Oskar came home to an empty house. The boxes of Christmas decorations sat unopened by the bay window in the front room. The cookie recipes and all the necessary ingredients sat untouched on the kitchen counter. He grabbed a beer, took it to his recliner, and turned on the news. It was strange not to hear clattering dishes and pans while his wife prepared dinner. Dinner! Oskar looked over to the kitchen, as if expecting to see a fully cooked meal waiting. There was nothing…of course…but he and the kids would get through this.
The old Chevy rattled northward through Iowa. Twisting and untwisting her gloves, Claire stared ahead at the stretch of highway cutting through brown farm fields. No snow. No Mom. Some Christmas this would be. "Ryan, slow down!”
“It’s fine. I’m in control.”
“I think the safest one should drive, not the oldest,” Claire said.
“You could’ve gone to a different college,” Ryan retorted.
“What if Dad makes us eat lutefisk?”
“He mentions it every Christmas. Now’s his chance.”
“It’s a joke. He’s probably never tasted it.”
“It’s his family’s tradition.”
“Do we know that? We’ve never been there for Christmas.”
“Probably because of the lutefisk.”
“Well, if Dad wants it, he’ll have to make it. Never gonna happen.”
A text came in. “Dad wants us to pick up McDonald’s,” Claire said.
“Phew! No lutefisk tonight, at least.”
“Ryan, slow down!” Claire texted to Dad, Sure…unless Ryan gets us killed.
They made it alive. Claire’s heart should have been swelling with the warmth and magic of her first Christmas homecoming, the one all her siblings had received. Mom always had everything ready: the Christmas village with cotton snow and figurines shopping, caroling, and skating on the mirror pond; the fireplace glowing; the Nativity set on the mantle; the lit-up tree waiting to be decorated… But Mom was gone.
“We’re hoooooome!” Ryan announced, dropping his suitcase in the entryway. Holding up dinner for Dad to see, he headed for the kitchen, leaving blobs of brown slush in his wake. Mom wasn’t there to tell him to remove his boots. “Let’s eat; I’m starving. When’re Molly and Jack coming?”
“Jack got home yesterday,” Dad said. “He’s out with friends. Molly flies in tomorrow.”
Claire took in the dismal scene. The house dark except for the TV in the family room and the moonlight through the living room’s bay window. Shadowy hulks of unopened boxes. The fireplace black.
Ryan flipped on lights, and Dad saw Claire’s expression. “What’s wrong?”
Without a word, Claire kicked off her boots and dragged her suitcase thumping up the stairs. Dad and Ryan heard her bedroom door slam.
“Boy problems?” Dad asked.
Ryan shrugged. “Christmas homecomings are supposed to be special…story-like.”
“Oh… That was Mom’s job.”
The girls’ bedroom was cold. Mom would’ve put extra blankets out. Claire plopped down on the rug and cried. Dad knocked and called to her. She didn’t answer. Later she snuck to the linen closet for blankets -- two each for her and Molly, then went to bed. It would be a hard Christmas.
A car pulled in at Northern Escape Resort. One person stepped out. Odd for this season, Max and Barbara thought when the woman checked in. This should be a time for togetherness. But it wasn’t their place to ask questions.
Large flakes fell gently through the tall pines. Lights shone from a few of the cabin windows, including Kelly’s. Warmth greeted her: a fire crackling, a small Christmas tree in the corner, berried garland on the rafters. And Kelly hadn’t had to do any of it. She texted Oskar, Arrived safely. She paused, then added, Love you! It was true, even if it didn’t look that way now.
A rosy-cheeked boy arrived at her door with a covered tray. “Hello! I’m Joseph, Max and Barbara’s son. Here’s your pre-ordered dinner, home-cooked in our kitchen.”
Kelly laughed. “Thank you!”
Joseph smiled, bowed, and tramped off through the snow.
Kelly poured a glass of the complimentary wine and ate at the coffee table in front of the fireplace. A basket of individually wrapped Christmas cookies was there for her to enjoy with no more effort than it took to unwrap them. A handmade card welcomed her to the family-owned resort and wished her a lovely time.
