Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When Christmas Came Home - Chapter One

[Note: the following is a Christmas-themed novella that I've written to coincide with the themes used in the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories. There are 24 chapters, one for each day leading up to Christmas.  I hope you'll find this story of a family with an unusual set of challenges one that embodies the spirit of the season.]

When Christmas Came Home

Chapter One - The Christmas Tree

“Grandma, do you think this one will catch on fire?” John William said as he unknotted a piece of silvery garland on the Christmas tree we just put up. His question caught me off-guard, like I could really have put that day out of my mind. Ever.

Looking back at the aftermath of an 8-foot live Christmas tree catching on fire in the middle of the night is not an easy task, especially when it plays as an endless record in your mind during the holidays. The inspectors, both fire department and insurance, never really determined the exact cause. Their best guess was faulty wiring in the lights used to decorate the tree. I blame it on my missing sister if you ask me.

* * *

I had just decorated the tree the day before with my grandson and husband, Dan, helping out. I went through the usual ritual of testing lights, checking plug ends etc. There was nothing suspicious or out of sorts, believe me. One peculiar thing however that I can’t seem to let go of still haunts me.

Every year I would hang a set of 12 brass ornaments, each one engraved with the name of the sons and daughters of Maude and Albert McTaggart, my parents. In my mind, as they hung on the tree we were still together as a family with no fights, no harsh words, no fears, no tears. My sister Mary Margaret, nicknamed Mags, had gone missing for over 30 years now, and I figured all hope was lost of ever finding her. So for the first time that year, I decided not to hang her ornament on the tree but instead tucked it back in the holder and placed it with the other unused decorations. Bad idea.

* * *

“Well you know, J.W., I’d like to think we’re safe. We got all the proper lights and safe decorations this year. Plus your Grandpa and me made sure all the fire detectors is working . . .”

This was the best I could tell my seven-year old grandson, but I knew there wasn’t much that could ever remove the fear of being trapped in a house filled with smoke and flames like last Christmas. And even with that fire and its aftermath of cleanup, I just couldn’t bring myself to put up an artificial tree. I kept telling myself it just wasn’t right. Plus I figured if I changed one more Christmas tradition the way I did with Mags’ ornament, we’d all be in trouble or worse.

“Besides, we’ve got the Baby Jesus - don’t forget!” I quickly added to reassure J.W. During the Advent season I made sure to do quite a bit of story-telling using the different versions of the Nativity stories from the Bible. John William always had lots of questions about the Baby Jesus which I tried my best to answer.

“That’s right Grandma Cat! I’ll ask the Baby Jesus to protect the Christmas Tree ‘fore I go to sleep!” And with that he went back to rooting through the box of old felt ornaments, glittery tinsel and “stuff” filling an oil-stained, cardboard box marked Xmas Tree in heavy black script.

* * *

I remember the day when Mags wrote Xmas Tree with one of those black grease pencils, the kind you could mark china with at a tag sale, the kind you “peeled” to sharpen. It must have been well over 30 years ago when the family was still together. Well, as together as a struggling family with 12 children could be during a cold, backwoods New York winter.

Mags was older than me by a little over two years with one of my brothers stuck between us in the pecking order of the McTaggart children. We were quite a sight to see when you could catch a glimpse of us all in one place, which wasn’t very often. Mom had a devil of a time just keeping us from hitting or making faces at each other and that’s only when she was quick enough to catch us. I won’t mention the faces we would make at passers-by or those who stood to marvel at our brood of misfit children. Marveling faces had a funny way of quickly turning to a hand over an audibly gasping mouth or one that clutched a set of pearls around the neckline of a pristinely pressed cotton dress accompanied by the requisite, “tsk tsk” and a head shake.

The “McTaggart demons” was just one of many nicknames we picked up over the years, rightfully earned to be truthful. There were very few in town who would even stop and talk with Mom anymore, even if only one of the “demons” was by her side. A small town is pretty good at breeding quick-to-judge minds and if townsfolk didn’t witness our antics first hand, you can be sure they heard about it at the beauty parlor, doctor’s office or some other place where people gathered waiting and talking.

