A final gust propels me through the old red door and I elbow it shut, sending the wreath’s bells into a discordant chorus with the wind. “Come on in honey, hot apple cider is just about done in the slow cooker,” says a voice that warms my rosy skin. And just like that, I am a small child in Grandma’s house again. Grandma’s house is burrowed atop a curvy hill, away from anything resembling a main street or shopping mall. There is a scantily-lit gas station down the hill and up the road, accompanied by a post office run by Burt Wallis, the same man that owns the small grocery store across the street. His daughter works at the library further up the block, where Grandma would take me to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and sing carols with the other children when I’d visit. I kick off my boots and meet Grandma in the kitchen, where she is scooping steaming heaps of cider into two mugs with cheery cartoon animals on them. A blast of cinnamon, nutmeg, apples, and a hint of orange hits me like a friendly pat on the back. There is a small window above the kitchen sink, but the grey morning forbids much light from coming through. The oven, like Grandma, creaks and breaths heavy sighs into the humble kitchen. It beeps three times, signaling that it is done preheating. Grandma twists off the top of a whiskey bottle and pours a generous shot into each of our mugs. I raise an eyebrow. “You need to feel loose to cook a meal this size, everyone knows that, Shay.” Naturally. She hands me my mug and I cup it in both hands, ignoring the handle. I slurp it like a cup of soup, allowing the sting of the whiskey to run down my throat; manners don’t count at Grandma’s. “Can you put the prime rib in the oven? It’s too heavy for these aching bones.” To the left of the oven is a large roasting pan cradling a mass of meat almost as large. The smell of rosemary and garlic seasoning poke at my nostrils as I lift it into the oven. My coat suddenly feels unnecessary and I make my way to the living room to hang it. In the center of the room is the same fake Christmas tree Grandma has had since I was a baby. It boasts homemade ornaments of drawings from her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Figurines and freshly picked pine cones snuggle up on nurturing branches. My eyes travel upwards to the top branch, barren where a star used to beam like a lighthouse in a wintry storm. A pang of sadness floods through me as I think about how Grandma must miss Grandpa, followed by another pang for the quarrel I had with my own husband just a few hours prior. A loud clatter sounds from the kitchen and I scurry back. “You alright, Grandma?” “I’m fine, dear. Just getting out the bowl for the gingerbread cookie dough.” I light up like a candle. “Can I help? “Well of course, why do you think you’re here?” she says, teasing. “The butter is already out on the counter, should be soft by now. Can you double check?” I give the butter a dainty squeeze and it obliges. Grandma is a pro. “Butter’s ready.” She throws the butter, brown sugar, and molasses into a mixer before instructing me to whisk flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves into another bowl. The whisking becomes therapeutic and thrusts my mind deep in thought once again. I don’t know why Dylan and I have been fighting, and I don’t think he knows, either. Our life has become a chaotic sing-song of driving our three children to school, piano lessons, and sports, trying to sprinkle in homework checks and making dinner, while both working full time jobs. Our friends do it, though, with smiles on their faces. I feel like I am drowning, and Dylan can’t seem to leave work at work, wearing his stress with him like an itchy coat. I thought about therapy, because I think our unhappiness stems from being displeased with ourselves more than each other. We are tired – so, so tired. But if I can make time for therapy that means I can make time for myself, which is really all I want sometimes. I took it out on Dylan this morning, who proclaimed he will not be attending Christmas this year. He will send the kids to Grandma’s with my parents later. He needs time alone. At least we have that in common right now. “Can you fetch me an egg?” Grandma says, snapping me from my thoughts. The wind patters on the window, marking it with footsteps of rain and sleet. I open the fridge but there is no sight of eggs. “They’re in the pantry, love.” “The pantry?” “Eggs belong at room temperature when you get them fresh from the farm.” I retrieve an egg and hand it to her, considering my next words carefully. “Grandma, do you want me to put the star on the tree for you?” Grandma scoffed. “Now why would I want you to do a thing like that?” “Because, you know, you might miss Grandpa without it there?” Grandma turns up the speed of the mixer, drowning out her laughter. “That star was a pain in my rear. And so was your Grandpa when he put that thing up there, bless his soul. He was always knocking over ornaments.” She smiles into her creamy batter, and my own lips part into a smile remembering his clumsiness. “How were you two so good together?” “Good