By Marie Anderson
Griff and Gannon tiptoed to the sparkling Christmas tree in their dad’s family room. Behind the tree, early morning darkness pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows.
The boys crouched in front of the tree. Ganny reached for the largest present. It was wrapped in a pattern of Santa heads. Across the heads, someone had printed in black ink: To Griffin and Gannon, Love from Dad, Francesca, and Baby Guinevere.
“You can’t open it yet,” Griff said. He shivered. The size and shape of the present reminded him of his sister’s coffin. She’d been born too early, on Christmas Day five years ago. Ganny, of course, wouldn’t remember. He’d only been two years old.
Ganny frowned. “One present for us? Where’s the stuff from Santa?”Griff shrugged. Ten years old, he knew Santa was fake. But Ganny was only seven. Their dad should’ve put Santa gifts under the tree. He wondered if their dad was even home. He’d left for work right after their mother had dropped them off early yesterday morning, and he’d still been gone when they went to bed last night.
Behind them, the floor creaked. Ganny froze. “Santa! Is it Santa? I can’t look!”
The boys turned around. But it wasn’t Santa who filled the doorway to the family room.
“You’re up early,” Francesca said.
Their stepmother shuffled into the room. Her green eyes bulged out at them over a cup the size of a softball. A big white bow, lumpy as cauliflower, sprouted from her dirt-black hair.
Griff hated cauliflower.
“Good morning,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Griffin.” Francesca looked at Ganny. “Merry Christmas, Gannon.”
“Back at ya,” Ganny said.
Griff bit his tongue – a trick his mother had taught him – so he wouldn’t laugh.
Francesca shook her head and sighed.
Griff watched her waddle to the rocking chair. She still looked fat, he thought, even though her baby had been born a long time ago, right after Halloween. He watched her sink heavily into the rocker and slurp from her cup.
Ganny laughed. “You got spit up all over your mouth!”
Griff bit his tongue again. The foam from her drink coated her fat lips, and it did look like spit up.
He let himself smile.
“Shush,” Francesca said as Ganny continued to laugh. “You’ll wake your sister. And your dad.” She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her robe and looked at the clock on the fireplace mantel.
“Thirty more minutes, and then it will be OK to wake Guinevere. Schedules are very important to babies. Not even Christmas should interfere. Your sister needs her sleep. Your dad, too.”
“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, too quietly for Francesca to hear.
“Mmm,” Francesca said, rocking and sipping. This cappuccino is blissful, just blissful. You know, boys, it was my mommy who sent me the cappuccino machine for Christmas this year. She can’t wait to meet your baby sister.”
“You’re too old to say mommy,” Ganny said.
Francesca’s face turned red.
“Ganny!” Griff pinched his brother’s arm. They’d promised their mother that they’d be polite while they stayed at their dad’s. “She’s not too old at all!” Then, before he could stop himself, he blurted what he’d heard their mother say. “She’s closer in age to me than she is to Dad!”
The red on Francesca’s face spilled to her neck.
“Is your mommy coming today?” Griff asked. Asking questions, he knew, was a good way to distract grownups from getting mad.
“No! She’s not!” Francesca’s thick black eyebrows plunged practically to her nose. “And I said mommy because you boys are still at the mommy age. I was using a kid word because I’m talking to kids!”
She sipped her drink. Her face returned to its normal milky color. Goose bumps pricked Griff’s arms. He didn’t think she would yell again, but with grownups, it was hard to know. At least since his parents’ divorce, the yelling had mostly stopped.
And he didn’t really mind Francesca so much. He’d hated That Other One, the one his dad had almost married before Francesca. That One had been prettier than Francesca, but she’d almost killed Ganny. Ganny had been rushed to the hospital after eating the white powder he’d found in her purse.
“The little shit shouldn’t have been digging in my purse!” That One had yelled.
“You don’t bring your little shit into my house when my boys are here!” their dad had yelled back.
“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “volunteers with Global Samaritans, and she spends Christmas with poor families. She’s been so busy helping the poor families in Guatemala that she hasn’t had a chance to meet your sister yet.”
“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered, a little louder this time.
“Stop punching buttons, you idiot,” Griff whispered.
Francesca sighed. “However, when I was your age, boys, my mother always spent Christmas with me. Because that’s what good moms do.”
