jesus was really the son of God. I mean, wasn't it his word against everybody else's?"
"More or less, which is why he was killed when he was a young man. Because people didn't want to believe he was the son of God. But he proved them wrong."
"He rose from the dead--after three days."
"Yes. He died on the cross and they buried him in a tomb. Three days later, the tomb was found open, and Jesus was gone."
"Grave robbers," Peter said confidently.
"That's what they thought--until they turned around, and there he was."
"For real? I mean, not a ghost?"
"For real," she nodded. "His resurrection is why we celebrate Easter."
Peter nodded. He'd never understood Easter, either, but was fairly sure it didn't really have anything to do with bunnies. "So then what happened?" he asked.
"After they found that he was alive."
"Well, after many days, he ascended into heaven."
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. "Peter, did anyone ever tell you you ask too many questions?"
"Yeah, my father did, all the time. How did he ascend to heaven?"
"I don't know how, it was a miracle."
Peter thought about it for a moment. "So the whole thing--Christianity, I mean--is all based on things that happened with one man almost two thousand years ago that no one can explain, and most people didn't see."
Annie laughed. "Well, it's also based on the teachings of that man, which are the key precepts for Christianity. And you're forgetting the most important part."
"Belief in the truth of these things." She took a breath. "Did you ever see the Buddha?"
"So how do you know he existed?"
"Of a man. How do you know he was the Buddha--that he was enlightened?"
Peter shrugged. "I dunno--he just--was. There's all this stuff that he said that people wrote down."
"Exactly. Just like Jesus."
"But Buddha never claimed to be the son of God. I mean, I assumed Christ was a holy man who founded a religion. Like Buddha. Or like Mohammed. But it's this son of God thing I don't get."
"Well, if it helps, you can just think of Jesus as a man who, after much studying and meditation, achieved enlightenment, and went on to preach the word of God to people who didn't want to hear his message. Jesus did spend some time in the wilderness, and when he came out, that's when he began his ministry. We don't really know what he did there--maybe he was meditating, achieving enlightenment."
Peter thought about it for a moment. "So what you're saying is that it doesn't matter if these things are true?"
"What matters is what you believe to be true. That's where real truth is found--in your heart."
Peter chewed on his lip. "One of the kids--at school--when he found out I wasn't a Christian, told me I was going to hell. I told him I didn't believe in hell, and he said that was why I was going there. How can Christianity claim to be so good when it condemns so many people, just because they don't believe the same things? This kid is trying to tell me that--that my father--doesn't deserve heaven, or whatever, because he wasn't a Christian. That stinks."
"What stinks is the unforgiving attitude of that boy, for making those cruel remarks," Annie told him, stroking his hair. "It's true that Christianity has had more wars fought in its name than I even want to think about. But those people who kill others, hurt others in the name of Christianity, aren't real Christians, at least not by my definition of the word. One of the most important lessons Jesus taught was to love your neighbor as yourself. I can't help thinking that if there were more real Christians--people who followed Christ's real teachings and not their own twists on them, there would be a lot more peace in the world, not more war. But people are people, and they're always going to find something to fight about--it's their nature. Religion is an easy target because it's something people feel very strongly about, so it's easy to make them angry. That may be true, but it's not very Christian. Don't condemn all Christians because of the attitudes of a few, Peter. You wouldn't want people to do that to you, either, would you?"
"No, I guess not. That's what they used to do in the town. By the temple. They hated us there. Just because we were different. But they didn't even know us."
"That's right. Just like that boy who said those things to you didn't know you. My own belief in God is that He is a just and benevolent God, who will judge each man according to his own worth. I don't believe that the good people of this planet who aren't Christians will be condemned to hell, either. That's not the sign of a just God. That's why I believe it's important to be the best person you possibly can, no matter who you are, no matter what you believe. Because God knows what's in your heart, and that's what's important." She rubbed his shoulder gently.
"I guess," he sighed. "It's just--it's all so confusing."
She chuckled. "Sweetheart, theologians have been arguing about it for centuries, confusion is natural."
"Yeah, maybe," he nodded. Then he looked up at her. "Thanks."
"No, thanks for trying to explain it--so I can understand. I still don't, but--but I'm closer than I was."
"Well, that's the important thing. If you want, above and beyond all the religious aspects, Christmas can simply be a fun holiday, full of music, laughter, good food, and lots of love. That's the real spirit of Christmas, anyway."
"Okay," he agreed and she put her arms around him, hugging him tight.
A week later, Peter found himself sitting on the couch in the family room, watching a string of Christmas specials on TV with the rest of the family. He'd talked a little bit more about the meaning of Christmas with Annie, and also with Paul, who tried to explain it as well. He understood all the facts, he just didn't understand the underlying emotion. He couldn't accept the "son of god" part, and he guessed that without that, the rest of it reduced to meaningless ceremony.
About halfway through the first special, a Charlie Brown one, Paul said, "Listen to this, Peter--this may help." Peter listened as Linus stood center stage and told the story of the birth of Christ. At the end, Linus walked offstage saying, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown", and Peter looked at Paul, who was watching him.
"But it's just a story," he insisted.
"Don't most stories and legends have some grain of truth in them?" Paul countered. Peter shrugged. He knew the stories by now; he just didn't believe them.
The next special was called "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", and it was fun and silly. He remembered reading Dr. Seuss when he was a little kid--something about Hop on Pop.
The Grinch stole all the goodies, took them up the mountain, and then heard the song of the Whos:
Then the grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, doesn't come from a store,
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
And then the true meaning of Christmas came through,
And the grinch found the strength of twelve grinches, plus two!*
The grinch, of course, saved the day, and carved the roast beast, as he'd been doing, Carolyn told Peter, for her whole life. And as the special
ended, Peter turned to Paul.
"So what they're saying is that it's the attitude that matters--not all the rest of it. I keep getting hung up on whether I believe or don't believe. But that doesn't matter, not really. Because the--attitude--that's what counts. What you feel, not what you know intellectually."
"That's right," Paul nodded.
Peter frowned. "I'll have to think some more about that one."
"All right, Peter," Annie smiled, "but while you're thinking, you want to help me bake cookies?"
"What kind?" Peter asked.
"Chocolate chip--is there any other kind?" Carolyn said.
