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Friday, December 09, 2005
Here's a short story I wrote about three years ago that I feature at BellaOnline Short Stories. It's called "Christmas Cider."
he scent of cinnamon greeted Cindra as she escaped the blustery wind of the December night. Just inside the door, she paused for a moment to let the heat of the room settle inside her body and chase away the chill. From the kitchen, sounds stirred – a drawer opened and shut, a spoon clattered against a metal pot, the old refrigerator hummed as the current flowed through it. Familiar sounds, a tantalizing smell, all remembered affectionately. Granddear was making her special hot cider for Christmas Eve night tonight. Cindra had arrived earlier than usual. In a few hours, the family would sit around the tree where they would laugh, talk, drink cider and eventually welcome in the Christmas morn. But she would always remain an outsider.
It was hard coming here, feeling that the others still blamed her for what happened. And yet, of all the places she could be, this was where she wanted to be most, especially at Christmas. This was the one place she would always call home.
Cindra closed her eyes, imagined the sweet tang of cider on her tongue, could almost feel it sliding hot and spicy down her throat. She opened her eyes on the familiar scene of the room. The same white tree stood between the window and fireplace, just as it had done these many years. And it wouldn’t be Granddear’s tree if it wasn’t adorned with red and gold tinsel, interspersed with small, delicate ornaments dangling from the branches. Beneath, festively wrapped packages waited to be opened. The gifts for the great-grandkids (or as Granddear liked to call them, “my babies twice removed”) were done up in Santa wrapping, as always. The other packages depicting scenes from the first Christmas - Mary holding the Christ child, the solemn Magi, the shepherds looking up at the Star of Bethlehem - were for the older folks, the “grown babies.”
Cindra looked up at the mantle. Generations of photos smiled back at her, greeted her again. Mannie; Joe, Jr.; Crystal...Mama, Daddy...they were all there. As were Trey and Loren, Joe’s kids; and Danielle, Crystal’s daughter... The pictures were testaments to time’s rapid pace. Danielle had been around six when that photo was taken. Now she was already going on sixteen. Or maybe the child was older. Cindra couldn’t quite remember; time had a way of getting away from her.
Then there were her own pictures, the last one taken over a decade ago. She had been thirty, the second child, the oldest girl. Cindra approached that last picture, examining the self she had once been. The face that stared back hadn’t started to show the signs of her then-nascent dependency. She had been too careful to cover up the lines and the after-binge shadows with make-up, hoping the others wouldn’t notice. And for a while, they hadn’t. When eventually they did find out, when she was no longer able to hide the slurred words, the irrational behavior, their bitter disappointment and sense of betrayal had gnawed at her, only accelerating the downward spiral.
But for now, she wanted to do away with those ghosts. Right now, she just wanted to let the past stay in the nether regions of her mind. She wanted to enjoy Christmas.
She loved Christmas in this house. Always had. Once seemingly unbearable burdens never felt as onerous whenever she stood in this room. This place had been a haven to her, a place to escape the pains and disappointments she had known throughout her life. As always, it drew her back, and always at the same time.
She followed the smell and the sounds. Cutting through the dining room, she imagined the long table as it would look tomorrow night, laden with a sausage-stuffed turkey and glazed ham, plates full of greens and yams, macaroni, and one tureen piled with steaming chitterlings the way Joe, Jr. liked. Only Granddad had liked them once, but after he died, Joe seemed to think it was his duty to carry on the tradition. There would be the lemon-pineapple cake, sweet potato pies...
Granddear was at the stove, stirring the cider in the big old copper pot. At first, Cindra thought she didn’t see her standing there, but then Granddear looked up with a smile.
“You’re early, Cindie. How long you been here?” Granddear set down the spoon, wiped her hands on her apron with the words “Jesus, bless this kitchen” embroidered on it. Even at 82, her hair was still black, with only strands of grey in places, mostly at her temples. Her brown skin was grooved with well-earned wrinkles. Her smile was even and white, thanks mostly to Fixodent. She had been using that for years now.
“I just got here, Gran. I couldn’t wait.”
Granddear nodded her head. “You never were one for waiting. How many times did I catch you trying to open up your presents two days early?”
Cindra laughed. “But you always let me anyway. I always felt special because of that. Mama thought you were going to spoil me rotten.”
“Oh, you were always spoiled, but hardly rotten. Sometimes, it’s good to let kids get away with a little something. Keeps them outta bigger trouble.”
Cindra lost her smile, and her grandmother let hers go, too, both remembering. Her grandmother had always had a “gift” of sorts, had always been able to see what others could not. Had appreciated Cindra in a way that others hadn’t. Which was why their relationship had survived the years. Why she always came back here.
“It’s time to put that behind you, Cindra. You been carrying that pain around much too long.”
But Cindra couldn’t forget that at one time she had been so lost. The family had even tricked her into an intervention once, but she had been bullheaded and had fought them all the way. And then that horrible night, the snow, the car... But she hadn’t been drinking, not that night, because it was Christmas Eve night. It hadn’t been her fault. Still, there were regrets she couldn’t take back. And just too many to think about. She could never let go of the thought that they still blamed her somehow.
“Joe Jr. and his brood are due in in another hour,” her grandmother said as she picked up the spoon again to stir the cider. “Hope this snow don’t delay their flight. Crystal got in last night, but Danielle’s not coming. Said she wanted to be with her father this time.”
Cindra nodded. It must be hard on the child, trying to keep two embittered parents happy without appearing to play favorites.
Standing there, Cindra felt the familiar words coming on, words she was compelled to say every time, as though a script had been written for her. “You know Gran, I never meant…you know, that night…no matter what everybody thought…it was an accident.”
Her grandmother nodded, her concentration seemingly on the cider which looked about ready. But Cindra knew that her grandmother was forming her own words, her own script never wavering.
“It’s good to tell me, Cind, but you’re the one who needs to hear it. You got to forgive yourself or you’ll never move on from here.” Then the woman looked up, “But until then, you know you’re always welcome.”
Cindra grabbed hold to those words, grateful. “Thanks so much Gran for inviting me.”
“Always, child. Always. But one day, Cind, you’re going to have to find your way home. It’s about time you did.”
Cindra pondered the notion of a better place than her grandmother’s house, which still pulled at her even these ten or more years since she had been gone. She couldn’t fathom that eternity could offer her the warmth and love she had found here during her life. Especially not at Christmas time.
Later that night, she stood quietly, watching her family, listening to their laughter. In her silent corner, Cindra smiled, looking at the ones she still loved, but who could never see her. Except for Granddear, who even now slipped her a warm smile before taking a sip from her steaming cup of cider.
S. L. Cullars, 2002
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