Griff had nothing to say to that. Even Ganny stayed silent. A few days ago, their parents had argued about their mom working again on Christmas. Griff had listened on the extension. It had something to do with Grace. His dad had said the f-word, and his mom had cried.
“My mother,” Francesca was saying, “helped me make most of those ornaments on the tree. When your sister’s older, I’ll teach her how to make ornaments like my mother taught me. And that window?” She pointed to a stained glass window over the couch. “My mother and I worked on that together when I was about your age, Griffin. We won first prize for it at our club’s art fair. Your dad had it installed last month. It’s what I wanted for Christmas, having it put up in our family room. I like looking at it when I rock your sister.”
“It’s very nice, Griff said, though he hadn’t noticed the stained glass window until now.
“Where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.
Francesca stopped rocking. She cleared her throat. “You’re going to love what’s in that big present under the tree. It came all the way from Italy! I looked through a lot of catalogs and on-line sites before I found the perfect gift for you boys.”
“But where’s the stuff Santa brung?” Ganny asked.
Francesca looked at Griff. “Your dad said you boys knew.”
Griff bit his lip. He was in fourth grade. Of course, he knew.
“Knew what?” Ganny asked.
Francesca coughed. “Well.” She looked at Griff. Red splotched her cheeks like a rash.
“Santa’s bringing stuff to our real house,” Griff said. “Not here, because that wouldn’t be fair to kids who only have one house.”
“That’s right!” Francesca smiled at Griff.
He looked away without smiling back.
“I wanna’ go home now!” Ganny shouted.
Francesca flinched and shushed.
“Mom’s not even home, you idiot,” Griff said. “She’s working a double shift at the hospital, remember?”
“You’re the idiot!” Ganny yelled.
“Boys! Stop!” Francesca pressed her hands over her palpitating heart. “No name calling! Doesn’t your mother teach you better?”
She rubbed her left eye to calm the eyelid’s twitching. Off saving the world, their mother was, big shot emergency room doctor, too busy to take care of business in her own backyard. Foisting her kids on Francesca, a new mother with a borderline colicky baby. Lily had sent nothing when Guinevere was born, not even a card. Nothing to acknowledge that her sons now had a sister. Of course it was sad that Lily’s own daughter had been born too early. But really, Lily had pushed for a third child for the wrong reason: to try to heal an ailing marriage, is how Gary had once explained it to Francesca.
Francesca knew how dumb that was. Francesca hadn’t been enough to save her parents’ marriage. They’d divorced when she was two years old.
Francesca still had the note – in her jewelry box – that her mother had tucked into the gift she’d given Francesca for her 16th birthday: Pregnancy may land a man, but a child won’t keep him. The gift was a box of birth control pills.
It was a hard truth Francesca would impart to her own daughter when the time came. Good mothers told hard truths. And a good mother would have sent a gift for her sons’ new baby sister. Francesca’s mother had sent a $500 gift card from Nordstrom. It was in Francesca’s jewelry box. She and her mother would shop Nordstrom together for baby clothes. Her mother had promised a visit in spring.
Francesca felt tears prick her eyes. Spring was so far away. She felt a surge of sympathy for her stepsons. Of course they wanted their mom.
“I wanna go home now!” Ganny yelled. He scrambled behind the tree.
“Get him out from there!” Francesca cried. The sympathy she’d been feeling exploded into irritation. “He’ll tip the tree!”
Francesca gasped as Griff went after his brother. “Boys! Careful!”
Gary padded into the room, yawning and rubbing his bald head.
“Hey, what’s all this splendid commotion?” he asked, just as the tree began to shudder. He rushed to steady it, and the boys tumbled out.
“Merry Christmas, boys!” Gary shouted.
“Shush!” Griff and Francesca warned simultaneously.
“Yeah, shush up, Dad!” Ganny shrieked.
From upstairs, baby’s cries exploded.
“Oh!” Francesca shivered. Tears welled.
Gary patted her shoulder. “Aw, Kitten,” he said. “I’ll go do the diaper and bottle business. You just relax. Get yourself another coffee.”
Francesca looked at the clock on the mantel. “OK, but she’s not due for a bottle for another fifteen minutes. So could you just change her? And be sure to use the cloth diapers, OK?”
She looked at the boys. Gannon’s nose was dripping, and his eyes were wet.