"I like the oatmeal ones myself," Annie answered.
"Peanut butter!" Kelly added her vote.
"Yes to all of them!" Peter decided.
"I'm with Peter," Paul laughed.
"Fine, chocolate chip tonight, peanut butter tomorrow, oatmeal on Friday," Annie decided, and the girls got up to help her.
"Have you ever baked cookies, Peter?" Carolyn asked.
"Oh, you have to--the raw cookie dough's the best part!"
Peter made a face and looked at Paul.
"Don't knock it 'til you've tried it, kid," Paul suggested.
So Peter dubiously followed his sisters into the kitchen.
They wound up with fewer cookies than usual--many of them never made it to the oven.
Peter and his foster sisters approached Paul's den, hesitating before they knocked.
"Yes?" Paul looked up from his work.
"Paul?" Peter began tentatively. "Can we talk to you?"
Paul looked up from his paperwork with a frown. "What is it? Is something wrong?"
The three kids filed into his den and closed the door behind them. Paul got up from the desk and ushered them to the loveseat, where the girls settled and Peter perched on the arm. Paul sat in his easy chair opposite them. "What's the problem?" he asked, looking from one to the other.
Peter swallowed. Somehow, probably because he was the oldest, he'd been nominated spokesperson. "We've been thinking about what we want to get Mom for Christmas," he began.
"Well, we found something, but we want your opinion."
Peter pulled out the newspaper ad describing the small portable cassette player/radio combination. They called it a Walkman. "We thought--we thought she might like this--you know, to listen to her books--and stuff. Right now the only place she can listen to stuff is in the living room 'cause that's where her tape deck is. Or that old tape recorder she's got in the bedroom. This would be portable, so she could take it anywhere."
Paul looked the ad over. "Yeah, I've heard about these. I think it would be a terrific gift, your mom would really like it. But I thought they were kind of pricey."
"Well, um--that's the other thing we wanted to talk to you about."
Paul looked at his children carefully. "How much is it?"
"We saw the one we want for $68.50."
"Uh-huh, and how much do you have?"
"Um--$55.71. That's using everything we've got."
"How much did each of you put in?"
"I put in $20, Kelly put in $12.71, Carolyn put in the rest, because she had more money from babysitting. We even thought about not getting each other presents, but we already bought them and we'd have to return them. But we could do that, if you want."
Paul smiled. "No, that won't be necessary." He got out his wallet and pulled off a ten, a five, and three ones. "That ought to take care of the balance, including sales tax. Make sure you shop around to get the best price, and I'll take any change back."
"Thanks!" Peter grinned. "This is great--she'll really like this."
"Yes, I think she will. It's a very nice gift."
Beaming, the three of them left Paul's den.
Peter detoured through town after school the following day, found and purchased the "Walkman", then caught the late bus home. Annie asked where he'd been, but he said that he and Ray, his closest friend, had gone into town to do some Christmas shopping, and she left it at that. Paul laughed at the $.74 change leftover and handed him a penny, telling him they could split the $.75 amongst themselves.
Peter stood in front of the mirror in his foster parents' room, frowning at his image. Paul stood behind him, his arms reaching over Peter's shoulders, tying Peter's necktie. It was the first time Peter had ever worn a tie; he decided he didn't like them. Paul was showing him how to tie it.
"This end goes around, then up behind, then down in front. Then you pull it until your knot is the size you want, then you can tighten or loosen it by pulling on the short end. See?"
Peter fiddled with the tie, adjusting it until it was comfortable--well, as comfortable as it could ever be, that is. "Like this?"
"That's it. Next time you can try it."
They were getting dressed to go to church for Christmas Eve services. It had been Peter's choice to go to church with the family this evening--especially when Paul explained that the service was quite a lot different from the usual Sunday service; that it was more like a special program. Annie would be singing in the choir, and Kelly was singing in a special children's choir. Peter had been listening to them practice for weeks, and was looking forward to hearing the music.
"All set?" Paul asked. He'd taken his wife and daughter to the church earlier, then come back to get his two oldest children.
"I guess," Peter nodded. "I'm glad I don't have to wear a tie all the time--they're dumb."
Paul laughed. "Yeah, they are. But eventually you get used to them."
Peter picked his jacket up off the bed and shrugged into it. He looked at his reflection in the mirror--hair neatly combed into place, though it curled over his collar, oxford-cloth shirt, striped tie, navy blazer, gray trousers. And he thought he looked pretty stupid, like he was trying to play dress-up. It wasn't him at all.
But Paul squeezed his shoulder. "You look very handsome, son."
Peter blushed and looked down, smiling shyly.
"Come on," Paul said gently. "Let's get Carolyn." Peter followed his foster father out of the bedroom.
Carolyn was just coming out of her bedroom wearing a very pretty dark red dress, her hair brushed straight and gleaming, two combs holding it back from her face. "Hey, Peter, you look great," she told him.
He blushed again. "So do you," he managed.
"Come on or we'll be late," Paul ushered them downstairs.
They arrived at the church a few minutes before the service began. The church seemed more crowded tonight than it had the one Sunday Peter had attended. Paul explained that a lot of people only came to church on Christmas and Easter. Peter sat between Paul and Carolyn and watched the service curiously. They started with a hymn--one of the Christmas carols Peter had been hearing for weeks. Paul held the hymnal for him, but Peter had never heard the words of the song, and didn't understand the way it was written, so he just listened.
There was a prayer, and the priest got up to talk. Then there was a reading; it was the same one Linus had done in the TV special, and Peter realized it must be from the Bible. Then the choir sang and Peter watched, rapt. Annie was in the middle of the front row, the only one who didn't hold music in front of her. Peter tried to pick out her voice, but could only hear the blend of voices. They sang two more songs during the course of the service, and Kelly, in the children's choir, sang one.
Eventually, the service ended with another carol and another prayer, and to the accompaniment of the organ, the congregation dispersed.
Paul closed the hymnal and put it in the rack in front of him. "So?" he asked Peter.
"Is it always like that?"
"Usually, most of the Christmas services are pretty much the same."
"That wasn't so bad--some of the--I don't know, ceremony, I guess--it was pretty to watch. And I liked all the music."
Paul smiled at him. "Let's wait for Mom and Kelly."