After dinner, Kelly sat in front of the fire in her fuzzy slippers, with a cup of eggnog and White Christmas on the DVD player. No interruptions, no teasing her for watching it every year, just…peace. Afterward she went straight to bed, not needing to take care of a million little things first, not worrying about when to get up to start Christmas eve preparations. The mattress was soft, the blankets snuggly, the pillows fluffy. Bliss.
Gone to get Molly from the airport. Back by ten, the note from Dad said. Claire’s brothers were still sleeping. She wanted Mom’s pancakes, Mom’s good-morning hug, her special coffee, her listening ear. Claire had a thought: maybe she could make pancakes! She’d helped Mom many times…sort of. She pulled out the cookbook, skimmed the recipe, and changed her mind. She ate cold cereal to no other sound than her own chewing, no other sight than the unopened boxes, McDonald’s wrappers on the table, and dead grass outside.
Kelly emerged from sleep warm and cozy. Sunshine peeked around the edges of the blinds and…what was that sound? She went to look. What a sight! The sky was blue, the snow dazzling, and the waves of Lake Superior pushed giant shards of ice onto the rocks, where they stacked, some pointing their sharp edges upward, some slipping over others back into the water. Kelly watched for a long time. She didn’t shower, but stayed in her flannel PJ’s to drink peppermint-cream coffee, eat the cinnamon roll she’d bought on her drive up, and gaze at the lake through the picture window.
Barbara came with a load of firewood. “Good morning, Kelly! I’m here to pick up your dinner tray and make a fire for you.”
“You’re so kind!” Kelly exclaimed. “I’ll make the fire. I love doing that.” And there’ll be no one telling me I’m doing it wrong. “Doesn’t your staff do this?”
“Oh, there aren’t too many demands now. We only have two other families and you.” Her eyes betrayed an inquiring glance. “The staff only work a half-day today, and have tomorrow off. Once we get dinners out to those who’ve ordered them, we’ll celebrate our own Christmas Eve.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Kelly said. “You deserve a break.”
“We will, to be sure. There’ll be caroling later, with hot cocoa and cookies. Eight o’clock if you’d like to come.”
“I love caroling! And my family-” Kelly stopped short. “I’ll be there!”
Claire heard the garage door open and leapt up to welcome Molly. I should have put up decorations! she thought suddenly. Too late. Well, at least Molly would find extra blankets on her bed.
After the sisters hugged each other, Molly took appraisal of the house. “Really, Dad? The tree isn’t even up?”
“That’s always been Mom’s job,” Dad said sheepishly.
Molly put on her trademark long-suffering expression. She was one of those people who could run the whole world if she chose, but she had neither the time nor the patience. If she chose, she was also capable of transforming the house into a Christmas wonderland in less time than Claire would take to decide whether to start with the garland or the village.
Claire looked to her older sister hopefully. “Should we decorate?”
Molly sniffed. “Can it wait ten minutes? I’ve been up since five.”
“Okay,” Claire replied timidly.
“The guys should help,” Molly added.
“Oh…are you going to wake them up?”
Molly sighed. “Can’t you do that, Claire?”
Waking the boys didn’t go well. Ryan promised he’d be down in fifteen minutes. Jack threw his pillow at her. “I’ll be there when I get there. Get out.”
“Nice to see you, too,” Claire retorted on her way out7.
“Hey, give me my pillow back,” Jack yelled.
Claire threw it hard, hitting the lamp instead of Jack, then slammed the door. She stopped to collect herself before going back down. Molly lay curled on the couch, eyes closed. Dad had disappeared, likely to his basement office. Claire decided to take a long shower, perfectly comfortable with the thought that there’d be no hot water left for her brothers.
Kelly had signed up for the snowshoeing expedition from the main lodge. She checked her phone before leaving, and the screen saver flashed her family. She did love them, but this was needed. Her biggest worry was Claire, the sensitive one, the romantic one…the clueless one…less so than the others, though. Claire’s heart was in the right place. This would be good for her, too...wouldn’t it? Oskar had texted, “I love you, too. Enjoy!” Kelly swallowed the lump in her throat and went out.
Max, Joseph, and two other children were helping fit guests with snowshoes.