“Wipe your nose, Gannon,” she said.
He ignored her, and looked at Gary. “Can I help you, Daddy?”
“No!” Francesca said. “Just stay put, boys.”
“Wipe your nose, sport,” Gary said. “Stay put, OK?”
“Please,” Francesca said to the boys. “Wait. Until. We’re. All. Ready.”
By the time everyone was ready, the tree, though still lit, no longer sparkled. Sunlight blazed through the windows behind the tree, spotlighting dust motes which swirled like nervous bugs in the beams of light. The tree no longer looked magical, Francesca thought. Just desperate, like an old woman wearing too much makeup. Like she found herself looking every time she glanced in a mirror.
She felt worn out. Old. She was old. A quarter of a century.
Something icy filled her throat. Guinevere’s little body, blessedly still for the moment, warmed her lap, but every other part of Francesca felt cold. She shivered. Was she getting sick?
“Smile, Kitten!” Gary was pointing the camera at her. She smiled.
Ganny pulled the big package from under the tree.
“It’s heavy!” he exclaimed.
Griff tried to lift it. It was heavy! Excitement tickled his stomach.
The boys tore off the ribbons and wrapping.
They stared at the present: a black suitcase on wheels.
“Wipe off those frowns, guys, and open it up,” Gary said. “I’m sure you’ll love whatever’s inside.”
They unzipped the case, flipped back the top. Inside were two rows of shiny balls, red ones and blue ones, each about the size of a baseball, and one smaller white ball. The letters GGG were painted on each colored ball. Their last name was painted on the white ball.
Ganny tried to lift the hard clear plastic which covered the balls, but thick staples held it fast. “What the heck?” he said. The boys looked at their dad, who was scratching his head.
“It’s a bocce ball set,” Francesca said. “The three Gs on the colored balls are for Griffin, Gannon, and Guinevere. The small white ball is called the pallino.”
“Thank you,” Griff said. “It’s very nice.” He thought of Grace, his real baby sister. Even though she was dead, he decided the third G would be for Grace.
“Dad, can you get the plastic off?” Ganny asked.
“Oh, Gary,” Francesca said. “I think we should leave that for when they get back to their own home. I’d hate for any of the balls to get misplaced here.”
“But we got nothing to play with now!” Ganny shrieked.
“Well,” Gary said. “Maybe we can—.”
“Boys,” Francesca interrupted. “This is an authentic set. Hand-polished in Italy. The balls are solid cherry, so they’re not to be left out when you’re not using them. You’ll have fun playing with it in your yard this summer. Gary, maybe you can suggest to Lily that she get a little bocce court put in for them.”
“I wanna’ play with it now!” Ganny whined.
Francesca shook her head. “It’s an outside game. And you don’t know the rules yet.”
“Dad!” Ganny cried. “So what are we gonna’ do now?”
Gary shrugged. “It’s an outside game, sport.”
“And we gotta’ get ready for church anyway,” Griff said.
Francesca smiled at Griff. He looked away without smiling back.
After church, Francesca served dinner. Miraculously, Guinevere slept. The boys pushed their eggplant lasagna around on their plates and ignored the peas.
“I want tacos,” Ganny said.
Francesca frowned. “Well, in this house, we don’t eat anything with eyes.”
“Well, these peas look like your eyes.” Ganny shoved a spoonful into his mouth. “Gross!” He spat the peas back on his plate.
Griff felt his stomach twist. He watched Francesca’s hands clench into fists on either side of her plate. She looked at his dad.
“Gannon!” His dad shook his head. “That was rude, sport. Apologize to your stepmother.”
Griff could tell Ganny was biting his tongue. Please don’t stick it out, he thought.
“Sorry,” Ganny mumbled. He coughed. “Stepmother.”
Francesca’s mouth trembled.
Griff shoved a chunk of the eggplant lasagna into his mouth and forced himself to swallow it. “Tastes great!” he exclaimed.
Francesca’s wet eyes landed on him. A smile dented her face.
He looked down at his plate.
For a moment, no one spoke.
“I’ve got rounds to make pretty soon,” their dad said. “And the surgical res asked if I could cover for him because of some family emergency.”
Francesca sighed. “I should probably nap while Guinevere is down.” Again her wet green eyes landed on Griff.
