Introduction by Kirstin Valdez Quade
As a greedy reader, who often wants more, more, more, I take a particular pleasure in the linked collection—over the course of the stories, we get to watch characters grow up and behave differently in different contexts, and we get to see those characters through the eyes of others.
Cara Blue Adams’ You Never Get It Back is a witty and surefooted linked collection that follows Kate as she navigates early adulthood, friendship, and romantic love. There is a sparking intelligence in these stories and a wonderful ease and authority in the voice. I am struck by the range in these pieces: the stories toggle between the first and third person, between realism and fabulist fiction, between short-shorts and more traditional full-length stories. Adams’ language is controlled and spare in one breath, and then a sentence later becomes lush and lovely.
In “Charity,” one of my favorite stories, Kate returns home after her first semester at Williams to her single mother and nine-year-old sister. I am a sucker for a dysfunctional family holiday, and this one delivers. Trouble emerges immediately when Kate’s mother announces that she knows what they’re going to give her critical mother and sisters for Christmas: “Nothing…They don’t deserve anything…They wouldn’t know what generosity was if it punched them in the face.”
Kate is alarmed, and for the rest of the story must run interference between her angry mother and her difficult relatives, all the while protecting the hopes of her irrepressible little sister. The situation is tense and hilarious and heartbreaking.
Adams captures the precarity of this family gathering: the determined festivity, the barbed ritual of gift-giving, the way tiny hurts swell and even kindness can sting. And running beneath every prickly interaction is the love these difficult people feel for one another. It’s a marvelous gift of a short story, sure to please even the greediest of readers.
– Kirstin Valdez Quade
Author of The Five Wounds
Everyone’s Christmas Present is Burning Resentment
“Charity” by Cara Blue Adams
I get home to Vermont from my first semester at Williams for winter break after a long, snowy ride on a Greyhound bus redolent of urine and the alcoholic tang of Wet Wipes to find my mother has had a brainstorm. She is amped up, the manic gleam of destruction in her eyes.
“I know what we’ll get everyone for Christmas,” she says.
She ashes her cigarette and pauses, looks at me. She is referring to her mother and three sisters, whom we mostly see on holidays. I sit patiently, trying to seem expectant. When she senses I can’t take it anymore, she tells me what our gift is going to be.
“Nothing,” she says.
We are sitting at the kitchen table. I am still wearing my wool coat, snow melting in the folds of the hood. Though it is five degrees outside and icicles hang from the eaves, my mother has opened the window to accommodate a fan, which faces away from us, whirring softly, blowing her smoke out of the house. I push my chair back, away from the cold air pocket by the window. My backpack hangs from my shoulder. I shrug it off, set it on the floor.
“Nothing?” I say.
I look at her and wait. There’s more to come, I can tell.
“They don’t deserve anything,” she says. “They wouldn’t know what generosity was if it punched them in the face.” She offers this up with a pleasure that tells me she’s been turning the phrase over and over in her mind until it’s acquired a high sheen.
“We can’t really give them nothing,” I say. “I mean, how would we wrap it?” I am kind of kidding, kind of not. For me, a lot of the joy in Christmas is in the wrapping. I love shiny stick-on bows and curling ribbons, tissue paper and cellophane, all the exuberant excess and waste.
“Well,” my mother concedes, “we won’t really give them nothing. What we’ll do is give money to charity in their names, and then we can write it in a card.”
She takes a drag on her cigarette and blows the smoke into the window fan.
“That’ll teach them,” she says. “That’ll show them what charity is.”
My mother’s plan is to write in the cards that we have donated more money to charity than we really have. She doesn’t want the relatives to think we’re cheap.
“Fifty dollars to the poor?” I say. “When did you give fifty dollars to the poor?”
“I put some canned pineapple in the donation box at Price Chopper,” she says. “You know, the Feed the Thousands one.”
“Fifty dollars’ worth?”
