Evie allowed herself one more inhale of the comforting scent emanating from her three month old daughter before she left the solace to face the Christmas music. This holiday would be the worst yet, and not only because of the reasons that so many others were complaining about. While it was true that most bad things these days seemed to come in C’s--cancer and Covid--for Evie, Christmas also belonged on her list because it was a day she had to see her cousin, Caroline. And for Evie, Caroline definitely was the worst of the aforementioned C’s.
It had all started. . .Well, that was part of the problem, actually. Evie didn’t know exactly why it had started. Caroline’s incessant, oppressive criticism of her had just always been part of Evie’s life. Maybe it was jealousy. After all, up until this year, Evie’s life had been quite ideal. But, even so, she could never be absolutely sure it was jealousy, and without that assurance, she couldn’t find any real peace regarding the situation. And while Caroline had always hounded Evie, this year Evie had inadvertently thrown her cousin a big juicy bone complete with a red bow--one that Caroline would gnaw on until everyone around could hear the satisfying sound of the bone cracking between her jaws. Nineteen year old Evie had gotten pregnant after her first one night stand and was mother to baby Miriam, who she now so gently placed in the crib.
Evie leaned back up, balancing her hands on the crib railing and sighed deeply. She was a disappointment, and she knew it. Oh, no one had said it directly to her, but more had been expected, and she had fallen short of those expectations. Her parents were supportive, but also determined that she should try to maintain her independence as much as possible. Hence the small apartment she now inhabited, so noticeably smaller than the entire upstairs that had always been hers at home.
Evie knew her life would now consist of always pushing upwards, proving her worth. It was as if she had been at the top of the ladder, and every rung, including the one on which she stood, suddenly gave way beneath her and she was back at the bottom. Babies didn’t even start at the bottom. Evie knew that now that she had one of her own. They were adored and started halfway up the ladder. Or maybe they were at the top from the beginning, slid down a few with minor adolescent mistakes, but eventually gained their footing again. As she turned to leave the room and make her way toward the computer, Evie reminded herself that today was the day she began rebuilding, the day she began climbing again. One rung at a time.
It was all so carefully arranged. The family couldn’t gather at Grand’s house this year for their annual tree decorating, so Evie’s mother had suggested they do a video chat while Grand and Uncle Harold, who was retired and never went anywhere, decorated the tree and unveiled the ornaments family members had mailed to be added to the collection. It was a new way to keep the old tradition alive, just one of so many “new” things this year.
Grand loved the tree that filled the corner of her living room and just barely missed grazing the ceiling; she reveled in placing the old ornaments, some of which had graced the tree since Evie’s dad and Uncle Harold were children. But Grand took just as much pleasure in exclaiming over the newest selections her family had chosen for the tree and listened intently as each family shared their story for the ornament they had selected. Evie had always participated with her parents, but this year, she and Miriam would count as their own individual family. Some sins could be forgiven by heaven, but not by family, even at Christmastime. Especially not by Caroline.
When she had recovered enough from Miriam’s birth to begin, Evie pored over websites in search of the most beautiful, meaningful ornament she could find while still being mindful of her meager budget that mainly consisted of money saved from birthdays. It was fortunate she had never been a big spender back when it didn’t matter. Her parents made sure she and Miriam had the basics, but their generosity did not extend much beyond that.
Evie’s heart had thudded as soon as she saw it--a penny ornament with wings. She knew her Grand believed wholeheartedly in the pennies from heaven stories and, much to the family’s surprise, had even found a few shiny coins in unlikely places since Evie’s grandfather had passed a few months ago after a long battle with cancer. Grand would love this ornament; it was a winner for sure. Evie had felt a moment of peace when she clicked “Place Order”.
And now Evie would be able to see Grand open the carefully chosen ornament and place it on the tree. Everyone would be reminded of Evie’s thoughtfulness, her goodness.
As she clicked on the computer, she felt a sense of relief that the video chat was taking place during Miriam’s nap time. She refused to subject her daughter to Caroline’s haughty glances, even if they were virtual ones. While she hated the virus as much as anyone, it had given her shelter from her family, from their disappointment and disapproval and from most of Caroline’s barbed remarks about her downfall. The few friends she had spoken with had tread carefully around the subject of her cousin, but one had let slip, out of anger, that Caroline made mention of Evie and her “promiscuous behavior” to whomever would listen.