“Where’s your mom?” Kelly asked, feeling a pang of guilt. Was it because of people like her that Barbara faced a more stressful Christmas than Kelly had ever endured?
“She’s working on dinner,” Max answered.
“All by herself?” Kelly’s voice rose involuntarily.
“She and our other three kids,” Max said. “We’ll do clean-up. We trade off.”
Now Kelly was impressed. “Everyone does it willingly?”
“We can’t run a business if we don’t work together,” Joseph piped in.
The snowshoeing was invigorating, the air crisp, the scenery stunning. Kelly enjoyed it with her whole being. Back at her cabin, she filled the whirlpool with hot, soapy water and sank happily into it. Her thoughts turned to her family. She’d call later to say Merry Christmas.
Molly had gotten the crew -- except for Jack -- into some semblance of action. Dad and Ryan worked on the tree, she and Claire on the village. A white tablecloth with pink embroidered flowers had to suffice for snow; Dad forgot to pick up the cotton.
The garland was still in its box. “Jack’s doing that,” Molly insisted.
Jack was showering after a late, unhurried breakfast. When he finally reappeared, Molly barked out the order.
“Because it won’t be Christmas without garland,” Jack said melodramatically. “Mom didn’t have to do so much. She chose to make it hard on herself.”
“Jack, do the garland,” Molly said, then added an empty threat, “or no dinner.”
“What is for dinner?” Ryan asked.
Dad looked up in surprise. “Um...turkey.”
“Doesn’t that take a while to cook?” Ryan said.
“Turkey is for Christmas day,” Claire said. “Tonight’s supposed to be wild rice soup.”
Dad wilted under the gazes of his four children. Finally he said, “That’s always been Mom’s job.”
Kelly had been warned cell coverage was poor up here. She tried calling home, then texting, but neither worked. Guilt and homesickness hit. She should be home putting the final touches on Christmas Eve dinner.
Then she reminded herself how she usually felt by this time at home: exhausted, stressed, resentful. Oskar would be snoozing in the recliner, having exerted himself enough to bring in firewood. He’d wake up to protest if Kelly turned the TV off, go back to snoring. Molly would help if asked, but only grudgingly, mentioning the long, hard hours her job required. Jack would stroll in late after hanging out with friends, and exude boredom throughout the meal. Ryan was always cheerful, cracking jokes and keeping everyone laughing, but somehow managed to sidle out of helping much. Claire would try, but she was slow, couldn’t talk and work at the same time, and was easily distracted by romantic thoughts and wanting to sing every Christmas song she knew.
Yes, this is needed, Kelly reassured herself. For too many years she’d tried to get her husband and children to do more. They never understood why she got so crabby, didn’t appreciate the work she put into making Christmas perfect. Jack would say, “You don’t have to do all this. You put it on yourself.” To him, that was reason enough not to help. Let them have it without me, Kelly told herself. We’ll see how they like it. If five adults can’t manage Christmas without my help, then that’s on them.
Back in her PJ’s and slippers, she put in A Christmas Carol to watch while relishing in the provided feast that was generous enough to feed her tomorrow, too.
Jack searched haphazardly through the boxes, paying no attention to labels, his loud music blaring un-Christmassy songs. He yelled, “Mom didn’t even make soup before abandoning us?”
Dad’s face lit up. “She told me where to buy it.”
“It’s four o’clock on Christmas Eve. Is anything open?”
Dad looked helplessly back at him, but then his expression changed to determination. “I’ll get dinner. You kids keep decorating, and get the turkey out of the freezer to thaw for tomorrow.”
“A turkey needs three days in the fridge, Dad,” Molly said.
“Oh, well…” Dad stuttered.
“Yeah, we know.” Ryan’s eyes twinkled. “That’s always been Mom’s job.”
“So,” Claire whimpered, “no turkey, no stuffing, no mashed potatoes and gravy. What about cookies?” She went resolutely to the recipes on the kitchen counter. Courage failed her. She threw them down.
Disgusted, Jack said, “It’ll still be Christmas, Claire.”
“I’ll find cookies,” Dad promised desperately, “and dinner.”
“Not lutefisk, please!” Ryan cried dramatically. Dad chuckled; Claire forced a smile; Molly and Jack paid no attention.