Kelly came out first, running up the aisle to where they waited.
"Very nice, baby," Paul hugged her, "you sounded very good."
Kelly smiled. "Shelly Carson sings too loud and she was singing right in my ear."
"It sounded just fine," Paul assured her. "Where's your mom?"
"I don't know--the kids' robes aren't kept in the same room as the grown ups. Do you want me to go back for her?"
"No, that's all right, I'll--oh, there she is."
Peter looked toward the side door and saw Annie enter the chapel on the arm of one of the other women from the choir.
"I'll get her," Kelly said and ran back down the aisle, meeting her mother and escorting her back to the family.
Paul gave his wife a hug and a kiss, and she hugged her children as well. "So?" she asked Peter, "what did you think?"
"It was nice," he answered, "I liked all the music. I never knew some of those Christmas songs had words."
"Really?" Carolyn giggled.
"I've only ever heard them in stores and stuff--I didn't know," he defended.
Annie smiled. "The music's my favorite part, too. Come on, let's go home." Paul took her arm and together the family left the chapel, stopping on the way to say hello to the priest. Several other people wished them Merry Christmas, and it wound up being at least fifteen minutes before they managed to make their way out of the church.
It had started snowing while they were in church, and everything was covered with a white blanket. The girls giggled and tried to catch snowflakes on their tongues. Peter ran his hand over a railing, coming up with a fist full of snow, but it was too fresh and powdery to make a very good snowball. Besides which, Paul's stern glance and meaningful cleared throat made him change his mind. He let the snow drift off his hand to fall on the sidewalk. Instead, he slid his feet over the pavement, making long scuff marks in the snow until Annie admonished him not to ruin his good shoes. Snow, he decided, wasn't much fun if you weren't dressed for it. Even at the temple, as long as they were wearing their "going out" shoes and not their soft-soled gung fu shoes, they could pretty much do what they wanted in the snow.
Peter helped Paul clear the snow off the car windows, then they drove home, going carefully on the slippery streets.
"I hope this stops before tomorrow," Paul muttered, "or it'll be a very quiet day."
"Busy or quiet," Annie told him, "we still get to spend it with the family."
It was a Blaisdell custom to host an open-house on Christmas day. While Christmas was traditionally a day for families, many of the officers in the precinct were young men and women with no families, or at least none in the area. Paul explained that it had begun when he was Chief of Detectives at the 87th, and had been primarily for his detectives. Now that he was Captain of the 101st, the invitation extended to all of the employees of the precinct. Some of his "young men" from the 87th were now married with children, yet still came by to wish the captain a Merry Christmas, bringing their families with them. There could be anywhere from a dozen to as many as 50 people through the house at any given point tomorrow. Peter was cautiously looking forward to it. He still didn't like meeting new people, but on the other hand, he'd already met several of the people from the precinct when he went there with Paul, so they wouldn't be complete strangers.
But that was tomorrow. For tonight there was the promise of plum pudding with hard sauce (whatever that was) and egg nog.
They arrived home without incident, and the house glowed warm in the cold snow. Peter thought it looked like a beacon--something to call the weary traveler to refuge. He laughed to himself, deciding that the poetry of the Christmas service must have gotten to him, to be thinking like that.
The first thing he did when he got upstairs was take off his tie. He noticed that Paul's tie had been loosened almost instantly upon coming home, too. Peter changed out of his good clothes and into jeans and a sweatshirt. He came downstairs to find Paul on the front steps, sweeping them. His foster father came back in momentarily, and said, "We'll watch the snow. If it gets too much deeper, we may go out and get a start on the driveway." Peter frowned; he hadn't liked shoveling snow at the temple, either.
The remainder of the evening passed quietly, and with the warning that it would be a busy day tomorrow, the kids went to bed a little after 11:00.
The house was dark. The Christmas tree dominated the family room, a large shadow in the corner; devoid of its lights and glitter, it looked almost oppressive in its size and majesty. Beneath it, an assortment of brightly wrapped packages lay, taking on a gray sameness in the pale light from the moon. The snow had stopped, and the white blanket outside glittered in the silver light.
Peter couldn't sleep. He'd come downstairs for a glass of juice, hoping to calm his mind and heart. He was troubled, and he wasn't quite sure why. He sat opposite the tree, trying to search for answers in its dark depths.
In a way, he felt like Charlie Brown--Christmas was supposed to be a happy time, but instead he felt depressed. He liked the carols, and the cookies, and the tree and the decorations. He loved sitting in the family room with the lights all turned off and the tree lit. He would sit across the room from it and let his eyes unfocus, making the lights blur and blend together. The bright spots of light almost reminded him of the candles at the temple; he remembered sitting in the great hall and staring into the candle flames, too--just like he gazed at the Christmas tree lights. But tonight there was no comfort in the memory. Instead, it all felt wrong, like something was missing. He assumed the missing part was belief in the purpose behind the holiday--the purpose besides shopping 'til you dropped and eating 'til you burst, that is. He just couldn't bring himself to accept beliefs so different from those he was raised with, and consequently, the entire holiday felt--false--to him.
He sighed and took a drink of his juice.
"Peter?" He jumped at the sound of Annie's voice in the dark. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah--did I wake you?" He turned around to where she was standing in the doorway.
"No, I just woke up."
"So did I." He frowned. "How did you know I was here?"
"I heard you."
"Yeah, but how did you know it was me--in the dark?"
She sighed. "Peter, dark doesn't mean anything to me."
He swallowed. "Oh yeah. Dumb question."
She laughed gently. "That's all right." She moved over to the couch and sat next to him. "I like to come down when the house is quiet and sit in here, looking at the tree and absorbing the Christmas spirit."
"Looking at the tree?" Peter questioned. "But--"
"Take a deep breath," she interrupted. So he did, inhaling deeply. "Smell that?" Peter nodded, smelling the sweet spice of the pine tree, mixed with the cinnamon and clove of the holiday potpourri she had sitting in a bowl on the end table.
"That's looking at the tree. It's the smell that's important to me. That's why we'll never have an artificial tree. No matter how realistic it might look, it would smell wrong, so as far as I'm concerned, it wouldn't be a Christmas tree. That smell--that's the smell of Christmas to me."