This is kind of true, if you look at it like we are the poor and whatever money my mother saves on presents, she can put toward the grocery bill. Still, I don’t want to sign my name to it. When my mother offers me the cards—sympathy cards from a pack of twelve she bought during the Gulf War, when she decided to write to everyone in town who was affected and realized too late she could only think of one person—I tell her she should write mine and Agnes’s names in for us. But she insists we each sign our own name, and, not wanting to disappoint her, I cave.
The cards are pretty: they show a tall stand of birch, silver bark striated and stripping off. Sitting down to sign four times, I see she has taped pieces of paper with “Happy Holidays” written in green felt-tipped pen over the black script sympathy message.
“Decorative, huh?” she asks as I examine her handiwork.
“Definitely,” I say. I write my name, Kate, under hers, fighting the urge to smudge the ink.
I copy out Agnes’s name on a napkin, along with holiday messages she dictates to me, and she sits down to sign the four cards. Agnes is nine. Though smart, she has dysgraphia and struggles with focus. I skipped two grades; she attended pre-first, an extra one. “It takes youngest children longer,” my mother always says. If forgiveness is not my mother’s strong suit, Agnes is the exception that proves the rule; about Agnes, my mother interprets everything with an almost artistic disregard for the facts. When a little boy with pointy eyeteeth named Pete killed the classroom hamster by dropping it in the toilet to see whether it could swim, inspired by Agnes’s assurances that this was the best way to learn, and, discovering the answer was no, rescued the poor thing too late, an accident that took place in kindergarten and left Agnes heartbroken and speaking wistfully about the fragility of life for weeks and her teacher permanently pissed, my mother said, “Agnes is an empiricist. She has a scientific mind.”
Agnes is wearing a leotard, though she has stopped ballet lessons, which we could never really afford, and she taps a ballet-slippered foot against the table as she works. Her hair, pulled back in a wispy French braid, has lost the honey brown streaks it acquires at the public pool each summer. It takes her an eternity to sign the cards, what with the frequent theatrical breaks to shake out her hands, more for my mother’s amusement than her own relief, but she gets it done.
“Perfect,” my mother says. “Absolutely beautiful.” Agnes beams.
“Let’s seal the deal,” my mother says, and lets Agnes lick the gluey rims of the envelopes. She loves the taste. If you leave her alone with an envelope, she’ll lick it until it’s useless. She licks each envelope carefully, smacking her lips in between.
“Once’ll do,” my mother cautions. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to get a papercut on your tongue.”
Agnes rolls her eyes. When my mother’s back is turned, she licks the final envelope twice.
My grandfather, who was an engineer, had an explosive temper. He made my grandmother very unhappy. She treated her daughters with a coldness that transmitted this unhappiness to my mother, who remains angry with her. When my mother was fourteen, my grandfather got transferred from Michigan to an engineering lab in New Jersey, and, as a teenager, she snuck into the city, cutting school and going to the Bronx botanical gardens and getting stoned with older boys, running off to Maine as soon as she turned eighteen. She became a hippie: no religion, only love. Before I was born, she lived in an abandoned house without running water deep in the woods outside Bangor, surviving on blueberries and fresh-dug clams and whatever the boyfriend who would become my father could buy with the money he made doing odd jobs. She barely ever called home.
It’s not much better now. My grandparents have divorced; they seem happier, but my mother does not. My grandmother comes in for all the blame, though I suspect she was not the worse parent, only the one more present.
“Your grandmother let a man pull out my tooth with pliers,” my mother likes to say. “Without anesthetics. She had to hold me down.” I once asked my Aunt Rosemary about this. She was noncommittal.
“Your mother tells it one way, my mother tells it another.”
“What’s Grammy’s way?”
“General anesthesia was too dangerous, so the dentist gave her Novocain.”
“You know,” she said, swirling her hand. “One of those thingies they use at the dentist’s.” She made a squeezing gesture, clamping a phantom instrument.
My mother snorted when I told her this. “I think I’d remember someone sticking needles in my mouth,” she said. “I think I know what pliers look like.”