Kelly hummed along with the music as the credits rolled and Tiny Tim walked with Scrooge through the snowy London street. Licking her fudgy fingers, Kelly spied Oskar’s gift under the tree. He’d snuck it into her suitcase. “I’ll open it now.” Her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged it to herself. She hadn’t expected anything. This trip was supposed to be her present. She tried to call, then text. Nothing.
She built a fire, put in Miracle on 34th Street, and snuggled under her new blanket. “I love you, Oskar,” she whispered.
The decorating was done, aside from the candles, which Jack insisted were unnecessary. He went so far as to sit on the box when Claire tried to get at them.
Dad returned triumphantly, announcing, “Tomorrow’s dinner: turkey breast from the deli, mashed potatoes, gravy. They were out of stuffing, though. Sorry.”
“Couldn’t you have picked up the ingredients for it?” Molly demanded.
Dad was crestfallen, but Ryan said, “It’s perfect. We’ll do Stovetop.” Claire made a face, but Ryan kept his smile. “Thanks, Dad!”
“What about cookies?” Claire pouted. “And what’s for dinner tonight?”
Dad’s eyes twinkled. “It’s in the car. Upstairs, all of you, and dress for dinner.”
“Why?” Jack cried. “Mom’s not here.”
“Fine,” Dad growled. “Go hide in your rooms, then. Wrap your presents…if it occurred to you to buy any. I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
It was lutefisk. “It’s a new takeout place,” Dad beamed. “I got there just in time.”
Claire stared at the pale, gelatinous fish on her plate, fighting back tears. “Isn’t lye poisonous?”
“It’s soaked in water to wash off the lye,” Dad said.
“It stinks,” Jack said.
“I refuse to eat this,” Molly declared.
“If you butter it well, it’s good,” Dad said.
Ryan drowned his in butter, then bravely took a bite. The smile stayed frozen on his face, but he ate no more.
Dad mm’d and ahh’d through three mouthfuls before setting his fork down. “This is disgusting. Let’s do frozen pizza.”
Claire cried herself to sleep that night. Molly lay angrily awake for a long time. Jack, too, lay with his eyes open, finally admitting to himself that it hadn’t felt right, and maybe there was something to making Christmas special. Ryan’s smile went out with the lights. He missed Mom, and hoped she would never do this again. For his part, he’d do what he could to prevent it.
On New Year’s Eve day, Kelly headed home. Rested and refreshed, invigorated by daily outdoor excursions, and renewed by all the beauty the North Shore had to offer, she was ready to embrace her family, curious to hear how things had gone.
When she pulled into the garage three hours later, she didn’t get out right away. Would they welcome her with open arms…or angry glares?
Oskar came out smiling and went to the trunk for Kelly’s luggage. She stepped out apprehensively. “I tried to call and text, but coverage was terrible.”
He kissed her. “Welcome home, Honey.”
Kelly grabbed the rest of her belongings and followed Oskar inside. The fragrance of turkey filled the house. Christmas music played softly, the fireplace glowed, and all the Christmas lights were on. The children, unaware Mom had arrived, continued working in the kitchen. Oskar didn’t allow much time for greetings. He shooed Kelly upstairs, telling her not to come down until she was properly dressed for dinner.
The family sat around the candlelit table.
“Jack ironed the tablecloth!” Claire pronounced.
Holding up a ribbon-tied scroll, Oskar signaled for silence. “Before we partake, the children and I hereby present you with our agreed-upon New Year’s resolutions. We, the husband and children of Kelly Bortnem, resolve from this day forward to contribute inasmuch as we are able to making Christmas enjoyable for everyone. We therefore promise to assist in housecleaning, decorating, meal preparation, cleanup, and any other tasks deemed necessary by the CEO.” He nodded in Kelly’s direction. “Recognizing the importance of keeping tradition, beauty, and meaningfulness alive, we pledge to do so without complaint, argument, or mockery. Last, but by no means least, I -- Oskar -- promise to never again even hint at the proposition of dining on lutefisk.”
“Here, here!” the kids cheered.
“Everyone raise your glasses,” Oskar said.
The whole Bortnem family shouted, “Happy New Year!”