He smiled. She had such a unique way of looking at things. It was hard to be depressed with her around.
She took a deep breath, taking in the scents again. "We've spent so many Christmas Eves staying up half the night putting presents together, Paul and I, I think I've forgotten how to sleep through Christmas Eve. It just doesn't feel right unless it's the middle of the night and I'm in the family room."
"Why stay up so late?"
"Getting gifts put together, toys and things when the girls were young. So that when they got up in the morning, it looked like Santa'd been here."
"They believed in Santa?"
"Yes, of course."
"But--he's just a fairy tale."
"But he's a harmless one--and fun for the kids. They believed in him just like they believed in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy."
"So when did you tell them the truth?"
"We didn't--they figured it out on their own. Eventually, reality becomes more important than myth. When they got to that point, they each rejected Santa on their own. We neither encouraged nor discouraged them, we let them come to their own conclusions. Not just about Santa but about the rest of them as well. It's all a part of growing up."
Peter sighed. "I don't think there was anything like that when I was growing up. Anything I believed in--was real."
"That's fine, too. But in American society, Santa is everywhere. There was no harm in the illusion, and no harm in the truth."
"Maybe that's part of my problem with, you know, with the meaning of Christmas. I can't make myself believe. To me, it's all myth, so none of it means anything."
"You can't ever make yourself believe things, Peter. Either you do, or you don't. And it doesn't matter how much proof you get of some things, they still remain unbelievable. Because belief comes from within--from in your heart."
"See, the thing is," he went on, "what we were taught at the temple was--well, that you weren't supposed to understand it. You couldn't see it, you couldn't touch it. It was a profound mystery. But it--was. You strove to seek it, to find it, but you knew that it couldn't ever really be found. And that didn't matter, because the seeking, the journey, that was what was important. But I feel like--because I don't get it, Christianity, I mean--it's all pointless. I'm going through motions, but they don't mean anything. They're as fake as--as Santa Claus."
Annie sighed. "Darling, I don't have an easy answer for you. Christmas is the biggest holiday in the Christian calendar, and like it or not, that calendar is the pervasive one in this country. But Christmas has become almost as much of a secular holiday as a religious one. The Christmas season has become an excuse to get together with family and friends, to do special things for people. It's a time to love your fellow man. Which you're supposed to do all year round, but somehow it's easier to do at Christmastime. There are people of all walks of life who celebrate Christmas even in a small way, simply because on Christmas, the entire nation takes a holiday. The stores and restaurants are closed, the government is closed, only essential services are provided. Most people have the day off of work. It's an excuse for a holiday, even if you don't believe. The country is filled with people who don't believe in Christ, and yet celebrate Christmas as a happy, family time. A time of giving and receiving and much joy."
"But that's hypocritical."
"No, that's sensible. Because of how secular Christmas has become, you can't avoid the Christmas season, even if you don't practice the religion it's a part of. In this family, we celebrate Christmas. If the celebration makes you too uncomfortable, you don't need to participate in the future, but we wish you would. Because for us, it's as much a special time for the family as a remembrance of the birth of Jesus. It's that family time that's important to us, and that's why we'd like you to join with us in our celebrations. Not because of Christ. Because of our love for you and for each other."
Peter rubbed a hand over his face, hoping to banish the confusion in his head. He stared at the darkened tree again, still searching for answers.
"When I was growing up--at the temple--we'd go down into town, and I'd see all the Christmas decorations--the lights and the garlands and stuff. And the Christmas trees--especially the trees. I thought they all looked so pretty. It was--I don't know--something magical, almost. Something I'd never have. I knew that--and it was okay, really. I knew that the decorations and the trees were a symbol of something I didn't believe in, wouldn't ever believe in. But they were still kind of--special. Something that made the people in town different from us. They celebrated Christmas and we didn't.
"Only--now here I am. I'm living in a house with a Christmas tree. There are presents under it for me. There's even a stocking with my name on it. Now I'm celebrating Christmas just like the people in the town. But it doesn't really change anything. It's all just symbols of something I still don't believe in. So it doesn't matter if I have them, or how beautiful they are, or how many of those presents are for me. Because none of it means anything. Not really. It's all just--going through the motions. I..."
Peter took a deep breath, feeling his throat constrict and angrily pushed the emotions down. "I always wanted those things--I wanted what they represented, because I thought they meant being just like everyone else. But--but they don't. Now I'm living just like everyone else, but--" He swallowed past the lump in his throat. "I--I don't mean this the way it sounds--I-I'm so--g-grateful--for everything you've done for me. All the things you've given me. But I'd--" His voice quivered. "I'm sorry--but I'd give them all back in a second if I could go back to the way it was. To when they were still something to be wished for, but I knew who I was and what I believed. It was so much easier then. I understood what was happening, what was expected of me. Now every time I turn around I--" He closed his eyes against the escaping tears. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, Peter," her voice was gentle, as was her touch on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, but you can't go back. You can only go forward. Remember what the Master told you last summer--that now you had to learn to live in this world. Christmas is a part of this world, and whether you believe or whether you participate, Christmas isn't going away. It must be accepted and dealt with."
"I know-- It's just that--I don't know.... All this talk about family and everything-- And I think about my family--what I had that I don't have anymore...."
"You're missing him a lot tonight, aren't you?" she said softly.
He nodded, not trusting his voice. He knew she couldn't see the movement, but sometimes it was just too hard to make himself speak--as if he couldn't find the energy. The sorrow wrapped itself around his heart and tightened. He inhaled sharply, the pain becoming a tangible thing.
"Sometimes....sometimes I miss him so much my whole body--hurts. And I don't know how to make it stop. But sometimes a day will go by, maybe even a couple of days--and I'll realize I haven't thought about him. And that hurts, too. Like I'm forgetting him. But I can't do that--I can't forget him. My memories of him--that's all that's left. I'm his legacy. I have to--I have to keep it going. If I forget-- Then-then there's nothing left."
"Sweetheart, you're not going to forget him," she soothed, "he was too much a part of your life for too long. And of course it's right to remember him, because keeping your memories of him keeps him alive for you, in your heart. But at some point you have to leave your grief behind. You can remember him without such sorrow. And if a day or two, or even several go by without your consciously thinking about him, that's fine. That means you're healing. He's still there, in your heart, in that place inside of you where you can find him and find comfort in your memories, and in the things he taught you. You remember him by being the best person you can be--by being the kind of person he'd be proud of."