“We can just watch TV ’til Mom comes to get us,” Griff said.
After their dad left for the hospital, Griff packed his and Ganny’s duffel bags and put them by the front door. Francesca wheeled the bocce set next to their bags.
“OK, guys. The TV is all yours. Just keep the door to the family room closed, so then the TV won’t wake your sister, but keep the sound low, OK?”
“Half-sister,” Ganny muttered.
Francesca handed a cell phone to Griff. Your dad asked your mom to call when she gets here. I don’t want her ringing the doorbell and waking me or your sister.”
“Half-sister,” Ganny said loudly, but Francesca had already left the room.
They watched a Sponge Bob cartoon for a while. They sat on the floor close to the TV. At home, they each had a bean bag chair for watching TV. Their dad had promised he’d have bean bag chairs for them here, too. But there were no bean bag chairs.
“I’m bored,” Ganny said. He went to the front door and wheeled the bocce set back into the family room. He took a fork from the dining room hutch and used it to pry off the staples, bending one of the prongs.
Griff slid the ruined fork under the couch.
For a while, they rolled the balls around the room.
“This is boring,” Ganny said.
They began pitching balls to each other.
A red ball slammed into photos on top of the piano. Wedding photos toppled into baby photos. A wild pitch just missed the TV screen.
Ganny raced to field a high pop up. He crashed into an end table. A lamp fell.
Griff zoomed for a line drive. He tripped over the rocking chair and fell into the tree. The tree shuddered and tipped. Ornaments fell. They propped the tree against the glass wall.
Griff jumped on the couch to catch a high fly ball just as the cell phone in his pocket rang. Distracted, he missed the ball. It slammed into the stained glass window over the couch. He heard a crack.
“Hi Mom,” Griff said into the phone. “We’re ready. We just have to pick up some stuff. We’ll be right out.”
The door to the family room banged open. Francesca’s eyes swept over the room. They froze on the stained glass window behind Griff’s head. “You cracked it?” Her voice shook.
Ganny ran and squeezed himself into the little space between the propped tree and the glass wall. Griff looked at the stained glass window. The crack was thin and curved like a spider’s leg. He jumped off the couch. “We’re sorry!” he said. “We’ll pick everything up.” His muscles tensed, waiting for Francesca to explode.
For a moment, all Griff could hear was his own breath and the clock ticking on the fireplace mantel.
Then, her mouth opened. But all that came out was a whisper. “My mom and I won first prize for that window.”
She hunched her shoulders and began lifting photos off the floor.
Ganny emerged from behind the tree. The brothers looked at each other. They began working in silence, righting the lamp, pillows, returning bocce balls to the case.
When Francesca tried to right the tree, the boys helped. The three of them managed to restore it back to its upright position.
Ganny stepped on an ornament on the floor, crunching it underfoot.
From Francesca came a soft sound, like a kitten’s mewl.
Outside a car horn blared.
“That’s Mom!” Griff exclaimed. “She’ll wake the baby!”
And sure enough, Guinevere began to shriek.
Francesca shuddered. She flung back her head, gripped her hair between both hands, and howled.
Griff stumbled back. Ganny covered his ears. “Stop stop stop!” he cried.
The baby’s shrieks burned through the room. Francesca screamed, “Shut up, Guinevere! Just! Shut! Up!”
She collapsed into the rocking chair. Tears spilled. “I can’t do this. I’m so tired. So cold.” She bowed her head and began to rock, violently, back and forth.
Guinevere continued to cry, piercing, shuddering sobs.
Griff whispered to Ganny and left the room, closing the door behind him.
The baby continued to cry. Francesca closed her eyes and covered her ears.
After a while, Francesca realized the baby’s cries were easing. Suddenly, as though someone had turned off a radio, the cries stopped.
Francesca opened her eyes. She watched Gannon. He was picking ornaments off the floor and putting them back on the tree. He wasn’t doing it right. He was adding too many ornaments to the same low branches.
He looked at the tree. “I didn’t mean those peas looked like your eyes. They just look like eyes is what I meant. Anyone’s eyes. Should I get you blanket?”
“Are you still cold? Should I get you a blanket?”
The door to the family room opened. Griff stood in the doorway. His mother, Lily, stood behind him. She was cradling Guinevere like a football in one arm, and propping a bottle in the baby’s mouth with her other hand. On Guinevere’s head was knitted pink hat Francesca didn’t recognize. Francesca had knitted most of Guinevere’s hats, sweaters and socks too.
