On Christmas morning, Brenda was busy playing with her new toys in the living room, remarking that she needed a cradle and a buggy for the baby doll.
Hannah worked in the kitchen at preparing a sweet potato casserole for later that day. The whole family would be gathering at her parents’ house that afternoon for the main meal, and the kids would be spoiled by all the aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
“We should try to stop by to see your mother afterward,” Hannah suggested to Edward as he sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee in one hand and his nose buried in the paper.
“That’s a lot for one day. Make it tomorrow.”
Hannah frowned. “But your mother hasn’t been well these past several months. My family shouldn’t take priority.”
“You have a family, darling,” Edward cut in, lowering the paper, his tone bitter. “My mother is not in her right mind anymore. I have you and Brenda. That’s all I need. You, on the other hand, have siblings and both parents.”
“Do you ever wonder what happened to your father?” Hannah asked, knowing it was a touchy topic.
Edward set the paper down and scowled. “Did I ever tell you the story about the one time I saw him when I was a kid?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’d have remembered something like that.”
“I was eight or nine. It was the middle of winter, frigid cold, wind blowing around me like crazy. All I wanted was to get home. Mother and I were walking back to the house after a school program one evening. We were living with her parents again at the time. We were always moving around until she remarried. Anyway, as we walked past the park, there on the bench by the sidewalk was a homeless man, a bottle of booze held in one dangling hand. He was snoring, although probably passed out from the alcohol. ‘That’s your father,’ she told me. All I could do was stare at him. I didn’t feel anything. He was a stranger. It wasn’t until I had time to really think about it that I resented him for leaving my mother, for being a damned coward. I knew I never wanted to know him.”
Hannah took the seat adjacent to Edward and took his hand. His eyes met hers. “How come you never told me this?” she asked, her brow creased in concern.
“I didn’t want to burden you. What good would it do? Does knowing change anything?”
“I think it’s terrible, but it’s also incredibly sad… sad for you, sad for your mother, and sad for him.”
“You pity him?” Edward asked incredulously.
Hannah considered this. “Yes, I suppose I do. His alcoholism was stronger than his need to be a husband and a father. It trapped him and ruled him. That’s no life. When I think about how alcohol affected Harry, I know it changed him for the worse. He went from being the fun-loving brother I’d always known to a bitter man. Of course, he used his jokes to hide a lot. It took him years to sort out his life.”
“Yeah, I remember how angry you were at him.”
“And to think that was the first time you met him.” Hannah smiled slightly.
“Your family was supportive and welcoming, though, and Harry straightened his life out. That had to have taken a lot of willpower. That’s more than my father ever did.”
“True. Harry says the temptation to drink is always with him, but he stays away from it. Seeing his wife and children reminds him daily of what and who he’d be hurting if he allowed his addiction to take control. I guess I just hold out hope that your father might have regretted his choices, but he’d been too afraid to come to terms with them.”
“You have a softer heart than I do,” Edward conceded, “but that’s one of the things I love about you.”
Hannah was about to reply when they were interrupted by Brenda running into the kitchen.
“Hurry, Mommy and Daddy! The baby has a cold! She needs to go to the doctor!”
Hannah and Edward exchanged amused glances and couldn’t help but chuckle. Brenda placed her hands on her hips and glared at them.
“This is a very serious business,” she said sternly.
After the baby doll’s health was restored, the family packed up the car and headed over to Ma and Pa’s house. Upon arriving, they parked on the street in front of the small dwelling. Edward took the gifts while Hannah carried the casserole, still piping hot from the oven. Brenda proudly clasped her new doll to her chest, remarking the whole time that she couldn’t wait to show it to her grandparents.
“We must be the last ones to get here,” Edward said as they walked up the car-filled driveway.
“So it would seem,” Hannah replied, eager to get inside where it was warm.
Before they even reached the front door, Ma was standing there, holding it open. She was wearing one of her floral aprons, covered in flour. The pattern clashed with the red dress she had on underneath.
“Hurry, hurry,” she said, beckoning them in. “We don’t want all the warm air getting out.”
Hannah kissed her mother on the cheek and went to the kitchen, setting the casserole on the table. She instantly noticed the plethora of dishes covering every square inch of every surface.
“Ma, don’t tell me you went through all the hassle to make all this,” Hannah gently admonished.
Ma shrugged, her stern face softening, the wrinkles around her mouth and eyes creasing deeper as she smiled.
“Ah, what’s the good of having family over for Christmas dinner if you can’t go all out,” she said. “I saved up all year for this.”
“And I could’ve helped if you’d let me,” Hannah said, raising an eyebrow. When her eyes fell on the dessert, her interest was piqued. “What kind of cake is this, Ma?”
“It’s called red velvet cake,” Ma explained.
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t. I’ve done my best to keep everything the way it’s always been for Christmas dinner, but this war, well, it affects everything. The ladies at church in the quilting club introduced me to this new recipe that calls for red food coloring instead of cocoa. So, there you have it: red velvet cake. Seems fitting for the holidays. I just have to frost it.”
“I’m sure it will be delicious, like everything you make, Ma. Do you want me to frost it for you?”
Ma waved her daughter away. “No, dear. Go visit with the rest of the family.”
Hannah’s younger sister entered the room. She was still living at home, now a young lady of twenty-one, and engaged to a young man in the service.
Hannah smiled and turned to Irma, hugging her sister and asking, “Have you heard from Ross lately?”
“Oh, yes,” Irma said with enthusiasm. “Do you want to see the letter? You know, he promised me we’d marry as soon as the war was over and he mentions it every time.”
Hannah nodded, following Irma up the steps to their old bedroom, passing the living room, where Brenda and her cousins were the entertainment for all gathered. When they reached the top of the stairs, the women took the first right and entered the girls’ bedroom. Despite Hannah having moved out and Amy having passed, two single beds and a desk were still nestled in the room.
Irma went to the nightstand and opened the drawer. Hannah glimpsed a pile of letters, among a couple of books and other papers. Hannah took her place on the bed and took the proffered letter, reading Ross’s first-hand account of the war in the South Pacific. She smiled when she reached the end, which contained his promise to marry Irma as soon as they were reunited.
Hannah passed the letter back to Irma, who promptly folded it and stowed it away.
“How are you holding up?” Hannah asked.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Irma said softly, her eyes also drifting to the spot where Amy’s bed used to be.
“Can you believe how long it’s been since she left us?” Hannah asked, subdued.
Irma fidgeted with her hands, locking and unlocking her fingers as her eyes fell to her lap. “It’s sad, but I feel like I didn’t really get a chance to know her properly, not as an adult, anyway,” Irma reflected. “She was always so much older than me. Of course, everyone is so much older than me.” She shrugged, forcing a laugh. “I’m happy for you, Harry, and Erik, but I admit- I’m longing for the day Ross returns, and we can finally start a family of our own.”
Hannah shrugged. “You’re still so young, Irma. You have your whole life ahead of you. This war can’t last forever. Our country’s boys will be home soon. Maybe 1944 will be the year it finally happens.”
The sisters returned to the rest of the family, Irma with a renewed sense of hope. That Christmas Day passed with all the merriment and wonder the season inspired. Long into the night, after the children had fallen asleep upstairs, laughter and the clinking of glasses could still be heard through the windows, and a warm glow emanated beyond the walls of the little house into the still, quiet world.
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