"But I can't! I can't follow what he taught me--it's too different! If I was at the temple, then maybe I could. But not out here, where everything is too hard."
"What, he only taught you religious precepts?" she tipped her head to the side in a question. "He didn't teach you anything about how to live?"
"Sure he did--but it was how to live as a Shaolin."
"And none of those lessons can be applied to your daily life?"
"Not very well. Things are too different here."
"Maybe they are. But that doesn't mean that the things you were taught in the temple have to be forgotten." She took a deep breath. "You know-- I have to think that by knowing you, and knowing a lot about you by now, I know a little bit about your father as well. And I can't imagine that in twelve years, he never taught you anything about nature and man. About dealing with things day to day. Maybe the setting's different, but people are people, no matter where they are. And dealing with people is always the same. The lessons you learned in the temple can be applied to daily life here as well. I doubt very much they were specific only to a special place and time. Lessons about life tend to be more universal than that. And I'll bet your father taught you a lot about life, didn't he?"
Peter sighed. As always, her gentle pragmatism got through to him. The tightness around his heart eased a little. "I guess."
"I guess so, too. Well, Christmas is just one more part of dealing with life. You accept what you can accept, and ignore the rest. No one's forcing you to convert to Christianity, Peter. That's a choice that only you can make within your heart; no one could make that decision for you. But you are required to live in a predominantly Christian society, with a family who are Christians. We have traditions which come from our beliefs, so these are the things we practice. You're a part of our family, so we want you to be a part of our traditions as well. And that includes Christmas. Observing the holiday of Christmas isn't being disloyal to your father or his teachings, or even rejecting the Tao. It's simply allowing yourself to participate in a holiday with your new family. That's all. It doesn't need to mean anything more to you than that, unless you want it to. Can you accept that?"
Peter swallowed. He didn't want to hurt her, but he wasn't sure how much he could follow the practices of Christmas, either. "I'll--try."
"That's good enough for me," she said.
He closed his eyes, feeling some of the weight in his soul lift. He really did like the lights and the colors and the smells. He just couldn't get past the feeling that by celebrating Christmas he was betraying his father and his teachings. But if he just accepted the lights and the colors and the smells--and the love associated with the holiday, then he wasn't betraying anything. He was simply adapting himself to his environment. He remembered his father teaching him that man was an adaptable creature, able to survive in even the most difficult of situations, because he could take knowledge gained and use it to his advantage. That's all this was--adaptation. Evolution. The weight lifted a little more and he sighed.
She smiled and pulled him into a gentle embrace, kissing his temple tenderly. He curled into her arms, absorbing her love, as he'd been doing for the past eight months. He breathed deeply, the faint trace of her perfume mingling with the scents of Christmas. The smell spoke to him of warmth and comfort and the last of his heavy heart eased.
"Pretty heavy stuff for late on Christmas eve," he commented.
"Christmas day," she corrected. "And the rest of the family will be up in a few hours, so we'd both better get some more sleep."
"I guess," he sighed.
She chuckled and soundly kissed his cheek before easing him out of her arms. "Come on, cutie--help your old mom upstairs."
"You're not old," he denied, offering her his hands. She stood, putting an arm around him as they left the family room.
"Getting older by the day, my darling," she smiled.
"'Cause of me?"
"'Cause of the march of time. You're certainly not making me any older. A little grayer, maybe--"
"You don't have any gray hair," he protested.
"My hairdresser thanks you for that," she said.
They went upstairs and she walked with him to his room. He climbed into his bed and she pulled the covers up around him.
"You gonna be all right tomorrow?" she asked gently.
"Oh yeah. I guess--I don't know, old memories and things--I just got kinda freaked. But I'll be fine."
"Good. Now try and get some sleep. The girls like to get up early for presents."
"G'night." He snuggled down beneath the blanket.
"Good night, sweetheart. Merry Christmas." She leaned in and kissed his forehead.
"Merry Christmas, Mom." Then, "I love you."
He could see her smile in the darkness. "I love you too, baby." With a gentle stroke to his shoulder, she left his side, closing the bedroom door behind her.
As he closed his eyes, feeling himself relax into the mattress, Peter wondered why he always felt so calm after talking to his foster mother. He wondered if he'd've felt the same way with his real mother. Thoughts of his birth mother and his "heart" mother in his head, Peter drifted quickly to sleep.
Annie hadn't been kidding about the girls wanting to get up early for presents. Before 8:00, they pounced on Peter's bed, cajoling him to get up and come downstairs with them. Their bubbly excitement was infectious; it even penetrated Peter's sleepy haze. And, he had to admit, he was curious as to what several of the packages contained. That, and he wanted to see Annie's reaction to her gift. So with a yawn, he upended his sisters, crawled out of bed and into his bathrobe and slippers, shuffling downstairs with the rest of the family.
The lights were on in the family room, the tree blazing warmly. Paul had a fire going in the fireplace. The smell of burning logs, the Christmas scents of pine and spice, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, all blended to create a symphony of sight and scent. The Christmas carols playing softly on the stereo added to the sensory chorus. And predominant of all was a feeling of warmth and family. Peter smiled, deciding that if this was what Christmas meant, he'd gladly celebrate the holiday all the time.
Kelly, meanwhile, had crawled under the tree and was digging packages out and passing them around to their recipients.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Paul reminded her.
"Oh--yeah!" she grinned and slid out from under the tree, trotting over to the fireplace where she took down everybody's stockings, handing them around. Peter hadn't noticed last night, but the stockings were full to overflowing. He accepted his and pulled out two small boxes, then investigated the rest of the contents: a huge candy cane, an apple, an orange, several foil covered chocolate coins, and an assortment of mixed nuts in their shells.
The first box, a present from Paul's brother, contained a Swiss Army knife. At the sight of it, Peter went cold. It was just like the one he'd left behind at the orphanage. He stared at it, unable to say a word, terrified by its significance. It didn't belong here, this symbol of another life. He looked at Paul, hoping to be able to explain, but the words wouldn't come. His foster father was watching him curiously, but simply said, "Why don't you look at the other one?"