This is just one of a list of hurts she remembers and feels acutely, one of many disappointments and sadnesses that have never lost their sting. To my way of thinking, the past is the past, and there’s not much you can do about it. For my mother, though, the past is the present, its pain still sharp, and there is no comfort to be found in the months and years that go by.
Three days before Christmas, I borrow the car and take Agnes to the movies. Afterward, we get pizza and sodas at Frankie’s Pizzeria, and I give her quarters to play the arcade games. She loves the racing game and plays until she gets nauseous.
While we wait for Agnes’s stomach to settle, I buy her a ginger ale. She sips it and breathes heavily through her mouth. Then she says she feels better, and we drive across town to Ames to do our shopping. The store has been in bankruptcy proceedings for months, so it always has good sales.
We are getting presents for the relatives, I have decided. My mother can’t really have meant that Agnes and I weren’t to buy them anything ourselves, could she? Of course she could; I know this, but I choose to believe otherwise because it would be too embarrassing to show up empty-handed. We pool our money: the hundred dollars I’ve saved from my work-study job in the lab, the twenty dollars my mother has given Agnes to buy me a present. We agree the presents will be from us both. Agnes hands over her share, all in rumpled ones. Then she asks for ten dollars back.
Agnes has an eye for the gaudy and the plentiful. She makes a case for buying everyone a ham-sized set of pink and purple seashell-shaped soaps packed in shrink-wrapped baskets of wood shavings. They reek of cheap perfume. She also likes cheap gold-plated charms shaped like angels.
“Snazzy,” Agnes says. It is her new favorite word. She holds a charm up to the fluorescent lights and the gold glitters.
I talk her into a compromise position: one thing each person might actually want, and the gold charms.
Picking out the other presents, I total the cost in my head, including tax, and when we pay, I am happy to find my math confirmed by the register. I have thirty dollars left, what I need to buy Agnes the Lego castle set she wants. “It’s got turrets,” my mother wrote on the list she transcribed.
But then, on our way out, a pair of earrings in the jewelry display case catches Agnes’s attention.
“Wait,” she says.
I have already walked through the security sensors, triggering the store alarm, which has just finished sounding. I walk back through to get Agnes, sounding the alarm again. The cashier glares at me, as though I’ve shoplifted and returned in order to make her do extra work. I shrug at her and join Agnes at the glass case.
“Those ones,” she says, pointing to a set of earrings on the display case’s top shelf. I crouch next to her. The earrings are shaped like elephants. Each elephant hangs in three pieces on a wire loop: in front, the head with its thick curved trunk; then the front half of the body, a heavy circle with two fat legs; then the back half, with the other two legs and a little tail poking off to the side. The saleswoman lifts the rack from the case, the hoops sway, and the elephants seem to walk.
Up close, you can see the detailing. Agnes points out the wrinkles carved into the elephants’ trunks, how the ends are notched. “Like real elephants,” she assures me, as though biological accuracy were the hallmark of a quality earring. She points out that elephants are our mother’s favorite—news to me, but quite possibly true—and that we have thirty dollars left. She points out that it’s Christmas.
I ask the saleswoman how much. “Twenty-five,” she says. “Plus tax.”
I tell Agnes that I haven’t done her shopping yet. They are nice elephants, but maybe next year. She gives me a look that says next year is bullshit. Okay, I say, maybe Mother’s Day.
“Thanks for showing us,” I tell the woman. She puts the earrings back in the display case, setting them swaying again.
Agnes stands there, chewing her lip.
“You could use my money,” she says, tentatively. She means the thirty dollars.
“Then I wouldn’t have a present for you, goose,” I say.
We leave the store. The alarm wails.
We’re almost to the car when Agnes says, “I want to go back.”
“Back where?” I ask.
“To get the elephants.”
I am cold and want to be in the heated car. I open the door.
“Hop in,” I say to Agnes. She stands in the middle of the parking lot. Her nose is reddened and wind-chapped. Her long brown hair, done in two pigtails, peeks from under her pink wool hat. “We’ll discuss this inside.”
“Use my thirty dollars,” she says. “Other people will get me presents.”