Evie took a deep breath as she moved the cursor to join the meeting, and moments later, she saw the faces of her family fill the screen. Her parents sat a bit too far back from the computer while Gran was too close. Only the bottom of her nose and her mouth were visible, and Evie could see where her lipstick had bled a bit through the liner. Uncle Harold was explaining to Gran she needed to watch herself in the little box in order to position herself correctly, but Gran waved him away.
Uncle David and Aunt Amanda, Caroline’s parents, sat quietly, observing the commotion. Aunt Amanda, as usual, looked mortified as if something had again slipped beyond her control and brought a shower of embarrassment down around her. She always wore the same expression. Evie wondered if her aunt had emerged that way, embarrassed even to have troubled the doctors bringing her into the world. Maybe that’s why Caroline was always so defensive. Who knew when something would drop from the sky to embarrass her beyond what she could bear?
Evie sneaked a glance at her cousin, who sat primly, perfectly centered in her box. She was at her parents’ home, but had clearly decided to use her own computer. Evie felt the old familiar nerves return. What darts would Caroline throw today?
“Well!” Grand began, smiling and leaning in, a little too closely, toward the screen. “Whose ornament should I open first?”
Caroline spoke immediately. “Open mine, Grand. I know you’ll love it.”
Grand obliged, selecting and then cracking open the box to reveal a simple glass church. She smiled. “This looks familiar.”
Caroline’s return smile was smug. “It’s to replace the one that got broken that year. I think it was when Evie was singing into that fake microphone, remember? She bumped the table and, well, we all know what happened next.” She tilted her head to the side and sighed. “I always loved that ornament.”
Evie couldn’t swear to it, but she thought she saw Grand’s mouth tighten a bit with Caroline’s reminiscence. She spoke without smiling. “Thank you, Caroline. It’s beautiful.” She placed the ornament on the tree, right below an exquisite, hand painted dove that held an olive branch.
Evie took a deep breath. “Open mine next, Grand. I hope it’ll make you happy this Christmas.”
“Of course, Evie. I’m excited to see what you’ve selected, especially since this is your first Christmas doing this on your own.”
Evie had splurged a bit and had the ornament delivered in a white box embossed with holly and dotted with glittery gold.
“This box is lovely, Evie.” Grand removed the lid and reached in. “Now to see what's inside.”
What Grand pulled out of the box, however, was the last thing Evie expected to see. Dangling from her grandmother’s fingers was a small, green replica of a man’s genitals. The view online was too small for Evie to know for sure, but there must have been a button Grand touched because, suddenly, the ornament lit up, flashing ostentatiously in her Grand’s surprised face.
Evie glanced quickly at each member on the screen: her parents wore pained expressions, Uncle David cleared his throat, Aunt Amanda continued to look mortified, but at least now had a reason. Caroline shook her head and grimaced. “Nice one, Evie,” she said loudly.
“Mom--” Evie’s dad began.
“Grand, that’s not what--” Evie said simultaneously.
“Everyone be quiet for just a moment.” Grand, surprisingly, had still not averted her eyes from the manhood that swung slightly in front of her face. “Very lifelike,” she mused.
Evie dropped her head in her hands. “I typed in penny,” she said to no one in particular.
But then she heard the only sound that could have fixed the situation, that could have redeemed her in this moment in some way. Grand was laughing. Not just a chuckle, but the full-bellied, throaty laugh that Evie hadn’t heard since her grandfather passed, since the baby came.
“Yes,” Grand finally spoke through her laughter. “It certainly reminds me of your grandfather. The size is just a little off.” The ornament continued its incessant pulsing of light as Grand placed it near the top of the tree, directly in the front.
“Thank you, Evie. I know that’s not the ornament you meant to send, but, as I hope this family realizes, sometimes our biggest blessings are not the ones we planned on. Speaking of blessings, how much longer will it be before my gorgeous great-granddaughter is up from her nap?"