I hated Mother's sheer drapes and sterile echo-sized rooms; no life touched them. Mother had inherited the house, and enough money to rule every action under its roof. My father had a master's degree in chemistry, but he rarely stayed sober. He worked for a clerical service. Sometimes. I forgot those times, as best I could, but slivers of memory sliced through me when I least expected them.
I told my husband, Thom, about that life, even the miscarriage I had on the Oriental rug when I was sixteen. Andy, the father, was the first guy to pay attention to me, with my truck-tire-thick glasses and angled nose that belonged in my geometry book. I knew Andy used me, all along, but didn't care. At least he didn't call me Hairy Mary Rose, with the haphazard, frizzy curls that belonged on a stuffed gorilla.
Mother told me to rise above taunts. She just never showed me how.
My drunken father delivered a dead boy fetus in my fifth month. Didn't remember anything about it four hours later. My mother expected me to pay for carpet cleaning.
I could never understand how Mother could spout at me, "Thou shalt not," while my father stumbled into the house smelling like a Jack Daniels' distillery. And all she ever gave him was what she called, "the silent treatment."
I left my family without looking back, and moved out with a friend after high school graduation in 1995. I lived on peanut butter and day-old bread, worked full-time long enough to get tuition reimbursement, then got a job as an X-ray technician. In time, I went back to school and earned a position as department supervisor.
That's where I met Thomas Hampton, a manager in the lab at the hospital. His wit won me over, although not everyone appreciated his humor. At lunch one day we were complaining about items in the cafeteria that had fancy names. "Beware of the South Pacific Burger," Thom said. "The sauce came from a ship lost at sea during World War II." He decided we should instigate a pathology lab day menu: melanoma melon; pylori pie; gram negative crackers, guaiac guacamole.
Three people at our table offered their desserts. I accepted one of them, a huge slice of cantaloupe. Thom grinned and asked me out, said he admired a woman with a strong stomach. We married, had a church ceremony, hired hall, live band made up of four nephews. Big party, all his family. Two years later we had a son of our own.
So, when Thom sauntered into the nursery waving an invitation as if it were from the White House, and the big-time invite came from my parents, I looked at him as if he'd stepped out of another time zone. I had Kendall on the changing table. He whimpered, and I realized I'd taped his diaper to his navel.
"Sorry, buddy," I said. I slung our son over my shoulder and faced my husband. "Are you out of your mind? Drive 150 miles to Illinois with an eight-month-old baby? In December? Snow, black ice?"
"Big bash with a Christmas surprise, Rose. See." He handed me the colorful invitation. Gaudy, nothing like something I would expect from my mother, with bells and diapered cherubs, red and white ribbon. Diapered cherubs? The absence of a Virgin Mary seemed strange. My mother wanted me to be Mary, my mother's version: no fear, no questions, no self-doubt, and sealed in piety within the security of a holy card. I dropped the Mary from my identity. She only signed checks and legal documents.
"Bash" did not sound like a word my mother would use. But, I couldn't imagine change in my parents' lives, a metamorphosis of stone into water. Unlikely at best.
I dropped the paper to the floor and found sanity in the mural Thom's sister had painted on Kendall's bedroom wall: a giraffe mother and son eating leaves off a tree that reached from the corner to the space above our baby's clean white bed. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll paint another when he outgrows it." Thom's sister, my baby sitter, my best friend.
Thom grabbed the invitation off the floor.
"No," I said, repeatedly, my mind set on my current life. But, I yielded. Thom's mother convinced me. Something to do with forgiveness. But how could she know unless Thom blabbed things he had no right to tell? I was livid until I realized my mother-in-law knew my past, and loved me anyway.
Then, I cried and fell into Thom's arms, sorry for myself. How could I miss Christmas with his four brothers, three sisters, the entire extended family? Any Hampton occasion warranted a party: a child's first lost tooth, a new compost pile. But, Christmas? Not that gifts filled the halls. They were small, often homemade and family-designed. But music, laughter, noise, even spills warranted remembering.
Moreover, this would be Kendall's first Christmas.
The one-hundred-fifty-six mile trip promised to be as difficult as I imagined, not in ice or frozen cornfields, but memories. They bit through me, and Thom, my life partner, understood nothing of the alternating fire, ache and chill that ate through me. Kendall sensed my irritation and whined, even when he wasn't wet, tired or hungry.
"Sweetheart?" Thom said, as we approached my parents' street, then paused as he gripped and loosened his hands on the steering wheel in an uncommon nervous gesture. "I've watched you when you comb your hair at the mirror and frown, like you don't see anything good in your own reflection. Nothing like your smile when you dress Kendall. Or kiss me. Or your open expression with new personnel at work, or when you calm a frightened woman who has come in for a repeated mammogram. I've seen it, and I only wander through X-ray once in a while. "Rose, I've been thinking about this for a long time. I want you to see the beauty other people see in you, heal your past. And that's why I confess this is a set-up."
We pulled up to my parents' house surrounded by a street full of cars. A huge sign in the yard read, "Happy First Christmas, Kendall."
My heart raced as I considered not going in until I saw someone unexpected dart behind the closed sheer curtains. My best friend.
"Darn you, sis," I heard Thom murmur. "You were supposed to hide."
The voices of the entire Hampton clan met us as my father opened the door. "Hi, Merry Christmas," he said. His hair had turned stark white. He stood erect. "Come in already." He smiled at Kendall, but let the baby cling to me. "By the way, big boy," he said. "Your daddy tells me that my sobriety date and your birthday happen to be on the same day. Lots of celebration in order. Lots of amends, too."
My mother stepped next to him. "From me, as well." She looked older, grayer, and a bit more stooped. "Welcome home." She smiled, yet two streams of wet slipped along either side of her nose.
Kendall touched his baby finger on my cheek, then hesitating, he reached out and touched my mother's damp skin, as if puzzled by grown-up faces, with miniature rivers that looked so much alike.