“Agnes, that’s sweet, but, really, we can’t,” I say. “Mom wouldn’t be happy if she knew.” This is true. She loves Agnes with a breathtaking ferocity. “What if we return the bird feeder we got her and buy the earrings instead?”
“No,” she says. This time it’s with conviction. “I want the elephants to be my present.”
So we buy them. At my request, the saleswoman puts them in a black velvet case for us, even though they usually come in a plain white box. Agnes strokes the velvet as I hand over the rest of our money.
On the way home, though she cannot possibly believe this anymore, Agnes says under her breath, as if reassuring herself she’s made the right decision, “Santa always brings the things I really want.”
What bothers my mother about her family, she says, isn’t that they have more money than we do and look down on us. It’s that they are greedy. Every year, Aunt Rosemary asks for an expensive German-made bread knife. Why she hasn’t bought it herself is a mystery; she loves to shop, and she spends a ton on seasonal decor, which my mother finds ridiculous. She hasn’t, though, and each year, she asks again. “I can hope, can’t I?” she says.
Having called to arrange plans for Christmas dinner, which we eat at Aunt Rosemary’s house, my mother hangs up and says, “That goddamn bread knife. She brought it up again.”
I remind my mother that Rosemary includes inexpensive items on her list too: kitchen gadgets, cheap gloves, paperback mysteries with identical breathless blurbs.
“Yes,” my mother says, “but we all know she doesn’t really want them.”
The rest of the family is, in my mother’s view, no better. Aunt Clare is rich, or what we consider rich, with her consultant husband and nice house in Massachusetts, which automatically makes her greedy. Aunt Ivy, a middle-school teacher, is friends with Rosemary and Clare, which makes her guilty by association. In my mother’s mind, my grandmother is greedy too, but more subtle about it. Every year, she insists that she doesn’t want anything for Christmas, and every year my mother says, “This year, she just might get it.” My mother thinks her mother’s self-renunciation is a greediness for piety, for superiority. It is a rebuke of my mother’s desires, small though they are, a rebuke of the very act of having them. It makes her furious.
I am not sure what upsets my mother more: when people want things from her, or when they don’t.
“What should Grammy do?” I ask. “Make up things she wants?” “Noooo,” my mother says, considering.
“Maybe she really doesn’t want anything.” “Maybe.”
“So why should she pretend to?”
“It’s not what she says, exactly,” she concludes. “It’s more the way she says it.”
The day before Christmas, I go back to Ames and use my credit card to charge the Lego set with the turrets. I have only used the credit card—really my mother’s, which has a five hundred dollar limit and is only for emergencies, and which I pay off myself—two times: once to buy a bus ticket home, and once when my paycheck was delayed because of a clerical error in the college payroll office and I worked late at the lab and missed dinner and had to buy a meal. I don’t like owing money. I’d rather go without than charge. But this is for Agnes. I hand the card to the cashier and tell myself it’s the American way, that it is, in fact, anti-American not to go into debt for Christmas.
Christmas Eve, after Agnes has gone to bed, I show my mother the Lego set.
“Oh, good. It’s the one with turrets,” she says, examining the box.
I help her wrap Agnes’s presents. She sorts them into Santa presents and Mom presents, reserving the best for Santa, including a little pistol that lights up and makes an ack-ack-ack noise when you press the plastic trigger. It sounds to me like a cat choking on a hairball.
“I thought you said no guns?”
“I did. Then her best friend got one. The school play was about Bonny and Clyde, and they’re obsessed.”
Agnes is a funny mix of feminine and tomboy. My mother doesn’t want her to grow out of this, to grow up. She looks nostalgic as she wraps. The presents are numerous; she has, as usual, gone overboard. It takes us an hour. We use special wrapping paper for the Santa presents—blue, with embossed white snowflakes—and my mom writes those gift tags with her left hand.
“When are you going to tell her about Santa?” I ask. “I mean, she’s nine. The other kids in her class definitely know.”