* * *

“Cat? Do you ever think I’ll get married?” Mags said just as she finished marking the box. I can even remember the date now - it was January 6, 1952. She was fifteen and I was twelve.

Our mother would never let us remove the Christmas tree, its ornaments or any of the other decorations around our home until after the Epiphany or what she called Little Christmas. This was her tradition, just like putting up the tree on Christmas Eve and not a day before. It must have been part of the holiday tradition that Mom learned from her parents who were born in Germany and raised “Old Country” as we often said.

And I remembered how Mags called me “Cat,” that day, not using her usual “M.C.”  I hated my nickname - short for Mary Catherine. For some reason, my father had this smart idea of using “serial names” as he called it for all his kids. Which meant the eight girls would all be called Mary with different middle names (in birth order from oldest to youngest): Mary Ann, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Margaret, Mary Catherine, Mary Frances, Mary Alice, Mary Jane, and Mary Louise.

As for the McTaggart boys, well Dad had to be different. His idea of fun was to use the same middle name for them and change the first name (again, in birth order): John Patrick, Michael Patrick, Joseph Patrick and Thomas Patrick.

* * *

“Of course you’ll get married - someday. What makes you think you won’t?” I asked her as we finished packing up the ornaments.

Mags looked kind of sad when she muttered, “No one’s gonna want me. That’s all.”

True, she was a bit of a tom boy and a real smart ass. But what McTaggart child wasn’t? By ourselves, we weren't that bad and most people and places could tolerate us despite the reputation - well earned or not. But when we traveled in packs of two, three or more then watch out! Store keepers would suddenly block their main entrance or quickly turn the sign to the Be Back In 5 Minutes side.

“Mags, you will have no problem charming some boy pretty soon and then you’ll get married and have lots of babies!”

“Oh no - one baby is enough for me. No way am I raising a pack of hoodlums like us!” and with that we both burst out laughing.

At age 12, I had just learned about the “birds and the bees” and not from Mom but from a combination of other kids at school and my older brothers and sisters. There was no such thing as “sex ed” in school back then, especially in a Catholic school. Of course, looking back I now realize that what was told to me was a combination of out-dated facts, half-truths and outright myths. I just wished Mom had sat down and told all of us the truth, especially the girls. She also should have told us how to handle inappropriate advances and behavior from boys. And men. Mom could have saved a lot of time and heartache with that one.

* * *

John William was just finishing the decoration of this year’s tree when there was a knock at the door. I looked over my grandson’s efforts with a smile. With his limited reach, all the decorations seemed to be lumped into a 3 foot square area on the tree.

“Look’s great kiddo!” I said as I hurried to see who was waiting outside.

It was my older sister Liz (Mary Elizabeth) who was standing there, white as a ghost, holding a folded newspaper.

“Have you seen this? You are not going to believe it! Come over here and sit down,” she said as she came into the house and plopped herself on the sofa.

For some reason, this didn’t sound good.

© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee

8 comments:

Renate said...

I wanna be you when I grow up...lol. This is great! Looking foward to the next chapter! :)

Renate

Cheryl Fleming Palmer said...

How fun! Can't wait for more,it has me hooked!

Miriam said...

Absolutely love it, Thomas! Can't wait until the next one!

CMPointer said...

This is EXCELLENT! OK, I have a sister like this who "pops" up into our lives at random. Therefore, I think whatever is coming next has something to do with the missing sister...And the Mary's? Ha! Love it! Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How does your garden grow? Apparently, it takes a lot of Mary's, yes? ;)

Waiting in Anticipation On the Edge of My Seat,
Caroline
Family Stories

Tim Cox said...

Off to a good start! I'm looking forward to the next chapter.

GeneaDiva said...

Okay. Can't wait for the next episode.. This is going to be a tear-jerker; I can already see...

Gini said...

I am looking forward to the next chapter. I am truly enjoying your story Thomas - you could do this for a living you know!

Apple said...

Wonderful! Anxiously awaiting the next chapter.