“She’s beautiful,” Lily said. “And what a marvelous set of lungs!” She stepped into the room.
Francesca stared at the hat. Nothing went on her daughter that Francesca didn’t first wash.
“Griff told me they’d made a mess in here,” Lily said. “And cracked your beautiful window. I’ll get it fixed. Anyway, I thought the least I could do now was get Guinevere changed and fed for you. I found bottles in your fridge. I warmed one.”
“She wasn’t due for a bottle yet,” Francesca said. “I’m trying to keep her on a schedule.”
Lily nodded. She eased the bottle from Guinevere’s mouth and handed it to Griff.
“She drank it all!” Griff exclaimed.
Lily lifted Guinevere to her shoulder and patted her back. A loud burp from the baby made the boys laugh. Despite her anger, Francesca smiled. Then she frowned. “That hat? Where’d it come from?”
Lily stepped closer. “I didn’t know if it would fit. But it fits perfectly. I knitted it . . .a while ago.”
Francesca felt dizzy. Had Lily knit the hat for her own baby girl? A sudden insight, sharp and painful, clicked inside her: Guinevere only existed because Grace did not.
“The hat, I’d thought I’d never finish it. There are heart shapes knit into the hat, and you had to follow the pattern perfectly to make the hearts. I kept making mistakes and had to start over.”
“In knitting, there’s no such thing as mistakes,” Francesca heard herself say. “That’s what my mother always said when I’d drop a stitch or purl when I should have knitted. A mistake, she’d say, is just the way a knitter personalizes her work.”
Lily nodded. “That’s a good philosophy. I wish I’d applied it to my own parenting when Griff was born. I was so by the book with him, I was driving myself crazy. Then when Ganny came along, I was too tired and overwhelmed to even remember schedules and rules.”
Francesca felt blood heat her face. What was Lily implying? That Francesca was too by the book?
“But,” Lily continued, “I’ve got a rule-follower and a rule-breaker. So maybe I reaped what I sowed.”
Francesca looked at the boys who were now sitting on the floor near the TV. The rule follower. The rule breaker. Which one would her daughter be? Which one was ultimately better to be? Which one would Grace have been?
Lily lowered her face to the baby nestled in her arms. She breathed deeply. “I’d forgotten how good a baby smells.”
Francesca stood. The rocker nudged her knees, pushing her a step toward Lily. Lily looked tired. Purple stained the pouches under her eyes. Her brown hair looked dusty. But Guinevere, nestled against Lily, was gloriously quiet, content.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Francesca heard herself ask Lily. “Maybe some cappuccino?”
While Lily rocked the baby, Francesca made cappuccino. She popped a big bowl of popcorn. She led the boys to the basement and let them bring up the two bean bag chairs Gary had bought without even asking her first.
The boys sat in the bean bag chairs and watched Nickelodeon, the sound low, the popcorn between them on the floor.
Francesca lay under a comforter on the couch. From half-opened eyes, she watched Lily rock Guinevere. She watched Lily’s fingers trace the heart shapes on Guinevere’s hat. The hat was adorable. Maybe she’d ask Lily for the pattern.
Francesca felt her stomach tighten. Was it Grace’s hat? Had Grace ever worn it? Oh! The three Gs on the bocce balls. What an idiot she was. An insensitive idiot. Well, she would tell the boys that the third G was for both their sisters.
She looked at the boys cradled in the bean bag chairs. The chairs clashed with the décor, but Francesca had to admit that with the boys sitting in them, the chairs somehow looked right.
Griff suddenly turned and looked at her. She smiled, and when, this time, shockingly, he actually smiled back, she felt something bright and fierce sweep through her, swift, soft bristles scrubbing her clean.
Was it gladness? Grace?
The evening pressed darker and darker against the windows behind the tree. The lights on the tree began to pop out. Brighter and brighter they glowed, so that, even after Francesca closed her eyes, she could feel their heat warming her skin.
Marie Anderson is a mother of three in La Grange, IL. During the school year, she helps supervise (and “entertain”) 500 grade school children during their lunch recess. She is the founder/facilitator of her local library’s writing group, now in its 7th robust year. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications.