The silence on the other end of the phone revealed more than words would have communicated.
“I’m sorry, Mom.” She held Anthony’s eyes as she spoke, willing her voice to stay steady. “It’s just not going to happen.”
“You can’t miss any more family events, Nina.”
She watched her husband set the baby in the playpen. He came around behind her to rub her shoulders, kneading the hard knot that had grown beside her spine. “I appreciate how you feel, but our kids have been through enough. They hardly get to see their dad, I don’t feel comfortable leaving them with strangers in a strange city. They need routine, not upheaval.”
“We could take turns babysitting, during the wedding. Instead of hiring a sitter they don’t know.”
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it. We’re not going.”
“Then I guess that’s that.”
Nina wandered alone through the crowd of happy holiday revellers. Although her husband’s encouragement and her friends’ cajoling had convinced her that coming out for the last night of the Dark Lake Festival of Trees was better than hiding out at home, somehow she felt more empty among the smiling, flushed faces than she would have if she’d stayed curled up on the couch. Pausing to look over a tall Douglas Fir sprigged with blue silk bows and pearl swags, Nina hugged herself as waves of conversation rose and ebbed around her. Conversations not involving Nina Bradford.
Three months had passed since that last, tension-filled conversation with her mother. Three months, and not another word had been spoken between them.
Curling up under a fuzzy blanket on the couch with a cup of tea and a book would have been infinitely preferable to feeling sad and invisible at this holiday party.
She drifted past a lovely spruce, decked out in traditional Victorian fashion, with tiny battery-operated candles, burgundy velvet bows, lace garlands and spicy scented balls of potpourri. The hall was lined with six-foot Christmas trees decorated in styles ranging from futuristic to conventional, under swags of cedar boughs and plaid ribbons. It was simply breathtaking, but Nina couldn’t see it. She fingered a prickly branch sprinkled with fake snow, gently touched a palm-sized pink feather wreath on the breast cancer awareness tree, trying to arouse some holiday spirit. Even though it was nice to have a break from the children, she half wished that Anthony had come with her. No-one else appeared to be alone. This was an event meant for sharing with a partner, family, or friends.
“The wedding, the funeral, and the reunion — it’s an opportunity for your family to meet your children. It’s all in one weekend, so there will be less travel for everyone. You should come and see everyone. It’s hard for your brother, too, you know.”
“We just can’t do it, I’m sorry.”
“What if we paid for the trip?”
Nina rose onto her toes, scanning the crowd for the tenth time in the hopes of sighting someone she knew. Jenn, Debra, Allison — after all the fuss they’d made about her lack of social involvement, her friends and colleagues weren’t even there to meet her. It figured. They’d been best friends for so many years, and Nina had only known them for a fraction of that time. She appreciated that they were nice to her, that they had included her in their movie nights and work lunches, but in the end, Nina also understood that she didn’t really belong with them. She was a spare wheel. The people here already had their companions, their personal connections and special friends; the evidence was all around her. So why was she letting it bother her, the absence of these three women whose relationship had the priority of years? Nina understood that plans changed. Their concern that she was becoming a hermit was perhaps valid; that they had urged her to get out and participate in a community event did speak of their caring. It was nice, knowing that they thought of her and wanted her to be happy. So Nina had made the effort, with her husband’s support while he was home, respecting and appreciating their concern. It just would have been nice to see them. To have someone to talk to. To feel like she belonged here, among the happy people.
The brass band at the far end of the hall wrapped up their set for a five minute break. “Still plenty of time left in the silent auction, folks!” The master of ceremonies, a spritely little old man in a tuxedo, spoke into the microphone as the players tidied their sheet music. “Every tree goes for charity, don’t forget!” Clapping along with the crowd, Nina watched as a tired young mother in a cable-knit cardigan passed her sleeping infant to the man in a matching cardigan, standing at her side. Trying to observe without being seen, she stepped into an alcove between two fragrant balsams festooned with toys and hand-knit mittens. An older woman with silver hair and a dark red cowl-neck sweater approached with a smile and embraced the mother carefully, in order to keep from spilling the two steaming cups of cider in her hands. The baby’s father — at least, Nina presumed that he was the father — bobbed gently up and down in time to the pre-recorded Christmas music. Nina felt a lump grow in her throat. Her eyes prickled. Slipping behind the tree, she began to make her way toward the coat-check, and the exit.
“I can’t justify the expense of a three-day trip, not when we have so many bills to pay.”
“You and the kids need a break. You need to get away, have an adventure…”
“While we have a leaking roof, and we need new plumbing? The car needs a new engine, the electrical panel has to be replaced…Mom, if you’re offering money, I’d rather fix the house than drive around the province for three days.”
The heat was rising as more bodies crowded into the hall. Nina felt a trickle of sweat pass between her shoulder blades. The knitted turtleneck she’d worn because of its festive pattern of leaping reindeer felt scratchy in the warm press of the crowd. She liked it during the long winter drives from Dark Lake to Timmins, to Ottawa, or North Bay. It was normally comfortable and breathed nicely in the snug confines of their vehicle, but in this environment, the cheery wool was giving her heat rash.
“Mrs. Bradford? Mrs. Bradford!”
Nina stopped, only a few feet away from the counter where two little old ladies sat and organized coat tags. At first, she couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from in the crowd. It sounded like one of her students.
A hand popped up, near the cider table on the far side of the wide entrance. A gaggle of teenage girls in her way shifted, and Nina recognized the long blonde hair belonging to Kayla Sutton. With a sigh of regret, Nina moved away from the hope of a quick, unobtrusive exit. Kayla had struggled through grade nine and was improving her attendance this year; it would not be supportive to avoid saying hello. Besides, Nina rather liked Kayla. She had a wicked sense of humour and a keen sense of insight in the classroom.
“Are you okay? You look a little upset, Mrs. B.”
Outside the classroom, too.
“Perceptive as always, Kayla.” Nina smiled wryly, accepting the small cup of cider Kayla offered. “No, I’m just a bit tired, and it’s kind of warm in here with all these people.”
“You have to dress in layers,” Kayla nodded, smoothing her own fitted tank top. She tugged at the short ruffled skirt. Nina hid a smile behind her cup. Kayla, like many of her female peers, preferred to shop for clothes that were always just a little too short or a little too small, but then ended up constantly pulling and adjusting to feel more decently covered. As long as she didn’t bend over, Nina thought. Kayla poured another cup for an outstretched hand. “So, are you here with anybody, Miss B.?”
The pang made it harder to breathe. “No, I’m alone. I wanted to get out of the house, see all the trees, you know?” Liar.
“I really like the one you and the other teachers made up. It’s really cute!”
Nina sipped the hot drink and turned in the direction Kayla had indicated. Yes, the school tree looked terrific. Nina had helped, picking up holiday-themed school supplies — pens, pencils, erasers shaped like wreaths and snowmen, stamps, sharpeners, etc. — and creating garlands, hanging ornaments, even a star for the top. Small wooden apples painted a gleaming red dangled from branches, beside yellow toy school buses, old-fashioned plastic rulers, and dollhouse-size desks that Nina had made with one of her classes using craft sticks and balsa wood. She was rather proud of it. Someone in town was going to take home a fun, yet tastefully decorated Christmas tree. How much he or she would pay for it, Nina didn’t know.
“Thanks, Kayla. I enjoyed making it.”
“Are you putting a bid on any of them?”
Nina sighed. “You know, if I could, it would be that one, in the corner. With the real popcorn chains, the poinsettias, the brass horns. I think it has lockets on it, too. That one makes me think of Christmas, you know? I wasn’t really in the spirit until I saw that one.”
“So, put a bid on it!”
“Oh, it’s already way past my budget.” Nina thought of the tiny foot-high tree on her dining table, the best they could do for their growing family. “We have a little tree, and it’s fine. It makes the presents look bigger, though.”
Kayla leaned in. “Hey, if you want a big tree, why not go out to the highway? As long as you don’t get caught, nobody cares!”
Nina laughed. “Somehow, I don’t think Santa or the government would appreciate me stealing a pine tree from the side of the road.”
“Want me to do it? My family’s made a tradition out of it, we pick a side road, take our snowmobiles, it’s really not a problem.”
“You’re sweet,” Nina smiled, patting her shoulder. “Thanks, but no thanks. It’s okay.”
Kayla shrugged, grinning. Nina winked at her and moved away, toward the tree she had helped to decorate. It had been wonderfully fulfilling, especially knowing that it was for a good cause. And a fun afternoon, one of the few she had been able to spend out of the house for a while. She had been able to bring the kids, laughed with Jenn, Deb, Allison, sang carols — it was an experience she definitely wanted to repeat. Plus, decorating a full-size tree to designer standards was better than attaching the handful of ornaments she’d pulled out of her collection to the tiny thing on her dining table. Anthony had held her close when they had finished. “It’s our Charlie Brown tree,” he’d told her. She knew it wasn’t about the trimmings or the size of the presents, but somehow, the meagre greenery only reminded her of the eight hours distance between Dark Lake and Ottawa. Of the bruise on her heart.
Her eyes moved back to the tall, full pine in the corner. The glittering filigree star on the top called to her with its graceful swirling lines. If she had the money, she would have put a bid on it right away. That was one of the reasons why she had put off coming to this event. Nina tried not to let their relative poverty bother her, focusing on her gratitude for what they did have: a roof over their heads, which leaked occasionally but kept out the cold; clean water and land free of mines; good medical care, a safe community to live in, and above all, healthy, happy, intelligent children. She knew what was important. So why did she feel like such a grinch? If she knew that material things didn’t matter, how could she explain the pain she felt when she walked through the mall searching out sales on toys, bought the bare minimum at the grocery store, or saw colleagues lining up to bid on beautiful Christmas trees to brighten their homes?
Nina tried to turn around before Deb saw her, but it was too late.
“Nina! You’re here!”
Deb finished scrawling her signature and ran over to squeeze the smaller woman in a bear hug. Nina felt the cider sloshing around in her belly as her friend jumped her up and down. Her normal exuberance was overwhelming, but lifted Nina’s spirits, just a little. “I’m glad to be here, now,” she said, as Deb released her. “I was feeling a bit lonely, though.”
“I’m sorry, we got held up,” Deb apologized. She turned momentarily to search the crowd. “Jenn’s taking care of our coats, Allison’s parking the car. I just had to get in here and put down for this gorgeous thing.”
“Really?” Nina couldn’t help her laugh. “Deb, it’s made of white feathers. It looks like a goose molted all over it!”
Deb’s eyes gleamed mischievously. “I know, it’s absolutely darling, really haute couture. My mother will just die when she sees it! Aw, honey, I’m sorry.”
Nina brushed at the wetness that had suddenly spilled from one eye. “No, it’s okay. I’m just — wishing things were different right now.” The compassion in Deb’s expression made Nina feel uncomfortable. “I know she would love this, you know? I wanted to call her so many times, and tell her all about our project. Ask her opinion. But the longer she goes without calling me, the harder it is for me to call her. And I need my mom.” Her voice failed as more tears threatened. “Great, just what I need. A breakdown in a public place,” she croaked.
Right on time, Jenn and Allison appeared, lidded containers of tea in hand. Nina swallowed, trying to smile without much success. “Hooray for the cavalry,” she whispered, accepting a hot cup and the hugs that came with it.
Nina hung up the phone and looked down at her shaking hands. Anthony came around to kiss her forehead. “It’ll be okay,” he told her, wrapping his arms around her body.
She sighed, turning her face into his shoulder. “No, it won’t.” Her voice was muffled by his shirt. “They were looking forward to having us there, I’ve let them down. But I know our kids. It wouldn’t have been fair for them, driving all that way, without you.”
“Hard on you, too.”
“Yeah, there’s that.” Nina sniffed, moving her chin so she could breathe. “I understand where she’s coming from. I know my dad is disappointed. He has his vision of how a reunion should be, and I’m letting him down. I hate that. But I don’t have the energy to do this. Not while you’re gone for weeks at a time, and we’re broke. I feel badly that I’m missing my Gran’s funeral, on top of everything. I just know that the timing is all wrong. It’s not meant to be.”
“They should understand that.”
“They have to get over being angry and disappointed, first.” She pulled back to reach for a tissue. “And that could take a while.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so crowded in here!” Jenn glanced approvingly around them, waving at a few people she knew. “It’s the best they’ve done, I have to say.”
“It’s definitely a good turn-out.” Allison was texting away. As usual. Nina was both amused by and envious of her ability to multitask. “The first few years, they had a couple of hundred people, total. But I heard they did five hundred just on the first night, a coup for the organizers.”
“At ten dollars a person for the entry alone, they should be happy,” Deb adjusted the spangled scarf around her neck. “It’s still a bit expensive, if you ask me.”
“It used to be twenty.” Jenn tilted back her tea, and her face turned red. She gestured frantically before spitting it back into the cup. “Woosh, I scalded my tongue!”
“At least they stopped charging for the refreshments. Pulls more people in if they’re getting more than entrance, you know?” Nina eyed her steaming lid and blew gently into the little opening before taking a tentative sip. “The cider’s pretty good, though.”
“Any idea what the top bids are, so far?”
“Allison, I have seen four figures on some of those clipboards.” Nina shook her hair back out of her face. The tea was good, but the heat wasn’t helpful. “God, I’m sweating. You should have warned me to wear something lighter.”
“Do you have anything underneath?”
“Just a tank top.”
“Here,” Deb unwound the scarf from her neck. She shook it out, revealing its width. “You can use this as a wrap, if you want. Put that sweaty thing with the coats, you’ll feel better. Your face is all red.”
(to be continued — comments are welcome!)