Read The Gift of Christmas Present Online
Authors: Melody Carlson
“Marie and I were just devastated.” Her dad had sadly shaken his head. “We made arrangements for her funeral and desperately tried to locate her family in the town she'd said she'd come from, but there wasn't a single Blackstone listed in the phone book. That's when Marie wondered if perhaps Lenore had made up the name to distance herself from her family.”
“Maybe she didn't want to be found,” Christine had suggested.
But, as it turned out, Lenore hadn't made up the name at all. Only last summer while getting his traveling shots at
the county health department, Christine's dad had met a man named Blackstone, and out of curiosity he'd inquired further. The man told him about a second cousin, Allen Blackstone, who had lived in the same town Lenore had come from and who had also had a daughter by that name. Unfortunately, Allen had died of a heart attack when Lenore was still a young teenager, and her mother had remarried only a year or so later. The man wasn't absolutely certain, but he thought the second husband's name was Daniels and that he was some bigwig at the university.
“Isn't it ironic,” her father had said as they sat at the kitchen table, eating the chicken casserole she'd prepared that afternoon, “that you're already enrolled to go to college in that very same town. It's possible that you could have a grandmother there.”
“I don't care if I do,” Christine had said as she refilled her water glass.
Her father's brows had raised slightly. “Wouldn't you like to meet her?”
“Not if she was that horrible to my birth mother. Really, Dad, why would I want to have anything to do with someone like that?”
“I don't know . . . ” Her father had taken another bite and then smiled. “Good dinner tonight, Christine. Your mother would be proud.”
Christine had wondered. But, of course, she knew who he meant. Naturally, he could only be speaking of Marie, the only mother Christine had ever known. Still, it bothered her that she'd begun to wonder about this other mother, the one who had died at an even
younger age than Christine was now. What was Lenore Blackstone really like, anyway? And what was wrong with her family that they would abandon her like that?
Well, starting tomorrow, Christine would find out. The big question was, Would she spill the beans to her biological grandmother? Or would she simply play along in the housekeeper role and discover these things for herself? She wondered what her father would recommend, but, of course, she knew. He would be quick to quote something like “Honesty is the best policy.” And under normal circumstances she would agree with him completely. But this was anything but normal.
Esther Daniels cursed as she attempted to shove herself up from the low-seated chair where she'd fallen asleep in the living room. She wondered why she bothered to put up with these blasted wingback chairs anymore. It wasn't as if they were comfortable. And at her age she should be sitting in a recliner, maybe even one with vibrating massage or a heater or one of those lift-seat contraptions she'd seen on television commercials. Oh, sure, they were ugly as sin, but they did the trick, didn't they? Who cared about looks at her age? She looked around her impeccably decorated living room and rolled her eyes. “Hang those decorators, anyway!” she muttered as she finally managed to prop her crutches beneath her arms and steady herself. “What do they know about comfort?”
She'd been speaking to herself more and more as the years passed. At first she'd questioned this odd behavior a bit, but after a while she'd decided it was better than the lonely silence that always prevailed in the large, empty
house. Besides, what did she care if some people thought she was batty? Let them live all by themselves in a big old house and see how they liked it. Oh, she'd considered selling her home several times, but at the last moment she'd always reneged. Perhaps it was a matter of pride, or maybe it was just plain old laziness, but Esther had decided to remain here until her last days. They'd have to carry her out feet first.
“What about checking out some of those nice retirement homes?” Jimmy had suggested to her just recently.
“You're not putting me in some old folks home,” she'd told him. “Not as long as I'm able to walk and talk and breathe.”
Of course, it wasn't long after she'd spoken those words that she'd slipped on her patio and sprained her right ankle. But even if she couldn't walk, she could still talk and breathe, and she had absolutely no intention of being locked up in one of those smelly old folks homes like she'd taken her own mother to live in. Of course, her mother had been without funds at the time and her choices limited. Esther had told herself that she was doing the poor old woman a favor. Now she wasn't too sure. But there was no going back. Only forward. And the prospects of that weren't terribly encouraging.
“Growing old is for the birds,” she said as she opened her large double-wide refrigerator and peered in. “Orange juice, one-percent milk, Fuji apples, cottage cheese . . .” She rattled off the contents as if she were reading a menu, then picked up the cottage cheese carton and shook her head. That obtuse Felicity! Wouldn't she know by now to get the low-fat kind? Was she trying to give her mother-in-law
a heart attack? Esther put the carton back into the refrigerator and slammed the door. “Maybe I'm not hungry after all.”
Just then the phone rang, causing her to jump. “Who could that be?” she grumbled as she hobbled over to answer the wall phone next to the granite-covered breakfast bar.
“Hello?” she said, more of a growl than a greeting.
“Hello, Jimmy. Did you know that harebrained wife of yours got me the wrong kind of cottage cheese again? I think she's just doing this to spite me. I have half a mind toâ”
“Oh, that's probably my fault,” Jimmy said. “I don't like the low-fat kind myself, and she probably got confused.”