It took Peter a minute to realize he'd meant the other box. "Oh, yeah," he mumbled, and opened the second small parcel. This one held a model railroad engine. Peter stared at the engine for a long time, awed by its tiny perfection, then looked back at Paul.
His foster father winked at him. "Better?" he asked.
Peter grinned. "Yeah. Thanks." The knife got set aside in favor of the train engine.
Kelly and Carolyn had finished with their stockings as well, and Kelly was back to divvying up presents. By the time she was done, Peter had quite a collection amassed in front of him. He was absolutely amazed at the quantity, never mind what the packages contained. But a look at his sisters revealed that they each had just as many. In addition to the gifts from the other family members, there were presents from their "grandparents" as well. Peter was surprised to see gifts from both Annie's father and Paul's mother--surprised because he'd never even met either of them. But both of them sent gifts to the girls, so sent something along for him as well.
The gift "feeding frenzy" was a fairly organized affair, with everybody opening one gift at a time, so everybody else could see what they got. Kelly was first, and chose to open Peter's gift--the bead-weaving kit Annie had mentioned. She thanked him shyly and he blushed. Carolyn also opened her gift from Peter, immediately putting the dangling earrings on and wearing them proudly for the rest of the day. She thanked him with a hug.
Peter was next and opened Kelly's gift, which was a sleeper car that matched the engine in his stocking. He looked at Paul suspiciously, guessing that more cars would be forthcoming in other packages. But he thanked his sister, and she giggled her your welcome.
Paul got a book on vegetable gardening from Carolyn, to go with his prized greenhouse and garden. Annie got a beautiful bathrobe from Paul, silk and velour, making it both warm and elegant. Its colors were pretty, but it was the feel which was important, and Annie slipped the robe on immediately, happily snuggled up in it until well after breakfast.
When it was Peter's turn again, he looked the boxes in front of him and opened the biggest one, expecting to find the rest of the train set. Instead, he found a "ghetto-blaster" radio/tape player. It was a good gift--he'd wanted music in his room, and had borrowed a portable radio from Paul's den. But the tape player was great--now all he needed was cassettes.
The gifts continued to get opened; Annie loved her "Walkman", declaring it one of the most thoughtful gifts she'd ever received. Paul laughed at the matching Christmas-patterned socks and tie from Kelly, but was very pleased by the dark burgundy and blue cashmere cardigan from Kelly and Peter, with assistance from Annie. The girls got an assortment of clothes, jewelry and hair ornaments, as well as a book for Carolyn and a record album for Kelly. Peter got a sweater and a shirt, two music cassettes (Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, and Journey's Escape), and two more rail cars.
But no train set.
Eventually, all the gifts were opened, and Paul said, "Well, that's it. Merry Christmas, everybody."
"Merry Christmas," Annie repeated, getting up from her seat on the couch.
Peter sat on the floor surrounded by his booty, face twisted in confusion. The gifts were great, but-- Well, maybe they were going to give him the train set for his birthday or something. Or maybe he could save up for it. He'd just put the cars away until--
"Daddy!" Kelly said imperiously, "you forgot something."
Paul opened his eyes wide. "There aren't any more boxes under the tree, sugar."
"I know--but one's missing."
"Ah--" Paul snapped his fingers. "You're right. Be right back." He slipped quickly out of the family room. The girls giggled together and Peter frowned. What was going on?
Paul was back in a moment, dragging a large flat box with him. "Peter, you want to help me with this?"
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's yours--why don't you come and see?" Paul smiled.
Peter couldn't help the grin that spread across his face. "You bet!"
Together they carried the box into the middle of the floor and set it down. Peter knelt next to it, starting to tear at the wrappings. He looked up at Paul. "Help me with it?" he said. Paul grinned and got to his knees across the box from him.
"We had you worried there, didn't we?" his foster father said softly.
"Confused, mostly," Peter admitted.
"Sorry for teasing you."
Together they unwrapped the box and lifted the lid. Inside lay three more cars, including the caboose, completing the seven car Santa Fe Super Chief layout, several lengths of track, and the switches and electrical connections necessary to make it run. Peter stared at it in awe.
"Wow!" he breathed.
"I think he likes it," Carolyn giggled.
"Oh yeah--" he gushed. "Oh man, it's--it's great!" Paul chuckled and Peter looked up at him. "You'll help me set it up?"
"Of course," Paul smiled and winked. "Merry Christmas, kid."
"Merry Christmas," he whispered, throwing his arms around his foster father in a hug. Paul hugged him tightly, patting his back. When the hug broke, he turned to where Annie still sat on the couch. "Merry Christmas," he said to her, crawling over and sliding into her arms.
"Merry Christmas, baby," she said softly, stroking his hair.
Kelly and Carolyn hugged their parents as well, and Peter, now sitting on the floor at his mother's feet, thought that maybe Christmas was all right after all. Anything that made you feel this good couldn't be bad, could it?
"Oh, I forgot one more gift," Paul said, reaching into the pocket of his robe and pulling out a small box. "Merry Christmas, Babe," he said, setting the box in Annie's hand.
"Oh, Paul--" she breathed. Her clever fingers deftly unwrapped the box and opened the hinged lid. "Oh--" she gasped as her fingers caressed the necklace inside. "What's the stone?" she asked.
"Ruby," he told her.
"And the small ones are diamonds?"
"Oh Paul, it's beautiful," she sighed. Peter craned his head to look at the pendant, a simply elegant design of a teardrop shaped Ruby with three smaller teardrop diamonds at the top. It looked almost like an abstract orchid. It was very pretty.
Annie held the box out to her husband. "Help me put it on."
So he took the necklace out of the box and fastened it around her bared neck. She fingered it at her throat. "How does it look?"
"Almost as beautiful as the woman who's wearing it," he said softly.
"Thank you, darling," she smiled and he leaned down and kissed her tenderly.
"That really is it this time," Paul said when he straightened from the kiss. "Carolyn, you want to find a garbage bag for all the wrapping paper?" She scurried off with a nod. "Anything you don't mind the other kids playing with you can leave down here under the tree, but if you don't want anybody to touch it, take it upstairs to your room."
Peter stared for a moment at the train set, then realized that he had plans to spend the rest of the morning setting the thing up. So he put the pieces together in their big box and put it under the tree. His boom box, tapes and clothes all went upstairs.
The knife, however, did not.
Paul was putting another log on the fire when Peter approached him.
"Um--can I talk to you?"
"Sure, kid, what is it?"
Peter looked across the room, nervously. "Did--did Mom tell you about me and the knife--at the orphanage?"
"She did. She said you left the knife behind."
"I did, but-- Well--" he swallowed, "it-it was a Swiss Army knife."
"Ah," Paul nodded. "That explains your reaction to David's gift."
"Yeah, I--" Peter held out the knife. "Do--do you want to hold onto it for me?"
Paul looked at the knife, then back at Peter, and there was an emotion Peter couldn't identify in his eyes. "You can keep it, Peter," he said gently. "We trust you."
Peter frowned, then realized what Paul meant. "No, I didn't mean that, I-- I don't want to keep it. I don't want to remember. I mean, I know it's just a knife, but--"
Paul nodded. "I understand. If you want, we can keep it in the case with your dagger."
"I'd like that," Peter said, relieved. "I don't really want to get rid of it, I mean, it's a knife--it might be useful one of these days! But--but I don't want to see it all the time, either." He handed the knife to Paul.
"Fair enough." Paul put the knife in his pocket.
"You're welcome. Thanks for confiding in me."
"Who else would I talk to?" Peter shrugged. "You're my--" he paused, swallowing, "you're my foster father." He couldn't say those other words--they just wouldn't come.
Paul didn't seem to mind; he just chuckled and ruffled Peter's hair. "Why don't you help Carolyn clean up the family room?"
"Sure," he grinned and started picking up torn wrapping paper, confident that his new knife was safe--and out of his sight.
Peter came in from the back deck, knocking the snow off his shoes. He'd already knocked the snow off the logs he carried, though he knew they'd still probably smoke and hiss. There were other logs in the bin next to the fireplace, so with any luck, they wouldn't actually need these, but better to bring them in now than to put cold, wet logs on the fire later. He set them in the utility room to dry.
The house was comfortably full--there were a couple dozen people here, as there had been for much of the day. They weren't always the same people, but the number had remained fairly constant.
He shed his coat and snowy shoes in the front hall and slid sock-footed into the dining room where Paul was fixing drinks. "I got the logs in, Paul," he said, grabbing a handful of mixed nuts on the bar. "Anything else you need?"
"No, I'm fine here, kid. You check with Mom?"
"She's not in the kitchen, so I guess everything's okay."
"I guess so," Paul repeated with a grin. "But why don't you check with her just to make sure."
"Yeah." Peter turned to leave the room.
"How's it going in there?" his foster father asked.
"Pretty good. Dave's helping me. We've got a layout set up, but it keeps derailing at this one spot. I think the floor's uneven."
"No you can't straighten the floor," Paul told him before he asked.
"I wasn't gonna. But where'll I set it up later?"
"Most people set them up on plywood tables. We'll fix something up for you in the basement."
"Can't I have it in my room?"
"Where in your room?" Paul asked.
"On the desk?"
"Where will you study?"
"Um--on my bed?"
"I don't think so, Peter."
"Then how 'bout on the dresser?"
"We'll talk about it later," Paul laughed.
"Okay," Peter nodded and padded back into the family room. Annie was in there, talking with some people. He went up to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Need anything?" he asked.
"No, I'm fine, sweetie," she answered. "Did you check with Paul?"
"Yeah--he told me to check with you."
"Well, I'm fine--go on. How is the master engineer progressing?"
"Progressing," he confirmed with a grin and headed over to where Dave Sullivan, the college-aged oldest son of Bill Sullivan, Paul's Chief of Detectives, was helping with the train set. It was currently circling the Christmas tree, a cut-out shoe-box serving as a tunnel.
"How's it going?" Peter asked, dropping to his knees on the floor.
"I think we may have gotten it," the older boy said. "I stuck a piece of cardboard over the tricky part; I think it'll run smooth now." There was what looked like the back of a legal pad lying beneath the stretch of track.
"Let's give it a try," Peter answered, and Dave handed him the switch box. Peter flipped the toggle and the silver train took off, chugging merrily along its track. They held their breaths when it reached the troublesome piece of track with its cardboard reinforcement. But they let them out again when the train glided effortlessly over the spot and completed its circuit.
"Awesome!" Peter breathed.
"Victory!" Dave exclaimed, raising a fist in the air.
"Got it working?" That was Paul, who had just walked into the family room.
"Come and see!" Peter told him. Paul came over and crouched down, watching the train easily circling the layout.
"Very good!" he clapped Peter on the back.
"Dave got the last part to work," Peter said.
"Well, very good Dave," Paul smiled.
"Thanks," the other boy said. "'Scuse me." He climbed up from the floor and left the room.
Paul remained on the floor with his foster son, watching the train. Peter, sitting next to him, was beaming. The train was so neat--he loved it. Next he'd get some little landscaping things for it--buildings, trees, maybe build up a hill for it to go over, or a mountain for it to go around. And then he'd get another engine, and some more track and--
He took a deep breath and laughed to himself.
"What?" Paul asked him.
"I dunno--I was just sitting here looking at this and suddenly I'm picturing this massive layout!"
Paul laughed. "Let's just work on one piece at a time."
"Yeah," Peter agreed, and Paul ruffled his hair.
Peter took a deep breath, and became aware of a sweet musky smell. He looked at Paul and noticed the pipe in his hand. "What's that?" he said.
Paul frowned. "It's a pipe."
"Well, I know that," Peter said exasperated. "I meant what's in it?"
"Oh--'cause I like the smell."
"Yeah, so do I," Paul told him.
"Can I try it?" he asked.
"No, you can't try it! It's bad enough you smoked cigarettes at the orphanage."
Peter looked at his foster father sheepishly. "I didn't think you knew about that."
"Can't disguise the smell on your clothes, kid," Paul said, and looked at Peter pointedly enough that Peter realized he'd have noticed the cigarette smell on him since the orphanage, too.
"Smoking is a very bad, very dangerous habit and I don't want you starting," Paul went on.
"I already started," Peter answered reluctantly.
"Well, I don't want you continuing, and I'm certainly not going to encourage you by letting you try my pipe."