“Pass me the clear tape,” she says. She anchors a small, already wrapped present—batteries, the size suggests—to a bigger one so the boxes resemble a wedding cake. “You believed until you were nine.”
I remember knowing when I was seven and pretending to believe for several more years to make her happy, and wonder if Agnes is doing the same. The world loves a little girl’s innocence, her trust; she surely senses this. But I think of her reassuring herself in the car. The moment seemed too guileless to have been faked. Of course, this might be a false dialectic. Maybe she doesn’t think of it as faking. Maybe pretending to believe is, to her, a different kind of truth.
Christmas morning, Agnes wakes us at dawn. In the early morning darkness, the tree’s fragrant green branches glitter with ornaments, strings of lights blinking on and off through the tinsel, casting a warm glow on the presents beneath. Outside, the rising sun glimmers pink on our snowy front yard, ice-coated pine needles bright and glasslike. We admire the sight, and my mother goes into the kitchen to heat oil for fried dough. We aren’t allowed to open presents until we’ve eaten, but Agnes kneels, checking name tags, shaking boxes. She smells a few for good measure.
After breakfast, we open our presents. Agnes loves the Legos and the pistol that makes the hairball noise. My mother loves the bird feeder. I love the cashmere blend sweater my mother has bought me, a gray crewneck like the ones my classmates at Williams wear, and pretend to love Agnes’s present, a unicorn pin with fake inlaid jewels, which I plan to return after wearing once.
We finish, and I realize the elephant earrings are missing. I feel a moment of panic, and then Agnes says, “And now for the grand finale.”
She runs upstairs, taking the stairs fast, and comes back down with a box she’s wrapped herself. The paper’s corners, folded into chunky triangles, strain against the Scotch tape. To compensate, she has run many loops around the box like see-through ribbon. My mother disentangles the box from the tape while Agnes stands, poised with the disposable camera.
My mother flips open the black velvet case. When she sees the elephants, she grins, just positively glows. The hooks are sunk into cotton padding—the case is meant for brooches—and she pulls them out carefully, setting the case on the couch’s arm. She holds up the earrings like she’s caught a fish and Agnes snaps a picture. She hugs us both and puts them in her ears.
The phone rings and Agnes goes to answer it.
“Hello,” she says into the cordless phone. “And a merry Christmas to you.”
“She said elephants were your favorite,” I say.
My mother laughs. “They’re her favorite,” she says. “She likes the idea that they have elaborate burial rituals for their dead. The herd revisits the burial sites every year. They can find the bones even after they’ve trekked a hundred miles away and back.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” I say.
My mother shrugs. “I find it kind of creepy. That, and their trunks.”
Though my mother usually makes fun of women who wear dresses in the winter, when we get ready to go to Aunt Rosemary’s for dinner, she changes from her sweatshirt and sweatpants into a long red flower-print shift.
“A dress?” I say.
“I want to look nice.” “For the relatives?”
“No,” she says, pulling on snow boots. “Who cares what those people think? For myself.”
Her hair has tangled in the elephant earrings. She tries to pull it loose, winces, and I go to help her.
Agnes slides across the floor in her socks, holding her pistol with both hands, stops in front of us, and takes aim. She shoots me, and I wait for the ack-ack-ack noise to stop before I resume freeing the elephants.
“Agnes, we discussed this,” my mother says. “Not at people.”
“Then what am I supposed to shoot?”
“Things,” my mother says, making a general, expansive motion with her hand.
“You look beautiful, Mom,” Agnes says. Then she shoots her.
“You gave it to her,” I say. Agnes shoots her again.
“The gift that keeps on giving,” my mother says.
Before we leave, my mother tucks the cards into her purse. I go upstairs and, with a sense of misgiving, load the presents Agnes and I bought into my backpack.
When we pull up to Aunt Rosemary’s house, the windows are ablaze with Christmas lights though it’s daytime. A gigantic plastic light-up snowman glows brightly on the lawn like the radioactive survivor of a world war.
“Here we go,” my mother says.
Aunt Rosemary greets us at the door. She is wearing a green-and-red sweater with gold pom-poms.
“Merry Christmas,” she says. She gives my mother a smile and nod and me a friendly one-armed hug. Then she goes to hug Agnes, but Agnes is reaching to touch the tiny ring of pom-poms on Aunt Rosemary’s sleeve, so instead, Aunt Rosemary holds out her wrist as though offering her hand to be kissed.
Agnes takes her hand and turns it to examine the pom-poms. “Snazzy,” she pronounces.
“Macy’s was having a sale,” Aunt Rosemary says. “It was half off.”
I hear a snort behind me. I hope silently that my mother won’t say anything. I look over my shoulder, and she smiles at me in a conspiratorial way. Aunt Rosemary has already stepped inside and is saying, “Come in, it’s freezing out there.”
In the kitchen, Aunt Ivy is taking the turkey out of the oven. “Come in, come in!” she calls. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
Despite her recently renovated kitchen, Rosemary doesn’t cook. She’s more of a microwaver. Ivy, the family peacemaker and a sixth-grade teacher used to tolerating outbursts, handles holiday meals, offering food or retreating into chores when tensions rise.
“Smells good,” I say.
“Rosemary’s doing the sides this year,” Ivy says. She means it as praise, but it sounds like a warning.
My grandmother hobbles over to us, dressed, as usual, in a matching powder blue nylon pantsuit, hair permed in tight, sensible spirals, looking trim and no-nonsense. She has started using a cane since I saw her last. She gives me a hug and then goes for my mother. My mother avoids the hug, pats her shoulder gingerly.
While my mother is occupied, I sneak into the living room and put Agnes’s and my presents under the tree. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission,” my tenth-grade history teacher used to say, “or so Nixon believed.” Agnes lives her life by it.
The gifts here are few. I’ve wrapped our boxes in plain red foil paper, but the other presents are wrapped in green tissue paper, so ours shine like roadside flares. Seeing them, conspicuous and exposed, I begin to lose my nerve. Maybe I should put the gifts back in my backpack, hide them until we’ve said our goodbyes and then duck into the house and leave them with the relatives? But Agnes is sure to ask if I’ve forgotten them, unless I can get her alone and explain. And what will I say? I can’t justify my mother’s logic to myself, let alone to Agnes. I stand by the tree, debating, until my mother walks in.
“There you are,” she says.
I steer her into the dining room.
Aunt Rosemary has set the Christmas china. This year, there’s a new addition: bronze napkin rings shaped like reindeer. They stand on duty by the plates, legs planted solidly on the wood, antlers rising skyward, middles run through with red and green cloth napkins. It occurs to me that Aunt Rosemary is wearing camouflage; if things get ugly, she can hold still and she’ll blend right in.
Agnes fingers an antler.
“Aunty Rosemary,” she calls to the kitchen, where Aunt Rosemary is scooping mashed potatoes into a bowl held by Aunt Ivy, “when you die, can I have your Christmas plates?”
“What?” she calls back.
“She says she likes the reindeer,” I call.
Before eating, we hold hands and bow our heads while my grandmother says grace. Agnes and I pretend, like we always do. My mother keeps her eyes open.
Dinner is quiet. No one knows what to say. It is like dinner with strangers, but more treacherous. We pass the serving dishes efficiently, a line of sandbaggers moving to stanch a leak. The green beans are the frozen kind, and the cranberry sauce is still shaped like the can it came from. We eat fast.
“I wish Clare and the boys could be here,” my grandmother says, as she does every year. Aunt Clare is skiing in Colorado with her family. My grandmother doesn’t like Clare’s husband, so he doesn’t get mentioned. Her way is to ignore what she doesn’t like.
“I don’t,” my mother says. The table goes quiet. “Well, I don’t.” “Could you pass the green beans?” my grandmother asks.
“Clare dropped my kids the second she had her own,” my mother says. “She was Kate’s favorite aunt. Kate was crushed. Now Clare can’t be bothered to remember their birthdays. She and Tom don’t even get us presents for Christmas, they just send whatever free crap is lying around the house.” This is, in fact, the case—during the holidays, they wrap up product samples from whatever company Tom is consulting for and give them to my grandmother to bring to us—but we aren’t supposed to say so.
“That’s enough,” my grandmother says.
“No, I don’t think it is,” my mother says, but she leaves it at that.
Five Christmases ago, my mother baked bread as our family gift. That was a bad year, our first welfare year. We didn’t have cash, but we had food stamps. My mother looked up recipes for zucchini bread. She grew the zucchini herself in her vegetable garden out behind our house, deer-besieged but capable of producing more tomatoes and peas and squash each summer than we could eat. She spent a whole weekend baking. She compared recipes, trying three ways before settling on the best. Once the bread was done, she asked me to make the loaves pretty. I wrapped them in colored cellophane and tied the ends with ribbon. Agnes helped me make cards out of scraps of wrapping paper.
Examining her package, Aunt Rosemary had announced, “I’m on a diet.”
“Clare’s been making wheat germ bread,” my grandmother said. “She’s got me eating it now.”
“But you like zucchini bread too,” my mother said.
“Oh, I do,” said my grandmother. “It’s delicious. I just don’t eat it anymore.”
Aunt Ivy, ever the peacemaker, said, “Well, then, I’ll eat both of yours.” But she only took her own when she left.
A few days later, we stopped by Aunt Rosemary’s to return the two Tupperware containers we’d borrowed for leftovers. She was outside on her lawn, feeding the zucchini bread to a flock of birds. My mother slowed down, took in the scene, and then sped up. She said she’d remembered an errand she had to do at Price Chopper. When we got to the supermarket, she said, “Wait here. It’ll only take a minute.” Then she walked over to the big trashcan outside the automated doors and threw away the Tupperware.
After we eat, we troop into the living room to open presents. My grandmother moves slowly in the direction of my mother, who, seeing her coming, darts into the bathroom to avoid her. Turning to me, my grandmother pats my arm affectionately. Then her fingers dig into my skin and she leans in and I realize that without her cane, she needs me to hold her up. She is shorter than me and frail, too small, it would seem, for the weight on my arm. I help her to the couch, and she says, “Now, where did your mother go?”
“Not sure,” I mumble.
Aunt Rosemary and Aunt Ivy herd Agnes into an easy chair. She is fidgety with anxiety and caffeine, having been allowed a milky cup of Earl Grey tea. She raises and lowers the footrest, repeats this maneuver until Aunt Ivy asks her to stop. My mother comes in, having pretended to use the bathroom for a reasonable length of time. She carries her purse, cards tucked inside. Catching my eye, she grins at me, excited for our big moment.
Aunt Rosemary sits near the tree and hands out packages, reading the gift tags aloud. She always buys me and Agnes identical presents. This year, we both receive clock radios. She keeps passing over the presents Agnes and I have bought.
Then Aunt Rosemary says, “Oh, look—from Agnes and Kate.” My mother gives me a quick, sharp look. I shrug as innocently as I can manage. The joy is gone from her face. I see in her expression what I knew all along: what was important about giving our relatives nothing was that we do it together. As a family. I feel a queasiness that isn’t located in my stomach, but my heart.
“That was nice of you,” my mother says to me. She means it, I can tell, but she is also hurt and struggling to hide it.
“What?” Aunt Rosemary says.
“Nothing,” she says.
As everybody opens our presents, my mother looks down. No one else seems to notice. They thank us, and Agnes looks pleased. I want to apologize to my mother, but I don’t know how.
“We forgot to write that our presents are from Mom, too,” I say. “On the tags.” I look at Agnes as I speak so she’ll catch on. “Remember, Mom? We talked about it?”
“No,” my mother says. “You and Agnes picked those out. Those were just from you.”
My grandmother has her own cards, which she hands around. The aunts, Agnes, and I each receive a gift certificate for twenty dollars.
My mother does not receive a gift certificate. In my mother’s card is a check.