“Well.” Not for the first time she wondered why he was protecting that woman. Furthermore, she wondered what exactly it was about that woman that had attracted him in the first place. Esther had always considered her stepson to be a fairly sensible young man. Well, until he'd gone and married that flibbertigibbet. Oh, she wasn't blind; she could admit that Felicity was beautiful and could occasionally even be charming. But most of the time Esther thought the young woman's head was just stuffed with fluff.
“I wanted to check and see how you were doing, Mom,” Jimmy said. “Can we get you anything? Felicity and I got a sitter and are going to a Christmas party tonight, but we could stop by and bring you something first.”
“I don't need anything,” she said sharply. “Well, other than some low-fat cottage cheese, that is.”
“We'll drop some by.”
“Oh, don't bother.” She sighed. “Don't go to the trouble.”
“It's no trouble, Mom. The party is near your house anyway.”
“Whose party is it?” Suddenly she felt interested. She remembered the days when she'd been invited to the best university parties. Back when James was alive.
“It's at the Stanleys',” Jimmy said.
“Oh,” Esther said in a flat voice. “Well, they aren't so terribly smart. Don't even know how they can afford a home over here in the first place.”
“They're nice people, Mom.”
“So say you.”
She heard him sigh over the phone and knew that was the signal that his patience was wearing thin. Well, what did it matter to her? Her patience was worn thin too. And, besides that, he was the one who had called her.
“Anything else you need?”
“No,” she snapped. “As a matter of fact, I don't need anything. Don't bother yourselves to stop byâ”
“It's no bother, Mom.”
“No, no . . . ,” she said, regretting that she was using such a sharp tone on Jimmy. Sometimes she wondered what made her so cranky and mean. “Don't bother yourselves with me, Jimmy. I'll have my girl go out and get me whatever I need tomorrow.”
“Yes. I've hired a housekeeper.”
“A housekeeper? Are you sure about this?”
“Of course I'm sure. Good grief, Jimmy, do you think I'm going senile on you? Or getting Alzheimer's? Or just
plain decrepit and helpless? I've hired a girl, and I will be perfectly fine. Please tell Felicity there's no need for her to stop by anymore.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay. Fine, Mom. Just let us know if you need anything, will you?”
“If I need anything, I'll have my girl go get it for me.”
“All right. Then have a good evening, Mom.”
She laughed in her customary way. It was her way of showing that someone had said something completely ludicrous. “Oh, sure, Jimmy. I'll have a wonderful evening. Thank you so very much!” Then she hung up the phone with a loud bang.
Oh, she knew she was a mean old crow, and sometimes she even regretted it. But she'd spent most of her life acting gracious and courteous and niceâthe way the wife of an important man should act. But things had changed. She was old and alone now. Why continue the act? Besides, she told herself as she hobbled back to the refrigerator, if a person couldn't get ornery when she was old, what was the use of getting on in years?
She stood before the open refrigerator, peering in to see the exact same contents as before. Finally she took an apple, stuck it into the pocket of her oversize sweater, and tottered off toward her bedroom, turning off the lights as she went. No sense wasting electricity. She was careful not to catch her crutch on edges of the Oriental rug that ran down the length of the hardwood floor. Another fall could be her undoing.
She turned on the bedroom light to reveal tall walls of
pale blue and ivory. The striped wallpaper had an elegant moirÃ© pattern that had been popular during the eighties. Along the walls stood a few pieces of gleaming cherry furniture, all very expensive and all in the Queen Anne style, including her king-size four-poster bed. It was centered between two tall windows, and beneath it was a large Persian rug in shades of blue and ivory. Some might think the room overly formal and cool, but it suited Esther. Or so she liked to tell herself. She occasionally considered changing the ivory satin bedspread to something a little softer and cozier, but somehow she never got around to it.
She removed the apple from her pocket and set it on the bedside table, then struggled to balance herself on one foot as she attempted to remove her clothing without toppling over. Finally she gave up and climbed into bed still half dressed. She turned off the light and waited in the darkness for sleep to come and rescue her. Sleep and dreams seemed her only respite from this ongoing endurance race called life. Sometimes, especially lately, she wondered why she even bothered to participate at all. What was there to live for, anyway? Her doctor had prescribed some powerful pain pills when she'd sprained her ankle, but she'd taken only a couple, and those on the first day. She thought the rest might come in handy some other day. She just wasn't sure which day that would be. She considered taking one now, but at the moment she was simply too exhausted to climb out of bed and get them. Like so many other things in her life, it would have to wait.
Christine pushed the doorbell again. It was ten minutes after eight, and, as she recalled, Mrs. Daniels (she couldn't bring herself to call her Grandmother, not even in her mind) had said not to arrive before eight. She hadn't specified exactly when to come, or maybe Christine had been too flustered to listen correctly. But 8:10 seemed a safe time to show up for her “job.” During her twenty-minute walk across campus, on her way to Mrs. Daniels's home, she had attempted to convince herself that was all this was. A job. Suddenly she wasn't so sure.
The door opened a crack. “Who is it?” demanded a voice that sounded like Mrs. Daniels's, only huskier than before.
Christine peered through the two-inch crack. “It's me, Christine Bradley,” she said. “Your . . . your housekeeper.”