together? We sure as heck loved each other, but we weren’t always good together, honey. Can you take out the plastic wrap from underneath the sink?” She grabs my bowl and combines it with hers, pressing the mixer to medium high. I wait for the dull hum of the machine to dial down again. “You were high school sweethearts. How did you even know at that age that you were going to be compatible for a lifetime?” “Well, when you’re that age you get married for another reason and let the rest fall into place later,” she says with a wink. It takes me a minute to register this. “Grandma!” No more whiskey apple cider for her. She pours the thick batter onto the plastic wrap I laid out for her and covers it with more plastic wrap, then pounds it into a disc with her weathered hands. I push the subject further, feeling bold from the cider and comfortable from the stuffy heat and spicy aroma. The soft light from the dining room lamp casts a tender glow. “Well, you put on a good show of it then.” Grandma wipes her hands on her apron and looks straight into my eyes. “By the time you came around, we were back to the good old days. We bickered here and there, but we went through life together. Raising seven kids wasn’t easy, and the hardships of watching friends and family go shook us upside down sometimes. But we came out the other end more bonded than ever.” She puts the dough in the refrigerator to chill. “After experiencing the good and the bad of the world together our little quirks stopped bothering us. Now when I think of your Grandpa I think of the traveling we did after we retired, the crazy dinners we pulled off with the family, playing cards on the porch in the summertime.” She turns her attention back to the refrigerator and fiddles around, returning with a tray of potato wedges dusted with parsley, salt and olive oil and whole carrots glazed with brown sugar. “So to answer your question, dear, I do not need you to put the star on that tree.” We rinse cranberries in a colander, picking out the bruised ones and throwing them in the trash can. I boil water with sugar and Grandma slowly pours the cranberries inside. We giggle as we watch them burst open and then we shake too much cinnamon and nutmeg on top. We let the food continue to cook while we straighten up. Grandma’s hobble takes on a unique form in the kitchen, transforming into a skillful dance full of confidence and grace. The cuckoo clock in the dining room announces that it is 2pm, almost time for the others to arrive. I wash my hands with peppermint scented soap and dry them on my stockings, once again shoving manners to the side, when I hear the door spring open. My nieces and nephews shout and squeal as they skip wildly throughout the small house. I exchange blissful hugs with my sister, her husband, and my two brothers who must have carpooled with them. They waste no time pouring eggnog and dropping platters of cheese and crackers and roasted nuts onto the cherry wood dining table. Moments later I hear the sounds of my own children barrel through the door and I brighten. I love the sounds of excitement they make when they see their cousins all together. I wish Dylan can witness it too, and the ping of sadness from earlier revisits my stomach. I walk into the living room to greet my parents. My father whistles loudly as he wipes his feet and shields his face from the wind that barks at him through the door. They shuffle inside but do not close the door, hurrying past me with kisses and armfuls of desserts. I stride to the door, eager to shut out the cold, but my hand stops on the doorknob. Standing on the porch with a patchy beard and a dusty red scarf he must have dug out from the bottom of our closet, is my husband. He looks bashful and awkward, like a teenager about to ask a girl to prom. “Who’s letting in that draft?” Grandma called. I step aside so Dylan can come in, our youngest child circling us like a shark. Grandma appears in the doorway with two steamy mugs. She hands mine to me and the other to Dylan and kisses him on the cheek. The cartoon animals look even goofier now. “Come with me, little princess, it’s time to decorate the gingerbread cookies!” Our daughter scurries away, trailing Grandma’s every step and leaving Dylan and I with - dare I say – a moment of solitude. “We were very silly this morning,” Dylan finally says. The sour lump in my throat releases, and I feel a hot tear of gratitude well up as I move closer. I cuff a warm hand on his cold cheek and kiss him with a warmth we haven’t experienced in years. He pulls me into his chest and I let the ice on his coat melt against my forehead. Grandma’s laughter bounces off the walls behind us, and I think about how, at her age, happiness comes from peace and filling up bellies. And maybe the two are intermingled.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Lindsay Calzone is a writer and healthcare worker on Long Island, New York and enjoys playing pickleball (a sport that has surprisingly nothing to do with pickles) in her free time. Her work can be found under her maiden name, Lindsay Fudim, in The Yard: Crime Blog and coming soon in Five South.