"But you smoke," Peter insisted.
"I picked up the habit when I was in the service. But it took me many years to finally quit cigarettes, and I only have a cigar or pipe on a rare occasion. It's a case of do as I say, not as I do. I made a mistake and started smoking. Don't you follow my example."
"Yes, sir," Peter frowned. If he were honest, he would have to admit that he usually hated the taste of cigarettes. But sometimes he felt like he "needed" that buzz that cigarettes produced. Even though they usually made him cough, that buzz was still there.
"Good," Paul winked and patted his shoulder. "You're really better without them, kid," he went on. "They can make you feel wretched--it's not worth it."
Peter shrugged. "Sometimes they make you feel good, too," he mumbled.
"Not in the long run," Paul shook his head. "In the long run, all they can do is make you sick and shorten your life. I can't stop what you do when you're out of the house, but if I find them here, I'll confiscate them. And Annie won't tolerate smoking, either. She's putting up with the smoking going on here today only on sufferance as it is."
"Yes, sir," Peter repeated with a sigh.
Paul smiled and stroked Peter's neck. "That's my man." He looked back at the train. "You want to leave it there while the tree's up?"
"Then after the first, we'll decide where we want to set it up permanently."
"It's gonna look pretty lonesome all by itself on a big table," Peter commented.
"We'll work on that in slow stages."
Paul chuckled and struggled back to his feet. "Oh," he groaned, "don't get old, Peter--it's no fun." With a final pat of his foster son's head, he moved over to where his wife was in conversation with some other people. Peter watched them, a frown on his face.
That was the second comment his foster parents had made about getting old. Not that they were, but-- He watched Paul with Annie and realized, maybe for the first time consciously, that Paul was a lot older than she was. He wondered how much older--he was terrible at judging ages.
Dave came back with two plastic cups of egg nog and held them out to Peter. "You wanna see if we can get it spiked?" he asked.
Peter looked at the glasses, then back at Dave. "Um--let me check. Paul?" He went over to his foster father.
"Can me and Dave have egg nog?"
"I mean--real egg nog."
Paul chuckled. "Yeah--let me mix it for you."
"Dave's got the glasses," Peter told him.
"Excuse me," Paul told his friends, going over to where the older boy waited. "Can you have the strong stuff?" he asked, taking the glasses from him.
"I'm nineteen," Dave explained.
"That's only beer and wine, kid--better check with your dad."
Dave sighed exasperatedly, but did as he was told, coming back a moment later with a thumbs up sign.
"Come on." Paul led them into the dining room where he added a measure of rum to each glass. "There you go--but that's it, right?"
"Yes, sir," both boys replied. Paul went back to his guests, and Peter and Dave looked at each other, saluted with their glasses, and took a big drink of the thick liquid, feeling the sharp warmth of the rum all the way down. Then they went back to the family room and the train set.
It was after midnight and Peter was sleepily getting ready for bed. He'd already had his shower, but he was suddenly thirsty, so he padded back downstairs to find himself something to drink. The light above the stove was on, as it often was, but the rest of the house was dark.
Except for the family room, where the Christmas tree was still lit. Peter thought it was strange that nobody had remembered to turn it off, so he went in to unplug it, and found his foster parents still in the family room, snuggled up together on the couch, cuddling by the light of the Christmas tree and the dying embers of the fire.
"Oh," Peter said stupidly. "I-I didn't know anybody was still up."
"That's all right, sweetie," Annie said. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, yeah--I was just thirsty. Egg nog's not really a drink, is it? I mean, it's more like--food."
Paul chuckled. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
Peter shifted his weight nervously, feeling very much like an intruder. "Well--g'night."
"Hang on a second, Peter," Paul interrupted. "Come in here."
Peter frowned in confusion and slid into the room cautiously. What was the problem?
"Were you all right with today, kiddo?" Paul asked.
"Oh yeah," Peter smiled. "You know me--if there's anything to misunderstand, I'll find it." His foster parents laughed softly. "But--but I had a great time today. It was--good. It felt good--I felt good. If that's what Christmas is about, then I won't have any problem celebrating it."
"Yes, that's really what it's about," Annie told him, "that good feeling. The warmth and the love, and the family feeling."
"But it was kinda confusing, too," Peter admitted.
"Well, I mean--no one said anything about the--you know--it being a celebration of the birth of Jesus. As if that wasn't important."
"It's important," Paul corrected, "because it's the basis for the holiday. And because for Christians, that event is the basis for our religion. But today the purpose was to spend time with good friends and family. And it didn't matter today who you were or what you believed, because the love of Christmas day transcends beliefs.
"Did you meet Steve Levine?"
"Steve's Jewish--he doesn't celebrate Christmas, and yet he was here and celebrating with us."
"And Sally Gray is an atheist," Annie added, "she doesn't observe any religious holiday. And yet she observed our Christmas traditions with us. Celebrating Christmas doesn't make you a Christian any more than celebrating St. Patrick's Day makes you Irish. It's a holiday. That's all."
Peter thought about that for a moment. "It's a special holiday though, isn't it?"
"Why do you say that?" Paul asked.
"Because--because there was something--special. In the air. The atmosphere. It felt very--present." He shook his head. "I'm not making sense."
"More than you realize, son," Paul said softly. "There are some people who will tell you that's the spirit of Christmas. I don't know--it might just be that; that power that helped the grinch find the true meaning, the force that made Scrooge see the error of his ways. I think of it as--the essence of everything that's good in man. Christmas sometimes has the ability to focus that goodness. And that's what you feel."
"Maybe," Peter sighed. "I liked it, though. A lot."
"So did we," Annie told him.
Peter struggled to swallow a yawn.
"You'd better get to bed," she told him. "We'll be up in a few minutes."
"That's all right--I think I'll go right to sleep tonight. "G'night."
"Good night, sweetie," Annie said as he leaned in and kissed her, then pressed a kiss to Paul's forehead.
"Good night, kid," Paul said softly.
Glass of juice forgotten, Peter went upstairs and crawled into his bed.
He didn't know anything about visions of sugarplums; he didn't even know what a sugarplum was. But the memories of the day mingled with the warmth in his soul and Peter eased effortlessly into sleep.
* How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss c. 1957
Chapter 10: Shining Armor
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