She stares at it, stunned. She doesn’t say anything. Everyone waits, and finally Rosemary says, “What is it?” but my mother doesn’t answer. I scootch next to her on the couch, look over her shoulder. The check is for twelve thousand dollars.
“I’m not getting any younger,” my grandmother says. “It’s important to plan ahead. I’m going to rotate between you kids from year to year. That’s—” she nods at the check—“the per person cap.”
“I can’t take this,” my mother says. Her hands tremble a little as she tries to give my grandmother back the check.
“Oh, honey, don’t be silly,” my grandmother says. “I don’t want your money.”
“And I don’t want your excuses.”
My mother shrugs. She puts the check in her purse. She is shaken, her mouth drawn, on the verge of tears.
Beneath the tree, no more packages remain. My mother looks around the room at each of us, torn gift wrap at our feet, presents in our laps. She examines the tree for a minute. Then, slowly, she takes the cards from her purse and hands them around.
My grandmother is the first to read her card. “Well,” she says, “that is very generous.”
Aunt Rosemary and Aunt Ivy open their cards.
“I was hoping for a bread knife,” Aunt Rosemary says. She laughs in a way that says she isn’t kidding, but her laugh is more bemused than covetous. “But this is very nice.”
“Thank you,” Aunt Ivy says. “What charity did you give to?”
“Feed the Thousands,” my mother says.
“Very generous,” my grandmother repeats. “How nice that you can give back, after that tough time you had.”
My mother flinches. Then she looks down at her lap and nods privately, as though something’s been confirmed. We all sit quietly. Finally, my mother pulls a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She waves them at us and says, “I’ll be outside.”
“Oh, dear,” my grandmother says to me after my mother closes the door. We can see her through the window, standing on the steps, lighting up. The sky is gray. “Your mother always was a sensitive girl. Whatever I say, it’s never enough for her. Whatever I do, it will never be enough.”
We have coffee, but still my mother doesn’t come in. After twenty minutes, I go to get her for dessert and find her under the maple tree on the edge of my aunt’s lawn, sitting in the tire swing, smoking her fifth or sixth cigarette. The snow is packed down and dirty. Butts litter the area by her feet. She has put on a coat, but it doesn’t cover her legs. Her bare calves are goose pimpled and white.
“That woman,” she says. “She always finds a way.”
I don’t know exactly what she means, but I know it’s not good. I search for something to say, something ambiguous.
She gets out of the tire swing and kicks at the snow with her boot, scattering it over the butts. I take her place on the tire, push the swing back and forth with my feet and look up at her. She waits.
“She loves you,” I say.
“She’s got a funny way of showing it,” my mother says. “Couldn’t she just once say thank you and mean it?”
“She could,” I say. “But then what would you hate her for?” I regret saying it as soon as I’ve spoken, but my mother laughs.
“Oh, I’d find something,” she says.
I look at my mother’s bare legs, and I think, the past is a place I’m glad I don’t live.
“That money,” I say. “It’s your inheritance. You’re just getting it early. You should keep it.”
“Maybe,” says my mother. “Maybe I will. I guess I will.”
The wind picks up. The snow is granular, little needles stinging my face. My mother clutches the neck of her coat. The bottom of her dress blows up and she clamps it between her knees.
I climb off the swing. “Inside?” I say.
“Oh, hell. I guess so,” she says.
The path to the house is frozen and slippery. My mother has on her snow boots, but I am wearing regular shoes, and walking toward the house, I almost fall. My mother tucks her arm through mine, and we pick our way across the icy lawn. The giant plastic snowman bows in a gust of wind, casts his glow across the snow.
The house looks deserted. Aunt Ivy is, I’m sure, serving dessert, as if a little sweetness can undo all the bitterness and pain, make our hearts swell like the Grinch’s until they burst the magnifying glass. My mother tries the knob. The door is locked. The wind whips our hair in our faces, the snowman bobbing crazily toward us, reversing direction as the wind changes. We knock and wait, blowing on our hands and stomping our feet. Then we knock again.